Sunday, October 24, 2010

The Search for the African Christian Tradition

A few weeks back I finished reading Thomas Oden’s How African Shaped the Christian Mind: Rediscovering the African Seedbed of Western Christianity. The author claims to be presenting a case for an ancient African Christianity to encourage the growing African Christian population. Just by reading that last sentence, you’ve probably spotted the problem, as I did somewhere near the beginning of the first chapter. What does he mean by “African”?

Ancient North Africa produced many theologians (e.g., Augustine, Clement of Alexandria, Origen, Tertullian), church traditions (Coptic Orthodox and Ethiopian Orthodox), and Christians of many different ethnicities (Berber/Numidian, Coptic/Egyptian, Ethiopian, Nubian, etc.). It’s a no-brainer that Christians today of any heritage should be studying the contributions and lives (especially the martyrdoms) of this region. However, Oden, playing with terminology, argues that this heritage is of particular importance to what might be called black Africa, the “Negro,” “Niger-Congo,” or “Sub-Saharan African” world. To him racial divide and social isolation don’t matter, but the modern scientific definition of “continental plate” does. Any “Africa” is “Africa” in his book, but he remains as unconvincing as if he were telling Queen Elizabeth to study her Basque heritage. Even discussing the need to translate the ancient writings into completely unrelated languages (e.g., Zulu and Swahili) should tell Oden that something’s amiss. The chronology provided in the back of the book is another clue: No members of the Niger-Congo family to be found, and I looked really, really hard.

Oden has a legitimate concern about the future of African Christianity. Islam is promoted falsely as an indigenous language compared to Christianity, which has been cast as the religion of conquest. Everything from legitimate historical research to silly works of fiction like Alex Haley’s Roots: The Saga of an American Family reiterate a Muslim legacy. An old Christian tradition has been a source of comfort for the persecuted Assyrians and Coptics, but unfortunately not everyone has the ability to draw from such a long history. However, Christianity is about tearing down walls between nations. We can take comfort from the lives of people who shared our faith and yet were of a different background, culture, ethnicity, language group, race, or social class.

What I admire are Oden’s aspirations for reviving the works of ancient “African” Christians. Sub-Saharan Africans should be able to read Augustine and Origen in their own languages just as we now have English translations widely available. I’m looking forward to seeing what The Center for Early African Christianity accomplishes over the next decades in that regard. However, we just can’t expect children in Botswana to connect with these teachings any more than children in China. It’s equally their Christian heritage. (And likely equally boring.)

Also, Oden is focusing on the past to the detriment of the present. It’s not as if there is no local Christian tradition from which Sub-Saharan Africans can draw. There’s at least two centuries if not more of converts, cultural transition, schools, and churches to discuss. Read anything written by the old Anglican bishops. Listen to the Nigerian composers of both high church and gospel music. Keep up with the controversies in Kenya and Uganda over homosexuality. And I’m speaking to the Americans here. We should be promoting the Sub-Saharan African Christian tradition that really exists instead of telling our brothers and sisters in Christ to confirm their identity in the ancient Mediterranean world. We don’t like it when the historical revisionists claim Socrates was “black.” We don’t need to be doing the same for the Early Church Fathers.