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Christianity rediscovered: An epistle from the Masai

 

Donovan, V.J. (1982). Christianity rediscovered: An epistle from the Masai. Maryknoll, NY; London: SCM Press.

 

OVERVIEW

This book is written by a Roman Catholic priest who leaves behind all preconceived notions of Christianity and seeks to understand the universal insights of the Gospel in all cultures.

DONOVAN'S MISSIONARY APPROACH

Donovan rejects traditional methods of missionary work and returns to the original example of St. Paul. He chooses "to go to people to do nothing but to talk to them about Christ." (p. 16) His intent is to bring the Masai "the bare message of Christianity untied to any outside influence." (p. 24) His work, he states, "would not be a case of going from theory to practice. It would have to be the other way around. If a theology did emerge from my work, it would have to be a theology growing out of the life and experience of the pagan peoples of the savannahs of East Africa." (p. 26)

Adds Donovan, "My role as a herald of the Gospel...to point to 'the One who had stood in their midst whom they did not recognize' was only a small part of the mission of God to the world." (p. 64)

MASAI INSIGHTS INTO THE GOSPEL OF JESUS CHRIST
The following are specific experiences encountered by Donovan:

Faith in God

I was sitting talking to a Masai elder about the agony of belief and unbelief. He used two languages to respond to me-his own and Kiswahili. He pointed out that the word my Masai catechist, Paul, and I had used to convey FAITH was not a very satisfactory word in their language. It meant literally TO AGREE TO. I, myself, knew the word has that shortcoming.

He said 'to believe' like that was similar to a white hunter shooting an animal with his gun from a great distance. Only his eyes and his fingers took part in the act. We should find another word. He said for a man really to believe is like a lion going after its prey. His nose and eyes and ears pick up the prey. His legs give him the speed to catch it. All the power of his body is involved in the terrible death leap and single blow to the neck with the front paw, the blow that actually kills. And as the animal goes down the lion envelops it in his arms (Africans refer to the front legs of an animal as its arms) pulls it to himself, and makes it part of himself. This is the way a lion kills. This is the way a man believes. This is what faith is.
But my wise old teacher was not finished yet. 'We did not search you out, Padri...We did not even want you to come to us. You searched us out...You told us of the High God, how we must search Him out...But we have not done this. We have not searched for Him. He has searched for us. He has searched US out and found us. All the time we think we are the lion. In the end the lion is God.' (pp. 62-63)

 

Corporate or Communal Faith

 

Western Christians have a difficult time understanding evangelization of tribes and peoples-of corporate faith and its relationship to personal faith.

The old man, Ndangoya, stopped me politely but firmly, 'Padri, why are you trying to break us up and separate us? During this whole year that you have been teaching us, we have talked about these things when you were not here, at night around the fire...From the first day I have spoken for these people. And I speak for them now. Now, on this day one year later, I can declare for them and for all this community, that we have reached the step in our lives where we can say, 'We believe.' (p. 92, see also pp. 104, 146)

A Eucharistic People

They asked me, 'What does it mean that we are baptized? Just that, that water was poured on our heads by you? Or does it not mean that we ourselves can now baptize? What does it mean that we are baptized? That we can receive Eucharist from your hands any time you choose to visit us? Or does it mean that we are a eucharistic people?'
At one point I thought the people were badly confusing the meaning of the Eucharist, or that of the church, or both. They already referred to the church as the ORPOROR, the brotherhood. Now, from time to time, I heard them calling the Eucharist the OPOROR SINYATI, the holy OPOROR, or holy brotherhood...It did not seem to make sense until I remembered St. Paul's saying, 'This bread that we break, is it not the KOINONIA of the body and blood of Christ?' (p. 122-23)

OTHER INSIGHTS

Readers will be also intrigued to find how the Masai understood the deity and humanity of Jesus (p. 75), the church as people who receive the Gospel (p. 82), prayer as God working in us (p. 138), and of priest as apostle and helper (p. 158).

IMPLICATIONS

  • Some claim that Donovan was no permanent church planter. Whether or not that is so should not discredit the power of these insights for missions and evangelization. Here are Biblical principles to a large degree unfettered by Western cultural biases. They should encourage us all to better contextualize the Gospel.
  • The Bible and the Gospel can be more fully understood and readily accepted when we accept the insights from all cultures. African theology draws upon many traditional backgrounds in producing its rich and fresh approach to our understanding of God and His works.
  • Missionaries unable to be challenged by Donovan may be hiding behind some biases and values too precious to reconsider.
  • In more than one place Donovan uses his experience among the Masai for reflection on American youth struggling to faith in their own culture.
Dean Borgman cCYS