Worlds of Power: Religious Thought and Political Practice in Africa
By Stephen Ellis and Gerrie Ter Haar
Oxford University Press, 2004, 272 pp.
Ghana's New Christianity: Pentecostalism in a Globalising African Economy
By Paul Gifford
Indiana University Press, 2004, 216 pp.
A religious revival is taking place in sub-Saharan Africa, with Christianity and Islam gaining converts at unprecedented rates and syncretic practices, combining traditional African and Western beliefs, also gaining ground. These two books explore this religious revival from different perspectives, and taken together they provide a striking portrait of religious practice on the continent. The religious revival, they both assert, is related to the region's long-standing economic and political crises: Africans look to religion both to understand and to overcome their current misfortunes. Ellis and Ter Haar define religion as belief in the existence of an invisible spiritual world and the effort to interact with it. Arguing that such belief is widespread in the region, they attempt to show that ideas about the supernatural are regularly manipulated-by the powerful, to justify and buttress their power, and by the weak, to resist and undermine it. The book is at its best when it describes and interprets the recent explosion of accusations of witchcraft and other superstitions in the region and links them to the exercise of political power. Less compelling is the argument that these phenomena are somehow uniquely African.
Gifford's purpose is, more narrowly, to describe and analyze the rise of Pentecostal churches in Accra, the capital of Ghana. He focuses on a handful of the most successful preachers, who have appeared over the course of the last decade and now preach to thousands of people. Despite the same kinds of accusations that are made against them in the United States, these charismatic preachers have built their churches into substantial and quite profitable enterprises. Gifford has attended hundreds of their services and deconstructs their rhetoric and theater with plenty of intriguing examples; he shows that one reason for their success is the sheer entertainment value of services, which are carefully stage-managed and offer music and drama. Another is their discourse, which relentlessly promotes self-help and material success. Can these new churches play a role in helping Ghana overcome its economic crisis? Gifford is skeptical, suggesting that their emphasis on "miracles" negates their rhetoric about the work ethic.