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How Africa Shaped the Christian Mind: A Drive-by Book Review

Thomas Oden’s How Africa Shaped the Christian Mind is obviously born of deep passion to recover the roots of early African Christianity and especially to encourage African scholars and theologians themselves to dig deeper into the literary sources and make their own case for the central role Africans played in the shaping of the consensual orthodoxy of the patristic era. Oden explains how his work as editor of the Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture series led him to realize how many early Christian thinkers—not only Augustine and Athanasius but Tertullian, Cyprian, Origen, Lactantius, Optatus, and many others—were products of an African cultural milieu.

He argues passionately that these figures were no less “African” because they mainly lived in the northernmost districts of the continent, and that most if not all of them were both culturally and ethnically at home with the various indigenous African peoples—Berber, Punic, Coptic, Nilotic, Ethiopian, etc.—who lived and died far from the Hellenized cities in which they often ministered, and among whom they often lived. (Athanasius’ frequent exiles among the various Nilotic peoples of Upper Egypt comes to mind.) From these major population centers, Christianity spread into Africa’s interior, as far as the headwaters of the Nile in Uganda and certainly to the Sudan and Ethiopia during pre-Constantinian times.

In the end, to deny that these giants of faith were truly “Africans” or that their practice of the Christian faith was an “indigenous African religion” is to strip these terms of any rational meaning. Oden’s fondest wish would be for young African Christians from throughout the continent to reclaim these figures as their own. He is, in fact, rather distressed that so many African theologians have been influenced more by European and North American modernism (and postmodernism) than by the indigenous, nearly 2,000-year-old Christian traditions of their own continent.

Oden’s case is convincing as far as it goes, but it is really more of a Prolegomenon to the study of early African Christianity. (And he has launched a research project to continue the work, Early African Christianity.) When it comes to specifics, Oden is disappointingly sparse. In part, this is surely because many of the primary sources, written originally not only in Greek and Latin but also Coptic, Ge’ez, and—yes—Arabic have yet to be translated.

Still, I would have wished for at least a little bit of help in understanding what precisely Oden sees as the “genius” of early African Christianity: what it was that the early church learned in Africa before teaching it to the broader Christian world. If you read something like Thomas Cahill’s How the Irish Saved Civilization or even George G. Hunter’s The Celtic Way of Evangelism, you come away with at least a tentative sense of what makes “Celtic Christianity” tick. In How Africa Shaped the Christian Mind, there is occasional reference to the “African metaphors” that shaped the thinking of Athanasius and the rest, but there is very little meat on those bones. The nearest we get to specific examples of how African culture left its mark on its first Christian adherents is (1) a moving chapter on the African martyrs as a challenge to the idea that orthodoxy is nothing more than the truth as told by the “winners,” in which one finds (2) a single reference (tied to the continuity of the communion of saints) to the value of honoring the ancestors, and also (3) this tantalizing sentence: “These metaphors—Eucharist, faithfulness to death, martyrdom and ascetic discipline—were constantly interwoven in early African exegesis of Scripture” (123).

In the end, a more accurate title for the book would have been achieved by dropping its first word. Oden is clear that “Africa Shaped the Christian Mind.” As to how, a reader will have to do a bit of additional homework to find out. For my part, I think I’m going to start by re-reading The Spirituality of African Peoples by Peter J. Paris to sensitize myself to the key themes he lays out, then attempt to bring them into my subsequent readings and re-readings of early African theologians.

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2 Comments

  1. Terri says:

    Thanks Darrell! I’m afraid I would identify more with those who’ve had the perception that African Christianity was more a movement from those Hellenic cities and centers mentioned and hadn’t thought much about it from the other side. I’ll look for the book you mention at the end. 🙂

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  2. Oden throws out the idea that Africans achieved some sort of synthesis between the Hellenistic culture (which had been present on the continent for 300+ years before Christ) and indigenous Berber, Coptic, etc. cultures. So the African appropriation of Hellenism is itself part of authentic African culture—somewhat like Hellenistic Judaism is still Judaism even though it is deeply steeped in Hellenism. Many of the earliest advocates of neo-Platonism, for example, hailed from Africa rather than Greece. My one frustration with this book is that Oden will toss out a nugget like that and never really develop his line of thinking.

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