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A Problem of Presence: beyond scripture in an African church

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Matthew Engelke|
University of California Press (May 2007)

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 recognised 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.


'Matthew Engelke has crafted a fascinating, insightful, and sensitive study of the ways in which the Friday Masowe attempt to achieve religious transcendence. Drawing thoughtfully on the findings of other researchers across a wide spectrum of sociological and theological contexts, A Problem of Presence makes a valuable contribution to the comparative study of Christianity, and to the anthropology of religion in general.'
Webb Keane, author of Christian Moderns: freedom and fetish in the mission encounter

'In this impressive work, Engelke describes the Friday Masowe of Zimbabwe with real ethnographic sensitivity and adds wide resonance through authoritative and unpretentious theoretical elaboration. A Problem of Presence is a model of how to make an apparently oblique socio-cultural phenomenon illuminate very wide problems, without sacrificing ethnographic complexity and texture.'
James Clifford, author of The Predicament of Culture

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