Mark Taylor In Search Of God: Pentecostalism In The Happiest Country On Earth
Recently on November 21, 2020, a group of African scholars and some of their Western and Asian counterparts gathered online to commemorate one of their colleagues, Nimi Wariboko, a Katherine B. Stuart Professor of Christian Ethics at the Andover Newton Theological School, Newton Massachusetts, who is also a philosopher and prolific author. In the course of this conference that I chaired, over 40 paper presentations were delivered around the theme of Pentecostalism in Africa, especially in Nigeria where Nimi Wariboko hails from and has written on.
In his book, titled Nigerian Pentecostalism, he adopts a multidisciplinary approach to studying “how Nigerian Pentecostals conceive of and engage with a spirit filled world.” It is a book that sought to determine the spirituality of the alluring movement in Nigeria especially in relation to issues of social ethics, political and economic development, culture and identity. And this is only one of several other works on faith and spirituality.
On this particular occasion for the recognition of Nimi Wariboko’s scholarly contribution to the field of religious philosophy, the keynote speaker, Professor Mark Lewis Taylor (Maxwell M. Upson Professor of Theology and Culture, Princeton Theological Seminary at Princeton University), in his address titled “When I Survey Nimi Wariboko’s Work,” spoke extensively on his interactions with Wariboko and his works, particularly his yet to be published articles on Pentecostalism and the postcolonial state. He emphasizes Wariboko’s “turning to history in a new way,” which he explained was not a turn away or an abandonment of theory, but an application of history defined as a chronological flow of time, “perhaps traced by the turning of different calendars” and how humans organize themselves in their time as groups: family, organizations, states and nations. In turning to history, Wariboko, he says, demonstrates “the destructive and unjust concentration of time that afflicts people in the post colony, especially in the post colonies of Sub-Saharan Africa,” a situation which understandably is not limited to that part of Africa alone but is peculiar to other colonized regions of the world.
Discussing the topic, “Production of Violence in Nigeria,” he draws attention to Wariboko’s religious hymnic language exemplified in his use of rhetoric devices drawn from a well-known hymn, “When I Survey the Cross.” He walks the audience through Wariboko’s interrogation of African society and his identification of a merging of the sacred with violence. This merging, he explains, is demonstrated “across the landscape of various ruinous zones,” not only the zones of death in Nigeria, but also of the genocides in Rwanda. He remarks on Wariboko’s reliance on the ethnographer J.C. Stones’ book Dancing in the Glory of Monsters in accounting for the fractious details of violence carried out in the Congo and various places in Africa, which is reminiscent of other killing fields in the world.
Nimi Wariboko, in what Mark Taylor terms “the second turning,” is said to have taken up a form of “sacred history,” where the former (Wariboko), concerned with how “sacred excesses” stokes the flames of violence in a concentrated history, explains that it (the sacred) has functioned at its worst in the post-colony. The excessiveness of the sacred is said to be demonstrated in how it breaks the important connection between the possible and impossible, and that it has not only mixed with the circular to constitute a breach, but it also “increases disorder, constitutes disorder, and often legitimizing it.”
In a tone described as one mixed with rage and lament, Wariboko, Taylor admonishes us not to “fold into ourselves, into our beings this great obscenity, not in this century where everyday thousands of children die from malnutrition and disease.” And that “in this horror we should never let the world give only a passing glance at our dead children within its exuberant and indifferent celebration of abundance of life.” In other words, we cannot submit in the face of the enormity and seeming impossibility of the situation, neither can we identify with the world’s act of indifference.
Professor Taylor, in the second part of his keynote address, confronts what he calls the “crises incredible.” This, he explains, are represented in Wariboko’s articles as the postcolonial incredible and the Pentecostal incredible. The “incredible,” a term Wariboko is said to have developed from Tejumola Olaniyan’s Arrest the Music, connotes that which being too improbable, astonishing, and extraordinary cannot be believed. This “incredible” being a combination of the postcolonial and Pentecostal transcends the simple breach represented by any sacred excesses on their own. Described as “an outlandish infraction of normality and its limits,” this “incredible” breaks down all that maintains stability, normalcy and intelligibility in society; it engenders and symbolizes crises. These outlandish infractions, in turn, “destroy history as an extension of delicately related events of shared living and flourishing.”
When examining them individually, the postcolonial incredible is said to seize and destroy the normality of life. This, it achieves, by taking aim at any sense of the common; “common life is destroyed and exists if at all, only in an informalized way.” In Africa—with Nigeria as one case in point—sixty-years of a culture of corruption and violence is one representation of this postcolonial incredible. In other parts of the continent, the “zones of death” found in sites in Rwanda and Congo also demonstrate this postcolonial incredible. Hence the postcolonial incredible is described as the outlandish breakage of the normal and of the common.
Pentecostalism in Nigeria (“the happiest country in the world”) which has its origins in “efforts to break free from Western missionary control,” symbolized by the earlier Aladura movement, has thrived since it began in the early twentieth century. Currently boasting of the largest Pentecostal congregations and Charismatic assemblies in Africa, Nigeria spots—most noticeably—three such large faith entities, or mega churches as they are commonly called: the “Redeemed Christian Church of God” headed by Enoch Adeboye; the “Winner’s Chapel” headed by David Oyedepo; and the “Deeper Life” ministries led by William Kumuyi. These mega churches, which have branches around the world, are popular for their messages of hope and prosperity. And this begs the question: Why have the messages of hope and prosperity resonated so loudly with the Nigerian population so much that these churches have grown to such sizes with huge influence and wealth?
Religion has been described as “the opium of the people.” Opium, the highly addictive substance that grants brief reprieve to the ailing minds that seek its lulling effects to escape the bleakness that is their reality. Bleakness in the happiest country in the world, you might ask? For a response to this question, we turn to the man of the hour, Nimi Wariboko, who, when fielding questions during the now-famed conference, makes two salient points: Nigeria is home to impossible possibilities and to live in Nigeria is to be “subjected to the trauma of government.” Considering these sixty years of corruption, violence, underdevelopment and a general state of uncertainty that Wariboko posits is an outcome of the postcolonial incredible exacerbated by the Pentecostal incredible—sacred excesses— are Nigerians simply, in Fela’s words, “suffering and smiling” as a hopeless bunch or are we born with an innate quality to remain happy even in the worst conditions?
Nimi Wariboko fielding questions on the issue of the creative union of the postcolonial incredible with the Pentecostal to produce “an outlandish infraction of normality and its limits,” loosely quotes the German-born American political philosopher, Hannah Arendt, as saying that promise provides “islands in an ocean of uncertainty.” The message of Pentecostalism in Nigeria is one of hope and prosperity founded in faith and the belief in the “promise” of things unseen; in the power of the Holy Spirit to circumvent natural law and work signs and wonders (miracles) through his servants, prophets, pastors and bishops.
To say Nigerians that live in an “ocean of uncertainty” is to state the obvious. For an average Nigerian, the only constant appears to be stifling uncertainty, such as whether or not you will graduate in the stipulated time, get a job, or your salary will be paid this month! The scenarios are numerous. In Nigeria, to travel to and back from a considerable distance in one piece is a miracle, which is a level of uncertainty that creates a vacuum that yearns for hope or a “promise” of hope. Who do they look to? The representatives of a benevolent power on earth, God? But what do they really get? I’ll adopt your guesses here.
I see Pentecostalism in “the happiest country” on earth as moving towards a comedy of performance. It pushes society, yes, but it pushes it to the brink. The islands of promise are beginning to submerge under a myriad of unrelenting contradictions. Nigeria, in search of redemption from the postcolonial incredible turning to Pentecostalism, has obviously not escaped any fate; suspended it, maybe. The pressure from the unholy union of the crises incredible(s) is pushing at society’s seams. The frequency of protests around the world—Nigeria and its ENDSARS—is one testament to the growing inability of Pentecostalism to deliver on the “promise.” In all, Nimi Wariboko admonishes that we do not submit to the bleakness of the situation and that the source of change cannot be predicted.