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African Christology: Jesus in Post-Missionary African Christianity

Thursday, September 1st, 2011 by Valerie Landfair

Clifton R. Clarke, African Christology: Jesus in Post-Missionary African Christianity (Eugene, Oregon: Pickwick, 2011). ix + 190 pp.

One of missiology’s long-standing questions is whether African indigenous religions should be included or excluded within the taxonomy of Christian movements. With African Christology Clifton Clarke continues the inquiry while also focusing on the inclusion of African Independent Churches (AICs) in Ghana into worldwide Christianity in general and Global Pentecostalism in particular. In contrast to Ogbu Kalu, a native Nigerian Pentecostal historian, who argues against the inclusion of AICs into African Pentecostalism, Clarke, along with John Mbiti, a Kenyan theologian, emphasizes the interdependence of indigenous pneumatology and older African religious revivals. Using one of Ghana’s indigenous people groups – the Akan – Clarke ultimately argues that Akan AICs belong not only within the worldwide Christian movement, but also within the circle of Pentecostal churches.

With his in-depth study of Akan AICs, Clarke contributes to the ongoing dialogue among Pentecostals from the global South, who desire a Christology shaped in their image and not in the image of western Christianity. He posits that in the emerging field of global Christian studies, personal experience and cultural environment are important in the interpretation of an authentic faith in the person of Jesus Christ. In the instance of Akan AICs, Clarke shows how they retain aspects of their traditional religious worldviews while embracing the Christian faith.

The author constructs his Christology using source material specific to Akan AICs, including the Bible, hymns and songs, prayers, personal testimonies, and sermons. Through a methodology based on questionnaires, focus group sessions, and interviews with leaders and lay people, he appropriates the primary mode of expressing religious sentiments: orality. Clarke defines oral theology as the “encounter of God through the language that is heard and spoken by the visible and invisible participations of the African universe” (p. 132). The recognition of Akan oral theology by the Catholic Church is also an acknowledgement of the rich heritage and traditions of African Independent Churches.

In contrast to a formal propositional Christology, Clarke’s oral Christology is based on the African encounter with God through language.  Theological reflections are interactive and dynamic, occurring within and outside of the Church. The voices of African proverbs, myths, names, songs, stories, folklore and biblical texts serve to express the activity of God, Jesus and humanity in the overarching realm of visible and invisible realities. Clarke’s study reveals crucial areas of an Akan traditional religious ethos: Onyame (God), Sunsum (Spirit), Abosom (lower spirits), Nananom (Ancestors), and “symbolic power.” The notion of Christ however, does not have a clear correlation with an Akan indigenous worldview. Without an adequate concept of Christ, what are the implications for the Christology of Akan AICs? Would the AICs seek to understand Jesus Kristi as Sunsum, a Spirit made flesh or incarnate, who is ultimately from Onyame?

Another area of concern addressed by Clarke is the connection between culture and religion. He argues that the Christology of Akan AICs maintains a vital, reciprocal relationship between an authentic Christian faith and traditional African culture. His analysis calls for the removal of western theological lenses so that the theology and praxis of the Church at large – and the African church in particular – can be heard in their various contexts.  The term “inculturation,” favored by Clarke and other theologians, means the “on-going creative and dynamic relationship between Jesus Christ and culture” (10). In Theology Brewed in an African Pot, Agbonkhianmeghe E. Orobator, a Jesuit priest from Nigeria, provides a more robust understanding of inculturation, positing that this dynamic process would engage equal partners with equal power. Therefore, these historically unbalanced relationships between indigenous culture, African religion and tradition, and Christianity are all transformed into new creations. These partnerships actively engage in the ongoing pursuit of balance and harmony.

Missiological issues of culture and religion, inclusion and exclusion, universality and particularity will continue to be debated. Clarke’s work offers a “grassroots” approach that incorporates each of these dimensions within the specific context of Akan AICs. In addition to being a much-needed corrective in the field of missiology, Clarke’s book is also well suited as a scholarly supplement for upper level seminary coursework in the same field, as well as in church history, contextual theology, and renewal studies.