The Word of Wisdom and the Creation of Animals in Africa, by
Shelagh Ranger. Cambridge, James Clarke & Co., ISBN 9780227679869, 2007, £25.
A couple of years ago the author of this impressive work of scholarship
joined Ark readers and others at our ecumenical retreat at Boar’s Hill, Oxford.
We knew she had lived for many years in Africa, but now her deep love and
knowledge of that continent is given rich expression in this book. The best part
of it, for me, has to be the introduction, giving the historic background to the
present state of religion in Africa, showing how much of Christianity itself has
its early growth in that continent. Ranger sees elements in all religious
traditions that enlighten and enlarge our view of the human relationship with
nature, including the traditional ones still found in sub-Saharan Africa. In
fact, she maintains that unless western theology takes more account of African,
we will not overcome the dualism between people and nature which has caused so
many of today’s environmental problems.
As well as providing an overview of the ancient world, of Carthage and the
Nile Valley, we also get a glimpse of African Judaism and Islam, and the two
waves of Christian missionary activity, the first being the very early Coptic
church in North Africa, and the second being that of the European missionaries.
After the introduction, there is a focus on the various creation accounts and
beliefs, with translated texts, usually from primary sources but sometimes from
commentaries and scholarly observations. These are divided into six sections,
each representing a major religion or civilization, including contemporary
Despite the over-riding view here that Africa has much to teach us about
respecting animals and nature, there is the awkward feeling that animals are
just as instrumental as they are in the West. They may teach us, but they may
also be hunted, sacrificed and eaten. However, it is not for us soft Westerners
to pass judgement, when there is so much exploitation in which we are engaged.
This book has much to recommend it, not least for the useful bibliography,
notes and glossary of terms – although I am surprised that such a prestigious
publisher should allow through so many typos. (Are there no proof-readers at
Here is an extract from the section on Early African Christianity (page 151),
giving Ranger’s comments, and then a passage from one of her sources:
“This section has shown that African Christians retain an active faith in the
power of angels and spirits who were created by God not only to rule the cosmos,
but to share the life of humans and other animals on earth. A contemporary
Ethiopian scholar, Tsehai Berhane-Selassie, observes that Orthodox Christians
today see no contradiction between the biblical creation stories and the world
of spirits, some of whom are believed to be the children of Eve. Such beliefs
are shared by Muslims and Jews, and she reflects on the way Ethiopian Orthodox
Christians use creation myths to incorporate ‘other belief systems, including
the basic African polytheism’. She also highlights some valuable ecological
side-effects of their sense of sacred space, particularly in the preservation of
‘Animal sanctuaries The grounds around churches are considered holy. Within a
certain radius, depending on the size of the grounds, the wood and even the
leaves are not to be cut and the land is not to be farmed or ‘bled’. Monasteries
have huge grounds which are kept holy; small churches often have only a small
fenced-in compound immediately around them.
As a result, the surroundings of many churches are home to wild animals which
have almost disappeared elsewhere. Around monasteries in the highlands one may
see rare animals such as baboons, leopards, huge snakes and birds of all sorts.
The forests are still more or less intact. Many indigenous trees, which in some
places have been destroyed completely over the last forty years, are still found
standing on their own in the grounds of remote rural churches. Bees make honey
inside the roofs of some churches without being disturbed, and doves and other
birds make nests even on the ground.’ (From Tsehai Berhane-Selassie, ‘Ecology
and Ethiopian Orthodox Theology’ in David G. Hallman (ed.), Ecotheology: Voices
from the South and North (Geneva: WCC, 1994), pp.155-167.”
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