It is a moving sight to behold. Thousands of people simultaneously praying in unison, spitting out words as bullets in a rapid-fire mode, heads shaking violently, muscles and nerves taut in deployment, and all are enveloped in air thick with dust and humidity. The ground quakes as they enthusiastically stamp their feet on the floor. Young men and women are rapidly punching the air with clenched fists and angrily wagging their fingers at the devil. And flesh, aided by rivulets of hot sweat, holds on tightly to fabric. Bodies, broken bodies, hungry bodies, rich bodies, old bodies, young bodies, sway toward one another. Worship is a running splash of bodies and words—flung and scattered among four corners like broken mask in the square. This na prayer; this is the aesthetics of talking to God in African Pentecostal gathering. Prayer is a dynamo of excess energy leaping like flames in a dry-season burning bush and heading straight from earth to the throne room of God. But are our seminaries preparing students for this ministry?
The Pentecostal aesthetics of prayer is an irruption of sensibilities, sensory-motor skills, practical wisdom, and deep emotions for conveying everyday felt needs to the heavens and bridging the gap between the visible and invisible realms. Prayer is oral theology, biblical texts, ritual practices, and spontaneous and heady spirituality carried by and articulated through the body. Prayer—the embodiment, display, and articulation of ideas, hopes, fears, habits, and tradition— is a veritable portal to enter into an understanding of the preaching experience of African Pentecostalism.
To fully appreciate this point you need to put yourself in large prayer gathering. Now imagine yourself in the center of a Pentecostal-Charismatic worship space with loud music in the background. Bodies are slain and strewn on the floor; bodies trembling, some falling backward, and others being caught in midair by ushers. Women rushing to cover the exposed thighs of other women already fallen to the ground. Men and women are weeping audibly. And a charismatic person is moving in the aisles, touching heads of people, and saying: “Receive the fire of the Holy Ghost.” This is the worship site, where the anointing of the Holy Spirit is powerfully moving through the sprawling congregation. Look again, and a different cinematic scene swirls around you.
Thousands of people have gathered, necks straining forward, ears pecking up, hands outstretched, and eyes trained on the altar. At the center of the altar is a man (woman) with commanding presence, microphone in hand, praying loudly, hyperactive, pacing the platform, shouting “Hallelujah,” and teaching in a narrative style with much creative imagination and great oratorical skills. All segments of this spellbinding performance are interlaced with scriptural verses springing up from deep inside of him (her), which are quickly absorbed by the thick crowd. The man (woman) who is the center of attraction is not delivering a “sermon,” but sharing the Word, giving the message or doing ministration.
The message involves stories of characters and events operating at high symbolic level. In the stories the natural and supernatural forces are commingled to enable human beings perform unimaginable feats. Usually such a message carries a high emotive charge, which overflows to the audience. The preacher bears the burden of the generating, sustaining, and appropriately controlling emotional reaction to his narrative and other disruptions so as not to be diverted from his logic or path of development of a story.
This logic is not always temporal, not that of a sequentially unfolding narrative. It is often a spatial one; the oral narrative is a map in which relations and meanings are tied together by the their placement both in the performance and the virtual landscape he “talks” into being. In this mixing of logics, time and history, and space and lateral connections are made to flow together, without anyone of them occupying a privileged position. This kind of oral literature resists attempts to classify them along any schema such as space-time logic, stylistic criteria, or character of speech act as the performance refuses easy conformity to a single type. What anthropologist Karin Barber says about the Yoruba oral literature is aptly relevant here:
Yoruba oral literature in general appears like a vast stock of verbal materials—themes, formulas, stories, poetic idioms—which can float through the permeable boundaries of all the genres and be incorporated into them to fulfill different functions. Genres freely incorporate parts of other genres, with much sharing and borrowing of material (Karin Barber, “Yoruba Oriki and Deconstructive Criticism.” Research in African Literatures 13, no. 4 (1984): 497-518).
The performance that is called “sharing the Word” demands an enormous amount of mental, physical, and emotional energy. The performer needs helps before and along the way to reach the high needed to rise to the occasion. Music, song, responses from the audience in the form of shouts of hallelujah, moans, tongue-speaking, trembling, prayers, and so on are some of the uplifting impetuses. These constitute the infrastructure of the message and are part of its essential dynamism. They all go into the aesthetic achievement of the ministration and as such an interpretation of Pentecostal message as words only misses an essential part of its narrative performance. In Pentecostal ministration, words, music, song, prayer, and audience participation constitute the intimate interaction between the minister, the audience, and the Holy Spirit that keeps the message moving. Are our seminaries prepared for this kind of energy, engagement, and ministry?
To be continued…