Engaging Scripture in Uganda: A Cross-Cultural Context
Published by Mary L. Vanden Berg
Professor of Systematic Theology
Last August, I had the opportunity to teach at a conference in Uganda for a week. I was assigned a topic—The Kingdom of God—and my first thought was how to talk about that topic in the Ugandan context. I was fairly certain that the issues we had in the U.S. with respect to this biblical topic were likely to be different from those I would find in Uganda. Additionally, I was asked to preach at a village church. What would I need to know to adequately prepare for these two opportunities?
The missionaries I was working with, Calvin Seminary graduates Rev. Anthony Sytsma and Sara Sytsma, were very gracious in helping me with some of my questions while I prepared at home and after I arrived in Soroti. They offered key insights into various cultural habits and certain practices common in the churches that were valuable in my preparation. After my work was done, it was clear I still had much to learn. I recently interviewed Sara to learn more about teaching the Bible in Uganda. Many of these insights I had never considered and, I believe, could help us consider how best to teach and preach the Bible in our own contexts.
Mary V: How does the Ugandan context make biblical interpretation easier and harder than in the U.S.?
Sara S: In some ways, the culture of the ancient Near East in Bible times—both Old and New Testaments—has many similarities to Ugandan culture and, actually, many African cultures. This can make it both easier and harder to interpret or apply the Bible here. Easier because there are things that Ugandans can understand and which are very practical in this culture. For example, Exodus 22:5-15 describes a variety of events that regularly take place right here in Uganda. But it describes things very few people in the U.S. would ever deal with. Another example would be Jesus’ parables, many of which relate to agriculture. Some people in the U.S. may understand them, but many here know precisely what Jesus was talking about.
On the other hand, because of those similarities with the ancient Near East, it can be difficult for people to separate what the Bible requires us to do from what the Bible simply describes as something that was part of that particular ancient culture. For example, Genesis 24:53 is regularly used by people in Uganda as a biblical basis for why men must pay a bride price to their fiancé’s family in order to get married. “See,” they might say, “the Bible tells us we should do this thing that we were already doing in our pre-Christian culture.” These sorts of things can be tricky to explain.
Mary V: On a related topic, how do the Christians in Uganda navigate the authority of scripture when what scripture says comes up against a particular cultural practice?
Sara S: No matter what culture we live in, we are always tempted to force Scripture to support our own cultural practices since we want to avoid uncomfortable changes. So, in Uganda, just like in the U.S., there are some areas in which the church goes along with the culture, even when scripture is against it. However, there are other areas in which the church really brings change in peoples’ lives when they become Christians. One example is not participating in certain traditional religious circumcision rituals, which can include non-Christian practices. Another is that in the region where I live, drinking to the point of getting drunk has been a normal part of the culture during celebrations. The church strongly opposes that culture of drunkenness, and when people get saved, they give it up. Polygamy is also a common cultural practice, but the church does not allow members to take another wife. They are patient with those who already are in a polygamous marriage when they get saved and try to follow the teachings of the New Testament for such situations, but getting into polygamy while already in the church is definitely not tolerated.
Mary V: You mentioned to me that one challenge to Bible study in your context is that Uganda is more of a non reading culture than a reading culture. Can you explain that a bit more, including how you help people study scripture in a non-reading culture?
Sara S: There are some Ugandans who are voracious readers, but they are the exception. Books and reading take second place to stories passed down verbally. Although it is common for people to passionately desire to have a Bible, often someone will obtain a Bible but never open it except on Sunday. In my work with people who read little or are illiterate, I have found reading the scripture passage out loud several times is very helpful. It allows the words to sink in. After the reading, the group attempts to retell the passage using their own words. This allows them to show how they understood the passage. It is also good preparation for going out and sharing the Word of God with others, whether they can read it or not.
Mary V: As someone new to the Ugandan context, I was impressed with their devotion to Christ and the written Word. Given that, what is the most pressing issue with respect to engaging or teaching scripture in the Ugandan context?
Sara S: I think that the most pressing issue is not very different from what it is anywhere in the world. Christians need a deep love of the Bible, a desire to hear what God has to say to us, and a desire to respond by putting his words into practice. When we believe scripture is God’s Word, we will love it and be willing to do the hard work of reading all of scripture, even when what the Bible teaches is counter-cultural.
I learned much from my short visit to Uganda and from working with Anthony and Sara. Clearly, I did not know all I could have known to engage the church there. However, one comforting thing to note is that no matter how clumsy my illustrations and explanations may have been, the Spirit was clearly at work, given the warm responses I received to my sermon and the many questions generated through my teaching. Considering our context is essential, but those considerations should never push us to silence because we fear not knowing enough. Regardless of our worries about contextualizing the gospel’s message, the Spirit goes ahead of us to accommodate our efforts with those we are called to serve.
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