Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Interreligious Understanding?

R. Nkwonta, A Hypocrite
What we got here is an interreligious understanding.
(Cropped Image from Christianity Today)

Christianity Today presents an unusual case of 'interreligious understanding' in a recent article by Laurie Fortunak, "Dual Allegiance: Pastor jailed for using human head in occult ceremony" (August 2008):
Nigerian pastor Benjamin Ojobu and his wife, Patience, were arrested in May for allegedly using a human head in rituals for church members.
Apparently, this isn't so unusual as I first imagined:
The practice of using severed body parts to ensure prosperity -- whether material, emotional, or spiritual -- is not uncommon in West Africa. In a region where voodoo is culturally acceptable, nearly all Christians engage in some form of occult practice, according to some experts.
Benjamin-Lee Hegeman, who previously worked as a missionary in West Africa but now teaches in the Intercultural Studies Department of Houghton College, explains:
"One out of 10 self-named Christians in this region practices only Christianity . . . . [The other 9 self-named Christians also practice traditional religion.] Some people call it syncretism, but it may be more like dual religious allegiance, where Christianity is practiced in the daytime and occult [practice] is done at night. Many of the pastors will preach from the pulpit that this type of thing is wrong, but secretly take part in it at night. There is the mentality, especially in African Initiated Churches, where the prosperity gospel is preached, that you do what you've got to do to get ahead. You rely on the powers available to you. You are hopeful that Christ will help, but when he can't come through on Sunday, you may take out a different insurance policy at night."
That's an interesting distinction between syncretism and dual allegiance. I wonder if dual allegiance is the first stage as a religion becomes embedded in a culture. I would not be surprised to find that early Christianity, in its spread through the Roman Empire, 'converted' a lot of pagans who practiced some form of dual allegiance that over the generations grew into a syncretistic faith. I've often noted syncretism in Medieval Christianity. Even a 'late' work such as the strongly pious story Sir Gawain and the Green Knight mixes Christian beliefs with Celtic paganism and has a Green Knight -- who is, arguably, an elf-man -- standing in god-like judgement over the stumbling Christian Gawain.

I suspect that the developmental process, taking centuries, runs something like this: dual allegiance --> syncretistic religion --> purifying reform. That third stage, by the way, isn't necessarily a positive thing, for it can be horrifyingly violent . . . as was the case in the Protestant Reformation.

But neither is dual allegiance intrinsically positive -- as that severed "human head [used] in rituals for church members" reminds us. Particularly surprising for me was the pastor's nonchalant explanation:
"Yes, I am a man of God. But I do this outside church hours," Ojobu told the paper. "I am both a native doctor and a man of God. This is my personal practice; I do it to complement my church job, and I have been assisting a lot of people with it."
Okay, Pastor Ojobu, you're kind of like a 'medical' missionary . . . but a human head? At least the head was obtained "from a man working at a local cemetery," or so Ojobu claims.

Some African Christians, however, would disagree with the good pastor's nonchalance. The artist Nkwonta, who painted the image above, has titled it A Hypocrite. The uncropped image can be found at the blog site Koranteng's Toli (also at Flickr), maintained by Koranteng Ofosu-Amaah, a West African from Ghana, who notes:
No words are minced in the case of a hypocrite. The overt purpose of this exhortation is the shaming of hypocrites: those who, on the one hand, take up the the cross and bible and, the next day, turn to 'darker' matters shall we say.
Ofosu-Amaah presents other, even more fascinating works of art by Nkwonta, whose paintings include comic-strip-style panels showing Jesus as a championship wrestler and as a soccer star -- two different stories -- defeating the forces of evil.

Now, that's syncretism! . . . of Christianity and the religion of sport. Not quite the sort that I was describing above, but syncretism nonetheless, and more uplifting than severed human heads.

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At 9:13 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"Okay, Pastor Ojobu, you're kind of like a 'medical' missionary . . . but a human head? At least the head was obtained "from a man working at a local cemetery," or so Ojobu claims."

This appears somewhat disturbing even though you seem to "Okay" it. Perhaps all I need is a clarification. Is the man still working at the cemetary?

And though you've not pointed it out, I know that we likely agree on the "process" as Christian holidays took the place of (calendar-wise) pagan holidays. And I rather like thee notion of "church hours."


At 9:32 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

JK, you mean to say that you don't know about the "Headless Hearseman"?

Jeffery Hodges

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At 9:58 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Oh my.

First it was "sufficient grounds" and now this?

Did you phrase this just to catch both me today and Malcolm yesterday?


At 10:19 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Oh, my deadly dragnet engulfs one and all -- not only the mysterious, industrial-strength JK, but Malcolm extra!

Jeffery Hodges

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