Take & Read: Global Christianity

Five books that take readers beyond Anglophone perspectives

Although Christianity’s mighty strides in modern Africa are well known, our standard picture is distorted by cultural and linguistic issues. When Americans think about Africa, they often focus on the English-speaking nations that once formed part of the British Empire, to the exclusion of the vast areas that were shaped by France, Belgium, Portugal, and others. The initial European Christian presence in those lands was Catholic rather than Protestant, and the later religious evolution differs greatly from the Anglican, Methodist, and Presbyterian strands that we know so well in Anglo­phone nations. It is very useful, then, to have Elizabeth A. Foster’s African Catholic: Decolonization and the Trans­forma­tion of the Church (Harvard University Press).

Foster focuses on the Francophone Christians of West Africa’s French colonies, who were almost entirely Roman Catholic. In the great age of decolonization between the 1950s and 1970s, these Christians explored questions related to inculturation, race, faith, and liberation. How far could a new Catholic Christianity really free itself from White and imperial supremacy? Was “African Catholic” an oxymoron? These questions fed into the agendas of the Second Vatican Council.

Foster’s account is all the more valuable because it draws attention to thinkers who were quite influential in the 1960s or 1970s but are still little known to nonspecialists. I for one had not even heard of Alioune Diop, a leading Senegalese exponent of negritude and a Catholic convert from Islam. For those who recall Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre as an arch-reactionary in the worldwide Catholic Church in the 1980s, it is fascinating to see him as a key interlocutor in those earlier West African debates.