Books and Culture: RELIGION & THEOLOGY has three new articles on African Christianity. Joel Carpenter looks at revivalist Christianity and Global South politics; Dana Robert reviews David Maxwell’s study of Pentecostalism in Zimbabwe; and Jehu Hanciles, reviewing Ogbu Kalu, draws our attention to the Africanness of African Pentecostalism more generally.
I. Homegrown: The Africanness of African Pentecostalism.
by Jehu J. Hanciles
Addressing the African Colonization Society in 1880, the gifted African nationalist Edward W. Blyden (1832-1912) declared, in pointed reference to Psalm 68:31, that “Africa may yet prove to be the spiritual conservatory of the world … ; for the promise of that land is that she shall stretch forth her hands unto God.” Within a century, the essence of this vision had been remarkably fulfilled.
Demonstrating a rate of growth unparalleled in the history of Christianity—at a time when the old centers in the West have been experiencing dramatic decline—Africa has emerged as a major heartland of the faith. But the significance of this development extends beyond numbers. Not only is the Christian story now inextricably interwoven into the fabric of life on the subcontinent, the story of modern African Christianity is also indispensable for a meaningful appraisal of contemporary global Christianity and its future prospects. . .
. . . Given this state of affairs [Western dominance in academic studies], the publication of Ogbu Kalu’s African Pentecostalism: An Introduction (2008) is both timely and invaluable.
The work is a masterpiece of historical and social analysis that reflects detailed knowledge of the vast literature produced on the subject by both African and Western scholars as well as intimate familiarity with the complex and shifting topography of African Christianity. . .
. . . Kalu weaves historical, cultural, instrumentalist, and religious approaches to probe topical issues such as the African Pentecostal political vision and public involvement (drawing less on the discourse of modernity than on African conceptual categories); the complex question of female Christian leadership in predominantly patriarchal contexts and the emergence of a Pentecostal feminist theology; the impact of media on the movement and its missionary engagement with popular culture; use of money and the establishment of Christian universities; and the complex and bitter story of Pentecostal Christian–Muslim conflict in Nigeria. Even more recent developments like the growing African Christian/Pentecostal immigrant congregations in Western societies receive attention. . . .
. . . Kalu explains that the prosperity message flowed into Africa in the 1980s (during a time of widespread economic collapse and political instability) from a number of sources, both in the West and in the non-Western world. The American version was one among many. But his main argument, supported by insights drawn from other African scholars, is that “the popularity of the message was buttressed in its resonance with African indigenous concepts of salvation, abundant life, and goals of worship.” The African understanding of salvation or conversion emphasizes not only the gift of eternal life but also liberation from life-threatening and life-diminishing experiences. In other words, African Christian communities’ understanding of wholeness and material (as well as physical and psychic) well-being derives from an all-encompassing spiritual worldview and from African readings of the Bible. In truth, a small number of urban-based African Pentecostal ministries betray a surrender to crude displays of capitalist acquisition and mirror an individualistic ethos. But the African understanding of prosperity typically focuses less on material wealth than on inner peace, supernatural deliverance or power over ubiquitous malevolent spirits, fertility, communal harmony, and, above all else, healing. . .
African Pentecostalism: An Introduction by Ogbu Kalu (Oxford Univ. Press, 2008) 359 pp., $24.95, paper
II. Now What? Revivalist Christianity and Global South politics.
by Joel Carpenter
Findings from a 3-continent study:
1. All over the world, evangelicals are now engaging civic life and public affairs.
2. Evangelicals can mobilize quickly and powerfully when a “kairos moment” emerges, but they rarely succeed in sustaining a public presence.
3. Evangelical groups often enter public affairs for group-serving purposes, and they are not immune to bribery, cronyism, and influence-peddling.
4. Evangelical competition and proliferation nullify any idea of “evangelical blocs” or “new Christendoms.”
. . . evangelical movements bubble up “from below,” as grassroots movements, not as some foreign export from the Religious Right in the United States, as many earlier studies claimed. Indeed, these books clearly falsify the notion that there are new theocracies arising or, as Philip Jenkins put it, a “new Christendom.”
5. There are some signs of political maturation and principled approaches among evangelical movements.
6. Lausanne and
evangelical students promote democracy.
7. Evangelicals are much better at social action than at electoral politics.
. . . Around the world, as these studies dramatically show, evangelical movements and their leaders face a “now what?” moment. They have experienced personal transformation, and have shared this good news with many others. Signs and wonders have appeared, and hundreds of millions have responded in faith. Churches have arisen and grown. Many good works and the agencies to drive them have resulted. But Jesus has not come back yet. So now what? More of the same? That won’t do, evangelicals worldwide are finding out. They have a new salience and significance in societies where they were once marginal and nearly invisible. With new status come new responsibilities. The second half of their gospel mandate, after spreading the good news of personal salvation and baptizing those who accept it, is giving witness to God’s justice, peace, and full flourishing, teaching the nations God’s larger plan of redemption.
III. The Ministry of Ezekiel Guti: Pentecostalism in Zimbabwe.
by Dana L. Robert
In the 1960s, isolated researchers began speculating that Africa could become a major center of Christian population by the end of the century. For decades this apparently extravagant prediction was noticed by few outside the small world of missionary scholars. After all, Africa was well behind Europe, Latin America, and North America in Christian population, and secularization theory overshadowed scholarship on world Christianity. Yet today there are an estimated 447 million Christians in Africa. In the next fifteen years Africa will likely surpass Europe as the largest Christian continent.
By the 1980s, massive migration and urbanization heralded another surprising demographic shift—the worldwide growth of Pentecostalism. With strong local leaders, faith-healing, surrogate family structures, and affective forms of worship, new urban churches sprang up like mushrooms after rain. Charismatic renewal movements also transformed the non-Western branches of mainline Protestant denominations. Old-time Pentecostal historians like Vinson Synan, who endured decades of negative scholarship that attributed his movement to psychological and social “deprivation,” may be forgiven the triumphalism that marked his claim in 1998 that one-fourth of the world’s Christians were “Pentecostals.”
The nexus between these burgeoning movements—the overlap between African Christianity and Pentecostalism—is only now receiving the scholarly attention it deserves. . .
. . . Guti’s rise to power provides a cautionary tale to gullible Western evangelicals who think they can sponsor “their” African partners, and then brag about their own successful African ministries. Maxwell’s transnational framework exposes how autocrats like Guti build empires by closely controlling the flow of global resources they have carefully cultivated. The beauty of Maxwell’s analysis is that it demonstrates how the forces of globalization can be harnessed for local purposes. It also silences scholars who like to attribute evangelical expansion among the poor to sinister manipulation by neo-imperialistic Westerners. Not only did Guti outwit and marginalize white Pentecostal missionaries sent to work with him, but he manipulated American funders by using their money to build a cult of personality around himself and his family. . .
African Gifts of the Spirit: Pentecostalism and the Rise of a Zimbabwean Transnational Religious Movement
David Maxwell (Ohio Univ. Press, 2007) 250 pp., $26.95, paper