Some scholars of African culture have regrettably acquired a persistent habit of assuming that Christianity began in Africa only a couple of centuries ago, strictly imported from “the West” or “the North.” They appear to view Africa as only two or three centuries deep, not two or three millennia. This false start is repeated frequently in some well-intended African theological literature. Even the best African theologians have been tempted to fall into the stereotype that Christianity came from Europe. This is a narrow, modern view of history, ignoring Christianity’s first millennium, when African thought shaped and conditioned virtually every diocese in Christianity worldwide.

Thomas C. Oden, How Africa Shaped the Christian Mind: Rediscovering the African Seedbed of Western Christianity, 25.

I first came across this book a week or so ago, and got hugely excited, for the issues that it addresses are ones that I have been aware of, and concerned about, for a long time. I remember teaching in South African theological institutions twelve to fifteen years ago and being frustrated at the extent to which students were inclined to write off Christianity as a “western religion,” something that tended to be reinforced by the attitudes of some academics. I will never forget the words of a colleague who asked “But what theology is there other than western theology?” in response to my suggestion that we should be making our students aware of theological traditions other than western ones! The more I discovered of the early Christian tradition, and the more contact I had with other Christian traditions – an exposure to the contemporary Coptic Church in Egypt made a big impression on me around this time – the more absurd the glib identification of Christianity with modern forms of western post-enlightenment religion became. And I was puzzled that others did not see this, and indeed seemed to dismiss it when it was pointed out to them.

So I was very excited to discover this book. I knew Thomas Oden’s name as the general editor of the Ancient Christian Commentaries on Scripture series and was following up a reference to a more recent book of his on the tradition of Saint Mark – I am after all in the Patriarchate of Alexandria now! – when I stumbled across this book and discovered that it is in the university library. And so I took it out and dived into it. And having done so – and I have not yet finished it – my response has become somewhat mixed.

How Africa Shaped the Christian Mind is as much a manifesto as it is a book. It is not, by and large, an account of Oden’s scholarship as the setting forth of a vision for a major programme of research which seeks to enable African scholars to discover the African roots of Christianity. To this end Oden hopes to establish an international consortium of African scholars and to assist in equipping them with the tools for uncovering and making known the African Christian heritage. (And to this end there is a website here).

In this book Oden paints with broad strokes, outlining the ways in which Africa contributed to the development of what he terms the Christian mind. But the book is as much historiographical as it is historical, for he addresses key interpretive questions, in particular what we mean by “Africa.” This is important, for a common reaction to the suggestion that African Christians should be more concerned about the early Christian experience in Africa, is that “North Africa” does not count as Africa and was rather part of a supposedly homogenous Mediterranean world – a perception whose roots Oden traces to modern western thought, in particular that of Adolf von Harnack. The challenge that he opens up in this book is discover the far more diverse traditions of both the Nile and the Maghreb and the extent to which these extended much further south than has previously been acknowledged.

All this is very exciting and I hope that this project bears much fruit. However, as I have delved into the book, I do have some reservations about aspects of it.

Firstly, I get the sense that Oden sometimes overstates his case. While I have the impression that he is a serious scholar, his particular agenda does seem to sometimes interfere in a way that is almost chauvinistic. I noticed this particularly in his treatment of early monasticism, which is one area where I do have a little background, and where he repeats – and makes much of – the popular idea that Africa gave monasticism to the rest of the Church, whereas recent scholarship is pointing to its far more diffuse origins.

Secondly, Oden speaks a great deal about orthodox Christianity without really defining it. He is himself a Methodist and it seems that he is operating within a sort of “Great Tradition” approach that seeks to embrace historical Protestantism, Roman Catholicism, the Copts and the Orthodox Church, although the last one receives minimal attention (although, it has to be admitted, I’m not sure that that is entirely his fault!). Not unrelated to this is a downplaying of the differences between Latin North Africa and Alexandria, and his apparent embrace of someone like Tertullian who after all ended his life as a Montanist. I’m not saying that all this is wrong, but I would like to see it fleshed out a bit more…

Thirdly, I am just a little uncomfortable with some of his more polemical comments about modern Enlightenment Christianity, moral relativism and the ecumenical movement. I certainly share some of his concerns about the impact of modernity on theology and I know that I am capable of less than entirely temperate comments about some forms of progressive Christianity. However, I am also uncomfortable with the polemics that have developed around this and am quite frankly sickened by the vitriol that one sometimes finds, especially it seems among some conservative Christians in the USA. I just really don’t like to see North American culture wars being exported to Africa, although this forms part of broader issues that are beyond the scope of this blog post.

All in all, this book is the setting of an agenda more than anything else. But it is, I believe, a crucially important agenda and I hope that it gets taken forward in a serious and responsible way.