READING RUTH MARSHALL’S POLITICAL SPIRITUALITIES
In this class we will be looking at two central themes in the modern history of Christianity, namely the rapid growth of Christianity in Africa, and the boom in Pentecostal forms of faith and worship. Appropriately, this case study focuses on Nigeria, which plays a critical role in both movements. The book is especially valuable because of the author’s strong sense of the political and social dimensions of the movement.
How did the author go about her research? Is this chiefly a documentary study, an ethnography, oral history, or what? If not history, to what discipline would this study properly belong?
To what extent is her account based on personal observation and experience?
Do you think she understands the spiritual motivation of the people she is describing, or does she try and impose her own ideas? How aware is she of the theological debates underlying these changes?
If you were able to speak to these believers, are there any questions that you would want to ask them yourself, over and above what Marshall asks? Are there issues of belief or practice that might not strike an observer even to ask about?
Marshall makes heavy use of the work of Michel Foucault. Why? What does she hope to gain from such a theoretical approach? Do you think this strengthens or weakens her work? Does the theory drive or constrain her research?
(On a practical matter, may I just alert you that you might find the first chapter or so heavy going, because of that theoretical weight. Don’t be deterred – you might want to read the rest of the book and then go back to that intro section).
Does she pay adequate attention to non-Pentecostal Christian bodies, eg Catholics and Anglicans? Should she, or are they beyond her scope?
In any case, do note that the book is not trying to write a history of Nigerian Christianity, and it should not be read in that light.
Which of the stories that we hear in the book particularly impressed or horrified you? Which made the strongest impression?
Did any individuals emerge particularly strongly?
Her story is one of enormous religious growth. Why did this happen? Does she explain it convincingly?
This may seem like a dumb question, but: what is Pentecostalism, whether we spell it with a large P or a small one? How does that term differ from the related concept of “charismatic”?
How do Marshall’s findings mesh with – or conflict with – Mark Shaw’s account of revivalism as a force driving religious change?
Does Nigeria’s religious change justify the term “revolution”?
What are the goals of the Pentecostal “revolutionaries”? How plausible are they? What obstacles did (do) they face? How have they transformed the lives of ordinary believers?
What do we learn about the appeal of Pentecostal Christianity in West Africa? How far might those lessons apply to other regions, in Africa or further afield?
Some scholars have suggested that charismatic African Christianity is a thinly disguised version of older pagan and primal beliefs. How does Marshall treat such arguments?
Lamin Sanneh describes a similar story of religious transformation, on a larger geographical stage. How do the two accounts compare? What might Sanneh have to learn from Marshall, and vice versa?
We need to discuss at length the term AICs, and its changing significance through recent history!
Marshall often has cause to discuss the Redeemed Christian Church of God, RCCG, an extremely important worldwide denomination – apart from other places, it has a major power base in Houston. You can find an excellent discussion of the group in this New York Times story. Let me know if you have problems accessing this.
Marshall writes that “I argue that it is this vision [of rupture, both individual and collective] and specific Born-Again program for personal and collective regeneration and renewal that have been responsible for attracting people in such great numbers.” How do you assess that argument?
What does being “Born Again” mean in the Nigerian context? How does that differ from the use of the phrase in North America?
Believers speak of making a complete break with the past. What are the implications of this for society, politics and economy?
How does the kind of “break with the past” she is describing differ from classic accounts of conversion?
Central to Marshall’s argument is the radical individualism of the movement, in a society previously marked by communal and communitarian values. What are the implications of that shift?
According to reviewer Nicolette Manglos, Marshall “argues that the born again movement is primarily a regime of the self acting on the self to transform it, bringing a variety of old and new elements of Nigerian culture into play.” Discuss!
Reviewer Asonzeh Ukah offers a nice summary of the argument: As a mode of “seeing and doing,” the object of the Pentecostal project or process of conversion, the book argues, is a strategic program of action or “prescriptive apparatus” which aims at four related goals: self-protection, self-mastery, spiritual empowerment and the creation of a certain lifestyle. Discuss!
Faith in Daily Life
Reviewer Naomi Haynes remarks that “Walk down the street in any city in sub-Saharan Africa and the influence of Pentecostal Christianity is unmistakable.” How might we see this?
One of the strongest points of this book, for me, is the extensive quotations form ordinary believers, and from sermons. Tell me about some of the first hand accounts that particularly impressed or perhaps puzzled you, but that made you think.
What do we learn about believers’ use of the Bible?
How have they used other forms of media? Tell me about the video industry
Tell me about ideas of baptism and renewal in the churches Marshall studies.
Tell me about their use of dreams and visions.
Tell me about how believers use military metaphors. What does that suggest about the nature of their faith?
Marshall describes several religious meetings and gatherings. Tell me about a couple of these that really grabbed your attention, which struck you as particularly impressive, as singularly attractive, or even repulsive?
How important are prosperity teachings in these churches? What are the strengths and weaknesses of such churches?
Throughout the book, we repeatedly encounter stories of witchcraft and the occult, Satanic cults and conspiracies. What do such tales tell u8s about the nature of faith in these communities? What role might they play, either in politics or religion? To what extent are they local and African in origin, or do they draw on American and Western ideas?
Gender and Faith
What do we learn about the role of women in these churches?
How does being Born Again affect gender relations and family structures?
“Nigeria is a nation in a permanent state of spiritual warfare” (my words, not hers). Fair comment?
People quoted in the book often refer in passing to devils and demons. How literally do they take a supernatural view of evil? How does that affect their view of everyday life? Of politics?
Tell me about the role of disease and healing in creating and sustaining faith in Nigerian Pentecostalism.
Does the religion she describes have an apocalyptic character? How central is it?
Grace Ihere’s Testimony
Marshall quotes this wonderful text in full (245-64) and refuses to comment on it, because “its radical excess of meaning defies all reduction” (!)
What can we learn from it? Where do we even start approaching it?
The Political Dimension
How does Marshall situate her religious story in a political context? How far did political failures and conflicts underpin or explain the religious change?
Briefly, how political are the “Political spiritualities” of her title?
How can we summarize the history of Nigeria since independence? What have been the major disappointments and disasters? How and why did they fuel religious change?
How has the Pentecostal revolution been driven by ideas about wealth and corruption?
Is Marshall optimistic about the movement’s impact on Nigeria, or not? What do you think of her arguments?
How has the “revolution” affected relations between Christianity and Islam?
Although Marshall does not explore this point in detail, Muslim Nigerians were also subject to similar political strains and stresses in these years. How might that have affected the kinds of religion in their communities? Might modern Islamism be a counterpart to Christian Pentecostalism? (Now there’s an idea for a book!)
The Pentecostal movement was born in North America, from which it was originally exported to Africa. How much of what we see in Nigeria reflects that original American character, and how much draws from African sources and ideas?
What are the main differences that strike us between Christianity in Nigeria and the US?
Like The Missionary’s Curse, this book describes Christianity in a Global South community. What differences and similarities do we see between the two cases? What does that suggest about the concept of “Global South Christianity”?
On a historical note, are there resemblances that we might note to the European Reformation of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries? What and why? Is Nigeria experiencing a Reformation rather than a revolution?
For comparison, see a blog piece I did, based on Ethiopia: Reformations Then and Now.
YOU CAN FIND REVIEWS OF MARSHALL’S BOOK HERE: