Sade Dawodu, wife of a beloved bishop, has gone missing. As investigative psychologist Philip Taiwo tries to uncover the truth, he exposes an ugly underbelly of corruption and control. In this essay, author Femi Kayode tracks his interest in the facade religion can provide back to its source.
After high school, I became swept away with the born-again pandemic that hit its peak in the early ’90s in Nigeria. I bought into it all: the rousing choir, the flamboyant pastors, the speaking in tongues and the hug-your-neighbor-and-tell-them-Jesus-loves-them. Because I am a closet voyeur, I attended only the Pentecostal churches that had large congregations. I would remain on the edge of the crowd, close enough to give the illusion of participating, but still distant enough to observe.
I loved the pastors; always smartly dressed, and almost certainly with an American accent. They are almost always men, with equally flamboyant wives who were seated to the side of the altar, piously urging their husbands to “Preach it!” The sermons could make even the most confident stand-up comedian surrender their crown; wry humor met with deep insights sprinkled with what I considered an uncommon understanding of the human condition.
My wife was raised Catholic. Since one of our shared philosophies is “A family that prays together, stays together”—quaint, right?—and we were all so joyfully (now, we would say ignorantly) patriarchal, she started accompanying me to my church, which held services in a music hall on Lagos Island.
On this particular Sunday, the pastor came on stage, an energetic GQ cover model. The choir, resplendent in their robes, walked solemnly behind him. Absolute silence. The lights dimmed, and a spotlight fell on the pastor. Boom! The backtrack of Kirk Franklin’s “Stomp” came on, and the pastor began to rap! The whole church stood up, dancing.
The music ended. The pastor was sweating, breathing hard. The congregation high-fived each other. The choir looked like the Sound of Blackness when they were handed a Grammy. Amid the thunderous applause, I shouted into my wife’s ear. “Did you like it?” She answered, eyes alive with happiness and devoid of judgment, “It was a wonderful performance.”
That honest response has stayed with me for the 20 years since it was spoken. Performance. Through several church attendances, across the different countries we have called home in the past two decades, I could never shake that word from the edge of my consciousness. Performance. The stage replaced the altar. The lights meant to create a celestial atmosphere became props. The congregation on high alert, an audience primed for the main event. The price of entry was in the offering box. Action!
As this transformation unfolded in the theater of my mind, the writer in me pondered: What was going on backstage? Do the pastors wear makeup? (I have since confirmed that many do.) Do they throw tantrums like petulant divas? Yes, indeed. These questions and many more kept me awake when sermons lost meaning, choirs became sound effects and I grew too jaded to put my faith in the word of man. The sameness grated on me, like I was stuck in the reruns of a blaxploitation TV series. The recycled plot prompted my mind to travel behind the curtains, and I started seeking answers outside the script playing out in front of me.
Gaslight chronicles my journey behind the performance. It is a diary of my evolving faith. A journal of my steadfast belief that no matter how great the act, man is not God.
Photo of Femi Kayode by Nicholas Louw.