Inevitably, this series’ lists are very personal and limited. It’s primarily a way of honouring those who have had an impact on me, but they’re certainly not exhaustive lists. What’s more, I’ve primarily focused on African, rather than African American, contexts and so have a lot to learn from the latter.
These are the standouts of those who have helped me grow theologically, even though one or two were not professional ‘theologians’ in the strictest sense. They are from different traditions and backgrounds with varying influence. But I owe each a great deal.
Festo Kivengere (1919-1988) - Uganda
I never had the privilege, but my wife Rachel’s family knew Bishop Festo Kivengere well, first from their time in Uganda in the 60s and then Kenya in the 70s. During the darkness that was the Idi Amin era (1971-1979), he would often stay with them in the ‘granny flat’ at their Nairobi house for a couple of days after speaking trips, before bracing himself for Uganda re-entry.
He was sometimes called the Billy Graham of Africa – he was certainly a gifted public speaker and evangelist, and was influential in many Christian pan-African causes, as well as being a key African influence on the Lausanne movement in the early days. But it was his astonishing little book, I Love Idi Amin, which knocked me out. Here was a theologically informed, pastorally aware leader going wherever the gospel drove him. And doing so with immense courage. He even sought private audiences with the dictator to plead for the killings to stop, on more than one occasion. Finally, not long after Amin had the Archbishop of Uganda, Janani Luwum, assassinated, he and his wife were warned to leave and so fled on foot to Rwanda. After Amin fell, they continued their ministry togeher back in Uganda, until Festo did of cancer in 1988. His story is told in Anne Coomes’ fascinating biography.
Mahalia Jackson (1911-1972) - USA
A confession: I had no idea who she was when our friend Nancy gave us a double-album on CD, perhaps a few months before we left for Uganda. 2000? 2001? Can’t remember. Anyway, it was Mahalia Jackson: Gospels, Spirituals & Hymns. It was a generous gift, but its significance didn’t really register for quite a while. I listened through perhaps once or twice. And then promptly forgot about it!
Having read Martin Luther King Jr’s ‘Autobiography’ sometime before we left the UK, I was doing some follow up and came across an account of how MLK would call her up at his darkest moments and ask her to sing to him. Which she did. (This is depicted in the 2014 film, Selma, with MLK played by the superb David Oyelowo).
So it’s plausible that we owe to Mahalia the rhetorical mountaintops of MLK’s famous Dream speech.
So I started listening to her properly. Oh boy! What a compelling voice, but more importantly, what a soul! She had it all. Talk about performance theology. It’s rich and profound – no shallow froth in sight; her magnetic hope is hard-won, never glib nor lacking in proper lament. She sings the ‘Now and the Not Yet’ like nobody else I’ve ever heard. No wonder she kept MLK going with that unique combo of voice, soul and convictions. My standouts:
- Nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen
- In the Upper Room
- Didn’t it rain?
- I’m on my way
Lamin Sanneh (1942-2019) - The Gambia
I had the chance to hear Lamin Sanneh in Cambridge in 1996, which feels like aeons ago. I hadn’t heard much before then, but know he was a big cheese and so there was quite the buzz about his coming. It was frustrating because other demands in Cambridge that day delayed him – everybody wanted a piece of this Yale Professor of World Christianity. So we only got around 20 minutes of him. Brief but fascinating.
That was enough to put me onto reading his classic: Translating the Message. Having grown up in a Muslim family in the Gambia, he became a Christian in his late teens. This particular book revolutionises and subverts the common presumptions about missionary activity in Africa. It is a tour de force, offering a far more nuanced appreciation of the history.
One striking insight, for example, is the profoundly beneficial cultural legacy of missionaries committed to bible translation. Countless languages would have been crushed by the onslaught of colonial powers; it was the efforts to alphabetise these oral tongues and then establish grammatical structures that gave them a future, which in turn, ironically, fed both the sense of worth of those cultures and provided the very tools with which to overthrow colonialism itself.
I read his autobiography last year and greatly enjoyed it. There were a few odd moments, especially toward the end, but it was gripping.
John S. Mbiti (1931-2019) - Kenya
I actually knew little about John Mbiti – and was shocked to discover in writing this up that he had died only last year. And there’s only one book of his that I have read. But it was hugely important because it was the first serious work to help me get my head around the key differences between western and African worldviews. My then future boss in Kampala had put it top of his reading suggestions back in 2000.
African Religions and Philosophy(1969) was eye-opening and challenging. I didn’t agree with everything he maintained and still don’t, but he got me asking some of the right questions (or at least I think he did!). It made me aware, perhaps for the first time, of the real possibility of aspects of a ‘pagan’ worldview even being compatible with the gospel. At the very least, his was a crucial invitation to build bridges with how people think, something I have sought to do throughout the last 30 years.
Irwyn Ince - USA
No one on this list so far is still alive! So I ‘ve got to include someone living – and I’ve only discovered Irwyn Ince in the last few months. But what I’ve heard and read has been both challenging and inspiring.
In 2018, he was elected the first African American moderator of the Presbyterian Church of America. He has a book coming out in the Autumn, which I am eagerly anticipating: The Beautiful Community
To give a bit of a flavour, here is a fascinating talk he gave last year:
Rejoicing in the Imago Dei
Two ways to follow up:
New Writing: If you’re wanting to read theology written by talented thinkers and speakers from across the Majority World, you can do no better than checking out the Langham Literature catalogue. It’s constantly growing and already has a huge and varied list from all over the world. There’s simply nothing comparable.
(Full disclosure: I work for Langham Literature’s partner programme, Langham Preaching)
African Christian history: This unique online resource, the Dictionary of African Christian Biography (DACB), a vast, multilingual undertaking to ensure countless stories of lives lived do not get lost. Definitely worth getting lost in it for a while!