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Book Review of Footprints of God

NOTE: One type of inculturation theology is an African narrative theology of inculturation. The starting part is African culture, but specifically African oral literature and the wide range of narrative and oral forms: proverbs, sayings, riddles, stories, myths, plays and songs explained in their historical and cultural contexts. Thus the following book on a narrative theology of mission is related to the subjects, themes and concerns of this African Proverbs, Sayings and Stories Website.

Footprints of God: A Narrative Theology of Mission
Edited by Charles Van Engen, Nancy Thomas and Robert Gallagher
Monrovia, CA.: MARC/World Vision
1999, x, 235 pp., paper, $21.95
Reviewed by Joseph G. Healey

One of the three editors states: "Narrative theology is one of the most exciting development in Western theology in the last several decades, yet it has not often been considered in the domain of missiology" (225). To correct this perception a group of doctoral students at Fuller Theological Seminary approached mission theology "narratively" integrating personal, community, cultural and biblical stories. An evangelical narrative missiology holds the canonical story (the Bible) as normative letting the stories of Scripture interweave with the stories of culture and the stories of mission.

The 18 chapters (essays) are set within a theological framework created by Charles Van Engen:

* Six chapters stress that mission must be "of the way" (Christ-centered).

* Six chapters stress that mission must be "in the way" (happening among the peoples and cultures of the world).

* Six chapters stress that mission must be "on the way" (moving forward over time through God's people as they anticipate Christ's present and coming kingdom).

In using biography some of the writers are impacted by the life and writings of people as diverse as Karl Barth, Ernesto Cardinal, E. Stanley Jones, Charles Kraft, Jürgen Moltmann, Mother Teresa and Max Warren. Nancy Thomas is deeply moved by Cardenal the writer stating: "Better than any systematic theology could have done, his very Latin America [theo-] poetry cries out with the pain of the people and, at the same time, shows the footprints of God in the midst of the rubble" (89-90).

In using autobiography some of the writers focus on personal pilgrimage (how it impacts the person himself or herself) or personal experiences that lead to a deeper reflection on ministry. In his essay "Who Raises the Child When There is No Village: Restoring Community in African Cities," (124-135) Stanley Mutunga narrates an encounter with a street boy in Nairobi, Kenya. This leads to a missiological reflection on community and connectedness in Africa's growing cities and the importance of encouraging subculture churches.

The essays touch on a wide variety of topics connected to a narrative theology of mission: Christian Feminism, Conversion, Ethnotheology, Holy Spirit, Hope, Internet, Pluralism, Preaching and Suffering. In her essay Jude Tiersma Watson states: "Another lesson from Mother Teresa concerns the place of suffering in this world, and in the lives of missionaries. Evangelical missiology does not often address this topic, but it must be considered in a world of Rwanda, Bosnia and the violence in our cities" (121).

In her "Conclusion" Nancy Thomas states: "The categories of a narrative missiology include…the traditional myths, legends and other folktales that interweave in the background of the cultures of the world" (226). Later she says: "Agents of mission, first of all, must be listeners to story. Every culture has its stories, as does every person. We need to listen missiologically to the myths of a people, as well as to the proverbs, animal tales and other legends that give clues to their values, longings, and heritage" (229). The "Notes" and "References" of the book list a number of books on African narrative theology.

This challenging book on a biblical theology of mission breaks new ground in its narrative and story style. It is important for theological students as well as missionaries in the field. It heralds a new and creative methodology especially valid for emerging Third World theologies. The primacy of scripture in narrative theologizing raises interesting questions ecumenical dialogue. I found the division of six essays in each section a bit forced.


Joseph G. Healey, M.M. has been in East Africa since 1968. Presently he is the Chairperson of the Mission Awareness Committee of the Religious Superiors' Association of Tanzania based in Dar es Salaam. He is co-author of Towards An African Narrative Theology (Paulines Publications Africa, 1996 and Orbis, 1997).