Academic journal article Africa

Past Pentecostalism: Notes on Rupture, Realignment, and Everyday Life in Pentecostal and African Independent Churches

Academic journal article Africa

Past Pentecostalism: Notes on Rupture, Realignment, and Everyday Life in Pentecostal and African Independent Churches

Article excerpt


Pentecostal studies has been one of the most vibrant areas of research in Africa for over twenty years, but is it time we started to look past Pentecostalism? Using some of the most important work in this tradition as a point of departure, this article offers both a critique of and supplement to the Pentecostal literature. It focuses in particular on how we should understand the relationship between Pentecostalism and African Independency by pushing the debates on how to frame their oft-shared desire to 'break with the past'. Every rupture is also a realignment and how each is conceptualized and understood is a matter not only of discourse but decisions and dilemmas faced in everyday life.


L'etude du pentecotisme est l'un des domaines de recherche 1es plus dynamiques en Afrique depuis plus de vingt ans, mais n'est-il pas temps de commencer a regarder au-dela du pentecotisme? A partir de travaux comptant parmi les plus importants dans ce domaine, cet article propose a la fois une critique de la litterature pentecotiste et un complement a celle-ci. Il s'interesse notamment a la maniere dont nous devrions comprendre la relation entre pentecotisme et independance africaine en encourageant le debat sur la maniere de concevoir leur desir souvent partage de << rompre avec le passe >>. Chaque rupture est egalement un realignement et la facon de conceptualiser et de comprendre chacune d'elles est une question non seulement de discours, mais egalement de decisions et de dilemmes rencontres dans la vie quotidienne.


One of the major themes in the literature on Pentecostals in Africa is their desire to 'break with the past'. For many such Christians breaking with the past means renouncing one's ancestral spirits, one's extended family, and even, in some cases, one's closest kin. More broadly speaking many Pentecostals also often renounce, and even mock, certain elements of what they refer to as traditional religion and African culture (or custom), which are spoken of as 'backward' or 'primitive', and, in many cases, linked to the Devil. This renunciation is considered necessary because African culture is understood to foster jealousy and envy between people; it is backward because Africans do not work together or support one another and so never 'progress'. Breaking with the past is in part a process of self-reformation in which one is understood to become modern. Indeed, against the negative stereotypes of African culture and the African past, Pentecostals often define themselves as modern--as looking forward, not back, and as thus free from the chains of tradition.

The Pentecostal emphasis on breaking with the past has been very productive for analysts, who have used it to interrogate a host of concepts, most notably the modernity to which Pentecostals often allude. For example, in her work on Ewe Pentecostals in Ghana, Birgit Meyer argues that the break with the past is part of a 'language to deal with the demons which are cast out in the process of modernity's constitution' (1999: 216). Her emphasis on process is important: Meyer does not take for granted what that modernity could or should look like. She is also clear that the relationship between past and future in this Pentecostal language is dynamic. Looking forward always requires looking back, and thus the language of the break, and the past it circumscribes, is a necessary feature of the modernities in question. What we have here is a paradoxical demand of remembering to forget. This demand is complicated by the fact that the language of the break is often both utopian and ambivalent. Breaking with the past as articulated discursively is an impossibility in practice, a fact which is exploited by Pentecostals to express their concerns with modernity's constitution.

I am focusing on Meyer's work because, perhaps more than any other Africanist, she has helped crystallize the importance of rupture for understanding Pentecostalism and its analytical stakes (see especially Meyer 1998, 1999). …

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