Religion Today

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Film and the Christianization of Nigeria

Let’s start this column with a quiz question. Which film center produced more commercial movies in 2005: Hollywood (USA), Bollywood (India), or Nollywood (Nigeria)? If you guessed Hollywood, guess again. America produced only 611 commercial films in 2005. Ok, Bollywood then. Nope. Although India outshone the USA, producing 964 films, they produced less than half the output of Nollywood, which released over 2000 films. (Hollywood comes out on top when the criteria is gross sales income.)

Admittedly, the Nigerian film industry operates on different principles from those of America and India. Most films are low-budget, often costing less than $30,000 to make. They are shot in ten days or less by hand-held video cameras, and distributed directly to DVD without ever seeing the light (or is it the “dark”?) of a movie theater. Most films made in Nigeria sell for about $3 and rent for 50 cents.

What is interesting about Nigerian films is that one of the most popular plot lines features the clash of religions, old and new. The key characters are villains who use aspects of traditional African religions, often characterized as witchcraft or voodoo, to work their wicked ways. In the end, however, Christianity triumphs by redeeming the victims and vanquishing the evil doers, although they may be forgiven upon conversion to Christianity. Make no mistake, this plot-line may be camp and hackneyed, but it is usually played down and dirty for all it is worth.

Although The Guardian (London) recently characterized this genre as the “voodoo horror flick,” this really describes the films for the benefit of Western film viewers. Within Nigeria itself, these films echo the historical transformation of southern Nigeria from its traditional religions to Christianity. While Islam entered northern Nigeria as early as the eleventh century, Christianity arrived in the south with the Portuguese in the 1500s and the British in the 1700s, along with the slave trade. During the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, after the end of slavery, Britain established direct rule of Nigeria through a series of conflicts. They brought trade with the West, and with it, education—largely through mission schools. Christianity was seen in the south as enabling upward mobility (as had Islam in the north) and so Anglicanism took hold among the Yoruba in the southwest, while Catholicism became rooted among the Igbo in the southeast. Both worked to eliminate the practices and beliefs of traditional religions. This was so successful that by the 1990s, less than 10% of Nigerians followed traditional ways and Christianity had become the religion of nearly forty percent of Nigerians (nearly all in the south), with the remainder being Muslim (in the north).

The traditional religions of the Yoruba and the Igbo differ in important ways, but they both emphasize the existence of spirits, particularly the spirits of the deceased and of ancestors. These spirits have the power to affect the living. Being morally neutral, they can be used for good and evil, depending on the purpose of the person trying to access their power.

With traditional southern Nigerian religions dying out under the onslaught of Christianity, the theological structures in which spirit worship existed have been forgotten. The activities of communicating with spirits and using their power is now seen in a Christian perspective as witchcraft.

It is not surprising, then, that the popularity of Nollywood films is almost entirely limited to southern Nigeria, for the common Nollywood film plot described above reinforces the social and religious transformation of southern Nigeria from its traditional religious practices to Christianity.

Furthermore, this transformation progresses across the generations unevenly. Older Nigerians are more likely to practice elements of traditional religions, while members of the younger generation often know little about traditional religions beyond superstition. Given the film industry’s cutting-edge character in Nigeria and its popularity among younger Nigerians, these Nollywood plots help solidify Christianity’s increasing hold on the populace.

Nollywood films, with their religious themes, have a broad appeal outside Nigeria, especially where similar religious transformations have taken place. South Africa now has a satellite TV channel devoted to Nollywood films, and BSkyB, Rupert Murdoch’s British pay-per-view satellite company is adding a Nollywood channel for Nigerian and other African expatriates in Europe.

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Can We Talk?

Can We Talk?
Paul V.M. Flesher

Are the two largest religions of the world, Christianity and Islam, able to talk to each other with civility? Can they work out their differences through dialogue rather than insults and violence? In recent months, two leaders, one from each religion, have attempted to start a dialogue with the other in a bid to lessen tensions, reduce violence, and work towards peace. Both failed.

Can we talk? Not if the recent experience of Pope Benedict is any indication. In his lecture at the University of Regensburg on September 12, in which he called for dialogue between the two religions and even cited with approval a passage from the Quran, part of his speech unintentionally insulted Islam and sparked Muslim protests against Christianity. Four different apologies by Benedict, an incredible level of public contrition for a pope, have only recently begun to calm the situation. Rather than promoting dialogue, the Pope created further frictions.

Can we talk? Not if the letter from Iran’s President Ahmadi-Najad to President Bush is any indication. The letter attempts to find agreement between Christianity and Islam in their mutual respect for Jesus and his message, and to use that common ground to call for peace among nations. It tries to open a religiously based conversation about how the USA and Iran could settle their differences. Unfortunately, the letter’s ideas are so imbedded within an Islamic world view that they fail to resonate with Christians. Indeed, the Bush administration dismissed the letter out of hand.

The problem is that despite their desire and attempt to communicate across religious lines and to reduce tensions, neither religious leader knows enough about the other religion to accomplish it successfully. Their own religion has so powerfully shaped their perception of the world and God’s purpose in the world that the other is an unknown territory.

It is impossible to imagine Islam from within Christianity, or vice versa, because they are not “essentially the same.” To take a biological analogy, grizzlies and black bears are alike because both belong to the category of “bear.” Christianity and Islam are not this close. They are more like fish and antelope. Some similarities exist, but not many. Furthermore, some similarities actually hide differences. Fish and antelope breath air, but one uses gills, the other lungs. Both circulate blood, but one is cold-blooded, the other warm-blooded.

Is there no hope then for dialogue? Should the world expect decades of conflict because these two religions cannot find common ground? No, there is a way through this difficulty.

Just as the universities have often been the birthplace of new technology, providing the discoveries fueling our technological economy, so too they provide new ways of viewing the world. One key area that has made great strides in recent decades is Religious Studies. This field arises out of the secular university, but it is respectful of religions.

Rather than viewing religions antagonistically or as fossils, Religious Studies recognizes their importance and their role in shaping society, as well as their impact on culture and its debates. The field studies religions, aiming to understand their components and their dynamics, exploring the ways their followers organize themselves, lay out and follow moral principles, worship their god(s), and believe their theology. It compares how different religions accomplish these tasks, and so brings broad insight into the nature of religions in general.

In the end, if two religions wish to talk, each religion needs to understand the other to do so successfully. Religious Studies can supply that understanding. To close, let me suggest three ways this could be done. First, universities and colleges already offer education in world religions to their students. This effort needs to be broadened and expanded, and perhaps even brought into the K-12 system, as many European countries have done. Second, religious leaders who hope to engage in cross-religion dialogue should hire advisors trained in Religious Studies, and listen to their advice. Third, successful negotiations between countries in conflict often take place under the aegis of neutral countries, as in the recent Lebanese conflict. Perhaps the same model should be used to establish dialogue among two religions in conflict. People trained in Religious Studies, who understand the religions but are neutral, could provide such a negotiating umbrella.

In this time of increasing religious conflict and the failure of attempts at dialogue, it is time to use the knowledge and tools that Religious Studies provides to chart a new future for relations among religions.