‘God is Samoan’ author’s visit delayed
The author of a new book exploring the intersection of Pacific Islands culture and Christianity and how it shapes theology has had a book tour to Samoa delayed by COVID-19 travel restrictions.
Anthropologist Dr. Matthew Tomlinson told the Samoa Observer he hopes to visit Samoa to discuss his new book: “God is Samoan: Dialogues Between Culture and Theology in the Pacific.”
But like most everyone his plans for 2020 have been uprooted by the pandemic and travel restrictions.
In his quest to learn more about Samoan theologians, Dr. Tomlinson traveled to Samoa in 2015-2016 and stayed in the islands to study the work of theologians and their students.
“When I was at the Pacific Theological College in Suva, Fiji, in the late 2000s, I noticed that many of the students were Samoan. And historically, much of the College's leadership has been Samoan, too,” he said.
“I wanted to learn more about how Samoan theologians connect culture and Christianity. So I knew I had to spend time in Samoa, and in 2015-2016 I was happily able to do so.”
Dr. Tomlinson spent most of his time at the Congregational Christian Church of American Samoa’s (C.C.C.A.S.) Kanana Fou Theological Seminary at Tutuila and at the Methodist Church’s Piula Theological College on Upolu.
In Upolu, he also met National University of Samoa’s (N.U.S.) Dr. Malama Meleisea and Penelope Shoeffel.
“The two places I spent the most time were at Kanana Fou in Tutuila, with the kindness of the president, Reverend Dr. Moreli Niuatoa, and Piula, with the kindness of the Principal, Reverend Dr. Mosese Ma'ilo,” Dr. Tomlinson said.
“At the Centre for Samoan Studies at N.U.S., I also received generous help from Professors Malama Meleisea and Penelope Schoeffel.
I did not get to spend time at Malua, but have several friends there whom I met in Australia and New Zealand--Revs. Drs. Latu Latai, Vaitusi Nofoaiga, Imoamaua Setefano, and Arthur Wulf.
“All of them helped me very much.”
Dr. Tomlinson said the book’s striking title simply “popped into” his head.
“I was trying to think of a title, and none of my ideas seemed very good,” he said.
“Then one day, the title just popped into my head, and as soon as I 'heard' it, I knew it was the right one for the book. I will let your readers draw their own conclusions.
“In terms of why the title made sense, it reflects the main point made by 'contextual theologians': That God communicates through culture. So God 'speaks to' Samoans as a Samoan, to Tongans as a Tongan, and so forth. I am oversimplifying these theologians' arguments, but that is the basic idea.”
During his research, Dr. Tomlinson’s work did receive some criticism.
He noted that anthropology has a sometimes troubled image in Samoa.
Dr. Tomlinson is an Associate Professor of Anthropology in the Department of Social Anthropology at the University of Oslo and the College of Asia and the Pacific at the Australian National University.
“I can mention some of the responses I received during [my] research,” he said.
“I am an anthropologist, and anthropology does not always have a good reputation in Samoa. I was asked: How can you write about fa’a Samoa if you are not Samoan and don't speak the language?
“My response is that I am not writing about fa’a Samoa—clearly, I do not have the necessary knowledge. Instead, I am writing about the work of Samoan theologians who analyse Samoan society and culture, and write about their connections with God.
“The book is an anthropological reading of theology.”
Some theologians contend that because God is universal, tying God too closely to culture could seem like an attempt to limit the power of the divine Dr. Tomlinson said.
“I guess this is a conversation that will always go back and forth: God's transcendent power on one side, God's immanent force in people's lives on the other,” he said.
Dr. Tomlinson said he hopes to visit Samoa soon to talk about these and other subtleties raised in his book:
“Unfortunately, with COVID-19, I have not been able to come to Samoa and American Samoa yet to share copies of the book and talk about it with people. When the pandemic is under control, I hope to visit so I can discuss the ideas with everyone.”