2016-06-30
Filmmaker James Ault's 1987 documentary, "Born Again," examined a fundamentalist church in Worcester, Mass. His follow-up book "Spirit and Flesh" provided a first-person account of his relationship with the Worcester church. His latest documentary focuses on Christianity in Africa, where he filmed it. "Toward a New Christianity: Stories of African Christians in Ghana and Zimbabwe" (working title) features all-night prayer meetings, healing services, ceremonial dances and interviews with prominent African church leaders. Ault spoke with Beliefnet recently about these vibrant churches--and how they are influencing Christianity in the United States.

What should Western Christians know about African Christianity? What are surprising things you discovered in making this documentary?

When people note the explosion of Christianity in Africa-that the number of churches in Ghana has been doubling every 12 years, that there are more Episcopalians in Nigeria than there are in England and the U.S. combined--they think this is a result of missionary work, missionaries from the U.S. or Europe.

They aren't playing a key role in this at all. It's been self-sustaining for generations now, to the point where Africans are assuming leadership positions in the world church and in this country. The president of the World Council of Churches is a Kenyan. The president of the largest theological school in the U.S., Trinity Evangelical Divinity School outside Chicago, is from the Ivory Coast. One of the pastors we filmed in Zimbabwe came to Atlanta, Georgia to study at ITC. He now is chair of the evangelism committee of a huge African-American United Methodist church, a very charismatic church, showing them new ways of doing things.

So African Christians are already having an influence on Christianity in the U.S.?

Yes. On one street in the Bronx, there's a string of Ghanaian congregations, for example.

We filmed in a Presbyterian church in Ghana, a new church with vigorous lay leadership. It had grown largely through its deliverance ministry.

Meaning expelling demons?

Yes, recognizing demonic sources of all problems in life--problems in your marriage, not getting a job. You can go to a prayer camp, for example, which was part of this movement of deliverance ministries. These are independent ministries you'll see on the outskirts of Akra, the capital of Ghana--four or five thousand people gathered for six hours on a Saturday. They'll ask for different categories of spiritual problems, like spiritual marriage: "anyone suffering from spiritual marriage," meaning a spirit has married you and that is blocking your relationship with your spouse or keeping you from getting married. You're fighting with your spouse or you're separate.

A hundred people will come forward with this problem, and be prayed over and sung to.

What other problems lead people to seek out deliverance ministries?

Unemployment, business problems, family problems, distrust. We filmed a Presbyterian church's deliverance ministry. People go and meet with a counselor for a half hour, talking about where the sources of this spiritual problem might be coming from. Maybe they have a jealous relative, or someone who had hatred towards them in their family, whose store they might work in as an employee, that was one case where she was stealing things. She told the minister this and had come for deliverance.

These spirits can be manipulated by other people. That's the power of witchcraft--you could say the power of ill will let loose in the community--but it's conceived of as a movement of spirit. They're invisible, subliminal.

This way of dealing with human conflict is endemic to the village world. When Salem, Mass. was a village, there were these same kinds of things--witchcraft trials.

Are there ever witch trials in Africa?

There are all sorts of witchcraft accusations, and it's dealt with as a reality among Christians.

That is one of the main things that would be hard to come to terms with, among Western educated people-that the spirit world is active in many ways and can be manipulated by people.

A young woman who just graduated from secondary school, she's not getting a job, she has a nervous breakdown, she has family problems. Her uncle takes her to a traditional healer who diagnoses that a relative has placed a curse on her life. So they pray in the Methodist church she's part of. They meet to exorcise her of that spirit, claiming the power of Christ and the Holy Spirit, which reign supreme above all those, have more power.

In terms of the influence of African Christianity on the U.S., do you think this emphasis on deliverance and spirits and demons--and even witchcraft--will pop up more in Western churches?

I think it is and will continue to. I was talking in Kalamazoo, Michigan, and a pastor there has visited Uganda a couple times and brings Ugandans over and wants to help them get their deliverance ministry going. The Presbyterian church we filmed in Ghana was lay-led, and most of the lay leaders who started this church were secondary school teachers in science. They were the intelligentsia of this provincial capital. One of them was invited to visit several of these Ghanaian Presbyterian churches in the Bronx to get their deliverance ministry off on the right foot.

If an American walked into one of the churches in Africa you filmed on a Sunday, what would they see and hear that they would recognize, and what would be unfamiliar?

A lot of the liturgy [would be familiar], if it were done in English (which would not be typical). There would be classic hymns they would recognize. Everyone would come in a line and dance forward at the offering. They're there for three hours--the service is a lot longer [than in America]. There's more music, and dance as a spiritual discipline.

Are there verses from the Bible that are in the forefront there?

They have a different set of emphases, scripturally. Some, like the older independent churches, use the Old Testament more. They take comfort partly in the fact that polygamy is a reality in the Old Testament. They continue that traditional practice.

How is polygamy addressed? Are African Christians OK with it?

The old independent churches in the rural areas practice it and find it legitimated in the Old Testament. Many of the Protestant African leaders in the mission-founded churches and new Pentecostal churches are totally against it and see it as a heathen practice.

Are they giving pulpit-pounding sermons against polygamy?

No, they are more indirect. There's ambivalence about seeing those people as Christians. The new Pentecostal churches, generally found among more urbane people, tend to write off all those independent churches as non-Christian. Polygamy's one of the things they find totally unacceptable.

But it's not something that is railed against or preached against. Many of them will have relatives out in the countryside who are much more traditional, for whom that's more acceptable. It's not something that's become such a divisive issue. They tend to let it rest, or laugh it off, like any point of tension that's just there and you can't do anything about it.

Having been there, what did you think of how polygamy plays out in real life? Here in the States, you don't really see it.

In the independent church, Zion Apostolic Church, where we filmed, we filmed in a polygamous household. The senior wife was the real love of this bishop. She is a midwife and a prophet in the church. They couldn't have children for 5, maybe 8 years. She recruited a wife from her family.

She recruited the wife? Does that often happen?

Yes, I would think this would be more typical than not. Marriage assumes a different form and romantic love and sex have different meanings when you move into that world. It's not the same as we imagine here.

For one thing, people are involved in their extended families so much. Women have their women's world--it's not just one-on-one with husband and wife. That's not where the action is or what's life all about. Wherever extended family ties are strong, the kind of feminism that emerged among an urban middle-class in the industrial world doesn't emerge and has trouble taking root.

Going back to polygamy, the senior wife--the midwife/prophet--recruits three other wives--two are relatives and one was a friend. The youngest was in an abusive marriage before and was out of that. This prophet-midwife inquired whether she'd be willing to be the youngest wife. She comes under the authority of the elders, the senior wives, especially the midwife-prophet, who she'll do domestic things for--go get water, which is a mile walk, make tea, and help out.

We filmed her and her kids playing as people would come for healing.

Another issue for Christians in Africa is AIDS. How are churches addressing it?

The country that reduced its rate of HIV most was Uganda. The president was concerned about his fighting forces, men out in the field getting infected by casual sexual encounters.

He worked through the churches. They didn't hand out condoms, they preached against it on moral grounds. I believe part of it was preaching abstinence.

I would see in local neighborhood cells-sections they were called in the Methodist church-neighborhood groups that would meet once a week and would pack someone's living room. In them, people were solving the problem of orphans with AIDS, helping that grandmother who's old and should be being taken care of by her sons and daughters, some have died and have left their little kids. She's trying to take care of them. They're all trying to help this grandmother out.

What do African Christians think of Muslims, Hindus, and other non-Christians? I know there's tension in Nigeria. Was that a problem where you filmed? Not in Ghana. People were living in harmony and peace, sometimes Muslims and Christians in the same family. I've heard the same is true in Senegal where a solid majority of the citizens are Muslim.

What else should we expect to hear from African Christianity? What should we be aware of that the newspapers aren't telling us? It's so vibrant and vital, its force will be felt throughout the world and in American society through our immigrant communities and through their relationships with churches of the African diaspora, which would include African-American, West Indian, and Puerto Rican. It will connect with Pentecostalism and with folk religion, including fundamentalism, that sees the spirit world as very active in material life.

African Christians will be more traditionally minded about gender and sexuality issues. Look what happened with the Episcopal church.

Do you anticipate that will happen more and more with other denominations? It will depend on how those denominations relate to those Africans. African Christians aren't polarized into liberals and conservatives on family issues. They're all conservative and haven't experienced their traditionalism being threatened. They don't fight with each other about such issues. That could open up possibilities. Conflicts over family values are much more germane to white Americans than there are the African Christians, African-Americans, or Latinos. They all can help us transcend the boxes we get into.

Do you have any worries about how African and Western Christians will get along as the two worlds grow closer?

If we reject that view of the world that allows for spirits causing this, that and the other thing, and look down on it as backward and beyond the pale, and don't have respect for the people who have that view, we'll be putting ourselves on the other side of the fence-not as friends. A colleague told me that the Anglican church once sent a priest out from England to preach in a church in Nigeria. He preached that the story of the loaves and fishes at the Sermon on the Mount should be seen not as a miracle, but as demonstrating the power of community. The congregation received it politely but then wrote officials back in England, "next time send us a Christian."

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