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Review: 'Africa and The Early Church' an imperfect, worthwhile read

Rana Irby reviews this year's new offering from the Catholic journalist Mike Aquilina, calling it a "smartly done work".

(Emmaus Road Publishing)

If you ask most people about early Christianity, the likelihood of Africa’s role being brought up is not high. However, as noted Catholic author and speaker Mike Aquilina deftly illustrates in his recently published “Africa and The Early Church: The Almost-Forgotten Roots of Catholic Christianity,” the motherland was a pivotal player in the Western Church’s history and tradition. The topic is a necessary one to engage, and Aquilina does it in a pithy and engaging way.

“Africa and the Early Church” approaches the history of the faith on the continent in three parts, based on how that part of the world was seen in ancient times: Roman Africa (Carthage being its center), Egypt (Alexandria being its center), and Ethiopia. Using concise and accessible writing, Aquilina illumines the little-known African beginnings of Western Christianity. What’s more, he demonstrates the integral role these roots played, including the lives of the martyrs, saints and other major figures of the time and excerpts from historical documents.

As I would put it, one comes away from reading this book with a deeper sense of the world that birthed such major players in early Church history as St. Augustine, St. Anthony of Egypt, Origen, Tertullian, and Arius. Here, though, it feels apropos to address an issue I found with the book: how the subject was prefaced.

Modern discussion of Africa and Church history will naturally occasion comments on the subject of race. Relatedly, most explanations of Church history, now and for centuries prior, have placed Europe at the center. To his credit, Aquilina does acknowledge this in the preface and introduction of the book. In light of this, he explicitly states a disclaimer.

“The first thing to know about this book is that it’s not a book about race.”
(p. xv)

Later, he adds:

“Because we’re Westerners, of course, we have our prejudices. We’ll acknowledge those even as we try to overcome them.”
(p. xxi)

As a Black Catholic, I feel the book would have benefited by going beyond acknowledgment and actually doing the work of overcoming said prejudices.

A significant example of this is that more space was given to discussing Roman Africa and Egypt than to Ethiopia. In addition, the order of the discussion placed Ethiopia at the end. One could come away from this framing with the idea that Ethiopia’s Christian heritage is just an afterthought, instead of a tradition that goes back to the era of the New Testament. For me, it felt like a significant missed opportunity.

Thus, while it wasn’t a book about race—and rightfully so—“Africa and the Early Church” could have done some exploration of how the African roots of the early Church have a role in the faith of those in the African diaspora, and how it can be a source of inspiration to all of us in the Church today. In addition, the book could have worked on its ‘Western prejudice’ by starting the discussion with Ethiopia, especially given the role Ethiopia had in the Bible.

Considering Aquilina’s platform and expertise, it’s not beyond reason to think there was potential to more explicitly show the universality of the Church’s history. Even so, “Africa and the Early Church” was for me an insightful, smartly done work that is a worthwhile read.

Africa and the Early Church: The Almost-Forgotten Roots of Catholic Christianity

Mike Aquilina

Ebook ($15.95) or hardcover ($22.95)

Rana Irby is a freelance writer from Detroit, focused on the intersections of faith and culture.

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