Jonthan Bonk - "Missions and Money"
8:09PM Jun 25, 2020
Jonathan J. Armstrong
It's our delight today to be speaking with Dr. Jonathan Bonk. Dr. Jonathan Bonk is Executive Director Emeritus of the overseas ministries Studies Center in New Haven, Connecticut. Dr. bonk is also research professor of mission at Boston University, where he directs the dictionary of African Christian biography, a unique internet based reference tool for writing a history of Christianity in Africa. Dr. Bonk is also the author of Missions and Money: Affluence as a Missionary Problem, a book that we'll be discussing today. Dr. Bonk, thank you so much for being with us today.
I'm delighted to be here.
Dr. bonk as we begin, in 1995, you started and created the dictionary of African Christian biography became the project's founding editor. What is the dictionary of African Christian biography please?
This is going to sound a little bit academic, but I'll unpack it.
It's a non proprietary memory base designed to make accessible the stories of Africans who are key to the founding and to the dynamics of the church in Africa. As you know, Africa is the most religious continent in the world. Africa is also has more Christians than any other continent in the world with maybe 450 to 453 million Christians in Africa. Unfortunately, the story of the church in Africa is is not told very well. So the dictionary was designed to create a member base to which historians and church leaders and African pastors and so on can have free access. That's why it's not proprietary. It's not an information Tollway it's an information highway. And then they can begin to use this material in their sermons in their histories and so on. Hmm.
And, Dr. Buck, this is a very unusual or unique idea. How is it that you came upon this idea to create this resource?
I think it evolved naturally out of my background. I grew up in Ethiopia, my mother and father were missionaries with si M. And I noticed as I became older, a discrepancy between the African church histories that I was reading and what I had actually observed with my own eyes, I observed that most western missionaries are very good people. But to a large extent, they're fairly ineffective when it comes to actual incarnational evangelism. And without incarnation, you really don't have evangelism. You have words, you have information, but you don't have a capacity to imitate the people who are saying the words because they're living Being a lifestyle that is so extraordinarily different from your own, that there's just no way to aspire to it, let alone live it. And so I noticed that without evangelists or what Lutherans and Catholics called catechists, nothing happens. missionaries do good things in medicine, good things in building, they can build mission stations, schools, and so on. They're very good at institution building, but they're not very good at so called church planting, except in maybe urban areas where people have a degree of sophistication. But the evangelists and the catechists actually connect at the grassroots level. They live lives that are not so extraordinarily different as to be inadmissible, they can be imitated, they can be copied, and as human beings, we're social creatures. Essentially what that means is we have to copy the people around us otherwise we don't even know who we are. We don't have names. We don't have language. We don't have a status role. It has to be copyable Which is why of course God sent Jesus so that we could see how we should live. And we're not just seeing what God is like, but we're seeing how God on earth lives so that we too, can live in that way because of course, we're, we're God's sons and daughters, and we're the brothers and sisters of Jesus Christ. So incarnation becomes very, very important. And the stories then, of the key players within African church history is absolutely vital. A people who don't retain a memory of themselves quickly disintegrates. Because identity is a basis is derived from shared memory. And that's why we spend a lot of time in education. That's why we spend a lot of time on historical knowledge. That's why nation states are interested in making sure that we have a common core of memory. And so for the church, of course, it's all memory. The Bible is memory. And it's memory that projects into the future. So it's absolutely critical for the survival of the church in Africa that it retain a memory of itself, not a memory, just a foreigners that have memory itself. And that's what it's all about.
Dr. Bach, the dictionary of African Christian biography is genuinely unique. How did you come to this idea? Was there a single aha moment?
No, there was no single aha moment. But there was an opportunity. Pew, offered a series of grants over a period of five years called the research enablement program. And younger scholars such as myself, were encouraged to apply for these grants. So I had this nagging question what can be done about the absence of African content and African church histories? So I invited a few people I applied for grants of $5,000 planning grants. And I was successful. And then I asked whether I could have 10,000 instead of five. So I could bring some Africans to it, that I asked if I get a 15 instead of 10, so I can bring Africans to. So we got this $15,000 grant, to gather a group of people together in New Haven, Connecticut. I was living in Winnipeg at the time. But we convened in August of that year. This is 20 years ago. Now it's the 20th anniversary of the dictionary. And we talked about the problem, as I've expressed it here, of lack of contents, in both African church histories in generally in church histories from the south, because the people don't record their own histories, the histories that are available our histories, written by people like ourselves, who have a long tradition of writing journals of writing letters of doing reports and so on, for our employers and so on. And then these things end up in archives In the various universities and seminaries, and then when scholars are studying, they go to those archives and utilize those, but they don't have any African content. So we discussed for three days what should be done. So Professor Andrew Wallace was there, Professor Levin Sahni was there. Joseph ganders, Catholic scholar was there quality video alko was there and so on. And the upshot was that we should create a digital kind of database and that I should be responsible to do this. So I was left holding the bag at the end of this conference, I really didn't know what to do. I hardly knew what a computer was. I think I was still using an Osborn computer. An old CPM system. Yes. And I didn't really know anything about databases, spreadsheets even or anything like that. But we began to go, my son created the first website. We didn't have any money. So I used soft called home site because I could get it for $82. And it was much cheaper than Dreamweaver. And so we learned HTML and we and we constructed a cache kind of information grids. Yeah. And then we began to record stories. So we looked here, there, and so on, so forth. So that's how it began in 1995. And it just evolved from there. The first the first person to intern to so my son is a professor of Chinese here in western. But he he designed the first out of it, the first website, in our basements at 87. Northwest or in Jesse Avenue. And then when we moved to New Haven, we took it with us and and it became part of the OMC when I became the director. And of course, we were able to raise some money for it and get going and then I hired a part time assistant, who became full time And she became the project manager. And she now has a PhD student at Boston University. And she continues to manage the project part time at Boston University while she finishes her PhD, and I have graduate systems working with me there, who was an advisory council in Africa.
Dr. bonk, would you be willing to describe some of your favorite features of the dictionary of African Christian biography?
Sure, I'd be glad to do that.
I would advise anyone listening to this to go directly to the website and browse it and look at it. But essentially, when you look at the website at the home site, you'll what comes up are a series of panels. And on the right hand side of your screen, you're going to see a map of Africa. This is a colonial map of Africa. You have to remember that the that the boundaries that we see on the maps that we use today were drawn, essentially in Berlin in 1884, when there was a conference of the Europeans who divvied up Africa among themselves, so The Germans called the conference, the Belgians are there, the British were there, the French were there, the Italians were there. And they divided up the entire continent among themselves and drew the boundaries that today exists. So we have to go with that. Although on the website, we also have ancient Africa because the church in Africa began in the very first century. And so of course, we have a lot of contents on the centuries 12345 when most of the intellectual work that you and I now think of as the essence of Christianity, August didn't so and these are all African scholars, North Africa, so we include all of those. But back to the map. If you go to that map, and you click on that, it'll enlarge and then you can click on any country and you'll see a grids you have stories that are available from that country. There's Catholic stories, Protestant stories, orthodox stories and independent stories and each country has various numbers of These stories. That's a very interesting feature because you can click, you can download, you can print and so on. It's absolutely free. The second thing I like is that a lot of people are interested in women, what's the role of women in the church and Africans. So you can go if you if you look at the drop down menu at the top, you'll see there's a special one that's for women. And so you can click on that, and maybe we have 300 stories of key African women and some of these people have remarkable stories. If you go to the Cameroon for example, you find Liddy among willing one who lanky, who is a concubine of a paramount chief, she happened to be a Christian. And she was in the eyes of the chief what she was one of 300 concubines, in the eyes of the chiefs. She was the most attractive or the most beautiful one, and he loved to see her dance. And so to make a long story short, through this Christian concubine of pagan Chief, you have a whole people movements in Cameroon and a very, very strong Church in the Cameroon. Or if you go to the Ethiopian website and click on maps, you can get some remarkable stories of women who were absolutely critical to the status church. And we're just missing in all the western stories because the western stories deal with archival material in the West. So I like those features, you can also get.
There's other features on the website that are useful. If you want to know how to do URL history. You can look at tools, and you can get manuals on creating church archives are free of charge. They're in, in I think, our manuals are in seven or eight languages that we've had them called rescuing the memory of our people translated into Portuguese into French into Swahili into Korean into Chinese, and so on. So it's used all over the world, not just in Africa, because we do have projects that have imitated us. I think we've got Seven not ever work that I have actually and the most recent one is in Latin America, just this year in Peru, I was called to, to speak to the issue. So if you go to memoria in digital, you'll find that indigenous people in Latin America are extremely interested in preserving their memories somehow, because they face like the kind of crisis of survival that most indigenous people in most parts of the world do. And so they've taken the dictionary as a model that can help them to create the memory, the shared memory that will allow them to survive.
So I like some of those features. Yeah,
sort of. There's a lot on the website. It's packed with with with information, and the drop down menus makes
it very easy to use. That's marvelous. Thank you, Dr. Bach for that response. Dr. Bach, if I can mention something that a friend of yours has written Dr. Wilbert, shank, a professor emeritus at fuller Theological Seminary. He writes in his book enlarging the story perspectives on writing world Christianity, he writes this, the goal of global historiography must be to allow all voices to be heard. Even with an innovative projects like the dictionary of African Christian biography, how do we achieve that goal? How do we allow all voices to be heard in telling the story of Christianity?
Well, I think in a way,
the way the question is framed suggests that it's a goal that can be achieved, when I think it's an ideal to be striven after constantly because history is never finished. So it's ongoing, so there's always fresh memories. Memory is always selective. And the important thing to me is that history records the memories in ways that the people Who are being remembered, recognize and acknowledge it dignifies them. It honors them. It's the way they see themselves represented. It's not somebody else's memory of them. It's their memory, and they recognize themselves when they hear it. And generally speaking, the marginalized people don't have the luxury of that, if I can use an analogy. There's the story of drunkards, who is drunk himself silly in a bar, and at two o'clock in the morning, the bar closes, he staggers out in the back alley. And he promptly loses his keys and he's trying to find his keys, but jet black, he can't find them. So what does he do? He Gets a bright idea when he sees a light across the street and he crosses over there where there's a lot better light and he pulls random his hands and knees and looks for the keys, because the light is better there. And when the policeman asked him what he's doing, he says, Well, I'm looking for my keys when the policeman says Well, did you lose your keys here? He says, No, I lost them in the back alley, but the light is bad there. So I'm looking here. And of course, the point being that we have the analog in history, when we use Western archives to write the story of the African church. We're looking from the wrong place. The keys weren't lost them. The keys are in Africa, but it's difficult, it's expensive, it takes a lot of resourcefulness to actually look in Africa, where a lot of the history is oral, a lot of it's being forgotten, because within two or three generations of modern education, the memory is gone. It's been replaced by Western memory, the memory that is important in western civilization. So it takes hard work. So that's what we tried to do in this is in a very modest way to make sure that this memory is retained, that it is accessible, that historians who write the history can have access to memory which otherwise is forgotten. That's not available in western archives of the big universities.
Dr. bunk in your Book missions and money. You you address a number of problems that come about between missionary communities and indigenous Christian communities because of this cultural conflict, and specifically the cultural conflict that has has to do with money concerning the writing of history. What does missionary affluence mean for the attempt to write history, specifically in the context of Africa?
Well, those of us who have resources have the luxury of resourcefulness. We can travel, we can visit libraries, we actually know how to read. We can actually use computers, we can use web browsing, we can do all this kind of stuff. People who are poor don't have access to any of this stuff. And that's why I'm very disappointed when journals such as Missy ology or mission studies, and more recently the international bulletin which I which I was editor for 16 years have moved away from from becoming non proprietary to becoming proprietary, which means that we excludes these insights, we exclude the poor, who are the majority church from these insights. And so in a way, as what privileged Western people, we become an echo chamber, we're just hearing ourselves. And so in a way, the voice becomes less and less meaningful, it becomes more and more hollow, because it actually doesn't reflect the reality on the ground. And so I am very much for open source, to make sure that the people who can least afford it but who are on the cutting edge of the church, have access to this material and can resonate with it and correct some of our mistaken impressions. And that the the journals are not simply an academic exercise for those of us who have the privilege of higher education, and who, you know, who have libraries and who have of logistics and so on and so forth, because the church is surging, not him knows areas, but in the heartland of the poor, and the so called under development, underdeveloped parts of the world.
Dr. bonk, what are the church history research projects that you would like to see developed in the future?
Well, I think some of them are being developed right now. But I'll mention some that to my way of thinking are not fully developed. I don't think there have been proper histories of let's say African denominations now speak to African because that's really what I'm interested in right now. In Africa, you have an estimated 12,000, maybe 12,400 denominations, nobody quite knows. These are denominations that are beyond let's say, the categories that that have evolved in the West. You know, the various Catholic the various Protestant, various evangelical, the various Pentecostal donations, these these are the African initiate Churches, we really have no history of discreet denominations. And so one of the things that
we're pushing for over the next five years
is to perhaps write the stories of about 1000 of these denominations and cross reference them with the stories, the biographies in the dictionary of African crystallography think there's a lot of work that needs to be done there. So that we have a kind of map of the church in Africa. The first one to try to begin to do this was David Barrett in his book, Shazam and renewal. And of course, Shazam, and renewal eventually turns into the world Christian encyclopedia. And it's come out in two editions now. And of course, Todd Johnson is working on a third edition of that. But it all started with David Barrett's recognition that there were hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of denominations in Africa that were totally off the western radar, they simply didn't register anywhere. There's no way to register. So I'd love to see students do that. I would love to see them do biography because all history is ultimately biography. Without people, you have no history. And so it's people who live the histories. It's people who practice their faith within the context of their own countries or tribes story. And so their stories are very vital. Their their stories connect you to lots of things, to church to country, to civil society, to social customs, and so on and so forth. Just by telling the story of one person or a family, you actually connect in lots of ways to the, to the memory, so I'd love to see that happen a lot more. I would love to see the kind of thing that I mentioned earlier
that I was participating in in Peru.
memoria indigenous, were indigenous people from 13 countries. These are all indigenous Christian leaders who noticed that although there's a tremendous amount of
material available on
the lives of the missionaries or admission societies that have come to their locations with the gospel or with teaching, there's nothing on the indigenous people themselves. And so they have to, they have to create a way of remembering their own traditions, their own story, the story of the church through their eyes. And I would like to see that become part of the larger story.
Dr. bonk if I can close with a question that we've been asking all of the speakers on this interview program, and that is this. What would it mean for the church to be united today? How would we recognize this unity and how should we pray? pursue this unity? Well,
I would say that we're looking in the wrong place for unity.
I think we're looking for doctrinal unity, but much of our faith is speculative. The Bible is a very untidy book. It doesn't lend itself easily to a consensus
of opinion on what
God is like when salvation is about, on when the Lord is going to return and so on and so forth. It's because the people who wrote it, didn't write it, understanding that someday, all of the writers who put in a single book would have to be some kind of a system that came out of the book, and we would have to agree on the system. So I would say that the biblical humanism or biblical unity comes out of outcomes the outcomes of face.
We can share a lot of
outcome similarities with people whose Specific belief systems are quite different. I think when Jesus came to earth, and you and your students will be familiar, of course with the Nazareth Manifesto, when he explained this is what the good news is, you know as to it sounds like a social gospel, but essentially, it's for the poor. It's the people who are marginalized. And then when it comes close to the end of his ministry, he's he knows he's going to die. And he gives a kind of judgment scenario, he said, I'm going to separate sheep and goats. And I'm going to do so on the basis of these questions. And this is what I'm looking for. Did your faith produce this kind of outcome? So he said, essentially, did you help widows? Did you help prisoners? Did you help the poor, the orphans and so on? If it's Yes, you're a sheep if no, doesn't matter what your belief system was. It's essentially useless. And when you get to the book of Revelation, and look The seven churches and chapters two and three of Revelation, there's only one church that has such a fatal problem, that it's almost impossible to conceive that,
you know, big redeemable,
that's the lay of the scene in church. And what's the problem? Jesus is outside the door. He's not even in the church. He's outside. How does Jesus get in the church? Jesus gets in the church through the poor, through the marginalize through the widows. If those people aren't there, Jesus is simply not there. So I think that we need to focus a lot more on on
outcomes, and hold the hold the other in humility,
realize that this is a perspective, we hold it with as much integrity as we can. On the other hand, we look for fruits, so we don't judge a tree by the label that somebody pinned down the bark,
but by the fruit that we see growing from the tree,
and I think that way, we can be united in lots of ways because We have shared impulses we have shared kind of ethical imperatives, that whether you're orthodox or Catholic or Pentecostal or or Evangelical Lutheran, I happen to be a Mennonite. These are the things that we can acknowledge that's good fruits. That's really good fruit. That's why even as Protestants, we really like the new pope. Because we realize, yeah, that's right. That's I recognize Jesus there. You know, it's not some hopping puffing success gospel guy is trying to manipulate people in to give them some money. We know that that's not Jesus. That's something else. But he's someone that's engaged in a humble way with the people that Jesus cared for the kinds of people that Jesus associated with the kinds of people that Jesus kind of sometimes interrupted his own agenda because the gospel is a response to other people's agendas. That's why when I would have my students, when I was teaching at Yale, I would have my students take the Gospels, remove all of the interruptions in the life of Jesus, and then bring back to class what's left? There's almost nothing left. So then we do a comparison, well, how does this? How does this compare to how we do ministry, to how we proclaim the gospel? So Jesus would walk around and he was constantly interrupted because he was on foot. He didn't have a motorcade with tinted glass and a chauffeur keep the doors locked.
But he was interruptible. And people, people would stop him. And Jesus didn't say,
he didn't say here's what I'm going to do for you. He said, What do you want me to do for you? People say I want to see, want to hear. I want my leprosy to be cured. I'd like to walk. I'd like my child. Me. Jesus respected the deep desires of ordinary folks. And I think that's our agenda to be servants of the servants. And that's why I get back to the question you asked,
what does it take to be unity? I think we have quite a bit of unity already.
Once we get past the doctrine and look at the outcomes. If
you look at the even the ancient Syrian church in Syria, one of the oldest churches, we have very little in common with them in terms of, let's say, church, church policy, and so on. But they're the ones that do the social work in Damascus. They're the ones that take care of the poor. They're the ones that take care of the widows. Haha. So we see Yeah, we have we're in the same family. And I think if we focus on that we can do a lot.
It's been our pleasure today to be speaking with Dr. Jonathan bonk, Executive Director Emeritus of the overseas ministry Study Center in New Haven, Connecticut, and also author of missions and money. Influence as a missionary problem. Dr. Bach, thank you so much for being with us.
Thank you, Jonathan. Nice to meet you and God bless you.