Missio Dei: A Journal of Missional Theology and Praxis 9, no. 1 (Winter–Spring 2018)

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Vincent Donovan’s Christianity Rediscovered [1978]

Samuel K. Elolia

Donovan, Vincent J. Christianity Rediscovered. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books 1978.

Donovan’s book is a critique of colonial missions methods in Africa. He critiques those strategies as imperialistic and out of step with the gospel principles of St. Paul. His direct mission to the Masai is an attempt to deviate from those early strategies. Instead, Donovan champions a process of inculturation that takes the gospel and cultures seriously.1 Moreover, there is no such thing as an unchanging and pure culture, for all cultures have always been in dynamic flux. Donovan was convinced that missionary work is better undertaken by those who respect the uniqueness and diversity of human cultures.

Forty years after its publication, Donovan’s book has been widely read and acknowledged by academicians and missiologists who claim to have been challenged and transformed by it. Over all, the book has missiological and theological breadth that reflects Donovan’s years of missionary work among the Masai in Tanzania.

Donovan’s discovery began with his critical evaluation of an earlier mission work that was based on the Eurocentric and oppressive European colonial rule. Unfortunately, a few of the Western missionaries operated in tandem with that rule and as a result lost their mandate. While a majority of the missionaries did not operate openly in that fashion, they were somewhat complicit.

The major challenge facing the first missionaries to East Africa was slavery. Arab slave traders and their European supporters brought moral confusion and unimaginable misery. The Arab raiders went far inland to hunt for slaves, to be sold in Bagamoyo before they were transported to Zanzibar and beyond. There was scarcely a section or a tribe of East Africa that was not affected by it (4).

The early missionaries encountered all this havoc when they landed in East Africa and sought to intervene by buying and resettling slaves in mission compounds. In fact, the buying of slaves and evangelizing them became the principal method of the early Christian missions both in East and West Africa. The cases in point are the resettlements in Free Town, Sierra Leone, and Frere Town in Kenya. The money was solicited from the missionaries’ home churches or missionary societies and antislavery societies in Europe and America (4). Donovan sympathizes with the missionaries’ good intentions, but questions whether buying the products of that system was the best way to fight the evil of slavery.

After the independence of many African countries in the 1960s, missionary efforts shifted to development and nation building. Vatican II supported some of those efforts and went a step further in support of true freedom of conscience and tolerance for other religions. A new definition of missionary work that involved development was emerging: “A new breed of missionaries appeared—behind the plow, laying pipes, digging wells, introducing miracle grains, bringing progress and development to the people of the Third World—a kind of ecclesiastical Peace Corps” (12). Donovan failed to understand how these development efforts differ from those of agents of socio-economic systems such as the United Nations or the British Foreign Office.

Having lost faith in his predecessors, Donovan opted to chart his own strategy. A letter to his Bishop lays out his growing concerns at Liliondo Mission Station, which ran four schools and a hospital. He recognized the material help that the missionaries offered to the Masai, but he was concerned that there was little to show in the way of conversions. At this point, he asked permission to break away from the schools and the hospital to go directly to the Masai in their villages (15). That was a radical departure from the traditional Catholic procedure, which had assumed that it was impossible to preach the gospel directly to the Masai because they were considered the hardest of all the pagans. Donovan, however, chose to take that risk with neither theory nor strategy but confidence in himself and God.

A Lutheran missionary introduced him to the classic writings of Roland Allen. In his book Missionary Methods: St. Paul’s or Ours?, Allen argues that modern missionary methods had strayed far from those of the early church. Echoing Allen, Donovan insists that any action taken in the name of mission should be measured by the Bible (33). On that basis, he understood the task of evangelization to be a temporary work in any given place, for once a Christian community is established, the missionary moves on, as per the example of Apostle Paul.

Donovan commenced his new mission strategy of direct evangelization in Chief Ndangoya’s village—one of twenty-six villages of the district of Loliondo. He had given himself a five-year target to evangelize the entire area. The process was simple. He would introduce a religious theme or topic and ask to hear their opinion on it, and then he would tell them what he believed or thought on the same subject. In the first week of instructions, he asked the Masai to tell him what they thought about God. For the Masai, there is only one God, Engai, who goes by many names. When God is kind and propitious, they call him the Black God, and the Red God when angry. Sometimes they call him rain or the God of the Blue Stomach. Regardless of the descriptive, colorful names, God is always the one Supreme God, the Creator. Donovan understood this to be quite similar to God’s many names in the Bible—fire, breeze, and rock. In this sense, God is neither male nor female but certainly embodies the qualities that exist in both genders.2

Furthermore, Donovan introduced the Masai to another tribe in the Bible—the Hebrew tribe or the Israelites—and their knowledge of the One God. However, he was careful not to let God be trapped in one tribe. Finally, someone asked Donovan if God speaks to his tribe or whether Donovan had known God, to which he responded with humility: “No, we have not found the high God. My tribe has not known him. I have come a long distance to invite you to search for him with us. Let us search for him together. Maybe, together we will find him” (46). I think in this statement, Donovan was trying to show his vulnerability and humility as a fellow traveler searching for the divine.

It seems clear that Donovan had come to the understanding that the gospel claims had been compromised when it was exported alongside the Western culture and often as synonymous with Western culture. Fortunately, some scholars have recognized that goodness and holiness do not reside exclusively in one culture or tradition and have proposed an alternate approach through dialogue.3

Like many missionaries, Donovan was confident in relating the biblical stories to the Masai. However, upon listening the Masai interpreted the stories differently. For example, they complained that the creation story, with the garden and the command to till the soil, sounded agriculturally biased. For them, tilling the soil is repugnant. Only a farmer—a barbarian (olmeg)—would cut open the thin layer of topsoil of the Masai slopes, exposing it to the equatorial sun and gradually turning it into a desert.

Donovan followed the story of the garden with a seemingly worse one, the story of Cain, the first farmer, who murdered Abel, the first cattle herder. With some justification, they questioned whether the Bible was a colonial plan against cattle herders. “They began to wonder if that book I held in my hands with such great reference, was not some kind of an agricultural or government plot against them” (57). He admitted to have never retold the story.

While evangelizing the first villages, Donovan noticed a man on the outskirts who belonged to another Masai village. He seemed poorer than the average Masai. He later found out that the man had broken certain taboos and was ostracized. The recourse would be for his father to go to the mountains, ask for the “spittle of forgiveness” so that he could forgive his son, and bring blessings on the village once again. This was so since it was thought that spittle was a “very sacred element of a breathing human” and “was considered to be the sign of forgiveness” (59). When sin occurs between communities, reconciliation is attained by the two communities agreeing to share the holy food (endaa sinyati) accompanied by the rest of the community. Donovan used these existing principles to explain the salvation story.

To explain the gospel further, Donovan drew on Jesus’s parables, and for the illiterate Masai, no other method could better serve the purpose. He captured their pastoral imagination when he told them that from the first day he became an elder, Jesus spoke about the land of green pastures that God is preparing for God’s people of the earth. God is the shepherd of that peaceful land, and it is for the poor, the meek, the humble, and the little ones. God will be merciful to them, and they will be blessed. To bring it home, Donovan contextualized it and pointed out that the pastures of God are like a wedding feast or a circumcision feast where there will be dancing and singing and sugarcane for the children and beads for the women and tobacco for the elders to chew on and milk and meat and honey beer. Like any major Masai ceremony, many will come from as far as the Serengeti Plains.

Another biblical story that captured the Masai imagination was the story of Abraham and his two sons Isaac and Ishmael. One son is depicted as a good brave warrior and the other a lazy herder who ran away in disgrace. This is similar to the story of the Masai father going up on the hill each night to ask for the spittle of forgiveness for his wayward son. When the son finally returns, the father goes to meet him. The most popular story of all is the story of the good Samaritan—an olmeg or a barbarian whom Jesus identified as the neighbor we must love.

After he had explained the gospel as best as he could, Donovan was convinced that his job had been accomplished and what was left now was for the Masai to respond by either accepting or rejecting the gospel. “First, they must believe in all that God had done, and in Christ, then they must be sorry . . . be forgiven . . . and begin again a new. They must not keep all this to themselves, they must go forth in the Spirit and witness to the good news . . . letting others see the meaning of it all, by their words and by their lives until the time that Jesus comes again” (82).

From his initial contacts with the particular Masai group under chief Legwanan, Donovan had discovered that the Masai operated as a community, and therefore he expected them to respond to the gospel as a community. He gave them time to think and discuss among themselves. Clearly, Donovan’s method deviated from the traditional method geared to individual conversions. He believed that the church’s mission and catechetical practice is based on that premise. After a week, they had arrived at their decision and were ready to respond. The chief Ndangoya spoke for his people: “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’ ” (92).

In preparation for the baptisms, Donovan asked them to consider selecting their new names. That would be in line with the Masai who usually change their names at any important life-changing event. As Donovan stated correctly, the church needs some saints with names like Ole Timbau, Ole Kiyiapi or Kurmanjo in the litany of Saints. All of the men and women of Ndangoya’s Community chose new Masai names except Ndangoya, who took the name of Abraham because the original Abraham had left everything and led his people from the worship of a tribal god in search of the Unknown High God. Now, with the whole neighborhood and visitors watching, Donovan poured water from the stream over his head according to the Roman Catholic tradition. He baptized Ndangoya, son of Parmwat, with his new name, Abraham. The next step was to find a Christian name that is parallel to the Masai age-set system to correspond with his new Christian initiation. After considering several names, they settled on Orpororo L’Engai, which means “brotherhood of God.”

After such a success in Ndangoya’s community, Donovan felt confident to move to the next community and repeat the same formula. After a year of instructions in that community, Donovan left for a week to give them time to decide. When he returned, he found them waiting in the place where they had met every week. He asked for their decision on the gospel, and the chief spoke first: “We have heard what you mean by the Christian message. . . . We thank you for coming to us. We think we understand what you have said about Jesus Christ. But we cannot accept it. . . . We do not want baptism. Forgive us—our answer is no!” (107). Donovan was devastated by the rejection. He wondered how they could follow instruction for a whole year and then reject it. He saw himself as a total failure. Donovan, however, was able to learn a very important lesson that day—that Christianity by its very essence is a message that can be accepted or rejected.

In his next evangelization effort, Donovan developed a different approach. He would work with someone in a given community who seemed to understand the message better than the others. That person would summarize the previous lesson before Donovan started new instruction. That strategy seemed to work well until he met a brave Masai, Ole Sikii, to whom he had been introduced as a religious man in the Masai sense of the word.4 Donovan shifted away from his previous approach. He instructed Ole Sikii and baptized only him. In turn, Ole Sikii instructed and baptized his own people.

The celebration of the Eucharist in Ole Sikii’s community signified a critical step in Donovan’s efforts to inculturate the gospel among the Masai. It is considered a taboo for Masai men to eat in the presence of women, but in the Eucharist both men and women shared the meal in line with what St. Paul stated in Galatians 3:28, that “there is no longer Jew and Greek…slave or free…male and female; for all of you are one in Christ.” Donovan recalls “the first time when I blessed the . . . gourd . . . and passed it on to the woman sitting closest to me, told her to drink from it and then pass it on to the man sitting next to her. I don’t remember any other pastoral experience in which the sign of Unity was so real” (121). Donovan further attempted to teach the Masai that the Eucharist was not an act of magic accomplished with the saying of a few words in the right order but rather that the Eucharist is their whole life—family raising, herding, milking, and working. If the life in the village had been less than human, then there was no Mass. Similarly, if there had been selfishness, hatefulness, or lack of forgiveness, then the body of Christ had not been achieved. If someone or some group in the village had refused to accept the ritual grass5 as the sign of the Peace of Christ, there would be no Eucharist.

The most compelling aspect of Donovan’s book is its noble attempt to present the bare gospel unencumbered by Western culture. He understood the missionary as one called to divest himself of his culture so that he can be a naked instrument of the gospel to the culture for which he is called. He highlighted the Apostle Paul’s example to be “all things to all people” (1 Cor 9:19–23). At the same time, he was unimpressed by the colonial government’s civilizing efforts later to be promoted by both government agents and missionaries, an agenda that masqueraded as “nation building” by the independent national governments. Donovan was not against all development. His primary concern was when development consumed too much of the missionary’s time, leaving the work of evangelization undone. What he called for was a fresh assessment of the church’s mission to bear fruit in a joyful sharing of the gospel with the poor. He believed that when that assessment is done, the people will respond to the gospel on their own terms, and they will produce their own theology and social action that is authentically theirs.6

Although Donovan was so affected by the negative approach of the missionaries that preceded him, he did not dismiss missions altogether. In fact, he affirmed cross-cultural missions. He appreciated the process of inculturation, in which the gospel confronts human cultures in a positive and respectful manner.

As he prepared to leave Africa, Donovan wrote, “It is missionary evening in Africa” (161). The interpretation is that missionaries are no longer needed. This idea is not new. In fact, a few Christian leaders in the majority world had been concerned that their development to maturity as Christians was hampered by the dependence on the Western churches. In 1971, the General Secretary of the Presbyterian Church of East Africa shocked his audience when he issued a call for a moratorium on foreign missionaries and foreign funds.7 The moratorium call was meant to reduce dependency and challenge economic imperialism or neocolonialism that had become the pattern of missions. Almost a century earlier, Henry Venn, Secretary of the Church Missionary Society (1840–72) coined the term “euthanasia of mission”8 to describe the vital process by which a foreign mission can produce a national church that is self-supporting, self-governing and self-propagating.

Whatever else Donovan had in mind, his notion of a missionary sunset seems to ignore the evidence of the Spirit in the explosive growth of Christianity in Africa today. Evidently, the creative vitality of the church is realized in the mainline churches founded by the missionaries as well as in the new movements of African independent Churches. Christianity is truly being rediscovered. Missionary mistakes could not prevent the work of the Holy Spirit and the spread of the gospel through cross-cultural missionaries and indigenous leadership.

Samuel K. Elolia is Professor of Theology and World Christianity at Emmanuel Christian Seminary, Milligan College (Tennessee).

1 Inculturation is a recent term coined by the Jesuit scholars to replace the previous terminologies such as Adaptation, Indigenization and Reformulation. The term denotes an honest attempt to make the gospel understood by people of every culture. This process has been taking place within Christianity from its inception. For further details see John Mary Waliggo, Inculturation: Its Meaning and Urgency (Nairobi: St. Paul Publication – Africa, 1986) 11–14.

2 Feminist scholars including Rosemary Ruether, Mercy A. Oduyoye, and Elizabeth Johnson would appreciate the contributions of pastoralists like the Masai in the God-talk conversation in relation to patriarchal influence.

3 Noted proponents of religious dialogue include Paul F. Knitter, One Earth, Many Religions: Multifaith Dialogue and Global Responsibility (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1995); Jacques Dupuis, Christianity and the Religions: From Confrontation to Dialogue (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2002); S. Mark Heim, Salvations: Truth and Difference in Religion (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1995); Lesslie Newbigin, The Gospel in a Pluralist Society (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998); Marjorie Suchoki, Divinity & Diversity: A Christian Affirmation of Religious Pluralism (Nashville: Abingdon, 2003); Clark Pinnock, A Wideness in God’s Mercy: The Finality of Jesus Christ in a World of Religions (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1992); and Peter C. Phan, The Joy of Religious Pluralism: A Personal Journey (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2017).

4 Religious people are those who venture beyond the confines of the mundane in order to unlock the secrets that hold the mysterious. They close the gap between the sacred and the mundane. They include medicine specialists and diviners who provide the means of healing and the prevention of looming dangers in the society.

5 Ritual grass is a bunch of green grass often used by religious people to bless people at particular events such as child naming, weddings, circumcision, healing, and forgiveness. In recent years, the same ritual grass has been contextually appropriated by the church in Christian ways similar to rituals like baptism and the holy communion/Eucharist.

6 Since the late 1950s, Africa has produced its own theology that seriously examines the relationship between African traditional religion and culture in relation to Christianity. E. Bolaji Idowu’s Olódùmarè: God in Yoruba Belief (London: Longman, 1962) and John Mbiti’s Concepts of God in Africa (London: SPCK, 1986) helped set the stage for the development of African theology that embraces the African culture in understanding African Christianity. Kwame Bediako summarizes in his book Christianity in Africa: The Renewal of Non-Western Religion, Studies in World Christianity (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1995) what it means for Africans to express their faith within the African culture. In South Africa, theologians have reflected on their faith in relation to their culture and the added challenges of racism.

7 See Gerald H. Anderson, “A Moratorium on Missionaries?” Christian Century 91, no. 2 (1974): 45; Robert Reese, “John Gatu and the Moratorium on Missionaries,” Missiology: An International Review 42, no. 3 (2014): 245–56.

8 Jehu Hanciles, Euthanasia of a Mission: African Church Autonomy in a Colonial Context (Westport, CT: Praeger, 2002), 23–42.