Sunday, August 29, 2004

Reading Matthew inside a Jeepney

Biblical interpretation has privileged the centers of power, within, behind, and in front of the text. Biblical Studies, in the Philippines, have been a stronghold of colonial scholarship for over a century, especially among Protestant Churches. Denominations refuse to go autonomous and continue to depend on "mother" institutions in the United States. Church buildings and institutions are named after "benevolent" foreign church leaders and missionaries. Seminaries continue to have more foreign teachers (who are paid in dollars by foreign boards) than Filipinos (who are paid in pesos and usually way below the living wage). Libraries are filled with books authored by European and American scholars, and continue to receive donations of old ones from the First World. Traditional historical critical methods remain the key reading paradigm. Establishing what texts meant is the first step toward discerning what they mean today. Reading programs that do not follow this so-called fundamental paradigm is labeled eisegesis or reader-response. Filipino Protestants know more about Bible and American history than their own, and they read the Bible the way their colonial masters did and do because they have been socialized for generations that this is the correct way. Filipino social scientists call this collective condition of the Filipino psyche as colonial mentality. Historian Renato Constantino traces it to the systematic mis-education of the Filipinos. Theologian Eleazar Fernandez argues that the Philippines can be called a "mental colony" of the United States of America.

But side by side with this "reading the Bible the way our masters do" is the wealth of Filipino literature, practices, and reading strategies that engage the Bible in unexpected ways. I call these interpretations models of jeepney hermeneutics. The jeepney is the most popular mode of public transportation in the Philippines. It is an excellent example of the Filipinization of an American icon, the military jeep. It is also, as I will argue, one very powerful metaphor for Filipinos' engagement with another icon, the Bible, offering a range of decolonizing reading strategies.

The US Army back in 1940 required an all terrain reconnaissance, go-anywhere, vehicle that seated three and had a mount for a 30-caliber machine gun. Filipinos have turned this military vehicle into some sort of mini-bus that could accommodate about more or less 20 people. There are those who look at a jeepney and call it a Frankenstein's monster. There are others who see it as a "Filipino home on wheels" complete with an altar. The military jeep was, and still is, an imperializing "text." A jeepney resists this "text." [To be continued]

(from Daniel Patte, Justin Ukpong, Monya Stubbs, and Revelation Velunta, The Gospel of Matthew: A Contextual Introduction for Group Study (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2003).