How Africa Shaped the Christian Mind by Thomas C Oden

How Africa Shaped the Christian Mind: Rediscovering the African Seedbed of Western ChristianitySummary: Much of the early church was African. The west has largely forgotten its African character and misremembered the importance and reach of the African church. 

One of the important points here is very similar to the one made in this article about the rise of the Nation of Islam that it has been the misuse of Christianity that has led to African (or African American) rejections of Christianity as a White religion. European Christians, especially post Hegalian, viewed the early church fathers as necessarily being European in character because they were essential to the development of Christianity. This ignores the reality that most of the early church fathers were ethnically and culturally African. Most of them spoke Greek and/or Latin, but that is because those were common trade languages. Today we would not say that Bishop Desmond Tutu was European in character because he speaks and writes in English. And that also ignores those that were not writing in Latin or Gre,ek such as St Anthony, who was illiterate, but the only surviving letters we have from him (that were dictated) were in Coptic.

A point which I had not heard before was that the consular format of the early church councils, which are today the basis of what is and is not considered orthodoxy and heresy, were developed by African Christians for use in Africa before they were used in the broader ecumenical councils.

Where I think that Oden gets into a problem is evaluating modern movements. He is a good theologian and historian but tends to paint modern movements too broadly to be helpful. In his section on ecumenicism, there are people that fit into his critique, but many that do not. And because he is not nuanced enough in that critique (and I want to be clear that this would be very difficult), I suspect there are people that will dismiss the clearer theological and historical work as also suspect.

Oden makes a very good case for the diversity of the continent and the need to account for all of the continent when discussing history, but I think he then becomes much more narrow when discussing the modern church, which has an equally diverse and messy origin. I want to affirm the historical work of the church in Africa, but modern Christian movements that have been influenced by Europe or the United States do not cease to be African. I want to affirm his point that many of these modern movements would benefit from a rediscovery of ancient African Christianity, but it does become paternalistic to argue against a modern African post-colonial or post-modernist approach as less African than historical African Christianity.

And I think this is where his initial inclination that he should not be the one writing this book matters. Where he is most helpful is the historical work. Where he is the least helpful I think, is the modern evaluation and suggestions. Where White outsiders should help is equipping more  Africans for language and cultural studies. And writing books about history and cultural studies may be appropriate. But I do think that Oden was right to be hesitant as a scholar from the US to enter into this area of research. That being said, this is worth reading. There is very much that is good here and only small portions that I think verge into unhelpful.

There is a helpful section (really about 1/4 of the book) at the end that is a brief timeline that helps walk the reader through the African contributions to Christian history. Several reviews complain that this is just a bare introduction, and that is right. There needs to be much more, but I don’t think that Oden was the one to do that (he has since passed away). He provided much leadership in getting the western White mainline and evangelical church to pay attention to the ancient church, which is what led to his work on the early African church. It is interesting to me that this is a path that I have seen many others follow as well. The church is far more diverse, and that history and content really does matter more, than what many US Christians believe. It matters that many protestants view church history as the early church through the age of the apostles and then skips to the reformation. It also matters that even those that want to understand broader Christian history tend to only want to look at the Western church. And it also matters that even those that do want to read Augustine or the Desert Fathers or others want to make them into proto-Protestant Europeans instead of African Christians that existed before the east/west split or the Catholic/Protestant split. The work Oden is doing here is essential, but this book isn’t written for the average Christian but the scholar. That isn’t to say the average person cannot read it, I certainly did, but it is not targeted at me.

How Africa Shaped the Christian Mind by Thomas C Oden Purchase Links: Paperback, Kindle Edition, Audiobook 

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