Friday, May 28, 2010

Holy Crap! Two reasonably intelligent reviews of Stephen Prothero's "God Is Not One"

According to Stephen Prothero's own self-glorifying narrative, he is on a daring crusade against the "dangerous" and "seductive" "prevailing metaphor" for how we have come to (mis-)understand the world's religions. It's strange, then, that he has so far encountered remarkably little criticism in response to his new book, God Is Not One. But maybe that is starting to change.

A few discordant notes are beginning to be heard, finally, in what has until now been a monotonous chorus of puff-pieces, soft-ball interviews, and one particular "review" that keeps getting repeated over and over and over again.

First up, there is Jay Tolson, writing in last Sunday's Washington Post (here). Tolson starts off his review by congratulating Prothero for having "thoughtfully dispelled" the following "misleading notion":
Seeing the world's major belief systems through Enlightenment-tinted glasses, a succession of influential philosophers, artists, scholars and even many religious leaders have tended to minimize the differences of ritual and dogma among the various religions to emphasize a supposedly universal and benign truth shared by them all. Such well-meaning believers (and they do constitute a kind of religion of their own) have subscribed to variations of the Dalai Lama's affirmation that "the essential message of all religions is very much the same."
But wait a minute. This is not what Prothero says at all. Prothero doesn't argue against those who "minimize the differences" between religions. Prothero argues against those who claim that "all religions are the same."

You see, it would be one thing if Stephen Prothero were to accept the premise that there are both differences and commonalities among the world's religions. But he does nothing of the sort. He categorically denies that there is any spiritual common ground between the "rival" religions of the world.

Having congratulated Prothero for what he has not done (or even set out to do), Tolson does, by the end of the review, get around to pointing out that Prothero never "adequately wrestles" with the questions he has raised. In fact, Tolson admits that God Is Not One fails to be anything more than a "primer on eight major world religions". In other words, Prothero has written just another survey of religions, and one that is little, if any, different from the very books (Huston Smith's The World's Religions in particular) that Prothero claims to be debunkifying!

Tolson squarely hits the nail on the head when he states that Prothero has completely failed to provide "a sustained examination of the incommensurability of the world's religions", which, not to put too fine a point on it, is precisely what Prothero had promised to provide.

Alec Solomita, writing in last Sunday's Boston Globe (here), is more to the point. From the beginning he characterizes Prothero's book as an "attempt to debunk the idea that all religions are brothers under the skin." And Solomita makes it clear that in his opinion Prothero's attempt not only fails, but disappoints.

But, as was the case with Jay Tolson's review in the Washington Post, Solomita also cannot bring himself to cast the issue in the mindlessly crude manner that Prothero does. For Prothero does not anywhere claim to be attacking the notion that "all religions are brothers under the skin." Instead, Prothero boldly declares, over and over and over again, that he is out to disprove the claim that all religions are the same.

There is a big difference between saying all religions are "brothers under the skin" and claiming they are "the same". And the most important difference is that many people do claim that humanity's religions share a kind of kinship, but no one seriously claims they are all the same.

It would be one thing to differ over how (and how closely) the world's religions are related to each other. But it is another thing altogether, at the serious risk of repeating myself, to deny that there is any spiritual common ground whatsoever among the world's religions, as Stephen Prothero emphatically, proudly, and repeatedly does.

Solomita presents much more detailed criticisms of Prothero than what is found in Tolson's comparatively superficial review. But both reviews should be read carefully by anyone interested in how the Saga of Prothero's Quest is playing out.

Both reviews clearly and effectively make the same basic point: Prothero never even begins to even attempt to make good on his chest-beating declamations about taking on the terrible mind-destroying "meme" that "all religions are beautiful and true." Tolson's and Solomita's joint decision is all the more damning since they are both sympathetic to Prothero's cause, and they were both clearly hoping he would succeed - or at least that he would actually try.

Previous posts from this blog on Stephen Prothero's "God Is Not One":
Good Fences Make Good Religions?
Who, if anyone, is Stephen Prothero arguing with, other than himself?
How Stephen Prothero mangles the economics-politics-religion analogy
The basis of universal spirituality
Contra Prothero

[The smoking crater pic is from The epic bike fail pic is a combination: the kitty is from here, while the bike fail itself is by jeremy king.]

"Such is the relationship between Africans and foreign religions."

Here is yet another "cut and paste" item from the African press on the subject of African Traditional Religion. This time it is an unabashedly positive article about the Ifa tradition in Nigeria, and also about how an increasing number of Africans are daring to speak out against "the insidious stereotypes that have been built about the African traditional religion by practitioners of the more dominant religions."

The article is by Abimbola Adelakun, and it was originally published in the May 12 issue of the online version of The Punch: "Nigeria's most widely read newspaper." The original article is here.
Derided, misrepresented, Ifa priests tell their stories
By Abimbola Adelakun
Wednesday, 12 May 2010

Lovers of Nigerian films will be familiar with this trend: a man or a woman who wants to harm his/her neighbour goes to Ifa priest for help. He/she is given a charm and the evil intention most likely succeeds. The victim suffers for a while and then a Christian pastor or Islamic cleric is invited to pray for him/her.

The victim is delivered and everybody goes home rejoicing. For good effect, the ‘Babalawo‘ who carries out the evil is sent some spiritual missiles when prayers or a Bible/Quran is hauled in his direction. He slumps, dies and the power of light which Christianity/Islam represents is seen as having triumphed over darkness and evil which the African traditional religion is seen as representing.

It doesn‘t happen the other way round - a Babalawo untying the knot that Christianity/Islam has tied.

Over the years, this mode of thinking has cultivated a stereotype in Nigerian films. However, practitioners of African traditional religion are not taking matters in their stride anymore. In their own little way, they are set to contend with the insidious stereotypes that have been built about the African traditional religion by practitioners of the more dominant religions.

Babalawos who feature in films are already towing this path. One of them is Chief Ifayemi Elebuibon, the popular Ifa artist who also produces the TV drama on the Ifa corpus, Ifa Olokun Asorodayo. Elebuibon is one of the most visible Ifa practitioners and artists in Nigeria and beyond. He has taken the Ifa culture to many countries and also tried to disabuse people‘s minds about Ifa and African traditional religion.

He blames the misrepresentation of Ifa in Nigerian films on ignorance.

”They do not know the difference between ‘Babalawo’, ‘Onisegun’ and ‘Oloogun Ika’. The Babalawo is one that is rightly positioned in Ifa Olokun Asorodayo to solve the problems of the world. He is to repair issues about people‘s lives and make the world better. Rather, they make films in which they muddle everything together.”

Another of these Babalawos is Peter Fatomilola. He is a lecturer, actor, writer, producer and director of several films. He has been into the Ifa practice since the age of six and was initiated into the Ifa scared groove, Igbodu, at 18. He says his acting talent was discovered by Prof. Ola Rotimi when the latter returned from the US sometime in 1967. Like Elebuibon, he blames the misrepresentation of Babalawos on ignorance.

”People see someone with leaves in hand or chanting incantations and quickly conclude that he is a Babalawo. A Babalawo is to African traditional religion, what the Pastor and Imam is to the church and mosque respectively. As the Bible and Quran are books of knowledge, so is Ifa. They mix things up and think that Onisegun (herbalists), Oso(wizards) and so on are all Babalawos. Onisegun deal with roots and herbs and he can decide to use it for good or evil purposes. Babalawos too learn about roots and herbs but that is because from time to time, Ifa might recommend a solution that they will not necessarily refer to Onisegun.”

Fatomilola has starred in films like SekeSeke, Rere Run, Afonja, Saworo Ide etc. He has close to 500 films to his credit.

Much younger but not in any way to be disregarded in the Ifa practice is Fakolade Ajanaku. He was born into a family that practices Ifa and he seems well versed in the Odu corpus. Ajanaku responds to enquiries from our correspondent with first, a verse of Odu Ifa before going into details. He attributes his going into films to watching Elebuibon on TV while growing up.

Getting into films, however, was not because of his Ifa knowledge. He told his father he wanted to be an actor and he was registered into a film company. He believes he has paid his dues and is today a film producer. He has starred in several films such as Bolode Oku, Ase n tedumare, Odun baku etc. He acts other roles but due to his knowledge of Ifa, he tends to be favoured when a choice needs to be made for the role of Babalawo. For instance is Ase n tedumare which he wrote and also featured as Babalawo.

On the portrayal of Babalawos in Nollywood films, he attributes the misrepresentation to mischief.

”What belongs to them means nothing, but it is what others show them that attract them. Ifa divination was performed for the fish who sought the friendship of the hook,” he said, chanting a verse from Odu Ifa to buttress his point. ”Such is the relationship between Africans and foreign religions. Why do they choose to show only the negative side of Babalawos because they want to put up their own religion?” he wondered.

As an actor, he admitted that he has been conned by filmmakers a few times when he was given only a portion of the script to study and act. While watching the whole film later, he saw that the rest of the story didn‘t portray Babalawos in good light. For that reason, he has sworn that he would never take up a role as a Babalawo without reading an entire film script.

Chanting Ifa verses in films do conjure up spiritual power, they all agree. Fakolade says that what he does is to stay at a very ordinary level where his chant would not cause harm. For someone so versed, he says, he does not use fake chants like others who do not know about Ifa but act as Babalawo all the same.

Fatomilola also uses authentic Ifa Odus in films because, according to him, there are millions of people out there who are very knowledgeable about Ifa and can tell immediately if the chant is fake - something that is capable of detracting from the integrity of the film.

He says that for a Babalawo like him, chanting Ifa verses do conjure up power in the spiritual realm. He says he feels his body moving spiritually when he is at it.

”Unless the person is not a Babalawo and is chanting what they wrote in the script for him. If you are one, you will feel it.”

Through their films, people have come to know them in many places all over the world. Fakolade and Fatomilola have clients all over the world and they divine for people even on cell phones.

"Even without putting out signboard," Fatomilola says, "people seek us because they have seen us in films and they know we are real Babalawos."

Elebuibon lectures on Ifa in many universities abroad.

With the films they are making, they hope to disabuse the mind of the audience about the roles of Babalawo in the society and also help them to be rightly positioned in a modern society.

Elebuibon whose studio was gutted by fire sometime last year says that the place is being put together again. By October, he will be releasing two films he is producing in conjunction with some friends and institutions in Philadelphia, United States. They are titled Elegbara and Esentaye. Both are to espouse the values of Ifa and the roles of Babalawos.

”Esentaye will tell the story of how knowing a child‘s destiny from birth will guide his/her choice in life.”

He appears not bothered about the negative things being said about Ifa and Bablawaos in Nollywood.

”People have written a lot about it. Orisha World Congress has done a lot in that but some people will just never change their minds.”

Other posts on Traditional African Religions:
"What exactly is it about traditional religion that we fear?"
"The Destruction of Christianity" (On the situation in Kenya in 1955)
"Why not leave them in peace?"
"Witchcraft holds out against modern age"
200 Million African Pagans
"Togo's Voodoo Fetish Markets Do Brisk Trade"
"Africa became Christian by Submission not by Conversion"
"The first thing Christianity did in Africa . . . ."
You might be Pagan if .... (Part Deux)
You might be a Pagan if ....
Every picture tells a story
More On Traditional African Religions
Traditional African Religions Continue To Thrive
Fela Kuti and Traditional African Religion
Secret Knowledge, Sacred Knowledge (on Candomble)