The Middle East is backwards, benighted, and unable to overcome its age old cycle of violence and corruption—at least that’s line fed to the West by media pundits, opinion-shapers, and new correspondents on both sides of the liberal/conservative line. A surprisingly large number of Arabs (the late Samir Kassir, Lebanese-born professor, historian, journalist and author of Being Arab, for example) seem to hold a similar opinion (albeit with varying degrees of optimism towards change), expressing dissatisfaction with their various nations’ ineptitude in a variety of contexts—most notably political, social, and religious; the constant magnification and scrutinization of these failures across the television screens, radio waves, and front-page stories around the globe only adds to the discouraging outlook.
In diametric opposition to the prevailing characterization, and quite vociferous about what is claimed to be malicious caricature, stand a group of Arabs who are confident that despite the negative press and tragic facts the Middle East is, and will be, self-determining as it presses towards a distinctively Arab panoply of solutions to a variety of social ills. Perhaps most notable among this group stands Edward Said, author of Orientalism and long-time critic of Western academics, politicians, and pundits who attempt to understand the Arab world from an outsider’s perspective.
Given these conflicting attitudes, one given to woebegone pronouncements of fatalism and the other stridently opposed to any Western influence based on the a priori assumption that the Other is unable to understand anything but itself, the prognosis for beneficial interaction between Middle East and West seems a bit dim. However, in his latest book, How Africa Shaped the Christian Mind, Thomas Oden provides a possible backdoor entry for Western, and especially Christian, ideas to take root in the Middle East.
Oden argues that Western scholars have overlooked or blatantly re-defined the important, even fundamental, contributions of Africans to Christian theology and practice. Drawing upon his deep stores of research in the realms of early Christian development, Oden argues that historical honesty demands a reexamination of the identities and works of Christian heavyweights like Augustine, Cyprian, and Tertullian—all of whom were African thinkers.
One of the many exciting implications of Oden’s thesis is that Africa, and a large part of the Arab world (Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya, Somalia, Mauritania, and Egypt are all members of the Arab League), has a distinctive Christian heritage that pre-dates many of the current sources of Arab ideology. If Arabs across North Africa, as well as those in ancient Mesopotamia and the Levant, take hold of the cultural, academic, and theological riches of early Christianity as their riches and their ideas, then the door is open to explore what have otherwise been termed “Western ideologies” like democracy, capitalism, natural law, and etc. while still remaining distinctly Arab.