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BOOK REVIEW BY HEINRICH BALZ

BOOK REVIEW

How other Cultures see the Bible

Christian Weber: Wie andere Kulturen die Bibel sehen. Ein Praxisbuch mit 70 Kunstwerken aus 33 Ländern. Zürich TVZ Verlag 2020, 259 S. 29.90 EUR. ISBN 978-3-290-18274 -8.

by Heinrich Balz

This large-format book by Christian Weber, study secretary at Mission 21 in Basel, Switzerland, may evoke some surprises, perhaps also some confusion, until the reader understands the artistic and reasonably complicated structure of the volume. Such understanding, however, presupposes the reading of the whole book from front to back, beyond the consultation of individual chapters, to which it also freely invites us as a ‘practice book’.

The book offers several things at the same time. It shows how other cultures view the Bible in ‘70 works of art from 33 countries’, which may lead the reader into a personal journey of discovery. Its primary intended use is, however, as a practice book aimed at intensive work in groups, with rich suggestions of how it may be used and an attached DVD from which texts and images can be printed. As group work is the main aim of the book, readers who are not involved in this may wonder whether they should read on or leave the materials to those who are active in group and community work.

But they do not need to worry. Weber is a conscientious theologian and as such clearly explains and substantiates every step of the way. The book is ordered in two ways. There are three main parts, namely A: ‘The Bible in our context', B: ‘The Bible in its historical context’ and C (the most important part): ‘The Bible in contexts worldwide’. These main parts are further divided by two ‘access points’ that make the thought process that underlies the whole book even more tangible.

Part A has as access point 1: ‘Circumstances – how our context influences what we see’ and access point 2: ‘Our own state of mind – what texts say to our cultural mindset.’

Part B breaks the historical contexts in the Bible down into 3: ‘What terms and symbols mean in biblical times’ and 4: ‘Backgrounds – what biblical books accentuate’. 

Part C asks in access point 5: ‘How Bible texts are interpreted in different cultures’, which deals with African, Asian and Latin American interpretations of various texts. Access point 6 focuses on ‘how artists worldwide understand a text’. This last access point consisting of 120 pages is longer than all the previous ones and takes up half of the book. Each Bible text is depicted and interpreted by seven artworks.

70 works of art from 33 countries

This second half of the book is the most important one and in a certain sense also the most appealing. I would like to recommend it to readers who are interested in art as an introduction to the interpretation of the Bible, even more than as a tool for group work. Which does not mean that this would not be interesting as well, as a consciously made connection between one’s own culture and the context of the books of Scripture can only benefit one’s understanding. The discussion of what is accentuated in different books of the Bible may be of more interest than the examination of cultures and concepts in general, as this makes clear how the author personally deals and lives with his Bible.  

It is good that we take the meaning of images seriously and we may even need to argue about their content, as ‘an image says more than 1000 words’. This should not lead, however, to less care in dealing with words, especially in Protestant churches of the Word.

Access point 6 makes visible how visual artists – mostly painters but also a few relief carvers – deal with biblical texts. This is done well, offering much delight. Here the readers or viewers have to set out on their own path. One would have liked that the ten times seven artworks would have been portrayed somewhat bigger. Many have been taken from the large calendars that Missio Aachen releases each year. This review cannot deal with all of them, it can only point to their richness.

* God’s Call to Moses is the only theme from the Old Testament. It appeals especially to Indian artists: the burning bush with seeing eyes (J. Sahi), the divine mystery that is completely dissolved into fire and colour (P. Koli).

* The Temptation of Christ. Matthew 4:1-11 inspired wood carver M.L. Nyonka from Cameroon to make a statuesque wooden relief and the Indonesian artist Hendarto to the depict Jesus and Satan as puppets in a shadow play.

* The Healing of the Paralytic,Mark 2, which was already of interest to Christians in Dura Europos in Syria in early Christian times, inspired Africans from Ivory Coast (T. Soro) and Congo (K. Laban) to focus on the healing love of Jesus. The theme also spoke to artists in Papua New Guinea, Japan and Peru.

* The Miracle of the Multiplication of Loaves and Fishes has been depicted often since antiquity, also by Muslims (T. Agona, Benin) and with intricate ornamentation in Thailand (S. Chinnawong).

* The Transfiguration of Jesus is interpreted in different ways: inNigeria as the fulfilment of the African traditional religion (L. Fakeye), as the closeness of Jesus to ordinary people in Haiti (J.R. Chéry), and as radiant light in Mexico (P. Medina).

* Jesus and Zacchaeus’ meeting is turned into an almost humorous encounter in Tanzania (M.T. Kamundi), while it is interpreted in Indonesia as being about restored harmony (W. Sasongko) and in Bolivia the event is portrayed in the style of a comic book.

* Jesus and the Samaritan Woman have especially been portrayed by female artists, also European ones with long-time experience in Africa (B. de la Roncière, K. Kraus). In China the theme has been rendered in an original way by papercut artist Fan Pu: the Samaritan woman stands there, tall and confident, but allows herself to be drawn into a deep conversation with Jesus, who – smaller in size – sits at the edge of the well.

* The Washing of Feet has resulted in a complex drawing with entangled lines in Congo (A. Kamba Luësa), in Bali in a work about the lowly, who survive by doing other people’s dirty work (K. Lasia), in Peru in a work about Jesus’ care for each individual (M. Cerezo Barredo).

* Jesus in Getsemane opens with German artist Ernst Barlach‘s depiction of Jesus in despair and moves on to a praying Jesus in Congo (K. Laban) and to ´the Prince who is at his wit‘s end´ in Indonesia (N. Darsane).

* On the road to Emmaus opens with a painting by Rembrandt. Paintings from Ethiopia (A. Bizuneh) and India (A. de Fonseca) show the surprise of the two disciples. F.N. Souza from India puts the risen Jesus at the table in Emmaus with two sceptics.

Here ends our glimpse into the abundance of what Weber has chosen and presented. A further discussion of individual works and artists – which are all well documented – would lead to questions and also here and there to objections, as the artists do not just illustrate what is written, but also give their own interpretations. Weber’s selection and personal conversation with the artworks and artists present the viewer with much material for further thought. These Christian artworks are not good and worth passing on just because they are exotic. Also here viewers will need to ask themselves what is true and not true, what is good and what may not be authentic or even be kitsch. They should be careful in their judgment, but they should not hold back all together.

For about one generation the movement that engages in interpreting and spreading art looks for the universal and has therefore set out to collect Christian art worldwide. Weber raises the question how other cultures see and read the Bible and provides us with rich visual materials to answer that question, so rich that one could end up wondering if not too much was collected as this may level out the differences. Different cultures and art traditions must also dare to isolate themselves and – in order to survive – must oppose this rising universality with ‘ethnocentrism’, as Claude Lévi-Strauss already exhorted the all-too universalist UNESCO in 1952.

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Heinrich Balz, PhD in Romance philology and Dr. in theology, taught sixteen years in African theological colleges and was Professor of History of Religions and Missiology at Humboldt University, Berlin, Germany until retirement.

Christian Weber, theologian and pastor, has been working as a study secretary in the education team of Mission 21 (Basel, Switzerland) since May 2011. Before that he lived for six years in the Democratic Republic of Congo with his family (and countless pets). Near the city of Lubumbashi he directed the Theological Seminary of the Lutheran Church. In teamwork with local colleagues he trained pastors for several African countries, including military chaplains for the Congolese army. Before his assignment abroad Christian Weber worked with Mission EineWelt in Neuendettelsau, Germany and served as personal adviser to the regional bishop in Nuremberg and as parish pastor with a focus on family work, also in Nuremberg.

For an English translation of Weber’s discussion of Zéphyrin Lendogno’s The Risen Lord Meets Mary Magdalene, see https://www.artway.eu/content.php?id=2925&action=show&lang=en

For an English translation of Weber’s discussion of Augustin Kolawole Olayinka’s The Transfiguration, see https://www.artway.eu/artway.php?id=1108&action=show&lang=en

Weber, Christian (2020): Wie andere Kulturen die Bibel sehen. Ein Praxisbuch mit 70 Kunstwerken aus 33 Ländern, Zürich [How Other Cultures See the Bible. A Handbook with 70 Artworks from 33 Countries], www.tvz-verlag.ch/buch/wie-andere-kulturen-die-bibel-sehen-9783290182748/?page_id=1