This is a picture of Samuel, a really lovely priest in Yola, and his wife, in their living room. Samuel doubles as sole vicar of a growing church and principal of the diocesan secondary school. He also raises turkeys and chickens on the side to pay his children’s school fees.
All of that is very interesting but I want you to look at what is behind him: lots and lots of books.
All the priests I know in the U.S. have lots of books in their homes. It’s a natural part of the job. But in my experience in Africa, this is unusual. In Sudan, priests owned no books but the Bible and sometimes not even that. Even in South Africa, there weren’t a lot of books because the cost of the books put them out of reach.
But in Nigeria there is a vibrant publishing industry. The books are riddled with typos and layout mistakes but no one seems to care. They are inexpensive and widely available. Many even have ISBNs so they can be officially registered. Some of them are little more than pamphlets, some extensively-footnoted academic works. My luggage has gotten much heavier than I anticipated in Nigeria because so many priests I meet want to give me autographed copies of their books. Here are some titles: Purity & Power, The Mission of the Church in the 21st Century, Putting the Igbo Woman in Her Place: An African Perspective on The Interpretations of the Household Codes, Where is the Lord God of Elijah? A Prophetic Outcry for Revival, The War Within: Christians and Inner Conflicts, and so forth.
(I wonder if this is what it was like during the American Revolution when people like Thomas Paine could publish pamphlets that made such an impact.)
Seeing all this material, I’ve realized again something I realized in China – it’s out of “our” control. The development of Christianity and Christian theology can no longer be controlled by people who look like me and have for so long written the books that have shaped theological education not just in the west but around the world. According to mission theory, the fourth step in the formation of a church is that it become self-theologizing. These books represent that work in the Nigerian church. I, for one, celebrate it. (I also get really jealous. The religious publishing in the U.S. is in such bad shape. Wouldn’t it be great to have an equally vibrant conversation in the U.S.?)
But here’s the other thing: a lot of these books are, well, wrong. There are countless books about Anglicanism here – have I mentioned that people care about being Anglican here? – and I’ve read many of them. Not only are there interpretations of difficult issues that I disagree with, there are incredible factual mistakes. I read one history of the creation of the Anglican Consultative Council that was totally, comically wrong. Another, in discussing resolution 1.10 from Lambeth 1998 – the one that said homosexuality is “incompatible with Scripture” – said that Lambeth is the Communion’s “highest policy-making body.” It’s not. Bishops at Lambeth have never been able to set policy (to the chagrin of many, we should add).
But you see those books behind Samuel in this picture? Almost all of them were published in Nigeria. As I read these, I not only celebrate the indigenizing of theology, I also worry that Nigerians and Americans are creating two different sets of facts about the current debates in the Anglican Communion. If that happens – perhaps it already has – it will be even more difficult to reach common ground. (It’s analogous to the way I saw China and the U.S. operating with two different narratives.)
So how do we create a genuinely international and cross-cultural academic dialogue? There are books that seek to do that but I’ve seen none of them for sale in Nigeria. Perhaps it takes more people, more visits, more conversations going in all directions.
Unfortunately, there’s little sign of that happening.