Book Review – Self evaluation

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The present collection of essays tackles the question of the study of religion in Africa. Somehow, it matches another collection of essays published in Germany in 2004, European Traditions in the Study of Religion in Africa (ed. by Frieder Ludwig and Afe Adogame). The specification respectively of “African traditions” and “European traditions” in the two publications makes clear the different approach in the study of religion in Africa and how that difference signifies a remarkable shift from “Africa as object” to “Africa as subject” in the historiography of religion in Africa. The main significance of the new publication is that it gives voice to Africa itself, initiating and nurturing “African traditions” in the way religion in Africa is researched upon and interpreted, beyond conceptual schemes developed elsewhere, marking thus a fundamental step in the process of “intellectual decolonization”.

The book represents a unique multidisciplinary exploration of African ways of studying religion in Africa and the new African diaspora that have been developed over the years. The book is in honour of Jacob Kehinde Olipona who has pioneered an African socio-scientific interpretation of African indigenous religions and other religions in Africa.
Such project of “African traditions” is still in the making, being both a partial reality and, largely, an aspiration, since most African scholars are struggling to break free from Euro-American interpretative paradigms. The more important is then this collection of essays, even because a good number of African women scholars of religion are among the contributors. The incoming of women into the field of religious studies, traditionally dominated by men, challenges the disciple to address existential issues faced by women in Africa and examine their religious experiences, thus contributing significantly to its africanization in such way that it might integrate the question of gender in African societies.

The various essays are grouped into three sections: Emerging Trends in the Teaching of African Religions – Indigenous Thought and Spirituality – Christianity, Islam, and Hinduism. Most contributions deal with case studies. That helps the scholars to focus on African pressing issues of the day and to address African concerns. An example in this sense is the contribution of Musa W. Dube, “Mainstreaming HIV/AIDS in African Religious and Theological Studies”, in which an activist-academic commitment to a problem faced by society leads to a creative, contextual and life-centred approach.
In developing “African traditions” in the study of religion, a special attention and strategic place is rightly accorded to the African Indigenous Religions and to a recovery and revaluation of African Religious Thought and Spirituality, even if not always in a due critical way. Umar Danfulani provides a useful critique of African traditional religions in African scholarship. Various essays describe the religious vitality on the continent and how African Indigenous Religions provide the spiritual background not only to their adherents but to converts to other religions as well. It is stressed “the pervasive quality of African religion”, its “dynamic” character capable to adapt to and interact with new historical realities, its “embodied spirituality” as expressed in music and dance, and its “this worldly” orientation within a religious world portrayed as anthropological, where in the communication between its various spheres central remains the search for religious power in view of a holistic well-being. We are also reminded of the decisive role played in Africa by religion in constructing gender.
As a criticism of this otherwise remarkable study of the ongoing vitality of African religion, one might have wished a greater articulation of the potential of the indigenous religious and spiritual heritage with the condition of today’s Africa, by negotiating and renegotiating it into modernity. The present collection of essays recognizes also that African Indigenous Religions no longer enjoy a monopoly of the spiritual market in Africa and how African context is today multireligious. Therefore a whole section is devoted to the study of Christianity, Islam and Hinduism in Africa.
The question of the relationship between Christianity and Indigenous Religions is brought into the foreground, with the request that the latter being valued for their own merit and not just as stepping stones to Christianity. As Lovemore Togaresi shows in his contribution, African scholars have been involved in an engaged hermeneutics that addresses the issues that affect African societies such as colonialism, poverty, war and gender-based violence, with the effect not only of reversing an Eurocentric reading of the Bible that creates cultural dependence but also of opening new horizons for the understanding itself of the NT. From within such interplay with local religious and cultural context, the NT could, in its turn, better display its liberating critique of religious practices and beliefs that are not life-affirming. In fact, in a process of mutual interaction the Indigenous Religions themselves are transformed. Dodeye U. Willliams shows the extent to which a large scale of conversion to Christianity has contributed to alter the meanings of indigenous religious practices that were once held sacred, giving rise to a negotiation of cultures. A factor of this change would have been the claimed experience of freedom by the converts to Christ from fear of evil spirits, ancestors, witchcraft, magic, or divination.
“What have African Indigenous Religions to do with Christianity?”, but simultaneously “What has Jesus Christ to do with Christianity”, asks Victor I. Ezigbo in his provokingly creative contribution. The core of question would not regard so much the relationship of Indigenous Religions with Christianity as with the Christ-event itself, which should be a “light” to African Indigenous Religions and not the “end” to it (Christianity)”. Both Christianity, as contextual response to Christ-event and not simply identifiable with it, and Indigenous Religions “should be subjected to the same Christological tests, while relating to each other in mutual hospitality. On their part, African Christian theologians “must seek in-house interpretations” of Christ-event, “from within the social-religious heritage and experience of Africans”.
The attention is turned to the Independent/Initiated Churches for their role in mediating an African version of Christianity, and more specifically to the significance of the shift these Churches have been undergoing from prophetism to Pentecostalism, whereby “charisma seems to have been democratized” from being initially the prerogative of prophetic leaders to becoming now the gift of each member. The present proliferation of independent indigenous Pentecostal/Charismatic Churches represents a real African Christian innovation and is changing the face of Christianity in Africa. This emphasis on the Holy Spirit seems to bridge the gap that formerly existed between primal spirituality and Christianity in that the religious focus moves from a system of ideas to a system of power: living religiously means being in touch with the source of power in the universe. Even if it is not the whole story of African Pentecostalism, this indication is of great significance.
This work is an important book, enriching the study of religion in Africa. Does it really clarify the specific “African traditions” in the study of religion in Africa? In this regard it is rather a seminal work: it draws attention to the vibrancy of religion in Africa rather than working out methods and theories of interpretation. Or perhaps is this already an African way of studying African religions? Finally, a wish: the present publication refers to study of religion in Anglophone Africa; can we look forward for similar publications for other regions of sub-Saharan Africa?

African Traditions in the Study of Religion in Africa. Emerginging Trends, Indigenous Spirituality and the Interface with Other World Religions, edited by Afe Adogame, Ezra Chitando and Bolaji Bateye, Ashgate, Farnham 2012 – XII+264pp.


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