Review: Sung Kyu Park’s “Christian Spirituality in Africa: Biblical, Historical, and Cultural Perspectives from Kenya”

Context is vital. In the spirit of rich, sustained focus on contextuality, this review and my next both focus on Christianity in the East African context, specifically Kenya, one book focused on the Kikuyu group (this) and one on the Akamba ethnic group (Okesson review, coming soon).

Ilo.ChurchAndDevelopment.97794          Sung Kyu Park’s Christian Spirituality in Africa: Biblical, Historical, and Cultural Perspectives from Kenya examines Christian spirituality in various contexts. Part 1 sets the stage with a study of various expressions of spirituality found in the Bible, then moves on to Western church history. Park covers an impressive amount of material, highlighting the prominent features of each stream of spirituality. This sets the background against which to understand and evaluate Christian spirituality in Kenya (Part 2), from early missionary forms of Christianity and subsequent revivals and charismatic movements. Finally, Part 3 deals with African culture and religion, using the Kikuyu group as one particular example of this. Park examines how these various influences interact in Christian spirituality today, detailing the strengths and weaknesses of existing spiritualities, before closing with brief recommendations regarding intentional formation of Christian spirituality in Kenya today. 

Park’s exploration of biblical and historical Christian spiritualities in Part 1 was fascinating in and of itself, and would be helpful as introductory reading for those new to Christian spirituality and historical theology. He clearly highlights the main features of various movements and figures, from OT wisdom spirituality to medieval mysticism to major reformers like Zwingli. This provides a broad framework for approaching more particular study of any of these periods, strands, or persons—but in a way that retains richness and diversity, not seeking uniformity and allowing healthy tensions to remain.

Part 2 then explores the development of Christianity in Africa, specifically Kenya. Even as someone who lived in Kenya for well over a decade, it would have been helpful if Park had included a map at this point, to allow the reader to situate the events he proceeds to describe. Park 3 deals with African culture and tradition, as well as other influences on Christian spirituality today.

What I find confusing in this book are the terms ‘Africa,’ ‘Kenya,’ and ‘Kikuyu.’ The focus of the book is Kenya, specifically the Kikuyu people group. Why, then, does the book’s title imply something other than what the contents reflect, which is a much narrower focus? Park mentions that he uses the Kikuyu as one example of Christianity in Africa, but does not explain why the Kikuyu can be seen as representative of African spirituality. Was there a concern that a book about Kikuyu or Kenyan spirituality would be seen as less accessible to a Western audience, and thus the choice of ‘Africa’ to make the work seem broader? Park does a fine job of exploring various elements shaping Christian spirituality among the Kikuyu, using historical sources as well as interviews with some of his students. He ably identifies strengths and weaknesses in present forms of spirituality, which may also provoke the Western reader to re-think some of their own assumptions. I wish the distracting issue of terminology could be resolved, but this in no way detracts from the fine work he has done. I also have some questions about the relevance of John Mbiti to this work, but that too is a minor point.

I am excited by Pickwick’s interest in and commitment to exploring Christianity in Africa, and also excited by Park’s book. It is a well-written, thoroughly contextualized theological work. I recommend this book as a fine example of a holistic, contextual theology which is particularly accessible to Western readers due to the framework Park provides early on. As an added incentive for the curious or those with limited budgets, a Kindle edition is also available through Amazon.

Thanks to Wipf & Stock for the review copy.

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About Stephanie Lowery

I studied systematic theology at Wheaton College Graduate School, studying under Daniel Treier and writing my dissertation on ecclesiological models in Africa. I grew up in East Africa, and am happy to have returned at long last!
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