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Reviewed by:
  • A Problem of Presence: Beyond Scripture in an African Church
  • Paul Gifford
Matthew Engelke. A Problem of Presence: Beyond Scripture in an African Church. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2007. Anthropology of Christianity series, vol. 2. xv + 304 pp. Map. Illustrations. Notes. References. Index. $21.95. Paper.

This book focuses on an independent church in Zimbabwe (the Masowe weChishanu), stemming from Johane Masowe (John of the Wilderness), who felt himself called in 1932; his followers split, as early as 1934, into Saturday Apostolics and Friday Apostolics. Engelke did in total eighteen months of fieldwork among the Friday group between 1993 and 1999, mainly in Chitungwiza, just thirty kilometers south of Harare.

The most salient characteristic of the Friday Apostolics is their rejection of the Bible, and Engelke uses this as an opportunity to analyze the “problem of presence” in Christianity generally. In fact, it is the whole commitment to materiality that this church rejects—not just the Bible, but also traditional medicines, money, buildings (they are best known for their assembling in open spaces, sowe), organization, indeed all material things. They do not venerate their founder or subsequent prophets; most have no idea what Masowe looked like and don’t care. (Engelke recounts his gaffe in giving his Apostolic friends a copy of the one existent photo of Masowe as a departing present, much to their bemusement.) For them, the instantiation of faith in the religious subject resists what Engelke calls “thingification.” It is interior knowledge or law (mutemo) that is crucial, and it is always endangered by the need to objectify. If objects are the obstacle to developing a “live and direct” faith (the phrase Engelke uses throughout), their repudiation “runs up against its own limits.” Johane himself eventually adopted the Bible (the Saturday Apostolics follow this trajectory). Some writing seems necessary (though without any organizational structures, need for accounting remains minimal). Some branches of the church have built up capital for buildings like clinics. The music that is such a feature of their worship likewise calls for preservation in tapes or DVDs. “Live and direct” language presents its own dangers, as prophets tend to extend their function as mouthpieces of the spirit into more permanent status. And healing, which seems the lynchpin of the church, hasn’t avoided materialization either, as the church uses particular medicines like “pebbles” (muteuro). Engelke concludes, “A commitment to immaterial faith is realized, inasmuch as it can be, through the assertion that some things are more material than others” (247).

All this is handled well, and with considerable insight, drawing on other researchers across a wide spectrum of theoretical concerns. Engelke produces a dramatic twist in the last few pages, when he recounts that just after the completion of his fieldwork, the prophet who formed the main focus of the study was imprisoned for thirty-two years for raping two women who [End Page 213] came to him for healing. Engelke notes that “there is no rule of law in Zimbabwe,” and there is no way of judging the facts of the case—the charges may have been politically inspired. Indeed, whatever the facts, they have little bearing on the issues surrounding immaterial faith (which discounts prophets as much as anything else). This reviewer at times wished that we had been given a few more hard facts; Engelke studiously avoids giving much data on the numbers of adherents or congregations, trajectories of growth or decrease, the church’s class base, examples of services, and precise content of mutemo, and he also avoids relating the church to the socialeconomic-political nightmare that Zimbabwe has become. Nevertheless, on the question of immaterial faith this could hardly be more stimulating.

Paul Gifford
School of Oriental and African Studies
University of London
London, U.K.


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pp. 213-214
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