Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Nairobi Christian Bookstore Review


I'm in the CBD, the Central Business District of Nairobi, otherwise known as 'Tao' by the matatu and bus touts.  I'm here to meet with a student who's masters thesis I am supervising.  Afterwards, I will gambol down to Church House on the corner of Moi Ave and Haile Selassie (across from the site of the former US embassy) where starting at 5:30 pm I will teach my class on Research Methodology to a class of 9 exhausted students, all of whom are coming from day jobs.  In the meantime, I have paid a visit to several of the main Christian bookstores in Nairobi.  And given the state of bookstoredom across the country, a 'Nairobi Christian Bookstore Review' is in reality a 'Kenya Christian Bookstore Review'.

Kenyan Anglican theologian John Mbiti

I've been frequenting bookstores here for a decade (I am not counting any 'booking' done in the 1980s and 1990s).  And my impressions have been remarkably consistent.  By far the best Christian bookstore in Nairobi is the Catholic Bookshop on the grounds of the Holy Family Basilica, the cathedral church for the archdiocese.  They have by far the best and most interesting selection, especially in the fields of theology, spiritualility, and philosophy.  Their greatest strength is the range of African authors in all of those areas, as well as studies on African themes.  More so than any other Christian group, the Catholics have done a very good job at training African scholars and then helping them to publish their work.  The only drawback is that the selection is almost entirely, um, Catholic.  Surprise, I know.

Pope Benedict XVI.  He's Catholic.

Back in the 2000s, they also had a superb Biblical studies section, with scholarly titles and authors across all Christian denominations.  That section no longer exists, for whatever reason.  But what they do have remains impressive.  The store isn't large by Western standards, but there's plenty of room for browsing.  The nuns do a good job of keeping things in order and are infallibly helpful.  Some are even friendly.

Catholic Bookshop, Downtown Nairobi, with Nun

Just down the street is the Keswick Bookshop.  Back in the 2000s and before, this was one of the best places to buy Protestant Evangelical titles, some popular, but many others good solid evangelical studies, as well as reference books and commentaries. Then there was evidently a decline of some sorts, because for the past several years, Keswick was the place to go if I wanted something by Joel Osteen or TD Jakes, Smith Wigglesworth or others along that line (that is, the 'Jesus exists for ME ME ME' line).


If bookstores stock what sells, then woe to the Protestant communities of Nairobi.  More than half of Keswick's floor space is taken up with selling Christian bric-a-brac, little plaques with Scripture verses written on them, bumper stickers, posters, etc.  Today, however, I noticed a distinct increase in the number of Evangelical and Reformed titles of substance.  I always feel much better if I find J.I. Packer's Knowing God for sale in a bookstore, and so I'm feeling much better about Keswick.

Dr. Jim Packer

Joel Osteen is still there, prominently displayed with those amazing promises he comes up with. But at least one begins to have a choice again.  Which, given the way things have been going, is saying something.



For Nairobi/Kenya Protestants, probably the best bookstore around is the ACTS (Africa Christian Textbooks) bookstore, located at the end of a former chicken coop on the campus of Africa International University down the road from Karen on the way to Dagoretti Market.  Got that?

ACTS Bookshop in the low building that looks like a chicken coop because it was. 

Though the shop is small (did I say it used to be a chicken coop?), there is a wide selection of 'good' titles, and there is obviously much effort going on to get the 'right' books into the hands of African theology students.

Dr. Mercy Oduyoye. Her books are not for sale at ACTS. Unfortunately. 

 By 'good' and 'right', of course I mean 'Reformed' and 'Evangelical'.  Unsurprisingly neither Joel Osteen nor Wolfhart Pannenberg make an appearance in this bookstore, but one can find lots and lots of books about Reformation theology (the correct Reformation theology, that is, not that neo-Catholic Lutheran stuff, the swishy Anglican meringue  or that Anabaptist froth.  And you can forget about finding anything remotely experiential that might smack of Pentecostalism. And if a copy of Left Behind had somehow been left behind by one of the schools Dispensationalist wannabees, then a special Fiction shelf would no doubt have to be erected.  It is that kind of bookstore.  This was the bookstore that several years ago banned N.T. Wright books from being sold because they were too 'liberal', until enough faculty came forward to remind the proprietors that we were actually an academic institution and we really needed access to (dangerous) books like those written by Dr. Wright so our students might know what was actually going on in their field today, not 450 years ago.

Rt. Revd. Dr. N.T. Wright
And except for the fact that there are very few titles by African authors, and very few titles that are dealing with African issues, it's a great little bookstore.  This last issue was dealt with by bringing in some titles by African authors published by Paulines Press.  But this was no doubt a difficult decision because Paulines is a Catholic press and most of their authors are Catholic.

Dr Diane Stinton, Evangelical author whose books on African issues are sold at the Catholic Bookshop, and even ACTS! 

But if you are looking for good basic solid Western reformed theology and Biblical studies works that can be trusted (by Reformed and Evangelical types), then ACTS is the place to go.  That is if you can find it.

Trusted ACTS Author John Calvin

And then from time to time, appearing as if from nowhere, a booktable emerges selling titles published by the American Evangelical publisher, InterVarsity Press.  This is evidently sponsored by the Kenyan version of InterVarsity Christian Fellowship - FOCUS, or the Fellowship of Christian Unions.  Personally, I have always been impressed with the title selection and the breadth of subjects covered by IVP books.  Given what all is out there being hawked in bookstores, one could do a lot worse than IVP.  But again the main problem is that they are, in the main, written for an American Evangelical audience (with the British version being written for a British Evangelical audience).  And while certain things do cross borders rather easily, even too easily (like Mr. Osteen's books, for example), enough doesn't, which in my mind raises a question of Western-centric assumptions, namely, why do we think what may be good for American Evangelicals will be good for Kenyan Christians?  One might more cynically ask, since American Evangelicals have been so successful at living the Christian life and being the church and engaging with the wider culture, etc, why do we think enthusiastically importing our own decidedly mixed reviews into another culture will be any more successful?  Do we really think that Western Evangelical Christianity is the Way the Truth and the Life?  The learned response to that question is a rather curt, 'Of course not.'  But our actions speak more truly than our words sometimes.  Anyway, back to IVP and booktables in Kenya.  One can just imagine the state of affairs with respect to access to resources if I'm reduced to talking about a couple of boxes of books thrown in the backseat of a car and flogged on various Christian college campuses as being one of the best options going.  But there you have it.

In the meantime, Christians who are Orthodox have no place to go for good books.  There is no such thing as an Orthodox bookstore anywhere in Kenya, or in all of East Africa for that matter.  So none of the priests and none of our laypeople have access to anything other than what they hear on Sunday morning during sermon time.  This is a shame.  There are many superb, excellent books and helps out there for Orthodox Christians.  But we Orthodox are reduced to haunting the Catholic bookshop, or even worse, taking Joel Osteen's word for it from Keswick.  And to be honest, most Orthodox don't have the kind of resources it would take to afford the Protestant books, even if they were successful in locating the right chicken coop or just happened to be standing around when lightning struck or someone from FOCUS arrived to set up a booktable.

The late John Stott
There may be other bookstores of note in Nairobi and Kenya that I am not aware of, in which case I would be thrilled to hear about them.  But books are a costly rare commodity here.  My textbook for systematic theology costs some students about 20% or more of their monthly salary.  Which comes into sharper focus when I consider if I would be willing to spend 20% of my monthly salary for a book.  But if you are looking for an African author dealing with problems facing African churches, then don't waste time anywhere else, go straight to the Catholic bookshop and pay the nuns there a visit.  If you are looking for books about how God wants to bless you and how you can get your life on track and be a more successful you, then Keswick's your place, and you can get a Scripture plaque to reinforce all the good feelings while you're at it.  If you are persuaded that Reformed theology is God's answer to the world, and think that what's right for the ACTS people is right for you, then go on a hunting expedition and track down ACTS Bookstore at AIU.  You will not be disappointed.  But if you are Orthodox, and you want to read something about your faith or your history or your spirituality, sorry, there aint nothing here in Kenya for you.  You'll just have to make do with Cardinal Ratzinger, or Dr. Calvin, or, um, Mr. Osteen.