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An Interview with Oluwatomisin Olayinka Oredein, Author of “The Theology of Mercy Amba Oduyoye”

Oluwatomisin Olayinka Oredein is an assistant professor in Black religious traditions, constructive theology, and ethics at Brite Divinity School, Texas Christian University. The University of Notre Dame Press is thrilled to publish her new book, The Theology of Mercy Amba Oduyoye: Ecumenism, Feminism, and Communal Practice (May 2023). She recently answered some of our questions about her research and writing processes.

When did you first get the idea to write this book?

I want to give credit where credit is due! When I was a newly minted doctoral student one of my mentors, the Reverend Dr. Esther Acolatse, encouraged me to explore Mercy Oduyoye’s work since I ultimately wanted to develop language around my positionality within theology and ethics as an American African (a 1.5 generation Nigerian American, in my case). “Start with Oduyoye,” she told me; I quickly learned that Oduyoye is the exemplar of making space in the theological world for African women.

These are difficult times for so many in the United States and around the world. What can readers find in your book that will resonate with them during this era? 

Oduyoye recognizes that life aligns in a certain way—especially the parts over which one has little to no control. Everything she went through held a lesson and helped sharpen her voice—many moments bolstered by unjust ideologies cemented as culture. 

The happenings of life deserve careful thought and reflection for there is wisdom in how to live in step with progress as well as in spite of hardship. Nothing that happened in Oduyoye’s life was a mistake, but everything served as a revelation. Through Oduyoye’s persistent presence we learn that African women’s theology emerges because of its curious absence in mainstream discourse. In realizing that new frames of thought can emerge from difficulties, readers can approach the current moment with both resolve to seek what is right and to learn from life’s respective revelations.

How did you research this book?

To write The Theology of Mercy Amba Oduyoye I prioritized Oduyoye’s own scholarship and accounts. This included combing through nearly five decades worth of Oduyoye’s books (scholarly and poetic), chapters, articles (scholastic and ecumenical), and printed interviews she had written or in which she was featured. I also viewed or attended various lectures, keynotes, and talks she offered as well as conducted a formal interview with Oduyoye. These sources as well as informal conversations with Oduyoye serve as the research core of this project. 

I also appraised articles, interviews, chapters, and books written about Oduyoye by those close to her and those who have scholastic interest in her to further flesh out events and concepts she either made mention of or engaged in her work that seemed to critically impact the formation of her theological voice.

What did you learn while writing it?

You cannot truly know the full dynamics of one’s theology until you study their life; and even then, at best, you can only “know” in part. It is important to make do with what you are given so you can continue the conversation—or in some cases, begin it! The Theology of Mercy Amba Oduyoye is an honest attempt to explore how Oduyoye’s life events and theological posture informed and co-determined one another.  

Writing this book, I have also learned that I have no desire to claim myself an Oduyoye expert—mastery of anything or anyone is a farce and reflects a colonial brand of scholarship I am not interested in entertaining. One can never know everything about a voice or a life! What we can do is wonder and think alongside them. 

What I do call myself is a student of Oduyoye; I am learning how to write myself, write my life into existence. Oduyoye is the one who taught me that as a Black African woman, my voice is worth knowing.

In what way is the book you wrote different from the book you set out to write?

The book I set out to write wanted to give as thorough an account as possible about how Oduyoye sounds and to champion the causes important to her. I had little intention to ask “why” of her position and aimed to merely report the “what.” 

In The Theology of Mercy Amba Oduyoye I gave myself permission to wonder about the direction of Oduyoye’s thoughts or claims. I let myself name tensions and either highlight differences in my thought and her own or to ask further questions of said differences. I let myself into the “telling” that this book is doing—honoring both the events of her life and asking why they are so. 

I imagine this a challenge for anyone who writes about a theological figure, but I also learned and am still learning how not to conflate my worldview as an American African of a particular time with Oduyoye’s as an African from a different generation who has also led a particular life. Given Oduyoye’s work with African women’s theology is actively happening and felt today, I imagine both lanes of exploration valuable. 

Overall, in this book I tried to find a balance between asking what Oduyoye’s questions meant and what my own questions mean.

Who are the biggest influences on you and your work?

Mercy Amba Oduyoye, of course. She has shaken the ground in the theological and religious studies worlds in ways still felt today. 

Esther Acolatse, to be sure. I have had the pleasure of seeing Esther be herself in her work and have witnessed students, practitioners, and scholars alike sit at her feet in awe! 

I must also mention academic mentor-colleagues such as Willie Jennings who has also modeled what sounding like yourself in academia looks like. I absolutely love how no one can box Willie in and when they think they know how to categorize him, he shatters their assumptions. 

Eboni Marshall Turman’s scholarship has taught me how to join my voice to womanist religious conversation. She is also one of the sharpest scholars I know who is fiercely committed to Black women’s stories in the church. 

Lastly, Amey Victoria Adkins-Jones, a colleague and friend I have known for almost 20 years, has also demonstrated that it is always more interesting to sound like yourself. She has lived out the reality that authenticity bears the best scholarship. 

These scholars and colleagues first come to mind as those who blaze new pathways in academic thought, paths that though not void of challenge, provide light and possibilities.

What is your writing schedule like?

My writing schedule is dictated by my commitment to my wellness. Academia has taught me that I am responsible for loving on and caring for myself, thus I am realistic with what I can do.

I know I won’t be excited to write every time I have a moment, so I know developing a habit/practice of showing up to my ideas is the best fit for me

If I want to write during the semester while I am teaching, I dedicate 2 days in a work week for about 2-4 hours each to write with colleagues in a writing group (always leaving weekends free for weekend-ing). During our time together we take breaks to chat or intentionally build in life check ins in our time together. Again, we take very seriously that we are responsible for loving on and caring for ourselves!

During the summer (the prime time for writing as teachers may have more space and energy), I try to write 4 days in a work week for a minimum of 4 hours a day—more likely than not with my writing group colleagues (still keeping to our practice of communal check ins). 

In both scenarios, I usually have outlined writing projects based on when they are due and, on a calendar, have designated which parts to work on each day (since I work best when I break my projects into chapters or even sections to get anything meaningful done). Of course, if my energy is leaning one way—say towards a different section or even a different project—I follow that; thus, even if I feel like I am procrastinating on one project, it is “productive procrastination” that will contribute to my overall writing goals.

What advice would you give to a writer who wants to start a book?

It does not have to start as 500 words on a word doc; a lot of my writing happens in email or voice notes I send to myself when an idea comes to mind during my morning walks. 

Books are written in chapters and chapters are comprised of sections. Each sentence is moving your idea somewhere. It is okay to recognize that books come in pieces; honor and accept what your version of this piece-by-piecing process looks like. 

But get ideas down as soon as they come (keep notebooks everywhere or have a recording device on you at all times!). They are valuable pieces that will contribute to the project you’re trying to build.

Who would you like to read The Theology of Mercy Amba Oduyoye and why?

I want anyone interested in the theological journey of Mercy Oduyoye to read The Theology of Mercy Amba Oduyoye, but not in order to get a sense of how to categorize African women’s theological voices or to criticize it, but to be introduced to its range. Mastery of Oduyoye’s or African women’s theology should not be the goal, but instead a desire to expand how one thinks about the evolution of theology in African women’s contexts.

What are you currently reading?

What I am reading honestly depends on what is coming due! The life of an academic! 

Currently in the docket is a book review of a novel, a bible study piece, a contribution on Black-white relationships, and some research and writing for my next project. Since everything I write about engages race and gender, I am engaging art, articles, essays, pieces, and books that examine speak to race and gender in some manner.

What project are you working on next?

My next book project Making a Human: A Theological Ethic of Care explores care ethics from a Christian theo-ethical perspective critically examining distorted demonstrations of care anchored in misconstruals of race, gender, and community. It brings Christian theological anthropology to bear on constructively reimagining the shape of an ethic of care by actively asking: what is the theological significance of care and how might such care be rightly lived into?

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