Friday, April 23, 2021 8:25 am
By Chris Anyokwu
Prayer for the Living is the title of Ben Okri’s latest story collection. For those who do not know Okri, he is a Nigerian-born British novelist and poet, made world-famous by his Booker Prize-winning novel, The Famished Road. Let me confess here that I have not yet read Prayer For the Living, so I cannot tell whether or not Okri is a true believer in the efficacy of prayer.
Therefore, this article is not a review-essay on the collection. I am simply fascinated by the novel’s title which I consider quite intriguing and interesting. What is prayer? To what/whom may we as homo sapiens pray? Is it out of place to pray to non-metaphysical, non-human or inanimate objects and entities? Can we equally pray to human beings, say, one’s late or living parents? Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English defines prayer as “a solemn request made to God or gods, or to someone in a position of power.” Now that we know what prayer is, we also need to find out what necessitates prayer; that is the warrant of prayer. Among other things, prayer is necessitated by the nature of reality. The object world, it is believed, was commanded into existence by Word of Mouth. The Bible, the Quran and other religious Holy Writs, all affirm this notion of the creative power of the spoken word – “the Lively Oracle” (or Aṣẹ/Oro in Yoruba). Man is believed to incarnate and embody divine qualities since he is made in the likeness and image of God. He, thus, possesses God-like power to pronounce things into existence. Niyi Osundare avers: “The mouth is a god; the tongue is its priest.
The mouth as well as the word that proceeds from it demands and deserves respect. To lie, prevaricate, tergiversate, engaging in cant, forswear, etc. is to disrespect the word and assault its temple. It is to disrupt the universal order and the truth that holds it in balance-and anchor. So, the word is both a warrant and a wand. It makes things happen. It makes things unhappen. It is an instrument of liberation and a tool of imprisonment. It kills. It creates. It is a good servant and a bad master”. Prayer, then, is the verbal instrumentalisation of the Spoken Word, which, in some respects, shares ideational affinity with ofo (“Incantation” in Yoruba). According to Olatunde Olatunji, a professor of Yoruba linguistics, man, through “spells”, or “incantations” “attempts to control both the natural and the supernatural worlds and subjects them to his will”. C.K. Ogden and I.A. Richards in their important book entitled The Meaning of Meaning reiterate this magical power of formulaic utterances made to humans, animals, the gods, etc. in a bid to get results. In a word, the Bible clinches it when it says that the power of life and death is in the human tongue. Thus, in spite of the jaw-dropping and mind-blowing scientific discoveries, inventions and humanistic breakthroughs, man has never been able to, in clear and precise language, explain why certain things occur in obedience to the utter-ance of the human mouth. Why is the tongue so powerful? Perhaps we may never be able to satisfactorily answer that question till the fat lady sings.
The perceived power of the Kingdom of the Tongue has, indeed, spawned both religious/spiritual movements and occultic/mystical practices.
Such is the overwhelming belief in the shamanistic power of the numinous – of the tongue to bring things about, of prayer – that multitudes of people would rather spend days, weeks, months, even years in monastic seclusion and mortify the flesh in abstemiousness and endless supplication. They would rather hibernate on varying altitudes of mountain peaks just communing with, as they say in Zeeworld, “The Almighty”. “The Almighty”, of course, is a decidedly and patently fuzzy zone of consciousness which is, nonetheless, capacious enough to imbricate the Jewish Yahweh, the Muslim Allah, the Yoruba Olodumare, the Igbo Chineke, the Ika Osolobue, ad nauseam. To be certain, creationism proposes this pan-human and universal belief-system which pitches superstition against hard-nosed rationalism. It is, let’s be clear, understandable to contemplate the superstitious turn in the misty infancy of creation, a time when humans were shorthanded and “blind” and, thus, were at the mercy of the elements. Our progenitors were understandably overawed by the omnidirectional infinitude of the cosmos – the oceans, the seas, the mountain ranges and gorges, the forbiddingly thick forests and the truly pristine deserts and wildernesses, apart from hair-raising and blood-curdling varieties of wildlife.
Under these circumstances, therefore, nature became an object of worship. People venerated and worshipped heavenly bodies such as the sun, the moon, stars, cloud, as well as inanimate entities such as trees (e.g. the Iroko), rivers, animals, the soil and fellow humans, e.g., the King, the Queen, and other notables in the society. However, old habits die hard. Hence, even in our hi-tech, supersonic, post-human epoch, people everywhere continue to cling tenaciously to their old gods, their fond idols. Superstition still permeates the digital modernity. The secret place of prayer still remains thronged by needy humanity. The question to ask is that: what does this infantile dependency tell us about the human subject? Doesn’t it expose man (used generically) as craven, callow and cowed by happenstance and still in thrall of the environment? Hasn’t Frederick Nietzsche told us that “God is dead” and that, man is left to his own devices?
If you can pull yourself up by your bootstraps, why, then, look to God for a helping hand? Why ascribe agency to Powers as dramatised in Ola Rotimi’s The Gods Are Not To Blame? Why credit the Muses – the nine daughters of Zeus – with the creative afflatus in literary production? What do we say about the convention of writers ascribing primacy of authorial fount to the gods? Homer in The Odyssey and Iliad, Virgil in Aenead, Edmund Spencer in The Faery Queene and John Milton in Paradise Lost exemplify this tradition.
Also, in the African experience, artists look up to the gods and goddesses for “isoye” (mnemonic aid), “awure” (goodwill prayer) and “aje” (profit) in the political economy of entertainment, particularly among the Yoruba. Religion or religiosity, therefore, is the very oxygen of humankind. Beyond giving an unquestionable imprimatur of divine sanction to whatever it is people create, it furnishes a feel-good factor; provides a higher order of authority for application and action; gives life a meaning or purpose beyond the existential womb-to-tomb peregrinations, among others. Curiously, even the so-called advanced nations of the world put God front and centre of their life. The USA, for instance, tells us “In God we trust”; the British in their National Anthem pray “God save the Queen” (By the way, condolences on Prince Philip’s passing!). In Nigeria, we sing “O God of Creation…” in our National Anthem. Bafflingly, whilst the Constitutions of many nations proclaim these nations as secular states, in practice religion bulks large in their national life. What this pan-human and global practice demonstrates is that, at bottom, humans are religious (but not necessarily spiritual!) Hence Karl Marx famously dismisses human beings as victims of “false consciousness” and also characterises religion as “the opium of the people”.
In contradistinction to this Marxian disavowal of faith comes the religionist riposte. The Bible, for example, says it is only the fool who says there is no God. A certain writer once famously declared that, he could sympathise with an atheist who looked down at the world from the sky and said there was no God, but he wondered how someone could look up at the sky and beholding the sheer splendour and glory of the firmament and could still hold onto his atheism. It is quite interesting to also state that history is replete with God’s supernatural intervention in the affairs of men. We equally know how those who challenged God’s power and His existence came to a sticky end. The popular story of The Titanic is still fresh on our mind, in this regard.
Many atheists have met rough death and it is believed that both humans and societies who do not reckon with God run the risk of incurring His wrath. And, it is a fearful thing to fall into the Hands of the Living God! But how do we reckon with the piety of the politician? How does prayer feel on the unctuous tongue of the man of the soap-box? As we enter into another season of prayer and fasting, our rulers, as is their wont, have seized the pulpit from the Men of God to rally us, the people, to the place of prayer. The other day, Governor Nasir el-Rufai of Kaduna State, arguably the most colourful politician at present in Nigeria, told the nation that only prayer could deliver us from the scourge of banditry, insurgency, kidnapping and other pathologies plaguing our Land.
Does he know the ramifying implications of his statement? Pleading divine intervention, as he did, is a sad and worrying admission of the utter ineffectuality of rational means of securing our land.
It is a resounding Vote of No Confidence on our leadership class and secular institutions, including our centres of knowledge production, research and scholarship. This is not to say the opprobrium it brings upon our security agencies. This being the case, it is suggested that we “down tools” in all Ministries, Departments and Agencies of government, in our bureaucracies, our schools, etc. and put on our sackcloth and pour ashes on our heads and go to our mosques, churches and shrines to pray for our land; pray for ailing Nigeria. Let us forget our national shame that most of our factories and industries have closed down and have been converted to Churches; that foreign companies are leaving our land in droves (e.g. Tweeter to Ghana). We can celebrate the fact that we are the most religious nation on earth and have precious little to show for it. It’s crying sad that we forget that faith without work is dead! How do we, then, pray for our land? We can do so by applying ourselves to the ethic of work.
Work! Work! Work! As Oliver Cromwell commanded: “Melt down the saints and put them into circulation”. Let saints and sinners alike indulge in the effectual, fervent prayer of WORK: Government must create jobs, yes jobs, and put the disaffected people to work. Then, many of our present security challenges will be a thing of the past.
Chris Anyokwu, PhD.
Associate Professor of English
University of Lagos.