Folk Christianity (Part 2)

The Global Phenomenon and its Local Expressions

Christianity originally began in 1st century Roman Palestine as a Jewish renewal movement and quickly spread all over the Roman Empire.

In the 4th century Emperor Constantine I made Christianity the official religion of the Empire. Church and state were yoked together and Christendom was born. Long after the Roman Empire collapsed the Christendom paradigm continued in Europe for several centuries. To be European was to be Christian. It took till the Enlightenment in the 18th century when politics and religion finally began to be uncoupled. However, the cultural and theological legacy of Christendom continued long after. In other words their Christianity was already thoroughly syncretized with European culture and identity. During the colonial expansion of European states they sent missionaries to Christianize the rest of the world. However, the version of Christianity they preached was actually Europeanized. They were spreading a culturally and theologically compromised Christianity. So if their is an erroneous Christian belief shared all over the world in all likelihood it came from Europe. It was European folk Christianity that was exported across the globe.

The issue with identifying the legacy of Christendom is more than accounting for the origins of shared folk beliefs. An important reason why folk Christianity flourished in Europe during the Christendom era is because compromise has been in the DNA of Christendom from the very beginning. No matter how sincere or helpful Constantine was, he still coopted Christianity in aid of his political goals. Christendom, along with its cultural and theological derivatives, has always been willing to compromise for a human agenda unlike robust biblical faith. So the version of Christianity the Europeans sent to the world was inherently susceptible to syncretization. Just as Christendom provided the right conditions for folk Christianity to thrive in the past, so does its global legacy allow for new folk Christianities to thrive.

It was during the post-colonial era that Christianity became dominant in the Majority World. As these countries fashioned their identity without the oversight of Europeans, they recontextualised Christianity to fit their own circumstances. Today Pentecostalism is the dominant form of Christianity in Ghana and many places throughout the Majority World. Pentecostalism owes its phenomenal global success in part to it being the easiest to contextualize. However, as I have said before, there is a thin line between contextualization and syncretization.

When you look at the pioneers of indigenous Pentecostalism in Ghana like Liberian missionary William Wadé Harris and those he inspired like Sampson Oppong and John Swatson, the version of Christianity they promoted was presented as a comparable yet superior alternative to indigenous forms of spiritualism. This outlook persists to this day. For example, most people are very wary of indigenous spiritual entities like gods and witches. Yet they firmly believe the Christian god belongs to the same spiritual landscape but he is far more powerful than all of them put together. Just like with traditional beliefs about local spiritual entities, they also believe you need special spiritual mediators to access the power and favour of the Christian god. It is effectively the same spiritual logic found in traditional religions that is found among believers. So when you look at the worldview of the average Ghanaian Christian, it is essentially the traditional religious worldview that has been superficially Christianized.

5% of Ghanaians actually practice traditional religions (2010 census.) While they are a very small minority, the continued presence of these polytheists indicates their beliefs have a place in modern Ghanaian society which on paper overwhelmingly consists of strict monotheists (71% Christian and 18% Muslim.) Traditional priests and shamans are highly visible, adopting the techniques of televangelists as well as utilising mass media and social media to gain clients. Allegedly, some of their clients are Charismatic preachers who wish to acquire supernatural power to do miracles. Ironically, traditional priests have been forced to evolve because of competition from Christian prophets who offer identical services and dominate the spiritual marketplace. There is practically no difference between a “powerful” prophet and local shaman. As such it is not unusual for a Christian to visit a fetish priest.

As I have already said, most Ghanaians believe local deities are potent. It is this worldview that keeps fetish shrines in business. Just as the institutional church sustains the Christian part of folk Christianity, the shrine sustains the folk elements. I therefore think the average Ghanaian is not really a monotheist but a monolater, that is, they acknowledge the existence of multiple gods but they tend to worship only one gold, which is usually the Christian god. Multiple spiritual entities permeate and influence the course of daily life but the one with ultimate authority and therefore deserves regular devotion is the Christian god. Ghanaian folk Christianity is monolatrous which is a central feature with important religious parallels that we will explore in the next instalment.

⇐Part 1

Part 3⇒

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