Political Spiritualities: The Pentecostal Revolution in Nigeria
University of Chicago Press, 2009
360 pp., 34.0
Nigeria's Pentecostal Revolution
Walk down the street in any city in sub-Saharan Africa and the influence of Pentecostal Christianity is unmistakable. Women plait hair on the porch of the Divine Favor Hair Salon while a minibus with "When God Says
Yes … ( … no man can say no!)" emblazoned across the windshield drives slowly past, the conductor's voice reaching over the strains of a gospel tune denouncing the powers of Satan. The recent efflorescence of anthropological interest in Christianity is due in part to this ubiquity; throughout the Global South, it is increasingly difficult to avoid Christianity in general and Pentecostalism in particular. It is within this context of revival, both religious and academic, that Ruth Marshall offers her rich analysis of the "Pentecostal revolution" in Nigeria.
Marshall makes it clear that her book is not a standard anthropological study (i.e., an ethnography) but rather a social and political analysis informed by critical theory. However, she engages a number of the tacit assumptions about religious belief and conversion that have marked anthropological discussions of Christianity over the past decade. In particular, she offers her book as an attempt to "take religion seriously," something she claims that other social scientists rarely do. The failure to do so, Marshall argues, is at least in part attributable to scholars' need to make sense of and defend those behaviors that appear least rational from their own perspective, including religious belief. Within this framework, the significance of conversion for believers is toned down, often understood by social scientists as a syncretic continuation of pre- or non-Christian practices rather than a radical personal transformation. Alternatively, religion may be framed primarily as a mode of meaning-making, a space within which converts attempt to make sense of the mystifying forces of late capitalism by translating them into a supernatural idiom, since perceived exclusion from the neoliberal economy has made it impossible for them to engage globalization in any other way.
Each of these approaches, Marshall argues, falls short for several reasons. In response to the argument that Christian conversion is no more than a subtly disguised continuation of traditional religious practices, she appeals to the experiences and testimonies of converts themselves, who cite the moment that they became born-again as one of radical rupture, "a complete break with the past," in the popular Pentecostal phrase. As for those who interpret the Pentecostal revival that has swept across Africa since the late 1970s as an outgrowth of neoliberal capitalist hegemony, Marshall calls into question the particularity of the current crisis—surely late capitalism is no more confusing than the heady period of political change surrounding independence, or the radical restructuring power of colonialism, or the brutality of the slave trade.
Rather than following social scientific arguments that deny the power that her informants attribute to their conversions, Marshall positions herself among several important political scientists from francophone Africa, all of whom are influenced by Foucault. Marshall's application of Foucauldian theory to Nigerian Pentecostalism allows her to emphasize the active, rather than reactive, capacity of the revival. Specifically, Marshall focuses on various Pentecostal "techniques of the self," that is, "the work of the self on the self" through practices such as fasting or confession. These techniques are central to the Nigerian Pentecostal political project, seeking "collective 'political redemption'" that is articulated "through the work to be done on the individual." In this framework the aggregate weight of individual conversions will eventually bring a cascade of social change—a converted society cleansed of the sins of the postcolonial state. It is in this "will to found [society] anew" that Marshall identifies Pentecostal "political spirituality," a phrase she takes directly from Foucault. She argues that religion is a privileged site for this kind of political imagination, because the very nature of religious belief requires a looking beyond one's immediate circumstances toward a different, invisible reality.
With this approach to religion firmly in place, Marshall begins her analysis of the Pentecostal revival in Nigeria. One of the best things about this book is its substantial historical depth. Drawing on roughly thirty years of data, Marshall's work benefits from a richness and a perspective that have, with some notable exceptions, been conspicuously absent in academic analyses of African Pentecostalism. Beginning with the exponential growth of the "Deeper Life" movement in the early 1970s, Marshall portrays the early part of the revival as a reformation of Nigerian Christianity. By building on some of the important paradigms of missionary-established churches, early Pentecostals called believers to demonstrate a greater degree of personal transformation through a program of techniques of the self, including ascetic discipline and a rejection of worldly displays of wealth and power. As the revival continued, however, this focus on holiness was replaced with a greater emphasis on enjoying "the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living." The influence of the prosperity gospel (the roots of which run straight through the North American Bible Belt) on Pentecostal congregations across Africa has been profound, and the contrast between the lavish wealth preached by its proponents and the asceticism of the earlier years of the revival is dramatic.
It is in this tension that Marshall finds the first of several internal contradictions marking contemporary Pentecostal practice in Nigeria. The holiness churches launched a critique that had the potential to respond to the extravagance and abuses of the Nigerian state, warning against the temptations of wealth and power and shunning ill-gotten gain. Since the advent of prosperity preaching, however, Pentecostal preachers have both condoned the pursuit of wealth and condemned those who come by it through nefarious means, such as witchcraft or Faustian pacts with the devil. Separating God-given prosperity from the fruits of satanic contracts is notoriously difficult, and the slippage between these opposing categories can have devastating results: witness the riots that rocked the city of Owerri in 1996, during which unemployed youth burned not only the homes of elites believed to be involved in witchcraft but also several Pentecostal churches known for their prosperity preaching.
In addition to this "fundamental ambivalence" with regard to the demands of holiness and aspirations to prosperity, Marshall highlights several other tensions which, while by no means limited to Pentecostal (let alone Nigerian Pentecostal) streams of Christianity, are nevertheless particularly acute in the contemporary Nigerian setting, including the difficulty of balancing human and divine agency, and the tension between law and grace. She argues that whereas the Pentecostal revival was once a site from which believers were equipped to speak truth to power, today more often than not the church simply echoes the perverse and inscrutable machinations of the postcolonial state.
Church historian Andrew F. Walls has suggested that one of the primary theological contributions that contemporary African Christians might make to the rest of the church is a richer understanding of the state, nationhood, and civil society. This is particularly true of those countries in which the state has atrophied to such an extent that the church is one of the few institutions capable of serving the larger population. In the light of such a possibility, it is discouraging to read this diagnosis of Nigeria's Pentecostal revival. Thankfully, though, we are not left without hope. Marshall concludes her analysis by appealing once again to the possibility of change, to the inherent otherworldliness of religious life and the political imagination that are part and parcel of biblical faith. This book leaves the reader, in true Christian fashion, both earnest and watchful. Indeed, Marshall closes the text with the words of Romans 8:24: "For we are saved by hope: but hope that is seen is not hope: for what a man seeth, why doth he yet hope for?"
It is the good work of all Christians to lead lives pointed to a revolutionary kingdom. In this endeavor, cross-cultural research is a helpful tool, not just for the way it challenges some cherished assumptions about the way we live, but because it presents flesh-and-blood examples of those who live otherwise. While Nigerian Pentecostals unquestionably operate in a social, religious, and political milieu that is markedly different from that of the West, there is a mystical connection between these Christians and the Western church. Any analysis of their shortcomings is therefore necessarily an analysis of our shortcomings as well, a fact that ought to give us pause: How, for example, is our ability to announce the kingdom of God constrained by our theologies of wealth? Likewise, just as the imaginative possibility of political critique that Marshall rightly attributes to religion is part of our Christian belief, so too this study of another way of life shapes and nourishes our vocabulary for social engagement and prophetic activism. In creating a critical and thoughtful space for this kind of imagination, Marshall's analysis is an important addition to both social scientific and religious thought.
Naomi Haynes is a PhD candidate in anthropology at the University of California, San Diego.
Copyright © 2010 by the author or Christianity Today/Books & Culture magazine.
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