Review of Documentary Films ‘African Christianity Rising’

This film review was written for, and first published on, Anthrocybib – The Anthropology of Christianity Bibliography Blog.

African Christianity Rising: Christianity’s Explosive Growth in Africa (Complete Educational Edition). Produced and Directed by James Ault. Northampton, MA: James Ault Productions 2013.

Those who are teaching world Christianities at European institutions may recognize how difficult it can be to give students, grown up in a highly secularized context, a sense of the significance and vibrancy of Christianity in other parts of the world. With the two-part documentary films African Christianity Rising, American filmmaker James Ault has given such teachers a great and very useful resource, providing students – and any other interested audience – with a fascinating insight into the vitality and growth of Christianity in two African countries, Ghana and Zimbabwe.

The result of intensive filming in a variety of churches over two different periods in each country, the films document the life of local church communities, as well as the lives of several of their leaders and members, and explores the ways in which the Christian faith is rooted in African social and cultural contexts. Ault, who has a PhD in Sociology and has specialized in ethnographic and documentary film making, has done an excellent job in providing a nuanced and insightful account on the diverse appropriations and expressions of Christianity in Africa and its role and meaning in people’s lives. Moreover, the interviews with several of the church leaders as well as with prominent African theologian, the late Kwame Bediako, provide insightful commentaries on the history, theology and mission of the churches featured in the films.

Christianity in Africa being so diverse that some academics have proposed to use the plural ‘African Christianities’ (Kollman 2010), it would have been impossible for the films to cover all the different types of Christian churches in the countries concerned. Yet Ault succeeds in his aim to film in a range of church-types generally found on the ground in contemporary Africa, as the films feature both historic mission churches, spiritual or prophet-healing churches, and new Pentecostal-Charismatic churches. The filming for Part One, ‘Stories from Ghana’, was done in 1999 and 2006. The film documents the growth of a newly founded charismatic church, Calvary Hill Christian Ministries, as well as the expansion of a Presbyterian church, Akropong Christ Church. The film further features the Catholic Church, as a historic mission church, the International Central Gospel Church, which is one of the most prominent Pentecostal churches in Accra, and Mount Zion Revival Ministry, a rural spiritual church. These churches are mainly featured by their leaders: former Archbishop Peter Sarpong, Pastor Dr Mensa Otabil, and Prophet Veronika Akafu, respectively. Part Two, ‘Stories from Zimbabwe’, was mainly shot in 2000, with follow up filming being delayed till 2011 because of the tense political climate in the country. This documentary introduces three churches: St James United Methodist Church in Mutare, exemplifying a historic mission church, Victory Tabernacle, which is associated with the Pentecostal Assemblies of Zimbabwe, and the Zion Apostolic Church, as an example of spiritual or prophet-healing church movements in Zimbabwe. Together these accounts reflect the colourful palette of Christianity in contemporary Africa. While contemporary scholarship on Christianity in Africa tends to focus on Pentecostalism, often implicitly or explicitly suggesting that the historic mission churches and the spiritual churches loose members and are in decline, these documentary films illustrate that Christianity in all its varieties is vibrant and vital in sub-Saharan Africa. Sure, there is a Pentecostalization of Christianity taking place, but this is a complex and multi-faceted process not only taking place outside, but also within, denominations that are not originally Pentecostal, and leading to various innovations and diverse expressions of organized and lived Christianity in Africa.

Running throughout the documentaries are two recurrent and related themes: the relationship between Christianity and traditional religion and culture, and the role of ‘deliverance’. As for the first theme, Archbishop Sarpong exemplifies the tradition of what missiologists and African theologians call ‘inculturation’ and anthropologists sometimes ‘acculturation’. As a priest and later as a bishop, he stimulated the introduction of traditional instruments and practices, such as drumming and dancing, in worship, as well as the use of indigenous symbols, in order to bring the Christian faith closer to people in their culture. In his own metaphor, ‘The Europeans brought the church to us in the European garment, the European envelope. … So a time came that we had to dismantle gradually the envelope, the garment, and put on our own garment.’ Sarpong goes even further when he criticizes the attitude of many contemporary Christians who, as the missionaries initially told them, believe that adherents of traditional religion are ‘heathens’. Opposing this view, the Archbishop states that the latter ‘knew God and they respect God more than Christians, believe it or not’. At the other end of the spectrum is Pastor Otabil who warns against the ongoing influences of traditional religion, and states: ‘We must be careful to sift what we can carry with us and what we have to leave behind. Idol worshipping has to be left behind; fetish and witchcraft have to be left behind.’ Instead of inculturation, Otabil’s modern-style Pentecostal megachurch stands for globalisation, leading to a very different type of worship from Sarpong’s Catholic Church – though both are equally enthusiastic and embodied.

The second major theme, of deliverance, however shows that also Pentecostalism presents a localized form of Christianity. Otabil himself explains that ‘almost all Africans believe there is a real spiritual world, and it’s not a philosophical spiritual world, it’s a real tangible operative spiritual world. The challenge is how to remain and be safe in this world.’ Churches have come to address the latter challenge through a variety of practices, broadly referred to as deliverance. The documentary shows that almost all denominations now have some kind of deliverance ministry. As one pastor points out, ‘Some would call it practical Christianity, some spiritual warfare, some counselling. But the whole thing is about getting someone free of something’. The personal stories of church members woven through the material offer clear examples of the personal, family, health and economic problems that people face, the ways these are interpreted in terms of evil spirits and demonic bondages, and how the Christian faith provides people with a solution because it is believed that the power of Jesus is stronger than spirit possession. Ault manages to document these beliefs and practices without exoticizing, rendering African spiritual realities in a very sensible way – something that is by no means a minor achievement!

Since the film does not claim to give a comprehensive account on Christianity in Africa in general, or in the two particular countries, perhaps it is not fair to criticize the documentary for what is missing. Yet on the DVD box, the description of the films opens with the question: ‘What does Christianity’s explosive growth in Africa mean for the church and for the world?’ Of course, such a question is too big to be answered in a documentary film, but at least the documentary should then help people to contemplate this question from different perspectives. It is here that I find African Christianity Rising a bit limited in its scope. With its focus on selected church communities and personal stories, the documentary is less successful in depicting how Christianity in recent decades has become a public religion in both Ghana and Zimbabwe, and in sub-Saharan Africa more generally. True, there are a few shots from the streets in Ghana, where minibuses and market stalls are decorated with Christian slogans such as ‘The Lord’s Enterprise’. We also see how a Charismatic church assists its members to be entrepreneurs, teaching them about doing business ‘from the Bible’. We further learn that Mensa Otabil has become the chaplain of a major Ghanaian bank, and we find a pastor engaging with the local government by praying at the council meeting in the king’s palace. All this clearly illustrates the fluidity between religious, public, economic and political spheres, and the absence of a strictly secular sphere, that is typical of many African societies today. Yet this is not explored in-depth. Also, in all their diversity, the African church leaders and members featured in the films represent very friendly, sympathetic versions of Christianity. We do not see any pastor preaching that AIDS is a punishment from God, that divine blessing will make the true believer prosperous, that gay rights are a sign of the end times, that Islam is a demonic religion, or that President Mugabe rules by the grace of God – to mention just a few topics of public concern in Ghanaian, Zimbabwean and wider African Christian contexts. To really understand what the growth of Christianity in Africa means for the contemporary world, I think that a more critical awareness of how popular forms of Christianity present ‘political spiritualities’ (Marshall 2009) in contemporary African societies is crucial. Of course I do not want to suggest that the preaching of a blatant prosperity gospel, the support of corrupt regimes, and the promotion of homophobia and Islamophobia are representative of African Christianity at large, but they are undoubtedly part of contemporary expressions of Christianity in Africa (and beyond) and are related to the explosive Christian growth on the continent. I also appreciate that Ault might have had good reasons to leave this out and concentrate on grassroots Christianity through local communities and personal narratives. Yet to my personal taste, this renders the films vulnerable to the criticism that, between the lines, they sometimes seem to echo the celebratory language frequently found in missiological circles about the growth of Christianity in Africa and how this is transforming the Church. More explicitly such language is reflected in the rhetoric of reverse mission, presented by prominent figures such as Otabil, Bediako and Zimbabwean Pentecostal bishop Trevor Manhanga who all refer to the ways in which the African Church can contribute to Christian renewal in the West and globally.

Regardless of these critical comments, I deeply appreciate the terrific job that Ault has done in producing such fascinating, informative and insightful material that proves to be such a valuable resource for classroom settings and beyond. I haven’t even mentioned the two extra DVDs included in the educational edition, which present additional material about the churches featured in the two documentary films as well as substantial interview material. The latter include sections from interviews with Peter Sarpong, Mensa Otabil, Kwame Bediako, and Andrew Walls (who was a consultant to Ault in the project). Many books have now been written on Christianity in Africa, but these films make the vitality and diversity of Africa Christianity visible and audible, more than a book can ever do.

References

Kollman, Paul. 2010. ‘Classifying African Christianities: Past, Present and Future: part one’, Journal of Religion in Africa 40/1, 3-32.

Marshall, Ruth. 2009. Political Spiritualities: The Pentecostal Revolution in Nigeria. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press.

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