Doctor of Leadership in Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World

The Forgotten History of our African Fathers

Written by: on June 29, 2017

I really enjoyed reading through Thomas Oden’s provocative history How Africa Shaped the Christian Mind: Rediscovering the African Seedbed of Western Christianity.   I enjoyed being reminded of the central and critical role that Africa and Africans played in shaping what we think of as Western Christianity and Western Christian thought and theology.

Oden states plainly: Africa played a decisive role in the formation of Christian culture. Decisive intellectual achievements of Christianity were explored and understood first in Africa before they were recognized in Europe, and a millennium before fore they found their way to North America. (Oden, Kindle location 42).  I enjoyed having my attention drawn to this fact for many reasons, but perhaps the biggest is that in my multi-ethnic church, there are a lot of ‘cross-overs’:

  • The ‘Cameroonian’ order of worship is incredibly similar to the standard order that is found in the PC(USA) Book of Common Worship.  This is, in large part because the Presbyterian church of the Cameroon adopted it’s worship order (if not all of it’s style), for the German, French and English speaking missionaries that came to their country.
  • While many of our Cameroonian hymns are truly Cameroonian in origin, more often than you might imagine, we will get to our Cameroonian hymn begin to sign and realize that this hymn is not Cameroonian at all, but something that was brought with the missionaries and taught to the Cameroonians, that, eventually became so ingrained into their experience and culture of worship that it was viewed as theirs.

Oden is, of course, highlighting a cross over of much deeper significance that goes in exactly the opposite direction.  And in the systematic manner in which he lays out the evidence makes clear – or really reminds us – that it is in Africa that much of what we cling to as Western Christianity, Western Christian thought and Western theology begins.

So, in this book there is a lot to celebrate and much that put a smile on my face.  However, as I thought about the names that Oden drops as Africans we owe a debt to – Early Church Fathers, theologians that paved the way for all of us.  One thing struck me, that highlighted both an historical issue for the church (and our society) and a current leadership challenge: The names of these African church fathers: Augustine, Origen, Tertillian being three of the most prominent.

These are not minor players in Christian thought or history.  These are pillars of Christian history.  These are giants of Western Christian theology.  Why doesn’t everyone know that they were African?   I feel like I have encountered various waves of people swept up in periods of time where it was trendy (as much as anything related to early Christianity can be trendy) to be really in to Augustine – but I never heard any of them talk about his being African….(some of these people were hipsters, so I feel like if this was known information it definitely would have been shared).

I think the word I want to use to describe what is going on here is appropriation, which in our 21st century dialogue is definitely a loaded word – but, I think it is the right one from a sociological perspective.  In the Wikipedia definition of sociological appropriation we find this:

According to Tracy B Strong it contains the Latin root proprius, which, “carries the connotations not only of property, but also of proper, stable, assured and indeed of common or ordinary.” He elaborates: “I have appropriated something when I have made it mine, in a manner that I feel comfortable with, that is in a manner to which the challenges of others will carry little or no significance. A text, we might then say, is appropriated when its reader does not find himself or herself called into question by it, but does find him or herself associated with it. A text is successfully appropriated insofar as the appropriator no longer is troubled with it; it has become a part of his or her understanding, and it is recognized by others as ‘owned,’ not openly available for interpretation.” According to Gloria Anzaldúa, “the difference between appropriation and proliferation is that the first steals and harms; the second helps heal breaches of knowledge.” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Appropriation_(sociology) emphasis mine)

If I am being honest – I think there may be a lot of value in engaging in a discussion about whether we as Christians have appropriated Scripture from the Holy Spirit…. but that is a different discussion…. I think that Western Christianity has appropriated the African seedbed (as Oden calls it) of its own thought and making because it seems to forget or ignore where that thought comes from – or more directly what the people who first had that thought looked like.

In the Kingdom of God where there is no Greek or Jew, male nor Female, maybe this shouldn’t matter.  But we live in the ‘already and not yet’, and we most definitely see dimly as in a mirror – we have not yet realized the promises that God has given to us.  We are still in a world so often organized around circles drawn and notes taken about who is inside and who is outside of them.  The fact that this matters can be shown in the inverse the image below is the first picture that came up in a google image search of Jesus…. but we all know Jesus didn’t look like this, right?  I mean he was born in Israel, in the middle east…. he’s not European…. he’s not European [And of course, that is the wonder and the glory – and yet he still calls us his own and into his family….]

Is it possible that our denominational ancestors might have approached the ‘mission field’ with at least a slightly less colonialist bent if they had in mind that they weren’t going to the ‘Dark Continent’ but the ‘Seedbed of their own faith’?  One can hope.

Might we have more grace and understanding as we navigate the often difficult and sometimes painful transitions that occur when diverse cultures come together – bringing with them different traditions and expectations for worship, etc. – under one church community roof.

I always loved Steven Colbert’s ‘character’ on the Daily Show and one of his longest running bits was that he would always pretend to not know when someone was African American or whatever ethnicity they were.  He would say, ‘oh, you are, I had no idea, I don’t see color’…. And sometimes as leaders – not to that ridiculous degree, of course, but we think that is the ideal…. But I don’t believe it is.  And that is part of the lesson of Oden’s work for us too.  We need to recognize and celebrate who we each are, where we come from, what are differences are and the history that comes with it – or we might just forget it and one day think that it was always just ours.

About the Author

Chip Stapleton

Follower of Jesus Christ. Husband to Traci. Dad to Charlie, Jack, Ian and Henry. Preacher of Sermons, eater of ice cream, supporter of Arsenal. I love to talk about what God is doing in the world & in and through us & create space and opportunity for others to use their gifts to serve God and God's people.

One response to “The Forgotten History of our African Fathers”

  1. Katy Drage Lines says:

    Well put. Thanks for reflecting.

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