Exploring Christianity, sexuality and social justice in contemporary Nigerian literature – Fellows’ seminar by Adriaan van Klinken

31 January 2024

“African literature, like African Christianity, is more vibrant than ever. Nigeria, in particular, is a major centre of both literary production and Christian growth on the continent. Yet, how is literary writing a site of creative and critical engagement with Christianity as a major factor in African social and public life?” asked Adriaan van Klinken of the School of Philosophy, Religion and History of Science & Leeds University Centre for African Studies, University of Leeds.

This is the question Van Klinken hopes to address in detail in his latest book project.

“I’m looking at literary texts as key to representing religion in its local milieu; critiquing the problematic aspects of religion; and, imagining alternative religious possibilities.”

“I’m sharing my research passions and hoping to spark interest,” he added.

STIAS Fellow Adriaan van Klinken

Van Klinken outlined his research trajectory which started in South Africa when, as a Masters student, he visited the University of KwaZulu-Natal in Pietermaritzburg. “I developed a specific interest in religion in Africa which was vibrant and rich especially compared to my home country of Holland. In Africa religion is everywhere. Just this week on a hike in Stellenbosch we encountered people worshipping in the bush.”

“However, my focus is not just on Christianity as an institution,” he continued, “but rather on how Christianity in Africa is part of social and political life. And I’m especially interested in gender and sexuality which, of course, are highly contested in parts of Africa. In previous research, I’ve looked at the role of religion in the politics of homophobia.”

He hopes his current project will advance scholarship on Christianity and literature in Africa as the existing work tends to focus on the classics of African literature which link Christianity to colonisation, critiquing how colonisation and missionaries, in particular, made things ‘fall apart’ in traditional societies.

“The classical text in Nigerian literature, Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart (1958), explores this question in the context of European mission and colonisation,” he said. “However, a current generation of Nigerian writers, who grew up in the postcolonial period, has moved beyond a paradigm in which Christianity is depicted as extraneous. Instead, they engage critically and creatively with Christian beliefs, symbols and institutions as part of their quest for social justice in postcolonial Nigerian society. I will discuss examples of 21st century Nigerian novels that engage with Christianity in relation to justice regarding gender and sexuality.”

“I don’t want to repeat the narrative that overlooks Christianity as a real factor post-independence. There has been enormous growth in Christianity on the continent since colonisation ended. This narrative doesn’t do justice to transformation, inculturation and other adjustments in African realities. Christianity is a crucial part of postcolonial society.”

He pointed to the multiple dynamics at play including the growth of Christianity; the transformation of original mission churches; the emergence of new Christian movements (especially Pentecostal/Charismatic); and, the new salience of Christianity in African public life.

“All of which requires a new approach and understanding of Christianity in African literature today,” he said. “It’s about how African writers as social thinkers use religion as a subject of, as well as research for, their thinking on social and political issues. But it also engages with the possibilities of literature as a means towards religious enlightenment.”

Why Nigeria?

Van Klinken described Nigeria as “a populous and leading postcolonial African society in transition” with the “most vibrant literary scene on the continent” and a Christian landscape that “is diverse, dynamic and, for better or worse, trend setting”.

“Lagos is the Pentecostal capital of the world,” he added. “It’s a hugely public and political form of religion. There is also an abundance of contemporary Nigerian texts that engage Christianity.”

Van Klinken’s focus is on 21st century Nigerian texts – including novels and short stories – written by authors born in the postcolonial period; in which Christianity is a central theme in relation to various social issues; and, which explore key words in Nigerian Christianity and how these relate to social thought.

The book will explore six key terms to examine thematic areas of Christianity in Nigerian literature: Apparition (Catholicism, Marian devotions and gender justice); Deliverance (Pentecostalism, queer bodies and sexual justice); Prosperity (The Prosperity Gospel, corruption and economic justice); Spiritual Warfare (Christian/Muslim relations, violence and interreligious justice); Prophecy (Christianity, environmental degradation and ecological justice); and, Forgiveness (Christianity, child-soldier narratives and restorative justice).


For his seminar, Van Klinken focused on deliverance which is a key literary theme. He pointed out that deliverance practices are common and central in Pentecostal and Charismatic movements which include religious rhetoric around the casting out of evil spirits. Some of these practices have been incorporated into mainline denominations.

“The Same-Sex Marriage (Prohibition) Act of 2013 was actively supported by Pentecostal Christian leaders. And Deliverance Ministries openly target LGBTIQ people.”

“There has been a recent polyphony of Nigerian queer-themed literature,” he said. “There often is an assumption that religion and queer identity are incompatible, but it’s much more nuanced and complex.”

Jude Dibia’s 2011 novel Walking with Shadows is regarded as the first dealing with these issues. It concerns the idea of breaking down the demon of homosexuality, and highlights the rhetoric of dehumanisation with depictions of abusive deliverance practices.

Van Klinken will use three novels to highlight three strategies. He will use the graphic novel On Ajayi Crowther Street (2019) by Elnathan John and Alaba Ònájin to unpack the strategy of exposing religious hypocrisy by highlighting popular tales of luxury, fraud and corruption that surround Nigerian Pentecostalism.

An Ordinary Wonder (2021) by Buki Papillon highlights the strategy of reclaiming indigenous religion. This is the first African novel with an intersex protagonist whose condition is associated with indigenous spirits, witchcraft and demons, and who is subjected to deliverance rituals by Christian prophets, with traditional Yoruba mythology coming to his rescue.

Under the Udala Trees (2015) by Chinelo Okparanta focuses on reinterpreting Christianity. It was hailed as the first Nigerian lesbian novel and written in response to the 2013 Act. It depicts the popular rhetoric of demonisation but also questions fundamental interpretations of the Bible suggesting that alternate ways of engaging with the Bible are possible.

“Through these different strategies these novels critically engage Pentecostal deliverance culture and creatively explore alternative modalities of Nigerian queer religious worldmaking,” said Van Klinken.

He concluded that: “Deliverance is a topic centrally featured in queer Nigerian literary texts (they are about deliverance) – foregrounding the harm done to queer bodies. But the texts can also be read as seeking to bring about deliverance (reading for deliverance) – showing how Christianity is not only an obstacle but can also affirm the flourishing of queer people.”

“The novels also focus on Christianity for social justice positioning Nigerian writers as social as well as religious thinkers. There is critical engagement with the dominant forms of Christianity and their role in Nigerian social life but also a creative and constructive engagement with Christian beliefs, texts and practices in a quest for social justice in postcolonial Nigeria.”

Michelle Galloway: Part-time media officer at STIAS
Photograph: Ignus Dreyer

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