Book Review: Jesus of Africa


“Who do people say I am?” (Mk 8:27) The question continues to be a crucial one wherever the gospel is proclaimed. With the collapse of colonialism, non-western indigenous theologies have emerged in the context of its own socio-religious experiences. In this comprehensive survey of African Christologies, Diane B. Stinton compiles portrayals of Jesus as seen through the African lens. Stinton catalogs these portraits in the forms of Jesus as life giver (healer), mediator (Ancestor), loved one (brother, friend, lover, mother) and leader (chief/king). She draws her research not just from academic theological writings, but even from vernacular non-academic expressions found in oral traditions, religious utterances, prayers, songs, etc. This appreciation for the “theology under the tree” is the strength of her project and makes the accounts, true expressions of Christology from the people and for the people. She allows the voices of the African people to speak for themselves and find for themselves a Christian faith that is rooted in the people’s heart in Africa. In order to organise this daunting task, she employs four grids – the word of God, theology of the older churches and traditions (European), traditional African thought-forms and culture and living experience of the African people.

The continent of Africa is emerging as one of the most Christianised continents. The global church must consider the Christological import these African voices have to offer. If Christianity is growing in Africa, it might be due to the way Christ is now no longer seen as a stranger to African culture. As seen in Stinton’s accounts, African Christians appear to have “encountered” and received Christ with confidence, in their terms and in a plurality of Christologies. The confidence in the power of Christ continues to offer hope and force for the reconstructive projects in Africa. These portraits of African Christology are valuable then, not simply as missiological lessons, as examples of faithful indigenisation of Christ in Africa – but also for theological enrichment, as contributing a unique Christology for the universal church.

Towards Zeliangrong Christologies?

This book challenges Zeliangrong Naga Christianity to take on the task of developing their tribal Christologies. Though a late entrant into the arena of World Christianity (just over 100 years of Christianity), it must seek to responsibly witness to Christ – both unto its own, and to the world. Firstly, Stinton’s particular emphasis on Christologies is a helpful paradigm for this project. In comparison, much of contemporary Zeliangrong Naga tribal theologies emerging are focused on theologies of liberation, reconciliation and tribalism, without sufficiently laying a foundational Christology. Theology must be rooted in Christology. Secondly, Stinton rightly affirms the lived and experienced “folk theology” of the common people. Theology must include all “systematic articulations of Christian faith” that looks beyond the circles of academia to include even the voices of the illiterate. Only a Christology that embraces the oral traditions, the mythological and artistic elements of culture can sufficiently express the embodied and ‘this-worldly’ instinct of the Zeliangrong thought-form. Thirdly, given the commonality in the socio-cultural experiences of Africa and the tribal people of northeast India (tribalism, poverty, corruption, violence, etc.), these African Christologies would likely find resonance in northeast India. In particular, the “Jesus as ancestor” and “Jesus as brother” models offer prospects for further development in Zeliangrong Christology. It is also significant that these Christologies (that are biblical and African) offer impetus for prophetic witness against societal evils in Africa. Zeliangrong Christians will do well to learn from African Christianity, just as they have benefitted much from Western Evangelical Christianity. As much as the Greco-Roman concept of “Logos” adds depth to Christology, so the African insight of “Jesus as a friend” who “puts his arms around you” can be equally insightful for the Zeliangrong Christian experience.

Three Critiques: There are three points on which Stinton’s book could have been developed further. Firstly, Pentecostal/Charismatic Africans seems to be under-represented in the Christological portrayals. This is strange considering the importance of Charismatic movements in contemporary African Christianity. Secondly, there needs to be an expansion of the scope of research to include other African nations beyond the three covered – Kenya, Ghana and Uganda. A wider treatment of Christologies from the experiences of other African nations would provide a fuller portrayal of the “Jesus of Africa”. Thirdly, since the Christologies are drawn predominantly from folk theology, there is minimal interaction of these indigenous theologies with the wider (European) theologies, besides brief hints, such as John Sobrino’s interaction with Karl Barth. If more theological interactions (between African and other global Christologies) could be highlighted, that would aid the student of World Christianity. Without due reference to traditions (which Stinton certainly does not encourage), the indigenous Christologies tend to downplay the divinity of Christ and emphasise His humanity instead (Jesus as Mother, Friend, etc.)

Participation in World Christianity: As Stinton remarks about Africa, the incentive behind much of the project of indigenising theology is due to (or in reaction to) post-colonial grievances against the Eurocentric expression of Christology. As a result, tribal theologies tend to be merely “decorative enterprise of post-colonialism”. However, the project of indigenous theologising needs to move beyond a reactionary attitude against globalisation, to embracing an attitude of humble ministry and participation in the grand, global project of witnessing to Jesus Christ. As Jangkholem Haokip puts it eloquently, “what was once silenced as primitive needs to be given a chance to speak for the good of all.”

In order to resist the tendency of an ethnocentric ‘Naga captivity of Christology’ (which is after all, not a risk unique to Western culture), Naga theologians must allow Christ to transcend the cultural framework. We need the whole catholic church to witness to Christ – cutting through geographical, cultural and temporal boundaries.

Conclusion: Nagas for “Christ”?

How is it that the Naga society is both Christianised, while at the same time confronted with numerous “unChristian” challenges? The reason could be that Christ has not yet been made ‘real’ to the Nagas’ daily experiences. Any onlooker would be confused with the controversial slogan of the Naga nationalism, which is “Nagaland for Christ” – but, which “Christ” is referred to here? That remains unclear. It is for the Naga tribals then, to take on the task of exploring the all-important question, “Who do the Nagas say I am?”

Book Review submitted to Mark Noll, for the course Six Continent Christianity taken at Regent College, Vancouver BC, Canada.

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