Book review: Losing Ground: Reading Ruth in the Pacific

Anvil journal of theology and mission

Losing Ground: Reading Ruth in the Pacific by Jione Havea (London: SCM Press, 2021)

by Cathy Ross, Head of Pioneer Mission Leadership, Oxford, CMS

I loved reading this book. Jione Havea is Tongan and, as a Kiwi, I was looking forward to reading a work from my part of the world. It is a fascinating read and such an interesting and challenging way of approaching the book of Ruth. Havea presents the insights that he gleaned from Bible studies conducted with Pasifika peoples in 2019–20 in the Solomon Islands, Ma’ohi Nui (French Polynesia), Aotearoa New Zealand, Nauru, Tonga and Australia. He uses a Pasifika concept of talanoa, which refers to three events: story, telling of stories and conversation. My only disappointment here is that we rarely hear the words of the participants themselves – they are usually mediated and woven into the text through Havea. This is one frame through which the book of Ruth is read. The other frame is our climate crisis. Havea claims that the book of Ruth opens with a climate crisis – there was a famine to which a family responded by migrating to find a better life. Themes of climate change, climate trauma and grief, climate resilience and climate injustice are all present in the narrative.

He decapitalises I, by using i. This may be disconcerting for some readers. However, he is not the first scholar to do this. bell hooks famously did not use capital letters for her name although she did capitalise I in her writings. Havea writes:

I use the lowercase for the first person when “i” am the subject, because I also use the lowercase for “you”, “she”, “he”, “they”, “it”, “we” and “others”. The privileging (by capitalisation) of the first-person singular is foreign to Pasifika native worldviews. (xii)

Maori scholar Jay Matenga has a similar perspective, in that he claims these pronouns reflect a Western worldview dominated by ownership. In his opinion, the indigenous world is much more orientated to belonging and for Maori, such pronouns have an implicit communal meaning.1 This communal worldview is certainly reflected in the reading of the book of Ruth we find here. Most of the book relates the findings of the 20 Bible studies Havea conducted, and the last two chapters offer some interpretive perspectives and imaginative exercises such as imagining Ruth going into other narratives and places, or beginning to question how we read, remember and understand the biblical narrative.

I found this a fascinating read as, despite coming from the South Pacific, there were so many new angles and different questions from the ones that I would pose the text. I am a white woman, not an indigenous person, so I bring a very different lens to the text. For example, one of the first things the Pasifika readers noted was the question of time. For these islanders a story takes time to unfold. They found the narrative of the family’s departure and border crossing too quick. They wanted to know what kind of family this was, what preparations they made, what food did they carry for the journey. I suspect, as well-fed Westerners used to being able to purchase food whenever we like, this is not a question we would ask. Did they carry baggage? Did they have helpers? Or did they leave everything behind?

Names are important in Pacific cultures. The Bible study participants all knew at least one Ruth but no Orpah or Chilion. This made them sad, and they determined that they would consider these names next time there was a newborn baby in the community. Another interesting perspective is that of colonialism, which meant that some groups were suspicious of Boaz’s generosity. Was he selfless or was he looking for something in return? The participants of Nauru and Ma’ohi Nui wondered this, as these islanders are familiar with extractive mining on their land. These participants knew that Boaz was a plantation owner so he may well have had profit in mind.

I recommend this book because I think it will introduce you to other worlds: the worlds and perspectives of island nations in the South Pacific. Moreover, the overarching frame of climate change and climate grief is not only highly relevant but also highly contextual for these nations who face ever rising sea levels. Havea has cleverly woven this theme of losing ground into this study of Ruth. He does this by exhorting us to realise that it may well be the questions that we ask that are as important as the answers we discover. He reminds us to have the courage to let go of plans, to let go of control and ultimately not to be afraid of losing ground.


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