Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Engelbert Mveng: A Theology of Life Expressed in Art

Eighth Station of the Cross

Engelbert Mveng was born in 1930 near Yaoundé, Cameroon, to Presbyterian parents. He eventually became a Jesuit priest, as well as a historian, poet, artist, philosopher, and theologian. ArtWay.eu, a website that seeks to open up the world of the visual arts to interested Christians, writes that “Father Mveng studied the aesthetics of African arts and published his findings in numerous books and articles. ... His teaching was based on what he called the universal rules of African art. As a historian and theologian he made a great contribution to the study of African culture and history, especially in the realms of cultural and religious anthropology and iconology.”

African Mask from the
Tikar tribe of Cameroon 
Mveng vigorously promoted the inculturation of the African church, including its visual art forms. He strove to combine liturgy and traditional African arts as a way to illustrate a “theology of life,” one which promotes the ultimate triumph of life over all forms of death. Mveng considered African liturgical art to be an expression of the cosmic celebration of life.

In order to enable the production of African liturgical art, Mveng founded a religious art studio where he trained artists. He himself also created several paintings and mosaics to adorn churches, chapels, and education centers in Africa and beyond, based on his own personal style.

Ugandan Martyrs Altar

One such example is the Ugandan Martyrs Altar at Libermann College in Douala, Cameroon (shown above). Mveng writes:

The Christ in majesty standing above the altar recapitulates the offering of the whole world and all of humanity in the sacrifice of the cross.

At the foot of Christ crucified stand the martyrs of Uganda: they are the image of all those people in Africa who have united the sacrifice of their lives to that of Christ crucified. The cross rises up out of a cosmic background of cruciform patterns (the four points of the compass), of sun and moon motifs (circles and crescents), and triangular and diamond shapes, symbols of fertility and life. The whole is in three fundamental colours: red the colour of life, black the colour of suffering, and white the colour of death.

Thus Africa, mankind, and the whole cosmos are evoked and comprised in the vast gesture of Christ on the cross: “Father into thy hands I commend my breath of life.”  
But the splendour and majesty of this cross sings the paschal triumph of the resurrection: “I am the resurrection and the life; he who believes in me, though he dies, yet shall he live, and whoever lives and believes in me shall never die.”

Second Station of the Cross
Besides Mveng's theology of life, he was also known for a concept he originated, called "anthropological poverty."  It consists "in despoiling human beings not only of what they have, but of everything that constitues their being and essence– their identity, history, ethnic roots, language, culture, faith, creativity, dignity, pride, ambitions, right to speak" (Mveng, “Third World Theology - What Theology? What Third World?: Evaluation by an African Delegate,” in Irruption of the Third World: Challenge to Theology, 220)  For Mveng, this comprehensive form of poverty is a product of "slavery, colonialism, neocolonialism, racism, apartheid, and the universal derision that has always accompanied the ‘civilized’ world’s discourse upon and encounter with Africa—and still accompanies them today" (Mveng, “Third World Theology,” 220).

I think that in many areas where this type of poverty exists, there is a heightened sense of need for the local church to express itself in terms of Christ-honoring art forms that affirm the God-given identity of his followers in that community.  Apparently this is something that Mveng felt as well.

At the same time, we must remember that a historically-limited definition of a culture's art forms is not always helpful in this glocalized age.  As Luke Lungile Pato writes, it's problematic "to regard culture as a past, static commodity... In this case, being African means living in the past. This simplistic understanding of culture reduces African culture to a rigid, immutable, self-referential reality."  He goes on to say that culture is a "dynamic reality" that must not be defined by one period of its history, because it is always flexing and changing in the present."

Mveng was also a proponent of liberation theology in Africa, which some African theologians regard as separate from indigenization, while others view them as complimentary, or even synonymous.  In Latin America where it gained a following among Catholic priests beginning in the 1950's and 1960's, liberation theologians sought to radically reinterpret the Bible from the perspective of the poor and the oppressed, seeking to achieve their political "salvation" from oppressive, capitalistic governments rather than focusing on the salvation of souls.

First Station of the Cross

Liberation theologians approached their interpretation of scripture with this perspective already in mind, and did not allow scripture itself to inform their response to poverty.  As a result, some priests advocated a violent response from the poor to governmental oppression, a choice which further increased bloodshed.  As a result of these outcomes, and the fall of communism in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union in the late 1980's and early 1990's, many liberation theologians became disillusioned with Marxism and began to pursue less confrontational means of helping the poor.

In contrast to Latin America, Mveng's concept of liberation theology was apparently not influenced by Marxism.   Rather, Mveng and his contemporaries sought to grapple with the issues not only of poverty, but also apartheid, racism and colonialism.  Due to the variety of interpretations among liberation theologians about Jesus and the Bible (and because I couldn't find much about Mveng's thoughts about these topics), I will not try to explain Mveng's view of scripture and the gospel.  From what I have read, however, it seems to me that Mveng at least held Christ and scripture in high regard, and sought to apply Christ's teachings to every facet of African life in the modern era.

Regarding liberation theology itself, I find a comment by Christopher J.H. Wright to be helpful: "Biblically, all true liberation, all truly human best interests flow from God... We are advocates for God before we are advocates for others... The church must therefore begin its mission with doxology, otherwise everything peters out into social activism and aimless programs" (The Mission of God 45, 46).  I get the impression that Mveng focused on the worship of God, as a basis for the rest of his activities and pursuits.

Sadly, after thirty years of teaching at the University of Yaoundé Department of History, Mveng was brutally murdered in his home by an unknown assailant in 1995. The incident was one of several murders of clergy in Cameroon at that time, and Mveng’s murder remains unsolved to this day. Unfortunately, most of his books and writings (in French) have never been translated into English.

Resurrection, Hekima College, Nairobi, Kenya, 1962


  1. Wow -- I sense a master's thesis idea! Think about it...

  2. Very interesting, I would like to know more about Mveng.

  3. I dont find any of his articles posted in this page. Anyone to help?

    1. Try this link on Wikipedia: https://fr.wikipedia.org/wiki/Engelbert_Mveng#.C5.92uvres_principales