Wednesday, March 13, 2019

Book Note: Jacob K. Olupona's African Religions

Jacob K. Olupona, African Religions: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford University Press, 2014): 152 pp.

I got started reading this little book last year while preparing to teach a unit on African religions for a World Religions class. Here are some notes:

Olupona is a Professor of African Religious Traditions at Harvard Divinity School. This book is in the popular “Very Short Introductions” series from Oxford.

In the preface, he traces the development of the field of the study of African religions. He begins by acknowledging that Christians missionaries were the first to take up these studies:

“Some of the most serious early writings about African religions were produced by European missionaries sent to Africa to spread Christianity. For these missionaries, the study of African religion was ultimately a preparatio evangelica, a necessary step toward understanding the most expedient way to convert Africans to Christianity” (xxi). He also connects their study to colonialism.

“Gradually, the study of African religions developed as an autonomous field within comparative religions” (xxi).

He later notes the importance of the ancestors in African religions: “Ancestral traditions, the veneration of deceased parents and forebears, constitutes a key aspect of African religions. Some traditions regard ancestors as equal if not superior to the deities within the pantheon; also, it is not always easy to make a distinction between ancestors and divinities” (28).

In a section on divination, Olupona notes how with the advent of Islam and Christianity into Africa the sacred writings of these religions were used as “divination devises.” He describes “bibliomancy” as “divination through the selection of randomly selected passages” and notes it is widespread in Africa (49).

He begins a section on African witchcraft by noting it is “completely unrelated to the religious practices of modern neo-Pagans who sometimes use the word ‘Witchcraft’ (or, more commonly, Wicca) as the name of their religion, sometimes self-identifying as witches” (49-50). Such “goddess-centered religion focused on nature veneration and holistic wellness” has no connection to witchcraft in African religions (50). In contrast, he observes, “In Africa, witchcraft is almost universally defined as the manipulation of occult forces to do harm and achieve selfish ends” (50). He adds that witches are usually marginal people (widows, elderly, outsiders, strangers) and “almost always women” (50).

He defines sorcery as “an indigenous technology implemented to manipulate the sacred for negative ends”, adding, “Indeed, a thin line exists between healers, witches, and sorcerers” (51).

In a section on initiation rites, Olupona notes, “Initiations for adolescent African girls cause great consternation among Westerners, because they often involve female circumcision” (59). He defends the practice, however, by noting that in many cultures it is “less dramatic, involving only partial removal of the clitoris, or only small ritual cuts to the clitoris and labia” (59). One wonders, however, if the author is minimizing the negative aspects of this practice.

Regarding Islam and Christianity in Africa, Olupona begins, “Africa domesticated the two exogenous religions” (89).

While saying that Christianity was “deeply culpable in the African slave trade,” Olupona also observes, “Contrary to the way that it is popularly imagined, the majority of African slaves were not directly captured by Europeans” (95). “Slavery was already endemic throughout Africa, with the enslavement of defeated peoples being common” (96). Thus, he concludes, “both Europeans and Africans were responsible for the Atlantic slave trade” (96).

In the colonial period of the seventeenth to nineteenth centuries, the author notes that in general Christianity “tended to fare much better under colonial rule than did Islam” (99).

In the modern period he calls attention to the rise of the so-called African Independent Churches (AIC). He notes, “The AIC movement is arguably the most creative and vibrant Christian movement in African history and has led to massive numbers of conversions” (100). While acknowledging that many of these AIC’s have  adopted cult-like practices, he does not offer the assessment that many of these movements hold little semblance to historic, orthodox Christianity.

Finally, he talks about the spread of African religious practices in the African diaspora, so that African religions are now a global phenomenon.

Though it takes an overall relativistic view on theology and religious practices (describing, rather than prescribing), this little book is a succinct, well-written, and insightful introduction to understanding African religions.


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