A Front-Row Seat to African Faith
Ault has a similar attitude to another area of relative silence in the films, the so-called prosperity gospel. At least some of the appeal of Africa's booming Pentecostal churches lies in teachings that faith reliably produces wealth and health. That teaching is proclaimed in the mass meetings and crusades that are now such a staple of African urban life. One of the best studies of modern African religion, Paul Gifford's Ghana's New Christianity, focuses heavily on prosperity teachers, including Otabil himself.
Ault pays little attention to these themes, chiefly because he is anxious not to let them distract from the main argument. "Doesn't Africa get enough bad press?" All eras of Christian history have thrown up sharks and showmen, "self-aggrandizing abusers," so should we really concentrate so mercilessly on isolated African examples?
Ault also observes that prosperity preachers cover a wide spectrum. Some really try to improve the well-being of their congregations, and at the same time build their communities and nations. In one independent group that the film depicts at length, members learn that God gives prosperity, but in nuanced and practical terms. They "are also coached in good business practices and offered microfinancing for their enterprises." Other observers might treat these matters differently, of course, and their concerns should be addressed in discussions arising from the films.
In any event, no criticism that I could raise detracts in the slightest from the magnificent achievement that these films represent. They are informative, inspiring, and a delight to watch. There really is nothing like them. Now that we have them, there is truly no reason not to experience the astonishing phenomenon that is African Christianity, especially with such a generous and sensitive observer behind the camera.
Philip Jenkins, author of The Next Christendom: The Rise of Global Christianity (Oxford University Press), is distinguished professor of history at Baylor University and codirector for Baylor's program in Historical Studies of Religion.