Review of Gregg Okesson’s “Re-Imaging Modernity”

Okesson_Reimaging coverIf you are looking for an excellent example of contextual theology, you ought to be reading Gregg Okesson’s Re-Imaging Modernity: A Contextualized Theological Study of Power and Humanity within Akamba Christianity in Kenya (Pickwick, 2012). He examines how three different evangelical ecclesiastical communities within the Ukambani region of Kenya reinterpret certain aspects of modernity, and how power is a hermeneutic allowing humans to access God’s nature on behalf of life. Okesson draws on sociological data to offer a theological perspective on the relationship between God, power and humanity in these churches, one of which is historic, one African-initiated, and one a newer Pentecostal church. Over a period of three years, Okesson interacted with these churches, studying the type of power the churches have and how they employ it.
Okesson agrees with Vanhoozer that context is critical to a faithful hermeneutics, and thus must focus on the ‘where’ and ‘who’ of theology. Okesson describes his own integrative method as similar to that of Catholic theologian A. E. Orobator. After briefly examining views of power in the culture as a whole, Okesson details the connections between divine power and generative life growth, and points of continuity between traditional and modern views of God, power, and humanity. In Africa, power is about relationships and transformation. Many African theologian and philosophers closely link divine power to human life and fruitfulness: thinkers like Placide Tempels, who coined the influential term ‘vital force,’ Alexis Kagame, V. Mulago, Charles Nyamiti, and many more. All these view cosmology in terms of power relations, where life flows from God, and power is intended to be used for the growth of the cosmos. Clearly more ‘traditional’ ideas are influencing ‘modern’ thought, including theology. African cultures are engaging with Western forms of modernity, but reinterpreting what they appropriate. For example, the AICK church shows the affects of rationalism in that they value the ability to defend the Bible and one’s faith with arguments, but they also accept the supernatural—hence, not your typical Western form of rationalism. Or, the Africa Bible Church emphasizes development, but based on a ‘spiritual’ view of humanity and the doctrine of creation. Okesson concludes all the churches agree that God’s power promotes human growth. Life is much more than biology; it is holistic and integrative, so fullness of life or growth in life includes physical health, good relationships within one’s community, spiritual life, and much more.
This raises the question of how power is used and abused. Humans can dominate or enhance life, depending on their actions. For example, when a church sacralizes a leader, this can lead to domination, or to idolatry of one particular image and rejection of other diverse, but valid, ways of imaging God. To provide guidelines on the use of power in the church requires studying how God uses power and how humans access—but do not in themselves possess—that power. Okesson’s own construction, drawing on African cosmologies, is both compelling and holistic. It is rare to read an integrative, well-written piece of evangelical theology; Okesson offers hope that this situation could change. He interacts well with sociological data, includes various voices (women, children, etc.), and addresses themes that are relevant in Akamba culture. The book is not perfect: biblical scholars will be disappointed with the depth and amount of biblical engagement. The flow and integration of the first two chapters could be improved, and I would have liked more argument for the way Okesson defines modernity. Also, his references to Mulago are only informed by a single piece of Mulago’s, thus Okesson incorrectly states that Mulago does not mention concerns or dangers of hierarchy. However, these minor problems, weighed against the many strengths of the book, are insignificant. This is easily the best theological work I have read in several months. Let’s just say that some of my friends and family may be receiving this book as a gift in the near future! 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!
This entry was posted in Book reviews, Global Theology, Integration, Systematic Theology and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Review of Gregg Okesson’s “Re-Imaging Modernity”

  1. Mike says:

    Stephanie,

    Thanks for this! I’m curious how you could see this book being used in western contexts: textbook for undergraduate course in ecclesiology? Theology proper? More of a graduate setting? What about pre-departure training for new missionaries, especially to certain regions of Africa?

  2. Stephanie A. Lowery says:

    It could be used as a textbook for upper level undergrads or seminary students, as an example of how theology is shaped by context. It could also be useful for missionaries in training, as you suggested.

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