Cherishing Our Strangeness
By Wendy McDowell
In the spring of my junior year of college, I studied abroad with St. Lawrence University’s Semester in Kenya. The directors of the program actually lit up with excitement rather than recoiling in dread when they discovered I was a religion major. Paul and Howard had both grown up as children of missionaries in Kenya, and they hoped I would accept an internship working with the Organization of African Independent Churches to research and write about one of its Kenya-based denominations.
So, toward the end of my time in Kenya, I alighted to the mostly rural Western Province and spent six weeks living in the household of a bishop of the African Divine Church. As a man of some stature, his family inhabited a modest compound of white huts with well-swept dirt floors that cooled your feet in the tropical heat. As it turned out, I rarely saw the bishop, but his four daughters came to sing for me in the evenings, lining up from oldest to youngest in their school uniforms and delivering a repertoire and choreography that rivaled the von Trapp children.
My assignment was to piece together the history and beliefs of this “indigenous” church which had broken away from an established missionary church in the 1950s. It was a daunting task, and the very first morning of my stay, I split open my head on a piece of corrugated sheet metal jutting from a roof and had to be taken to a hospital for stitches and a tetanus shot. Later, I would come to see that crack in the head as foreshadowing the painful awakening I was about to experience.
I spent my days traveling through the red clay countryside to the various branches of the church, my teeth and nerves rattling in notoriously perilous matatus. My Swahili was passable by this point, but most of the church people we “interviewed” spoke only a local language (most were Luhya), so I relied on a forbearing translator named Thomas to construe for me the beliefs and practices of this Pentecostal, spirit-based church. The people of the church welcomed me into their services, including more traditional sermon-based worship, but also healing rituals, a funeral (a moving display of ancestor reverence), and communal drumming and dancing services that lasted well into the night and involved charismatic acts such as speaking in tongues. These celebrations were particularly full of vitality, with participants exclaiming, “the Holy Spirit is present!”
I had never before witnessed many of the practices and beliefs I observed among this persuasion of Christians. Moreover, in discussions with church members and with Thomas (who became my theological conversation partner), I heard the Bible interpreted in ways that were unfamiliar to me; for example, Jesus’ healing narratives were often read to be displays of magic, in which Christ countered the sorcery of others. And I quickly discovered that many Kenyans belonged to more than one church, attending European-run churches on Sunday, but also participating in indigenous religious groups (some institutionalized, some not).
I managed to put together a written report at the end of my internship, and everyone seemed pleased enough, but I felt a bit like a fraud. My sense was that I had not been equal to the task, and I was gravely aware of how little I knew or understood. I didn’t even know any of the local languages: how presumptuous it was for me to be writing about this church! What’s more, as I attempted to make sense of what I was seeing and hearing, I started to feel that the categories and definitions I had been taught (words like “syncretism,” “missionized,” “negotiation,” and “resistance”) were limited at best, and diminishing at worst. These frameworks did not do justice to the complex religious lives and rituals I had witnessed, to the ways that this religious community had fashioned something new and unique that was at the same time ancient and venerable.
These memories came back to me in vivid detail after reading Devaka Premawardhana’s piece on “world Christianities,” in which he contends that “translation almost inevitably destabilizes the gospel itself.” His is one of the four articles in this issue adapted from the Center for the Study of World Religions’ 50th anniversary symposium. While there are points of difference among them, all four authors push and prod terms such as “world religions,” and agree that scholars of religion should focus on particular “religions-as-lived” to avoid neat categorizations. Laura Nasrallah also takes up the role of the religion scholar, discussing the reverence, acumen, and humility required to “question our own emotional and intellectual approaches to religion.”
It seems to me that most of the articles contained here share this aim of challenging the ways we define things. D. Y. Béchard questions the idea of the artist as one who is invested in originality, Max Mueller proposes new ways to perceive the margins and center of Mormonism, Charles Stang suggests a more open Christology through his interpretation of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, and both Matthew Cressler’s dialogue and David Hall’s review consider the dangers of certain definitions of ourselves as Americans and as a nation. After all, confronting or changing our definitions is not merely an intellectual exercise, as James Davies’s discussion of psychiatric versus religious suffering makes all too clear—it can alter the way we see the world and ourselves in it, shaking and sometimes even ending our faith.
Yet these are the junctures in our lives that we remember, our times of walking through fire that transform and constitute us. In my view, what the best writers (and scholars) do is to help us cherish the times and places we are made strange to ourselves, when our heads are split open by the paucity of our definitions and we are rendered helpless by the limits of our knowledge. There are we the most human; there do we learn empathy; there do we begin to reach and expand.
Wendy McDowell is an editor of the Bulletin.