Just like you, I have been influenced by the stories of others. Listening to and telling good stories, especially about people, passes along encouragement and inspiration. That is what this series on Great Christian Biographies is all about. I hope you enjoy!
Africa is rising. This is a narrative that can be seen in the popular fashion in the African continent, the diversity of casts in contemporary movies as well as the economic growth of African countries (see a World Bank 2015 report and ranking). By and large, it has been fueled by the realization that Africa should tell her own story. In the field of Christian theology, Kwame Bediako stands tall as one of the Africans who has taken this to heart and personal ministry. His story is compelling evidence that even Africans are made in the image of God and that they can make contributions within the global arena. This reality is paramount in the post-colonial and postmodern reality that Africa currently navigates – It has been fueled by the need for Africans to own their story even in the face of the murky and sometimes, misunderstood colonial history.
A contemporary of Bediako, in a 1994 interview with the Paris Review captures the idea that has underscored Kwame Bediako’s life mission. The African novelist and essayist, Chinua Achebe said:
“There is that great proverb – that until the lions have their own historians, the history of the hunt will always glorify the hunter.”
Whereas some of the well-known African writers and thinkers such as Achebe and Ngugi Wa Thiong’o have had a negative view of Christianity because of their colonial history, Bediako on the other hand has sought to write the story of the gospel in light of the uniqueness of the African experience. His story depicts one who had the courage of a lion as he ventured to tell the story of the gospel for Africa.
“Kwame” as he liked to be called was born on a Saturday (the meaning of his name) in the year 1945. His father was a police inspector and his grandfather a Presbyterian catechist and evangelist. It is this heritage of a meticulous mind and passionate service to God that would come to define him. He was an outstanding pupil in his early education, which was given to him thanks to the mission education that was common across missionary occupied Africa in that time. He would later enroll at the University of Ghana for his undergraduate studies in 1965 – this would serve to harness his potential, distinguishing himself as a fine speaker and debater. Because of his dexterity with the French language, he would win a scholarship that would see him relocate to Bordeaux in France for his graduate studies where he eventually wrote his Doctoral dissertation on African Francophone literature. It seems that the philosophical undercurrents of French existentialism during the student demonstrations of the 60’s would lead him far away from his religious background, and he would become an atheist. Yet not all hope was lost. In the deeper analysis of his heart, his atheism had brought him to a “pit of futility”, he says:
“I was doing well academically, everything was going well for me . . . Yet there was this pit of futility within which caused me to review my life. Suddenly it occurred to me, I had come to a dead end and I remember saying something to this effect, ‘God I’m tired, take my life’ . . . then somehow I felt flooding into me, a new . . . a newness of life!”
After this remarkable conversion experience he spent the half of that night in prayer.
Bediako says that after that experience “I was recovering my African sense of the wholeness of life! I find that in becoming Christian, I am becoming more African than I truly was. I am becoming who I am!” He found that being Christian brought him a fuller understanding of his personhood as an African, redeemed by the Almighty God to enjoy the fullness of a holistic spiritual life.
This would set his new life agenda going forward, a vocation of scholarship which would permeate his life’s work. One of his former French classmates was a lady called Gillian Mary, with whom they would do mission work together among the migrant Arab children. They would say their nuptial vows in the year 1973. In 1974, Bediako became a participant in the Lausanne conference, whose main theme was world evangelization. Such interactions would color the life of Bediako as he would particularly be a catalyst, in one form or another, for global Christianity and mission to the world. These experiences would continue to impress on his heart his true vocation.
He then turned from the field of literature to that of theology, writing his second Doctoral dissertation at the University of Edinburgh. He wrote on the interaction of the gospel of Jesus Christ and the African cultural experience, the intertwining themes that are characteristic in his work and writing. By looking at how the early church fathers used their cultural sources, background and ideas in their proclamation of the gospel and comparing that with his African contemporary theologians, his dissertation would later be published in 1999 as the well-known work of scholarship, Theology and Identity: The Impact of Culture on Christian Thought in the Second Century and in Modern Africa. In this book, much of his underlying contributions to an African understanding of Faith can be seen:
“My interest in the theme of Gospel and Culture, which forms the background to the treatment I have given, is rooted in the development of my own Christian self-understanding. From quite early in my Christian conversion experience, I have felt the need to seek a clarification for myself of how the abiding gospel of Jesus Christ relates to the inescapable issues and questions which arise from the Christian’s cultural existence in the world, and how this relationship is achieved without injury to the integrity of the gospel.”
As we look at the life of Bediako, three lessons are outstanding:
We should embrace our unique calling in Christ
Kwame Bediako despite his past was used by God in the vocation of scholarship to influence the world. He wrote numerous essays and books, which serve to show his passion for the life of the mind. Being more practical, as an ordained minister in the Presbyterian Church of Ghana, he was well aware of the issues that Christian believers in Africa faced on the ground and he was thus able to do his scholarly work in a way that was relevant to the needs of the local church. For him, his scholarship was not in the ivory tower but took a bottom-up-approach that was aware of the songs that African women sang in adoration of Jesus:
‘He is the One who cooks His food in huge palm-oil pots.
Thousands of people have eaten,
Yet the remnants fill twelve baskets.
If we leave all this, and go wandering off
If we leave His great gift, where else shall we go?’
His story reminds us that wherever God has placed and with whatever gifts he has granted to us, there is a place for us to serve in the Kingdom of God. He “multiplied his talents” by serving as a professor, pastor and author – He went back to Edinburgh to teach and after a few years, discerning a call to the pastorate, returned to his home country Ghana and served as a Pastor in the years 1984 – 1987. We might not all be Bediako, but like the imagery of the Body in Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, we each have a part to play, and no part is less convenient or unworthy than the other:
“Just as a body, though one, has many parts, but all its many parts form one body, so it is with Christ. For we were all baptized by one Spirit so as to form one body, whether Jews or Gentiles, slave or free and we were all given the one Spirit to drink. Even so the body is not made up of one part but of many. . . ” (1 Cor. 12:12-14).
We should appreciate and express our African heritage
Probably because he was not converted through the appeal of a missionary, Bediako was able to see that God called him uniquely as an African. This would give him a self-understanding of who he was as an African. Whereas some have critiqued his understanding, he reminds us that it matters that we realize that we are Africans – African Christians. That our following of Jesus is not in the air of clouds above, neither is it in 17th century Europe but it is grounded within the villages and soils, the songs and laments, the elders and teachers of our Motherland. Though there are some discontinuities between our African practices and our faith, there is much good that God has deposited in our African cultures. Such good includes the idea of community, respect for elders, honor and dignity in society all of which can give us a deeper understanding of what it means to be Church, to fellowship and to serve. Bediako’s love for all things African would see him, through the help of others and after his three-year pastorate, birth the Akrofi-Christaller Institue, a Christian institute in Ghana that seeks to develop African scholars and practitioners at the nexus of Theology, Culture and Mission. Additionally, he would also be instrumental in the editing of the African Bible Commentary, thereby bequeathing to African Christians a biblical understanding that takes their issues concretely. This is definitely not to belabor the richness of cultural diversity that exists in the world and the contributions Africa has received from others. Yet, knowing one’s location is paramount. This cultural awareness and diversity enriched Bediako’s mission.
We should seek the assistance of others in our mission
Kwame Bediako saw the need and importance of partnering with others from all corners of the globe. Together with various colleagues that he had worked with, he was foundational in the formation of the International Fellowship of Evangelical Mission Theologians (INFEMIT), the purpose of the organization being to engage and transform churches and the wider society. This would later create the seeds for the establishment of the Oxford Center for Mission Studies. Through his linkages and networks in the continent and outside of it, Bediako’s wide-ranging mission would garner the support of like-minded people of various backgrounds and nations. This would see him engage the global church and world through his lectureships, seminars and writings. All through, his ultimate partnership with his wife Mary was commendable – Mary joined him in his scholarly vocation by studying together during his academic journey in France as well as taking over the leadership of the Institute that they founded. Together with some friends, Mary was able to gather together a list of essays into a book honoring the legacy of her departed husband.
Perhaps, it is really true what the African proverb says:
“If you want to go far, go with others. If you want to go faster, go alone.”
Kwame Bediako was able to go farther in his life mission through embracing his calling, the appreciation of his African heritage that God had given him and his ability to draw together diverse people. Consequently, Christianity Today honored his memory, one that will endear those Christians passionate about the continent of Africa and the world. As one who has an abiding love for the life of the mind and the art of words and thoughts, we can only pray together with Rev. Christopher J. H. Wright as he pondered Bediako’s legacy:
“We pray that his ministry and contribution will now be multiplied even further through those whom he has mentored and inspired over the years.”
The task remains: we are to mirror the light of the gospel to the darkness in the world. Even as the center of global Christianity shifts southwards to the majority world, God invites us, as he did Kwame Bediako, to participate in this vision for the cosmos. In Bediako’s words:
“Christian history is the theatre not of the imposition of human will upon the world, but the disclosure of the initiative and sovereignty of the living God.”
We are bid to “cry Jesus!” as we engage our cultures with the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Supreme Lord.
 Annalisa Quinn, “Chinua Achebe and the Bravery of Lions,” npr, Published on March 2013, accessed from http://www.npr.org/sections/thetwo-way/2013/03/22/175046327/chinua-achebe-and-the-bravery-of-lions.
 Andrew Walls, “Kwame Bediako” in the Dictionary of African Christian Biography, Published in 2008, accessed from http://www.dacb.org/stories/ghana/bediako_kwame.html.
 Preface to Kwame Bediako, Theology and Identity: The Impact of Culture on Christian Thought in the Second Century and in Modern Africa (Eugene, OR: Regnum Books International, 1999).
 Kwame Bediako, “Cry Jesus! Christian Theology and Presence in Modern Africa, (The Laing Lecture for 1993),” Vox Evangelica 23 (1993): 7-26.
 Rev. Dr. Christopher J. H. Wright, “Dr. Kwame Bediako: In Memory,” Zondervan Blog, Published on June 2008, accessed from http://zondervan.typepad.com/zondervan/2008/06/kwame-bediako.html.
 Kwame Bediako, “The Emergence of World Christianity and the Remaking of Theology,” in Calvin College Lectures (1-12): 2007. Accessed from https://www.calvin.edu/nagel/resources/KwameBediako_2007Lecture.pdf.