Cultural Hermeneutics Applied

In the book Vernacular Hermeneutics[1], David Tuesday Adamo has a chapter on “African Cultural Hermeneutics.” His aim is to make a case for the practice of cultural hermeneutics in Africa. He goes further to apply this method to the Psalms. Adamo’s chapter illustrates what I call the danger of cultural hermeneutics and shows why this emphasis should be rejected if we are to continue to maintain the truth of Scripture.

Adamo argues that,

In African indigenous culture, the means for dealing successfully with traditional problems like disease, sorcerers, witches, enemies and lack of success in life, have been developed. Western missionaries taught African Christians to discard these indigenous ways of handling problems without offering any concrete substitute, except the Bible. Charms, medicine, incantations, divination, sacrifices and other cultural ways of protecting, healing and liberating ourselves from the evil powers that fill African forests were hurriedly discarded in the name of Christianity. Yet, we were not taught how to use that Bible as a means of protecting, healing and solving the daily problems of life. The Euro-American way of reading the Bible has not actually helped us to understand the Bible in our own context (p. 66).

Three things stand out in this above statement. 1) Christianity is a Western missionary thing. 2) Missionaries discarded African traditional practices and only replaced them with the Bible which is not a concrete substitute for dealing with their problems. 3) Africans should have been taught by the missionaries on how to use the Bible for protection, healing, and solving daily problems. Implied in Adamo’s argument, then, is that African cultural hermeneutics will enable Africans to interpret the Bible in a way that brings back such practices and makes use of the Bible to do what charms, medicine, incantations, divination etc. did in the culture.

Adamo’s approach (in line with those who argue for African cultural hermeneutics) is to begin with the African experience, then search the Scriptures to see if there is anything in it that could solve problems faced in that context.  He states,

Faced with some peculiar problems as African Christians, we searched the Bible consistently with our own eyes in order to discover whether there could be anything in the Bible that could solve our problems. In the process of reading the Bible with our own eyes, we discovered in the scripture great affinities with our own worldview and culture. We discovered in both the Hebrew Scripture and the New Testament resemblances to events similar to African experience, especially painful experience (p. 67).

Applying his African cultural hermeneutics to the Psalms, Adamo points out that the Psalms, interpreted from the African perspective, can be used protection, healing, and success in life. Before the advent of Christianity, the indigenous tradition of Africa used incantations and charms to protect themselves against enemies and evil. Given this cultural context, he comes to the Psalms and applies his cultural hermeneutics approach. He argues that the Christianity brought by missionaries did not meet the need of Africans for protection, healing and success. What the missionaries did not give, African indigenous Christians found by searching the Bible.  As he puts it,

“Using African cultural hermeneutics to interpret the Bible, they [African indigenous Christians] found secret powers in the Bible, especially in the book of Psalms. They used the Bible protectively, therapeutically, and successfully to fill the missing gap left by Eurocentric Christianity” (p. 74).

One wonders how Adamo sees the Bible, that he uses it as he describes.

Applying his methodology of cultural hermeneutics, Adamo identifies three groups of Psalms for the African indigenous churches. They are: 1) Protective Psalms (Psalms 5, 6, 28, 35, 37, 54, 55, 83, and 109. He argues that these are protective Psalms and thus should be used against enemies and evil. They can be used in the African context to defeat the evil plans of enemies. 2) Therapeutic Psalms (Psalms 20 and 40 [for swollen stomach]; 51 [to heal barrenness]; 6 [to relieve from pains and worries]; 1 [to prevent miscarriages] etc.). 3) Success Psalms include Psalms 4; 8; 9; 23; 24; 46; 51; 119:9-16; 134 (for success in examinations or studies).

In the end, Adamo has replaced the African traditional practices with the Bible. Rather than hearing what the Bible says to the African indigenous church, he wants the African indigenous belief system brought into the Bible. Cultural hermeneutics, then, is finding in the Bible those aspects that agree with the cultural practices and then using them, even to the point of using the Bible as a charm to protect from evil.

Adamo’s work may sound trivial to Western ears, but is a worry because what he says is reflected in so much of what is published in African theologies these days. Such hermeneutics will keep people comfortable in their belief systems, and they will never see the need to embrace Christ as Lord and Savior.

Cultural hermeneutics as a topic of discussion may be appealing to scholars, and the push for cultural sensitivity might keep us from challenging such arguments, especially when made by Africans. But that would be disastrous for the future of the church in places like Africa. We must know about these issues, as they serve to show the serious need for proper theological education.

[1] Rasiah S. Sugirtharajah, ed.  Vernacular Hermeneutics (Sheffield, England: Sheffield Academic Press, 1999).

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