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21st century Pacific theology needed

Pacific theologians can help the global Christian community come to a better understanding of the Bible, according to Trinity Theological College’s newest lecturer.

Rev Nasili Vaka’uta
Last month Rev Nasili Vaka’uta was appointed to a fixed term as Trinity’s lecturer in Biblical Studies. Nsili was head of the Biblical Studies Department at Sia’atoutai Methodist Theological College in Tonga and is now completing his PhD in Theology of the Hebrew Bible at the University of Auckland.

He says Latin American, Asian, African and Native American theologians have given us new ways to read the Bible but Pacific theologians have yet to make a contribution. His PhD thesis could make a start.

“My PhD is an effort to provide some Oceanic lenses through which to read the Bible. It focuses on Ezra chapters 9 and 10, which describe the return of the Hebrew exiles from Babylon. In particular it deals with the exiles’ demand for the Jews who married non-golah women to divorce those wives.

“It raises such issues as exclusion, gender and ethnicity. I read Ezra from the position of a Tongan commoner. In Tonga, commoners (or tu’a) are lowest in the social hierarchy. Culturally we are classed with slaves and animals. My reading of Ezra is an attempt to expose, on the one hand, the oppressive cultural mechanisms that are inscribed in the texts of the Bible, and to retrieve, on the other hand, the transformative aspects of those texts.

“We must read Biblical texts in a way that takes into account not only the social context in which they were written, but also the contexts of real readers, here and now. The Bible never makes the claim for its values to be universal. Narratives in the Bible were shaped by issues they confronted. Readers in modern time have a responsibility to be considerate and read those texts with this in mind.

Nasili says the dominant attitude in the Pacific is a fundamentalist one, which still views the Bible as the authentic word of God – inerrant, infallible, and inspired.

“While there is some basis for this attitude in the Bible, it does not represent the Bible as a whole. The Bible has many contradictions and there are texts that legitimize violence which must be read with caution.

“This has implications for attitudes toward homosexuality, for example. We need to educate Pacific people on what the Bible really is so we can move forward in the 21st century. We need to give people the tools to read the Bible with a sense of freedom and liberation.”

According to Nasili, people from different parts of the world have given us different ways to view the Bible.

Faced with exclusion, poverty and corruption, theologians from Latin America have tended to produce Marxist readings.

Christians in Asia read the Bible alongside their own rich Hindu and Buddhist theological traditions, and they explore how these different traditions and Christianity supplement each other.

African and Native American theologians tend to view the Bible in the context of their own cultural traditions. Pacific theologians could do the same but as yet they have not, he says.

“We can draw on our cultural concepts and values to provide reading perspectives and tools for analysis of biblical texts. I have theorized in my work some Tongan concepts such as talanga (orality) and takanga (community). These concepts serve as categories of analysis and provide the theoretical underpinnings for charting my methods of analysis. Other readers both from the academy and the community can do the same.”