I grew up in a church affiliated with denomination that focuses a lot on foreign missionary endeavors. Every year, around Christmas, our church took up a special offering to honor Lottie Moon, a missionary to China in the late nineteenth century. She is the closest thing Southern Baptists have to a Saint. We assembled little cardboard boxes about the size and shape of those that contain animal crackers, with a slot on the top. During Advent my brothers and I scrimped and saved our pocket change and put it in these makeshift banks. On the appointed Sunday, our box returned to our church and joined dozens of others as we did our part to support the efforts of our foreign missionaries.As I grew older I participated in our church’s annual Missions Conference. One week a year we called together all furloughed missionaries our church supported and had them set up information tables, share in Sunday School classes, and chat with people during the Wednesday evening spaghetti supper. I can still smell the garlic bread, taste the sweet, yet acidic canned red sauce on the overcooked noodles, and feel the plastic utensils against my Styrofoam plate. I listened in awe, regaled by tales of otherwise normal people uprooting their lives to take literally Christ’s commandment to go into all the world, preaching the Gospel.
Each year, one missionary couple was asked to be the keynote speaker for the Missions Banquet. They shared their story, often dressed in the regalia of the people group among which they lived. More often than not, the keynote speakers worked somewhere in Africa. It seemed so romantic, so dangerous. Imagine, an ordinary kid like me might one day end up among savage peoples, spreading the word of God (oh, how the mind of a suburban twelve-year-old can run away!). Later in life, however, my enthusiasm to follow the call of God on my life was replaced by fear of the implications such following might entail. Africa seemed distant, uncivilized, and scary. I silently quipped, “If I tell God I’ll follow Him anywhere, He’ll probably send me to Africa.” So I prayed that He would call me into some docile ministry to people near me, like me. Like the Scott Wesley Brown song, I used to pray, “Please don’t send me to Africa.”
The underlying assumption at the core of this mentality was that Africa stood as the final frontier for Christian missions. It was commonly understood that Africa was full of unreached people groups who had never heard the Gospel and that it was our Christian duty to take it to them. Thomas C. Oden’s book How Africa Shaped the Christian Mind endeavors to undo this assumption. He challenges the notion that Christianity spread from Europe to Africa in the nineteenth century, asserting that the opposite happened more than a millennium earlier. It is Africa, and her long Christian tradition, that acted as the “seedbed” for later Western Christian thought. Nearly everything Western Christianity prides itself on – from the idea of the university to monasticism to high intellectual theology – was prefigured or predated in Africa. Nor was this a coastal phenomenon, as some scholars might concede when confronted with evidence of Christianity’s long tenure on the continent. Christianity spread around the continent like any other idea or good: via the rivers. Up and down the Nile as merchants exchanged goods, they also exchanged ideas. Oden asserts that Christianity made an appearance in sub-Saharan Africa centuries before some of the tribal pagan religions that are still present today. Yet much of this has been forgotten, downplayed, or rewritten. Oden offers that an intense movement of African-led scholarship is needed to reclaim Africa’s history and restore her to her rightful place among the Christian elite. Recent generations of Western-educated African scholars have perpetuated and not sufficiently challenged the Euro-centric claims of modern Christian academia. Oden’s hope is that by calling attention to the damage done by generations of intellectual snobbery toward Africa and her contributions to the Church, he can generate substantial interest among a new generation of rising African scholars in reclaiming and rooting their continent’s Christian heritage. As a product of a worldview that looks at the West (and America in particular) as the new promised land, I agree with Oden that such a corrective is direly needed. Yet I have some concerns. Much of the intellectual prowess in the world is still focused in the West. This almost certainly requires emerging African scholars to spend time in American or European universities. How can we ensure that they don’t fall prey to the same fatal mistakes as their immediate predecessors, intellectually or culturally? Moreover, Oden assumes the existence (or imminent creation) of a technological level playing field. Access to the wealth of scholarship available around the globe is heavily dependent upon access to broadband internet. The equipment and infrastructure required is costly, limiting access to even the brightest Africans. Without such access, how are these emerging scholars to go about their work in situ? These and other questions need to be addressed for traction to be gained under Oden’s thesis. He seems fine with questions and prescriptions. His books is full of them. Yet there seems to be a vital missing link. I imagine that what is needed is a global consortium of emerging scholars who will come alongside emerging African scholars to do the work together. My doctoral cohort is a nascent example of just such a consortium. While we are mostly White, Western Males, (the lone exception a Burundi Pastor) the way in which we communicate with one another, teach and learn from one another, and elevate each other to new levels of scholarship might offer a humble model for future attempts at global scholarship. Whatever the case, Oden’s book does an excellent job at raising awareness. What is needed next is action based on the awareness raised.