Saturday, June 14, 2008

The Christians who don't read the Bible (Matthew Engelke's "A Problem of Presence")

I took Matthew Engelke's book A Problem of Presence with me on holiday. He writes about a congregation known as the Friday Apostolics in Zimbabwe. The most striking thing about this Christian group is that they refuse to read the Bible. In their view, the Bible is a material object that eventually falls apart, like other material objects. It seems "stale" to them. Above all, it doesn't communicate "live and direct" with God, which is what they are looking for. Since it is seen as a sort of physical obstacle for their faith, they have dispensed with it.

Engelke presents a very nuanced and perceptive reading of how the Bible has become this kind of thing - "a mere thing" - for the Friday Apostolics. He touches on how this is in many ways an apt response to the way that Biblical literacy was introduced to Southern Africa in tandem with colonialism and the wish to replace African cosmologies with a European world view. While other African groups have chosen to claim the Bible and make it their own in the struggle against colonialism, the Friday Apostolics chose to remain suspicious of it. But more importantly, Engelke argues, they have at the same time chosen to re-interpret the theological "problem of presence." All Christian groups in some way have to come to terms with the question of how to relate to a God who is simultaneously present and absent - an invisible, intangible God whom believers have to relate to through more tangible words, images, objects, actions. The Friday Apostolics have concluded that the material book known as the Bible - and many other material objects - do not "work" when they seek to establish God's presence. They don't want a "thingified faith" built on things that fall apart. They want something more solid than that.

Engelke has found a fascinating case study. But what really makes it interesting to read is how he ties it into broader issues that are so important in Christianity, and in the anthropology of Christianity - issues such as materiality, presence, representation. The book made me think again about the fact that "what things mean, and what they can be used for, is neither settled nor certain" (p 33).

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