African Gifts of the Spirit: Pentecostalism & the Rise of Zimbabwean Transnational Religious Movement
Ohio University Press, 2007
272 pp., 32.95
Dana L. Robert
The Ministry of Ezekiel Guti
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. Readers will welcome, therefore, University of Keele Professor David Maxwell's superb study of the Zimbabwe Assemblies of God, Africa. By locating ZAOGA both within the historiography of Christianity in southern Africa, and within the globalization of what he calls the movement of "Born agains" —evangelicals, charismatics, and Pentecostals—Maxwell sets a new standard for studies of non-Western Pentecostalism.
Maxwell charts the rise of Pentecostalism at the turn of the 20th century and traces its missionary advance into South Africa. While he acknowledges its multicultural origins, Maxwell gives due credit to the pre-existing Anglo-American missionary network without which it could not have spread from Azusa Street. By the 1930s, the Apostolic Faith Mission (AFM) had reached colonial Rhodesia, brought by poorly educated Afrikaner farmers and Shona laborers. The entrance of Pentecostalism into British Rhodesia was greeted with suspicion by white colonials as a potentially subversive force that lacked the social benefits of established mission stations, such as schools and hospitals. Like the African Independent Churches (AICs) led by prophets in rural areas, the Rhodesian Pentecostal movement "operated as an autonomous black church." Maxwell breaks new ground in exploring the porous boundaries between the AICs and the tiny early Rhodesian Pentecostal movement at midcentury. But unlike the AICs that were building healing colonies on communal lands, Pentecostalism gained strength in the 1960s with a base constituency of urban laborers. Expansion from an urban base helps to explain why mid-century Rhodesian Pentecostalism pursued upward mobility through modernization, including use of electronic technologies, media resources, and careful cultivation of Western contacts.
The leading figure in Maxwell's narrative is Ezekiel Guti, who came upon the scene in 1959. Initially connected with the Apostolic Faith Mission and then the Assemblies of God, Guti evangelized growth points in Salisbury (Harare). Migrants poured into these areas both from the countryside and from neighboring countries. As workers sought healing, security, and family and community life in the big city, the way that Guti negotiated the boundaries between traditions and modernization drew them under his leadership and that of his fellow evangelists, notably the talented preacher Abel Sande. Maxwell shows how the drive for evangelization, and the focus on the personal needs of the urban poor, precluded the movement from alliance with the political nationalism of pre-independence Zimbabwe. Like most evangelicals around the world in the 1960s and 1970s, Rhodesian Pentecostals avoided politics.
The most fascinating section of the book is where Maxwell analyzes Guti's rise to power, his founding of ZAOGA, and how he retained his grip on the expanding movement. Here is where the author's impressive range of sources becomes evident. In addition to conducting interviews with 115 informants, Maxwell mined the official and private publications of ZAOGA and its predecessor churches. His use of both in-house literature and extensive interviews allowed him to construct a thick description of the social matrix in which Guti flourished. As the urban poor sought to advance materially and morally, they put their faith in their charismatic leader as the visible symbol of their own desires for prosperity. In 1980, the black-led country of Zimbabwe emerged from colonial Rhodesia. With independence came new opportunities for mobility, growth, and expansion, and Guti capitalized on them. Maxwell documents how he systematically entrenched his power base through exploiting and then purging fellow Pentecostal leaders, both black and white.
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. In my fifteen years of visiting churches in Zimbabwe, I have noticed the same pattern described by Maxwell: well-connected church entrepreneurs excel at using foreign resources to leverage their own positions in the local community. Also, ordinary believers enjoy attending whatever church growth seminar (and free lunch) is offered by passing Westerners—and don't mind being "saved" repeatedly by evangelists who tally them for glowing ministry reports back home.
The multi-ethnic urban base of ZAOGA allowed it to disregard many inconvenient demands of Shona traditional culture and of Zimbabwean nationalism, and to employ instead the language of transnational evangelical expansionism. When Zimbabweans moved abroad, grassroots needs for upward mobility, middle class respectability, security, and prosperity fueled the growth of ZAOGA as a transnational movement. In the decades after Zimbabwean independence in 1980, ZAOGA leadership cynically employed anti-missionary and anti-colonial rhetoric to aid in recruitment and international fund-raising—despite reproducing the paternalistic "excesses of missionaries past and present." The movement thus successfully wields seemingly contradictory global discourses of evangelical church growth, anti-colonial resistance, postcolonial indigeneity, and multicultural inclusivism.
The concluding chapters of African Gifts of the Spirit explore the meaning of Pentecostalism as both a flexible local religion and a global force. Pentecostals navigate contradictory dynamics of populism and authoritarianism, sectarianism and worldliness, evangelistic breadth and social mobility. As shown in the story of ZAOGA, 21st-century African Pentecostals are founding communities that transcend the boundaries and limitations of the failed African nation-state. Maxwell suggests they have the potential to reshape the African political landscape from the bottom up.
While this brilliant study deserves to become a classic, Maxwell's decision to place it primarily within the historical framework of transnational Pentecostalism has its limitations. Right now scholars of Pentecostalism are engaged in debate over the relative importance of global influences versus local roots. Many white pro-Pentecostal intellectuals like Vinson Synan, Allan Anderson, and David Maxwell prefer an interpretive framework of historical continuity across cultures. But African and Asian scholars like Ogbu Kalu and Michael Nai-Chiu Poon locate the deeper roots of what is often labeled "Pentecostalism" in the phenomenology of traditional religions and older Christian spiritualities. At this point I must confess my own sympathy for ethnographic research on rural AICs in Zimbabwe, which Maxwell basically reduces to an earlier phase of African Pentecostal history. ZAOGA's social climbing required it to sanitize its own history and to demonize connections both to AICs and to African Traditional Religion (atr). One wonders if Maxwell's own urban, pro-Pentecostal bias predisposed him to follow ZAOGA's example.
Maxwell goes so far as to state that "there is a danger of exoticising African religion and politics by analyzing them in terms of local idiom." Perhaps this is true from the academic perspective, but it is not true in rural Zimbabwe, where women are still accused of witchcraft, and calls to return to the ways of the ancestors have increased over the past decade of economic collapse. Maxwell bypasses opportunities to explore connections with indigenous spiritualities, and ultimately privileges historical trajectory over ethnographic depth. Power struggles could have been interpreted with greater sensitivity to traditional religion. For example, Maxwell does not mention that Guti's first wife became a traditional sangoma. Although he cites visions of snakes by people opposed to Guti and conflicts over playing the mbira, he shows little interest in the continued ancestral significance of these elements.
The most obvious place in which Maxwell could have profitably explored connections to rural Shona religion was his description of Guti's consolidation of his personality cult. Maxwell interprets Guti as an African "Pentecostal big man." Yet his later concentration of power was built upon elements familiar to Zimbabwean AICs and ATR, such as taking on multiple honorific titles, praying to break droughts, creating a cave shrine as pilgrimage site, caring for a sacred tree, clan favoritism, and wearing AIC-type sacred garments. Could an alternative explanation for the "Pentecostal big man" be that Guti's advancing age brought with it increased public responsibility for the priestly function of maintaining rituals for communal well-being, as is the case with AIC prophets or elders in the traditional religion? Could the young, iconoclastic, Bible-toting preacher have evolved into the elder priest in deliberate dialogue with traditional cosmology? In the closing pages of the book, Maxwell admits that in efforts to appear modern and international, "African Pentecostals play down links" with the movement of African Independent Churches.
As Zimbabwe continues its mad descent into hell on earth, with rampant cholera, HIV-AIDS, economic collapse, and complete disregard for human rights, it will be interesting to see how ZAOGA renegotiates its transnational modernity with a resurgence of grassroots traditionalism born of severe poverty. David Maxwell has drawn a roadmap to the shifting terrain that characterizes African Pentecostalism today. Regardless of forks in the road ahead, scholars will long be in his debt.
Dana L. Robert is Truman Collins Professor of World Christianity and History of Mission at Boston University. She is coeditor of the book series African Initiatives in Christian Mission, published by the University of South Africa Press, and author of Christian Mission: How Christianity Became a World Religion (Wiley-Blackwell, 2009).
Copyright © 2009 by the author or Christianity Today/Books & Culture
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