Mortimer Planno, Bob Marley, and Rastafari Biblical Interpretation

In two previous blog posts I reported on the theology conference held at the Jamaica Theological Seminary in Kingston (where I did my formative theological studies many years ago) and the trip some of us took afterwards to two Rastafarian heritage sites.

One of our presenters at the theology conference, who was also on the trip, was a Canadian named Christopher Duncanson-Hales. As a Roman Catholic theologian, Duncanson-Hales may have seemed a bit out of place among a largely Protestant group; but he was very familiar with Jamaican culture, and especially with Rastafari.

From his initial visit to Jamaica as a teenager, when he arrived to work with Father Ho Lung’s ministry in Kingston (called the Missionaries of the Poor), he met up with Rastas and intentionally tried to understand their culture and doctrines.

Later, through an extended stay in Jamaica he was apprenticed to the respected Rastafarian elder Sydney DaSilva (president of the Rastafarian Centralization Organization). His many meetings with Ras DaSilva resulted in research notes that became the basis of his academic career focus on Rastafari.

Besides writing his B.A thesis and M.T.S. thesis on Rastafari, Duncanson-Hales addressed Rastafari in his Ph.D. thesis, entitled “The Full Has Never Been Told: Theology and the Encounter with Globalization” (2011, Saint Paul University, Ottawa, Canada).

After completing his Ph.D., he attended the Rastafari Studies Conference and General Assembly Rastafari, held at the University of the West Indies, in Kingston (2013), where he presented a paper entitled “Naming Jah: Who do InI say InI am?” More recently, his article called “Dread Hermeneutics” was published in the journal Black Theology (2017).

A New Research Project on Rastafari

Duncanson-Hales’s next research project is called Echoes of the Memories: A Hermeneutical Investigation of Rastafari Ethnographic Material in the Smithsonian’s Simpson/Yawney Archives. This project will examine the notes of two important ethnographers, who had significant access to Rastafari “reasoning” sessions, with a view to incorporating their analysis into his own study of Rastafari “productive hermeneutics,” that is, how Rastafarians engage the Bible and the world of oppression to produce an alternative symbolic world of hope, at both the oral and visual levels.

The study will also engage in careful analysis of Ras Mortimer Planno’s famous 1969 handwritten treatise, “The Earth Most Strangest Man: The Rastafarian,” which is the first written Rastafari theological statement, almost 200 pages long (also in the Smithsonian archives).

Mortimer Planno (also known as Kumi) was perhaps the most famous Rastafarian elder throughout the history of the movement. Besides being the spiritual teacher of Bob Marley (both lived in Trench Town), Planno is known for having parted the crowd of Rastas who were dancing and drumming on the tarmac at the Kingston airport, in order to make a path for His Imperial Majesty Haile Selassie I to exit the plane on his historic visit to Jamaica on April 21, 1966.

My father, Jack Middleton, being at the time the head of Special Branch (in the Jamaica Constabulary Force), was in charge of security for Selassie’s visit. Since he knew that Planno was a respected Rasta elder, he asked him to make a path for His Majesty through the crowd of celebrants who had gathered to greet him.

But first he brought Planno up the steps of the plane to meet Selassie in person. After that Planno proceeded to part the crowd of thousands of Rastas so that Selassie could deplane safely.

Ever since, April 21 has been celebrated as Groundation Day by Rastafarians.

My Involvement in the Rastafari Research Project

Duncanson-Hales’s Rastafari projected research project will also involve analysis of the lyrics of Bob Marley’s songs, as they intersect with the Bible and with Planno’s theology.

Although I am not a formal expert on Rastafari, I had many discussions with Rastas on the streets of New Kingston, when I was a teenager. And I have published an essay on the theological vision of the songs of Bob Marley and the Wailers (many of these songs have contributed to the texture of my own spirituality). Also, whereas Duncanson-Hales is a systematic and historical theologian, I am a biblical scholar by training, and can bring my expertise in Old Testament studies to bear on the project.

Therefore I will be lending my expertise as a collaborator on the overall project and as a co-author for selected parts of the study, especially for a book on Rastafari biblical interpretation that would be part of the overall project (Semeia Studies has indicated interest in publishing this).

We are only just in the brainstorming and planning phases for the idea. Given my own prior commitments to book projects, this particular study may be a bit more far off in the future.

We shall see how it develops, Jah willing.

 

 

 

 

 

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J. Todd Billings’s Critique of Tom Wright’s “New View of Heaven”

J. Todd Billings’s has a short article that recently appeared in Christianity Today called “The New View of Heaven Is Too Small.” In it Billings critiques what he calls “the new view of heaven,” citing both Tom Wright’s and my own writings on eschatology.

Billings is, first of all, appreciative of the new emphasis among evangelicals on the renewal of earthly creation as the eschatological hope (a view Tom Wright and I both espouse). But he thinks that Wright’s emphasis on our righteous “works” or “deeds” (in the sense of our cultural activity) enduring into the new creation is wrong-headed.

Instead, Billings thinks that Wright (and, by implication, Middleton) should focus instead on our worship and glorification of God as the true telos of the new creation.

Four Views on Heaven

Interestingly, I have just agreed to write a chapter in a new Zondervan book tentatively called Four Views on Heaven, in which one of the chapters would be precisely on the view that Billings advocates.

Whereas my chapter would focus on the new earth, arguing that we will engage in ordinary human activities (without sin), one chapter would develop the view of a new earth in which life will be focused on the worship of God. A third chapter would be on the classic Protestant view of a heavenly destiny discontinuous with earth, and a fourth would be on the traditional Catholic/Thomistic view of the beatific vision.

How to respond to Billings? First of all, it is important to say that I greatly respect Todd Billings for his theological contribution to the contemporary church. And I specifically affirm his point that the glorification of God is of supreme importance in a Christian vision (applicable to both life today and to the eschaton).

What Does It Mean to Glorify God?

The problem comes with what it means to glorify God. I take it that it is faithfulness to God (in all of life) that truly brings God glory. However, in popular parlance glorifying God often refers to verbal or hymnic exaltation of God. That is, it is basically identified with what we today call “worship.”

I have been involved in worship renewal, in this sense, for many years, and think this is an important part of the Christian life. Such worship and glorification of God (which can, however, involve supplication, confession, and lament; it does not have to all be “praise”) is crucial to the Christian life. Whether practiced in private devotion or in communal contexts, such worship focuses our allegiance to the true Lord of heaven and earth, which then spills over (or ought to spill over) into our daily walk of discipleship.

So “worship” is important; but not when it is separated from the rest of life. Indeed, Paul describes the transformation of the mind and our doing the will of God as true worship (Rom 12:1–2).

Ethics is Lived Eschatology

Billings actually makes good points in his critique of what I would consider some offhand comments Wright makes about the results of our work lasting into the new creation. Billings asks why some work would last into eternity (a Bach concerto, which Wright mentions) and not others (the work of a mechanic, for example). I agree that it certainly should not be based on whether the work consists of high art of merely a trade.

However, this does not lead me to dismiss the idea that we will be engaged in ordinary activities in the new creation. Indeed, I think we should take seriously Paul’s idea that while some of our works will be burned up in the judgment, some would be purified and withstand judgment into the age to come (1 Cor 3:12–15).

At the same time, I find that trying to know too many details about the afterlife presses eschatological language too far, since such language is largely metaphorical or symbolic and evokes that which currently lies beyond human experience. The primary point of such language is not to satisfy our curiosity about the world to come, but to motivate us in the present to be faithful to God in all that we do. As I have been saying of late, ethics is lived eschatology (A New Heaven and a New Earth, p. 24).

This implies that whatever is our  true telos or goal in the eschaton should also be the focus of our lives today. However, I can find no biblical warrant for the idea that worship (in the specific sense of private devotion or communal praise) should be the exclusive (or primary) focus of our lives today.

The Biblical Emphasis on Human Works or Deeds

Both the Old and New Testaments make the claim that allegiance to God must be expressed in obedience or deeds that stem from this allegiance; thus Jesus quotes the Shema (love the Lord your God) and pairs it with the injunction to love our neighbor as the two great commandments (Matt 22:34–40; Mark 12:28–34; Luke 10:25–28).

In the Old Testament, allegiance to God is not equivalent to worship and is not evidenced primarily by worship. Indeed, the Old Testament contains a powerful prophetic critique of what we would today call “worship” (sacrifices, sabbaths, fasting, prayer, sacred festivals) if this is not accompanied by justice and righteousness, which is what is really important (Isa 1:10–20; 58:1–14; Jer 7:1–15; Amos 5:1–25; Micah 6:1–8).

Jesus himself critiques actions typically regarded as expressing devotion or worship (such as tithing) as of less importance than justice, mercy, and faithfulness, which he calls “the weightier matters of the law” (Matt 23:23–24).

The Old Testament emphasis on faithfulness to the covenant as proof of allegiance to YHWH is matched by the New Testament claim that although we are saved by faith, we are judged by our works. This may be paradoxical, but it is a pervasive theme, showing up in Jesus’s parable of the sheep and the goats (Matt 25:31–46), in various statements by the apostle Paul (Rom 2:6–8; 2 Cor 5:10), and in the emphasis of James that faith without works is dead (James 2:14–26).

Both the Old and New Testaments (along with Second Temple Judaism) stress the importance of “works” or “deeds” (mitzvot) as the proof of faith or commitment to God.

A Theological Lens for Reading Scripture

Another way to get at what is going on in Billings’s article is to suggest his vision of the eschaton is filtered through a later theological lens.

Of course, we all read the Bible through a particular lens. The question is, which lens?

Billings’s lens seems to be that of Reformed theology, of a sort that tends to downplay human action in order to elevate God’s glory as the telos of human life.

I fully affirm the biblical emphasis on living our lives to the glory of God, but as a Kuyperian-Wesleyan I see no contradiction in principle between God’s glory and human action.

As a Kuyperian (in the tradition of Abraham Kuyper), I have been influenced by that branch of the Reformed tradition that emphasizes Christian involvement in cultural life to the glory of God. As a Wesleyan (in the tradition of John Wesley), I have been impressed by the need for human effort in the process of sanctification.

Here it might be helpful to note that Wesley was an Anglican—as is Tom Wright.

Even Paul, the chief proponent of justification by faith saw no contradiction between faith and good works, affirming that we are saved by faith yet created for good works (Eph 2:8–9), and enjoining us to work out our salvation with fear and trembling (Phil 2:12)—a motif that fits well with the Kuyperian emphasis on cultural action and the Wesleyan emphasis on sanctification.

So I fully affirm that the goal of life is (and will be, in the new creation) the glory of God. But rather than reducing this to what we today call worship, we should understand that God is glorified when creation—human and non-human—functions as it was intended to, in harmony with God’s will for flourishing.

And if this is our vision of the new creation, it should affect how we live now.

As Paul affirms in 2 Cor 5:17, “If anyone is in Christ—new creation! The old has passed away, the new has come.”

A Rastafarian Cultural Journey (What I Did after the Theology Conference in Jamaica)

In my last blog post I reported on the theology conference on the theme of “Biblical Interpretation for Caribbean Renewal” that I helped organize at the Jamaica Theological Seminary (JTS) in Kingston (September 8-9, 2017).

A Visit to Culture Yard in Trench Town

The conference began Friday night and ended late Saturday afternoon.

Then on Sunday four of us from the conference went  on an informal tour of two famous Rastafari sites. The four were Garnett Roper (the president of JTS), Winston Thompson (vice-president of JTS), Christopher Duncanson-Hales (a presenter from Canada, who had made Rastafari his primary research over the years), and myself.

First, we visited Culture Yard, the heritage site that was the small complex of buildings Bob Marley used to live in when he was just starting out in Kingston. This was the famous “government yard in Trench Town” mentioned in the song “No Woman No Cry.”

One of the rooms around this central open “yard” (courtyard) was the kitchen with Marley’s “single bed” (mentioned in the song “Is This Love“).

Even Marley’s first (well-used) guitar was preserved for visitors to see.

Our tour guide was a Rasta named Stone Man, because of his stone carvings with mystical glyphs and spiritual meanings.

A Journey to the Historic Rastafarian Camp at Pinnacle

After Culture Yard, we journeyed into the Jamaican countryside, to the parish of St. Catherine, to visit Pinnacle, the site of one of the earliest Rastafarian camps in Jamaica.

So named because it is situated on a hilltop, Pinnacle was founded in 1940 by one of the first Rastafarian preachers, Leonard Howell (sometimes called the First Rasta, though he had no dreadlocks).

Pinnacle soon became a model for other Rasta settlements throughout Jamaica, focused on self-sustaining agriculture (which also included ganja cultivation). Partially because of the ganja, but also because of suspicions that Howell was sowing sedition (this was before the wider culture and the police came to understand Rastafari), Pinnacle was raided a number of times by the police in the nineteen forties and fifties. After the final raid, the Rastafarians who lived there dispersed throughout the island.

It has only recently been restored as a Rastafarian Heritage Site and Cultural Centre by the government of Jamaica.

While at Pinnacle, we met the Rasta who takes care of the grounds, including the ruins of the house where Leonard Howell used to live.

He explained to us the history of Pinnacle, including its current use from time to time for Rastafarian meetings with Nyabingi drumming and chanting.

Although Nyabingi is the name of one of the Mansions (groups or denominations) of Rastafari (“In my Father’s house are many mansions”; John 14:2), Nyabingi is also a form of rhythmic drumming and chanting used in Rastafari ceremonies. “Rastaman Chant” by Bob Marley and the Wailers is based on the Nyabingi classic, “Babylon Throne Gone Down.”

In a follow-up post, I describe a research project (and book) on Rastafari that I may be involved in, spearheaded by Christopher Duncanson-Hales, the Canadian presenter at the JTS theology conference who has made Rastafari his major research over the years.