Pentecostalism

Insights from Africa and the African Diaspora

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Clifton R. Clarke
  • Eugene, OR: 
    Cascade Books
    , May
     2018.
     210 pages.
     $26.00.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9781532640834.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Clifton R. Clarke’s Pentecostalism: Insights from Africa and the African Diaspora grapples with the theme of Pentecostal Christianity’s “explosion” in Africa over the last fifty years. The author seeks to illuminate the elements which contributed to this success story, and highlights the role of relatedness between the Christian God and the “concrete realities of everyday life” (34), together with Pentecostalism’s ability to provide “a means by which Africans could sever loyalty from ancestor spirits and family totems without fear of recrimination” (20). The book’s stated aim is to develop an “African Pentecostal” theological method which is attuned to “the African religiocultural context.” 

The collection of nine essays that comprise the book cover a wide range of topics around this central theme. From the development of the author’s “Call and Response” theory as “the characteristic epistemological mode of an African universe in which everything is interconnected” (2), to a critical discussion of the works of three African Pentecostal leaders’s understanding of “the meaning and function of the anointing” (79), and from proposing a “theology of religious dialogue” as an approach to the “acrimonious relationship between Christian and Muslims in Nigeria” (chapter 6), to an attempt to “bring into dialogue” Pan-Africanism and African Pentecostalism “in order to explore whether African Pentecostalism can assist in the efforts of a Pan-African political ideology” (127), this book provides a diverse thematic approach to the study of Pentecostalism in Africa.

Although the nine chapters are tied together by common theoretical threads—such as Pentecostalism’s ability to fill the “Christological vacuum” left by Western missionary work (65)—they also stand independently (many were previously published as journal articles), which often creates repetitions that could have been avoided; for example, the lyrics of the song by Uche (27, 48) and the definitions of Pentecostalism and African Pentecostalism (xiv, 129). Furthermore, the discussion would have been enriched if the author had engaged more substantially with such authors as Ruth Marshall and Birgit Meyer whose works are only mentioned in passing. An interesting (if not essential) addition to the book would have been a deeper exploration of African Pentecostalism and its connection with Pentecostal Christianity elsewhere. Although Clarke often mentions “Global Pentecostalism” and chapter 8 looks at Pentecostal churches in Britain, the content of the book does not entirely justify its title, since the discussion heavily revolves around Ghanaian and Nigerian examples which stand for “Africa” more broadly. Indeed, the overarching use of “Africa” as an all-embracing concept was problematic. It often seemed to essentialize and omit diversity in the continent (e.g., “African primal imagination” (15), “African psyche” (20), “the language of Africa” (23), and “the African worldview” (58)).

The author’s comparison between “African” and “Western” epistemologies appears polarized between ancient Egypt, on the one hand, and ancient Greece and the Enlightenment on the other. This seemingly arbitrary selection of points in time and space which stand for entire continents and conceptions such as “Africa” and the “West” yields a weak and poorly substantiated comparative narrative of epistemologies (15-20). The leaps from Egyptian to African, and vice-versa, as well as from ancient Greece to European Enlightenment, create narrative gaps and an overly simplistic historical contextualization. Furthermore, the two poles (“Africa” and “West”) are presented as bearing innately distinct and incompatible cosmologies, one representing the “rational” (West) and the other the “experiential” (African) understanding of the world.

Despite his efforts throughout the book, the author does not present a sufficiently supported and compelling account of a uniquely (and unified) African “apprehension of reality” (32). Instead, the few bibliographic (not so much ethnographic) examples seem rather fragmented and incoherent.Moreover, several of the elements of the cosmology and theology he presents as distinctively African or African Pentecostal are largely Christian (33). The author appears to essentialize the very religiosity of “Africans in general and African Pentecostals in particular” when he argues that they “have no knowledge or conception of self or of the world outside of the reality that ‘God is’” (45). A view that re-appears in chapter 7: “the ‘religious’ remains a nonnegotiable fact of African sociopolitical life” (144-45). 

Moreover, and despite Clarke’s call for “a more holistic, unified, and global Pentecostal historiographical contribution” (157), the author insists on his own compartmentalization—for example “Black British Pentecostal,” and “immigrant churches”—and does not attempt to reconcile the tensions between the local, the “African,” the “British,” and the “Global.” The only place where Clarke develops, to some extent, his ideas on the local/global tensions in Pentecostal Christianity is in chapter 9. Here, Clarke examines three “salient and recurring themes” in Ogbu Kalu’s reading of African Christianity in a global context (169). Despite several critical points, the author embraces Kalu’s view of Pentecostalism “as a movement without a center or periphery” (174), and as “God’s eschatological outpouring in space and time” (175). Clarke concludes that while “Pentecostal history and contextual approaches must join the struggle for a world Pentecostal theology” this still needs to be “firmly rooted within local context” (175), but does not convincingly conciliate this apparent antithesis.

A further critical point concerns the tension between the author’s “African Pentecostal theological inquiry” and its understanding of the Bible as “the inspired and authoritative Word of God” on the one hand, and his embrace of the notion that there is “no such thing as a ‘pure message’—supracultural and suprahistorical—” and therefore any attempt at explaining the Christian faith is already an interpretation (6). If “every text is an interpreted text that ‘becomes’ as we engage with it and is not ‘out there’ waiting to be interpreted” (6), to what extent are theologies—or an “African Pentecostal theology” for that matter—shaped by the authority of the biblical text, and to what extent by unique sociocultural contexts? And if only by the latter, as appears to be the author’s contention, can we then speak of an “African Pentecostal theology?”

Overall, and despite the abovementioned critical remarks, this book is worth reading. It adds to the growing literature on Pentecostalism written by “scholar-ministers,” as Clarke describes himself. Furthermore, the author’s experiential account of African Pentecostal theology and practice provides a privileged vantage point for a discussion of Pentecostalism in Africa, and offers a wealth of examples for comparative research on Pentecostalism as a global phenomenon.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Katerina Hatzikidi is Postodctoral Affiliate at the Institute of Social and Cutlural Anthrpology at the University of Oxford, and 2018-2019 Stipendary Fellow at the Institute of Latin American Studies (ILAS) at the University of London.

Date of Review: 
March 18, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Clifton R. Clarke is Associate Dean of African American Church Studies and Associate Professor of Black Church Studies at Fuller Theological Seminary. He is also an Ordained Bishop within the Church of God (Cleveland, TN). He is the author of African Christology and Pentecostal Theology in Africa.

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