Pastures of Plenty: Book Review

Heuser, Andreas, ed. 2015. Pastures of Plenty: Tracing Religio-Scapes of Prosperity Gospel in Africa and Beyond. Frankfurt am Main: Peter Lang.

By: Hans Olsson (Lund University)

This multidisciplinary volume adds to a growing body of scholarly work focusing on the highly debated topic of Pentecostal-Charismatic prosperity teachings (a.k.a., the faith gospel or health and wealth gospel). The book has a broad scope (21 contributions plus an Introduction) which enables the exemplification and comparison of the many different contemporary strands of prosperity teachings. Divided into six subsections, Pastures of Plenty deals with prosperity teachings in relation to (i) political and social contexts (Tetzlaff, Köhrsen, Maltese); (ii) its theological foundations and place in current ecumenical debates (Gifford, Kahl, von Sinner, Biehl); (iii) its significance and influence in current public debates across religious denominations and traditions (Heuser, Zakaria, Langenwiesche, Nrenzah, Opare Kwakye, Hasu); (iv) its relation to the Protestant work ethic and entrepreneurship (Sundnes Drønen, Daniels, Zapf); (v) exchange and gift economies (Droz & Gez, Lindhardt); and (vi) migratory contexts (Fröchtling, Rey, Frei). While the majority of the contributions are case studies drawn from African contexts such as Ghana, Nigeria, Kenya, Tanzania, South Africa, Cameroon, and Burkina Faso, there are also some cases from other parts of the world such as the Philippines (Maltese), Brazil (von Sinner), Switzerland (Frei), and the US (Daniels). The anthology’s thorough collection of research offers deep insights into contextual differences but also provides a multifaceted and multidisciplinary analysis of the phenomenon of the prosperity gospel at large.

For someone not familiar with this field of research the book might serve as a broad introduction to the theological foundations of the teachings (Gifford), and the sometimes harsh criticism leveled at them (Kahl). But several of the contributions also present intriguing additions to the already available literature: for instance, Fröchtling and Rey illuminate the ways in which prosperity approaches are reinterpreted in migration contexts; Droz and Gez describe how believers deal with the issue of a lack of return on investments; and Hasu and Lindhardt explore skepticism about swift material success.

The editor of the book, Andreas Heuser, a theologian and political scientist who has written extensively on Pentecostal themes such as prosperity and spiritual warfare, stresses in the introduction that prosperity gospel today transcends the Pentecostal domain and reaches out into the public sphere and by doing so affects social and political landscapes. While seeing prosperity gospel as “a theological locus with porous boundaries to non-Christian beliefs and practices” (p. 22), Heuser suggests an approach that situates the message of prosperity gospels within a “wider religious landscape” (p. 23). By expanding Elizabeth McAlister’s notion of “religio-scapes” to highlight “the fluidity of religious ideas and exchange practices” in contemporary Africa, Heuser proposes an approach that would engage aspects of Pentecostal prosperity gospel through the lens of this concept. This would delineate the ways in which prosperity teachings cut across Christian traditions and also affect contemporary productions of African shrine religiosity and popular Islam. Indeed, the title, Pastures of Plenty, is a play on how the heterogeneous field of prosperity teachings influences the African religious landscape. While I find the approach stimulating—suggesting a novel way of examining the phenomena of prosperity gospel by moving (in part) away from earlier frameworks that located prosperity teachings primarily in relation to external (American) influences or in relation to the approaches of African Traditional Religions to wealth—it also renders the many contributions of the book somewhat problematic.

First and foremost this is due to the fact that the suggested theoretical framework is absent in the majority of the contributions. The case studies (section IV) that directly relate to Heuser’s suggested framework are drawn from the Ghanaian context (Heuser, Zakaria, Nrenzah, Opare and Kwakye, with Hasu and Langenwische providing exceptions), which makes me wonder if the theoretical angle is primarily useful in unraveling trends occurring in a Ghanaian setting where a “Pentecostalization” of the public sphere is prominent, as suggested by Birgit Meyer? This leads me to the second point of consideration: namely, the attention given to Pentecostal Christianity in general, and to prosperity gospel in particular, in relation to its actual impact on African societies locally and beyond. While it might be the case in Ghana, is it really the case in other African contexts? My concern is the propensity to assign Pentecostal forms of prosperity such weight in exploring African religious-scapes of wealth, especially when considering the relationship between “traditional” African notions of prosperity, Christian (and Muslim) prosperity teachings, and neo-liberal capitalist economics; contributions pointing to such tensions include Langenwiesche’s comparison of approaches to wealth on the part of Catholic nuns, the Ahmadiyya community, and Pentecostal Assemblies in Burkina Faso. However, the position taken by approaching the topic of wealth from the perspective of prosperity gospel somewhat obscures an interesting field of research: namely, exploring the ways in which discourses on wealth, prosperity, and materiality within religious traditions, institutions, and localities create fields of interactions, cooperation, and contestation.

With this said, I find the bold approach of the book interesting, leaving me eager for future contributions that explore the theoretical framework laid out in the introduction. Such contributions should be able to investigate the applicability of the framework of the book beyond the Ghanaian context, and the relationship between prosperity teachings on the one hand and ecumenical and inter-religious encounters on the other.

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