Thursday, April 16, 2009

Export and Import of Christianity

Last Sunday's NYT Magazine section had an interesting cover story on the import of Christianity to the US from Nigeria. In particular it was talking about Nigerian Pentecostal movement. This is interesting - as American Christianity has been very vibrant and effective in gaining converts the world over, in particular in Africa and South America. One of the reasons cited for their success is the religious "free-market" in the US that keeps the competition high and religions have to keep on adapting to keep up with the times. Those that survive become quite successful internationally (also read Secularism, Wealth and Religiosity. Apart from religious competition in the US, it also talks about Nigeria).

But the Sunday article talks about the possibility of a strong import from Africa - in particular Nigeria (why Nigeria??). First here are some amazing stats:
Take, for example, the Anglican Communion. Spread along with the British Empire, its membership now tilts heavily southward: Nigeria alone, with some 20 million adherents, makes up around a quarter of the entire Anglican Communion.
During the 20th century, the population of Christians in Africa grew from 10 million to around 360 million, and that could double by 2025, by which time demographers project the continent will be home to a quarter of all believers. These Africans are making Christianity their own, in ways both subtle and profound.
Ok - I can see reasons for the growth of religion in Africa. There has been strong missionary efforts at least for the past 100 years and there has also been a push for Muslim conversions. Plus, the continent is poor, and has been ravaged by wars and disease. I can see this combination leading to strong religious beliefs. But what's interesting is that it is beginning to transform Christianity back in the US. Here is a bit more about the Redeemed Church - the focus of the article - and its appeal:
It is a tenet of Pentecostalism that the divine is an active force, which is revealed through signs and wonders. The broad movement, however, encompasses a wide variety of practices. All the Americans I met who had gravitated to the Redeemed Church described their motivations similarly: they were searching for something that they felt was missing from this society, a feverish engagement with the worship of God.
The Redeemed see God as a magical presence in their lives. Like most Pentecostals, they believe that when the Holy Spirit inhabits them, they can perform miracles and see the future. Enoch Adeboye is said to have publicly prophesied the untimely death of General Abacha in 1998, three days before it actually happened. In “Let Somebody Shout Hallelujah!” a hagiographic biography of Adeboye written by his former secretary, the general overseer is credited with using his God-given powers to raise the dead, avoid traffic jams, foresee coups, restore hair to the balding and cure kidney disease, depression and H.I.V. Bart Pierce, the Pentecostal minister from Baltimore, says he witnessed such miracles while attending Adeboye’s services in Nigeria. “We watched people get right out of their wheelchairs and walk,” he told me.
But Christianity in Africa adds other elements with it - and you may remember the Kenyan preacher of Sarah Palin who was casting away witches. Well, here is the larger context:
For all its transformations, however, the Redeemed Church’s primary appeal is still what it was in Akindayomi’s day: it offers its followers the chance to harness otherworldly forces. The Redeemed don’t deny that the gods of indigenous religions exist and possess real powers. But they say such spirits are satanic. A major theme of Redeemed teachings, to its Nigerian audience especially, is that becoming saved protects you from the curses, spells and sorcery that Africans, even Christian ones, commonly blame for all manner of misfortunes, from car accidents to impotence. Church officials in the United States are somewhat averse to talking about this aspect of doctrine. They are well aware of the ridicule that was heaped upon a Kenyan preacher after a video clip of his prayer to protect Sarah Palin from “the spirit of witchcraft,” offered during a guest sermon at her Alaska church, fell into the hands of bloggers. In fact, like many elements of Africa’s indigenous cosmology, the belief in evil spirits is entirely consistent with mainstream Pentecostal teaching, which holds that God and the Devil — an actual being — are engaged in continual “spiritual warfare.”
Redeemed pastors often attribute afflictions like poverty and addiction to demonic possession and preach against “generational curses,” which can explain everything from inherited illness to family dysfunction. Cheryl Broadus, the South Carolina follower, told me that Kwesi Ansah had proved his effectiveness in combating evil by performing an exorcism on a woman at her church. “She was slithering on the floor like a snake,” Broadus said. “My pastor was sound, firm, using the word of God as a weapon.”
Hmmm...let me remind you that this is in the US in the 21st century! Now before you start thinking that this is so different (actually its not - there are many homegrown churches in the US with similar practices), here are two examples that will sound more familiar. Please note that Adeboye - is the leader of the Redeemed Church. So first, a standard rant against reason:
But Adeboye’s distinctive weakness, one he also glimpses in this society, was what he describes as an idolatrous reliance on reason. “It begins to give man the impression that man is the almighty, that man can do anything,” the pastor said. “He can go to the moon, go to Mars, perform operations with a laser beam without spilling blood. The problem, the way I see it, is that because of the advance of technology, science and investing, the Western world began to feel that they didn’t need God as much as before. Whereas in Africa, we need him. We know we need him to survive.”
and second, the penchant to buy a private jet - the product of reason just dissed above:
Redeemed pastors routinely petition God to transform their followers into millionaires, members are encouraged to tithe and the Sunday collection is accompanied by joyous fanfare. At various events I attended, I heard Fadele ask members to raise money to help Adeboye buy a private jet (which duly arrived in March) and to sign up to accompany the general overseer, at a cost of up to $8,500 a person, on a coming pilgrimage to Jerusalem, which is to feature luxury hotel accommodation and a re-enactment of the Last Supper.
On that note...

Read the full article here (its a long article).


Dauson Lovi said...

Oh dear. It would seem that superstition is replacing superstition and fueling the fire for believers who simply have to believe. What is troublesome is that these beliefs are appearing in the United States when as far as for me and the people I know we look at these ideas and practices as backwards and part of a Voodoo culture not socially acceptable. However, there is this random weird religious phenomenon painting itself over America despite the fact more Americans are claiming to be non-religious. I guess tigers are their fiercest when on the verge of death.

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