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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Wignall, “From Swagger to Serious”

Wignall, Ross.  2016. From Swagger to Serious: Managing Young Masculinities between Faiths at a Young Men’s Christian Association Centre in The Gambia.  Journal of Religion in Africa 46(2-3): 288-323.

Abstract: A renewed focus on studies of masculinity in Africa has so far failed to account for the growing importance of nonproselytizing Faith-Based Organisations (FBOs) in the gendering process. This article seeks to address this issue through a case study of the Gambian branch of the Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA). YMCA leaders generate a culture of dynamic leadership that equates to a form of ‘hegemonic masculinity’ based on love, self-sacrifice, and obligation. This article shows how this process is implicated in a series of tensions between the young men and their peers, families, elders, and leaders. While many young men want to ‘have swagger’, they are called ‘stubborn’ and urged to ‘get serious’. Through an ethnographic portrait, the author uses these tensions to explore how YMCA ideals of manhood may be superimposing forms of Euro-American, Christian masculinity onto Muslim Gambian men, replicating colonial modes of control, inequality, and oppression.

Taylor, “Reconsidering Samuel”

Taylor, Lauren A.  2016.  Reconsidering Samuel: A Mental Health Caretaker at a Ghanaian Prayer Camp.  Perspectives in Biology and Medicine 59(2): 263-275.

Abstract: This essay is intended to challenge popular and academic narratives of prayer camps in Ghana as being inherently inhumane. It is based on two years of Master’s thesis research and six trips to one prayer camp in particular, where I observed the daily routines of the camp and interviewed staff who care for people with mental illness. I aim to contextualize what is currently known about patients and staff at Ghanaian prayer camps within Ghana’s broader social, political, religious, and medical landscapes. To do so, I call upon my own experience interacting with one caretaker in particular: Samuel.

Jennings, “Great Risk for the Kingdom”

Jennings, Mark Alan Charles.  2017. Great Risk for the Kingdom: Pentecostal-Charismatic Growth Churches, Pastorpreneurs, and Neoliberalism.  In, Multiculturalism and the Convergence of Faith and Practical Wisdom in Modern Society, Ana-Maria Pascal, ed.  Pp. 236-249.

Abstract: Pentecostal-Charismatic Christianity (“PCC”) has successfully navigated the challenges modernity poses to religion, growing rapidly in the twentieth century. Toward the end of the twentieth century, however, neoliberalism began its ascent to its current hegemonic status. Neoliberalism reconfigures social institutions as marketized practices with a measurable ‘payoff’. PCC adapted to this challenge in the form of a “growth churches,” adopting many of the characteristics of neoliberalism. In adopting a homogenous model and method of ‘best practice’ in order to facilitate growth; offering a ‘prosperity’ theology that fits well with the development of human capital; and endorsing the universalization of risk through modelling “pastorpreneur” leadership, it is argued in this chapter that growth churches are a paradigmatic example of a late modern religious phenomenon accommodating neoliberalism in a largely uncritical manner. The chapter concludes with some observations that critique this association between neoliberalism and growth churches.

Lauterbach, “Christianity, Wealth, and Spiritual Power”

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

Publisher’s Description: This book centers around mid-level charismatic pastors in Ghana. Karen Lauterbach analyzes pastorship as a pathway to becoming small “big men” and achieving status, wealth, and power in the country. The volume investigates both the social processes of becoming a pastor and the spiritual dimensions of how power and wealth are conceptualized, achieved, and legitimized in the particular context of Asante in Ghana. Lauterbach integrates her analysis of charismatic Christianity with a historically informed examination of social mobility—how people in subordinate positions seek to join up with power. She explores how the ideas and experiences surrounding the achievement of wealth and performance of power are shaped and re-shaped. In this way, the book historicizes current expressions of charismatic Christianity in Ghana while also bringing the role of religion and belief to bear on our understanding of wealth and power as they function more broadly in African societies.

Beck and Gundersen, “A Gospel of Prosperity?”

Beck, Sedefka V. and Sara J. Gundersen. A Gospel of Prosperity? An Analysis of the Relationship Between Religion and Earned Income in Ghana, the Most Religious Country in the World. Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion.  Early online publication.

Abstract: This study tests for a relationship between religious affiliation and earned income in Ghana. While microeconomic analyses have studied the relationship between religion and several socioeconomic outcomes in the United States, remarkably few have done so in developing countries, and none has explored the religion-earnings relationship. Using the fifth round of the Ghana Living Standards Survey from 2005 to 2006, we find that, among women, religious denomination correlates with earned income. Specifically, Spiritualists, Pentecostals, and Methodists earn higher income than the Presbyterian base group, while Traditionalists earn less. This article investigates the relationship and posits some of its causes, including the influence of a trend in neo-Pentecostal religious groups that emphasizes wealth accumulation and self-confidence.

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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Butticci, “African Pentecostals in Catholic Europe”

Butticci, Annalisa. 2016. African Pentecostals in Catholic Europe: The Politics of Presence in the Twenty-First Century. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Publisher’s Description: Over the past thirty years, Italy—the historic home of Catholicism—has become a significant destination for migrants from Nigeria and Ghana. Along with suitcases and dreams of a brighter future, these Africans bring their own form of Christianity, Pentecostalism, shaped by their various cultures and religious worlds. At the heart of Annalisa Butticci’s beautifully sculpted ethnography of African Pentecostalism in Italy is a paradox. Pentecostalism, traditionally one of the most Protestant of Christian faiths, is driven by the same concern as Catholicism: real presence.

In Italy, Pentecostals face harsh anti-immigrant sentiment and limited access to economic and social resources. At times, they find safe spaces to worship in Catholic churches, where a fascinating encounter unfolds that is equal parts conflict and communion. When Pentecostals watch Catholics engage with sacramental objects—relics, statues, works of art—they recognize the signs of what they consider the idolatrous religions of their ancestors. Catholics, in turn, view Pentecostal practices as a mix of African religions and Christian traditions. Yet despite their apparently irreconcilable differences and conflicts, they both share a deeply sensuous and material way to make the divine visible and tangible. In this sense, Pentecostalism appears much closer to Catholicism than to mainstream Protestantism.

African Pentecostals in Catholic Europe offers an intimate glimpse at what happens when the world’s two fastest growing Christian faiths come into contact, share worship space, and use analogous sacramental objects and images. And it explains how their seemingly antithetical practices and beliefs undergird a profound commonality.