Introduction: African Narrative and the Christian Tradition: Storytelling and Identity

By VanZanten, Susan | Christianity and Literature, Spring 2012 | Go to article overview

Introduction: African Narrative and the Christian Tradition: Storytelling and Identity


VanZanten, Susan, Christianity and Literature


Africa provided a fertile ground for Christianity during its first few centuries, and a case could be made that early Christian texts from Egypt, Ethiopia, Nubia, and North Africa are the first instances of written African literature. Under Roman rule, most of North Africa was Christian until well into the seventh century, and its literary output included gnostic treatises, the theological texts of the Alexandrian church fathers, and a series of influential saints' lives, including the Passion of Saints Perpetua and Felicitas (203 AD) and Athanasius' Life of Anthony (360 AD). Augustine of Hippo's seminal Confessions (397 AD) was, in some senses, an African text and, in a curiously circular manner that we will trace, eventually played its part in the formation of modern African literature. Christianity in Ethiopia dates from the first century, with one tradition citing the Apostle Philip's conversion of the Ethiopian traveler in Acts 8, and another holding that St. Matthew travelled to Ethiopia to preach the gospel. Regardless of the origins, Christianity was declared a state religion in Ethiopia in 330 AD, and Athanasius consecrated Frumentius as its first bishop. The first version of Ethiopia's national religious epic, the Kebra Nagast (The Glory of Kings), appeared in the sixth century and is a mythic account of the origins of Ethiopian Christianity traced to King Menelik I, the son of King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba. The epic recounts how on a visit to Solomon's court, Menelik I moved the Ark of the Covenant from Jerusalem to Aksum and established the Ethiopians as God's new chosen people. (1) This may be the first instance of a typological reading of African history, a reading that other African writers, most notably the South African Afrikaners, would employ in the future.

Before these written texts, the African continent teemed with multitudinous forms of orature that provided entertainment at communal gatherings, celebrated great rulers and warriors, instructed children and youth, preserved history and lineages, and formed cultural identity. While Western generic categories are not strictly applicable to orature (when a text is not written down and is performed by a variety of presenters, there is no clear distinction between prose and poetry), African orature contained a strong tradition of narrative. The representation of events with a beginning, a middle, and an end--narrative--is one of the most basic elements of human expression, (2) and oral storytelling played a central role in African culture from earliest human life to the present day. Many prominent twentieth-century African writers recount soaking up the magic of language and the power of narrative from a childhood immersion in nightly participatory story-telling around the fire in the family compound, and both thematic and formal influences from folk tales, myths and legends, historical chronicles, and epics continue to permeate African writing. (3)

The return of Christianity to Africa during the colonial period and the impact of the nineteenth-century missionary movement had a tremendous effect on the written production of African literature. The contested legacy of the missionary movement includes the creation of indigenous language orthographies, the encouragement of literary education, and the establishment of printing presses. Consequently, by the end of the nineteenth century, the Bible, the Book of Common Prayer, and Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress had been published in numerous African languages. All had a strong effect on the early writing of the continent as numerous African writers attest, and the narrative form of the Bible and Bunyan's allegory were especially influential. For example, the great Nigerian novelist Chinua Achebe was raised as a Christian, attending mission schools, hearing twice-daily Bible readings during family prayers, and participating in church services, and the rhythms, images, and narratives of the Bible are prominent threads in the tapestry of his fiction. …

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