A Front-Row Seat to African Faith
We also learn the very different boundaries that divide denominations in African contexts. Decades ago, scholars coined the term "African Independent Church" to characterize new prophetic groups grounded in local traditions. Today, though, Methodists, Presbyterians, and Catholics are all completely independent, and their worship and church music proclaim them unquestionably African. If viewers should take away one point from the series, says Ault, it is that "Christianity's explosive growth in Africa depends upon the powerful and inexorable process of believers' rooting their faith more authentically in their own cultures."
Let me stress a point about music, one that Ault brings out expertly. I wonder whether any era of church history—even the Protestant Reformation, with its profusion of hymns and psalm settings—has been so immersed in music and song as contemporary Africa. Groups both formal and informal break into hymns and spiritual songs with little prompting. Believers' daily lives are saturated with songs of God and faith.
Across the denominational frontiers, too, we see consistent fascination with ministries of deliverance and spiritual warfare, whether "mainline" or Pentecostal. Repeatedly, believers turn to their churches for help with problems that we might frame in social or family, rather than explicitly spiritual, terms—unemployment, substance abuse, and family stresses. While churches supply the material help they can—often with startling generosity—at least part of their response involves spiritual relief, with deliverance and exorcism. Believers understand curses to be routine and frequent obstacles to health and harmony.
Exorcism episodes appear so regularly in the films that we begin to take them for granted. For many American viewers, the shock is not seeing an exorcism in its own right, but realizing that the participants are pleasant, smart, and quite ordinary church members whose company we had been enjoying just minutes before. And they're … Presbyterians? As Ault says, starkly, "You can't be a minister and not heal."
Beyond Politics and Prosperity
Ault makes no claim to be offering a comprehensive account of Christianity in the specific countries he visits, and certainly not in Africa as a whole. He does not address some topics in church life that concern many American Christians, such as attitudes toward homosexuality. Nor does he touch on relations with Islam, a matter of lively concern to Ghanaian Christians.
I asked Ault about a couple of issues that the films treat lightly. One involves politics in Zimbabwe, which for 30 years has been in the hands of a ruthless despotism that has devastated civil society and extinguished any semblance of a functioning economy.
Obviously, Ault did not want his subjects discussing political topics that could get them into trouble with the regime's thugs. But he also reminded me that in the context of the revolutionary growth of Christianity in black Africa, our justified worries about political repression can easily become "the tail that wagged the dog." Certainly even well-informed Westerners who turn to mainstream media to learn about Zimbabwe are likely to know far more about the Mugabe regime than about the extraordinary growth of the church that has occurred through it all.