My first visit to Africa was in college, when I studied abroad in Cairo for two months. It’s very difficult to imagine Egypt as “Africa,” because we in the West, when we think of “Africa,” we are formed to imagine sub-Saharan (black) Africa. The author of course addressed this and defined the term “Africa” generically in the beginning to describe the entire continent. He continued to make a case for a deep rootedness in thought, experience, and worldview, which ties these peoples with seemingly divergent histories together, as a primary influence on the Christian mind throughout the world today.
The second time I visited Africa was to travel with Emmanuel Kopwe (from Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania), who was working on reconciliation in conflict regions in sub-Saharan Africa. We met at the airport in Kinshasa, the Democratic Republic of Congo, in 2005. The influence of colonialism was palpable, and the consequences could be experienced with all five senses. The church was caught up in the divisions and conflicts of the communities, villages, and government. I was invited to a gathering of denominational leaders and dignitaries. The clergyman were jockeying for position at the table, each wearing his own liturgical tradition’s version of ornate European vestments. Yet, poverty, enmity, hatred, and violence was ravaging the land and the church was mirroring the conflict. Emmanuel was trying to help bring reconciliation to the country via reconciliation in the church. Reflecting on this experience after reading this book causes me to share the conviction that the recovery of a true history of Christianity that is deeply African, is most beneficial for the future unity, identity and flourishing of the church in Africa.
The author was neither unclear nor shy about the premise of his book. Oden clearly states repeatedly throughout the book that Africa’s contribution to Christianity throughout history has largely been not just forgotten, but ignored. While the examples he gives to support his points are sparse, the passion with which he argues, along with the sense that his research is thorough, is evident in every chapter of the book.
His arguments would have been more convincing if he had shown his work a bit more. For example, in writing about how the ecumenical council model was shaped in Africa a century prior to the Council of Nicaea, he makes the simple assertion: “They debated disruptive issues through rigorous scriptural inquiry” (49). But he gives no mention of neither the content nor the character of the issues they debated. I suppose it’s beside the point, except that his argument would be more convincing if he showed the reader more of the history he has discovered or uncovered.
I also found particular interest in how the African desert gave birth to European monasticism. That’s not surprising to read, though I wonder if there were not earlier Christian communities practicing a way of monastic life in the Judean wilderness prior the African (Egyptian) monastic experience. Certainly there were even Jewish communities, such as Qumran, who practiced a similar way of life and may have had more of an influence than did Africa. I really do not know because the author did not speak to their earlier communities. Oden’s work here is broad in scope, with many names scattered throughout history, and very different African communities described generically as African, as intended.
In general, I found the content of the book unsurprising, which made it challenging to keep my interest. Still, I found myself, as I read the book, reflecting back on the many narratives I have learned to the contrary, that the author aptly identified as Euro-centric and historically biased, or completely false to begin with.
As a former Roman Catholic Christian turned Reformed Christian, with a Bachelor’s degree in Classical Rhetoric, I have particular interest in the influence of Augustine in both western theology and western thought. He writes: “This pre-Eusebian tradition of African historical observers became the predecessors of the even more influential Augustinian understanding of universal history. Augustine drew together these African and Mediterranean sources in the most sophisticated and complete way in his magnificent work, ‘The City of God,’” which made its way throughout early medieval Europe, and an eschatology that is finally being recovered in the West today (121).
Another of the many great contributions of Africa to the Christian mind throughout the world is the deep sense of the active work of the Holy Spirit, built upon an orthodox pneumatology that has been in the soil of Africa for thousands of years. The role of suffering in the formation of African spirituality could have been more developed in the book, but the following is worth noting regarding today’s African Christianity: “The growing vitality of African independent Christianity today is not simply about the privately emotive, charismatic or the here-and-now work of the Holy Spirit. It also embraces the history of the Holy Spirit at work over the millennia in Africa. African Christianity is grounded in this concrete and palpable sense of redemptive suffering in history. As in the incarnation of the Son, the Spirit works in and through the flesh” (121).