Kwame Bediako and African Christian Scholarship

Emerging Religious Discourse in Twentieth-Century Ghana

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Sara J. Fretheim
African Christian Studies
  • Eugene, OR: 
    Pickwick Publications
    , April
     2018.
     252 pages.
     $30.00.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9781498299046.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Kwame Bediako was one of the most important theologians of late 20th-century Africa. That alone makes Sara J. Fretheim’s book, Kwame Bediako and African Christian Scholarship, significant for understanding some of the trajectories and nuances in African theological discourses for the era in which everything seemed to have been centered on inculturation and liberation theologies. Given the relatively short life that he had—Bediako died in his mid 60s—the number of studies that continue to engage with his scholarship is simply amazing. Generally, we pay attention to those who have important contributions to make on matters that affect human destiny.

Bediako offered the world of non-Western theological scholarship a new paradigm, a fresh hermeneutical key, for appreciating the fact that Jesus Christ was not to be seen as alien to the non-Western, pre-Christian traditions. Jesus, by his life, death and resurrection was an ancestor par excellence, a universal savior, with whose salvific work Africa could also identify. The incarnation, Bediako would argue, constitutes in one sense a lesson in the translatability of faith, making the translations of the Bible important facilitators of Christian mission in the non-Western worlds of Africa, Asia, and Latin America. Bediako was adamant—in that sense towing the line of his mentor Andrew F. Walls—that in Africa Christian growth has occurred in places where indigenous religions were strongest, not weak, and this was due to the affinities between primal religious traditions and the Greco-Roman contexts within which the Bible was written.

We may fault him for some of his exotic ideas—and as Fretheim demonstrates in her work, Bediako has had his fair share of criticism—but in building up his arguments, he was convincing and persuasive, such as even insisting on using the expression “primal religions,” which other religious anthropologists now consider inappropriate. Fretheim’s work on Bediako’s life’s endeavors—which includes both his writings and the Akrofi-Christaller Institute of Theology, Mission, and Culture (ACI) which he established—is unique. This is precisely because it goes beyond the “veil” of Christian scholarship to bring on board the institution into which Bediako poured his heart and soul. This is the first book that reads the ACI as text and it does an impressively good work of it (chapter 6). Additionally, Fretheim’s work also reflects on sermons and Bediako’s personal faith journey (chapter 1).

Fretheim begins from the days in which Bediako was alienated from the gospel of Christ before capturing his crisis his conversion experience as an African evangelical Christian. These are experiences that have not been adequately taken on board as interpretive keys to unlocking the Bediako narratives until now. That approach to Bediako’s scholarship is, perhaps, what gives this work not a little edge over others that have appeared before it. This is a book of seven chapters that are written within the broader context of the colonial and postcolonial religio-social and political developments that shaped Christian scholarship in Africa. It concludes with two very important appendices—one on current scholarship engaging with Bediako and the other on a Master of Theology curriculum at ACI that is important because it is designed to mirror Bediako’s theological orientation as a scholar.

There are three important factors in Bediako’s life that influenced his theological scholarship and Fretheim accounts for all of them in her work. The first is Bediako’s doctoral work as a scholar in Francophone African literature. The foundations of Bediako’s PhD thesis, Theology and Identity, which was supervised by his lifetime mentor Andrew F. Walls, may be located in his study of French literature. He wrote that thesis against the backdrop of Africa’s emergence from colonialism and the quest for self-affirmation. One of the points that makes Fretheim’s work different from the others on Bediako is her point—so well-articulated in Elias K. Bongmba’s foreword to the book—that we cannot understand Bediako’s theological thought apart from the continuities they share with the earlier Negritude scholarship. In other words, what brought together Bediako and Tchicaya U Tam’si, the Congolese poet he studied, was the search for identity (xi). Fretheim helps us to appreciate how Bediako’s theological work, which contrasts 20th-century Christian thought with that of the 2nd century was informed by an analogous search for theological identity in the works of the pioneering figures in the study of African theology.

In his previous life as an African atheist, Bediako started with the study of U Tam’si before moving into theology after some sort of “Damascus Road” conversion experience. This is how Bediako himself articulates the relationship between his theological and faith journeys: “From quite early in my conversion experience, I have felt the need to seek a clarification for myself of how the abiding Gospel of Jesus Christ relates to the inescapable issues and questions which arise from the Christian’s cultural existence in the world, and how this relationship is achieved without injury to the integrity of the Gospel” (139).

The quest for identity is like a religious string that is seen throughout his life, as Fretheim discusses, and Bediako worked consciously to incorporate African realities into his Christian theological reflections. Thus, after years in the quest for identity through Negritude poetry, the quest continues as Bediako searched for meaning from the intersection of the Bible and African spirituality as a Christian scholar.

The second main event that impacted Bediako’s theology is his conversion experience from atheism to an evangelical Christian. The third major landmark that Fretheim accounts for in Bediako’s scholarship is the Akrofi-Christaller Institute for Theology, Mission, and Culture. This institution, which he founded with his wife Mary Gillian, is a virtual incarnation of Bediako’s theological imagination. It is impossible to encounter a single program or thesis at ACI that does not deal with the intersections among the issues of primal religions, mission, gospel, culture, identity, and translation.

Fretheim’s work is not a book that is theological in orientation. It uses a historical/biographical method to study the religious itinerary of one who, as an African theological “ancestor,” has done much to move the study of Christianity in Africa into dimensions that cannot be marginalized as we seek to interpret the emergence of the continent as a major heartland of the faith. Those who are keen to read about Bediako may feel a little frustrated by the disproportionate attention that Fretheim gives Ghana’s religious and political history, as she attempts to study Bediako within his indigenous context. Yet, patience remains the key, as the enormous historical background is exactly what we need to understand Bediako’s place in the history of the academic study of theology in Africa.

 

About the Reviewer(s): 

J. Kwabena Asamoah-Gyadu is the Baëta-Grau Professor of Contemporary African Christianity & Pentecostal Theology at Trinity Theological Seminary in Legon, Ghana.

Date of Review: 
May 15, 2020
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Sara J. Fretheim is a post-doctoral Researcher based in Vancouver, Canada. She is a contributing author to the Routledge Companion to Christianity in Africa (2016), and is the first Canadian scholar to complete a Master of Theology (African Christianity) from the Akrofi-Christaller Institute, Ghana.

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