After a few coffees pastor’s tongues start to loosen up, call it a bit of Geneva courage, and they begin to speak their mind a little less cautiously. After plying a few unsuspecting but prospective lads with a few drinks the talk has begun to turn to a surprisingly similar topic. There is a growing frustration with imports. Not the cheap Chinese variety but more like the polished Western variety. Theological imports are awash on our shores. Go into any good or not so good Christian bookshop and what you will find are hundreds of books written by European or American authors. If you look hard enough you might find a South American or Indian author gathering dust in some forgotten corner. Finding a prolific African author might well be more difficult than finding a white person who supported apartheid. And dare I say, evangelicals might well be the worst?
We have this love-hate relationship with our Western poster boys (or girls for you egalitarians out there!). We cram our bookshelves with their books, fill our ears with their pod casts and stampede to their conferences if they bless us with their presence. We can quote them, discuss them and gently critique their exegesis, where necessary, but yet, we knowingly nod; they don’t really understand our context. We give that conspiratorial smile as we condemn their ignorance. “What we really need,” some particularly loquacious soul will declare “is to write our own stuff.” But yet despite the chorus of muttered agreement and nodding heads nothing will happen… until the next round of coffee that is!
So what is it about South Africa that has engendered so little serious theological reflection, so little writing and so little publishing? Why is it still more natural to go offshore when you need some expert help in a given area? No doubt we have the capacity, we have the intellectual capital, we have the thinkers, we have the experience (it is our context after all?). What is it then?
There may be contributing factors- time, money, experience, less of a writing culture and the realities of living in a third world as opposed to a first world country. But I suspect the underlying factor has more to do with us and less to do with circumstances. Fear! It sings it’s poisonous song within my heart every time I boldly clatter a few keys on my keyboard. Fear of failure, fear of not being good enough, fear of being wrong…
It is always easier never to try than to try and fail. It is always easier to read other’s more accomplished works and to repeat their thinking than to actually engage in the rigorous discipline of your own writing and risking being wrong or not good enough.
The answer to these fears cannot be a call to pluck up some courage or find some greater sense of self-belief (we see you Oprah!). Underlying these fears are a more fundamental story, a more fundamental theological error that goes to the heart rather than the symptoms of failure.
We have allowed our identity to be shaped in this issue not by the gospel but rather by an alternate story. It is a story in which our identity is shaped by success or approval or being right. Our story might go something like this:
CREATION: I am meant to be successful in life
FALL: I am not sure I can be successful. I fear failure.
REDEMPTION: I will minimize my risk of failure by limiting my activities to things I have a reasonable confidence in my ability to achieve at least partial success. I feel good about myself and appear to be successful. (Therefore it is easier to talk about other’s writing than to risk failure through my own writing)
CONSUMMATION: If I avoid being a failure perhaps I will have been a success.
CREATION: I am meant to be loved and accepted.
FALL: I do not always feel accepted
REDEMPTION: I seek people’s approval and stay away from activities that could bring disapproval (if I write people may not like it or worse, disagree with it, then I would not be accepted)
CONSUMMATION: I hope that I will be approved by what I do.
The solution to these alternate gospels is as with most things to replace it with the better and truer Story. An identity that is rooted in the Gospel Story liberates us to write, sing, dance, plant churches or climb mountains. A gospel believing writer’s story might go something like this:
CREATION: I am meant to create, reflect on and shape God’s world for His glory
FALL: I use this God-given task to redefine my value and measure my worth to others in the light of my success or lack of it.
REDEMPTION: I am loved and accepted because of what Christ has done on my behalf already. My performance cannot change that. Christ has completed the work on my behalf; it has been declared an overwhelming success. In Him and because of his work, I am already a success.
CONSUMMATION: I find lasting approval in Jesus the one who loved me when I was still a sinner. I can rest in Jesus finished work on my behalf. I am free to create without the pressure of approval or failure.
When our identity is rooted in Christ we are set free to be wrong, to write badly or to not be liked. When we know that we are a beloved child of the most High God we are set free to create, to write, to inspire, to challenge and to risk. When we are justified in Christ we no longer have to prove ourselves through our theological correctness or our inspiring prose. We no longer have to be novel, interesting or readable in order to be successful.
Our writing probably will not be as good as our first-world counterparts but why should we expect it to be? They have been doing it for far longer than we have. They have a culture of writing, mediating, critiquing, improving and encouraging. Not to mention the obvious benefits of time and resources that financial stability and dedicated academic institutions bring. But we do not have to be like them or as good as them. We may get there, we may even surpass them one day but unless we learn to rest in our gospel identity we will forever be relegated to those whose greatest contribution will be to consume and criticise.
Not only does the gospel free us to not be as good as them but it also frees us to not be like them. The church does not need us to support a ravenous publishing industry by producing more of the same, simply with more exotic author names. No, we need to write as the church in South Africa. Our theological reflections must be coloured by our context. Our questions, our issues, our struggles as well as our strengths, our insights and our victories are all different to those of our brothers and sisters in the west. What the church worldwide needs is not window dressed publishing but it needs us to be the church and to reflect and write as the church in the context in which God has put us.
We have to write with our weaknesses, our insights, our blind spots and our questions. We may be rejected, derided or misunderstood but we can write boldly, prophetically and faithfully knowing that we rest in our gospel identity. The church does not need another western publishing industry the church needs us. We write not to be contentious or to make a name for ourselves, we write to serve the church, to love our brothers and ultimately for the glory and fame of Jesus.