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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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.

 

Biblical Interpretation for Caribbean Renewal—The Jamaica Theology Conference is Almost Here (Sept. 8-9, 2017)

The Jamaica theology conference that I’ve been helping to plan is coming up in just four weeks. It will be held on the campus of my alma mater, the Jamaica Theological Seminary (JTS).

Various details about the conference are now finalized. You can download a one-page conference flyer here.

The keynote speaker had already been announced. He is Dr. Steed Davidson, Associate Professor of Hebrew Bible / Old Testament at McCormick Theological Seminary in Chicago.

THE ZENAS GERIG MEMORIAL LECTURE—FRIDAY, SEPTEMBER 8

Dr. Davidson will give the sixth annual Zenas Gerig Memorial Lecture. This lecture will not be just for the conference; it will be a public lecture available to the entire community.

Dr. Zenas Gerig was the founder of JTS (in 1960), and its first Principal (he later became the first President). I got to know him when I attended JTS in the seventies; he taught the first formal Bible courses I took at JTS (on the Pentateuch and the Historical Books).

Dr. Gerig was an amazing man who had a significant impact on the church and on theological education both in Jamaica and in the rest of the Caribbean. Not only was he a prime mover behind the Caribbean Evangelical Theological Association, but he founded the Caribbean Graduate School of Theology (CGST) in Kingston in 1986.

Dr. Gerig passed away September 14, 2011 and I had the privilege of delivering the first Zenas Gerig Memorial Lecture in September 2012 (my topic was Abraham’s test in Genesis 22, and that presentation has since become a central component in a new book I am working on).

Dr. Davidson’s lecture will be on Friday night, September 8. It is entitled “The Hazards and Opportunities of Sola Scriptura for Caribbean Biblical Interpretation.” Dr. Garnett Roper, current President of JTS, will present a formal response.

You can download information about the keynote lecture, including bios of Dr. Davidson and Dr. Roper, here.

PAPER PRESENTATIONS—SATURDAY, SEPTEMBER 9

After the keynote lecture on Friday night, the conference proper starts on Saturday (September 9), with a variety of paper presentations on topics related to the conference theme, “Biblical Interpretation for Caribbean Renewal.”

We have papers lined up from various theological disciplines and perspectives. Some presenters are coming from the US and Canada, though most are currently living in Jamaica, including professors at Jamaica Theological Seminary and the Caribbean Graduate School of Theology. I will be giving a paper myself, as will Dr. Eric Flett, who was the Zenas Gerig Memorial Lecturer in 2015.

The following paper titles indicate the diversity of topics to be discussed:

  • The Parable of the Good Samaritan: A Political Reading from a Caribbean Perspective
  • The Anatomy of a Church Healing
  • The Inclusive Vision of Isaiah 56 and Contested Ethical Practices in Scripture and the Church: Toward a Canonical Hermeneutic of Discernment
  • Food for Thought: The Work of the Spirit and the Dynamics of Disgust in Acts 10
  • Word, Sound, and Power: The Religious Imagination of Rastafari Hermeneutics
  • Chiastic Contours, Caribbean Hermeneutic, and the Book of Acts
  • The Biblical Interpretation of Demonic Possession and Voodoo-Like Possession as the Identity of Evil In Haiti
  • Black Identity in Light of Slavery, God’s Sovereignty, and Scripture
  • Pastoral Priorities for Biblical Interpretation in the Caribbean
  • Contextual Interpretation and the Canonical Narrative: Toward a Holistic Understanding of the Bible

You can download a tentative conference schedule for Friday and Saturday, showing when the various papers will be presented.

And you can download a full list of presenters, paper titles, and abstracts of all the papers here.

CONFERENCE REGISTRATION

Registration is very inexpensive and can be done online on the conference page at the Jamaica Theological Seminary website. Discounted registration is available up to August 15.

Questions about registration can be directed to Dr. Winston Thompson, Vice-president of JTS.

CONFERENCE CO-SPONSORSHIP

The theology conference is sponsored by the Jamaica Theological Seminary and will be held on their campus, at 14-16 West Ave., Kingston 8, Jamaica, W.I..

The conference is co-sponsored by the Caribbean Graduate School of Theology and the United Theological College of the West Indies.

This interdisciplinary theology conference celebrates the 50th anniversary of the Jamaica Association of Evangelicals and the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation.

Maybe I will see you in Jamaica!