Between faith and fraud: Christianity as (and beyond) stereotype in contemporary African realism

Vortrag von Ruth S. Wenske

In this paper I compare representations of Christianity in two recent novels by African authors, Abi Da’s The Girl With the Louding Voice (2020) and Yaa Gyasi’s Transcendent Kingdom (2020). I ask how the two texts, that otherwise differ in their geographical and thematic frameworks, both combine two seemingly contradictory moral standpoints: on the one hand, both texts portray Christian faith as a source of values and comfort for the books’ coming-of-age protagonists, and at the same time, both texts show the negative stereotypes associated with Christianity – and particularly charismatic movements – by representing fraud and hypocrisy in institutional churchesIn this regard, the two novels join a growing body of literary works critique the negative aspects of the exponential power churches and pastors have over people’s lives following the “unprecedented growth of Pentecostal Christianity among popular and elite urban sectors in Africa” (269), per Achille Mbembe. My focus is on the aesthetic devices that the two novels employ in representing Christianity to avoid collapsing its problematic aspects into a ‘single story’, arguing that both texts reconcile thcontradiction between Christianity as faith and Christianity as fraud through a similar emphasis on unknowability. Thus, rather than approaching representations of Christianity as a mutually exclusive choice between exposing problems and perpetuating stereotypes, I ask how Christianity functions as a metanarrative that leverages its inherent ontological unknowability to reflect on ambiguous slippages between text and contextThis, I argueinvites us to rethink stereotypes through the tension between known and unknown, between subjective and objective, and between scientized and experiential modes of knowing.  

Ruth S. Wenske is a postdoctoral researcher at the Martin Buber Society of Fellows and head of the Africa Unit at the Truman Research Institute at the Hebrew University, whose main research area is contemporary African realism.