Mutombo Nkulu-Nsengha, Religious Studies and African Studies, California State University, Northridge

"The African Bible: Reflection on the Work by African Biblicists and Theologians on the Meaning of the Bible in the African context"

The speaker for the ISS Brown Bag lunch discussion held on March 2, 2006 was Mutombo Nkulu-Nsengha, Assistant Professor of Religious Studies and African Studies California State University-Northridge.  His presentation was entitled, "The African Bible: Reflection on the Work by African Biblicists and Theologians on the Meaning of the Bible in the African Context".

A. Four primary questions to consider:

a) Is the Bible African?
b) When, where, and why was it produced?
c) Hermeneutical insights?
d) What is the future of the African Bible, and how does it relate to the future of Africa itself?

B. Dr. Nkulu-Nsengha asserted that the African bible is not really African.  Essentially, the bible is a New American Bible with introductions and commentaries by Africans. But the question is asked because many Africans, especially out in villages, understood life to be as magical and miraculous as it is presented in biblical narratives. Thus, the ease of adaptation that many Africans faced when engaging biblical text reflects its “Africanity.” Therefore, the introduction and commentaries in the African Bible convey how the bible is relevant to an African context. Thus, Dr. Nkulu-Nsengha argues that although Western Christians “Christianized” Africa, Africans “Africanized” Christianity.

C. Initially, Catholicism was mainly comprised of whites (80%), now they (whites) comprise 43-47% of the faith, mainly in centered in London, Paris, and Cambridge. The point was raised in the 1970's that more Christians were in the global south (Africa, Latin American, etc.). Shouldn’t this mean that the intellectual and spiritual “center” of the faith should be relocated from Rome to Africa?

D. African students in Paris (Negritude movement) greatly impacted the African perspective in the Catholic Church. In 1956, francophone Africans began to publish works as part of the Negritude Movement to lay the groundwork for African theology. They were interested in responding to the spiritual needs of the African and addressing the historical resonance of slavery that still permeated Africa. Later, African theologians became interested in asking questions about reconciling African cultural and spiritual practices with Christian and European practices.

E. The African Bible was produced in Nairobi, Kenya over a three year period by biblical scholars and theologians from Africa along with some western missionaries.  Many of the contributions to the bible were made by Africans, but not all contributors were African.   It was published by Paulines Publications African in 1999.

The African bible is based in African theology which began in the 1950s.  The production of the bible was a way of asking for visibility, determining place and recognizing the African presence in the bible. The introductions and commentaries in the bible seek to identify themes relevant to African societies of 20th century.  It is to provide nourishment and inspiration to African peoples. Hence one question might be, “if Moses married Kushites, what does this mean for Africa and African cultures?”

F. There were two prior attempts to create such bibles. The African American Bible (1993), and the Original African Heritage Bible (with contributors such as Ivan Van Sertima, Cheik Anta Diop, John Mbiti, and Molefi Asante) are examples.

G. In the book of Genesis, the comments make the connection between African storytelling and the contents of Genesis.  The bible was produced thirty years after African independence and certain themes from the book of Exodus prove relevant to the African context.  One of the primary themes from Exodus is liberation and once the people have been liberated they tend to oppress others.  The African bible read Exodus in connection with book of Revelation.  Revelation is a book of globalization par excellence.  The African bible interprets Revelation to stimulate the resistance of people to global market, and tyranny.

H. African language has no gender distinction.  Further, Dr. Nkulu-Nsengha questions the difference between the philosophy of “being” and “having.”  For example, “Kwikala-ne,” the closest word to “have,” means “to be with,” but does not express ownership.  So, there’s no “I have,” rather “I am with.”  Also, phrases like “I am because we are” and “because I am, we are” in Africa (different from the Cartesian view) help provide the framework for creating new traditions and conceptual models. Meaning comes out of context, not gender distinctions in the language.  Nature of African language energizes theological enterprise. The word “big,” for example, can be interpreted in 183 ways in one language, and the act of walking can be expressed in 200 different ways. Thus, can African languages, traditionally frowned on by the Church, be “more useful” for interpreting/exegeting biblical text?

Questions for Consideration:
1. African people wanted to know how to praise God through their own culture.  It was thought that if African culture is not connected to Christianity it will die off.  After independence, it became important to pray in an African language, and Jesus was considered a healer and a source of life.  However, in African culture there are many healers and ancestors that are sources of life. Cultural approaches like this made it easier for Africans to relate to the bible (agricultural similarities, etc.), whereas it may be more difficult to connect the bible to intellectuals in Paris, (for example). But, taking into account the legacy of white supremacy, and attitudes about demonic African heathenism, what are the impacts/reverberations of African notions of Jesus as “divine” ancestor rather than the sole savior and deity?

2. Statement from Wimbush: “In some respects efforts to translate (in this case “Africanize”) a standing version of the bible makes some difference in terms of cultural ownership; but it is also fraught with danger because it ignores some of the standing power issues associated with the content making of older versions.  There are consequences in such efforts, but the basic power issues involving the making of scriptures are not greatly changed.”  Taking this into account, what should this mean for future generations who inherit these types of works (The African Bible)? How then do/can they conceptualize and engage power dynamics in these arenas?

3. If African theologians use the bible to articulate African history, what kinds of transformations/limitations does this impose on how we understand African history (for better or for worse)? Do we acknowledge that this notion of African biblical history is a new construction, or do we articulate it as a complete, seamless, and justifiable production, regardless of the ethical implications at hand? Further, can our recognition of new constructions be useful for uncovering/excavating old, reified constructions?

4. During the initial Catholic-sanctioned Western campaigns into Africa, the culture of biblical exegesis amongst Western Christians (albeit non-monolithic) was deeply rooted in notions of benevolence (i.e.- civilizing savage Africans). Do productions like the African Bible help evaluate, expose, and/or challenge remaining assumptions of civility and superiority within the faith (even amongst Africans themselves)? Can it be used to examine the ways that “civilizing” has become a political enterprise, heavily tied to current, more popular notions of democracy and globalization?

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