S. Chu Ilo – Theology and Literature in African Christian Faith

« Theology and Literature in African Christian Faith: Hearers of the Word in Africa »

by Stan Chu Ilo


A story is told about a missionary who went to a remote area in Tanzania to proclaim the Gospel among the Maasai, an ethnic group well known as fierce warrior people. One day the missionary was telling a group of adults the saving activity of Jesus Christ. He explained that Jesus is the Son of God, the Savior and Redeemer of all humankind. When he finished, a Maasai elder slowly stood up and said to the missionary, “You have spoken well, but I want to learn more about what made this person great. I have three questions about him. First, did he ever kill a lion? Second, how many cows did he have? Third, how many wives and children did he have?”[1] For the Maasai, a man’s greatness is measured in how many cows he owned, how many wives and children he has, and how many lions he killed in his effort to protect his livestock. One must therefore raise the preliminary question about the role of language in communicating the Christian message and the genre of theological reflection in Africa. How are African local cultural idioms, media of communication, and literature being employed to convey different layers of meaning to diverse communities of faith and cultures in Africa and in World Christianity? How are Africans telling the stories of God’s great deeds in the continent through African theology and what role does African literature play in this?

The proclamation of the Word of God and witnessing to the Christian faith and theological reflections on them in Africa are gradually assuming the content and context of African social and cultural life. The Christian faith in Africa, to a large extent, is being mediated in Africa through African languages, patterns and models of discourse, liturgical life, ritual performance, and Africa’s social context. Through these multiple channels of communication, Africa Christian religion reflects its own distinctive features and  is becoming a strong partner with the rest of the Christian community in the rich inter-cultural exchanges and commons of Christian life all of which define present cultural momentum in World Christianity.

However, just like the case between the Maasai community and the missionary, African theologies are constantly struggling to assume their own voices in World Christianity. They have sometimes not kept pace with the actual faith and local processes in African Christian communities and churches. Conscious of this desideratum, African theologians are gradually moving towards the greater adoption of Africa’s own unique language of discourse, in their theological methods. This is because in accounting for the great deeds of God and the exponential growth of the Christian population in Africa, one needs to adopt a medium of communication, which is capable of speaking to the world of meaning of the people and producing theological works which are portraits of the actual faith of the people and speak to that context in a meaningful way. 

African Christian churches are a growing influence in the continent in many areas like education, healthcare ministries, outreach to the poor, peace and reconciliation in communities and among nations and social transformation. These influence is reflected in the stories of Christian witnessing and proclamation which emerge from individual and communal experience as they reflect on their faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. How are these stories presented and through what forms of media are they being presented as African theologians take a greater accountability of the intelligibility of the African Christian faith in its nature, features, manifestations and relevance. In doing this, African theologians are not only producing different genres of literatures, but their theological productions have also been influenced, inspired, and nourished by African literature and orature. 

The use of the term, ‘literature’, to describe theological reflection in Africa or as sources and channels of theological production may be very restrictive to a consideration of theological development in Africa. Like the Maasai experience narrated at the beginning of this essay one must be conscious of one’s language of discourse and whether they convey adequate meaning to one’s audience. In this essay, I will adopt a different path in giving an account of theology and literature in Africa because African literature is like and unlike literature in other contexts outside Africa. 

To begin with, one should distinguish between formal academic theology, and the informal and diffuse theological productions in Africa. The formal theological writings in Africa are undertaken by professional theologians.[2] The informal and diffuse theologies in Africa are common place today through leaflets, homilies (open preaching on the streets, at revival and faith healing ceremonies etc), songs, prayers, bill boards, radio and television announcements, testimonies at worship centers and in liturgical gatherings, fund raising publicity, notices sent in social media especially Whatsapp, Facebook, Instagram, automatic voice messages and prayers and blessings sent to people’s cell phone by founders of churches, and their prayer warriors etc. These informal channels have become the most significant and influential media for proclaiming the Word of God, interpreting the faith and its relevance to the daily lives of the people in Africa, and in giving account of the movement of history in Africa in the light of the Christian faith.[3] The momentum of Christian expansion in Africa and the narratives driving the faith in the continent are dictated more by these informal literature and theologies than the writings of Africa’s professional theologians.

[1] Story taken from Joseph G. Healey, African Stories for Preachers and Teachers. Nairobi, Kenya: Paulines Publications, 2014, 33. 

[2] Agbonkhianmeghe, Orobator, Theology Brewed in an African Pot. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2008, ix. 

[3] See for instance, Paul Gifford’s account of two Pentecostal churches in Nigeria, the  Mountain of Fire and Miracles Ministries, and the Living Faith Church Worldwide and their use of literature: books, internet, leaflets, anointing oil, and other symbols to communicate the power of God or what Gifford’s calls ‘enchanted Christianity.’ See Christianity, Development and Modernity in Africa. London: Hurst and Company, 2015, 29-44.