Ghana’s New Christianity: Book Review

Gifford, Paul. 2004. Ghana’s New Christianity: Pentecostalism in a Globalizing African Economy.  Bloomington: University of Indiana Press.

By: Joel Robbins (Department of Anthropology, University of California, San Diego)

Paul Gifford is one of the most knowledgeable and prolific scholars of Christianity in sub-Saharan Africa.  He has written both surveys on general topics, such as the public role of Christian churches in Africa, and monographs focused on specific countries, such as a previous one on Christianity and politics in Doe’s Liberia and this one on the charismatic scene in Ghana from 2000 to 2002.  One of the great advantages of Gifford’s breadth of knowledge is that he is able to track the kinds of rapid developments in doctrine that are very much a part of global Christianity today, and to pinpoint differences between churches that are often lumped together under homogenizing rubrics such as Pentecostal and charismatic.  In this book, he trains his eye on the contemporary charismatic mega-Churches of Accra and finds them for the most part very much taken up with the faith or prosperity gospel and its prophetic offshoots.  Over the course of the book, he places their doctrines in historical perspective, considers the reasons for their popularity, and evaluates their effects on Ghanaian political and economic life.

At the turn of the millennium, the dominant charismatic churches in Accra were ones that concerned themselves with worldly success.  Recognizably part of the global faith gospel movement, these churches hold that believers who tithe regularly will reap material rewards.  In these churches, at least in Ghana, there is little of the emphasis on healing or on personal sinfulness one often encounters in others kinds of Pentecostal churches; believer’s attention is rigorously trained on the main chance in the economic realm.

Gifford offers several answers to the question of why this kind of Christianity should be so appealing at this moment in Ghana’s history.  He sees it first of all as somewhat continuous with traditional Ghanaian religion in its emphasis on material success and the transformation of personal destinies.  At the same time, he does not discount the resources or prestige the come with its western, in particular American, origin.  He also notes that its strong requirement that one tithe (since in faith gospel logic one gives in order to get, there is little reason to belong to one of these churches if one does not tithe) gives it an institutional advantage in its competition with other churches, for pastors are able to collect large amounts of money and reinvest some of what they get into further building their churches.  But as important as all of these factors are in accounting for the success of the faith gospel in contemporary Ghana, Gifford’s most sustained theme is that it appeals because during a period of economic uncertainty and distrust in the neo-patrimonial structures of government, it provides a way for believers to sooth their anxieties and maintain hope in the possibility of change.

Along with considering the grounds of the faith gospel’s appeal, Gifford also charts some of its recent transformations in fine detail.  To the original package of faith gospel beliefs in the importance of tithing and possibility of worldly success, believers began in the late 1980s and early 1990s to add an emphasis on deliverance.  Failures to achieve success were explained as the result of demonic blockages, often caused by the traditional religious practices of one’s living or dead relatives.  Believers went to special camps where they interrogated their pasts (often by filling out questionnaires) and sought deliverance from the demons that held them back.  By 2000, pastors in Accra began to claim prophetic powers that allowed them to anoint people for success and cast out their demons.  With this, deliverance moved squarely within the churches.  Gifford sees these transformations as following from the need for faith gospel churches to explain why many believers did not prosper.  His discussion of them offers what is one of the most detailed accounts of process of theological and ritual change we have in the global Pentecostal literature.

Gifford’s book is rich in detail.  He quotes liberally from sermons and readers will find themselves drawn into the logic of faith gospel speech and thought.  The middle chapters of the book also introduce several celebrity pastors and their churches in great detail.  This affords the book a kind of ethnographic depth often missing in works that look at several different churches.  Gifford’s account of one of these churches, the International Central Gospel Church of Mensa Otabil, also has the value of introducing readers to what appears within the literature on global Pentecostalism to be a rather unique institution.  In accounting for the poverty of Ghana, Otabil forgoes talk of demons and instead lays the blame on “traditional” Ghanaian culture.  I read Otabil as in a sense presenting a demythologized version of claims that the other pastors also make: while for the run of the mill faith gospel pastor, one has to cast off the past in the form of demons that stand for customary practices like commitment to one’s family and its history, for Otabil it is the customs themselves that are under attack.  How one moves from the standard position to Otabil’s is an important question, and one that Gifford cannot fully answer (nor, without a few more cases like Otabil’s, can anyone else with any certainty).  But Gifford finds him enormously attractive and writes about him with great sympathy.  Readers are likely to remember him as well for the way Gifford’s portrait of him stretches our sense of the kinds of worldview an African Pentecostal pastor can construct and preach.

In the book’s final two chapters, Gifford takes up some of the grand claims that have been made about the social effects of the spread of Pentecostal and charismatic Christianity in the global south.  On the basis of his material, he doubts that these religions will be a modernizing force.  Against those who argue that Pentecostal churches inculcate a Protestant work ethic, Gifford points to the supernaturalism of the faith gospel.  Contra arguments that they foster democracy, he evidences the authoritarian trend embodied in recent prophetic developments and notes that these mega-churches do not build strong communities in which members might learn the virtues of citizenship.  Finally, he criticizes those who would see in Pentecostalism as submerged politics of resistance to the dominant order.  They fail, he says, to prove their point by showing cases in which Pentecostals really have made concrete changes in the political order.   Not all will agree with Gifford’s analyses on these scores, and some may question whether the faith gospel is the best corner of the Pentecostal-charismatic world from which to tackle these questions (or at any rate whether a critique based primarily from data drawn from this corner is rounded enough to be generally valid), but they should appreciate his willingness to unsettle what in some quarters have already become settled pieties rather than conclusions derived from careful analysis.

Well written, provocative and thoroughly researched, this volume will be a lasting contribution to the literature on Pentecostal Christianity and to that on African religion in the early twenty-first century.  Full of comparative insights, it deserves a wide audience.

[Note: the author wishes to pass along the information that this review essay was drafted in 2007, which is why later relevant scholarship is not referenced]

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