Monday, July 22, 2013

Mormon skepticism and a Ghanan "devil" priest in Bronx

by Salman Hameed

There were two fascinating stories in yesterday's NYT. One talked about the path to doubt of a Mormon church leader and another addressed a "devil" priest from Ghana who is now living in Bronx. The internet plays an interesting role in both of these stories. In the case of the former, the internet led to sites that highlighted inconsistencies in the official Mormon Church stories. In the latter case, the Ghanan priest used social media to expand his reach and modernize his religion:
Renowned as a healer, Mr. Kwaku Bonsam claims to treat everything from curses to impotence. But he is best known for his ambitious efforts to modernize the indigenous West African religion dominant before Christian missionaries began arriving in great
numbers in the mid-19th century. 
So why was Ghana’s most feared fetish priest living inconspicuously in a one-bedroom apartment in the Bronx? 
In West Africa, traditional priests — often called fetish priests — have historically preferred secrecy and seclusion, carrying out their ancient rituals inside mud huts in remote areas. And since 1992, when a democratic constitution was approved in Ghana, traditional religion has come under increasing attack from a new generation of Pentecostal pastors, who use television, radio and the Internet to deride its rituals as devil worship. 
In a clever reversal, Mr. Kwaku Bonsam has adopted these same platforms to promote traditional religion. His outsize public persona and his cosmopolitan credentials make the case that the old spiritual practices are compatible with being a modern African.
And here he makes a fascinating statement:
“In Africa, traditional religion has always been considered extremely local, while Christianity was seen as a way of joining the larger world,” said Birgit Meyer, a professor of religious studies at Utrecht University in the Netherlands who conducted research in Ghana for 25 years and has written about Mr. Kwaku Bonsam. “But by using Facebook and YouTube and finally residing in New York City, Mr. Kwaku Bonsam shows that traditional religion can also go global. He’s making it fashionable, in other words.”
But I also found this part of the story interesting where the gods themselves are contested and appropriated:

“In African culture, when people experience a crisis, they often put their Christian beliefs aside and consult traditional priests,” he said. “They won’t usually admit it, of course, because that destroys their Christian credibility.” 
It was a similar situation that made Mr. Kwaku Bonsam famous, said Frederik Lamote, a professor at University College Brussels who wrote part of his doctoral thesis on him.
On April 2, 2008, Mr. Kwaku Bonsam stormed into the church of Collins Agyei Yeboah, a popular Pentecostal pastor in Kato, another southern town. Accompanied by a crew of policemen and reporters, he accused Pastor Yeboah of secretly soliciting the help of his traditional gods and then failing to properly compensate him and the gods for their services. Mr. Kwaku Bonsam claimed the gods had given him two choices: to retrieve the idol he had given the pastor, or to die at 6 p.m. that day. “Do you want the gods to kill me?” he asked Pastor Yeboah. 
In YouTube videos of the episode, viewed hundreds of thousands of times, Mr. Kwaku Bonsam went on to say that 1,600 pastors from around the country had visited him requesting juju spirits to help build their churches. The idol is eventually retrieved from behind Pastor Yeboah’s church and after a lengthy interrogation, the pastor is led away by the police. In the video, he angrily defended himself by saying that he had indeed consulted Mr. Kwaku Bonsam, but that the powers he had given him didn’t work. 
The success of Pentecostalism in West Africa, with its exorcisms and speaking in tongues, depends heavily on its resonance with traditional religion. But by showing that a well-known pastor had explicitly relied on juju spirits, said Professor Meyer, Mr. Kwaku Bonsam “affirmed widespread rumors that pastors had secret spiritual resources.” His popularity soared in response.        

This is absolutely fascinating and a very smart move on his part.

Oh and here he is at the Miss Ghana-USA pageant last month:

Read this story here.

And here is the story of the Mormon church leader in Europe:
In the small but cohesive Mormon community where he grew up, Hans Mattsson was a solid believer and a pillar of the church. He followed his father and grandfather into church leadership and finally became an “area authority” overseeing the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints throughout Europe.  
 When fellow believers in Sweden first began coming to him with information from the Internet that contradicted the church’s history and teachings, he dismissed it as “anti-Mormon propaganda,” the whisperings of Lucifer. He asked his superiors for help in responding to the members’ doubts, and when they seemed to only sidestep the questions, Mr. Mattsson began his own investigation. 
But when he discovered credible evidence that the church’s founder, Joseph Smith, was a polygamist and that the Book of Mormon and other scriptures were rife with historical anomalies, Mr. Mattsson said he felt that the foundation on which he had built his life began to crumble. 
Around the world and in the United States, where the faith was founded, the Mormon Church is grappling with a wave of doubt and disillusionment among members who encountered information on the Internet that sabotaged what they were taught about their faith, according to interviews with dozens of Mormons and those who study the church. 

And this is a particular problem for a young religion (but not too young to be media savvy):

 Every faith has its skeptics and detractors, but the Mormon Church’s history creates special challenges. The church was born in America only 183 years ago, and its founder and prophet, Joseph Smith, and his disciples left behind reams of papers that still exist, documenting their work, exposing their warts and sometimes contradicting one another.
“The Roman Catholic Church has had 2,000 years to work through the hiccups in its history,” said Terryl L. Givens, a professor of English, literature and religion at the University of Richmond and a Mormon believer. “Mormonism is still an adolescent religion.” 
Mr. Givens and his wife, Fiona, recently presented what they called “Crucible of Doubt” sessions for questioning Mormons in England, Scotland and Ireland. Hundreds attended each event. 
“Sometimes they are just this side of leaving, and sometimes they are simply faithful members who are looking for clarity and understanding to add to their faith,” said Mr. Givens, who hosted a similar discussion in July in Provo, Utah, and has others planned in the United States. The church is not sponsoring the sessions, Mr. Givens said, but local bishops give their permission. 
Here is the NYT video of the interview


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