John Mbiti, a pioneer of both
modern African theology and the study of religion in Anglophone Africa has died
at the age of 88.
Mbiti was part of the pan-African
intellectual movement that influenced nationalist discourse as African
countries gained independence from colonial rule. His books, like African Religion and Philosophy (1969), New Testament Eschatology in an African Background (1971), Introduction of African Religion (1975)
and Bible and Theology (1986), became
best sellers. Mbiti critiqued the international disregard for African religion
and demonstrated the religious literacy of Africans. In his cross-continental
surveys and his classifications of proverbs and religious practice, Mbiti
identified a praeparatio evangelica of Christianity in the African past, with a universal deity at its
centre. For Mbiti the mingling of
Christianity and indigenous religion enriched the lives of African people. He
was not without his critics. Okot p’Bitek, his colleague at Makerere
University, Kampala, Uganda in the 1960s, railed against the making of African
spiritual beings into a God with Christian attributes. For Bitek this
diminished and destroyed indigenous practices. In later life, Mbiti continued to work from
his home in Switzerland – translating the NT from Greek into his native Kikamba
(Kenya). This project allowed him to reflect further on the intrusion of
western concepts into biblical translations. His thought continues to have a
profound influence on the work of African scholars and church leaders.
Why did you want to produce this study on the True Jesus Church?
I first encountered the True Jesus Church in China when a woman struck up a conversation with my husband and my baby son on a bus in a city. She invited him to church that evening. At the time we were attending a local Three-Self congregation, so he asked, “Is it a Three-Self church meeting?” She said no. So he asked, “Is it a house church meeting?” She said no. I was intrigued to hear about this church that defied the categories I had in my mind for Chinese Christianity. I went to the meeting place in a sort of commercial building and found that it was in fact a True Jesus Church. I had previously encountered the True Jesus Church in Taiwan but was surprised to find them here, in the PRC. In addition to being intrigued by the True Jesus Church’s out-of-the-box identity, I also wanted to investigate the relationship between native religious culture and transplanted Christian culture within the church. It struck me as extremely Chinese, but also very like other global forms of restorationist Christianity such as Mormonism.
Viewers of the BBC’s Scots in China with Neil Oliver were treated to a few images from the CSWC’s archives. The images show Scottish medical missionary Dugald Christie, Chinese medical assistants, and some unidentified workers wearing masks to protect them from the plague. Christie was born in Glencoe in 1855, studied medicine in Edinburgh, and went to China in 1882. A series of lantern slides on Christie’s life, including his three decades of missionary service in China, were acquired by the CSWC and included with other collections on the International Mission Photography Archive (IMPA). Producers from Matchlight, which produced Scots in China, found the images on IMPA and contacted our archivist, Kirsty Stewart. Always helpful, she was happy to provide them with the information they needed. They were used in a segment highlighting the work of the Scottish Churches’ China Group and the legacy of Scottish medical missionaries in China.