A Gracious Invitation Toward Indigenous Theology
A Review of
Indigenous Theology and the Western Worldview: A Decolonized Approach to Christian Doctrine
Randy S. Woodley
Reviewed by Joel Wentz
I thought I knew what I was about to read before I even opened Randy Woodley’s new book. I expected Indigenous Theology and the Western Worldview to be a thick hardcover, replete with footnotes and a comprehensive literature review engaging the historical development of Western colonialism and its entanglement with Christian missiology, contrasted with another section equally replete with footnotes that unpacked the core tenets of Indigenous Christian Theology in a systematized way. Instead, I encountered a truly conversational text (and I use the word “conversational” here quite intentionally, as many sections are written in question-and-answer format) that ranges from sharp historical and cultural critique to compelling storytelling and compassionate invitation.
I’ll admit that, at first, the dissonance between my expectations and what I was reading caused some frustration, but about halfway through the text I was chastened by the realization: might it be my own “Western Worldview,” loaded with assumptions about how learning should take place, how arguments should be made, and, of course, how books should be written, that is impairing my ability to learn from this text? Might my “Western Worldview” be precisely what needs to be troubled and unsettled, in order to learn from a teacher like Randy Woodley? Might this text, in both its content and form be a gracious invitation into that journey? In this way, Indigenous Theology and the Western Worldview is both an argument, but also a pedagogical exercise. In other words, the book not only presents content, by articulating aspects of what sets Indigenous thinking apart from Western thinking, but also engages the reader in a specific way of considering and internalizing this content. If, like me, you approach the book as one thoroughly formed by the “Western Worldview,” then Woodley’s discussion of the function of belief, learning, history and theology will likely be unsettling, but also stirring and deeply emotionally engaging.
For example, in the first chapter Woodley “interrupts” his own argument regarding the common narrative of civilizational progress with a Cherokee story of “Grandmother Turtle.” While I was initially confused by the sudden transition, I found the story itself arresting and truly emotionally impactful. I simply could not get it out of my mind after turning the page, and its imagery has haunted me in a way that I know a more strictly-propositional, didactic presentation would not have. Similarly, the question-and-answer sections after each chapter provide very thoughtful engagement with many of the nuances of the primary subject matter. In these, Woodley also responds firmly and graciously to the anticipated objections of his argument, and by the end of the reading experience, these question-and-answer sections became my favorite parts of the book as a whole. It is in these sections that Woodley strikes a remarkable tone of lament and prophetic critique that is combined with compassionate love and hope. The problems of the Western Worldview are certainly on display, but he is not interested in simplistic construals or dismissals, and never lapses into shallow cynicism.
This is all not to say that the book is devoid of propositional, academic content. Far from it. Woodley does engage with literature in a deep way, and even summarizes and presents some findings of his own rigorous work in missiology and contextualization. In the final chapter, Woodley presents the ten core aspects of what he titles the “Harmony Way,” building off what earlier in the book is called “epistemological orthopraxy” and uniting it to the biblical concept of “Shalom,” and it is a truly compelling portrait.
Taken together, there is something brilliant about the distinct balance and combination of the various styles, even genres, contained within what is broadly a work of theology and cultural critique. Storytelling, academic research, auto-biography and conversation all work together, inviting the reader to lament, to repent of complicity, to be unsettled and to ultimately imagine a better way. “Decolonization” may be a bit of a buzzword, but there is nothing trendy or faddish about Woodley’s voice in this important conversation, and I, as a white Western Christian, am grateful for this new book.
Joel Wentz is currently the Executive Pastor at Missio Dei Church in Portland, Maine. He previously served in college campus ministry with InterVarsity Christian Fellowship. In addition to reading and writing, his passions include tabletop gaming, music, and coffee. His favorite book genres are epic fantasy and epic theology. He lives in Portland, Maine with his wife and son, and his personal writing and podcast are at: joelwentz.com