Skip to Main Content
Have library access? Log in through your library
A Problem of Presence

A Problem of Presence: Beyond Scripture in an African Church

Matthew Engelke
Copyright Date: 2007
Edition: 1
Pages: 321
  • Cite this Item
  • Book Info
    A Problem of Presence
    Book Description:

    The Friday Masowe apostolics of Zimbabwe refer to themselves as “the Christians who don’t read the Bible.” They claim they do not need the Bible because they receive the Word of God “live and direct” from the Holy Spirit. In this insightful and sensitive historical ethnography, Matthew Engelke documents how this rejection of scripture speaks to longstanding concerns within Christianity over mediation and authority. The Bible, of course, has been a key medium through which Christians have recognized God’s presence. But the apostolics perceive scripture as an unnecessary, even dangerous, mediator. For them, the materiality of the Bible marks a distance from the divine and prohibits the realization of a live and direct faith. Situating the Masowe case within a broad comparative framework, Engelke shows how their rejection of textual authority poses a problem of presence—which is to say, how the religious subject defines, and claims to construct, a relationship with the spiritual world through the semiotic potentials of language, actions, and objects. Written in a lively and accessible style, A Problem of Presence makes important contributions to the anthropology of Christianity, the history of religions in Africa, semiotics, and material culture studies.

    eISBN: 978-0-520-94004-8
    Subjects: Anthropology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
    (pp. ix-x)
    (pp. xi-xiv)
  5. Map of Zimbabwe
    (pp. xv-xvi)
  6. Introduction
    (pp. 1-45)

    ON THE OUTSKIRTS OF CHITUNGWIZA, the city of townships just south of Zimbabwe’s capital, Harare, there is a place called Juranifiri Santa (the “place of healing”) where people gather to pray. The heart of Juranifiri Santa is a clearing of ground amid rubber and msasa trees. On any given weekend, when attendance at the prayer site is highest, up to a thousand people might be gathered. Wearing white robes that stretch to their ankles, the congregants look like a cloud that has settled to earth. The men and women sit separately, facing one another in half circles. Some of these...

  7. ONE Up in Smoke: Humility, Humiliation, and the Christian Book
    (pp. 46-78)

    IN OCTOBER 1999 I INTERVIEWED Gaylord Kambarami, general secretary of the Bible Society of Zimbabwe (BSZ), an ecumenical organization that traces its roots to the British and Foreign Bible Society, established in 1804. Many churches operating in Zimbabwe, including several independent churches, support the BSZ. Kambarami estimates that since 1980 the BSZ has distributed over three million copies of Scripture, or about one Bible for every four Zimbabweans alive today. Based on these figures alone and discounting distribution by individual churches (to say nothing of copies handed down from one generation to the next), there should be at least one...

  8. TWO The Early Days of Johane Masowe
    (pp. 79-108)

    IN 1932 SHONIWA PETER MASEDZA was working for a shoemaker near Salisbury. Shoniwa had come from his home in Makoni, near the border with Portuguese East Africa, in the late 1920s. He had held a number of odd jobs in and around the capital: driving wagons, working as a “garden boy,” apprenticing with a carpenter. Just after starting with the shoemaker, sometime around May 1932, Shoniwa fell ill, suffering from “severe pains in the head.” He lost his speech for four months and was “unable to walk about.” During his sickness, he studied the Bible “continuously.” He dreamed that he...

  9. THREE The Question of Leadership: The Friday Message after Johane
    (pp. 109-137)

    “I HAVE NO IDEA WHAT Johane Masowe looked like,” said Madzimai Tsitsi. Lazarus and I had been interviewing Tsitsi and her husband, Madzibaba Zechariah, for about an hour when she hit on this point. We had been asking the couple about the church’s history, something we routinely did in our interviews and conversations.Church historyis a term the apostolics often use. Not every apostolic claims to know much about it, but most profess an interest in it. Congregants learn about church history from the people who have been around—the “old-timers” in a congregation, as they call them. Old-timers...

  10. FOUR Mutemo in Three Portraits
    (pp. 138-170)

    THE PREVIOUS TWO CHAPTERS ARE held together with minimum reference to the content of the Friday message. In chapter 2 I aimed to make Shoniwa-Johane’s transformation legible, and while I tried to highlight those aspects of his preaching that have become the bedrock of a Friday cosmology, we were left with only protean forms. Social scientific clarity is done no favor when we consider that the Friday message is motivated by a specific commitment to immateriality. Nothing and no one should be set in bedrock, and so the message cannot be presented as “fixed.” In chapter 3 the shape of...

  11. FIVE Listening for the True Bible: Live and Direct Language, Part I
    (pp. 171-199)

    I WAS TOLD THAT BEING an apostolic is a “full-time thing.” Th is saying picks up on the commitment Shimmer highlighted in his conversion narrative: one cannot be half Christian and half outside. An apostolic should maintain his or her commitment at all times and in all places. The language of commitment is indeed a common feature of the apostolics’ discourse (if not always practice). One of their worries, for example, is the “Sunday Christian”—someone who seems to forget what the Word entails during the rest of the week. The concept of mutemo plays a crucial role in the...

  12. SIX Singing and the Metaphysics of Sound: Live and Direct Language, Part II
    (pp. 200-223)

    SINCE SHONIWA-JOHANE’S DESCENT FROM the Marimba hill, singing has been central to the makeup of apostolic Christianity. Johane’s position as a prophet was marked by music well before the articulation of a distinct Friday or Saturday message. It was the singing, in fact, as much as what Johane said, that often got the nascent apostolics into trouble. In a report to the chief native commissioner in Salisbury, the native commissioner at Goromonzi wrote that in the last months of 1934 “singing, shouting and dancing could be heard nightly” from the summit of a hill in the Chindamora Reserve. Local missionaries...

  13. SEVEN The Substance of Healing
    (pp. 224-243)

    TO WHAT EXTENT CAN RELIGION be given over to a project of immateriality? In 2003 the Victoria and Albert Museum in London mounted an exhibition,Gothic: Art for England,that provided something of an answer. One of the pieces in the show was a defaced church panel. Sometime in the sixteenth century the image on the panel had been scratched out. A verse from the Bible had been written in its place. Th e panel was an artifact of the Reformation; the Word had been used to destroy the evidence of Catholic idolatry. But if some English iconoclast had indeed...

  14. Conclusion
    (pp. 244-252)

    WERE THEY EVER TO MEET, it is doubtful that Gaylord Kambarami would think much of Godfrey Nzira’s Christianity. Kambarami’s understanding of Christianity emerges out of a tradition in which “the Bible, the whole Bible, and nothing but the Bible” is a clarion call. Kambarami wants to put a Bible in the hands of every Zimbabwean. The image that his goal brings to mind is animated by the palpable sense that Christianity can be quantified; the more Bibles there are, the more Christianity there is. For Kambarami, the Bible is not a representation but a presence. When Zimbabweans are joined together...

  15. NOTES
    (pp. 253-266)
    (pp. 267-290)
  17. INDEX
    (pp. 291-304)