Sensational Movies: Book Review

Meyer, Birgit. 2015. Sensational Movies: Video, Vision, and Christianity in Ghana. Oakland, CA: University of California Press.

By John Durham Peters and Gavin Feller (University of Iowa)

One of the most exciting things about the anthropology of Christianity is the way it uses the minutiae of practices in out of the way cultures to cast light on ancient and deep philosophical and religious questions. To think about will and personhood, one can turn equally to St. Augustine and to Joel Robbins’ Urapmin. To think about translation and denominational schism, one can turn equally to Martin Luther and to Courtney Handman’s Guhu-Samane Christians. (Like the Urapmin, they live in New Guinea.) The anthropology of Christianity likes to coax theologizing from its armchair and show it at work in the wild, in the field, in vernacular forms.

Birgit Meyer’s Sensational Movies is a worthy contribution in this project. Amassing and integrating over two decades of her research, the book shows, as we will see, how richly the film culture of south Ghana treats the theological problem of necessary but productive evil and the theoretical problem of the ontology of the photographic or cinematic image. The producers, actors, and audiences she has worked with over the years may not be trained religious thinkers or media theorists, but their constant meditations about the occult, about the nature of acting, the power of the image, and the willing suspension of disbelief show them to have rich ideas about how media can form entities in this world and the world beyond. The resulting book is a major contribution to the interdisciplinary sweet spot where religion, media, and cultural anthropology converge. Continue reading

Merz, “A Religion of Film Experiencing Christianity and Videos Beyond Semiotics in Rural Benin”

Merz, Johannes. 2014. “A Religion of Film Experiencing Christianity and Videos Beyond Semiotics in Rural Benin.” PdD diss,. 

Excerpt: In 2002, Paul Eshleman of the American Jesus Film Project claimed that their flagship known as the Jesus Film was “the most-watched, and the most-translated film in world history” (2002: 69). Seven years later, Sarah Eekhoff Zylstra (2009) declared Nigeria the “Christian movie capital of the world” in the influential American evangelical magazine Christianity Today. In more academic circles, New Testament scholar Adele Reinhartz speculated that “it may well be the case that more people worldwide know about Jesus and his life story from the movies than from any other medium” (2007: 1), while Asonzeh Ukah commented for Nigeria: “The medium of video has become one of the preferred channels for the communication of religious truth, hope, ideas and propaganda” (2003: 226).

These different observations indicate a trend in evangelical and Pentecostal Christianity towards an increasing use of films and videos. This raises the question, which I address as the overarching theme of this book, of whether we are witnessing a shift in certain forms of Christianity from a religion of the book towards a religion of film. Such a shift from text to film would have wide-ranging implications not only for Christians but also their wider socio-cultural settings, both on a local and global scale. I address the various factors that contribute to such a shift and discuss its implications for rural Benin. I propose that the best way to approach this theme is to study how contemporary Christians engage with audiovisual media. More specifically, I am interested in how people watch and experience Christian films, what they make of them and how these films become part of their lives and the world they live in. In order to grapple with such ques- tions and fully understand the results of my ethnographic research, I need to move beyond semiotics, which has been one of the foundational premises of Western science.

With Nigeria having become the world leader in the production of Christian video films, West Africa seems an ideal place to study this phenomenon. While obvious places may be cities in southern Nigeria or Ghana, such as Ibadan or Accra, I chose a less likely area for my research on Christian films, namely the rural Commune of Cobly in the northwest of the Republic of Benin. Cobly is often considered one of the remotest parts of the country and those Beninese from outside the region who have heard of it associate it with backwardness and as being steeped in tradition. State employees, such as teachers or policemen, resent being sent to work there and missionaries often consider it a difficult place to work given that its people are largely “unreached” (cf. Mayrargue 2005: 247), a current missionary euphemism for “pagans”. My knowledge of the area, on the other hand, made me realise that the Commune of Cobly would be a fascinating site for researching people’s experience of Christianity and video films. Especially during the last two decades, the younger generation have become increasingly interested in all things they consider modern, whether mobile phones, television sets, videos or Christianity, thereby participating in the trends of the wider region. Older people often stayed more sceptical towards these developments, promising an interesting mix of views and opinions in a society that is facing rapid and significant social and cultural changes.

In this book I discuss three Christian films that are all known in the Commune of Cobly and that have been used in evangelistic events and sometimes circulated on Video CD or DVD: Jesus (1979, produced by John Heyman) has been made in American evangelical circles with the goal of global evangelism; La Solution (The Solution, 1994, David Powers) was produced by American missionaries in Côte d’Ivoire; and Yatin: Lieu de souffrance (Yatin: Place of Suffering, 2002, Christine Madeleine Botokou) is a Beninese video production that has a direct link with the Nigerian Christian film industry.

I am particularly interested in how people watch and experience these films, focusing not only on their contents, but also, and maybe more importantly, on their materiality. I include what people make of television sets as material objects that are usually used to watch videos. Furthermore, it is important to discuss the history and backgrounds of the films and how they became popular in rural parts of Benin. This allows me to link my research with regional and global trends of Christianity and address my overarching question of whether Christianity is shifting its focus from Biblical texts to Christian films…