One of the things my friend Mia have in common is we both spent part of our adolescence in Kenya. She sent me a link today to the NPR program, Speaking of Faith with Katrina Tippet, which was new to me because it doesn’t play on our local station. This week’s program revisits an interview Tippet did with Jaroslav Pelikan, who died in 2006 and was an amazing church historian. She was talking to him about the role creeds have played and still play in Christianity.
The part that caught Mia’s ear, and that she passed on to me, had to do with the Maasai Creed, written by and for one of Kenya’s tribes. Here’s an excerpt from the interview:
Ms. Tippett: This is giving me a lovely and exalted way to think about a remark you make in your book, that one thing that someone who studies all these creeds, as you’ve done, is struck by is the sheer repetitiveness of them. Right?
Dr. Pelikan: You should try to proofread them all in the course of a few weeks, as we did, and then you discover just how — you wonder, didn’t I just read this one yesterday?
Ms. Tippett: No, and it — but it’s so interesting because I think that where someone goes when they hear that there are these thousands of creeds is that everybody’s doing it differently all the time, and that’s not really what you find. But I did want to dwell briefly on one that I sense is near and dear to your heart, which is this Maasai Creed…would you like to read some of your favorite?
Dr. Pelikan: Like most creeds, it is designed on a threefold pattern of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit and comes out of the experience of Christians in Africa who were animists, fetishists who worshiped things in nature and the mystery of life and who then, upon receiving the Christian faith, began reciting the creeds as they had been taught, in this case by Roman Catholic missionaries, in other cases by Evangelical or Orthodox missionaries. But after a couple of generations of that, a Christian community gradually comes of age, achieves a level of maturation where you want to do it for yourself, do it your way, speaking in your context, using the images of your culture. And the question is can you do that without sacrificing the integrity of what you have received? It’s easy just to repeat, but then it’s not your own. It’s easy to say what is your own as though nobody had ever said it before, but then the question is whether it’s authentically Christian. And I think this manages to do both of those in a remarkable way.
Dr. Pelikan: “We believe in one high God, who out of love created the beautiful world. We believe that God made good His promise by sending His Son, Jesus Christ, a man in the flesh, a Jew by tribe, born poor in a little village, who left His home and was always on safari doing good, curing people by the power of God, teaching about God and [humanity], and showing that the meaning of religion is love. He was rejected by His people, tortured and nailed hands and feet to a cross, and died. He was buried in the grave, but the hyenas did not touch Him, and on the third day He rose from the grave. He ascended to the skies. He is the Lord.
We believe that all our sins are forgiven through him. All who have faith in him must be sorry for their sins, be baptized in the Holy Spirit of God, live the rules of love, and share the bread together in love, to announce the good news to others until Jesus comes again. We are waiting for him. He is alive. He lives. This we believe. Amen.”
Dr. Pelikan: Now for one thing, the Nicene Creed as well as the Apostles’ Creed go directly from born of the Virgin Mary to suffered under Pontius Pilate. And the whole story in the Gospels…
Ms. Tippett: The life of Christ.
Dr. Pelikan: …yeah, is just leapt over.
Ms. Tippett: And that’s what a lot of modern people have criticized in the creeds.
Dr. Pelikan: You go from Alpha to Omega. And here, see, He was born, as the creed said, He left His home — the creeds don’t say that — and He was always on safari in Africa. When I read that the first time, a student of mine who’d been a member of a religious order, she was a sister, and she had been in a hospital in east Nigeria, and that’s the creed they recited at their liturgy. And so she brought it to me, and I just got shivers, just the thought, you know, the hyenas did not touch Him and the act of defiance — God lives even in spite of the hyenas. But it’s a good example of this model that I quoted earlier, that it is not enough to Christianize Africa. We have to Africanize Christianity.
Some time ago, I read an article online, whose link I can’t find now, making the case for the church to adopt the “Starbucks model” in relating to nonchurch folks. The author, a pastor as I remember, talked about how Starbucks has made us learn to ask for tall, grande, and venti sized drinks instead of small, medium, and large, and to learn all the espresso lingo as well. We’ve had to become initiated to be able to drink their coffee. The church, he said, should do the same with those who visit or come to see what is going on. Make them learn our language, our traditions, our way of doing things rather than trying to put what the church does in their terms.
When the Maasai speak of Jesus always being on safari doing good – always traveling – all I could think of was the sense of connection those nomadic people must of felt with him. He traveled all his life just as they did; he knew what it was like to be them. And when he died, the hyenas – the filthiest scavengers on the African landscape – didn’t touch him. I love the imagery.
When we were in Greece a couple of years ago, we arrived on the Saturday before Orthodox Easter and walked down from our hotel in Athens to the vigil that turned into celebration at midnight. One of the men at the hotel taught the Greek Easter greeting Ginger and me.
One person says, “Christos anisti.”
The other responds, “Alethos anisti.”
(I think I transliterated it correctly.) He then translated:
“The first person says, ‘Christ is risen,’ and the second person says, ‘He really did it.’”
As we wait for the Resurrection, may we tell the story in words we all understand.