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on 31 October 2011
Vincent J. Donovan, a Catholic Missionary in Tanzania among the Masai people during the late 60's, realised that although the mission to East Africa had been there for nearly two hundred years and done some 'good work', there were virtually no conversions. (p13.) He realises that all the mission has done is import western Christianity, and he comes to believe that every culture created by God has within its own culture all it needs to believe in Jesus.
Donovan critiques the modern missionary approach and translates the Christian message into the cultural context. With permission of his bishop he started an outreach program into the communities of the Masai with a target of reaching all tribes within a five year period and telling them bout Jesus and salvation in their own culture. Meeting the groups on a weekly basis for a year Donovan gives them the option of either to either choose or reject the message.
Donovan is of the opinion that Christianity has the inner strength necessary to match the primeval force of racism and tribalism (p.43) but shows in a number of passages that he himself is not much above the same. His derogatory comments about the Masai make it difficult to take him serious. Saying that they (the Masai) can reach adulthood without thinking at all (p.42), stereotyping the population as handsome (p.91) and claiming that as pagans they would not be able to forgive those who have offended (p.110) shows that he is imposing western thoughts and ideals onto the culture. While segregation in the US and Apartheid in South Africa were present at the time the book was written and stances like those mentioned above might have been acceptable at that time, surely they are not longer in the 21st century.
With some of his arguments he doesn't seem to be aware that he is already contradicting himself. He is claiming that for Pagans it would be unthinkable to forgive (p.110), however, he shows clear rituals of asking and accepting forgiveness within the culture. The "spittle of forgiveness" (p.48), endaa sinyati or holy food (p.49) or the symbol of grass for peace show clear signs and rituals of reconciliation and forgiveness.
Donovan preached forgiveness to the people, but not before he had preached the Cross. When they heard the message of the crucifixion they first laughed in disbelief `as pagans do'. (p.65) `Then they were scandalised by it as religious people must'. If the people have no need for thinking in terms of the future, or at all, they had no hope of resurrection. The hope of resurrection, the message of Jesus rising again, had to be at the basis for teaching.
Donovan, quoting 1 Cor 1:17, "For Christ did not send me to baptise but to proclaim the gospel", acknowledges the importance of the good news in mission however makes a point of preparing the Masai for baptism as a sacrament necessary for salvation. While he tries to leave his western oriented theology behind he quite clearly is influenced by his catholic traditions. He considers himself to be in a position where he can, and does, refuse baptism if he thinks people are not ready for it. When Donovan thought some of the listeners were not yet ready personally for baptism he thought he should exclude them from it. The community however would not accept this. The community had decided they would after look after the weak ones within a communal faith. Communal faith was a concept Donovan had not met and struggled to accept. When a group did not want to be baptised (p.86) he sees it as them refusing Christ and the Christian message. Again Donovan shows an attitude towards the people where he considers himself of a higher authority. Over a period of years he accepted that Christianity can be either accepted or rejected but at the point of rejection by the group his missionary obligation to them was, for him, finished.
Christianity Rediscovered shows a different approach to mission independent of social provisions like hospitals and schools. Donovan tries to bring the Gospel to the people using images from their own cultural background. By his own admission his plan to evangelize the twenty-six sections of the district has not been accomplished. In addition to that he misses to state what has happened to the people who accepted the Gospel. With more than 25 years after the book was written it would have been opportune to reflect on the results of the mission. Have any of the people started spreading the news themselves, has a mission from within the tribe been developed?
While many reviews of the book are highly supportive, I would suggest it needs to be read within a historical context and not without criticism.