Rewriting church history
Thomas C. Oden’s brief work, How Africa Shaped the Christian Mind, is a tantalizing, mouth-watering attempt to whet the appetite of the reader toward feasting on new ideas. His astonishing premise radically reshapes traditional Western concepts of the foundations of the Christian faith which I was educated under. Gone is a myopic, Eurocentric perspective on the development of Christian faith over the centuries. In its place are breadcrumbs scattered along a shrouded path, small indicators revealing possibilities that enrich our faith as global, multicultural, and diverse. Oden’s claim is that Christian faith was first nurtured and preserved in Africa by Africans.
This gap in Christian history comes from assuming that since the early African theological writings were written in the language of the empire – Greek and Latin – they must therefore be a reflection of a European worldview. Oden suggests that non-European thought patterns rooted in African realities actually became fundamental to how the Christian faith developed in the first millennium. The earliest streams of Christian faith as expressed in monasticism, ecumenism, exegesis and iconography, are all sourced in northern Africa.
It does not seem to be Oden’s intent to develop comprehensive arguments for a robust Afrocentric theology in this volume. Instead, he lays clues for future detectives, armed with academic research capabilities and the languages of the continent – Arabic, Swahili, Zulu – to lead contemporary Africans in recovering their history and building a stronger, more resilient Church on the continent. Indeed, he urges this more than once throughout the book.
The work for this window of opportunity, says Oden, is narrow and must be seized now. African Christianity is confronting different contemporary challenges. On one hand, emotive and charismatic African Christian expression common throughout the continent is destined to scorch in the sun without nourishing from the waters of two millennia of historic Christian tradition, their lifegiving liturgies, and the foundations of Christian theology. With this careful and patient watering, the seemingly rootless African expressions of Christianity evident in the many independent sects throughout the continent may find their true home and a deeper connection to worldwide Christianity.
Another challenge that presents itself is the rise of a militant and aggressively expanding Islam in the continent. Oden suggests that the harsher edges of Islam could be shaped by dialogue with a recovery of the common Christian tradition rooted in the Maghreb and Nile River Valley. Where Africans are being actively wooed to Islam in reaction to Western Christianity’s colonial past, a recovery of Christianity’s African identity demonstrates the indigeneity of Christian faith on the continent. Imagine this strange and compelling contrast – the harsh environments where Desert Fathers and Mothers isolated themselves in prayer and fasting one day bearing the fruit of interreligious dialogue and mutual learning.
This book brought me joy. It reveals the unusually mysterious way that God seems to work. What is marginalized, forgotten and ignored is revealed in due course as the central preserving agent for the integrity of the faith we hold so dear. During the Dark Ages when European civilizations were disintegrating and under attack from disease and war, Christian faith was being carefully cultivated in prayer, art, and faithful communion by Africans hidden in the mountains and deserts.
We must remember this mystery today. Even as our own cultural fundamentals are being shaken and the Christian roots of Western society are being discarded, God’s faithfulness in preserving His church is firm, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it. It is not through might and power that the Christian church will be preserved, but in and among those on the margins of our world.
6 responses to “Rewriting church history”
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I’m looking forward to getting to meet you in person in a couple of weeks.
I appreciate your summary. I think you articulate many of Oden’s points (as well as his purpose for writing the book) better than he did. One of the things I found frustrating in this book were the many great assertions that I believe to be true, but that Oden failed to back up and illustrate, instead calling on others to do further research.
One such assertion is the the one you referenced here:
“Oden suggests that non-European thought patterns rooted in African realities actually became fundamental to how the Christian faith developed in the first millennium.”
He briefly touched on some of those patterns, but so very briefly that it was hard to grasp onto what he was saying. I felt like Oden spent a lot of time waggling around the tee, but rarely hit the ball! So can you help me? Did you catch any particulars about these non-European thought patterns that became fundamental to the development of the Christian faith and of orthodoxy? Or were they as absent for you as they were for me?
Yes! They were absent for me as well. It was initially frustrating to me that that Oden did not provide evidence for his theories.
So why did he write this? For me the clue was in his repeated exhortation for further study.
I heard a bit of his back story at a seminar I happened to attend in the late 2000s. If I recall correctly, he had finished editing the massive 29-volume Ancient Christian Commentary, delving deeply into the works of the earliest Christian thinkers, and he and his colleagues believed they had stumbled onto a Western bias against their African origins. (Be glad this isn’t on our book list: https://www.ivpress.com/ancient-christian-commentary-on-scripture.)
I approached the book as if it were a “call to arms” to the academic community to dig in and invest a lifetime of research into these tantalizing new, potentially fruitful, areas of study. It seems the author was being deliberately provocative in order to push this community into proving him wrong, or, hopefully, right. Once I accepted that this was his intent, I no longer looked for him to supply evidence of his claims.
Maybe we should just call him an “agent provocateur”? 🙂
I am still cracking up at you mentioning during our first chat session, “this group is safe for me because we only grant to Canadian ministries.” Well said! I was the chief fund raiser for a Christian college in Montana and my first thought before your comment was, “I should have asked them for some cash.”
Really looking forward to meeting you!
Jay … It was one of those “I-can’t-believe-I-just-said-that” moments. I’m looking forward to learning with you on this journey!!
Thanks for a great review of Oden’s work and I especially appreciate your global attention to the “militant and aggressively expanding” forms of Islam in Africa and the world. While serving in Africa I did see the strategic attempts to “woo” the people groups of typically colonialized Christian countries towards Islam. However, where I served in Sub-Saharan Africa I saw that Islam had competition too, from Jehovah Witness, Mormonism, and other more tribal offshoots of Catholicism and Christianity.
While I agree with the academic challenge presented by Oden, my experience with the new African scholars that I knew, who studied in South Africa for their MDiv and DMin degrees, were more worried about Africa’s future than their past challenges of their legacy.
Amen! Thank you for this post, Mark. I was inspired by your passion and hopeful spirit in your post, particularly the confidence you showed regarding how God works on the margins. Surely we will be neck deep in this truth in the coming weeks. Looking forward to getting to know you!