One of the books that most influenced my moral and personal imagination was a small novel, Une vie de boy (“Houseboy,” 1956), by Ferdinand Oyono. An early novel by a great Cameroonian writer, diplomat, and civil leader, it made a minor splash on the French literary scene when it first appeared. The story briefly traces the mostly depleting experience of a young servant in a colonial household. It was one of the first recognized (and lauded) fictional works dealing with the perversions of colonialism, the distortions of missionary work, and the weakness and hypocrisy of the Church in these settings. There is, too, a chastened and stern compassion in Oyono’s depiction of his European characters, their often cruel weaknesses, but also vulnerabilities, along with an unsentimental, if humorous, eye cast on his countrymen.
I first stumbled on the novel in a small, dusty, and almost bare bookshop in Bujumbura, Burundi, when I was a young priest teaching at a Bible college up in the hills. I had come to town searching for something to share with my students. We had no books, other than the Bible itself. I couldn’t find anything familiar. On a whim, I bought the slim paperback, and took it back up the muddy roads to the school. We passed it around—there were only about a dozen students. Then we talked about it. Some things, good and bad, resonated with my students. One aspect did not; they had clear critiques of the novel’s pinched depiction of the Christian faith. Oyono had been raised a Catholic but had left much of the Church behind. And yet, in spite of their recognition that questions of faith separated them from the author, the moral questions and, more importantly, the human struggle of the protagonist Toundi and the other characters touched my students, and our conversations ranged not only widely but deeply, taking in Scripture, God, Church, Jesus, parents, neighbors, strangers, race, and dominion.
I eventually found a set of French books dealing with basic Christian doctrine that we tried to use as a common textbook. It was pretty much a failure—the books were abstract, vague, presupposing knowledge no one had. Oyono’s book remained a focal point of discussion and insight, and I have often reflected on the power of this small volume. All the compelling aspects of the novel—cultural critique, compassion, honesty, as well as its sinuous and luminous French prose—derive from a particular kind of Western intellectual inheritance, an expressive and pedagogical bequest, applied and transfigured by Oyono’s own perspective and genius. The one stream—the Western one—required Oyono’s reception in order to remain alive; the African stream required the first in order to be heard. I learned a lesson about the ongoing vitality of an intellectual and literary “canon,” its power of insemination, and the variety of its fruits.
The blossoming of postwar African literature was informed by at least three things: local identities made up of indigenous, colonial, and postcolonial realities; critical demands; and Christian faith. The writers of this era, including Oyono, were not clear about what these factors added up to. Perhaps they imagined it would issue simply in the overthrow or withering of the last, the specifically Christian element. When that didn’t happen, they often withdrew to an intellectual twilight world (as Oyono himself did). They had not yet lived through or understood what Lamin Sanneh in his wonderfully provocative booklet Whose Religion is Christianity? (2003) would later describe as the growth of African Christian life on its own terms. Recognizing this had to wait until the 1970s. Sanneh’s was not the tired critique of Christianity as an imperial imposition—something some progressives still cling to. He was pointing to a synthetic and vital imaginative cultural phenomenon in the latter decades of the twentieth century, utterly Christian, and utterly appropriative of the cultural identities peculiar to place and history. By this time, traditional “Western” forms of intellectual production were increasingly reshaped by their African Christian reception and offerings. Novelists like Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, and theologians like Kwame Bediako or Sanneh himself, as well as the vast and luxuriantly fertile realm of contemporary African preaching, exemplify this specifically Christian efflorescence.
Christianity has a voracious intellectual and spiritual cultural dynamic of its own. The dynamic is not one of simple inclusivism. Rather, Christianity is ever engaging, winnowing, repurposing. Why not? Is it not to be expected that the Son of God incarnate, the divine Word, would speak through the words of all people in a divinely particular fashion? This reformulating Word, set loose upon the cultures of humankind, has been wending its way through history, taking up, purifying, and recasting along its way. The “Western Canon” is mislabeled, if by that term we mean simply the fabrication and possession of a closed set of writings by a historically insular tribe, bent on subjugating the world. At its best, the term indicates the geographical pathways and way stations of the Word’s pilgrimage, one that is far more expansive than a point on the compass suggests. Furthermore, the language of the “Western Canon” masks the initiating agent of this intellectual trail, that is, the Word itself.
I suppose that renaming the “Western Canon” as a fundamentally “Christian Canon” will further offend its opponents. But it should also loosen the grip of Christian nativists on a tight net of intellectual heroes, allowing the likes of Oyono and others into the fold. The Christian Canon is both clarifying and broad.
Thus, the Plato and Aristotle that we read today are not so much the bequest of “the West” as they are the gift of Christianity’s reordering of this bequest. Do we understand Plato “on his own terms,” apart from the Christian tradition that followed him? Probably not. I remember the sense I had when first reading Walter Burkert, the great scholar of Greek religion, and being introduced to the gory violence of Greek cultic life, the strange and shamanistic manias of the priesthood, and the psychedelic imagery of the originally brightly colored monuments like the Parthenon. This is not the calm and purified world of democracy’s high-minded nobility into which I had unconsciously placed the Greek philosophers. The “real” Plato was perhaps closer to our picture of a druid elder than a transcendental sage. By contrast, the Plato passed down to us is probably quite different from that mysterious author of long ago—passed down and debated, reoriented by Aristotelians, Stoics, Jewish allegorists, Neoplatonists, and finally Christian Platonists, philosophers, theologians, and poets into the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. If the Plato of the Western Canon has an integrity of meaning, textured and distant from origins to which we have no access, it is because the Word took hold of him and gave him to the ages, bearing the gift of “souls,” “justice,” “goodness,” “being,” and the rest of our philosophic categories, which even today’s atheist philosophers cannot do without.
But the same holds true for the more critical aspects that fund today’s “decolonizing” intellectual enterprises, often so angrily dismissive of Christianity and its “Western” equipment. Scholars as different as Carl Becker and John Milbank have convincingly established the Christian identity of Enlightenment categories like “equality,” “rights,” “human dignity,” “critique,” and “power,” often appropriated by Christianity’s enemies to use against it. What makes Oyono’s novels both so powerful and illuminating for Christian readers is that he is, with self-awareness, speaking their language, and hence communicating truths that can and should be pondered and evaluated with a seriousness that grasps their relevance. Many of today’s critical opponents of Christianity refuse to recognize that the conceptual grammar of their attacks is utterly Christian in form. The Word has offered these tools to the world, as it were, from the early Church, through medieval Christian civil struggle, into early modern missionary contexts and modern economic turmoil. The eighteenth-century literary works of former African slaves like Ottobah Cugoano and Olaudah Equiano ought rightly to be part of the “canon” our schools provide for their students’ formation. They are critical and challenging, and they engage matters of race and power, and they do so because they are suffused with the Word’s own gifts.
The fact that the Word has been subsuming human words to its own purposes throughout history does not mean that Christianity is destined to become the religion of the world’s population. There are strong demographic and social reasons against such an expectation. Many fall into pride, anger, greed, resentment—all of which lead to wars, unrest, and civil dissolution among Christians as much as non-Christians. The enemies of Christianity are not the ideas of its secular progeny but sin itself, which spreads its poison both in and outside the Church. The disciples of the Word should not rage against the world’s recalcitrance but rather gratefully receive, pore over, and make use of the words of the Word that the tribes of Babel have now taken up for their own purposes. Thomas Aquinas read Averroes; my students read Oyono. Faith matures in both cases. Generously considered in the light of the Word’s own scriptural speech, the many canons of the world’s peoples can sparkle.
Ephraim Radner is professor of historical theology at Wycliffe College.