Christianity, Wealth, and Spiritual Power: Book Review

Lauterbach, Karen.  2017.  Christianity, Wealth, and Spiritual Power in Ghana.  New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

By: Girish Daswani (University of Toronto)

In an important thesis published in 1998, Birgit Meyer showed how making a ‘complete break with the past’ had become a central concern for Ghanaian Pentecostals. Five years later, Joel Robbins’ (2003) piece on the problem of “continuity thinking” (an anthropological bias toward emphasizing cultural continuity) called for “an anthropology of discontinuity”, that further engaged with a self-conscious anthropology of Christianity (see Bialecki et al 2008:138). Since then, the literature on discontinuity and rupture, which takes seriously Christian ideology and Christian attempts to bring about change, has shaped many debates (Meyer 2004; Engelke 2004; Robbins 2007). It has also impacted on how, when I came back from my doctoral fieldwork in 2004, I related to my ethnographic material. While I purposefully moved at the time beyond the public rhetoric of rupture to, instead, reflect on how different groups of Ghanaian Pentecostal believers selectively drew from and struggled with the discourse of discontinuity (Daswani 2007; see also Engelke 2010), the underlying question of what Ghanaian culture brought to Pentecostalism eventually fell – at least for a while – out of focus (Daswani 2015).

The strength of the now decade-long debate launched by Meyer and Robbins continues to influence (and possibly overemphasise) the Christian rhetoric of discontinuity over an equally valid notion of historical and cultural continuity. While the older “continuity thinking” paradigm did not allow for the proper assessment of Christian’s relationships to change, the subsequent emphasis on “discontinuity thinking” may have inadvertently caused us to ignore or underestimate the enduring historical quality of the social and cultural contexts we work in, even as they are subject to change. Has the pendulum swung too far in the opposite direction? Likewise, has the anthropology of “Christianity (ies)” taken up too much space in informing our theory of change and in setting up our ethnographic problems – even as it has historically informed them (Cannell 2006)? Have we spent enough time to observe “how cultures receiving particular Christianities think about change (or not) not only through Christianity but also in ways not solely attributable to it” (Cannell 2007:19)? And if Pentecostal-charismatic Christianity is a “part-culture” (Coleman 2010) that is able to appropriate local cultural forms while maintaining a distinctive global form of its own, have we provided sufficient attention to the cultures or other part-cultures that it is in dialogue with? Perhaps things have started to shift once again, as Karen Lauterbach’s latest monograph shows.

Lauterbach’s Christianity, Wealth, and Spiritual Power in Ghana, provides us with a refreshing look at what has been described as Ghana’s “new Christianity.” Her description of the process of becoming a charismatic pastor places historical importance on cultural continuities while also assessing what is different and new about Ghana’s charismatic scene. Largely anchored in Kumasi, Ghana’s second largest city and capital of the Asante kingdom, Lauterbach’s ethnography describes the subjects of her book as small ‘big men’ who see charismatic churches as providing them with a new opportunity to establish successful careers and to “join power”. Getting access to and exercising spiritual power is an important concern for these mid-level charismatic pastors who are striving to achieve ‘bigness’. However, the onus is on them to demonstrate ‘truthfulness’ and redistribute wealth. Ghanaians are not without their own internal critique of these emerging ‘big men’. For the leaders of these “one man churches”, public recognition is closely tied not only to their ability to channel spiritual power, but also to their capacity to demonstrate that they are worthy of success and that they are abiding by certain moral standards of cultural evaluation. The way these pastors are seen to achieve power and distribute wealth, as well as their ability to balance several registers of power, are central to their public image and their acceptability within Ghanaian society.

This book is a reminder that understanding the history of a particular place is extremely important. It also provides caution in that it highlights how the historical changes in Ghana or the history of Christianity in Ghana do not suffice in explaining the lived experience of charismatic churches’ members. Lauterbach’s ethnography provides an important contrast to the picture of the charismatic scene painted by Paul Gifford (2004) in his book Ghana’s New Christianity. Focusing on church rhetoric, Gifford analyses the “message” of the more famous charismatic church leaders in Ghana and their inability to bring about wider change in the lives of believers. In doing so he does not address how ideas such as “prosperity” become meaningful or how Ghanaians participate in constructing a sense of palpable change in their own lives. Gifford’s analysis depends largely on what he means by change, which for him is reliant on a Weberian “work ethic” that involves “investment, internal asceticism and deferral of gratification” (2004:159). He describes Ghana’s charismatic pastors as building on neo-patrimonial and clientele relations, where links are made vertically towards the charismatic prophet rather than horizontally between believers (Gifford 2004:108; 185). As Lauterbach’s book insightfully reveals, the story Gifford tells is reductionist and “leaves out the nuances of the processes and social relations involved” (190). As Lauterbach also explains, Gifford’s work does not consider “the local and historical understanding of ‘bigness’ and power” (190) nor does it do justice to the inherent flexibility of patron-client relations in Ghana. Her advice is well taken. In understanding Ghana’s new Christianity, we should not essentialize the notion of the African ‘big man’; neither should we simplify these patron-client relations through observations that are mainly held at the level of public discourse.

The book’s opening vignette alerts us to the shifting nature of the vibrant charismatic scene in Kumasi as well as to the potentially short life of many of these “one man churches”. Through a discussion of some of the book’s main themes, readers are introduced to the ideas of “joining power”, “rupture and continuity”, and “status, wealth and power in Asante”. In Chapter 2, Lauterbach reveals how the religious and political offices in Asante are closely interconnected with the process of becoming ‘big’. To understand these contemporary charismatic pastors, we need to also learn about their historical resonances with pre-colonial ‘big-men’ (abirempon) and the ‘religious specialists’ (akomfoo) of Asante society and how they serve as key figures and examples for the ways wealth is acquired and power and authority established. We learn that the gradual loosening of traditional structures of authority during British colonial rule and the subsequent capitalization of the economy in Asante led to the emergence of new groups of business and educated elite, organized around the private accumulation of wealth. These new social groups became instrumental in morally legitimizing the future displays of wealth that became characteristic of charismatic prophets. They also provided new ways of conceiving ‘big-ness’ – challenging and yet drawing from certain aspects of Asante social life. A new individualism described by various commentators as “nervous” and “confused” was influential to the rise of the earlier anti-witchcraft shrines and African Independent Churches (spiritual churches, prophet movements, early Pentecostals) that both challenged traditional authority and yet provided social critique for how wealth was to be acquired and redistributed. That there is something culturally distinct and special about Kumasi and the Asante region is clear. As Lauterbach suggests, compared to either Accra or even Nigeria, the charismatic scene in Kumasi maintains “a separate category with its own history” (53). By committing the charismatic movement in Kumasi to its own social complex that includes non-Christian and Christian forms, we learn how the traditional and religious elite shared the same space and why the charismatic pastor has become both a career path that is socially acceptable and a way out of older forms of traditional and class subordination.

Chapters 3 and 4 focus on what it takes to become a charismatic pastor or at least a socially legitimate one. The craft of becoming a “man of God” requires one to operate between different social, economic and political fields and to strike a balance between individual accumulation and the redistribution of wealth. Even as these pastors focus on prosperity and economic success, they foreground their “role as providers and caretakers of the community… by praying for the wellbeing of society, engaging in social development projects and contributing to their home communities” (64). In chapter 3, Lauterbach beautifully captures the inherent tension between personal accumulation and collective distribution through the Asante understanding of nokware or truthfulness. Charismatic pastors are subject to criticism by the Ghanaian public, who often accuses them of exploiting the poor. Thus, they have to be seen as “truthful” when it comes to how they handle wealth. Described as simultaneously a relation to God, to oneself and to one’s community and family, nokware requires charismatic pastors to meet certain moral criteria for redistribution before they can expect others to give to them freely and legitimately. While the prosperity gospel has been widely accepted and embraced in Ghana’s charismatic scene, it is to the particular cultural interpretation of “wealth” that we are brought back to. This includes the value given to people, their time, presence and loyalty, and how wealth is intrinsically tied to relationships in Ghana. We learn that legitimately created relationships are like legitimately made wealth – they depend on an understanding of reciprocity rather than on the wish to make a quick profit. As Lauterbach reveals, “who is a real” prophet and “who is fake” is a common form of social critique in Ghana’s charismatic scene. That is why the ways in which a pastor is called into the profession (or the types of calling he receives), the role of one’s “destiny” (nkrabea), how spiritual power is performed, and the theological education one receives, are all important aspects of the “craft of pastorship”. In chapter 4, Lauterbach provides examples of how pastors craft their religious persona around the spiritual authority of, and their personal relationships with, more powerful charismatic pastors, as well as through the social approval and endorsement of extended members of their church community.

Chapter 5 shows how what “spiritual power” means and how it can be accessed determines whether one truly understand charismatic Christianity in Ghana. Because spiritual power is about the “ability to bring about change” (126) and accessible to anyone, it becomes important to know the authority upon which this power is called upon and used. For example, the line separating the charismatic pastor from the traditional priest – religious experts who can heal, deliver demons, and provide assistance in issues such as marriage, exams and childbirth – lies in the authority upon which power is transmitted. Because the religious space is open, what is “good” and “evil” is open to interpretation. A pastor can therefore be accused of (or admit to) receiving spiritual power from the gods of the traditional shrine while disguising it as the power of the Holy Spirit. This emphasizes the importance of “where” the pastor claims religious authority from and “how” he demonstrates his closeness to God, for example, through legitimate acts such as sermons, prayers and the production of Christian literature. Something less often written about that Lauterbach engages with is the role of social media (e.g. Facebook), which is used by church leaders to advertise church activities and to provide their followers with opinions about popular culture and politics in Ghana.

Chapter 6 crystallizes many of the book’s ideas through the stories of Kumasi-based charismatic pastors. By “joining power”, charismatic pastors in Kumasi, as Lauterbach explains, are operating within several fields of action and multiple registers of power. This includes their relations outside the church (hometown, extended family, other kinship ties). Lauterbach traces the trajectories of both successful and unsuccessful pastors, thus revealing how “success” happens or does not happen and why. Unsuccessful attempts become important to document as they allow us to learn about the common hindrances to success. More importantly, they serve to show that success is not inevitable. And the idea that Pentecostalism often leads to a break in family relations is challenged in the case studies provided by Lauterbach. Rather, they reveal how family relations are often re-made after conversion and in recognizable ways. Many negotiate new roles within the family and become respected mediators of hometown politics as the status of a respectable pastor becomes transferable and converted into the political and economic spheres. Lauterbach also spends a significant portion of this chapter discussing how the principles of “apprenticeship and entrepreneurship” work side by side in the making of a pastor: Pastors learn from senior pastors and also innovatively use their new positions to expand as individuals. Apprenticeship works very much like a parent-child relationship, involving submission to a senior pastor’s authority; in turn, junior pastors receive guidance and opportunities for status promotion. Entrepreneurship, on the other hand, arrives at opportune moments, that is when these small ‘big men’ leave their mentors and start their own churches or create links with other groups, thereby expanding their economic transactions and their own status and authority.

In the Conclusion of this book, we are reminded that becoming a successful charismatic pastor is also about becoming ‘big’. This is not exclusive to Christian leaders and requires access to spiritual power as well as legitimate claims to authority that directly echo traditional forms of power. As Lauterbach writes, while “Charismatic Christianity introduces new ideas and values about family life, traditional religion, accumulation of wealth, and politics”, these religious experts and the practices they build on also “resonate with already existing ideas about access to spiritual power, ‘bigness’, and wealth and they are made sense of in relation to this’ (200). She also argues that the recent literature on rupture (and individualisation) has “prevented us from seeing the social and historic embeddedness of charismatic Christianity” (200). What is refreshing about this book is that it relies heavily on the breadth and wealth of knowledge and observations of historians of the Asante, ethnographers of Ghana, and Ghanaian ethnographers. Such a historiographical and ethnographic grounding allows her to show how both continuity and change matter. While the book could have benefitted from a more in depth engagement with the literature from the anthropology of Christianity, it certainly does not shy away from foregrounding why Kumasi and Asante notions of wealth, power and status are essential to our understanding of charismatic Christianity in Ghana.

Lauterbach thus resolutely argues in favour of an increasing examination of historical and cultural continuities by anthropologists. Such a stance is not disconnected from critiques of the Protestant bias of the anthropology of Christianity (Hann 2007) or historically informed anthropologists who take “the complex of opposites” in Catholicism and their regional histories seriously (Mosse 2017). For anthropologists working on Catholicism, “continuity emerges time and time again as an ethnographic concept in its own terms in the guise of “tradition”” and as a product of “considerable labor” (Norget et al 2017: 5). Lauterbach’s observations also overlap with my own. As I’ve shown in my book, “continuity” itself is as much of interest to Ghanaian Pentecostals as discontinuity (Daswani 2015). What I call the “problem of continuity”, namely a set of relational problems that appear in the lives of believers in the form of witchcraft, spirits, ancestors and other Christian practices deemed un-Pentecostal, is experienced as a form of public and personal dissonance that needs resolution. And as Pentecostal prophets and charismatic pastors in Ghana convert spiritual power into economic value when resolving these problems, they are often evaluated according to a set of ethical values that focus on relationships of obligation and reciprocity (Daswani 2016).

Perhaps it is the attention to the longue durée that allows for the problem of rupture and continuity to be posed in the first place. What if we move away from a rupture/continuity conundrum by widening our gaze beyond the ‘Anthropology of Christianity’ paradigm, and engaging more with the multidisciplinary and comparative field of religion (Peel 2015)? In the Ghanaian context, for example, Meera Venkatachalam (2015), writing about the Fofie cult of the Anlo-Ewe of Ghana, shows how Christianity and indigenous religious practices developed in tandem over time and were both included within the same analytical frame. She demonstrates how two generations of Anlo-Ewe engaged with cultic networks and Christian denominations in different ways (ibid: 184). Since the 1990’s, the lineage-based cults she studies have extended beyond their descent group and are now competing for clientele with newer Pentecostal churches, marketing similar religious services and pursuing aggressive recruitment strategies (ibid: 185). Such cults are not dissimilar to the prophetic and charismatic churches that emerged around that same time in Ghana. In all cases, Ghanaians’ choices play a major role in which religious intermediaries are adopted. Most importantly, these comparisons are not simple examples of “cultural continuity” or “discontinuity” – much more is at play and resemblances have to be accounted for even as we take seriously people’s claims to difference.

Karen Lauterbach’s book carefully considers how both historical and cultural continuity as well as Christian discontinuity matter. She does not walk into the conversation about Christianity in Ghana with an assumption of “change” that pre-determines whether or not the people she studies have truly achieved this criteria for religious transformation. Instead, she sensitively traces the lines of cultural resonance and historical transformation that makes charismatic Christianity so familiar and yet so different from past religious forms. Rather than simply asking ‘what difference Christianity makes’, her work importantly also asks ‘what difference do culture and historical continuities make to understanding this variation of Christianity’? If we take the historical perspective seriously, and I think we should, we have to acknowledge that human history is ultimately about overlaps, diversity, and convoluted webs of slowly shifting continuities. It would not be controversial for a Ghanaian observer to agree with the observation that Christianity has become an inextricable part of Ghanaian culture. Yet how it has become so remains a difficult, uneasy question, one that Lauterbach has brought us closer to answering. And she does so with remarkable skill.

References Cited:

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Venkatachalam, M. 2015. Slavery, Memory, and Religion in Southeastern Ghana, c. 1850-Present. International African Library: Cambridge University Press.

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