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).

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Interview with Girish Daswani

The following is an interview with Girish Daswani, associate professor at the University of Toronto, conducted by Anna-Riikka Kauppinen, who is currently a PhD student at the London School of Economics. Anna-Riikka interviewed Girish in early 2016 to discuss his recent monograph, Looking Back, Moving Forward: Transformation and Ethical Practice in the Ghanian Church of Pentecost (2015, University of Toronto Press).

Anna-Riikka: Hi Girish, thank you so much for taking the moment to discuss your recently published book, ”Looking Back, Moving Forward. Transformation and Ethical Practice in the Ghanaian Church of Pentecost.” Can you first talk about the journey that led you to study Christianity among Ghanaians in both London and Ghana?

Girish: Sure, I must admit that my love for research and my love for anthropology were not located in the anthropology of Christianity at the time of starting my PhD. The motivation for my research came out of strong interest in a place – Ghana – and its people. I was interested in religion but not necessarily focused on one type of religion per se. Also, I was very curious about the Ghanaian diaspora because migration is also part of my own personal history. I made the decision of working with Ghanaians but rather than going to Ghana, I chose to stay in London. Then I started looking for a space in London where Ghanaians would gather. It was a very difficult task because most Ghanaians I knew were very busy people with family obligations and multiple jobs. Eventually I started going to different Ghanaian Christian fellowships until someone told me about the Church of Pentecost (COP), which he described as the largest Protestant church in Ghana. I joined one of their English Sunday services in Dagenham, London, which became my home for the next several months before I felt the urge to spend more time with COP in Ghana. They were very welcoming, I thought it was a perfect location to do my research, and the Ghanaian Christian diaspora became a fascinating subject which I could not turn away from. So the Ghanaian diaspora project became a Ghanaian Christian diaspora project. I became focused on how Ghanaians located themselves in the Christian world, both in Ghana and in the UK, as well as how the Christian or the Pentecostal Christian identity was important both in their personal lives as well as for their future aspirations for change.

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Daswani, “A prophet but not for profit”

Daswani, Girish. 2015. “A prophet but not for profit: ethical value and character in Ghanaian Pentecostalism.” JRAI DOI: 10.1111/1467-9655.12336 [Pre-publication release].

Abstract: The anthropological study of value has gained much currency in recent years. This article speaks to the importance of Pentecostal practices in understanding the qualitative aspects of value in Ghana. It demonstrates how practices relating to wealth accumulation and redistribution are in interaction with ethical evaluations about the character of charismatic Christian prophets. The moral evaluation of wealth of certain prophets, and the links perceived between their use of wealth and their character, tell us something about the moral climate in contemporary Ghanaian society, where wealth cannot simply be measured quantitatively (through acquiring riches), but also ought to be assessed qualitatively (discerned through the quality of one’s acts).

Daswani, “The Globalization of Pentecostalism and the Limits of Globalization”

Daswani, Girish. 2013. The Globalization of Pentecostalism and the Limits of Globalization. In Janice Boddy and Michael Lambek, A Companion to the Anthropology of Religion.  Hoboken, NJ : John Wiley and Sons.

Abstract: Globalization and Pentecostalism are intimately connected in a double sense. On the one hand, it is globalization that makes possible the rise of Pentecostalism and offers it the means to spread. On the other hand, “globalization” summarizes what Pentecostals find wrong with the world and what they hope to transform. I illustrate this interconnection and the dilemmas to which it gives rise by forcing on a particular denominator whose members I followed for years.

The Church of Pentecost (CoP) is a global church with over eighty branches located outside of its headquarters in Ghana. At the time of writing, the home page of its website displayed a list of its eighty-four member countries, scrolling across the screen from right to left like flashing news bulletins or stock prices. The names are indexical of a divine commitment to, and financial investment in, countries such as Australia, Belgium, Brazil, Canada, France, Germany, Israel, India, Lebanon, United Kingdom, United States, and Zimbabwe (the list continues). The phrase “Bringing the world to the saving knowledge of Christ” underpins the title of the church, elucidating the imagined reality summoned up by the list. While the information does not change as frequently or rapidly as international news or stock markets, it affirms the missionary presence of the church and the international flows of its leaders and members. The website is an apt artifact of our globalized age, electronically capturing its urgency, continuous movement, and fluctuations. For viewers, the website also helps to thicken social relations by enabling the virtual participation of church members living in different parts of the world. One of the news items from 2011, for example, informed CoP members about the chairman’s public lecture at the Global Christian Forum in Manado, Indonesia. Another, from 2012, shared a blog post from the immediate past-chairman, who writes about the failure of the church in Europe to live up to expectations. While residing in hamburg, Germany, he invited CoP members to pray for the European branches of its church. “now, while the fastest growing churches are in Africa and Asia, Christianity has taken a nose-dive in most parts of Europe. We are the fruit of their missionary sacrifices. Our presence in Europe at this time is divine . . . REVERSE MISSIOLOGY.”

 

 

Occasional Paper: Daswani, “Christian Personhood in a Ghanaian Pentecostal Church”

Christian Personhood in a Ghanaian Pentecostal Church

Girish Daswani (University of Toronto)

Abstract: The question ‘what is Christian personhood?’ has been on the anthropological radar for some time now. Most of these debates around Christian personhood have engaged with ideas of ‘individuality’ and ‘dividuality’ and have considered whether Christians are individual or dividual first. By looking at how relationships are organized differently within one Pentecostal church in Ghana, I argue that both individuality and dividuality should be considered as intrinsic to any notion of Christian personhood. I examine how church leaders and prophets from the Church of Pentecost reveal the different social arrangements through which a Pentecostal identity and its relations are constituted, managed, and brought into being in Ghana. Ultimately this paper argues that the qualities of how church leaders and prophets of this church come together, and come apart, as individual or dividual, can also be studied through a better understanding of kinship and the social structures that people cohabit.

In early 2015 I met up with Albert, a friend and interlocutor, someone who introduced me to The Church of Pentecost (CoP) when I was in Ghana between 2003 and 2004. It was Albert who in 2004 said to a prayer congregation that Pentecostalism in Ghana was not about a ‘belief in God’ but about ‘relationships’, that God worked through people to help those in need (Daswani 2015). My attempts to make sense of what he meant by relationships helped frame my first impressions of Pentecostalism and in understanding how CoP members were related to God through their shared spiritual practices and through the networks of care and support that were a part of. Back then Albert spent much of his time visiting and assisting several prophets from CoP. Through prayer and prophecies they helped build his hopes for the future and provided him with a sense of security in the world. Albert eventually left CoP and in 2014 formed his own prayer fellowship, which quickly turned into a small but vibrant church. He now had others, followers of his own, who clung to his every word as he gave them advice, predicted their future and spoke demons out of their bodies. His new role as a prophet of his own church allowed him to take on a special position in Ghanaian society as a spiritual guide and mentor. Albert told me that one could convert, become born-again, speak in tongues and learn from others as to how to be a good Pentecostal but the gifts of the prophet were something that one could not cultivate over time. Instead the prophetic gifts were given by God to a chosen few and within different degrees of intensity, either present or absent in the Christian person. When Albert emphasised ‘relationships’ as central to his understanding of Pentecostalism in Ghana, I came to understand that he was referring to the relationships of support and spiritual protection he had received from prophets and from other church members who attended these special prayer services. Over time I realized that there were different types of relationships in CoP and different understandings of ‘relationships’ that informed a Pentecostal identity in Ghana.

The two groups that best represented the different types of relationships in CoP were (1) the church leaders who included pastors that held administrative positions and who provided guidelines for how Pentecostal relations ought to play out practice, and (2) the prophets who held spiritual power and who operated out of prayer camps and prayer centres. The former provided specific theologically based guidelines for how church members were related to God and to each other, paying particular attention to how Pentecostals should come together as individuals-in-Christ. The latter were subject to the same criteria of biblical relatedness but were also described as specially chosen vectors of divine power. Because of their special relationship with the Holy Spirit, prophets were described as more spiritually powerful than ordinary Christians and even CoP leaders. They were known to be able to see what lies behind people’s intentions and to mediate on behalf of others with God and the spirits causing them harm. Church leaders and prophets represented two models of ‘intersubjectivity’ (see Hamberger 2013; Course 2013) that co-existed but that were in tension with one another. They also informed my understanding of the divisions within CoP and within Pentecostalism in Ghana more generally – between more hierarchical-institutionalized forms of Pentecostalism and more charismatic forms that centre around individual personalities and their ability to transmit spiritual power.

In this paper I pay special attention to church leaders and prophets in CoP in order to demonstrate how they help form Pentecostal ‘relationships’ differently. I argue that while interconnected as members of a single institution these two groups reveal the different social arrangements through which a Pentecostal Christian identity and its relations are constituted, managed, and brought into being in Ghana. This distinction between groups speaks to the interconnected but different ways of conceiving Christian persons and their relations – one that can be chosen and cultivated over time and another that is simply gifted to a select few. If the acceptable forms of socialization and the constituent parameters of individual selfhood within the church community are prescribed by CoP leaders, and as premised on the cultivation of certain Christian virtues, prophets provide another way of imagining social relations, acting as channels of and for a divine power that not every Christian possesses. These two groups are not representative of different types of “Ghanaian Pentecostal” but tokens of a single type, moral characters that are identifiable in many Christian churches in Ghana including CoP. In CoP church leaders and prophets operate alongside each other and criticize each other but their interactions also help us consider the structure of relations that frame personhood and to reconsider an important theme in an anthropology of Christianity to which I now turn. Continue reading

Daswani, “Looking Back, Moving Forward: Transformation and Ethical Practice in the Ghanaian Church of Pentecost “

Daswani, GIrish. 2015. Looking Back, Moving Forward: Transformation and Ethical Practice in the Ghanaian Church of Pentecost. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

Publisher’s Description: How do Ghanaian Pentecostals resolve the contradictions of their own faith while remaining faithful to their religious identity? Bringing together the anthropology of Christianity and the anthropology of ethics, Girish Daswani’s Looking Back, Moving Forward investigates the compromises with the past that members of Ghana’s Church of Pentecost make in order to remain committed Christians.

Even as church members embrace the break with the past that comes from being  “born-again,” many are less concerned with the boundaries of Christian practice than with interpersonal questions – the continuity of suffering after conversion, the causes of unhealthy relationships, the changes brought about by migration – and how to deal with them. By paying ethnographic attention to the embodied practices, interpersonal relationships, and moments of self-reflection in the lives of members of the Church of Pentecost in Ghana and amongst the Ghanaian diaspora in London, Looking Back, Moving Forwardexplores ethical practice as it emerges out of the questions that church members and other Ghanaian Pentecostals ask themselves.

Ritual Textuality: Review Forum (Girish Daswani)

Tomlinson, Matt. 2014. Ritual Textuality: Pattern and Motion in Performance. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press. 

By: Girish Daswani (University of Toronto)

 

This is the kind of book that you will want to read. It is based on twenty-eight months of research in Fiji (Kadavu and Suva) and explores the overlapping themes of Pentecostal Christianity, Methodism, tradition and politics. It is also theoretically insightful and relevant because it takes you beyond Fiji, Christianity, tradition and politics. Tomlinson’s book is both short and eloquently written. It is an Introduction, four chapters and a “Full Stop” (his conclusion) long and is designed to both inform and effectively teach readers how discourse and written texts, which emerge in ritual performances, can be broken down into distinctive patterns. There are four basic patterns to all ritual performances Tomlinson suggests – sequence, conjunction, contrast and substitution – and once you know what these patterns are and how they function and converge, a new door of analysis opens up. All you have to do is walk in. Even if this book is not explicitly framed as an invitation, it implicitly invites you to try these methods for yourself. The content of its pages leaves the reader with important conceptual tools with which to analyze an array of ritual performances in motion and to understand how the various components of these rituals converge in different ways and to varying effects. Continue reading

Daswani, “On Christianity and Ethics”

Daswani, Girish. 2013. On Christianity and Ethics: Rupture as ethical practice in Ghanian Pentecostalism. American Ethnologist 40(3):467-479.

Abstract: Rupture, a common principle of the Pentecostal Christian faith, can also give rise to ethical disputes among believers. The study of such disputes provides insight into the ways ethical practice shapes the institutional continuities and the personal inconsistencies of a Christian life. All believers learn what Pentecostal rupture is, but they have different opinions about how it is achieved, and, once born again, they differ on what constitutes good or right religious observance. I suggest that approaching rupture as ethical practice allows for a better understanding of the religious subject’s response to an incommensurability of values and practices internal to Pentecostalism.

Daswani, “Global Pentecostal Networks and the problem of Culture: The Church of Pentecost in Ghana and Abroad.”

Daswani, Girish (202) “Global Pentecostal Networks and the problem of Culture: The Church of Pentecost in Ghana and Abroad.” in Michael Wilinson, ed, Global Pentecostal Movements: Migration, Mission, and Public Religion. Leiden: Brill. Pp 71-92

First Paragraph: Many have written on how Pentecostalism travels the globe and how it has become a force to be reckoned with in our contemporary world. For example, Pentecostalism possesses what Thomas Csordas (2007) callas a “transposable message” of salvation, and “portable practices” that included prayer, speaking in tongues and prophecy – homogenizing forms that travel across space and time through processes of missionization, migration, mobility, and mediation. Joel Robbins (2004, 117) discussed how Pentecostalism successfully adapted itself to the range of cultures in which it is introduced through a processes of replication and indigenizing difference. He calls these two descriptions of global Pentecostalism, global homogenization adn indigenizing difference, contradictory assertions that are useful in explaining its success (119). Similarly, according to Simon Coleman (2010, 800), Pentecostalism in its global form constitutes what he calls “part cultures, presenting worldviews meant for export that are holistic in one sense but, as we have seen, also in tension with the values of any given host society.” While Pentecostalism can be described as both global in its reach and local in its application, adapting to the tensions between its own values and those of its host societies and cultures, I seek to revisit how we may understand the “global” in the globalization of Pentecostalism through one church’s expanding networks and the simultaneous tensions and limits that arise from its engagement with “culture.”

Daswani “(In-)Dividual Pentecostals in Ghana”

Girish Daswani (2011) “(In-)Dividual Pentecostals in GhanaJournal of Religion in Africa 41(3):256-279

Abstract: How are Ghanaian Pentecostals related to others, not just as individuals but relationally and as partible and divisible selves that have an influential force over each other? In answering this question I use the example of two Ghanaian Pentecostal women who face personal problems in their lives and who seek different alternatives in alleviating their suffering. While claims to individuality may be important in born-again conversion, I argue that we also need to consider how Pentecostal Christians are dividual and related to others. In doing so, I examine these Ghanaian Pentecostal women as ethical subjects who are involved in balancing individual achievements against moral obligations to others.