Challenges facing African theologians

Ben Byerly’s blog Confluence has started an important conversation about the challenges facing African theologians.

Ben Byerly: Confluence

Ben is a PhD candidate at NEGST (Nairobi Evangelical Graduate School of Theology) in Kenya. He was born in Switzerland, but raised in Congo and Liberia and has lived in Africa about half his life. He seems (at least to me) to have a life-situation that gives him an important lens to view this situation. Start here and then read this. Once you are hooked, poke around his blog for some more of his thoughts. He’s identified some key issues and has some keen insights (and his African friends have contributed some interesting feedback). I look forward to seeing more of his posts on this topic.

From where I sit, I think that one small part of the difficulty in the West appreciating, accepting, and engaging African theological thought is the way that Africa is continually characterized in the West (even in our churches). Many times we see photos in churches, the news media, and online of Africa that only portray poverty, despair, ugliness, sin, war, or the West coming to the rescue. These photos are all quite professional and captivating. They are meant to elicit a response of caring by showing the stark difference between our lives and the lives of these people halfway around the world. However, if this is the imagery that is always used to depict Africa and African Christianity, then it is easy to see how the West does not even think there is anything good, wise, and beneficial that could come OUT of Africa.

Where are the photos of beauty, creativity, entrepreneurial success, family, tradition, pursuit of excellence? I am, of course, keenly aware that there are difficult images in Africa and I am not trying to minimize the need to be aware of those situations or the response that we should participate in. However, I think we are out of balance and I believe this contributes to how Western Christianity views Africans and African Christianity.

Want to hear about good things in Africa (aside from Ben’s blog)? Then you should follow @whiteafrican on Twitter. You should also regularly check in with the blog which is inspiring and amazing. If more people appreciated this kind of imagery of Africa, then maybe we would be ready to listen to the theology too.

3 thoughts on “Challenges facing African theologians

  1. Jeremy

    Wow. Fantastic and challenging. Adding Ben’s blog to my RSS feeds tonight. My favorite quote so far, “The underlying assumption is that depth seems to be measured on certain intellectual articulations of “sacred” – especially Reformed – theologies. I’ll take lifestyle Christianity over intellectualized faith any day” (from the post “Why African Christianity is ‘a mile wide and an inch deep'”).

  2. Colin Toffelmire

    Great post Karyn. I remember a quote from the TV program “The West Wing”, where a character talks about seeing people in Africa as either hapless victims or murderous animals. Not a good thing. One of the moments this came alive for me and challenged my thinking most was reading some work by one of my old theology profs, Mabiala Kenzo (an African theologian educated in the West). He talks sometimes about constructing metaphors for doctrine (like the doctrine oft he atonement) that are exclusively African. It’s a brilliant idea in my mind, as it challenges both problematic conceptions of the atonement in Western culture, and reminds us that when we talk about these kinds of wildly abstract spiritual truths we’re always using metaphors to try to access them.

    In any case, thanks for the post, I’ll have to go read the other discussion now.

  3. Karyn Post author

    Hi Colin. Thanks for the encouragement. I do hope that this issue gets some more exposure.

    I think one other “fear” of some Western Christians is that African Christianity is too syncretic–as if Western Christianity is immune to this problem. I think it is very difficult and possibly impossible to see syncretism in your own culture (I am not talking about blending cultural tradition with Christianity, but rather the type of syncretism that is a true error–one that warps the Gospel). I wonder what non-Western Christians think of Western Christianity. Can they give helpful critiques of where we have made the Gospel into more than it is meant to be? We all have blindspots and we all need each other to see those areas.

    I hope my readers will take time to check out your blog too!

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