Field Notes article

The Pastor as Sexual Object

Photo Credit: Dr Chris Okafor. https://www.facebook.com/hashtag/drchrisokafor

At the core of my ongoing study of Pentecostal pastors and changing forms of authority in Africa are two related premises.

First, due to a variety of factors, partly socio-economic, but also cultural as well as political, the landscape of authority across a majority of African states has altered radically over the last three decades. For example: if one effect of the combined militarization of the state and ‘Structural Adjustment’ of the economies of many African countries in the 1980s was the impoverishment of the academy, its logic has been the delegitimizing of universities themselves as authoritative centers of knowledge production.

With the entire system of tertiary education more or less stripped of its epistemological raison d’être, growing numbers of the African intelligentsia have had to look elsewhere for intellectual fulfillment and compensation that is commensurate with their status and skills. Hence my claim: that for all that this exodus has bequeathed a social and intellectual void, Pentecostal pastors have been the indirect beneficiaries, purveyors of a new kind of authoritative clerical speech-act which tends to be valorized over and above secular law or normativity.

The Pentecostal pastor is no mere direct substitute for the intellectual though. True, he (or in far fewer cases, she) now occupies what once was the academic’s spotlight as authority on economic, political, and cultural matters, to such an extent that today, even the academic tends to genuflect to his (i.e. the pastor’s) authority. But that is where, seemingly, the comparison ends. At the peak of his influence, the African intellectual was a mere defender of the public good, in which capacity he defined and contributed to public debates, built bridges with popular organizations like trade unions, resisted military and other forms of dictatorial rule, and generally aligned with efforts to hold the state accountable. In short, the intellectual was a crucial cog in an emergent postcolonial public sphere.

In terms of his authority, the modern-day Pentecostal pastor is a different beast. Contra his predecessor the intellectual, his power and influence project over a wider range of social life, including the most intimate. He is a widely sought after existential micromanager: a blend of spiritual guide, financial coach, marriage counselor, fashion icon, travel advisor, all-purpose celebrity, and last but not least, and as we are beginning to see from a stream of media reports from across the continent, center of an erotic economy.

He is the one with the power either to command female congregants to come to church without their underwear so that they can be ‘more easily receive the spirit of Jesus Christ,’ as was reportedly the case with Reverend Pastor Njohi of the Lord’s Propeller Redemption Church, Nairobi, Kenya; or, as we saw more recently with Kumasi-based pastor ‘Bishop’ Daniel Obinim, the one with the license to openly massage the penises of male congregants with erectile anxiety.

Whilst the political sociology of the pastor is a well-trodden ground, the idea of the pastor as an object of erotic fascination, part sexual healer, part sex symbol, the throbbing center of an intense Pentecostal sexual economy, is comparatively less frequented. Yet, this is something that my research has persistently thrust on me, and one I would argue holds immense riches.

For one thing, it furnishes a radical approach to the study of African Pentecostalism by allowing us to corral and cross-fertilize issues and subjects typically allocated in separate intellectual compartments. Foremost amongst these are: masculinity, gender, patriarchy, femininity, studies of affect, crowd engineering and crowd control, the religious spectacle, media studies, emotions, pornography, sex and sexuality, and ethics.

For another, it allows us, taking provocation from theorists Niklaus Largier, Birgit Meyer, and Nimi Wariboko’s respective works on the religious sensorium, to approach the physical space of the church as a sensual space, a place where people go to find pleasure, and where sounds, ululations, music, dance, bodies in motion, bodies flailing and sprawling, bodies in collision [whether casually or intentionally], bodies sometimes literally thrown at or surrendered to the mercy of the pastor; all combine to produce ecstatic worship.

Photo Credit: Ebenezer Obadare. Lagos, Nigeria.

Accepting the Pentecostal church as sensual space frees us to imagine the altar as a special stage repurposed, if not in fact designed, for the pastor’s hypersexual posturing. On this altar—increasingly, the ritualistic center of worship in many mega churches—the sexualized pastor channels masculine performances that bristle with erotic intimations. Through him, female congregants may lay a vicarious claim to ‘spiritual impregnation;’ often times, and as vindicated by countless examples across African Pentecostal churches, it goes beyond that.

Thus, to place the pastor at the center of a Pentecostal libidinal economy is, in essence, to put the persona of the pastor under a completely different analytic light. What my study appears to mandate, and what I am proposing here, is a critical shift from the idea of the pastor as the one who dictates sexual mores, who gives counsel on sex and proper sexual conduct, the physical symbol of heteronormativity whose stable (sexually and otherwise) domestic life is invoked as an example to the congregation; to the idea of the (body of) the pastor as an object of desire whose sexual energy comes from a strategic choreography of dress, mode of preaching and performance on the pulpit, aesthetics, personal ‘tone,’ automobile, travel, and ‘connections’ (either proven or suggested) to transnational networks.

Suffice to say, the backdrop to all this is extremely complex. It involves—and is in part enabled by—the rise of the celebrity pastor in Africa; the rise of pastoral ‘calling’ as the quickest route to social prestige, critical in a context in which the need to ‘be somebody’ has become very acute; and its corollary, the emergence of pastoring as a virtually automatic guarantor of social mobility.

But perhaps of utmost importance is what appears to be Pentecostalism’s theological project of producing a new man, which tends to translate all too literally into a man shorn of his masculine properties, i.e. highly domesticated, abjuring the company of ‘sinful’ former friends, and most important, sexually ‘tamed.’ A ‘demasculinized’ man, in short. The consequence, I would argue, is that often times, the only ‘man’ left standing in the Pentecostal church is the pastor occupying the altar. Cherished, beloved, and, dare I suggest, eroticized.

Ebenezer Obadare
Ebenezer Obadare is Professor of Sociology at the University of Kansas, and Research Fellow at the Research Institute for Theology and Religion, University of South Africa. He is author of Humor, Silence, and Civil Society in Nigeria (University of Rochester Press, 2016) and co-editor of Civic Agency in Africa: Arts of Resistance in the 21st Century (James Currey, 2014). His ongoing Contending Modernities research focuses on Pentecostal pastors and changing patterns of authority in Nigeria and Ghana.