What can Christians in the West learn from the Masowe Apostles? Much can be gleaned from a remarkably insightful book, Dr Matthew Engelke’s A Problem of Presence: Beyond Scripture in an African Church (University of California Press, 2007).
Not long ago on this blog, I reviewed Dr Isabel Mukonyora’s book about the Masowe Apostles, an African Christian movement with its origins in Zimbabwe. That post has prompted some discussion on this blog about varieties of practice within the movement, and how the Masowe Apostles fit into the wider Christian story.
Some of the debaters are themselves practicing Masowe Apostles, so I have found their perspectives and passion interesting and valuable. Although I have conducted fieldwork on religion in Zimbabwe, my only knowledge of the Masowe Apostles is from secondary sources like these books by Engelke and Mukonyora.
Dr Engelke’s work focuses on the Masowe we Chishanu Church, or the Friday Masowe Church, so-called because it holds its services on Fridays. Engelke is preoccupied with the way that the Friday apostolics shun the Bible, relying rather on receiving the ‘Word of God live and direct from the Holy Spirit’ (p. 3). He quotes a 1999 sermon by the Masowe prophet Madzibaba Godfrey Nzira, who said (p. 2),
‘Here … we don’t talk of Bibles. What is the Bible to me? Having it is just trouble. Look, why would you read it? It gets old. Look again. After keeping it for some time it falls apart, the pages come out. And then you can take it and use it as toilet paper until it’s finished. We don’t talk Bible-talk here. We have true Bibles here.’
Dr Engelke goes on to argue that the Masowe Apostles’ distrust of the Bible is rooted in a ‘terror of the text’ which is both theological and political. Theologically, the terror is a fear of material things, physical objects like the Bible, getting in the way of communion with God. Politically, the terror is linked to the Bible’s role in European colonisation and brutalisation, summed up by the Friday apostolics’ maxim: ‘the Bible is a record of what Europeans want others to know’ (p. 7).
Dr Engelke’s research was conducted over a seven year period, ending in 1999, just before Zimbabwe’s political situation began to plummet precipitously. The Juranifiri Santa congregation in Chitungwiza, south of Harare, was his main research site. At that time, Nzira was a leading prophet there.
The book is an academic historical ethnography, and a very good one – for it Dr Engelke has been awarded the Victor Turner Prize in Ethnographic Writing from the Society for Humanistic Anthropology, as well as the Clifford Geertz Prize from the Society for the Anthropology of Religion.
It includes a substantial discussion of the career of Johane Masowe, and how the Friday Message was adapted and adopted after his death (chapters 2 & 3). Here, Dr Engelke raises questions about the role of ‘prophets’ among the Friday apostolics. He observes that prophets can be considered mediums for communicating the ‘live and direct’ faith, or that they may ‘generate the dangers that a live and direct faith is supposed to dispel’ (p. 136), namely constructing messages and practices that are harmful to the faithful.
I am especially intrigued by what is Dr Engelke’s most original (and most academic) argument: that the Friday apostolic approach to the Bible is akin to liberal Protestantism in the way it deals with ‘the problem of presence.’ Engelke defines the problem of presence as,
‘how a religious subject defines and claims to construct a relationship with the divine through the investment of authority and meaning in certain words, actions and objects’ (p. 9).
For him, this problem of presence is bound up with what he calls,
‘a core paradox of Christian thought, the simultaneous presence and absence of God’ (p. 9).
Ricoeur and Hegel are central to Engelke’s articulation of this paradox. In other words, Christ’s one-time incarnated presence in the world has been replaced by His absence. That absence may be bridged in various degrees (depending on your brand of Christianity) through the felt intercession of the Holy Spirit, the Eucharist, a Quaker-style inner light, an apparition, a pilgrimage, the experience of a miracle, the Bible, and so on (see p. 15).
For Engelke, the beliefs and practices of Friday apostolics – especially their dismissal of the Bible as a book of stale and irrelevant tales from an ancient land – are a deep engagement with the presence/absence God paradox.
Although Dr Engelke’s argument is fairly academic and sophisticated, it should be of interest to general readers – not just Zimbabweans or people involved in the Friday apostolics.
I think that when he links the Friday apostolics to liberal Protestantism, Dr Engelke is onto something big that is crucial in many versions of Christianity around the world. In the West, this paradox is becoming increasingly prominent among post-modern Christians whose primary experience of God seems to be grappling with His absence.
For example, the presence/absence paradox has been articulated in a slightly different way by a post-modern philosopher from this island, Dr Peter Rollins. A section in his recent collection of parables, The Orthodox Heretic, is titled:
Stating what is perhaps too obvious, this can be read: ‘God is now here’ or ‘God is nowhere.’
The Friday apostolics – meeting in the desolate wilderness areas of Zimbabwe in their long white robes – are literally and figuratively thousands of miles away from the post-modern Christians of the West, drowning their doubts in their own versions of the Christian wilderness (think the pub meetings organised by Rollins and Ikon in Belfast or Dave Tomlinson in the UK).
Can these very different kinds of Christians learn something from their mutual explorations of Christianity, and their efforts to live authentically?