Friday, 8 June 2012

“You Must Be Born Again”: Re-Visiting Nigerian Pentecostal Rhetorics (Part 2)


S. ’Jide Komolafe

(Continued from Part 1)

Born-Again Christians have been understood primarily in terms of their most visible behavior, glossolalia, or “speaking in tongues.” Even when attempts are made to understand deeper issue of their theology, attention becomes focused, almost exclusively, on pneumatology, especially Spirit baptism and the gifts of the Spirit. It is only later that so-called “prosperity gospel” became a popular theme of the Born-Again practice. Even then, this has been influenced largely by the American televangelism scandals of the 1980s. After the flush of the oil boom of the 1970s, Nigerian people felt the economic decline of the 1980s. The popularity of prosperity preaching in the USA in Pentecostal circles caught on like wildfire in Nigeria, along with the extremes and scandals it was known for.

Suffice to say that the attempt to define the Born-Again movement in Nigeria has been done “in an operational rather than normative manner” (Kalu 1998:8). While this approach has its value, this approach does not do justice to the distinctive gestalt of Born-Again theology. While not ignoring their practice of glossolalia or their emphasis on Spirit baptism, I will focus on the underlying theological categories, namely, salvation and power theology.

“That You May Be Saved”

Nigerian Born-Agains teach the evangelical doctrine of fallen humanity in need of a Savior. Nevertheless, their understanding of the “good news” of salvation does not stop with the cross. Rather it emphasizes fuller aspects of the Christian life such as health, victory over demonic forces, and liberation from poverty. Salvation, in a word, is holistic. It is objectified as spiritual and material realism and is experienced on both the individual and social levels.

Salvation as “Good News” of the Kingdom

Nigerian Pentecostals believe that the historical Jesus was the result of a divine plan to provide a Mediator between an offended God and a sinful humanity. The evangelicalism which undergirds their theology, therefore, is a simplified message of personal salvation through faith in Jesus Christ. To be “born-again” means the individual acknowledges his or her sinful nature, and shows conviction through repentance and “self-surrender” or “giving your life to Christ.” This is considered the essential feature for accessing divine pardon and developing a relationship with God.

To be “born-again” also means that the believer must reorder his or her life to demonstrate the “new life in Christ.” In other words, true conversion requires the reforming of one’s life to the image or likeness of Christ. Such conformity to the likeness of Christ requires a radical rejection of other forms of religious and social identification. It also implies abandoning old, unacceptable behavior, such as lying, stealing, quarreling, bribery, drinking, smoking, and all forms of sexual immorality. Within the strictures of this personal renewal, converts must restitute by making amends for past sins or pay recompense where necessary. This is to ensure that the process of linear growth towards salvation is tempered with moral responsibility.

This close correlation between religious conversion and its ethical expression is a major emphasis in some Pentecostal churches with affinity to the holiness doctrine. A good example is the Deeper Life Bible Church of William Kumuyi with reputation for holiness and evangelical piety. Kumuyi exemplified the practical need to sustain holiness with testimony of his own restitution to the West African Examinations Council (Kumuyi, “The Good Old Days, n.d., pp.2-3).

The emphasis on personal salvation, notwithstanding, Nigerian Pentecostals reflect a duality of opinions on the pattern of salvation. There are those who reflect the Wesleyan Holiness tradition of a three-stage pattern of regeneration, sanctification, and Spirit baptism. The order and relationship of these three categories continue to represent points of tension with the vast majority who subscribe to the two-stage pattern of salvation. This second group affirms that “conversion” is the first act of grace, which reconciles the “born-again” to God. This experience, according to them, must be followed by a second life-transforming event generally called “the baptism of the Spirit.”

The two-stage pattern of salvation distinguishes between the “converted” (“the born-again”) and those who have, in addition, been “sanctified” (“baptism of the Spirit”). The sanctification experience is understood as a process which continues throughout life and may be lost through breaches of conduct and moral compromises. Again, Pastor Kumuyi of the Deeper Life church exemplifies this by encouraging his followers to be separate from those who may not subscribe to the church’s expositions of biblical teachings on sanctification:

      After God has told us what he will do, He tells us what we should do. We are to come out from among people who will defile us. We should be separate. It is some years since I came across this passage that instructs me to come out from among people that will defile me; from among habits that destroy and defile (“Holiness Made Easy,” 1983:16).

      In spite of the duality of voices on the pattern of salvation, Nigeiran Pentecostals share a common conviction that “conversion is less an event than an ongoing process whose underlying structure is linear and teleological” (Marshall-Fratani 1998:285). On the whole, to be saved requires a new perspective on life. It requires a complete transformation of life that must necessarily break with the past. As Gerard Roelofs has put it, “the reinterpretation of the past, which forms an integral point of conversion, produces new starting points and prospects for the present and future” (1994:219).

Salvation as “Good News” for a Healthy Living

For much of Protestantism, the concern to maintain orthodoxy means that the “good news” of the gospel has been limited to a message of spiritual salvation for the individual. In Pentecostal theology, however, the message of salvation stretches beyond this intellectual religious domain to include practical experiences of salvation in other areas of life. For them the “good news” also involves instances of divine healing as externalized forms of salvation. Such a theological position enables the Born-Again to integrate God’s salvific work in the spirit as well as in the body.

In Born-Again spirituality, the experiences of healing are very personal, dramatically intense, and are usually wide in scope. In its metaphorical and salvific application, healing encompasses the spiritual, physical, demonic and emotional aspects. With copious scriptures such as those that “…wish above all things that you may prosper and be in good health, even as your soul prospers” (3 Jn. 2), Pentecostals operate on the divine desire for good health as a powerful theological motif for their numerous programs of action on healing. It is little wonder that many have devoted extensive teachings and crusades to witness to this physical benefit of being a Born-Again.

They operate through the implementation of healing sessions which promise to enhance the quality of the believer’s life. Apart from the power of corporate prayer, the leader demonstrates his anointing as the “man of God” to heal with or without the laying on of hands. He also demonstrates his democratic access to the throne of God through an express command and expulsion of the indwelling demons from the believer’s life. This is termed “deliverance.”

Healings and miracles can be obtained by believing in the words and authority of the “man of God.” When not physically present at a revival meeting or crusade, the same faith can be exercised through the mediatory role of the television set. All that is required is to simply follow the instructions of the preacher, for it is through him that the anointing which casts out demons and heals the sick is made active. In the hands of the ‘annointed’ electronic media can work its own special miracles (Marshal-Fratani, 1998:295). For Pentecostals, these divine healings authenticate the spoken message. They also serve as a sign for the Spirit’s presence to the believer and a form of witness to the unbeliever.

Except for the fact that Pentecostals rely on the “anointing of the Holy Spirit” rather than the use of objects such as candles and consecrated water, healing and “deliverance” in their theology have the same restorative goals as those of the Aladura. In the context of urban popular language, the Born-Again program has reformulated the theology of divine healing to create a new opportunity for those who are not able to neither afford expensive private medical care nor receive adequate medical services from ill-equipped public health establishments.

Salvation as “Good News” for the Poor

The reinterpretation of the meaning and nature of salvation as expressed in Pentecostal theology may represent a fundamental shift in traditional discourse. Yet, their understanding of salvation as “good news” to the poor lay firmly anchored in Jesus’ ministry to the poor and marginalized. To them, Jesus brought the gospel in reality to what it is already in principle, the “good news.” In the context of the deep economic crisis of the 1980s in Nigeria, mistrust of political ideologies could no longer be merely assumed but needed to be demonstrated by turning to the religious realm. As a result, the radical perception of the gospel as “good news” became a theological innovation. It allowed Pentecostals to provide an alternative source for articulating and providing practical solutions for individual survival and success.

This alternative source of empowerment is not simply a case of false consciousness. Rather, it reconceptualizes the redemptive action of God in the lives of the poor. The liberating rule of God is understood as involving all parts of the created order—persons, human civilization, and even the nonhuman creation. Consequently, the reality of the reign of God in the world is the experience of its transforming power. Within this transformed cosmic order lays a corresponding divine destiny for the people of God. This destiny points towards fulfillment and anything that denies this to people—unemployment, sickness, social and individual problems—is directly opposed to the will of God. 

For Born-Again Christians, the gospel is the liberating word that frees people from the compulsion and control of evil powers, and from the apathy of the empty life. It invites people to open themselves to the undisputed reign of God, and to receive the enabling power of His Spirit to assail every form of contradiction, resistance and antagonism to life’s success. Responding to this invitation gives the believer a new sense of direction and a call to mission in life. Rather than feel guilty or engage in self-pity, the confidence in the divine power infuses practical steps towards risk-taking initiatives and the restructuring of life altogether. The Born-Again seizes the opportunity to improve his or her economic situation by moving from one realm of reality to another.

The new realm of reality conceives the born-again as being destined to have all that is necessary for a full and prosperous life. According to David Oyedepo of Living Faith Church, this prosperity “is a state of well being in your spirit and body. It is the ability to use God’s power to meet every need….In prosperity, you enjoy life of plenty and fulfillment. Prosperity is a state of being successful, it is life on a big scale” (1989:3). Thus, what Born-Again Christianity has done is to set in motion a new thinking by which members can confront and respond to contemporary situation. This response is carried out in a set of contrasts: “from empty to full, from destroyed to prosperous, from humiliated to respected, from depressed to happy, from anguish to peace, and from loneliness to life in the community of the church” (André Corten, 2000:146).

“You Shall Receive Power”

The high incidence of the word “power” in Born-Again theology brings together the traditional construct of a world imbued with ambivalent powers. This framework of thinking is diminished by the mainline churches as both defective and superstitious. But quite to the contrary, the distinguishing element of indigenous ecclesiology is its breadth of variety and crosscurrents on “power theology.” On one hand, “power” in Aladura classical Pentecostalism offers a realistically obtainable freedom from poverty, witchcraft, sorcery, sickness and death; although the techniques employ tend to render this Christian prophylaxis rather cultic. In the emerging Christianity of the Born-Agains, on the other hand, “power” expresses the heart of their mission. It seeks to recover the theology of the Holy Spirit as well as cause to resurface the impact of the charismata in everyday Christian life. 

Confronting the Powers: Born-Agains and Supernatural Forces

Nigerian Born-Agains construct reality with binary opposites and image a tension-ridden world of the good versus the evil. In this way, misery and suffering can be explained, just as the means with which to neutralize abnormal experiences. At the most basic level, this rigid division of the world between the forces of God and those of Satan provides a ready-made ideological premise for explaining the struggle that is happening in the world. In Born-Again theology, the existence of Satan is responsible for the tragic and irreducible predicament of individuals who undergo despair, disease and death. And on the social level it exposes institutional forms of oppression as the ongoing effort of the devil to dehumanize people.

This confrontation of the good and the evil forces flourishes on a basis of traditional spiritual syntax. The traditional Nigerian culture nourishes the operations of the occult for the enhancement of human powers and personalities. The possessors of such powers are the human agents of Satan who can inflict pain and misery at whims. Born-Agains accept the reality and power of the old gods. However, they look back to Christ’s victory on the cross as a reassurance that God’s power is greater and that the devil will be ultimately overcome. As a result, the old gods are demythologized, stripped of their powers and stereotypes, and are demonized as malignant elements that have to be exorcized. The consequence of the baptism in the Holy Spirit for Born-Agains, therefore, equips and inspires them to resist and fight the powers of Satan. This tragic struggle is not a confirmation of disorder but one that demonstrates moral courage and the inevitable presence and power of the Holy Spirit. By seeing themselves as God’s unwavering soldiers, Born-Agains are able to enlist collective insurgency to push forward the decisive termination of Satan and his cronies both in individual and collective experiences.

Power for Victorious Living

The above seems to define Nigerian Born-Again Christians as “turbo-Christians” who constitute human arsenals of God on earth. This is rightly so. But beyond that, “power” also serves to sum up the whole impact of a renewed Christian life. The conversion experience, and the subsequent experience of the Spirit, helps the Born-Again to embrace a rupture from a sinful past, bolstering the resolve to set off on a new path of moral vision and life goals. In the words of Ogbu Kalu, the Born-Again religiosity “starts as an inner odyssey that brings the force of the transcendent into everyday life” (2002:6). It is not surprising, for example, that the “Deeper Life Bible Church” is so named. In the words of founding Pastor William Kumuyi, “the prop and hub of our ministry is holiness of life and conduct…the gospel needs to change our lifestyle deeply and impressively in whatever ways may be appropriate to our context” (1998:249).

The other side of this “inner odyssey” is its characteristic power to enable the Born-Again live an abundant life in spite of the precarious socio-economic and political situations. The experience and power of the Holy Spirit become the believer’s source of life and hope, giving the power to make it through each day. The indwelling Spirit fills the void of emptiness, and turns that loss into a hybrid realm of a “power-packed optimism” to aspire for upward mobility in life. Consequently, the inward gaze of the Born-Again now beholds everyday realities through the “eyes of the Spirit.” This helps to remove temporal limits of personhood so that the believer reinvents personality as a “new creature” with immeasurable power to accomplish in life (2 Cor. 5:17; Phil. 4:13). Although the “prosperity preachers” have hijacked this truth, Ogbu Kalu is right when he declares that, for most Born-Agains, “prosperity is predicated on the quality of inner life” (2002:7). Those who have prostituted the essence of the gospel for the personal gains of the “prosperity” message constitute the loudest and, unfortunately, the malcontents of Nigerian Pentecostal Christianity.

It is reasonable to summarize that Africa has indeed emerged as a major heartland of global Christianity. Yet our quest must be open to the impulses that have given momentum to the faith on the continent. Christian expressions in Africa are as varied and diverse as the intra-ecclesiastical debates that have preoccupied Western Christianity. One thing that is characteristic of African Christianity, however diversely expressed, is that it emphasizes the experiential character of the Christian faith in contextually appropriate ways. By continuing to respond to the existential questions of those within and outside the church, Africa could very well determine the direction that a relevant church in the world should take.

This is the reorientation that has resulted in the Born-Again model of Christianity. Along with the fact that the story of Nigerian Christianity is one of change, the last couple of decades have witnessed new gains in influence and respectability as a center of remarkable Christian engagement. The determinants of this phenomenon, without doubt, are the new paradigm churches represented by the Born-Again element of the Nigerian church. The allegation of “sheep-stealing” by the mainline denominations makes it an open question whether they represent a “reconfiguration of existing churchgoers or a significant expansion into the unchurched population through effective evangelistic outreach” (Eddie Gibbs, 2000:18). Nevertheless, by using contemporary cultural forms that connect with the experience of broad sectors of Nigerians, these churches are creating a new genre of churches that appeal to people who otherwise would probably be only marginally interested in the church, if at all.

Ironically, the Born-Again paradigm, whose primary appeal was to offer a Christian faith that is “modern” and contextually appropriate, has negatively attracted impressions of a bastardized model of church practice. While Born-Agains have become defensive, claiming instead to bring rehabilitation and hope for the future of the church in Nigeria, the entire edifice of Christian expressions epitomized by the mainline churches, query their adequacy about the future. Either way, a fundamental question that must be asked at the outset is how we are to conceptualize this future? The distinctive contours and boundaries of the future, as of yet, are not fully comprehensible. Yet it is absolutely urgent to envision how the church will face the future in light of the precariousness of today’s Nigeria and of the misgivings about Born-Again Christianity. If we are to learn any lesson from history, it is clear that even though the future may be an extension of the present, it will also be a new alternative, with the possible challenge of superseding the past. It is to this aspect of the Nigerian church that we now turn in the next series.

(Next series, “Beyond Triumphalism: Challenges Facing the Nigerian Church”)

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