December 18, 2007

Book Review: The Human Condition

The Human Condition
Joe M. Kapolyo, The Human Condition: Christian Perspectives Through African Eyes (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2005), 169 pp.

Who are we as humans? What is our place in this world? Is there anything wrong with us? If so, can we do anything about it? Christians know that God has answered these questions in the Bible. But answers to these questions are an essential part of any worldview. As a missionary to East Africa, I am keenly interested in how Africans would respond these questions. Thankfully, Zambian theologian Joe M. Kapolyo has written a book on this subject, The Human Condition: Christian Perspectives Through African Eyes. Since he is an evangelical Christian from the Bemba people of Africa, Kapolyo provides a unique and much-needed perspective on humanity.

The author begins by raising the issues surrounding the nature of humanity and our condition. Then he focuses on three common theories: the Darwinist vision, the Marxist vision, and an African vision called Ubuntu. Next, Kapolyo turns to Scripture for a biblical perspective. He examines what it means for humanity to be made in the image of God. He also covers the Fall, looking at sin as well as the spiritual challenges we face in this world. From here the author moves to explain and assess traditional African anthropology in-depth. Finally, he concludes with bringing the light of the gospel to the human condition.

I really enjoyed and greatly benefited from Kapolyo's book. First and foremost, I appreciated his bringing an African perspective to the study of humanity. Throughout this work there were many good examples, illustrations, and applications from Africa, especially from his native country and people group. I am all too aware of my limited perspective in theological study. He has helped me to begin bridging this gap.

Additionally, his final chapter was an excellent treatment of the need for contextualization. Christians simply must find cultural links to properly communicate the gospel. Kapolyo uses the concept of inheritance to provide a practical example of relating the gospel in the African context.

At the same time, I strongly disagree with the author's defense of an egalitarian relationship between men and women. His argument simply lacks solid biblical exposition. He dismisses 1 Timothy 2 far too easily and his reflection on Ephesians 5 leaves much to be desired. Men and women were made by God to complement one another, each having their own place to fulfil in His creation. We cannot ignore this truth in our understanding of humanity.

Another shortcoming is found in his treatment of traditional African anthropology. Kapolyo starts off well, providing the important distinction between surface level and deep level cultural structures (external vs. internal, worldview levels). He writes:

[O]ne of the major weaknesses of Christianity in sub-Saharan Africa, as I will seek to demonstrate in this chapter, is precisely because it is a religion, "a classroom religion" for that matter. It therefore fits not into the inner person--the deep culture that is the locus of the vision of life--where it naturally belongs, but rather (and unfortunately so) into . . . the expressive culture in the area of material and spiritual creations. It is thus not an integrating element in life. For this reason it is more accurate to speak not of African religions but African spirituality, a living faith (120).
With this in mind, the author spends a great deal of time explaining deep level issues in African cultures that are often inadequately addressed (if touched on at all) by most Christians. In many ways, this section was the highlight of his book. Nevertheless, he does not follow it up with developing how we can respond to the cultural issues he raises.

But I do not want to sound too critical. I found this book to be indispensable in my preparation to minister in East Africa. I would recommend it to all missionaries seeking to serve our Lord in Africa. I also suggest those wanting a more globally balanced theology to check it out. I thank my brother in Christ for his fine contribution to building God's kingdom.