Author: Haynes, Jeffrey
Date published: January 1, 2012
Christianity and Public Culture in Africa. Edited by Harri Englund. Athens: Ohio University Press, 2011. 240pp. $49.95.
The role of reUgion Ui the pubUc realm in sub-Saharan Africa (henceforward, Africa) is controversial. Ui order to understand the role of reUgion in poUtical and social discourse Ui contemporary Africathat is, as an ideology of attempted hegemonic control, on the one hand, and as a mobiUzmg vehicle of community organization to help fend off that control, on the other-scholars have pointed to the importance of the colonial era. During that period, both Christianity and Islam developed and spread as major regional reUgions, with variable impacts on both poUtics and society. Of particular concern were these reUgions' roles as important sources of popular resistance and mobiUzation of community concerns, which emerged consequential to the social uncertainties attending coloniaUsm and externaUy stimulated modernization.
During the colonial era, a pattern of initial resistance to hegemonic control by Christian Europeans developed over tune Ulto a more complex relationship. Christianity became a multifaceted faith in the colonial era as the initial emphasis of Christian missionaries- on an active, morally concerned God- drew millions of Africans into the mission churches only for them to find that their chief concern- that spiritual forces could be called upon to improve their life chances in the here and now- was not always fully satisfied by the Europeanized versions of Christianity on offer. The consequence was that from the early twentieth century there was an explosive growth of African independent churches, which were often understood to be ciphers for proto-nationalist political movements. However, these churches emerged and grew in numbers in part because of a felt spiritual need and in part because of the perception- linked to indignation at the racial intolerance within the mission churches- that Africans would be happier and more fulfilled in their own churches.
The nature and characteristics of Christianity's public role in contemporary Africa are strongly linked to the multiple changes occasioned by European colonialism. Those very few African countries that did not undergo formal foreign control (Liberia, for example, experienced a kind of Afro-American quasi-colonialism) nevertheless soaked up modernizing influences as though they had. Colonies where a majority of the population were neither Christian nor Muslim during the period of colonial rule (for example, GuineaBissau, Burkina Faso, Sierra Leone) were nevertheless ruled by Europeans; traditional religious activities had to function within their legal jurisdiction, which was influenced strongly by Christianity and Christian values.
The role of mission Christianity as an institutional force during the colonial period was not simply one of undifferentiated support of temporal political power. Whether the colony was settler-dominated or not was significant for an understanding of the relationship between Christian missionaries and colonial authorities. If large numbers of settlers were present (as in Kenya and South Africa), then a complex relationship developed between the settlers, Christian missionaries, and colonial authorities. Where substantive numbers of settlers were absent (as in most of West and west-central Africa and in Uganda), Christian missionaries and the colonial authorities tended to have mutually supportive relationships.
It is necessary to remind readers of these background factors before turning analysis to the current period. Most scholars no longer regard African Pentecostal churches as quasi-political vehicles in a religious guise. What, then, do Pentecostal churches do and why do they do it? Christianity and Public Culture in Africa focuses explicitly- although not exclusively- on Africa's myriad Pentecostal churches. The first myth that the book scotches is that these churches are all alike. The second myth it debunks is that these churches are under the control of Americans. The third myth also dispatched is that African Pentecostal churches are poUtically quietest.
Englund's opening chapter is an exceUent account of the diversity of PentecostaUsm in Africa, highlighting not only denominational diversity but also differing social and public roles. The remainder of the book is divided into three sections: "Missionary and Nationalist Encounters" (three chapters), "Patriarchy and Public Culture" (four chapters), and "A PluraUty of Pentecostal PubUcs" (four chapters). The chapters that comprise the book began IUe as papers presented at an (unnamed/undated) conference held under the auspices of the Cambridge/Africa CoUaborative Research Programme at the University of Cambridge. The book has aU the usual problems of trying to shoehorn often diverse papers into an edited book's necessarily themed focus. I found several chapters to be very interesting indeed and several others to be much less stimulating. The book's theme, "Christianity and PubUc Culture in Africa," is meant to highUght that we should not necessarily think m terms of African PentecostaUsm being poUticaUy quietest. Several of the chapters- for example, those covering Zambia, Kenya, and Ghana- explain that African PentecostaUsm can also have a pubUc, social role that is not necessarily conventionaUy poUtical, for example, Ui relation to health or gender issues. My overaU judgement is that this is a book to dip into rather than necessarily read cover to cover. The chapter foci are diverse, and consistent themes are difficult or impossible to discern. The absence of a concluding chapter, which might have tied things together, also limits the book's thematic integration.
London MetropoUtan University
Advance Access Publication 19 December 2011