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Biblical Interpretation and African Traditional Religion

Cross-Cultural and Community Readings in Owamboland, Namibia

Series:

Helen C. John

In Biblical Interpretation and African Traditional Religion, Helen C. John juxtaposes grassroots biblical interpretations from Owamboland, Namibia, with professional interpretations of selected New Testament texts, effectively demonstrating the capacity of grassroots interpretations to destabilise, challenge and nuance dominant professional interpretations. John uses a cross-cultural and dialogical approach – ‘Cross-Cultural Biblical Interpretation Groups’ – to explore the relationship between African Traditional Religion (ATR), Christianity and biblical interpretation in Owamboland, Namibia. She contextualises the grassroots Owambo interpretations using fieldwork experiences and ethnographic literature, thus heightening the cross-cultural encounter. In particular, John reflects on Western epistemologies and the Eurocentric interpretative trends that are brought into relief by the African interpretations gathered in Owamboland.

Series:

Helen C. John

Abstract

With its focus on bodies, illness, and healing, this chapter considers the scholarly discussions concerning the haemorrhaging woman, in particular. It engages the debate surrounding her bleeding: is it primarily a purity (Selvidge 1984, 1990) or a health (D'Angelo 1999) concern? A consideration of the potency and agency of blood in the Ondonga setting provides an example of a purity context. Interestingly, however, the CCBIGs did not return a purity-based interpretation. The body and person were discussed more broadly; the CCBIGs revealed extended notions of the person, including agency of (and access to) the person through their shadow, excreta, bodily fluids, clothing, amulets and adornments, amongst other things. This is used to engage discussions of the 'magical' elements that some scholars perceive in the texts. The chapter suggests that a broader notion of the person might be helpful in seeking to understand what, to some scholarly eyes, might look like 'magical' actions (here, healing through clothing; elsewhere in the New Testament, healing using spit, mud, handkerchiefs, shadows, etc.).

In terms of investigating the persistence of indigenous beliefs and practices, this chapter explores connotations, agency and uses of blood; among the latter, it became clear that autochthonous healing practices were still in use, such as visiting traditional healers (oonganga), the use of blood from cuts (oonsha) made to the eyebrows or upper cheeks to salve eye pain, and adornment with apotropaic beads (omagwe) to resist bewitchment. The body’s contemporary vulnerability to spirits and witchcraft – evidence of which is considerable in ethnographic literature – is demonstrated through (inter alia) reports of strangulation by iiluli (restless spirits) and in perceptions of disability and sickness today. This chapter also explored enduring autochthonous perspectives on the body as but one part of the ‘extended person’, with some believing that the individual was also present in their shadow, clothing, image and imprint.

Series:

Helen C. John

Abstract

CCBIG interpretation of the Calming of the Storm and Jesus Walking on Water are used in this chapter to challenge the high degree of contextuality apparent in Western scholarship on those texts. Firstly, the extent to which traditional, historical-criticism is reliant on its post-Enlightenment, demythologised, apparently 'rationalist' roots is brought into relief when selected interpretations of the Calming of the Storm are brought into dialogue with the grassroots voices from Iihongo. A tendency to reduce the narrative to a symbolic level becomes apparent when faced with Iihongo understandings of the wind and waves as spirit forces, which may be engaged in ordinary consciousness, in everyday settings. Social-scientific interpretations (particularly those of the Context Group) encourage biblical scholars to expand their horizons and to take into account other cultural realities. However, when juxtaposed with the interpretations returned by the CCBIGs, the 'othering' of spirit forces - that they must exist in alternate realities - becomes apparent. The 'othering' of spirit engagements - that they must take place in alternate states of consciousness (for example, by a shamanic figure) - follows in a similar vein (Malina 2001; Malina Rohrbaugh 2003; Pilch 1993, 1998, 1999, 2004, 2005, 2011). CCBIGs are shown here to offer a way in which biblical scholars might more comprehensively consider other cultural realities, including the genuine, lived experience of spirits as ordinary realities, free from the shackles of the 'rationalist' agenda that inflects much Western contemporary historical-critical biblical scholarship.

Reflecting on the metanarrative, this chapter shows that the pre-Christian spirit complex extends beyond the landscape into contemporary understandings of natural phenomena, here through the identification of storms and whirlwinds with spirit forces. The participants related formulaic verbal addresses used to divert whirlwinds and exorcise possessed landscapes, engaging the power of ‘local culture’ rather than Christianity to effect the desired result.

Series:

Helen C. John

Abstract

The conclusion to the study draws together the potential benefits of CCBIGs as a method to decentre and diversify biblical studies, offering to the academy the original interpretative insights of grassroots interpreters from diverse cultural contexts. It offers a summary of the ways in which this particular study has challenged professional biblical scholarship and generated productive dialogue. It also comments on the metanarrative that overarches the study: the relationship between Christianity and indigenous beliefs and practices in Ondonga, finding numerous examples of the enduring significance of autochthonous worldviews, beliefs, and practices.

Series:

Helen C. John

Abstract

The rationale behind the novel methodological approach is presented to the reader. The necessity to draw a distinction between the method and that of CBS is expounded: this is a non-confessional approach that is not liberationist in its aim. However, like, CBS, it is both dialogical and contextual. CCBIGs focus squarely on non-normative biblical interpretation and the benefits offered by interpreting with grassroots groups of men, women and children in cross-cultural settings. Groups are convened along axes of gender and seniority in order to facilitate the most open dialogue channels possible and to examine the particular interpretative concerns of each demographic. The chapter outlines the benefits of CBS that the method draws upon, whilst highlighting the distinctions in approach. It then gives a brief overview of the crisis of representation and reflexive turn in anthropology (influenced by, for example: Fischer & Marcus 1986; Clifford & Marcus 1986) and outlines the ways in which, and reasons why, the CCBIG method employs ethnographic study and fieldwork. The focus is on the reflexive benefits engendered by the scholar seeking out a cross-cultural encounter (‘culture shock’ acting positively to encourage one to look afresh at the texts and one’s own contextuality). The cultural context is valued as a site of expertise. It is argued that the grassroots participants’ original interpretative insights positively disrupt and nuance mainstream professional biblical scholarship, the latter being heavily inflected by Eurocentricism and a post-Enlightenment ‘rationalist’, demythologised bias.

Series:

Helen C. John

Abstract

This chapter delivers a practical overview of the operation of CCBIGs, as well as some of the limitation of the method and of this particular study.

Series:

Helen C. John

Abstract

This chapter focuses on domestic, burial, and wilderness landscapes in the narrative of the Gerasene Demoniac. Western scholarship has often polarised culture and nature, and presented the landscape as tabula rasa (a blank slate upon which human action takes place). The CCBIGs, on the other hand, presented a landscape infused with pockets of potency and overall agency (particularly linked to sites of burial and corpse-disposal). They understood it to act independently on living human inhabitants. In this context, Legion's possession is seen as just that: literal possession. The character in the narrative is negotiating a 'living landscape', which is occupied by a complex of spirit agencies (John 2017). The contextualised interpretations from Iihongo are brought into conversation with, and actively challenge, Halvor Moxnes's understanding of landscape and spirits as symbolic (2003), and the postcolonial interpretations offered by Ched Myers (1988), and Richard Horsley (2001). This is despite the fact that Namibia is itself a postcolonial context.

This chapter illustrates quite clearly the contemporary prominence of belief in spirits, ancestors, and witches as part of people’s lived experience in Iihongo (iiluli: named, recently-deceased; aathithi: unnamed, long-deceased; aalodhi: witches). The community would appear to extend beyond just its living members (an extended social landscape, just as would have been the case in pre-Christian times). The persistence of the autochthonous in this regard is further illustrated by the descriptions that participants gave of the nature of the physical landscape, as well as prescribed actions taken to engage, pacify, or render impotent spirit beings in that landscape (corpse-mutilation, offerings to the dead). Participants across the age-range recognised the notion of ‘spirit groves’ that ethnographic studies describe and could identify particular examples of possessed places.

Series:

Helen C. John

Abstract

The reader is introduced to the main aims of the book and is given a sense of the overall narrative. The questions of why I distinguish this approach from Contextual Bible Study, as well as why, generally, I am putting forward a new methodology are addressed through the discussion of the aims. The location of the study within African Biblical Studies is explained and justified. The metanarrative is outlined: as well as offering biblical interpretations, the study will illustrate (more broadly) some of the ways in which ATR endures in Owambo contexts and interacts with Christianity.

Series:

Helen C. John

Abstract

This chapter brings the interpretations of the Lukan resurrection narrative into dialogue with African scholarship on Ancestor Christologies. Post-mortem existence is considered in cross-cultural context and illuminates further the notion of the extended person that began in Chapter 4. The rejection of the idea of Jesus as ancestor generates conversation with the Christologies of Pobee (1979), Nyamiti (1984), Bediako (1995), and Bujo (1986). However, the central question is why the notion was rejected, and therefore the dialogue is focused on studies that also raise objections to Ancestor Christologies (e.g. Palmer 2008).

The early missionaries determined that beliefs surrounding ancestors (aathithi) were incompatible with Christianity. However, their significance is shown here to endure (as but one aspect of the lived experience of spirits), demonstrated through reports of making libations in order to traverse aathithi fields – burial grounds – without hindrance. The indigenous, pre-Christian realm also came to the fore when discussing the egumbo (homestead): as one participant put it, ‘culture is more at home but only the culture that is good [goes] to church’. This chapter discusses further the sense of parallelism presented by the participants regarding the relationship between local culture and Christianity. For example, children reported sleeping ‘traditionally,’ rather than ‘by Christianity.’ It is arguable that the aathithi, too, would fall within the non-church realm, engaging with ideas of egumbo, aathithi fields, pre-missionary culture and oral wisdom. Perhaps this might further the distinction between them (egumbo-based) and Jesus (church-based).