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Students preview James Ault's documentary on growth of Christianity in Africa

Mar 31, 2011
By Toya Richards

Stories of African Christianity – and specifically from a Ghanaian context – were brought to life recently during a screening and presentation by filmmaker and scholar James Ault at Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary.

Students, faculty, and friends gathered March 17 to watch and discuss African Christianity Rising, a documentary film series that explores the explosive growth of Christianity in Africa and what it means. Ault’s visit was sponsored by the Dean’s Office and the Seminary’s Doors to Dialogue initiative.

The film series is broken into two parts – Stories from Ghana and Stories from Zimbabwe – and the recent showing at Louisville Seminary focused on Ault’s work in the West African nation of Ghana.

The film highlights the diversity of Christianity in Ghana through examples of mission-founded, old independent or spiritual, and new Pentecostal or charismatic churches. It also illustrates the shift by many of these churches to more fully embrace in worship what it means to be African, which includes emphasizing healing and dancing, and acknowledging the various spirits moving in the world.

Ault’s hope for viewers is that the film series will open up questions and an appreciation for things, “even things that seem beyond the pale for some Western viewers,” said Ault, who created the series with major funding from Pew Charitable Trusts and the John Templeton Foundation. “It will work in different ways.”

Ault filmed 300 hours in Ghana and Zimbabwe, and did interviews with such figures as Archbishop Peter Sarpong of the Catholic Church in Ghana and Kwame Bediako, a leading African theologian.

“For us, religion is like your skin, you take it everywhere you go,” Sarpong proclaimed in the film. He has been a pioneer in introducing African culture into Christian worship. Africans have to dismantle the garment of Western Christianity “and put on our own garment,” he said.

Images of spirit-filled worship services permeated the film, and could be seen in settings ranging from a mainline Presbyterian congregation to a house church. Coupled with that also was an emphasis on the holistic lives of African Christians, and corresponding ministries focused on such things as counseling, economic empowerment, health care, and deliverance.

“It reminded me of home. It went straight to the point and the facts were there,” said Louisville Seminary student Eugene Ansah, who hails from. The film “portrayed everything that our culture is.”

Ansah, who is earning both a Master of Divinity degree and a Master of Arts in Marriage and Family Therapy degree, said religion and worship are a part of every aspect of life in Ghana, from the church to the market.

“You come to church the same way you are at home,” he said. “It’s a part of us, you can’t separate them.”

Ansah also said the film accurately reflected the shift taking place on the continent in terms of Christianity, resulting in massive growth. The emphasis previously was on the traditional, mission-founded ways, “but now the charismatic way has come in.”

Today, churches are changing “to draw in more people,” he said. “They bring in this charismatic way of worshipping so that it will draw in those who have gone away from church. … The church is growing very fast.”

Ault said various interviews and footage that did not make it into the film series is available at http://vimeo.com/channels/57182. African Christianity Rising: Stories from Ghana also is in final production and news of its full release will be announced at www.jamesault.com.

Ault earned degrees at Harvard (BA) and Brandeis University (PhD), and he studied at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London. One of his earliest productions was BORN AGAIN: Life in a Fundamentalist Baptist Church, a feature-length film broadcast as a prime-time special on PBS in 1987. He also produced EARTHEN VESSELS: Challenges for the Good Theological School (1994), a for the Association of Theological Schools to provoke reflections on the future of theological education in the context of tumultuous change. He has taught courses in sociology and anthropology, and has been developing courses on using digital video to portray the life of faith communities across cultures.

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