Andrew F. Walls: requiescat in pace

Andrew Finlay Walls, 12 April 1928 – 12 August 2021, has been within his lifetime the single most important figure in the study of World Christianity. His towering intellect was only matched by his deep humility and depth of faith. But for me, he was also simply … my favorite teacher. (Though there have been several close-seconds.)  Hours spent at the feet of Andrew and his wife, Dr Ingrid Reneau Walls, were far too few, but treasured.

I highly recommend his books:  The Missionary Movement in Christian History (1996); The Cross-Cultural Process in Christian History (2002); Crossing Cultural Frontiers (2017); and Culture and Conversion in World Christianity (forthcoming).

I maintain a fairly extensive (though not exhaustive) bibliography of Andrew Walls’s writings here and of items about Prof Andrew here (though at present both need to be updated).

During the course of his career, Andrew Walls taught on all six inhabited continents, and held positions

  • in the UK at the University of Bristol, the University of Cambridge, the University of Aberdeen, the University of Edinburgh, and Liverpool Hope University;
  • in Sierra Leone at Fourah Bay College;
  • in Nigeria at the University of Nigeria (in Nsukka);
  • in Ghana at the Akrofi-Christaller Institute for Theology, Mission and Culture (in Akropong);
  • in Kenya at the Centre of World Christianity, Nairobi Evangelical Graduate School of Theology, Africa International University;
  • in the USA at Princeton Theological Seminary, Yale University, and Harvard University.

He was the founding editor of The Sierra Leone Bulletin of Religion and the Journal of Religion of Africa and established the journal Studies in World Christianity (though James P. Mackey was the founding editor).  His legacy especially lives on at the Andrew F. Walls Centre for the Study of African and Asian Christianity at Liverpool Hope University, the Centre for the Study of World Christianity at the University of Edinburgh, the Akrofi-Christaller Institute in Ghana, the Centre for World Christianity at Africa International University in Nairobi, and through the continuation of the Yale-Edinburgh Group on World Christianity and the History of Mission.

I am one of the many former mentees and students (PhD in World Christianity program at Africa International University in Nairobi) of Prof. Andrew Walls.  My own master’s thesis advisor, Frederick W. Norris (1941–2016), was already a well-established scholar who had served as president of the American Patristic Society before meeting Prof Andrew; the encounter changed his life and, consequently, mine, when my Prof. Fred introduced me to Walls’s writings.  Had I immediately proceeded to doctoral work after completing my MDiv in 2001, no program other than Prof Andrew’s at Edinburgh would have done.  Instead, after many years of field work in South Africa and then Kenya, during which I was privileged to meet him two or three times, I became his student at the Centre for World Christianity here in Nairobi.  The two-week intensive PhD seminar which I took from him and his wife in March 2018 remains a vocational highlight, as well as the high-water mark of my formal education.

A number of worthwhile tributes of Andrew Walls and the breadth and depth of the impact of his life and work have been published:

This picture of Prof Andrew and Dr Ingrid is from the last face-to-face teaching engagement I had under Prof. Andrew, in September 2020, and the last time I spoke with him and his wife, Dr. Ingrid Reneau Walls — that is, the last encounter with Prof before the resurrections of the Last Day.  OMCS (the Overseas Ministries Study Center at Princeton Theological Seminary) hosted a three-day seminar, “African Christianity in the Americas and in Africa,” presented by Prof. Andrew that month — all attendees participated via Zoom due to the pandemic. The Celtic-Coptic-Maasai cross hanging on the wall of their home (in the background of the picture) is a gift from Ruth and me, which I had presented to them when I last saw them face-to-face, in Nairobi in March 2018.

Because of Prof Andrew and Dr Ingrid’s deep involvement with the Akrofi-Christaller Insititute of Theology, Mission, and Culture (ACI) in Ghana, the ACI community was among the first to learn of Prof’s passing on August 12th; Dr. Ingrid had of course sent a text message almost immediately to Prof. Gillian Mary Bediako, and so those of us with connections to ACI were among the first to know.  (The evening of the 12th was a rough day.  Our 21st anniversary, I learned within the same half hour that my favorite aunt had just been buried, 8400 miles away, and that Prof. Andrew had just died.)  A colleague of mine, Wakakuholesanga Chisola, a Zambian currently enrolled in the masters program at ACI, and I were up late chatting about this news the night of the 12th.  He mentioned Prof’s great strength that always seemed stronger than the frailty of his age these last years, and concluded, “But even Baobabs fall.”

That helped me to articulate, the next day, the depth of my grief; I had been too sorrowful to sleep until well after 2 a.m. that night. So the poem which follows is my tribute to the best of teachers and mentors I have ever had (note that Mosi-oa-Tunya is the local indigenous African name of Victoria Falls).  I thank Wakakuholesanga for the image of the baobab, and Ruth for helping me with a few lines when my articulation of my grief was stuck.

The Baobab Falls

the Baobab is mighty
the Baobab is strong
the Baobab, well-rooted,
reaches to the sky,
giving shade and fruit and wisdom
to all us passers-by

the Baobab was mighty
the Baobab was strong
the Baobab, well-rooted,
branches far and wide,
shared his wealth of Christly wisdom
to all, yes, even I

but Baobab has fallen
and we are now bereft
our thoughts are now uprooted
Teacher, Mentor, Friend!
tears like Mosi-oa-Tunya
cry our lamentation

Prof Andrew well did teach us
of agency and hope
from Africa to Scotland
falcon-swift he flew—
tears like Mosi-oa-Tunya
flow from hearts now rended

Prof Andrew well did lead us
challenging for truth
through polycentric story
into faith’s true girth
thus from Accra to Nairobi
with academic mirth

Prof Andrew Walls has left us
and we are now bereft
yet he will rise eternal
and we can rejoice
he won his race and fought his fight
his sorrow will now end

Prof Andrew Walls has left us
strong branches wide and fair
in life he pointed upward
now he upward flies
asking who will foster forests
new Baobabs to tend?

Prof Andrew Walls was mighty
Prof Andrew Walls was strong
Prof Andrew Walls, well-rooted,
pointed past the sky
giving wealth of Christly wisdom
to all us passers-by

(mixed emotions)

Today is a day of mixed emotions. My husband and I (Ruth) are celebrating our 21rst anniversary while my husband’s family are gathered around a gravesite 8400 of miles away, burying his beloved aunt. So today, his family are celebrating a life and a family reunion at the same time while he is absent and grieving apart.
Last year, I finally blocked my siblings after yet another family get-together. As usual, I only learned about the get-together when the pictures started showing up on my newsfeed, and I realized finally that I don’t have to acccept the lie that family ties are essential. Today, the pictures of a new family get-together showed up on my news-feed, a family of friends who accept me. I’ve never met any of them in real life, but we have nurtured and cared for each other for nearly four years now, and we just had our first in-person (combo with zoom) get-together. I knew about it ahead of time. I was allowed to contribute to date and time. With my schedule, I couldn’t participate this time, but we already have plans for a next one focusing on those who couldn’t make this one. Several of my on-line family members have gone out of their way to tell me that they missed me and want me at the next get-together. My six-year-old daughter saw the pictures of the get-together with me today and told me, “They look like a nice family. I’d like to meet them someday.” Yes. Yes, they do. They are truly wonderful family to me.
And tonight, we learned that Andrew Walls died today. This was the man my husband always dreamed of studying under. He was the reason I pushed my husband to begin his PhD in Kenya in the middle of a busy season of life, because Andrew Walls would be teaching one of the classes. He is the reason I encouraged my husband wholeheartedly to return to Kenya during our fulough even while I was in the midst of severe abuse by our (now-former) ministry. My husband finally fulfilled his dream of studying under Andrew Walls for what we assumed (correctly) might be his final class at Africa International University’s Centre for World Christianity, where he was the research professor for the PhD program in which my husband is enrolled.
For those who have never heard of Andrew Walls or the academic discipline of World Christianity, here are my husband’s words:
“Christianity is, and has always been, polycentric and multicultural and multiethnic and multilingual. But traditional Euro-American scholarship has treated studies of Christianity and Christian histories as though Christianity were an ethnic faith belonging only to Euro-American and Roman-Graeco traditions. The (multidisciplinary) academic discipline of World Christianity aims to restore balance, studying Christianity across cultures, history, and geographies. More than anyone else in the 20th or so far in the 21st century, Andrew F. Walls is the most foundational figure in World Christianity.”


«Εἰ θεολόγος εἶ, προσεύξῃ ἀληθῶς,
καὶ εἰ άληθῶς προσεύξῃ, θεολόγος εἶ
— Εὐάγριος ὁ Ποντικός
“If you are a theologian, you will pray truly.
And if you pray truly, you are a theologian.” 
Evagrios of Pontus (345–399)
On Prayer 61 (the translation in The Philokalia, vol. 1)
I’m forever grateful to Theodore of Mopsuestia (c. 350-428) for introducing me to this text of Evagrios.  Too often “Theology” (Θεολογία / Theologia) means, in practice, “academic language about God which is hard to understand.”  But Theodore and Evagrios were among the first to teach me that a theologian is one who speaks (or writes) well about God BECAUSE he or she is in the habit of speaking well WITH God.  Our theology, our God-talk, should proceed from our talks with God.  Our theorizing should rather be contemplation (θεωρία / theoria; Latin:  contemplatio) of whom God has reveled Godself to be in our own stories and (crucially) in the stories handed down to us in the Scriptures.
(On that last point, just so no one misses it:  if not grounded in the texts of Scripture, our contemplation is not Christian contemplation, our prayer is not Christian prayer, and our theology is not Christian theology.)  
“Theology” (or at least, good theology) is never academic speculation clothed in what Ruth calls “Emperor’s New Clothes” language. Theology is speaking well about God which arises out of our having well-spent time speaking with God. 
It is worth noting that the Church has only granted the title “Theologian” to three individuals.  In the first two centuries of the Church, only one person ranked the title “The Theologian” — John the Evangelist (the Apostle who wrote the Gospel and the Letters).  It wasn’t until the Nicene period that anyone else ranked the title:  Gregory Nazianzen (Γρηγόριος ὁ Ναζιανζηνός; c. 329-390), the writer of hymns and theological poetry.  Next was Symeon the New Theologian (Συμεὼν ὁ Νέος Θεολόγος; 949–1022).  Each of these men spoke well about God because they had spoken well with God, and their discourses fleshed out their conversions to Christ within their particular cultural contexts.
Theologizing is the attempt — by individuals or communities — to make sense of the conversion (turning to Christ) of social life, family life, and intellectual life, within a given cultural and linguistic context.  Andrew F. Walls notes that “Theology does not arise from the study or the library even if it can be prosecuted there.  It arises from Christian life and activity, from the need to make Christian choices, to think in a Christian way.”*
As christians, we are not proselytes but converts; the harsh words of Jesus about proselytization (Matthew 23.15) are not for nothing. The Jerusalem Council made it clear that Gentiles don’t have to become Jewish to follow Jesus (nor do Jews have to become Goyim who eat pork to follow Jesus; Africans don’t have to become American, etc.). Christian conversion is the “turning to Christ what is already there.”**
Conversion has at least three categories in which we must turn to Christ what is there:  family life, social life, and intellectual life.  In this process, of course some new things will be picked up as necessary and some old things will be dropped as incompatible with the Gospel — but many things will be retained. Those things which are retained are reoriented and redirected toward Jesus.
Theologizing is the natural result of processing conversion of these areas — family life, social life, and intellectual life — and arises out of time spent with God. Fancy academic jargon is not theology, even if it is often (mistakenly) called that. “If you are a theologian, you will pray truly. And if you pray truly, you are a theologian.” 
I will add a corollary for my preacher friends: “and if you become a theologian, you will preach truly.”
* Andrew F. Walls, Crossing Cultural Frontiers:  Studies in the History of World Christianity (Maryknoll, NY:  Orbis Books, 2017), 74.
** Another phrase of Professor Walls, whose writings I highly recommend