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Losing Ground: Reading Ruth in the Pacific by Jione Havea

28 January 2022

This post-colonial study may resonate in the UK, John Barton suggests

JINONE HAVEA’s is an important voice in post-colonial theology and biblical studies. A Methodist minister from Tonga, he is the editor of a five-volume work, Theology in the Age of Empire, published between 2019 and 2021. Losing Ground takes the book of Ruth as an experimental text for trying out an approach to the Bible rooted in the methods of Pasifika, the world of Pacific islands, as opposed to the norms of classical biblical criticism, for which he has few good words.

The experiment consisted of a series of intensive Bible studies conducted by “normal people” (i.e. people not well-read in biblical criticism), according to the practice known as talanoa in some Pacific languages. This is explained as a combination of three things: stories, the telling of those stories, and conversation about the stories. It cannot be captured in a single English word.

This is, Havea proposes, a better model for “research” into the narratives of the Old Testament than most of the methods practised in Western scholarship; and applying it is probably also more in keeping with the culture underlying the biblical texts. It results in a non-colonial type of reading which emphasises minoritised people and peoples. Ruth and Naomi are good examples of just such people.

Havea writes: “In presenting the bible studies in the following chapters, i am intentionally showcasing the commitment to minoritized subjects, the embodiment of the call to queer, the affirmation of dirt in the fabrics of life, and the courage to protest for tomorrow people.” This gives the flavour of his work.

Besides being concerned for the peoples of Pasifika, he is also naturally faced with environmental issues: the title reminds the reader that there are islands that may not survive the coming decades, as the effects on Tonga of the recent tsunami make only too clear.

Applied to Ruth, talanoa results in asking questions that the biblical text passes over, perhaps too quickly. The participants in the studies asked about the background of the characters in the story, about their social customs, their kinship relationships, and their motives —very much as though they were real people with a life outside the story. This seems to me actually not unlike what happens at Bible studies in Britain, though there it is usually without a post-colonial agenda. Speculating on the “gaps” in the biblical text goes on wherever the Bible is read by “normal people”.

This suggests to me that this book will have a favourable reception in this country, maybe wider than Havea might expect. Western readers will learn from it some of the just concerns of colonised people where they are ignorant of them, and yet will also be encouraged in the kind of thoughtful probing of the biblical text which is far from alien to many here anyway.

To say this is not to draw the sting of Havea’s challenge to the colonisers, but it is to say that his book is a positive contribution as well as a protest. Most Christians in Britain are no more enthusiastic about biblical criticism than Christians in Pasifika, as those of us who practise it know to our cost. But attacks on it can be salutary as well as annoying, and there is a lot in this book that strikes even this unrepentant biblical critic as important for Western readers to ponder.

One small point: Havea insists on writing the first-person singular pronoun in lower case: “i”. This is to avoid an egocentric emphasis on himself. Personally, I found it to have the opposite effect, by drawing attention to the pronoun every time that it occurs. But tastes in such matters differ.

John Barton is Emeritus Oriel and Laing Professor of the Interpretation of Holy Scripture in the University of Oxford, a Senior Research Fellow at Campion Hall, and an Anglican priest.


Losing Ground: Reading Ruth in the Pacific
Jione Havea
SCM Press £25
Church Times Bookshop £22.50

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