Reviewing Paul Gifford’s Ghana’s New Christianity.

Kwarlizzle's picture

Preface
Most books have a preface, thus I see nothing wrong with giving my book review a preface too! I am a science major, but I have always been interested in science only insofar as I can relate it to daily social life because I believe strongly that science and sociology (our habits, beliefs, and culture) are inextricably linked, that if it remains abstract, then the science is not worth knowing. Thus is purely scientific classes, like this one, I have great difficulty in grasping the subject. So we all have a different brain structure, so there’s only statistical similarities between humans….what does that mean? What does that mean in the context of human relationships and habits? One marker for me, of how well I understand a topic is how well I am able to explain that phenomenon in terms of my life, or the life of others, or a general trend in sociology. When I read Paul Ghana’s New Christianity: Pentecostalism in a Globalizing African Economy, the final topics we discussed in class as pertaining perception clicked. It all began to make sense. Thus, in keeping with the unique way my brain functions, I have chosen to review a book that has nothing to do with neurobiology for most people but every thing to do with neurobiology for me.


On to Business: Now for the Review
Part 1: Connecting Religion in Ghana to Neurobiology
Gifford begins by noting that there were specific socio-economic differences between the several of the main Pentecostal churches in Ghana (27). He then goes on to show that there is a direct correlation between the preaching content and socio-economic levels in the churches. As you move from the poorest (Salifu’s church) to the richest1, (Otabil’s church), the preachers place less of an emphasis on spirituality than on practicality. And that reminded me of my first neurobiology: similar people have similar brains/similar patterns of thinking; the more we think alike, the more our brains are alike. And science has taught us that ‘like attracts like.’ So it follows that we group ourselves according to how we think, and church is no similar. In groups, ‘groupthink’ is the norm, and our individual I-functions take a backseat in favor of the collective I-function, which are te guiding principles and norms of our groupings. Thus each church’s culture is different based on the kind of people who lead the church and the kind who tend to attend the church. I think this has been my most important neurobiology lesson till date: that I-functions are individual, but that they can also be collective. Collective I-functions form the basis of culture, of our interactions, of our lives, because as we interact daily with the society around us, our individual I-functions often take a backseat to our collective I-functions, in order that harmony may exist.
Criticism and another neurobiology lesson
The only problem I have with Paul Gifford’s book is that it can be misleading at times. Because Mensa Otabil’s church represents a radical difference from most churches in Ghana (in a sense, his church is arguably the most ‘secularized’ church in Ghana), Gifford devotes a whole chapter to him. And while Gifford points out many valuable things about Otabil and his church, I think that as an outsider, someone who is not too familiar with the workings of the church on a daily level, it’s easy to misinterpret certain bits of information and so arrive at an incomplete conclusion2.
He praises Otabil’s social activism, mentioning that ICGC owns a university, and also has a scholarship funds which has educated many people (mostly Muslims), and as well the church supports several charities. What Gifford does not know is that although the church supports the education of several people through its scholarship fund, many people within the church itself, whose contributions go to creating these funds, do not receive any help from the church to further their education, even when they ask for help. Gifford knows that Pastor Otabil rarely asks his church members to ‘sow a seed3’, but what Gifford does not know is that Pastor Otabil regularly invites pastors like Matthew Ashimolowow and Tudor Bismarck, who have several times asked the audience to ‘sow a seed.’ Gifford realizes that Otabil’s church is a wealthy church, but what Gifford fails to realize is that Otabil’s church, just like Salifu’s church (the ‘poorest’ on Gifford’s scale) is constituted by majority of the same people (poor and uneducated)4. When these facts are taken into account, Otabil’s track record loses a lot of its luster. Realizing that Gifford could only paint one kind of picture with his incomplete information – he needs all the pieces to be able to come up with a proper analysis. It is like color-blindness: people who are colorblind don’t have all the wavelengths needed to produce one particular color. So in the end, they see something, but it is not the same picture/color as what someone who has all the information might see. And that is really the only critique I have of Gifford’s book.


In the Grand Scheme of Things: Connecting Gifford’s book to everything else
In my opinion, what Gifford did is exactly what this class doesn’t do. For me it formed a bridge between neurobiology and ‘the real world,’ which for me was immensely helpful. When I can see the concepts I learn in class connected to the real world, I feel that what I am learning is relevant, and that it is useful for thinking about life, for navigating social relationships.
When topics remain detached and intellectual, as they usually are in this class, I flounder very easily – the concepts remain abstract in my mind. That was the one failing of this class for me.


Conclusion: A task well done
Religion is a serious matter with Ghanaians. We are raised in a culture that doesn’t question authority or the people to whom it’s delegated. We don’t question our chiefs, or the chief’s spokesperson; we don’t question our parents, or the caretaker; we don’t question our teachers, or the student prefects. They are in charge, they know best. We certainly do not question God, because we know God is omniscient, and powerful, and benevolent, and loving. We DO NOT question God’s stewards, the pastors. But Gifford does. He dared to scrutinize the practices of various churches and pastors, and does so by applying strict observational techniques. In so-doing, he has uncovered patterns and trends that we Ghanaians don’t recognize. He’s in effect, stepped outside our collective I-function, and examined the situation for himself, and made his conclusions from his evidence. I thoroughly enjoyed reading the book and having my assumptions challenged.


Works Cited:
Gifford, Paul. Ghana's New Christianity: Pentecostalism in a Globalizing African Economy. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 2004. Print.

1 It is debatable that Otabil’s church, ICGC, is the richest of the Pentecostal churches, but that argument is overlooked in this review.
2 I was a member of ICGC for 5 years, and so feel a bit qualified to make this assertion.
3 ‘Sowing a seed’ is when a congregation is asked to voluntarily donate various sums of money to the church as a sign of faith that God will provide for their needs.
4 70% of the population of Ghana live on less than $2 a day, and most of the remainder are working class, so even if Otabil’s church is ‘one of the richest’ its base is still largely poor.
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Works Cited:
Gifford, Paul. Ghana's New Christianity: Pentecostalism in a Globalizing African Economy. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 2004. Print.

1 It is debatable that Otabil’s church, ICGC, is the richest of the Pentecostal churches, but that argument is overlooked in this review.
2 I was a member of ICGC for 5 years, and so feel a bit qualified to make this assertion.
3 ‘Sowing a seed’ is when a congregation is asked to voluntarily donate various sums of money to the church as a sign of faith that God will provide for their needs.
4 70% of the population of Ghana live on less than $2 a day, and most of the remainder are working class, so even if Otabil’s church is ‘one of the richest’ its base is still largely poor.
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Comments

jpfeiffer's picture

Similar Brains

The idea that similar people have similar brains and thus similar thought patterns seems quite obvious but it is something that isn't discussed much. This reminded me of the cliche statement, "The apple doesn't fall far from the tree". I guess now this statement takes on more depth as we see that people who are related by family, for example mother and daughter can often share some of the same thoughts about certain things. This also led me to think about such events that occur daily throughout the world. I know,  it probably sounds a bit off topic and perhaps extreme, but if similar people have similar patterns of thinking is it true the people that commit ridiculously horrid crimes such as murder share a similar brain/brain function? I mean, most people would never think about committing such an act, but perhaps the people that don't constitute the majority share a brain in which these acts are programmed as being acceptable?

Jessica Watkins's picture

It's important to make the

It's important to make the distinction between individual I-functions "taking a back seat" and those functions coming together to create a collective I-function. In fact, can't we say that these two assertions are the same? When similar individual I-functions ("like minds") come together, it is only a matter of time before the individual functions morph into a collective I-function.  This collective function can be thought of as an I-function if the group to which it belongs is considered a single being.  A single being has a single mindset, an individual I-function, whereas a more motley group can be considered to be made up of many individual functions. In the end, the creation of a collective function might be akin to the I-function "taking a back seat" only in that the individual I-functions no longer stand out. However, this does not mean they are vital, the main composition, of the collective. The individual function may be in the back seat but it is still leaning forward, tugging on its seatbelt, and shouting out important directions.

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