Review: The African Memory of Mark: Reassessing Early Church Tradition @ivpress

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Citing the modern hermeneutic of suspicion, ]], author and editor of numerous books as well professor, preacher, and the current director of the Center of Early African Christianity at Eastern University (St. Davids, Pennsylvania), writes, “Such suspicion today is giving way to greater respect for the stories of the saints.” (256) In this volume, second of three, with the first being Oden’s 2010 book, ]], Oden is turning the tables on the mythicists and historians, those who deem antiquity as inherently untrustworthy, having reserved for themselves a seat, millenia removed, of arrogance. Here, in a professed passion for recovering the African mind, but denying an Afrocentrism, the author is able to restore some measure of faith in the ancient liturgies and histories of the African Church, one no less important than Antioch, Jerusalem or Rome. We readily repeat that Peter went to Rome, Thomas to India and sometimes, Paul to Spain, without provable factual information and yet we, by large, either refuse to focus on Mark’s journey into Africa and the fact that the African continent for so very long prayed a large role in the development of Christianity, and even fore that, in providing a home to the Holy Family and hospitality to Jesus and the Disciples, or we simply dismiss it as local legend of a backwards people. This is the work which Oden is trying to undue, to restore for Africa, and in that for the rest of Christianity, the place of Africa in the Church Universal.

The book is divided into five parts, with a prologue and a conclusion attached. In each part, a different unit of the story is explored. We are introduced to the idea of a corporate memory in Part I. This is highly significant for those studying the mnemonic nature of cultures, as what Oden touches on is a burgeoning field of study which is telling us that we do share a cultural specific memory. In this new idea, I think we are finding core truths of ancient tales without the focus on post-enlightenment ideals of ‘truth’ and ‘fact.’ It is in this section that Oden lays the foundation to later explore the various literary features of the African narrative of Mark, which will be done drawing from ecumenical sources, local liturgies and martyrdom stories. Oden comments in a later chapter that the oral tradition of the African Narrative has always had a literary underpinning beginning with the New Testament itself. The fact is, is that Mark is not a castaway disciple (such as Thomas) or a later Saint, but a writer of the Gospel with a detailed and rich history which is currently known and celebrated, deeply connected to the Twelve Apostles, namely Peter, who may have, or his mother at the very least, witnessed the final days of the Jesus before His crucifixion. His family portrait of Mark is brought to light in part II, which discusses Mark’s connection to Peter and to Paul, which gives Mark a rather unique vantage point when discussing Jesus Christ. In these two parts, Oden is able to keep the reader’s attention by not languishing over mundane things, but in keeping the pace upbeat as if we are hearing the tale of Mark for the first time. Indeed, I often felt, especially as the author moved through Mark’s locations in the New Testament, that I was discovering that Mark did much more than act as a scribe to Peter.

Part III is rather an interesting section, in that it discusses Marks’ life in Alexandria. No need really to have to familiarize your with Church History, as Oden provides ample knowledge and interaction with ancient people and places, placing them beside what we are comfortable with. Of course, often times he will make the reader uncomfortable with his stance for Africa against continued Western intellectual imperialism. He doesn’t call it that, of course, but throughout the book, there is fodder for the liberation theologian to draw the above noted conclusion. The fact is, is that Western Theologians are waking up to the fact that the Western Church has taken advantage of Africa and the East, often times imposing upon those streams our own particular models of Christianity. Oden is helping to lead the charge of returning to our Christian roots by advocating an ecumenical spirit of equality in uplifting other traditions and in rediscovering our traditional roots. It is difficult after reading this book not to come away with a new appreciation for the mythological theology of Africa, and a deep disconcerting suspicion that Western Christians, moving after Bultmann, may have destroyed our ability to believe. In private conversations and in internal dialogue, I have often noted that before we get back to theology and theologizing the New Testament, we have to learn how to believe in our stories, our myths, our Tradition. Oden’s book, especially in part V, shows that a real belief in Christian history can do and has done, and has a hope for what it will do.

Thomas Oden doesn’t merely reintroduce us to Mark, which I think would actually be counter-intuitive to Oden’s goal, but actually introduces us to the disciple called Mark, who was born to a Jewish diasporic family in northern Africa, Libya, returned to Palestine to be a part of the greatest event in human history, only to find his life taken from him in northern Africa, in the city of Alexandria, as he preached what he had seen. We aren’t reintroduced to Mark, but by Thomas Oden, we are actually introduced to Mark through his spiritual children and their gifts to Christianity. Indeed, I would say that the Gospel of Mark itself is a Pentecost-event in that a Jew returned to Palestine, heralded the Messiah, and returned to a Gentile world, proclaiming an opening of Israel and a return of the exiles. This is the Mark we are finally made aware of.

There is much to appreciate in this book, whether you are a Western Protestant, an Eastern Orthodox, or a Roman Catholic. For the Protestant, the fear will come in reading the connection between Mark and Peter, and in seeing that even in the Alexandrian tradition, Peter has a form of primacy. After all, according to African Memory, which is preserved in the liturgies and the synaxaries, Peter was sent by the Holy Spirit to both Rome and Alexandria. It was by that authority that Peter sent Mark to Alexandria. By Peter’s authority, Mark established the Church in Alexandria which remained very close to the Church in Rome for centuries. But, even through this fear, the Protestant should be able to appreciate the young man on a mission trip, a young man who may have witnessed the very crucifixion of Jesus Christ, celebrating that Gospel. The Orthodox and the Catholic will find connections to their own communions as well, but I am sure they already know that.

There are weaknesses of course, but namely, Oden’s use of the so-called Secret Gospel of Mark; however, Oden’s lasting work will not be judged on that particular fault.

This book is a powerful reminder that Christians on the African continent have kept alive the memory of Mark for nearly two thousand years, and that in doing so, they have relied upon the belief in their Tradition, rooted in Scripture, and passed down very likely from the disciple himself.

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