25 Years of Towards an African Narrative Theology (1995 to 2020)
Here is our 25-year Timeline:
1995: writing the book with co-author Maryknoll Father Donald Sybertz, MM who served as a Maryknoll Missionary Priest in Shinyanga, Tanzania starting in 1955. He specialized in the oral literature of the Sukuma Ethnic Group – proverbs, sayings, stories and songs.
1996: Paulines Publications Africa (Daughters of St. Paul) Edition (Nairobi, Kenya) with a “Foreword” by Archbishop Raphael Ndingi Mwana a‘Nzeki, the Archbishop of Nairobi.
1997: Orbis Books Edition (Maryknoll, New York, USA) in the Faith and Culture Series (an Orbis Series on Contextualizing Gospel and Church) with a “Foreword” by American theologian Father Robert Schreiter, CPPS.
The book reflects what traditional African proverbs, sayings, stories and songs used in Christian catechetical, liturgical, and ritual contexts reveal about Tanzania, and about all of Africa. It includes appropriations of, and interpretations of, Christianity in Africa.
In the “Foreword” Archbishop Ndingi writes: “In particular, this book looks at the cultural riches of African Oral Literature such as proverbs, sayings and stories. I hope that these examples and reflections will help African priests, seminarians and other pastoral workers to rediscover their African roots and make connections to their preaching, teaching and evangelization.” This has been the dream of Don and myself for many years, but it is slow going. Many young East African priests and seminarians seem less interested in inculturation and don’t seem to value their cultural past.
In reviewing the book, a senior theologian in America said that Narrative Theology is a “slippery slope” because he was viewing it from the classic propositional theology lens of Western Theology. Well-known Ugandan theologian Father John Waliggo states:
Our [African] theological style is very concerned with narrative, expressing teachings in story. Our people listen better when you give them a story. This means using local expressions and rituals, linking the gospel to their story. Everything is brought into the story, the animals, the plants, the whole environment. It’s a way of doing theology that is almost dead in the West, but it’s very biblical.
Sales of the Orbis edition inch along with reprints of 50 copies each time. William Burrows, the Orbis Books Theological Editor, thought that in the early years it was mainly bought by Protestant seminarians.
The Paulines Publications Africa edition has done better and is in its 5th Major Reprint. It is required reading/background reading in some of our theological courses in Nairobi, Kenya.
The paintings in the book are by Tanzanian artist Charles Ndege. Jesus Christ is always portrayed as an African. Examples are Jesus Sends Out Seventy Tanzanian Disciples, Washing of the Feet and The Journey to Makoko (an African version of the Two Disciples on the Road to Emmaus with the two disciples being an African man and woman – probably Cleophas and his wife). One year Fathers Laurenti Magesa and Innocent Maganya invited Charles to speak in their MSUC 303 “African Theology” Course at Tangaza on “African Inculturation.” Ndege explained he recognizes the importance of the Jesus Christ of history (“historical Jesus”), but he wants to paint the Jesus Christ of his African faith (“Jesus of faith”). Ndege movingly described his feelings while painting Jesus as an African. He said that he experiences Jesus in a deeper and more meaningful way through African culture and symbols. In his African paintings Ndege wants to portray how Jesus Christ becomes one of us in an African context. During a vote at the end of the classes, 60% of the students liked the African Christ while 40% liked the White Jesus.
Chapter Three on “Church as the Extended Family of God has a section on “Theology of Small Christian Communities as a New Way of Being Church” that is used in the core theology course PTC 418: “Small Christian Communities as a New Model Of Church in Africa Today.”
Rev. Joseph G. Healey, MM
P.O. Box 43058
00100 Nairobi, Kenya
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