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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Visiting Tom Wright—A Good Start in Scotland

I drove from Rochester to Toronto on Wednesday and took the overnight flight to Glasgow to begin my two weeks of talks in the UK. I arrived at the Glasgow airport on Thursday morning (9:00 am), with almost no sleep, and was picked up by Tom Wright.

From Glasgow we drove to the Wrights’ home (named the “Hilton Cottage”) just outside of the small town of St. Andrews. It was a bright sunny day and the scenery on the drive was glorious.

Great Conversations with Tom and Maggie

The conversation on the drive was pretty good too!

In fact, one of the highlights of the trip so far (besides my interaction with students and faculty at the University of St. Andrews) was getting to know Tom and Maggie.

Although Tom and I have had lots of sporadic contact over the years (we first met in the mid nineteen-eighties), and we each have found the other’s writings helpful for our own scholarship, this was the first time I was able to have extended conversations with Tom, both about theology and biblical interpretation and about our lives and families.

It was also a delight getting to know Maggie, who is a brilliant amateur photographer—and who, in an amazing coincidence, uses the exact same make and model of camera that I do (a Panasonic Lumix).

Talks at the Logos Institute for Analytic and Exegetical Theology

I gave two talks at the University of St. Andrews (one on biblical eschatology, the other on the theology of lament psalms). Both were well attended by faculty and students, many of whom were in the doctoral program of the Logos Institute. This is an innovative institute with an interdisciplinary doctoral program that tries to integrate analytic theology/philosophy with in-depth biblical studies.

The problem (as many in academia know) is that theologians and biblical scholars often speak what seem to be totally different languages (or discourses), with very little overlap. They often talk past each other.

Biblical scholars often focus on the minutiae of textual and linguistic (or historical) issues to the detriment of thinking about the big theological and ethical claims of Scripture. Theologians, likewise, often engage in the analysis of ideas that are at a far remove from biblical exegesis.

This was a problem I highlighted in the introductory chapter of my book The Liberating Image in relation to the interpretation of the imago Dei. Here is an excerpt from the introduction:

Pretty much all my publications over the years have tried to address this problem by modeling an approach to Scripture that is both exegetically detailed and concerned for theological coherence.

The Logos Institute for Analytic and Exegetical Theology was founded to tackle this problem head on. It is a bold enterprise that seeks to help theological students, especially those trained in the analytic tradition of philosophy, to indwell the particularity of biblical texts and learn to ground their theological analysis in serious, in-depth biblical exegesis.

Although it hadn’t been planned this way, I was perfectly suited to addressing this audience. My training in philosophy at the graduate level (with an MA thesis on the nature of religious language), followed by my subsequent move to Old Testament studies, allowed me to interact with many of the Logos students, taking their concerns seriously.

Although my talks were on what I would describe as biblical theology, I managed in my second talk (having taken the pulse of the audience) to weave in some philosophical analysis (concerning the problem of evil) in relationship to the topic I was speaking on (the lament psalms).

The question time (along with the reception afterward) was very valuable, as I was able to engage students philosophically where they were, while showing the fruitfulness of grounding theology in the careful study of Scripture.

Of Eggs and Chicken Pie

To top it off, I was fed very well by Maggie and Tom, both in local eateries and by their own cooking.

Maggie baked an amazing chicken and leek pie for our supper on Thursday (she nicknamed it her “resurrection pie,” since she hadn’t made it in so long, and also because we had been discussing the meaning of the resurrection); the pie was so amazing that I asked for the recipe.

And Tom cooked us bacon and eggs for a late night snack on Friday—he quipped that not many people could produce a photograph like the one below.

All in all, I am grateful to God for the experience so far (including the fact that I managed to get three solid nights’ sleep after the overnight trans-Atlantic flight).

And I am looking forward to heading to the University of Aberdeen with Grant Macaskill tomorrow morning for my lecture there. While there, Grant and I will begin informal talks about a possible doctoral program in theology co-sponsored by Aberdeen and two Jamaican graduate schools that I am affiliated with.

You can read about my trip to Aberdeen here.

Congratulations, Dr. Esau McCaulley!

Esau McCaulley, Assistant Professor of New Testament and Early Christianity at Northeastern Seminary, successfully defended his PhD thesis on Monday, April 3, at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland (his supervisor was N. T. Wright, pictured below with Esau, after the defense).

The full title of Dr. McCaulley’s dissertation is: Sharing in the Son’s Inheritance: Davidic Messianism and Paul’s Worldwide Interpretation of the Abrahamic Land Promise in Galatians.”

Northeastern Seminary is proud of you, Esau, and we are delighted that you are part of our faculty. Congratulations!

For more on Northeastern Seminary, see my earlier blog post, “Northeastern Seminary—A Hidden Gem.