Print version ISSN 0259-9422
Herv. teol. stud. vol.64 no.2 Pretoria Apr./June 2008
Boekbesprekings / Book Reviews
Nürnberger, K 2007 The living dead and the living God: Christ and the ancestors in a changing Africa
Publishers: Cluster Publications. 312 Pages: Price: Unknown
Reviewer: Dr J Beyers (Pretoria)
This publication is the result of a lifetime of work by the author in a predominantly African church. His keen interest in the relation between African spirituality and the Christian faith becomes evident in this work. The author attempts to address the interaction between traditionalism and modernity from an African perspective, as well as the interaction between traditionalism and post modernity. Culture changes and, according to the author, theology have not kept up with the changes. This book is an attempt to catch up with the debate.
Chapter one provides a broad scope of what the author attempts in this book. The terminology is defined in order to prepare the playing field. The book consists of two parts: Part one deals with Traditionalism and the second part addresses Modernity. In chapter two the author reviews the main aspects of what a traditional African worldview comprises. The traditional African worldview can be described as dynamistic and animistic. The whole universe is filled with an impersonal power influencing the existence of all things. The spirits of ancestors take a prominent place in this invisible spiritual world. All people are dependant on the ancestors' care, protection and advice. All actions taken in life ought to be directed towards the ancestors and guided by them.
This worldview, which is inherently part of African culture, makes it difficult for Christianity to get a foothold. Christ is presented as the ultimate authority and head of his body the church. For Africans it is unthinkable that the ancestors can be replaced, be it by the Son of God.
Although the author endeavors to present a solution to this impasse, he tends to get stuck in the traditional understanding of traditional African spirituality. The author mentions early on in his work that culture changes and this change also happens in African culture. Traditional African spirituality is then merely one (old) layer within the diachronic study of African culture. African culture has been exposed to Christianity for quite some time now. This exposure must have contributed to the change African culture has undergone. This process is not fully taken into account in this work.
In chapter three the author offers what to my knowledge is the best Biblical perspective on the function and role of ancestors. It is clear from Old and New Testament accounts that although ancestors were acknowledged in those times too, they did not take on the status the ancestors do within an African context. The key measure by which the author determines the position of ancestors is to consider the authority they exercise in the lives of their descendants. He reaches the conclusion that ancestors can be recognized, respected and can even serve as a source of inspiration. However, ancestors can never be allowed to intervene in the lives of their descendants. He mentions that in Africa theologians attempt to reconcile Christ's absolute authority with the role of the ancestors by calling Christ "brother ancestor". The author disagrees with such syncretism, but allows it as a metaphor for understanding Christ from an African perspective.
Chapter four turns to a perspective offered from a Lutheran point of view. The Reformation is based on the absolute authority of Scripture, grace and faith in Christ. The dead do not play any role in salvation, nor even in a life of piety. The dead can never usurp the position of authority Christ has.
The author then resorts to a critical discourse with Catholic theology. He criticizes the position of the Pope and the concept of churchly hierarchy. The position and function of the saints are also criticized.
In Part two a perspective from the point of view of modernity is given. It discusses how authority functions within a modernistic world. The author commences chapter five by discussing the main characteristics of modernity, putting the emphasis on the rise of individualism over against the acceptance of objective authority. The clash between traditionalism and modernity is then discussed with special attention being given to the influence on social structure and the position of women. As a conclusion to the chapter the author indicates possible religious reactions to modernity.
Chapter six is an endeavor to provide a key-hole perspective of what lies ahead. Along the lines of economics, sociology and religion the author indicates how modernity eventually leads to post modernity and what effect it has on traditionalism. The conclusion he reaches is that the church is in need of a dynamic theology.
In the last chapter the author provides guidelines on how Christianity should respond to modernity and traditionalism. Not only insights from the past are necessary to understand the position ancestors have in the traditional African worldvies, but the reality of the present and the trends of the future all need to shape Christian thought. From the author's remarks it is clear that he cannot but implore traditional Africans to choose between Christ and the ancestors. Christ is the final and absolute authority. On the other hand, the author challenges Western Christians to open their minds to realize the value of mourning rituals as acknowledgement of the passing away of the deceased.
The value of this work lies in the fact that it presents a balanced evaluation of the position of the deceased in Christianity. Ancestor worship is not dealt with as a simple theological issue that can be neglected. It discusses the complexity and implication of the position of the deceased and presents challenges to all Christians.