Synod: 'It's the culture, stupid!'


To steal a page from American politics, one might sum up five reports on the Bible from the perspective of five different continents delivered at the Synod of Bishops yesterday in a single sound-bite: “It’s the culture, stupid!”

Each of the five bishops who spoke on behalf of his continent argued, in various ways, that the central challenge is to bring the Bible into conversation with the local culture – whether it’s the secular humanism of contemporary Europe, or the traditional religions of sub-Sahran Africa.

A related challenge cited by several of the prelates is distinguishing the Catholic church’s approach to Scripture from that of Protestant fundamentalists, who are often the most visible preachers of the Bible in many parts of the world.

The five speakers were: Archbishop John Onaiyekan of Abuja, Nigeria, representing Africa; Archbishop Thomas Menamparampil of Guwahiti, India, for Asia; Cardinal Oscar Rodríguez Maradiaga of Tegucigalpa, Honduras, on behalf of America; Cardinal Josip Bozani? of Zagreb, Croatia, representing Europe; and Bishop Michael Putney of Townsville, Australia, for Oceania.

So far, no text has been released of the remarks by Rodríguez.


Onaiyekan, 64, argued that the indigenous religious beliefs of Africa created a welcoming environment for the Biblical message.

“The Supreme Being, Creator of heaven and earth, is the target of the worship and prayers of our African Traditional Religion,” he said.

Onaiyekan said that his own father was among the first in his village to embrace Christianity, around 1920.

“He made it clear to me that when he became a Christian, he did not take on a new God,” Onaiyekan said. “It was the same Olorun, the Yoruba supreme being, whom he had already known in the traditional religion.”

“Even in the so-called ‘dark continent,’ the light of the eternal Word of God was never absent,” Onaiyekan said. He argued that this “preparation for the gospel” helps explain the phenomenal growth of Christianity in the 20th century. The Catholic population of sub-Saharan Africa alone went from 1.9 million in 1900 to 139 million in 2000, a growth rate of 6,708 percent.

Promoting Biblical literacy in Africa, he said, is complicated by several cultural factors, including widespread illiteracy and poverty. In some places, he said, the cost of a single Bible represents a month’s wage.

Onaiyekan said that greater familiarity with the Bible has brought African Catholics closer to other Christians, but also warned that sometimes it’s difficult to deal with Evangelical and Pentecostal movements “that are not only of the fundamentalist type, but clearly anti-Catholic.”

“Africa is unfortunately the dumping ground for all kinds of crazy ideas from other continents,” he said.

One towering cultural challenge across much of Africa – including in Onaiyekan’s own nation, Nigeria – is Christian/Muslim relations. Onaiyekan said that Scripture could be useful in this regard, but it remains an under-exploited resource.

“The tragedy is that not much is being done long this line, especially as Christian-Muslim rivalries in many places concentrate largely on our difference rather than on all we have in common,” he said. “There are fanatics who boldly assert that the Holy Qur’an is God’s own correction and improvement on our scriptures.”

Onaiyekan noted that the Second Vatican Council called for special editions of the Bible for people of other faiths, and suggested that such editions would be especially helpful in Africa – though, to date, “very little has been done.”


Menamparampil, who will celebrate his 72nd birthday on Oct. 22, noted that Christianity first took shape in Asia, and that much of its doctrinal, liturgical, and spiritual heritage bears the stamp of Asian wisdom. Nonetheless, he said, over time this association between Christianity and Asia has been obscured.

“The image of having alien loyalties would cling to various Christian communities in different parts of Asia right through the colonial period to our own days,” he said, “especially because Christianity in people’s minds has become strongly representative of the West.”

That impression of Christianity as “un-Asian,” Menamparampil, has left its mark on the sociology of the Asian church. The gospel has been largely spurned, he said, by the dominant classes, while it has been embraced by “marginal societies” such as “smaller ethnic groups, tribal communities, fisherfolk, oppressed minorities, humbler castes, and outcastes,” who “looked at social realities from a different perspective.”

Using the language of the Federation of Asian Bishops’ Conference, which refers to a “triple dialogue” in Asia, Menamparampil identified the central challenge today as bringing the Bible into conversation with the great religions of Asia, its great cultures, and with the poor.

Menamparampil noted that “inculturation” of this sort is a tricky enterprise. Go too far towards drawing upon the vocabulary and concepts of another religion, he said, and both the followers of that religion as well as Christians may be offended; insist too much on classic Christian concepts, and one risks having “no appeal to the collective psyche of a society to which the message is addressed.”

The church in Asia, he said, is determined to keep trying to strike the right balance.

In many circumstances, Menamparampil argued, the preferred method of evangelization in Asia is personal example and social concern, such as combating poverty, illiteracy, drug addiction and violence.

“Even where the gospel is resisted most,” he said, “the evangelical witness of socially relevant works finds welcome,” citing Mother Teresa as an example.

“Silent but sincere service has an eloquence of its own,” he said. “There are places in Asia where the message is better ‘whispered in inner rooms’ than ‘proclaimed on the housetops.’”

That preference for witness over direct proclamation has occasional set off alarms in the Vatican, which worries about soft-pedaling the distinctive features of the Christian message, such as the claim that Christ is not simply one saving figure among others such as Krishna or Buddha.

In an apparent reference to those concerns, Menamparampil stressed that the preference for witness is a “strategic choice,” especially “in situations where freedom of religion is restricted,” and in any case “the duty to communicate the message remains.”

Like Onaiyekan, Menamparampil warned that without adequate formation in the Bible, “some believers can come to the point of leaving the church and joining some fundamentalist groups.” Among other things, he recommended wider use of the method of Bible sharing in small groups developed by the Lumko Missiological Institute in South Africa, as well as ASIPA – the “Asian Integrated Pastoral Approach.”

Menamparampil also praised the rapid growth of the Charismatic movement in the Asian church, saying “people in large numbers flock to charismatic retreats that announce God’s word in all its power. … Miracles do take place, both of healing and of conversion.”


Bozani?, 59, began by insisting “one cannot separate Europe from Christianity,” however much some dedicated secularists may try.

“All that has made European culture and civilization great – the Europe of the thousand cathedrals, the Europe of the custodians of the artistic treasures, of literature and Christian music, the Europe that expressed real solidarity and service to the poor through the emphatic force of Christian charity – found their origins in the Bible,” Bozani? said.

Today, Bozani? said, Christianity often finds itself “culturally marginalized” in the continent’s secular milieu. He called for an essentially positive response.

“We should recognize the action of God which is revealed even if we deviate from the path, in our disagreements and conflicts, as well as in communion, with respect and altruism,” he said.

In particular, Bozani? warned that a Christianity which will be attractive in today’s Europe must steer clear of “political or financial games.”

Instead, Bozani? urged a deeper dialogue with “new interpretations and scientific research, which often may differ from the paradigms of Christian truth.” What Christian has to offer, he said, is a message of hope over against a spreading “civilization of fear.”

Bozani? added a special tribute to the Christians of Eastern Europe who suffered under communism.

“We who come from the part of Europe once dominated by dictatorial regimes, the last of which was communism, understand that the pastors and the faithful were able to resist the cruelty and horrors of ideology only because they trusted in the Word of God,” he said.


Putney, 62, noted the striking cultural contracts in his region, from the highly Western and secular ambience of urban Australia and New Zealand to the staggering variety of indigenous tribal groups in more rural areas and across the islands of Oceania.
tIn Papua New Guinea alone, he noted, there are 847 distinct languages, and overall there are as many as 1,200 different tongues in Oceania.

With regard to indigenous groups, Putney said, the challenge is to find ways of promoting the Bible that correspond to their instincts.

“Even today the message of the Word of God is best shared by story-telling, ritual, song and drama rather than simply by reading of the text,” he said.

In more secular circles, Putney said, the key is to overcome a cultural bias in which religious faith “has almost become a secret.”

In that regard, Putney pointed to the recent World Youth Day in Sydney as a potential cultural watershed.

“For one glorious week,” he said, “the streets of secular Sydney were full of vibrant signs of the presence of God, and the resisting culture crumbled before the power of the Holy Spirit and the faces and voices of 200,000 young people.”

Putney noted that a decade ago, the Synod on Oceania recommended greater practice of Lectio Divina and more attention to Biblical formation – recommendations, he conceded, which “remain only partially fulfilled.”

Like the other speakers, Putney also warned of the growing influence of Biblical fundamentalism in some circles.

“Some Protestant groups have an approach to evangelization which ignores the cultural context and relies at times on a fundamentalist understanding of the Word of God,” he said. “Because of this, Catholic evangelization can be rejected because it is not distinguished from this alternative version.”

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