Pressing On: Pentecostalism and Perseverance – By Anna Strhan

Anna Strhan on Girish Daswani’s Looking Back, Moving Forward

Girish Daswani, Looking Back, Moving Forward: Transformation and Ethical Practice in the Ghanaian Church of Pentecost, University of Toronto Press, 2015, 255pp., $27.95
Girish Daswani, Looking Back, Moving Forward: Transformation and Ethical Practice in the Ghanaian Church of Pentecost, University of Toronto Press, 2015, 255pp., $27.95
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What does it mean to keep going? And what new avenues might be opened up when we focus on perseverance in the study of contemporary Christianities?

Bob Dylan’s Pressing On, written during his evangelical Christian phase, articulates the need for perseverance within the Christian life: Dylan sings about not looking back as he keeps pressing on to “the higher calling of my Lord.” The Bible also contains numerous exhortations to keep going — fighting the good fight, or running the race — while often highlighting the potential dangers of looking back. Jesus warned that “No one having put his hand to the plough, and looking back, is fit for the kingdom of God” (Luke 9: 62), and Lot’s wife, looking back at the city she was leaving behind, was turned into a pillar of salt (Genesis 19). This question of tenacity — of persevering in a particular task — is also of course an existential and ethical question beyond Christianity. It is a theme resonating in the work of Samuel Beckett, for example (the sensibility that “I can’t go on. I’ll go on”), while the philosopher Alain Badiou makes perseverance central to his conception of subjectivity: “a simple imperative of continuation, a principle of tenacity, of obstinacy.”

In my own fieldwork with evangelical congregations in London, this sense of the struggle to keep going was a frequent theme. As one informant put it to me: “The default position for all of us as Christians is drift. We don’t have to do anything to drift; if we don’t do anything, we do drift, but we’ve got to make an effort to keep going, to continue.”

And I saw this sense of struggle often articulated as a point for church members to reflect on collectively, for example when the rector of a conservative evangelical congregation preached in one sermon:

The longer I go on as a Christian, I think the harder I find it . . . I picture a marathon runner approaching the Olympic stadium. I’m rather hoping that when I get into the closing years, as it were, in the stadium, doing the last three laps, the picture of the finishing line will cause me to take fresh heart, and to run with my head up. And I remember the early years of the marathon in one’s twenties and thirties, where the battles were there, but one was full of enthusiasm and energy. I wonder if in the fifties and sixties, a man or woman is running the hard yards through the pain barrier of the wall.

Yet the idea of perseverance has not been a significant focus for scholars of contemporary Christianities. Work on Pentecostalism in particular has been rather more preoccupied with conversion and how conversion creates a sense of “rupture in time” that allows Pentecostalism to be a force for cultural change. Little attention has been paid to the struggle of pressing on.

It is very welcome, therefore, that the question of what it means to keep going after being “born-again” as a Pentecostal Christian is a central theme of Girish Daswani’s Looking Back, Moving Forward: Transformation and Ethical Practice in the Ghanaian Church of Pentecost. At the start of the book we meet Albert Successful, a young man in his early twenties in 2004, in Accra, and member of the Ghanaian Church of Pentecost. Albert spoke about how his conversion to Pentecostalism had changed him, enabling him to escape from some destructive family relationships and encouraging him to migrate to Accra from the area where he was born. By taking the surname “Successful,” he wanted to signal both a break from his past and the promise of future success that his new religious identity offered. Yet, as Daswani describes, Albert found his non-Christian past and relations continuing to haunt his Christian life, connecting him to the world he was trying to leave behind. Prosperity had not come as easily as he had hoped. Therefore he asked, “How do I still live and carry on with such confidence?” Albert is one of Daswani’s key interlocutors, and as we follow his story at points throughout the book, we witness how he responds when prophecies about his success and future travel beyond Ghana fail to materialize, and we see his uncertainties and questions. By the end of the book, Albert’s experience and understanding of his Pentecostal faith have changed over a ten-year period, and we have a sense of how his faith has helped him to survive economic hardship and influenced his responses to the challenges in his life.

The insight Daswani gives us into Albert’s changing sense of identity (as well as its continuities), his concerns, hopes, and aspirations demonstrates how ethnography allows us to see beyond first impressions. Pentecostals are often stereotyped as dogmatically certain of their faith and moral convictions, energetically and enthusiastically committed to the advance of their faith across local, national, and global contexts. Such portraits are perhaps often based on moments when informants may experience and communicate senses of certainty in their faith to others. A one-off engagement with Albert, for example, could perhaps have contributed to such a portrait. But following the lives of Church of Pentecost members over time and tracing their sense of struggle to “keep going,” as Daswani does, opens up more nuanced understandings. It deepens our awareness of how religious groups that place an emphasis on themselves as “different” from those around them and perpetuate a strong sense of religious identity may nevertheless still be intimately connected with and shaped by those forms of life and social relationships from which they desire to be separate.

By using perseverance, struggle, and uncertainty as analytical lenses, we gain particular insight into areas where aspects of Christian thought and practice are in tension with “other” local practices in everyday experience. Indeed, this perspective troubles the notion of “other” as clearly distinct from “Christian,” by revealing how Christians may continue to be shaped by these “other” practices. The evangelicals I studied in London, many of whom worked in fields such as financial services and corporate law, articulated a sense of the city around them as idolatrously worshipping at the altars of sex, money, and the self, and they sought to shape themselves as distinctive from the nonreligious and other religious others around them. Yet at the same time they acknowledged the ways in which they too were shaped by these same moral currents. For Daswani’s informants in Ghana, the break they seek to make is with the past of their pre-conversion lives — turning their back on their relationships with their ancestral spirits, and forms of witchcraft practices — yet this is a struggle in practice.

Daswani describes how one woman, Maoli, had been ill and had not wanted to engage in any form of traditional worship because her Pentecostal faith taught her that this was “of the devil.” Her ongoing suffering, however, encouraged her to reconnect with her ancestors, so that she ended up engaging in both traditional and Christian ritual practices. She concluded that this was not wrong, but rather a means of recognizing her past which enabled her to move forward as a Christian. Her ethical judgment in creating both a sense of nearness and distance from her ancestral spirits, as Daswani suggests, “speaks of the limits of born-again rupture. By satisfying her obligations to her father’s hometown, she was free to worship God through Christianity again.”

Image via Wikimedia Commons.
Image via Wikimedia Commons.

Daswani’s desire to move beyond ideas of “rupture” can be compared with Simon Coleman’s recent suggestion that “pilgrimage” might be a helpful analytical trope for the anthropology of Christianity. The concept of pilgrimage not only opens up understanding of mobility and migration, but, as Coleman suggests, it also shifts our attention away from “core, ‘hard’ ritual practices and towards apparent ritual and aesthetic peripheries,” and the ways in which religious registers “blend with each other and oscillate in and out of focus in people’s lives,” across different times and spaces. In Daswani’s work, we see how particular orientations towards past and present oscillate in the experience of Church of Pentecost members in Ghana over time as the clean break of conversion is difficult to achieve in practice.

When we follow Daswani’s informants to London in the latter part of the book, the spatial registers and topographies of how their faith blends with other aspects of their lives are more brought to the fore. London, for his informants, represents a promised land of opportunity with numerous obstacles en route, not least obtaining a visa and enough money to make the journey. Yet despite the promise of socio-economic opportunities, many Church of Pentecost members experience a drop in their social status on moving to London, having to take jobs that nobody else wants. Daswani cites a church elder who told him: “When I came to this country, I was cleaning all over, but I told myself I would never clean women’s toilets. I was adamant but eventually had to because I was desperate.”

These individuals experience, Daswani argues, a contradiction between their status as economic migrants — inhabiting the peripheries of a highly socio-economically polarized global city — and their identity as Christian evangelists. They have a sense of themselves as called to be moral witnesses in a land they perceive, according to one of the church members, as “the world’s second most ungodly nation” (we don’t learn what the first is). But their hopes that their Christian identity might unite them with other churches in Britain remain largely unfulfilled, and they often struggle to make time for each other and their Christian lives in a busy metropolitan context where they need to work long hours just to get by.

Through showing us how these Ghanaian migrants seek to engage in evangelism in London and their frustrations in this task, Daswani moves us beyond the othering of African churches in London that has shaped media representations in recent years. Instead, by describing the ways in which their religious lives provide a means of responding to experiences of uncertainty, struggle, and economic precarity, Daswani opens up understanding of how individuals make practical judgments on how to live a good life and deal with contradictory values when confronted by experiences of limit and constraint. This contributes not only to the study of contemporary Christianities, but also to debates on global cities. While a body of literature on “global cities” and “world cities” has developed from geography, urban sociology, and anthropology over the past three decades, religion has been a notable lacuna in this literature. Daswani’s work demonstrates the significance of religion in how migrant groups construct and experience particular moral geographies and the modes of reterritorialization, power, powerlessness, and transnational relationalities interwoven within these.

With its vivid ethnography, Looking Back, Moving Forward offers an intimate portrait of the everyday lives of Ghanaian Pentecostals, both in Ghana and in London. It will be enjoyed by anthropologists of Christianity — and I have already set it as a reading for my course — as well as by sociologists, anthropologists, and cultural geographers working on religion, urban life, and migration more broadly. Within each of these fields, the book encourages a deeper engagement with questions of ethical practice and relationality, and how people acknowledge and confront experiences of limitation.

Let me return to the question with which we started: what new avenues might be opened up when we focus on perseverance in the study of contemporary Christianities? It seems to me that Daswani’s questions of perseverance, struggle, and uncertainty perhaps gesture towards the idea that tensions are found within every culture (as well as between them): any individual who adheres to one particular culture will inevitably hold some contradictory beliefs and be divided within themselves by incompatible moral logics and values. The sociologist Georg Simmel suggested that monotheistic forms of religion that encourage an orientation towards a transcendent source of coherence particularly contribute to this sense of fragmentation within the self. The coherence of God becomes an ideal that increases the self-consciousness of divisions within the self in contrast. This can therefore encourage a sense of the importance of working on the self (and, often, on wider society) to resolve these contradictions, while also generating particular experiences of uncertainty and moral struggle. The question of struggle — the struggle to persevere — deepens our understanding of contradictions, tensions, and dissonances. It is perhaps here that we get the best insights into particular religious forms of life and what matters most to individuals who live them.