Wednesday, August 3, 2011

On ancient ecclesial books, Indiana Jones-style

From Debre Zeyit, Ethiopia
While at Meserete Kristos College this past month in Ethiopia, we stayed in the apartment of a missionary couple from the U.S. who had spent a significant period of time at the college, the husband teaching and the wife taking care of the college library. The husband's office in the apartment then became my office during our three-week stay. Shortly after we arrived, we found something very interesting in the filing cabinet...

The title of the video kind of blows the surprise, but we didn't figure out what this book was until the last week we were there. The college is affiliated with the Meserete Kristos Church (MKC) in Ethiopia, which is a Protestant/evangelical denomination with Anabaptist roots, as it is a group which started out with the help of Mennonite missionaries in the mid-20th century. The Ethiopian Orthodox church, on the other hand, is an ancient Christian tradition with a significant influence on Ethiopian culture and history. But it is a radically different tradition than most Westerners are used to, both in thought and practice. Many of my students grew up Orthodox and describe their conversion to the young Protestant movements in the country as being "when I became Christian," as in they weren't Christian when they were Orthodox. So this is a very interesting dynamic developing in Ethiopian Christianity.

But back to the book: One of my students grew up Orthodox, and not only that but his father and grandfather were Orthodox priests. (So you can imagine how his "conversion" went over in his family.) Church books in the Ethiopian Orthodox church are written in Ge'ez (pronounced "gih-[hard stop]-ihz"), an ancient Ethiopian language which is no longer in common use outside the Orthodox church. As the son and grandson of priests, though, this student of mine could read Ge'ez just fine. So when I showed it to him, he was able to read the words on the page and determine what the book was: a biblical grammar, offering official Orthodox doctrinal interpretations for biblical passages. He told me the name of the book, but I forgot to write it down. I'm also kicking myself for not recording him flipping through the book and reading it, explaining it to me, but it would have been obnoxious to stick a camera in his face for that magic moment.

Finding this book was indicative of one of the interesting experiences on our trip: Getting just a taste of what it's like to live in a country with an ancient Christian tradition that is sooooo radically different then the Western traditions which I've been subject to in the States. The tensions between Orthodox and Protestant run high in many areas of the country, and in some cases violently so. For instance, in some areas, it's actually more offensive for an Orthodox to convert to a Protestant group than it is for them to become Muslim. But there are exceptions. The MKC, in partnership with the Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) in Ethiopia, have developed a peacebuilding training manual that gets used in ecumenical circles, including by some Orthodox. My practicum supervisor, who works for MCC, told me how truly amazing it is to see an Orthodox priest walking around doing peacebuilding work from a Protestant group.

The student who was able to read this book we found also works in an ecumenical in his home city of Dire Dawa, in the east, which includes some Orthodox clergy, and he hopes to continue to foster meaningful relationships and dialogue with Orthodox Christians in Ethiopia, building peace between these very different Christian traditions in Ethiopia. Hopefully my teaching last month helped in some small way toward that and other faithful ends...

(This book is also the source for the new background image for the blog!)

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