Ecclesiastical Cartography and the Invisible Continent

By Bonk, Jonathan J. | International Bulletin of Missionary Research, October 2004 | Go to article overview

Ecclesiastical Cartography and the Invisible Continent


Bonk, Jonathan J., International Bulletin of Missionary Research


Among the better-known medieval maps is the Hereford Mappa Mundi, from about 1300, a striking example of historical and theological projection onto an image of the physical world. The map provides an abundance of European and Mediterranean detail and is congested with familiar towns and dries from Edinburgh and Oxford to Rome and Antioch. Onto this familiar terrain all of the significant historical and theological events are projected--the fall of man, the crucifixion, and the apocalypse. As for the rest of the world, the greater part of Africa and Asia blurs into margins featuring elaborate, grotesque illustrations of prevailing myths and savage demonic forces. (1)

The Catalan World Map some two centuries later was likewise more revealing of European ignorance than of actual geography. "The strangest geographical feature," Whitfield notes, "is the shape of Africa: at the extremity of the Gulf of Guinea, a river or strait connects the Atlantic with the Indian Ocean, while a huge land-mass swells to fill the base of the map. No place-names appear on it." The continent is replete with dog-headed kings, and paradise is located in Ethiopia. Beyond the gates of Europe, the laws of God and nature were apparently suspended, and anything was possible. This map represents, in Whitfield's words, "a powerful, dramatic but not a logical, coherent picture of the world." (2)

Africa as Ecclesiastical Terra Incognita

While considerable cartographic clarity has since been achieved in the realm of geography and culture, ecclesiastical "maps," in contrast, continue to badly misrepresent, underrepresent, or simply ignore the actual state of affairs in much of the world, especially Africa.

One of the most astonishing religious phenomena of the twentieth century was the growth of Christianity in Africa. As Lamin Sanneh recently observed about Africa, "Muslims in 1900 outnumbered Christians by a ratio of nearly 4:1, with some 34.5 million, or 32 percent of the population. In 1962 when Africa had largely slipped out of colonial control, there were about 60 million Christians, with Muslims at about 145 million. Of the Christians, 23 million were Protestants and 27 million were Catholics. The remaining 10 million were Coptic and Ethiopian Orthodox." (3) Forty years later, the number of Christians in Africa had multiplied by six to over 380 million, overtaking the Muslira population and now representing an estimated 48.37 percent of the approximately 800 million total population. (4) Between 1900 and 2000 the Catholic population in Africa increased a phenomenal 6,708 percent, from 1,909,812 to 130,018,400. Over the last fifty years Catholic membership has increased 708 percent?

Yet, strangely, even the most recent attempts by mainline church historians to help seminarians and church leaders find their way in the terra firma of contemporary world Christianity include scarcely any note of Africa. In 2002, for example, Westminster John Knox Press published Randall Balmer's 654-page Encyclopedia of Evangelicalism. The author of this volume, far from apologizing for his conspicuous lack of reference to African or any other non-Western subject matter, acknowledged simply that "the volume is weighted heavily toward North America." (6) Africa is represented by a token smattering of Western mission agencies such as the Africa Inland Mission.

Equally unsatisfactory on this point is the Biographical Dictionary of Evangelicals, published in late 2003. This 789-page cornucopia of information on evangelical figures from the 1730s to the present indeed "brims with interest while providing reliable historical information," as the inside flyleaf attests, yet only a single black African--Samuel Adjai Crowther--merits inclusion. "Geographically," the introduction explains, "the scope is the English-speaking world, understood in its traditional sense as the UK, the USA, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa. …

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