Tag Archives: Vincent Donovan

Christianity Rediscovered, an Epilogue

In an endnote to Doing Theology with the Maasai, Doug Priest gives a succinct summary and something of an epilogue to Christianity Rediscovered: “Vincent Donovan’s book (1978) provides some of the first evidence of this new openness of the traditional Maasai to the Gospel. His work was located in northern Tanzania. Donovan wished to approach the Maasai in their homesteads without resorting to the more common approach followed by most missions. That approach was identified in the minds of the Maasai with primary schools, clinics and mission stations. Donovan went to the homesteads where he presented the Gospel over a year’s time. He then asked for a verdict, baptized those who wished to become Christian and then moved on to different homesteads. While his approach was commendable, in personal visits in the area several years after he left, I was saddened to learn that most all of the new believers had not continued in relation to the church due to lack of continued teaching.”[1]

[1] Doug Priest Jr., Doing Theology with the Maasai (Pasadena, CA: William Carey Library, 1990), 13n.

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Christian, What Do You Believe? An African Creed

At the very end of Christianity Rediscovered, Vincent Donovan records the following creed, presumably an English translation: “We believe in the one High God, who out of love created the beautiful world and everything good in it. He created man and wanted man to be happy in the world. God loves the world and every nation and tribe on earth. We have known this High God in the darkness, and now we know him in the light. God promised in the book of his word, the bible, that he would save the world and all the nations and tribes.

“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 man, 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 lay 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”[1]

[1] Vincent J. Donovan, Christianity Rediscovered: An Epistle from the Masai, 3rd ed (London: SMC Press, 2001), 163.

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Vincent Donovan on Mission

After starting from scratch in his attempt to bring the gospel to the Masai, Vincent Donovan arrived at the following understanding of what it means to be a missionary: “A missionary is a social martyr, cut off from his roots, his stock, his blood, his land, his background, his culture. He is destined to walk forever a stranger in a strange land. He must be stripped as naked as a human being can be, down to the texture of his being. St. Paul said Christ did not think being God was something to be clung to, but emptied himself taking the form of a slave. He was stripped to the fiber of his being, to the innermost part of his spirit. That is the truest meaning of poverty of spirit. This poverty of spirit is what is called for in a missionary, demanding that he divest himself of his very culture, so that he can be a naked instrument of the gospel to the cultures of the world.”[1]

Being a missionary would seem to be a rather lonely task of continuous self-emptying, yet for Donovan it is primarily the task of a community: “I believe that missionary work is that work undertaken by a gospel oriented community, of transcultural vision, with a special mandate, charism, and responsibility for spreading and carrying that gospel to the nations of the world, with a view of establishing the church of Christ.”[2]

[1] Vincent J. Donovan, Christianity Rediscovered: An Epistle from the Masai, 3rd ed (London: SMC Press, 2001), 158.

[2] Ibid.

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What Is True Faith? A Masai Answer

Ever wondered how a Masai might answer Q & A 21 of the Heidelberg Catechism? Here is the wonderful answer that Vincent Donovan was blessed to hear: “I was sitting talking with a Masai elder about the agony of belief and unbelief. He used two languages to respond to me – his own and Kiswahili. He pointed out that the word my Masai catechist, Paul, and I had used to convey faith was not a very satisfactory word in their language. It meant literally ‘to agree to.’ I, myself, knew the word had that shortcoming. He said ‘to believe’ like that was similar to a white hunter shooting an animal with his gun from a great distance. Only his eyes and his fingers took part in the act. We should find another word. He said for a man really to believe is like a lion going after its prey. His nose and eyes and ears pick up the prey. His legs give him the speed to catch it. All the power of his body is involved in the terrible death leap and single blow to the neck with the front paws, the blow that actually kills. And as the animal goes down, the lion envelops it in his arms (Africans refer to the front legs of an animal as its arms) pulls it to himself, and makes it part of himself. This is the way a lion kills. This is the way a man believes. This is what faith is.

“I looked at the elder in silence and amazement. Faith understood like that would explain why, when my own was gone, I ached in every fiber of my being. But my wise old teacher was not finished yet.

“‘We did not search you out, Padri,’ he said to me. ‘We did not even want you to come to us. You searched us out. You followed us away from your house into the bush, into the plains, into the steppes where our cattle are, into the hills where we take our cattle for water, into our villages, into our homes. You told us of the High God, how we must search for him, even leave our land and our people to find him. But we have not done this. We have not left our land. We have not searched for him. He has searched for us. He has searched us out and found us. All the time we think we are the lion. In the end, the lion is God.’”[1]

[1] Vincent J. Donovan, Christianity Rediscovered: An Epistle from the Masai, 3rd ed (London: SMC Press, 2001), 51.

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The Dark Quiet Teatime of Mission

Vincent Donovan gives a sobering account of Roman Catholic missionary work in East Africa. When the missionaries first arrived, the big problem was slavery. The missionaries’ approach was to buy as many slaves as they could in the hope of christianising them. The result? A miserable failure and a distortion of mission that would cast a shadow over missionary work in East Africa for years to come.

The next missionary method was the school system. As Donovan writes, “The basic premise underlying all of this was that if children entered a mission school, they would not emerge from that school without being Christians. And the premise was essentially correct.”[1] In fact, Rome was so sure of this method that “In 1928, Monsignor Hinsley, Apostolic Visitor to East Africa, told a gathering of bishops in Dar es Salaam: ‘Where it is impossible for you to carry on both the immediate task of evangelization and your educational work, neglect your churches in order to perfect your schools.'”[2] The result? Education on an enormous scale but a weak, disorientated church that could hardly stand on her own two feet.

Independence came as a shock to the system. The African leaders of newly independent nations were quick to direct missionary efforts at nation building. In the postcolonial context the propagation of the faith was set aside and a new definition of missionary work emerged: “aid to developing countries, material help to these countries without any strings attached.”[3]

As Donovan concludes, “There is no mistaking the fact that missionary work is in a shambles. Born in slavery, disorientated by the school system, startled by independence, and smothered in nation building – mission in East Africa has never had the chance to be true to itself.”[4] Small wonder, then, that he felt the need to start from scratch in his attempt to bring the gospel to the Masai.

[1] Vincent J. Donovan, Christianity Rediscovered: An Epistle from the Masai, 3rd ed (London: SMC Press, 2001), 6.

[2] Ibid., 7.

[3] Ibid., 10.

[4] Ibid., 11.

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Vincent Donovan on Intercultural Theology

Vincent Donovan highlights the important shift from missiology to intercultural theology in his preface to the second edition of Christianity Rediscovered: “Mission is not a one-way street moving away from the home church to the foreign mission field. The new, the young, and the particular churches of the Third World, spoken of by Vatican II, have something to say, in turn, to the church at large.”[1] Yet, in Donovan’s view, it is clear that missiology is not simply to be replaced by intercultural theology (as is the case in much liberal Protestant thought). On the contrary, “The premise of this book is that every theology or theory must be based on previous missionary experience, and that any theory or theology which is not based on previous experience is empty words, of use to no one.”[2]

Nevertheless, as a deeply contextual theologian, Donovan is cautious about the possibility of intercultural theological dialogue: “[My] experience, lived out in the lonely pastoral setting of the Masai steppes of East Africa, is far removed from the spreading urban-technological society in which we live. Can the experience of one world be of any value to the other? I do not know. I can only say that the cry of hopelessness I heard then in that desert setting is not much different from the cry I hear today in the wasteland of our cities.”[3]

[1] Vincent J. Donovan, Christianity Rediscovered: An Epistle from the Masai, 3rd ed (London: SMC Press, 2001), xvii.

[2] Ibid., xx.

[3] Ibid.

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