I’m always advising people to read theology by Global South Christians.
The danger of only reading books written by Global North Christians is that of limited perspective, and the echo-chamber of homogeneity. Even the Bible carries warnings about this: Rehoboam only listened to the young men with whom he had grown up (I Kings 12:8), who reinforced his pre-existing assumptions. The chief priests and the elders took counsel together (a group invested in preserving the status quo) and decided to put Jesus to death (Matt 27:1). Diverse perspectives enrich, challenge, broaden, surprise, convict. The Bible is extremely clear that one part of the body cannot say to another part, “I don’t need you” (I Cor 12:21).
Chinua Achebe reflects on how Global North writers wrongly assume that what they write has universal relevance and application:
“But of course it would not occur to them to doubt the universality of their own literature. In the nature of things the work of a Western writer is automatically informed by universality. It is only others who must strain to achieve it.”
Philip Jenkins, in The New Faces of Christianity, writes that Christian libraries have books on ‘Asian Theology’, ‘African Theology’, etc., but that books written by Europeans or North Americans are just called ‘Theology’:
‘We will know that the transition is underway when publishers start offering studies of ‘North American theologies.’
And so people are often asking me for ideas – what do we read? Where do we start? How do we choose?
It’s a reasonable question. If I teach that Christians should read more widely, it’s natural to be asked for suggestions. But it’s also a difficult question to answer, because we are talking about a huge literature, thousands of stunning scholars, and a rapidly-growing area of publishing. The Jenkins quote above hints at the difficulty, and Eurocentrism, of this question. It’s like when English people pray for “the nations,” as if England wasn’t a nation, as if the world consisted of England and “the nations.”
What follows is my attempt, by popular request, to answer this question and offer some signposts and recommendations, whilst at the same time being aware that any readers who are already immersed in this world will probably find this attempt trite, shallow and maybe a bit unsystematic.
The are some good introductory books like the following: Jenkins, The New Faces of Christianity, Kwiyani, Multicultural Kingdom; Green, Global Theology in Evangelical Perspective; Sanneh, Whose Religion is Christianity? As long as you understand that these books are only offering the tiniest of introductions, that they are not trying to be comprehensive, you will enjoy the flavours they offer. Also, they all boast big bibliographies, so if you want to pursue anything further there are loads of ideas to pursue.
The other way in to the subject is to get hold of one of the regional single volume Bible Commentaries that offer a range of perspectives by a range of theologians. So, for example, the Africa Bible Commentary (ed. Adeyemo), or An Asian Introduction to the New Testament (ed. Thomaskutty), or South Asia Bible Commentary (ed. Wintle), which again offer some perspectives on Scripture, whilst avoiding the obvious pitfall of saying “this is the African perspective,” which would obviously be a nonsense.
There are a couple of great commentary series which are worth investing in. The Africa Bible Commentary Series (Hippo Books). The Asia Bible Commentary Series (Langham/ Asia Theological Association). Both are as yet incomplete, but the published commentaries are of a high standard as well as taking contextual/ cultural issues into account.
However, though these exceptions are excellent, reading Global South commentaries on books of the Bible is not always the best way to capture authentic Global South perspectives. Here’s why:
- Dedicated commentaries are quite rare and hard to find.
- Commentary-writing requires a huge amount of resource, time, access to libraries which is often a Global North luxury simply unavailable in majority world scholarship. Who is going to fund a Nicaraguan theologian-pastor to take several years to research and write a commentary?
- The majority of books commenting on Scripture which are published in the majority world are not available in English, because their primary purpose is education/instruction locally, not engagement with the global scene.
- Where books are available in English, they are not always readily available in the West for distribution. For example, the excellent Dalit Series of New Testament commentaries which is not available outside India.
- For some (e.g. Latin American) church scenes, the emphasis is on lay/grassroots/pastoral theology and even philosophically against expert, professional scholarship, so dedicated commentaries are not published on principle.
Therefore, the best places to find authentic, accessible, English-language global church theology to read tends to be in compendia or collections of essays where contributors are invited to write on their specialist subject. Much of the absolute gold tends to be available in this format. Here are some examples:
- The Edinburgh Centenary Series of books (Regnum) are all available for free download. An incredible range of subjects, authors and contexts. Regnum Centenary Free Downloads – Oxford Centre for Mission Studies (ocms.ac.uk)
- Contrapuntal Readings of the Bible in World Christianity (ed. K.K. Yeo and Melanie Baffes). Series – Contrapuntal Readings of the Bible in World Christianity – Storytel
- Arabic Christian Theology (ed. Andrea Zaki Stephanous)
- Voices from the Margin: Interpreting the Bible in the Third World (ed. Sugirtharajah)
- Global Perspectives on Biblical Scholarship Series (Society of Biblical Literature) SBL Publications (sbl-site.org)
- Landmark Essays in Mission and World Christianity (ed. Gallagher and Hertig)
Finally, please check yourself:
- Are you reading global theology for an exotic sprinkling of interesting perspectives, whilst for “serious study” you revert to your books written by white men?
- Do you quote global authors in your sermons and on your social media, but not into your own heart?
I’m aware that this is a really difficult ask to make. I’m trying to respond to the requests from our readers to point people in the direction of resources, but I am in no way a white “gatekeeper” whose approval or disapproval matters or sways opinion.
In order meaningfully to alter the way one intuits, to decolonise one’s mind, one must take intentional, long-term, immersive action with focused desire and application. Dipping your toe in might be fun, but it doesn’t change the way you think.
It’s important to read Christian books about God written by Christians who don’t look or think like you. I hope the above ideas serve as a way in, however imperfect.