Academic journal article Church History

Church History

Academic journal article Church History

Church History

Article excerpt

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Book Reviews and Notes

Christianity and Public Culture in Africa , edited by Harri Englund, may be most helpfully characterized as a kind of prolegomena toward the construction of a new, post-Habermasian idea of the public sphere. The notion of the public sphere, as initially presented by Habermas, presumed the disappearance of faith as a heuristic agent in any discourse above and beyond private exchanges. Habermas took for granted that Western culture had evolved beyond something as recognizably irrational as religion. The ten essays in this volume do not so much challenge this argument as presume the argument's repudiation. In some way they all seek to show that the public sphere does not occur in contemporary Africa in any sense that would accommodate Habermas's ideas. What can be observed, they suggest, are public cultures, meaning shared arenas of space and media, where there is at least some agreement among the contestants about the rules of engagement. As understood by the scholars in this volume, what is worth noting about these public cultures is that they have and continue to provide venues for contests over collective symbols and values. The permanence of these public cultures is not considered. Each essay offers what might be called a snapshot of a situation as it appeared at the end of the first decade of the twenty-first century. The absence of teleology in the essays is impressive, thought the absence does leave the reader a bit out to sea in terms of determining the import of what has been observed.

Beyond Englund's introduction, which provides a useful orientation to the scholarly literature on religion and politics in contemporary Africa, the essays have been divided into three sections according to the identified contestants in the cultural battle particular essays assess. The first three essays, by respectively James A. Pritchard, Maria Hinfelaar, and Nicholas Kamau Goro, address the question of how religious identities have contended with concepts of the secular in the societies surrounding them. Pritchard talks about how one Protestant and one Catholic mission have facilitated the evolution of contrasting "modern" (non-traditional/non-tribal) personas in one rural region of Zambia. Hinfelaar's study, also situated in Zambia, looks at the contest between Christian groups to use conflicting constructs of Christian statehood as a tool for political mobilization. Kamau-Goro's essay argues that the novels of Ngugi wa Thiongo should be appreciated for how they appropriated biblical imagery and re-purposed this imagery as a lexicon for nationalist discourse in Kenya.

The second set of essays, by Barbara Cooper, Ruth Prince, and Damaris Parsitau all consider contests between older and newer ideas of public morality, the older in all cases being inspired by notions of patriarchal Christianity traceable back to the era of the missions. …

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