DREAMS, DOCUMENTS AND 'FETISHES': AFRICAN CHRISTIAN INTERPRETATIONS OF THE PILGRIM'S PROGRESS

in Journal of Religion in Africa
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Abstract

John Bunyan's The Pilgrim's Progress, a key text of the evangelical Protestant missionary movement, was translated into eighty African languages and consequently influenced African Christian intellectual traditions. This article examines one aspect of this influence, namely the ways in which Bunyan's portrayal of literacy in The Pilgrim's Progress became a site around which African reworkings of the text cohered. For Bunyan, a first-generation literate, literacy is a source of spiritual authority but also a source of powerlessness as documents are used to persecute the poor. African Christians likewise experienced literacy as a source of power and powerlessness. This contradiction often produced the phenomenon of 'miraculous literacy' in which believers magically gain the ability to read through spiritual gifts rather than via mission or colonially controlled institutions. Documents also gain talismanic or 'fetish-like' properties, a view not far removed from evangelical theories of text that likewise invest documents with extraordinary capacities.

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