07 December 2011

Out of Africa?

THOMAS C. ODEN'S How Africa Shaped the Christian Mind: Rediscovering the Seedbed of Western Christianity made its way across my desk more than two years ago, and I have been meaning to publish this short response to it. I remember at the time having my own personal list of books I wanted to read that year already "set in stone," so I resisted the urge. But it just sat there staring me, all short and interesting looking.

So I picked it up.

And I'm glad I did—though not because Oden makes an open-and-shut case for his thesis, which is, in a nutshell, stated in the title of the book itself. The book has indeed given me much to consider and remember when it comes to the magnanimous influence African churchmen have had on Western Christianity. Now, I'm not too familiar with Oden, only by way of his Justification Reader and a few of the Ancient Christian commentaries. He's not above sometimes chipping away the corners of a square peg, as a few  reviewers of his Reader have noted. This short book is no different in that regard; one gets the sneaking suspicion that some conclusions have been slightly exaggerated. But Oden anticipates all this, which does his argument service.

The evidence for the thesis itself apparently became manifest to him (and others) during the course of his many years of work on the Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture. "We were not prepared for the breadth and power of this evidence," Oden writes. "Nowhere in the literature could we find this influence explained. Everywhere in the literature it seemed to be either ignored or resisted. It came only from decades of experience with African texts and ideas. Finally we learned to trace the path back from Antioch, Jerusalem, Constantinople, Nisibis and Rome to its origins in Africa" (p. 29). From this good report comes one of the more annoying features of the book, however. And that is Oden's penchant for seeming somewhat shrill in his brief and scattered diatribes against the neglect of his thesis over the past few generations of historical scholarship. But once you get used to those jarring interruptions, the easier it is to tune them out.

At its best, this short book does serve as an exhortation to be on the lookout for "European chauvinism" (p. 23), when the evidences for the history of the transmission of African Christian traditions have been largely ignored, when the movement of Christian thought headed north out of Africa instead of south into Africa.


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