open letter to oden

"Welcome, Dr Thomas Oden. I have just elected you to a select band of scholars who have transformed my way of looking at the world. The company you keep is an esteemed one, led by the triumvirate of Phillip Jenkins, Lamin Sanneh, and Rodney Stark.

[And here I had thought you were just a pastoral theologian (by the way, I loved that book), while dabbling in a little Kierkegaard on the side (and that book, particularly the Introduction, was so helpful in my DMin work)].

I cannot get enough of the words that flow from the pens of these scholars. Can you imagine a conference with the three of them speaking together - maybe you could pop along as well? I long for a day when our high schools and our universities - not to mention the worldwide church - wakes up and smells the roses of this revisionist history at its finest. The Eurocentrism that inhabits the hearts of tourists and historians alike needs to be re-examined.

I've started with your How Africa Shaped the Christian Mind. I know it was written back in 2007. I am so embarassed that it took me so long to discover it. I really can't believe that its 'sales rank' on The Book Depository is only 376,106. Afterall, how is it that Lamin Sanneh sums it up on the back cover? "Rarely has a book of such brevity distilled so much vintage wisdom with such elan...". That'll do me as well.

I am now on the trail of your more recent books. I've located the Center for Early African Christianity (CEAC) website. Actually CEAC had a book-table at the recent ICETE conference in Nairobi which I attended. But by the time I got the money together, the books were gone. However there was still time to see and fondle Early Libyan Christianity and The African Memory of Mark ... and soon they will be in my possession. While I confess that they had looked big and boring, some volumes in the Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture series will also be hunted down - now that I know that it was while editing that series that your own understanding of history was transformed.

But back to your book. My friends say that I can get a bit too enthusiastic with these posts. Nothing turns off New Zealanders more than an unnecessary superlative. Too bad. I am what I am. And what I loved most about your book was that it read like you were getting something off your chest. There is a boldness to the book, a frankness and an urgency that kept me within its pages.

And if your thesis is correct, then you have every reason to write in this way. You state that your purpose is 'to fill a conspicuous vacuum in historical awareness of the intellectual excellences of Africa in the ancient world' (43). You are intent on deconstructing the stereotype that 'Christianity came from Europe' (25) which you see to be founded in a 'European chauvinism' (23) which has gripped scholarship for  centuries. It IS worth remembering that Athanasius, Augustine and Cyprian are African - not 'Europeans in disguise' (62). Here is a typical insight that had me reading twice so as to ensure I got it right:
The best example is the unexpected trajectory of monasticism from Africa to Ireland to Europe and then back to Africa in a thousand year cycle. This is the next surprising step of our investigation: how Africa influenced Ireland and how the Irish monks then shaped the formation of medieval Europe (73).
And so it is wrong to consider Alexandria as some kind of 'non-African extension of the European intellect' (58). It is wrong to view Christianity as merely 'a coastal phenomena' (21) in North Africa as this misunderstands the way the river systems of the Nile and the Medjerda actually work. It is wrong to suggest that the early intellectual leadership flowed from north to south when it was, in reality, south to north. It seems right to name a little racism, as you do, wherever it is found. And, goodness me - is there any more a Eurocentric turn of phrase than that one about 'the Dark Ages'?! Plenty of light going on elsewhere, if we are just prepared to look - right?! How sad it is that 'Eurocentrism has tended to make even Africa forget the deep African roots of European Christianity' (133)...

I am so grateful for this 'early embryonic effort' (36) into Early African Christianity, demonstrating that this Christianity is not two or three centuries 'deep', but two or three millennia (25) - and ahead of Islam by five or six centuries. You ask, 'Is Islam more of a traditional religion in Algeria than Christianity?' (24) Unequivocally, the answer must be 'no'. I hear your call for 'a new generation of courageous scholars' (135) - particularly at the Christian-Muslim interface - and your pleading question, 'When will young African Christians hear the call to learn Arabic as a divine vocation?' (138).
Thank-you. Thank-you. Thank-you."

nice chatting


This post is dedicated to a man I never really met - Dr Douglas Carew, from Sierra Leone. Most recently Dr Carew had been the Vice-Chancellor of Africa International University (AIU) in Nairobi. He continued the long line of wonderful African intellectual leaders that goes back two+ millennia!! Last month Dr Carew hosted the International Council of Evangelical Theological Education (ICETE) conference which I attended. I was impacted by the gracious, gentle and quiet leadership of this statesman. He is a Langham Scholar - and a fellow graduate of TEDS. A few weeks after ICETE, Dr Carew died in his sleep. He was just 56 years of age. He is survived by Ayiku (his wife) and their three children Oluniyi, Rodney and Seneiya. I don't know them, but I do pray for them...


RJC said…
Thanks Paul. I discovered Oden while writing up my Masters thesis on 'The Decline of the Church in North Africa' before the coming of Islam.
I have devoured his books and believe we need to recapture the truth that the Scriptures are essentially Middle Eastern books - and need to understand them in this light.
Have you read Misreading the Scriptures through Western Eyes'? (IVP)
Thanks again!

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