I wish to alert the followers of this blog about my upcoming book titled “Introducing Ordinary African Readers’ Hermeneutics: A Case Study of the Agĩkũyũ Encounter with the Bible.” This book is set within a postcolonial framework and introduces the concept “ordinary African reader's hermeneutics”. It looks beyond the scholarly and official church based material to the way in which the bible, and discourses on or from the bible are utilized within a wide range of diverse contexts. In the book, I show that ‘ordinary readers’ can and did engage in meaningful and liberating hermeneutics. Using the Agĩkũyũ’s encounter with Bible, I demonstrate that what colonial discourses commonly circulated about Africans were not always 'truth', but mere 'representations' that were hardly able to fix African identities as they were often characterized by certain ambivalences, anxieties and contradictions. The hybridized biblical texts, readings and interpretations generated through retrieval and incorporation of the defunct pre-colonial past created interstices that became sites for assimilation, questioning and resistance. The book explores how Africans employed 'allusion' as a valid method of interpretation showing how the critical principle of interpretation lies not in the Bible itself, but in the community of readers willing to cultivate dialogical imagination in order to articulate their vision. In the end, I propose an African hermeneutical theory, which involves the fusion of both the ‘scholarly’ and the ‘ordinary’ readers in the task of biblical interpretation within specific sociocultural context.
The book explores the extent to which “ordinary readers” participated in the development of biblical interpretation in Africa. The book takes into the account the paradigm shift in African biblical studies where the image of a “decontextualized and non-ideological” scientific Bible reader is slowly being replaced with one of a “contextualized and ideological” reader. In the study, I use the Agĩkũyũ of Kenya as a case study to recover and reconstruct the historical encounters of the Africans with the Bible; and to show that the semi-illiterate and illiterate do engage the Bible as capable hermeneuts.
The study uses postcolonial criticism as a theoretical and methodological tool to help analyze and interpret archival data and colonial texts. This methodology has been most helpful in revealing that ordinary African readers actively and creatively engaged biblical texts in the moment of colonial transformation using several reading strategies and reading resources. Despite the colonial hegemonic positioning, these Africans hybridized readings from the Bible through retrieval and incorporation of the defunct pre-colonial past; creating interstices that became sites for assimilation, questioning and resistance. My study shows that even though the aims, nature and reliability of biblical interpretation in Africa may never have been independent from the consciousness and will of the colonial discourse that assumed its own dominance and superiority, its development was not monolithic. I have shown that the process of introducing the Bible and its teachings in colonial Africa could not allow exact replication of intended meanings.
I offer three main arguments which operated at various levels of colonial contacts. The first is that the crossing-over and the borrowing back and forth in colonial contexts became possible through the “concept of ‘fixity’” in the construction of otherness. Stereotypes helped reinforce this concept as its major discursive strategy and produced a process of ambivalence in the colonial representation of the colonized subjects. Secondly, the colonizers’ experience and that of the Africans which they represented testified to the diversity and differences present in the colonial world. Since the African context was a world with its own agendas, priorities, and history, it was not possible to develop unitary and pure forms of hermeneutics. Therefore, hermeneutics that evolved out of the colonial situation could not be anything but hybrid, mixed and impure. Since hybridity as understood in postcolonialism is never total or complete, it remains perpetually in motion, pursuing errant and unpredictable course, open to change and inscription. Thirdly, due to the ambivalences, anxieties and contradictions as well as the hybrid nature of colonial discourses, the colonial situation offered an “in-between” space where other possibilities in interpretation became feasible. By investigating the interstices of colonial culture and experience, it reveals to us that it is in this “liminal space” that came the “enigmatic questioning” which disturbed any unified notion of history and every unitary concept of the colonizer’s values. What emerged from this scenario was a newness which not only contested but also innovatively interrupted the acts of representation and interpretation.
In the end I have proposed an African hermeneutic theory that accepts both scholarly readers and the ordinary readers with respect to biblical interpretation as constitutive of a community of readers positioned in a particular sociocultural milieu. It is a theory that invites the socially engaged scholars to commit to: reading the Bible from the experienced reality of societal margins; reading communally with each other; and to read critically. The metaphor Sokoni (at the marketplace) is proposed as the starting point in which both the “ordinary” readers and scholarly readers can engage the Bible through the language of the African theatre and storytelling.
The rationale for the book:
While much research and writing have been done on the history of Christian mission and the development of Christianity and theology in Africa, the research literature in biblical studies and hermeneutics pays little attention to the processes and consequences of colonization for biblical interpretation and uses of scripture in Africa. In postcolonial Africa, where the Bible has widely been accepted as the supreme rule of faith, ethics and morality, few indigenous biblical scholars have engaged in critical biblical scholarship which interrogates the relationship between the Bible and colonialism regarding the issues of language, class, gender, ideology and human subjectivity. Among the many trained theologians, few are biblical scholars. As Gerald West has observed of African theologians, it is also true of the biblical academies in Africa that only a handful of African biblical scholars consciously reflect on methodology and theory.
In addition, the question of biblical hermeneutics is yet to be settled, particularly in the formerly colonized territories. The postcolonial context, just as the colonial context, remains a site where the Bible has the potential of becoming both a solution and a problem, both an oppressor and liberator. The Bible is now widely accepted as an African book and a beloved text, however, its potency as a destructive force cannot be ignored. The Bible as literature remains a powerful tool in which a given ideology can be passed on and be received as the norm in daily practices. Moreover, the postcolonial context in which the Bible operates is still contestable and ambiguous. The postcolonial situation in Africa demands a new critical tradition in biblical studies and hermeneutics that follow colonial resistant literature to affirm the right of people once again to seize the initiative of history. I am of the opinion that potentiality of such a critical edge in African biblical scholarship that is able to harness the true creative power of the African people has not been fully explored and tested.
For example, while the Christian activity of the Bible Translation has made great strides in offering the Africans the Bible in the languages of their ancestors, hardly have theological schools in Africa seen it worthy to include the translated texts (which most ordinary readers use) in the biblical studies curriculum. What this translates to is the inadequacy of biblical hermeneutics to offer critical tools that students of theology can employ when they encounter the untrained ordinary readers in their daily wrestling with the translated texts. Theological schools, as such, disregard untrained, illiterate or semi-literate readers as important conversation partners in the development of biblical hermeneutics.
In addition, I am of the opinion that to understand this process one must also address the question of the discourses of colonialism. By discourses of colonialism, I mean understanding the representation and categorization of the African identities produced and reproduced by various colonial rules, systems and procedures in order to create and separate the Africans as “Other”. Therefore, to understand colonial relationships one needs to analyze words and images as they were used and applied in the historical transformation of the colonial society. Such an analysis reveals not just the individual or social groups but also a historical consciousness at work. For this reason, the place of language, culture and the individual within the political and economic realities of the colony have to remain at the fore front for a fuller comprehension of the evolution of biblical interpretation in colonial Kenya.
The book is an attempt towards filling in the gap. It builds on the new methodological and theoretical approach in African biblical studies which has been laid out through the able minds of Gerald West, Musa Dube, Itumeleng J. Mosala and Aloo O. Mojola, among others postcolonial biblical critics.
The intended readership of the book includes African biblical scholars and Africanists, African theologians and historians, Students of religion, theology and biblical studies, Researchers in approaches to hermeneutics, Postcolonial theorists and critics.
Please, stay tuned for more about this book.