Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Theological Education in the Bahamas, Part II

This is the second of a five part series that previously appeared in News from Daniel and Estela Schweissing between February and August 2006. A more in-depth theological treatment of this topic can be found in the upcoming edition of the American Baptist Quarterly.


Bahamians have a saying that goes something like this, "When America sneezes, the Bahamas catches cold." Basically, what that means is that if we’re doing something here in the United States, the Bahamians are quick to jump on the bandwagon. And once they’re on the bandwagon, they’ll often outdo us at whatever we were trying to do in the first place. Consider how the books, movies, television programs, and personalities that are currently fashionable in popular American Evangelical culture have influenced Christianity in the Bahamas. Bahamian Christian book shops prominently display stacks of Rick Warren’s Purpose-Driven Life, Tim LaHaye’s Left Behind series, and Bruce Wilkinson's Prayer of Jabez. Cable Bahamas pipes in religious programming from the major U.S. television networks, making household names of personalities like John Hagee, Benny Hinn, T.D. Jakes, Kenneth and Gloria Copeland, and Juanita Bynum. And two years ago, Bahamian movie theaters were packed out by church groups attending showings of Mel Gibson’s Passion of Christ. Clearly, one of the biggest theological challenges facing the Bahamian church is that Bahamian Christianity has often been more greatly influenced by American Evangelical culture than it has by Bahamian culture.

From the earliest days of the modern missions movement, missionaries have understood the importance of translating the gospel message from their language (or, more precisely, the Greek and Hebrew languages of scripture) to the language of the people they hoped to reach. Pioneer Baptist missionaries William Carey and Adoniram Judson placed a high priority on mastering the indigenous languages of India and Burma, writing dictionaries, and translating the scriptures so that they could communicate the gospel effectively. In the past couple of generations, missionaries have begun to understand that in the same way that the gospel is communicated most effectively by using the language of the people they want to reach, it is also best communicated through their culture. In other words, just as it has always been a priority to translate the gospel from one language to another, it is now a priority to translate the gospel from our culture (or, again, the Greek and Hebrew cultures of the Bible) to the culture of the people to whom we minister. Consequently, one of the most important challenges that we face in Bahamian theological education is helping our students to understand what the gospel means from a Bahamian perspective rather than an American perspective.

Such an understanding is already evident in the way that a small number of Bahamian churches are responding to the highly polemical debate in the American church over the use of contemporary versus traditional forms of worship. American churches that do a good job of attracting teenagers and young adults typically emphasize contemporary worship styles in which praise songs are accompanied by a band playing electronic keyboards, electric guitars, and drums. In such churches, the words to songs (and even readings from scriptures) are projected on a screen behind the pulpit, eliminating the need for congregants to use hymnals or Bibles. This is in contrast to more traditional styles of worship—typically attended by senior adults—where the singing of hymns is accompanied by piano and organ music, the use of hymnals allows worshipers to follow the melody as well as the words, and nearly every church member can be seen carrying a Bible to and from services. Needless to say, this debate over which worship style to use has been imported to the Bahamas where most churches are ardent proponents of one style or the other. But many Bahamian churches have rejected these American approaches to worship, opting instead to worship in ways that embrace their own music and culture. They have realized that using their own native instruments—goat skin drums, cow bells, and bicycle horns—in a Junkanoo style worship service allows them to reach their people more effectively than is possible with imported worship styles that cater to specific subcultures of the American church.

While matters of liturgy and worship are actually just a small part of what we focus on in Bahamian theological education, this process of Bahamianization of worship in the Bahamian church aptly illustrates what we hope to accomplish in our teaching. When I first came to Atlantic College five years ago, I found that the theology program was based on a classic Western style theological curriculum that had been borrowed from a U.S. based school. While such a curriculum might effectively prepare pastors to minister successfully in the United States, particularly in a white middle class suburban setting, it is inadequate to prepare Bahamian students for the realities of ministry in the Bahamian church. Consequently, one of my biggest concerns in teaching is to help my students avoid getting trapped into thinking that American forms of theology—that is, Christian faith and practice—should be normative for the Bahamian church. Rather, I challenge them to identify and embrace a theological perspective that is both AUTHENTICALLY CHRISTIAN—meaning consistent with the teachings of scripture—and AUTHENTICALLY BAHAMIAN—meaning consistent with the reality of their own culture. Regardless of what subject we might be teaching—whether it be Old Testament, New Testament, systematic theology, church history, biblical interpretation, or preaching—our goal is to help our students understand each and every area of the theological curriculum from a distinctly Bahamian perspective rather than an imported U.S. perspective.

When I studied church history as a seminary student, we learned about all the great movers and shakers in the church—or so we thought—from the time of the apostles down to the present and they all had one thing in common. With few exceptions, they were white men of European and North American descent. At Atlantic College, my approach to church history has been different. My classes don’t just cover the European and American roots of Christianity; they also look at its African and Caribbean roots. Probably very few of us are aware that the Ethiopian Orthodox Church is the second oldest organized church in the world, after the Roman Catholic Church. Yet when we teach our students—all of whom are of African descent—about the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, this is significant for them because it affirms that God was already working in the lives of black Africans for over one-thousand years before the first white missionaries arrived on the continent. When we study Baptist history, we don’t just learn about the heroes of the faith that many of us learned about in Sunday school—Roger Williams, John Smyth, William Carey, and Adoniram Judson. We also study the lives of heroes like George Liele, Prince Williams, and Sharper Morris—former American slaves who brought the Baptist faith to Jamaica and the Bahamas. In other words, our students learn that the first Baptist missionaries in the Caribbean were entrepreneurial Afro-American preachers without the benefit of support from an organized mission sending agency, that these preachers began working in the Caribbean during the decade before William Carey—the so-called father of modern missions—set sail for India, and that they labored in the Bahamas for over fifty years before the first white British Baptist missionaries ever showed up. Again, this affirms for our students that God has been working through their own people and their own culture, independently of the influence of the Western church.

If our priority in theological education is to help our students understand theology from a Bahamian perspective, then how does this approach to teaching church history help to achieve that goal? As a cultural outsider to the Bahamas, I cannot expect to ever fully understand all of the nuances of Bahamian culture, let alone be able to fully understand theology from a distinctly Bahamian perspective myself. And in the absence of a significant body of theological writings authored by Bahamian theologians, I cannot readily introduce my students to an already existing Bahamian theology. The best that I can hope for is to equip my students with the tools to analyze their own culture and develop their own understanding of theology within their cultural context. In a country where centuries of colonialism and slavery have indoctrinated its people with the notion that “foreign is better,” perhaps the most important tool that I can provide my students with is an understanding and appreciation of their own religious and cultural heritage. Not only does such an understanding and appreciation affirm for our students that God values their culture and that he chooses to work through that culture; it also gives them permission to begin thinking theologically from their own unique cultural perspective. Thus, my job is not simply to teach theology but to find ways of teaching it that are culturally relevant for my students. If this effort is successful, then I hope to insure that, when America sneezes, our students and their churches do not catch cold.

COMING NEXT: Now that we've shown why helping students understand theology from the perspective of their own culture is important, how does this change in perspective impact the way that they do ministry? Find out in a few days as Part III of our series addresses this question in “Finding Alternatives to Business as Usual in the Church.”

Part I: Why is Bahamian theological education important?

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