Matthew Engelke Book Review: A Problem of Presence – Beyond Scripture in an African Church. What Do the Masowe Apostles and Post-Modern Christians have in Common?

image What can Christians in the West learn from the Masowe Apostles? Much can be gleaned from a remarkably insightful book, Dr Matthew Engelke’s A Problem of Presence: Beyond Scripture in an African Church (University of California Press, 2007).

Not long ago on this blog, I reviewed Dr Isabel Mukonyora’s book about the Masowe Apostles, an African Christian movement with its origins in Zimbabwe. That post has prompted some discussion on this blog about varieties of practice within the movement, and how the Masowe Apostles fit into the wider Christian story.

image Some of the debaters are themselves practicing Masowe Apostles, so I have found their perspectives and passion interesting and valuable. Although I have conducted fieldwork on religion in Zimbabwe, my only knowledge of the Masowe Apostles is from secondary sources like these books by Engelke and Mukonyora.

Dr Engelke’s work focuses on the Masowe we Chishanu Church, or the Friday Masowe Church, so-called because it holds its services on Fridays. Engelke is preoccupied with the way that the Friday apostolics shun the Bible, relying rather on receiving the ‘Word of God live and direct from the Holy Spirit’ (p. 3). He quotes a 1999 sermon by the Masowe prophet Madzibaba Godfrey Nzira, who said (p. 2),

‘Here … we don’t talk of Bibles. What is the Bible to me? Having it is just trouble. Look, why would you read it? It gets old. Look again. After keeping it for some time it falls apart, the pages come out. And then you can take it and use it as toilet paper until it’s finished. We don’t talk Bible-talk here. We have true Bibles here.’

image Dr Engelke goes on to argue that the Masowe Apostles’ distrust of the Bible is rooted in a ‘terror of the text’ which is both theological and political. Theologically, the terror is a fear of material things, physical objects like the Bible, getting in the way of communion with God. Politically, the terror is linked to the Bible’s role in European colonisation and brutalisation, summed up by the Friday apostolics’ maxim: ‘the Bible is a record of what Europeans want others to know’ (p. 7).

Dr Engelke’s research was conducted over a seven year period, ending in 1999, just before Zimbabwe’s political situation began to plummet precipitously. The Juranifiri Santa congregation in Chitungwiza, south of Harare, was his main research site. At that time, Nzira was a leading prophet there.

The book is an academic historical ethnography, and a very good one – for it Dr Engelke has been awarded the Victor Turner Prize in Ethnographic Writing from the Society for Humanistic Anthropology, as well as the Clifford Geertz Prize from the Society for the Anthropology of Religion.

It includes a substantial discussion of the career of Johane Masowe, and how the Friday Message was adapted and adopted after his death (chapters 2 & 3). Here, Dr Engelke raises questions about the role of ‘prophets’ among the Friday apostolics. He observes that prophets can be considered mediums for communicating the ‘live and direct’ faith, or that they may ‘generate the dangers that a live and direct faith is supposed to dispel’ (p. 136), namely constructing messages and practices that are harmful to the faithful.

I am especially intrigued by what is Dr Engelke’s most original (and most academic) argument: that the Friday apostolic approach to the Bible is akin to liberal Protestantism in the way it deals with ‘the problem of presence.’ Engelke defines the problem of presence as,

‘how a religious subject defines and claims to construct a relationship with the divine through the investment of authority and meaning in certain words, actions and objects’ (p. 9).

For him, this problem of presence is bound up with what he calls,

‘a core paradox of Christian thought, the simultaneous presence and absence of God’ (p. 9).

Ricoeur and Hegel are central to Engelke’s articulation of this paradox. In other words, Christ’s one-time incarnated presence in the world has been replaced by His absence. That absence may be bridged in various degrees (depending on your brand of Christianity) through the felt intercession of the Holy Spirit, the Eucharist, a Quaker-style inner light, an apparition, a pilgrimage, the experience of a miracle, the Bible, and so on (see p. 15).

For Engelke, the beliefs and practices of Friday apostolics – especially their dismissal of the Bible as a book of stale and irrelevant tales from an ancient land – are a deep engagement with the presence/absence God paradox.

Although Dr Engelke’s argument is fairly academic and sophisticated, it should be of interest to general readers – not just Zimbabweans or people involved in the Friday apostolics.

I think that when he links the Friday apostolics to liberal Protestantism, Dr Engelke is onto something big that is crucial in many versions of Christianity around the world. In the West, this paradox is becoming increasingly prominent among post-modern Christians whose primary experience of God seems to be grappling with His absence.

image For example, the presence/absence paradox has been articulated in a slightly different way by a post-modern philosopher from this island, Dr Peter Rollins. A section in his recent collection of parables, The Orthodox Heretic, is titled:


Stating what is perhaps too obvious, this can be read: ‘God is now here’ or ‘God is nowhere.’

The Friday apostolics – meeting in the desolate wilderness areas of Zimbabwe in their long white robes – are literally and figuratively thousands of miles away from the post-modern Christians of the West, drowning their doubts in their own versions of the Christian wilderness (think the pub meetings organised by Rollins and Ikon in Belfast or Dave Tomlinson in the UK).

Can these very different kinds of Christians learn something from their mutual explorations of Christianity, and their efforts to live authentically?

6 thoughts on “Matthew Engelke Book Review: A Problem of Presence – Beyond Scripture in an African Church. What Do the Masowe Apostles and Post-Modern Christians have in Common?”

  1. I am lucky to have been involved in Matthew’s researches. I am also a Jowani Masowe weChishanu Apostle. I was a member of the Nzira sect of Jowani Masowe at the time of Matthew’s visists and documentations. The place is Chitungwiza, Mayambara village and the self styled shrine is Jurani Firi Santa.

    Only one observation for the benefit of evryone interested. We of Jowani Masowe believe in the birth and death and ressurection of Jesus Christ. We however believe that Jesus has two comings and that that was his first coming which he did that time in Israel/Palestine/Jerusalem. We hold that Jesus is going to make a second coming and that coming He is coming to Africa and to the black people as a ‘black Jesus’.

    Now, in Jowani Masowe we hold that what we are going through now is a systematic process towards the second coming of Christ. Which we believe the same process was gone through in the Western Whiteman’s land. We have got well prophesied phases of this ‘journey’ towards the second coming of Christ. We have it well recorded orally as is our tradition.

    Therefore the shunning of the holy bible is due to the undersanding that the same long story as documented in the bible is what we are going through ourselves towards the ‘Second Coming’.
    So we also dont believe that Jesus died for us. We believe that Jesus was killed and that it wasnt God’s intention that His Word be persecuted and murdered.
    Our dispensation starts with John the Baptist, (Jowani) anouncing the true African gospel for the Africans, then the whole long process unfolds as a repeat of what happened in the whiteman’s land.

    My many thanks go to the various aouthors tackling this subject of our church. It puts us on the map and makes our religion relevant to the world. Despite our reservations about how the subject is tackled in terms of the truth and / or falsity of some of the expostulations. These efforts by these writers and also special thanks to you Gladys for your interest and pursuance of the subject matter. For that also was prophesied in our church that it will come to pass when the once sacred and hidden religion would be proclaimed from high places and everyone shall get to hear about it.

  2. He observes that prophets can be considered mediums for communicating the ‘live and direct’ faith, or that they may ‘generate the dangers that a live and direct faith is supposed to dispel’ (p. 136), namely constructing messages and practices that are harmful to the faithful.

    On this one I agree with Matthew. As a member of the Jowani Masowe weChishanu, I have found this to be the major reason of the many splits that have happened resulting in numerous groupings and subgroupings prctising the same faith but differing on very minute issues much of which is petty.

    I have personally observed also that you would expect people to be strog faithfuls in a church for the right reason of knowing God and craving to one day be in Heaven.
    Many people I have come across personally gradually slide off the main purpose of the gospel the longer they stay in this religion. Because of too much emphasis on prophecy and faith healing, many people end up frequenting the services and being spirited devouts but for the healing and the healing of their families and prophecies about their lives and whether they shall be successful in life etc.

  3. In the Jowani Masowe weChishanu, We also know that the larger part of the bible is false. Having been doctored by the Romans. And also that some biblical texts are still being discovered and this raises a lot of questions about the authenticity of the Christian bible. We are now aware that their are a lot of texts taken away from the Christian bible so much so that we are left in a position where we can only trust the Holy Spirit as it speaks to us in the present.

    Much of what the Holy Spirit teaches us in our church is the same message as can be found in some parts of the Christian, the Quaran, teh Ethiopian bibles.
    We also take it from that Jesus was the Word and he never used the Christian Bible because their was no need becasue He was Bible in the making. John the Baptist never used the bible, even the Apostles never had any need for the bible because they were with the Bible in their midst, ‘Live and Direct’ if you like. So our position is not a very strange one to the well informed.

    We are not in fear of any Politics. When the first whites came to our land as colonialists and set up a government, One of the first people to take them head-on was Jowani. Jowani told the Apostles to shun whiteman schools, their diptanks for our cattle, their hospitals, not to go to formal employment etc. Jowani told the black population to shun the colonialist government. For all this Jowani was hunted down, detained on several occasions, incacerated, beaten up, and tortured.
    Despite all this, Jowani told them at Marondera court that blacks would get out of the country, arm themselves and come back and fight for their land. This was around the early 40s, and this was prophecy to the armed struggle which then followed starting in the 1960s. He told them that them, the whites, had no more power to kill Him as they had done in their land (when John the Baptist was beheaded)

  4. I would like to get the exact texts that wre added on and the very parts that are said to have been added to make the bible unreliable as a source document of the word of God.

    The new discovery if pointed out i will be happy to read about those.

  5. search for him in the books and write a lot about him but what you write is your own perceptions. He is what he is ! You killed him and still do not believe in him. I know he lives on.He is here and here never went away he is in spirit and can be seen by the clear spirit.Those who learnt about him find the wrong image and worship it but he hears those who want the truth. Walter my son my brother my friend open your eyes and your heart.

  6. @walter makasiya mukuru we sangano achirasika sei hamuna kuchengeta tsananguro dza a NZIRA musi wava tanga sowe chiri china manheru vachiti mangwana handidzokeri kuna Nyatsime…………..

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