Charisma and the Place of the Prophet in Our Times – By Girish Daswani

Girish Daswani on Ruy Llera Blanes’ A Prophetic Trajectory

Ruy Llera Blanes, A Prophetic Trajectory: Ideologies of Place, Time and Belonging in an Angolan Religious Movement, Berghahn Books, 2014, 248pp., $90
Ruy Llera Blanes, A Prophetic Trajectory: Ideologies of Place, Time and Belonging in an Angolan Religious Movement, Berghahn Books, 2014, 248pp., $90
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In 2013, T.B. Joshua, the controversial Nigerian prophet and founder of the Synagogue Church of All Nations, visited the Ghanaian branch of his church in Accra. Soon after his visit, specially anointed water was distributed to all those attending. Upon hearing that the blessed water, which some claimed usually cost US$80, was going to be distributed for free, thousands of people filled the church. This unexpectedly large turn-out led to a stampede that killed four and seriously injured thirteen people. Nationwide condemnation of the Nigerian prophet quickly followed. The tragedy drew a moral commentary on the motives of prophets, like Joshua, who accumulated significant wealth and fame by selling “blessings” in the form of commodity items (American magazine Forbes estimated that pastor Joshua was worth up to $15 million). These criticisms were in part theological (“Jesus never sold any of these things”), but included a commentary about the greed of prophets as well as the gullibility of their victims (“People want instant solutions to their problems just like they want instant coffee”). In Ghana and elsewhere in Africa prophets who rise to fame represent a new kind of celebrity. They are not only icons of spiritual power and success, but also an often-evoked public image of potential corruption and deceit. Because of the contradictory roles that they play, prophets provide a fascinating lens through which one can reflect on the ethical landscape of a specific time and place and as well as on people’s aspirations and desires for change.

There is the general idea that there is something special about the prophet: that s/he is extraordinary and can do what others cannot. The sociologist Max Weber provided us with the notion of charismatic authority and with the heuristic means to describe prophets as individuals who are chosen by a supernatural force and not merely appointed by human hands. This representation of a prophet is of a charismatic leader (a potential revolutionary, terrorist, or saint) that arises at times of conflict and stress, someone who questions established norms and who offers a new vision of society. The prophet is the anti-structure that provides hope, but a recognizable hope that people can identify with and cling on to. Weber was quick to add, however, that this hope is a fragile thing, since charismatic leaders have to continue to prove themselves to the people they serve. Should prophets be seen to fail or fall from a certain elevated criteria of ethical conduct, people become suspicious and even condemning of the prophet, as was the case with T.B. Joshua, the prophet “for profit.” If one of the central characteristics of charismatic authority is its ability to affect people on a personal level, another important feature is its inherent instability. It is always open to processes of routinization and available to scrutiny. In other words, prophets cease to have relevance once their followers no longer recognize their spiritual authority. That is why prophets have to always be relevant — or always be made relevant.

Ruy Llera Blanes’s book A Prophetic Trajectory wonderfully reveals and elegantly captures this productive process of making (poiesis) and making relevant. Blanes’s book draws on the biography of the Angolan prophet Simão Toko: his involuntary mobility, his personal suffering, and his followers’ attempts to reclaim and place the prophet in a dignified history and to provide a voice for his continuing charismatic presence. While Toko himself died in 1984, the movement he founded lives on and is today one of the most important religious groups in Angola. The prophet is today a subject of collective remembrance and revision, a product of disparate temporalities (anteriorities, presents, futures) and displacements. Remembering the prophet and his life is mediated through an archive of official documents and the weaving together of personal letters, recollected stories and life histories. These practices of remembering the prophet include strategies of power and the contestation of authoritative claims on his past. Importantly, for his followers, his life is remembered as holding significant meaning and his suffering is described as having specific and even divine reason. In reconstituting the biography of Toko, the man at the spiritual centre of an African church that traversed the borders of the colonial, lusophone, Angolan, Atlantic and postcolonial worlds, Blanes aptly describes how the charismatic authority of the prophet is not necessarily situated in one place, as it is also located here and there and elsewhere. The geo-political quality of these various spatial contexts veils the formation of multiple temporalities and competing desires that become apparent as the book develops.

Early on in the book, Blanes explains how there has been an active process of erasure through which the Tokoist church has been largely “forgotten.” In part he hopes to challenge one-dimensional representations of Simão Toko that have been generated in the media and in academic work and to reframe an otherwise unflattering portrait of the prophet. But this book is also about revealing the internal contestations amongst the Tokoists themselves, who have formed their own productions and readings of the past and of their prophet’s life. Another aim of the book is to challenge a specific notion of ‘modernity” — described as a teleological or linear project — by providing the contested and multiple notions of the prophet’s life that are generated and made present through various acts of remembrance (which can be described as processes of making the past present).

As Blanes argues in the introduction, Toko is someone who re-emerges through specific methods “of memory and revelation.” For example, Toko is described as having “remembered” the church, where an eternally present moment (i.e. the original church of the apostles) provides the repeated basis for elaborations of past and future. Drawing on such a theological concept of remembrance and an understanding of “a prophetic temporality that is mediated by multiple notions of memory, sacrifice and expectation,” Blanes aims to provide a way for “bypassing modernity and redefining its alter ego — tradition.” Although the idea of a break with the past or rupture is crucial for understanding modernity, modernity is also a production that potentially hides different qualities and configurations of time. Every recollection or remembrance of Toko through these various accounts provides the basis for addressing a past and a futurity, as well as continuities, discontinuities and an anticipation of what would have been. The book is written for Tokoists as much as for academics, and is largely concerned with how collective memory within the Tokoist church is simultaneously created, cultivated and contested. However, in describing a political struggle that aims to hold the church together, the book also generates another archive of weaving together contexts, albeit of struggles and contested memories.

The book consists of two sections, Itineraries and Heritages. The biography of Simão Toko covers the two chapters in Itineraries. They provide a throwback to earlier days when African churches were commonly studied through their founders and their theological import. The “biographies” of the leaders of African initiated churches have been in decline in recent years, but what they productively reveal is the dialectical relationship between the church founders, who are the centers of charisma, and all those who fall within their spheres of influence. Such a biography — as an assemblage of disparate historical and ethnographic sources — provides access to the various voices of and the internal struggles that accompany the development of any social-religious movement and its leadership.

The life of the prophet Toko is such an assembled biography, and his life is described as one of continued liminality, in a permanent state of crisis. It is about the inability of a man, chosen by God, to liberate himself from his own worldly conditions. He had faced persecution, trials, displacements and imprisonment and he continued to have faith. Yet public skepticism is inherent to the life of the prophet. As others potentially doubt the adequacy of his faith or valor, these qualities must be continuously recognized through a recollection of signs. The story of Toko has recognizable qualities that overlap with the biographical narratives of other African prophets and religious leaders: he was identified as different from a young age; miraculous events surrounded the prophet as a child; he had spiritual encounters with the divine through dreams, visions and revelations; he underwent a Christian education and missionary influence; there was a transformative event inspired by the descent of the Holy Spirit.

It also encompasses the important narrative of suffering. The metaphor of suffering allows not only the prophet to reconfirm the presence of God within himself, but also his followers to identify with him. It lets them see him through their own suffering and acknowledge him as someone who does not just speak to or listen to God but, ultimately, understands their suffering. Blanes shows how Toko’s suffering extended beyond the personal-political subjectivity of colonial rule and the struggle for independence. It was also brought into being by effective colonial mechanisms of surveillance, domination and control that targeted him specifically, as well as by post-colonial fears of competing leadership within the Angolan nation-state. The narrative of suffering plays an important role in later historical representations of the church. It affiliates the church community’s past with its future development, and empowers members through enhancing their capacity for present and future action. If colonial rule and its accompanying racism were a denial of African claims of universality, Christianity and the ability to be led by the Holy Spirit became ways of embodying that universal ambition on an everyday level.

In the midst of this narrative of suffering, it is important to note that Toko spent much of his time in exile and separated from most of his people. This was highly significant for his ability to sustain his charisma and to transmit this effectively through different technologies of faith-management and hope building. Because of fears that he was propagating an anti-colonial message, Toko spent a large number of his exile years confined to living in two separate lighthouses in and around Angola. In my opinion, the lighthouse serves as an important metaphor for the role that Toko played as a form of resistance, faith and hope. Lighthouses are towers that serve to mark dangerous coastlines and assist in navigating ships, providing them safe entries to harbors by emitting light to warn them of any hazardous reefs. They are also removed from immediate danger, situated on the peripheries of borders, protecting others who may be in the eye of the storm. Toko’s ability to stand apart from (and firm against) colonial accusations and continued persecution, while serving as a technology of divine presence and of hope, helped bring coherence to a world that was changing and, at times, falling apart. Blanes provides a nuanced picture and historical context for how Toko’s religious movement becomes this symbol of hope: hope for an eventual Christian victory in Africa as well as for an Angolan independence from colonial rule. The involuntary and “remote leadership” that the lighthouse provided was key to his ability to lead effectively, further facilitated by letters that Toko wrote his followers who were spread across Angola and the Belgian Congo, another technology of transmitting charismatic authority.

The philosopher Martin Heidegger drew a connection between “technology” as a creative producer of things and what he, at various points, calls the “unconcealment of Being.” In Blanes’s book, such technologies of unconcealment (e.g., through letter writing, prayer, singing) produce a prophetic presence that inadvertently provides hope but also guidelines for the theological embodiment of the church. During Toko’s time away, his messages were transmitted through personalized letters. These were sometimes read out to congregations and also became symbolic statements of legitimacy and expressions of intimacy between him and those who hardly knew him. An ethics of reflection and debate grounded this embodied knowledge and its disciplinary practices. As Blanes explains, “commemorating, singing and praying” became ways of embodying various temporalities and were subsequently learnt by prospective converts in “hymnals, calendars and tabernacles.” Blanes provides his readers with various ethnographic observations that give a vivid sense of how time is organized in the Tokoist church, as well as the ways in which the presence of God is transmitted through certain religious intermediaries. His description of tabernacles, a restricted space in the church that is also embodied in other holy places associated with Toko, provides a fascinating account of how charismatic presence is redistributed beyond the prophet, yet selectively held in specific individuals and within these sacred spaces.

Vates (short for vaticinadores) or “foreseers” have become an established part of the Tokoist church. They are vassals of the Holy Spirit who can see into the past, present, and future and guide the church in the right direction. They resemble the born-again prophets I worked with in Ghana, who are receivers and transmitters of the Holy Spirit, and who receive spiritual power for healing and messages for others through dreams, visions and prophecies. However, as Blanes explains, while vates resemble prophets, they are not prophets. For the Tokoist, it is the prophets of God who descend and work through the vates via the Holy Spirit and in the tabernacles. Different kinds of people can come to embody a spiritual presence that then becomes interpreted either as a particular version of a universal God, one of many gods, or a spirit that wishes to communicate with others through possession. But these different examples are not necessarily commensurable, in that they cannot be compared according to the same standards of evaluation. Let me explain via another example: The nineteenth-century English poet and artist William Blake was prone to having visions and claimed to have seen God peering through the window of his room in Peckham, London, as a child. He would later draw his visions for the astrologer and artist John Varley; these sketches later became part of a collection entitled The Visionary Heads. Blake was Christian and, because of his visions and spiritual insights, criticized many of Christianity’s assumptions in professing a Kierkegaardian faith in Jesus. Christians like Blake are not the same as Tokoist vates or Ghanaian prophets, however, and cannot be compared according to the same criteria of evaluation. Yet their difference does not mean that they cannot speak to each other, for it is important to acknowledge that they share a similar experience of communication that extends beyond the individual and includes a spiritual entity and potentially an observer or translator of the communicative experience.

As is the case in many churches, succession became a problem for the Tokoist fold. Toko did not appoint a successor. Different people struggled to claim leadership, dividing members and creating frictions within families devoted to different leaders. The unfolding story becomes interesting when we are told that in the mid-1990s various people claimed to be in communication with the spirit of Toko himself. Having died in 1984, Toko, the individual and prophet-founder of the church, reappears in life through several mediums. The most prominent of these is Afonso Nunes who (carrying Toko’s message) aimed to reunify the church, to fortify its presence in Angola through a Universal Temple and to expand its influence overseas. One of the results of Nunes’s intervention is the process of “heritagization” experienced within the Tokoist church in Angola. Toko’s reappearance through these different spokespeople signals a “double sacrifice,” according to Blanes, since Toko suffered twice, once while he was alive and again when returning to finish the job he had started. The intervention and competing claims of such mediums were experienced as a welcome blessing by some and as an unwanted haunting by others. Blanes describes how a “double temporality” is created when some Tokoists are accused of not embracing change and others are accused of forgetting Toko’s legacy.

By the end of the book, we leave Angola and find ourselves in Lisbon, Portugal, where the Tokoist diaspora struggles to find a balance between the comfort and security of their Angolan Christian networks and the call to evangelize outside their own community. This is a fascinating chapter on the different Lisbon branches of the church. Blanes beautifully weaves together the difficulties and frustrations of the economic migrant experience with the potentialities that the Christian identities of Tokoist Angolans in Lisbon provide. Rather than merely reiterating the contradictory position that so many African migrants in Europe find themselves in, as caught between universalizing and encapsulated forms of identity, Blanes shows how migration is also productive of a dual process of presence and belonging.

Let me return to T.B. Joshua, the Nigerian prophet with whom I began. The devastating loss of lives caused by the stampede in his church provided a moment of uncertainty about Joshua’s authority as a man of God, and the debates and concerns articulated around Joshua’s methods helped people reflect on the moral imagination of a particular historical moment. Prophets such as Joshua are seen as responding to but also accused of profiting on the religious, economic and political uncertainty that Ghanaian Christians experience at home and abroad. Prophets are ethical characters who provide models for how one ought to live one’s life, while being the subject of multiple discourses and enunciations. They have to continuously prove themselves in relation to other people’s evaluations, which are based on a set of criteria that are not always of the prophet’s own making. When removed from the imagination of ideal types and embedded in social processes, prophets are seen to be not free from institutional constraints, internal contestations and traditional authority. Even as the harbingers of change and hope, the change and hope that they deliver are always recognizable.

One of the strengths of this book is how the topic of charisma is consistently explored through the biographical trajectory of Toko as a prophetic leader. Toko is also made to embody a general dispersal of charisma that is claimed by his followers in competing and conflicting ways. I believe Blanes’s work makes an important contribution to this idea of distributed charisma, even if it is downplayed in the book. His ethnography reveals that charisma is both identifiable and indeterminate since it has various extensions and manifests through different appropriations of the prophet’s life and authority, being turned into a resource and re-appropriated by different people. The one aspect of charisma least explored in the book, but which I believe is central to a prophet’s authority, is the experiential or emotional states through which charisma becomes infectious.

The book can be read as the story of a search for coherence that Toko and his followers are involved in, albeit through competing or alternative forms of temporality and belonging. However, because of this, what is usually associated with the irrational, the incoherent, and the idiosyncratic become sidelined and the role of charisma outside of religious “meaning” is not really addressed. For example, some anthropologists have highlighted how “uncertainty” is an important theme in Christianity (and modernity), where moments of religious doubt present opportunities for Christian subjects to struggle with and to work on themselves, with the goal of rediscovering their faith in God — thus returning subjects to a sense of coherence and “meaning”. However, what potentially gets excluded in such an explanation is the role of non-humans and the intensity of religious experience that later becomes qualified as beliefs. A unified story of modernity is also contested in this book, an admirable position for which great strides are made. Yet as much as Blanes wants to move beyond the modernity bind through an examination of the conflicts in various presentations of time and belonging, the book is as much an attempt to negate modernity as it is about being fixated with its multiple (usually dual) processes and claims. Blanes does not bypass modernity per se as much as reroute it in different ways. If there were one shortcoming of this book, it would be that in addressing a few too many themes and in attempting to invoke a few too many theoretical concepts (and their authors), Blanes sometimes distracts the reader. But what ought to remain, and what does indeed remain for this reader, is the beautiful way in which he carves out temporality and place through the illusive character of charisma in the life of Simão Toko and the Tokoist church.