Review of Paul Gifford’s Christianity, Development and Modernity in Africa

Review of Paul Gifford, Christianity, Development and Modernity in Africa. London: Hurst & Company, 2015. viii + 187 pp. £18.99 (paperback). ISBN 9781849044776.

Published in African Affairs (2016).
Image result for Christianity, Development and Modernity in AfricaThis book offers a comparative account of two forms of Christianity in Africa, Pentecostalism and Catholicism, and their respective ‘public effects’. Gifford feels that the diversity between both ‘is unacknowledged in the usual studies of African Christianity, … [while] these differences have significant bearing on questions of development and modernity’ (6). Chapter 1 – ‘The Issues’ – briefly introduces the major themes. It also attends to the methodological approach, which as Gifford points out is built on ‘personal experience’ (7), having researched various branches of African Christianity for three decades and building a personal archive over that period.

In the following eight chapters, the comparison of the two Christianities unfolds. Chapter 2, ‘Enchanted Christianity’, argues that Africa is characterized by an enchanted religious imagination and that Pentecostalism continues the enchanted worldview of traditional religions: it is concerned with explaining, predicting and controlling events in the world and in people’s lives, believed to be caused by spiritual forces. Gifford discusses two examples illustrating this argument. The first is Mountain of Fire and Miracle Ministries (MFM), founded by Daniel Olukoya in Lagos in 1989 – a church deeply concerned with spiritual warfare, using prayer as ‘the principal means of thwarting the evil forced arrayed against us and reclaiming our true destiny’ (27-28). Chapter 3, ‘Victory’, presents the second case study: Living Faith Church Worldwide, also known as Winners’ Chapel, founded by David Oyedepo in Lagos in 1983. This church has a strong emphasis on material prosperity. Drawing on these two examples, Chapter 4 – ‘Pentecostalism and Modernity’ – presents a more general account. Gifford identifies six ‘registers of victorious living’, distinguishing the different ways in which Christianity is linked to success and wealth: 1) Motivation 2) Entrepreneurship 3) Practical skills 4) the Faith Gospel 5) the ‘anointing’ of the pastor 6) defeating the spirits blocking one’s advance. Several scholars have highlighted the contribution that Pentecostalism makes to development, often explaining this with reference to Weber’s thesis of the Protestant ethic and the spirit of capitalism. Gifford is much more sceptical and argues that such a positive assessment only takes into account the first three registers, while the latter three have become much more prominent in African Pentecostal circles. Discussing the socio-economic effects of Pentecostal beliefs in spiritual warfare and prosperity, he argues that they undermine social capital, diminish personal agency, and discount scientific rationality. In Gifford’s assessment this form of Christianity does not advance modernity or contribute to development; it is simply ‘dysfunctional’ (67).

In Chapter 5 (‘Global Catholicism’), Gifford introduces Catholicism as another global form of Christianity. The chapter briefly outlines developments in Catholicism in the West, such as disenchantment – the shift away from a spirit-pervaded cosmos – and internal secularization – with the Catholic Church becoming ‘a super-NGO, the supreme example of global civil society’ (80). Focusing on Africa, Chapter 6 (‘Catholicism and Development) highlights the major contribution of the Catholic Church in many African countries to education and health care. With funding coming increasingly from secular bodies such as the EU, the UN, USAIDS, Gifford suggests that there is a shifting balance in African Catholic activities from evangelisation to development and relief, and he concludes that this form of Christianity ‘brings not so much redemption as development’ (103). In Chapter 7 – ‘Enchanted Catholicism’ – Gifford acknowledges that many African Catholics live in an enchanted world and find ways of coping with that within their religion; however, he says that these expressions of enchanted Catholicism are banned or circumscribed by the church hierarchy. Chapter 8 then argues that like the bishops, also African Catholic theologians ‘entirely ignore the religious imagination’ of Africans, and is characterized by an ‘internal secularisation’ (144).

Drawing all of this to a conclusion, in Chapter 9 Gifford concludes that there are two distinct religious visions on the continent: one is ‘the enchanted religious imagination of so many Africans’, catered for by Pentecostalism, and the other is the ‘increasingly internally secularised Christianity of the Catholic professionals’ (151). He continues by opposing the relevance of the notion of ‘multiple modernities’ to understand African realities and by arguing that the enchanted imagination of Pentecostalism is incompatible with the functional rationality that he considers the essence of modernity.

Based on decades of experience, observation and reflection, Gifford’s book offers a general, but therefore also generalizing, account of two broad forms of Christianity in Africa, and presents an original assessment of their socio-public effects. However original, this assessment is not entirely rigorous. Due to the conflation of modernity and modernization, and the essentialist notion of modernity, the argument lacks the nuance and sophistication found in broader debates on both Pentecostalism and modernity in Africa. Furthermore, the selected evidence is interpreted within, and used to support, a simple binary scheme of ‘enchantment’ versus ‘development’, while many Pentecostal churches today are actually involved in development activities such as education and health care, and many Catholics (both lay people and officials) may attend the Catholic Church not just to get access to developmental resources but to meet their spiritual needs as well. Gifford draws attention to an important aspect of contemporary African Christianities, but the relation between enchantment, modernity and development might be more complex and ambiguous than this book does acknowledge.

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