"Claiming the Public: Pentecostalism and the Global in Africa" was the subject of this salon which was organized in cooperation with the Institute of Social and Cultural Anthropology at FU and the German Institute of Global and Area Studies (GIGA). Main speaker Prof. Dr. Birgit Meyer (Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam) raised questions concerning our understanding of the public sphere and the role of religion in Africa. She presented the example of Ghana, where Pentecostal Christianity has become a major public voice in the aftermath of democratization.
Moving between the levels of historical and ethnographic work on the one hand and theoretical reflection on the other, Birgit Meyer rejected a mere application of theories about modern religion and the public sphere to Africa. Instead, she pleaded to start from a broad notion of “public” as open, common and accessible. Once the public sphere is not taken as a normative ideal, but as an arena in which actors are “going public” and “making things public”, new questions arise that need to be addressed via solid historical and ethnographic work. Birgit Meyer advocated a contextualizing approach that spots historical transformations of the notion of “public” and legacies affecting the way in which Pentecostalism goes public and claims a public in our time.
In doing so, she stressed the need to take into account the materiality and tangibility of the spread of Pentecostal churches through media. Special attention has to be put on the Pentecostals' impact on the body and the senses and the ways in which this generates distinct styles that make Pentecostal identity become apparent. In her view, we need not only to rethink the public sphere, taking leave of idealist, elitist, Eurocentric and all too abstract notions. Moreover, we have to develop fresh approaches to religion in general, and Pentecostalism in particular. Rethinking the public sphere in our time requires rethinking religion and vice versa.
The lecture was commented from an anthropological viewpoint by Prof. Dr. Hansjörg Dilger and from a political scientist's perspective by Dr. Andreas Mehler (Director of the GIGA Institute of African Affairs).