Inculturation, a neologism for the process of incarnating the message of God's unconditional love for humanity into human languages and cultures, is old as the Bible itself. As a theme for explicit reflection, however, it took the lion's share of the attention of theologians, especially those working in the so-called Third World, only after the Second Vatican Council, where the Catholic church attempted to be truly a "world church" for the first time.
Magesa's book is an excellent addition to the already copious collection of works dealing with this vital theological theme. The author is highly qualified to write on it, having published on African religions (African Religion: The Moral Traditions of Moral Life, of which the present book is a sequel) as well as very well-positioned for the task, having served as a parish priest in Tanzania. The book is divided into three parts. The first narrates the process of inculturation in East Africa, especially in Kenya, Tanzania, and Uganda. The second gives an overview of the history and theology of inculturation from the Old Testament to our times. The third offers concrete proposals on how to carry out inculturation in the various areas of church life in Africa,
The two most interesting parts, in my view, are the first and the third. For those unfamiliar with the African Church, the first four chapters offer an informative overview of how the church in East Africa has dealt with the issue of inculturation. Five questions guided the empirical research: How did African Christians understand inculturation; to what extent have church officials facilitated it; to what degree were the ordinary faithful involved in it; what were the constraints against it; and, what would be the suitable strategies to implement it. It is very helpful that Magesa did not limit this empirical study to the Catholic Church but has also included other churches such as the African Independent Pentecostal Church of Africa, the Akorino Church, the African Inland Church, Assemblies of God Church, Full Gospel Church of Christ, and the Marian Faith Healing Church. In chapter 4, Magesa summarizes the findings under seven headings: the practice of faith, worship/liturgy, healing from physical illness and deliverance from evil spirits, leadership structures and the role of women, knowledge of the bible, ecumenism, and theology. As a whole, Magesa finds that in all these seven areas the East African churches still leave a lot to be desired.
The last four chapters which make up the third part of the book, titled "A Look into the Future," are chock-full of challenging and comprehensive proposals to make the church not only in but of Africa, that is, truly African. This project of inculturation, to be truly authentic, must, according to Magesa, include new models of being church, experimental forms of worship (e.g., baptism- confirmation, Eucharist, consecration of persons to religious life), use of African music and art, critique of African sexual morality (e.g., polygamy and levirate), and revision of church law. Very few of Magesa's proposals are absolutely new; the great service he has done is to offer a consistent theological framework in which they can be implemented.
One of the underlying themes of the book is that inculturation is a necessary though complex and controversial process. Because there is no easy and error-free recipe for it, most church officials, both in Rome and in Africa, are quite timid, if not downright opposed to it. One person whose view on inculturation is often subjected to critique, and rightly so, is Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. Given this powerful resistance, Magesa's book and those like it are all the more necessary reading not only for Africans and people of the Third World but also Christians of the First World for whom the widespread danger is to think that their brand of Christianity is the norm and model of the rest of the world.