R U Global — African Christianity

African Christianity: An African Story, edited by Ogbu U. Kalu. Trenton, NJ: Africa World Press, 2007.

Reviewed by Robert Sivigny, University Librarian

It may be said that in two thousand years of church history, no area of the world has been the recipient of Christian mission more than the continent of Africa. African Christianity: An African Story presents something of a progress report—indeed an exciting and encouraging one—documenting a vibrant history and setting the stage for Africa’s place in 21st century global Christianity.

Ogbu Kalu, both editor and contributor to this work, gathered together a group of eighteen African church historians with the intent of presenting windows into a distinctly African history of Christianity, “completely by Africans and in an African context.” Kalu, who passed away just last year, was a professor of church history at the University of Nigeria for over twenty years. Intended primarily for seminary students, this study attempts to identify major themes or story lines, demonstrating African Christian encounters, struggles, and achievements.

Most interesting is chapter five, “Islamic Challenges in African Christianity,” by Akintunde Akinade, a professor at Georgetown University. Akinade analyzes how various African countries, especially in the north, have coped with Islamic advances and cultural disparity. Several countries have a long history of Islamic and Christian culture conflict. For example, Nigeria, Akinade’s own country, struggles today with a 50%/50% Islamic/Christian population. Such countries, he says, have the potential of providing paradigms for other countries dealing with similar cultural issues. Akinade cites historian Phillip Jenkins, who claims that one of the critical challenges of Christianity in the twenty-first century is knowing how to relate to Islam. According to Akinade, “This realization is crucial to contemporary Africa. In fact, the continent provides a veritable laboratory for analyzing a host of emerging themes relevant to relations between the two faiths” (p. 103). What is the solution? Akinade writes that first of all, each side needs to realize that Islam and Christianity are both authentic African religions. Furthermore, there must be dialogue that can “mobilize Christians and Muslims to see beyond the manipulations of the nation-state and the vicious agenda of some self-proclaimed religious demagogues. Both Christianity and Islam contain value systems that can contribute to meaningful inter-religious dialogue within a pluralistic nation like Africa. One of the primary objectives of dialogue is the common search for a workable paradigm of society and cooperation in building a human community that safeguards religious freedom and respects differences and particularities” (p. 118).

In chapter eleven, Graham Duncan and Ogbu Kalu trace key African revival movements of the past hundred years and suggest that there are five types of revivals: 1.) those in which a leader from a traditional religion takes on some aspects of the Christian message; 2.) those in which a leader emerges from a Christian group that emphasizes certain ethical or Holy Spirit elements; 3.) indigenous churches that emphasize popular elements of Holy Spirit enthusiasm; 4.) those springing from fundamentalist mainline denominations that challenge some element of the ordinary way of things, embracing Holy Spirit enthusiasm in a fresh manner; and 5.) charismatic movements such as those of the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s. The authors conclude that these revivals contributed to establishing “a charismatic spirituality that would define African response to the gospel: at once conservative, evangelical, with emphasis on the centrality of the Bible, interpreted without Western intellectual gymnastics, but with simplicity and immediacy” (p. 268).

Several Pentecostal/Charismatic revivals that occurred between the two world wars and the 1960s and 1970s have had a significant and enduring impact on the African continent. Chapter fifteen is devoted entirely to an analysis of the spread and influence of Pentecostal and Charismatic churches in Africa. These include both Western mission-affiliated classical Pentecostal denominations and African initiated Pentecostal indigenous movements such as the Deeper Christian Life Ministry in Nigeria, the International Central Gospel Church in Ghana, and the Family of God church in Zimbabwe, all begun by local ministries. Author J. Kwabena Asamoah-Gyadu observes in conclusion to this chapter, “The Pentecostal emphasis on direct access to God through the Holy Spirit means for many of its African adherents, the ability to live the Christian life without recourse to the traditional ritual symbols that the older AICs [African indigenous churches] incorporated into Christianity…That the presence of Pentecostalism has forced former mission churches into emulative action in order to survive is enough evidence of how seriously the phenomenon of Pentecostal growth should be taken in modern African Christianity” (p. 355).

African Christianity: An African Story is a rich and varied collection of essays, offering much original research and optimism for the future of Christianity on the African continent. Highly recommended.