In two previous blog posts I reported on the theology conference held at the Jamaica Theological Seminary in Kingston (where I did my formative theological studies many years ago) and the trip some of us took afterwards to two Rastafarian heritage sites.
One of our presenters at the theology conference, who was also on the trip, was a Canadian named Christopher Duncanson-Hales. As a Roman Catholic theologian, Duncanson-Hales may have seemed a bit out of place among a largely Protestant group; but he was very familiar with Jamaican culture, and especially with Rastafari.
From his initial visit to Jamaica as a teenager, when he arrived to work with Father Ho Lung’s ministry in Kingston (called the Missionaries of the Poor), he met up with Rastas and intentionally tried to understand their culture and doctrines.
Later, through an extended stay in Jamaica he was apprenticed to the respected Rastafarian elder Sydney DaSilva (president of the Rastafarian Centralization Organization). His many meetings with Ras DaSilva resulted in research notes that became the basis of his academic career focus on Rastafari.
Besides writing his B.A thesis and M.T.S. thesis on Rastafari, Duncanson-Hales addressed Rastafari in his Ph.D. thesis, entitled “The Full Has Never Been Told: Theology and the Encounter with Globalization” (2011, Saint Paul University, Ottawa, Canada).
After completing his Ph.D., he attended the Rastafari Studies Conference and General Assembly Rastafari, held at the University of the West Indies, in Kingston (2013), where he presented a paper entitled “Naming Jah: Who do InI say InI am?” More recently, his article called “Dread Hermeneutics” was published in the journal Black Theology (2017).
A New Research Project on Rastafari
Duncanson-Hales’s next research project is called Echoes of the Memories: A Hermeneutical Investigation of Rastafari Ethnographic Material in the Smithsonian’s Simpson/Yawney Archives. This project will examine the notes of two important ethnographers, who had significant access to Rastafari “reasoning” sessions, with a view to incorporating their analysis into his own study of Rastafari “productive hermeneutics,” that is, how Rastafarians engage the Bible and the world of oppression to produce an alternative symbolic world of hope, at both the oral and visual levels.
The study will also engage in careful analysis of Ras Mortimer Planno’s famous 1969 handwritten treatise, “The Earth Most Strangest Man: The Rastafarian,” which is the first written Rastafari theological statement, almost 200 pages long (also in the Smithsonian archives).
Mortimer Planno (also known as Kumi) was perhaps the most famous Rastafarian elder throughout the history of the movement. Besides being the spiritual teacher of Bob Marley (both lived in Trench Town), Planno is known for having parted the crowd of Rastas who were dancing and drumming on the tarmac at the Kingston airport, in order to make a path for His Imperial Majesty Haile Selassie I to exit the plane on his historic visit to Jamaica on April 21, 1966.
My father, Jack Middleton, being at the time the head of Special Branch (in the Jamaica Constabulary Force), was in charge of security for Selassie’s visit. Since he knew that Planno was a respected Rasta elder, he asked him to make a path for His Majesty through the crowd of celebrants who had gathered to greet him.
But first he brought Planno up the steps of the plane to meet Selassie in person. After that Planno proceeded to part the crowd of thousands of Rastas so that Selassie could deplane safely.
Ever since, April 21 has been celebrated as Groundation Day by Rastafarians.
My Involvement in the Rastafari Research Project
Duncanson-Hales’s Rastafari projected research project will also involve analysis of the lyrics of Bob Marley’s songs, as they intersect with the Bible and with Planno’s theology.
Although I am not a formal expert on Rastafari, I had many discussions with Rastas on the streets of New Kingston, when I was a teenager. And I have published an essay on the theological vision of the songs of Bob Marley and the Wailers (many of these songs have contributed to the texture of my own spirituality). Also, whereas Duncanson-Hales is a systematic and historical theologian, I am a biblical scholar by training, and can bring my expertise in Old Testament studies to bear on the project.
Therefore I will be lending my expertise as a collaborator on the overall project and as a co-author for selected parts of the study, especially for a book on Rastafari biblical interpretation that would be part of the overall project (Semeia Studies has indicated interest in publishing this).
We are only just in the brainstorming and planning phases for the idea. Given my own prior commitments to book projects, this particular study may be a bit more far off in the future.
We shall see how it develops, Jah willing.
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Not a reply – just a fan letter 😉 I’d love to meet Richard Middleton one day – I’m no Tom Wright, but I can cook breakfast….
So, let me know who are you and where you live (either here or on the contact page). If I’m in the area, we should plan to meet up.
Hello, it is kind of you to respond. My name is Robert Limb – which I use on Facebook, but which is not visible on WordPress…I did not think of that, otherwise I would have signed my previous message. I’m not sure if our paths will ever cross. I am English, but left the UK as a student around 1970 and have lived in France most of the time since, where I am the teacher/pastor for a small French speaking church in Paris. My wife is from Guadeloupe, so I have an attachment to the Caribbean, reinforced by cricket – Gary Sobers is my hero – although I should also mention to you Michael Holding and, recently, Marlon Samuels. My church background is with the so-called Restoration Movement, the church(es) of Christ, but I am much more interested in seeing Christians coming together and presenting the Gospel to the Western World before it is too late. I think very highly of the two books you wrote with Brian Walsh, adhere largely to your view of the New Heaven and Earth, and am something of a disciples of Jacques Ellul, and also read Brian McLaren, Tom Wright and am always banging on to my colleagues about the importance of the work of Gabe Lyons (q ideas) and David Kinnaman at Barna. I have just presented a study on Hope in English for a small gathering in Germany..and your name was mentioned a couple of times.
Although the French Islands are not profoundly affected by Rastafarianism, people do of course know about it, and in the extended family I have a good friend from St Lucie who is rastafari. So of course I read both articles with considerable interest. Before we were married, my wife worked for Radio Lumière in Haïti, and we know many people from there, also.
Anyway, I really just wanted you to know that your books and your blogs are very much appreciated.
May God bless you and yours, and be with you in your ministry,
Robert, if you are a cricket fan and want a great read about cricket, race, and the Caribbean, you should read C. L. R. James’s book Beyond a Boundary (James also wrote a history of the Haitian revolution called The Black Jacobins).
It’s great to hear from you, Robert. It would be great if our paths could cross someday.