Paul Gifford, Ghana's New Christianity: Pentecostalism in a Globalising African Economy (Bloomington, Ind.: Indiana University Press, 2004). 230 pp. $60 cloth; $24.95 paper.
Reviewed by Ogbu U. Kalu
Henry Winters Luce Professor of World Christianity and Mission
McCormick Theological Seminary, Chicago, Ill.
Paul Gifford has had a longstanding interest in the charismatic movements in Ghana: he wrote articles on them in 1993 and 1994, a chapter in a book in 1998, and now a thick description of its manifestation in the Greater Accra context. Within the metropolis, Gifford chose four mega-churches and one prophet-type church as examples: Nicholas Duncan-Williams founded his church in 1979, Mensah Otabil and Charles Agyin Asare in the 1980's, and Dag Heward-Mills in 1991. Elisha Salifu Amoako's church (1994) serves as an example of the prophet-type. The samples are designed to provide a window in examining other churches in the city. This is not a history of Pentecostalism in Ghana but a sociological analysis of a small sample. Gifford acknowledges the wide diversity in the sample and the marked changes of the churches over time "which make generalization even more difficult" (p. 140).
Gifford is quite clear that his two goals are to "establish what this Christianity is - what is its religious vision," and "to engage in the debate on socio-political role of this Christianity" (pp. viii-ix). The time frame is when Jerry Rawlings ruled Ghana, firstly as a military dictator and later as a civilian President and ends around 2002.Gifford's concern is to assess "the ways that (the) new Christianity might have helped, or currently helping, to bring Ghana into the world's modern political and economic system" (p. ix). He paints a backdrop characterized by Ghana's pathology under Rawlings: personalized governance, economic failure, and patrimonial political culture. Two conclusions: Ghana is more nearly a textbook illustration of an unaccountable neo-patrimonial regime, and Africa's ills are not the result of external forces but are overwhelmingly internal, because of lack of good governance, croynism, clientelism and the insipid desire to hold power (pp. 11-13). This is the same Afro-pessimistic analysis that Gifford applied to the continent in 1998. The sub-title holds the key to the book, connecting the character, growth pattern, and message of the movement to the global economy. This defines his prescription for the developmental path for Ghana.
Gifford acknowledges some positive dimensions of the charismatic groups, emphasizing their rapid growth, youthful character, music and lively liturgy (consisting of praise, worship, sermon, offering), and sense of fellowship. They espouse a healthy gender ideology and advocate peace. These churches catalyzed the charismatisation of the mainline churches, or what Cephas Omenyo dubbed, Pentecost Outside Pentecostalism.( Boekencentrum,2002). He does not explain why this form of Christianity is growing though there is an implicit assumption that the economic factor is preeminent. Economic explanations are no longer univocal. For instance, he ignores Peter Berger's economic explanation that sometimes religion has less to do with economic development than with the larger supply-side in an open religious market characterized by vigorous competition and a variety of salvation options. Within Berger's perspective, the intensive media use by Pentecostals celebrates the unregulated market and partially accounts for the growth of Pentecostalism.
Gifford's main conclusion that he reached a decade ago is that they are not helping to bring Ghana into the world's modern economic system because their "Christianity has to do with success, wealth, and status." (p. 44) He documents this conclusion profusely. But his evidence is from one segment of cultural production , namely media. A church is known as a sign and witness of the reign of God in its being, saying and doing and should be studied holistically. But recently there has been a fad in the study of the exploitation of modern media technology by African Pentecostals. This proves their dependence on the West, or "ecclesiastical externality", and their salience as purveyors of modernity. (see, M.De Witte, "Altar Media's Living Word: Televised Charismatic Christianity in Ghana", Jnl. of Religion in Africa,33,2,2003:172-202. The entire issue of JRA,28,3 is devoted to this matter). Gifford, therefore, examines the television, print and select messages from their sermons. The purview of the source must be underlined because the reader would need to ask whether this is strong enough to carry the weighty conclusions that follow. African scholars approached the matter by examining individual ministries holistically: thus Matthew Ojo studied the Deeper Life, Akin Omoyajowo jnr, the CAC (Bayreuth,1999) while Asonzeh Ukah did same for the RCCGM (Bayreuth,2003).Gifford concludes that the use of the media by the new Christianity in Ghana is for self-advertisement; books are either culled from sermons or ghost-written to raise funds and prestige; and sermons are crafted with prosperity hermeneutics to raise money and delude the unsuspecting. The new Christianity de-emphasizes sin and hard work: "faith, giving, deliverance and the pastor's gifts are more important than hard work" (p. 156). Gifford examines the recurring emphases in the sermons, publications, and fund raising strategies of the charismatic leaders, and concludes that: (i) they place spiritual over economic factors, and focus on the miraculous for success; (ii) it is axiomatic that no country could hope to modernize until it has interiorised the importance of time and hard work and the new Christianity does not inculcate either of these; (iii) Ghana is webbed into global economic forces, yet the new Christianity obscures rationality by appeal to the demonic, ignores democratic values, and fails to mobilize social capital.
Generally, Ghana's charismatic Christians are portrayed as a collection of "divine pool players." This image contrasts sharply with other portraits by indigenous scholars such as Kwabena Asamoah-Gyadu and Emmanuel Anim. Gyadu did a doctoral dissertation on renewal within African Christianity: a study of some current historical and theological developments within indigenous Pentecostalism in Ghana (Birmigham,2000) while Anim studied prosperity gospel and African imagination, using Ghana as an example.(All Nations, Ware,2002) Both profiled the charismatic Christians as an army of re-energized business entrepreneurs using biblical words as business logos, and whose significance is the "fit' in African indigenous religion and culture; a form of Christian appropriation that answers questions raised within the interior of the people's worldview. The reader may wonder that if these Christians sit back and wait on God to supply their needs, where do they get the money that the pastors demand? Where do the fancy cars and material signs of success, described by Gifford, come from?
These posers become more serious in reviewing Gifford's analysis of the growth of deliverance and prophetic ministries. They privilege what the Bible calls "word of knowledge," and recover the prophetic ministry in the Old Testament, but Gifford profiles them as lacking moral agency, and deploying impartation, anointing, mantras, and testimonies to encourage members to do nothing because success must be miraculous. He contrasts these by extolling the virtues of Mensah Otabil, a different voice that insists on self-development, mutes demonic activities in explaining human destiny and the fate of the nation, and advocates a cultural change for Ghana. Obviously, Gifford misreads the charismatic rhetoric, and does not fully discuss the attitude to indigenous culture in Ghanaian Pentecostalism. Other critics of early Pentecostalism in Africa, such as Adrian Hastings, complained that Pentecostal attack against indigenous culture constitutes a regression from the achievements by the African Instituted Churches on the gospel-culture interface. Gifford himself imaged the promotion of discontinuity with the past as a sign of "ecclesiastical externality" in African Christianity. This matter about discontinuity and the discourse of conversion catches the new Christianity in a Catch-22 vise. (see, Matthew Engelke's contribution in JRA,34,1, 2004:82-109).
On the political role, Gifford appears to modify his earlier views; now, he acknowledges that a modicum of "development activity is also found in some Pentecostal denominations" (p. 161); they engaged in establishing private universities. He concludes that charismatic leaders show incredibly diverse political attitudes, and in the 2000 elections used the Bible to back different candidates. Some critiqued the political culture, while others explained its dynamics with spiritual eyes. The spiritualization of politics has various strands in Gifford's account: first, in the "enchanted approach", the new Christianity makes demons responsible for the national problems. The demons are either ancestral spirits or territorial spirits. A second strand, the "biblical approach", alleges that past leaders had indulged in apostasy and that liberation could only come from public repentance and with allowing the Holy Spirit to be in charge of the affairs of the nation. A third strand of spiritualization utilizes the "faith gospel" or the "power of the word" insists that Christians must guard against negative pronouncements on the affairs of the nation. All these discourses debate national issues in terms of morality. Gifford expresses discomfort with all these strands because they diminish human responsibility: "not only is it God who will bring about the deserved order, but nothing else is required of Ghanaians but the worship of the true God" (p. 165). This affirmation, Gifford argues, will not be recognized "in modern political science departments or discussed in World Bank reports" (p. 164). Note the two sources to predicate the modernization of Ghana. Worse, "this understanding would not normally or naturally lead to pressure for an independent judiciary, accountable systems at the bank of Ghana, transparent tendering at the Divestiture Commission, or procedures rather than personal whims in approving rice production schemes" (p. 164). By "spiritualizing" politics the charismatic churches ignore the wider body politic. Gifford thus rejects as "slippage" the views by Birgit Meyer, Gerrie ter Haar, Stephen Ellis, and Ruth Marshall that conceptualizing imaginations of evil could be politically salutary, and "that Africans use this demonic cosmology to make sense of the evils that befall them, and that many African Christians claim to be transforming the societies around them" (p. 172). He also critiques David Martin's appeal to the power of implicit or covert politics by Pentecostals who might be powerless in the public arena.There are a number of ways that a reader could respond to Gifford's assertions. One could say that Gifford approaches these churches with a hardware comprising of Western enlightenment worldview, yardstick manifest in the World Bank reports, and a Weberian rational system of governance. Much to the contrary, African political analysts reject both the Afro-pessimism and New Realism discourses, promote a new discourse, labeled, African Renaissance or Afro-optimism that rejects the loss of hope in the destiny of Africa, and recommends a new strategy that mines African indigenous cultures, knowledge, and religious traditions for a viable political culture and system. It perceives the World Bank prescriptions as the sources of the present scourge of poverty. One cannot ignore the external dimension to the fate of a nation as Gifford does. Afro-Optimism recognizes that in spite of failures by the leaders, some measure of progress has been accomplished in many African nations including Ghana. ( see, Onwudiwe, Praeger,1993)
This leads to the question about the purview of the political field, and the measure of a church's social activism. The debate on the strategy and character of the church's engagement in a pluralistic public space is complex. There is no gainsaying that the church exist to serve the community; that the church as a member of the civil society could serve as a pressure group; but the problem is the measure of balance between an activist church focused heavily on issues of social justice and a conversionist church focused on individual salvation. The greater concern is to live dialogically lest politicians would manipulate religion to their own agenda, and lest religion could become a dysfunctional force. Comparison with mainline churches who "have been characterized by an element of direct political involvement, which has led them to pronounce on issues of human rights and even to train election monitors" (p. 161) ignores the history of these denominations, exaggerates the churches' role in the state, and underestimates the lack of the access to correct information for influencing change. Have past leaders in Ghana actually listened to the church's pronouncements?
Gifford narrows the purview of the political field and the range of political activities. For instance, he was hardly aware of the existence of Intercessors for Africa in Accra whose main focus is redeeming the public space for Christ; who organized the SALT Project to inculcate a higher sense of accountability among top civil servants. Intercession could be a form of political praxis. This is why churches lead nations to cry to the Lord when oppressed by rulers. The Pentecostals did so when they demonized their ruler, President Jerry Rawlings, as an Ahab. The bottom line is that Gifford's rejection of a spiritual explanation for the political condition of the nation is based on his using a Western template for assessing an African context. He prefers either an activist church or a counter-cultural confessing church. ( see, Carl S. Dudley + Sally A. Johnson, Energizing the Congregation: images that shape your church's ministry. Louisville: Westminster /John Know Press,1993)According to him, churches should insist upon rational governance, and compel the government to improve society: "Nobody denies that Ghana would change if all citizens became paragons of love, truth, justiceŠ" (p. 167), but change could also come from insisting upon transparent and efficient instruments of governance. There is a clash of worldviews and self-understanding here that does not permit the church to fight the battle in a different manner. But a church appropriates the gospel from a certain worldview, otherwise, it cannot serve its particular community.
Gifford's portraits of two of pastors, Dag Heward-Mills and Adu Bako are definitely skewed because I know these men to be educated and respected Bible teachers whose sermons focus on the Scriptures. Adu Bako, the leader of Logos Rhema Church, was formerly a lecturer at Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria. Like Derek Prince, he roots his teachings on spiritual warfare on rigorous biblical scholarship. Dag Mills, a medical doctor, uses skits as a teaching technique to deal with moral issues, and every year, produces three 90-day Bible Guides that teach those things that Gifford could not find in the sermons (e.g., on morality, see Your Quiet Time: Gethsemane published in Accra by Parchment House in 2004). Gifford's image of the new Christianity is that the leaders lack a valid theology, proclaim a gospel that is hardly classifiable as evangelical, and contribute to the poverty of the nation by failing to inculcate values that could liberate Ghana. He ignores the spiritual power that the people feel, even while he catalogues the discomfort of secularists, Muslims, journalists, and synods of mainline churches about the so-called false prophets.
One cannot deny that some of the rhetoric by these leaders is unacceptable. In Nigeria, it is dubbed as "Pentecostal yab" in imitation of Fela. In this book, Gifford "yabs" the charismatic churches of Ghana. He refuses to eidetic or to bracket off his judgment. It is like a thick description of dancers without hearing their music. The pessimistic portrait of Ghana ignores the immense economic recovery and successful transition to a political democracy. The churches in Ghana struggle to achieve two goals: to proclaim the gospel and serve the society. The new Christianity is young; leaders are still trying to build. As an African proverb says, cattle are born with ears and grow horns later. Gifford is hypercritical. Yet he engages the reader.