Thursday, January 12, 2012

How Africa Shaped The Christian Mind, by Oden

How was Christianity introduced to Africa? In his book How Africa Shaped the Christian Mind: Rediscovering the African Seedbed of Western ChristianityThomas Oden argues against the common notion that Christianity was a modern introduction to Africa as a result of Anglo-European colonization. In fact, Oden pushes hard against the notion by saying that the Ango-European world actually is greatly indebted to Africa for its contributions early on helping shape a general ecumenical consensus to what authentic Christianity now is recognized as being, a time-tested, Holy-Spirit-led consensus over time that shapes the very essence of what orthodox belief in fact is ("Mere Christianity" as C.S. Lewis so famously put it). In fact, Oden would say much of the very seedbed of not just Western Christianity, but global Christianity, is greatly indebted to Africa as well:

A demeaning prejudice has crept into historical lore…. The more provincial, the more truly African? The more cosmopolitan, the less African? We do not want to go there. If so, the African continent cannot embrace as its own even Didymus the Blind or the great Desert Mother Sarah or the Tall Brothers of Wadi al-Natrun. Even more ludicrous is the claim that the African continenet cannot include Thebian-born Pachomius or Numidian-born Optatus.

Whether Tertullian and Cyprian and Augustine learned everything from Rome can easily be answered on the basis of impartial textual analysis. These Africans were being seriously read in Rome during their lifetimes when they were living in Africa because they were teaching in a way pertinent and useful to Rome and the awakening wider European ethos. Among the most decisive things Augustine personally learned in Italy, according to his own Confessions (8.6.14), was the impact made upon him from hearing from Pontitianus of the holy life of Antony of the African desert, written by the African patriarch Athanasius.

Look at a map of Egypt and review the geographical range of pastoral responsibility of Athanasius. It was the whole of the lower delta and the middle Nile valley with diocesan responsibilities reaching beyond the first cataracts, with their widely varied subcultures and languages. His responsibility was not just with the Alexandrians who spoke Greek. In any case the ethnographic evidence shows that a large proportion of Alexandrians were themselves Egyptian ethnics, many of whom doubtless spoke several languages (Syriac, proto-Arabic, Aramiac, Nilotic variants, etc.) in order to deal with commercial realities in that greatest of international port cities.

Antony of the desert lived most of his hundred-plus years (c. 251-356!) in a very remote part of the far eastern desert of Egypt, many days journey from any Greek-speaking city. It is inexact to simply identify Antony as an Alexandrian without remembering the mountain cave where he founded anchorite monasticism. Athanasius spent long periods of time in the Egyptian desert, in hiding or in forced exile. Only seated prejudices can blithely charge that these great leaders were not genuinely African.

Almost every turn in African Christian history is misjudged if it lives by the premise that Europeans have a natural advantage built into their intellectual DNA. This bungled premise misread the significance of the inland African struggles of Coptic Christianity for centuries following the Arab conquest. The stereotype also misjudges the dept of the encounter of early African Christianity with indigenous Punic and Berber cultures. It misreads the relation of Christianity to the Nilotic-speaking traditional African religion in the southern part of the Nile, which extends all the way to present day Sudan and Uganda. It considers as negligible the subtle dialectical forms of cultural interaction between Christianity and African cultures that occurred gradually over centuries of shared hazards and mutual learning.

There is an enduring pre-Christian traditional African religious past in the North of Africa during the entire first Christian millennium: Pharaonic, proto-Nubian, Libyan, Capsian and Ghanian, reaching far back into African prehistory. It remains indigeneously African even while being militarily forced to adapt to multiple colonial coercions. Early Christianity had to deal with these deeply engrained traditional African cultures in the isolated villages of the Maghreb and Nile, not only with Greco-Roman civic religion. It was the strength of that traditional African religion transformed by Christianity that stood up to idolatrous Roman civic religion.  How Africa Shaped the Christian Mind, pp. 62-66 

Oden's book is a fascinating read, especially to get us to read Holy Scripture through an "African lens." Here are a few tidbits for consideration that Oden gives to us: a) Jesus and his family flee to Africa before being "called out of Egypt"; b) Simon of Cyrene (Libya) carries Jesus' Cross; c) The Ethiopian Eunuch, treasurer to Queen Candace of Ethiopia, on his return to Africa, converts to Christianity (Acts 8); d) Mark, a cousin of Barnabas, accompanies Barnabas to Antioch (Acts 12:25) and back to Cyprus (Acts 15:39), all cities accessible to seafaring Jewish merchants from ports of Africa: Berenice, Pelusium, Alexandria and Carthage.

Africa has always been a "major player" in recognizing the work of the Spirit and giving voice to the heart of Biblical orthodoxy early on where found. Might it be that we have it backwards when we assume that it is those of us in the West who have brought the Gospel to Africa when in fact much of how the Gospel has come to us has been through Africa? Food for thought, definitely.

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