I am sure that Dr Oden has the best of intentions in desiring to awaken interest in early North African Christianity. But he might have chosen a better way to do this than by attacking scholars who have worked for many years in this area.
My problem with his book is his obvious ignorance of the vast amount of research and writing already accomplished on the early Christian history of North Africa. His bibliography makes no reference to the extensive work by French scholars, for example, nor to Frend on the Donatist Church, nor even to my own more modest contribution in "This Holy Seed: Faith, Hope and Love in the Early Churches of North Africa" (Tamarisk, 1992, 2nd edn. 2010).
A theological school in New Jersey may not the best place from which to assess what is known and taught in Africa. Dr Oden admits to "residing on the other side of the earth from Africa." Those of us who actually live here may have a less romantic, fanciful and emotional view of the continent and its people and history. We may also have much more information about it. In Zambia, for example, I have found African lecturers well informed about the Christian history of the Maghreb. Has Dr Oden ever visited the region or spoken with scholars actually working on the ground? Is he aware of what is being taught here and in the theological faculties of France, Egypt and Jordan? It appears not.
The problem is made worse by his tendency to condemn us with allegations such as, "It has become a distinctly modern European prejudice to miss this simple point" (page 58). He speaks of "European chauvinism" (p.23) and of "neglect" and "inattention" (p.30). He alleges that "Africa's ancient Christian heritage has languished for many centuries." He speaks of evidence being ignored and suppressed because we have "assumed the mental superiority of north to south" (p.31). These are racist allegations and highly offensive. They are also complete nonsense. European theologians have always held Augustine, Cyprian and other early North Africans in the highest regard.
Throughout his book, Dr Oden writes as though no one except himself has ever given serious thought to North African church history. I understand that he is a theologian, not a historian or archaeologist. But when a scholar steps out of his own speciality into a new field of study, it behoves him to do so with a measure of humility and deference to those who have been there before him and have indeed devoted a lifetime to matters of which he is ignorant.
In my view, his judgment is flawed on two very specific issues which he unfortunately chooses to emphasize. Firstly, he vastly overrates the significance of the Medjerda river as a means of communication. It is hardly equivalent to the Nile. In fact early Christian remains are scattered throughout the region, not restricted to the banks of this small seasonal watercourse.
Secondly, he identifies as "African" the Latin Christianity of the colonial elite in the coastal towns. He says, "For the purposes of this discussion, if a text was written in Africa it will be treated as African" (p.69). This skews the discussion considerably. To call this urban literary Latin Christianity "African" is naive, to say the least. It is equivalent to calling the Dutch Reformed faith of the Boers a manifestation of African spirituality. But Dr Oden barely mentions the Donatists or the Circumcellians of the inland areas, who were far more authentically African. In cultural terms, the most "African" of the early writers was Arnobius, but I can find no reference to him at all.
Dr Oden gives no indication that he asked any recognised scholar to read and critique his text before publication. Had he done so, he might have seen good reason to revise and extensively modify what he wrote. To sum it up, I think that the title of this book claims far more than it offers. It is a lavish production but has no index, no footnotes, and very few references to known authorities. It is more akin to a political tract than a work of serious scholarship. It is an impassioned plea rather than a balanced assessment. In consequence, it must be treated with great caution.
Finally, although I clearly have reservations about his book, I hope that Dr Oden's desire to awaken interest in this subject will be well rewarded.
It was a disappointment, because I was expecting to find out about the contributions of early African Christians and the story of the African Church. Instead, it was a repetitive call for more research by Africans. I got more out of the listing in the back of the book, than the text itself.
The topic is fascinating, but the writer presents it in a highly polemic manner. It is presented as a call for repentance by Western Christianity for their failure to acknowledge their debt to African Christians.
I preferred Jenkin's presentation of the same topic.
Not an easy read but a worthwhile one. I didn't know that so much of the happenings of the early church occurred in Africa. Dr. Oden explains church history using ancient maps not modern maps. It makes so much sense.
This book was a breath of fresh air. Out of all the sermons, teachings, talks, and seminary lectures I have heard, no one wanted to talk about the 800 lb. gorilla in the room. It was nice to read an established minister and professor shed some light on this subject. The chronology in the back of the book should prove to be helpful to every serious pastor or teacher who wants to share biblical and historical insights. An excellent resource about a sensitive subject. Well done!