Interview: Agana-Nsiire Agana on Digital Theology, African Theology, and Young Christians in Ghana

Agana-Nsiire Agana is a second-year Ph.D. candidate at the School of Divinity, University of Edinburgh. His Ph.D. research is an empirically supported philosophical-theological investigation into social media’s influence on personal identity formation. Contributing editor Calida Chu interviewed him for Theology and Society.

Calida: What’s your understanding of digital theology? Why is it special as a topic for you to do a PhD?

Agana: I tend to look at digital theology in two ways: one conceptually and, more technically, as a discipline (a major branch of study) or a field (a certain aspect of a discipline). Conceptually, digital theology is a theological reflection on that which is digital. It’s essentially the lived reality that people experience in digital contexts, whatever kind of digital contexts they might be interacting with. That involves the changes that these digital technologies have on them, and also the meanings and adaptations that they impart to digital technologies. Digital theology is a theology that engages with the scientific and theoretical underpinnings of technologies, whether about the logic of video gaming, that of social media algorithms, or that of A.I. and its theological ramifications.

Secondly, I’ve not made up my mind whether I see digital theology as a discipline or a field. If you look at digital theology as a field, you assume certain things. You assume that certain consensuses around definitions allow us to speak in the same way, or at least know that we are doing the same kind of work. But that has not happened yet within digital theology. Another thing is, do you even want it to be called a field, given the very nature of digital culture? It’s fluid, multiple, and diverse and hence it should be reflected in the way we conceive of the epistemology and of the enterprise of digital culture. Rather than [trying] to come up with a neat system, maybe we should see digital theology as fragmented, as myriad, and as diverse as digital culture itself is.

Calida: For those who have not read your article on Studies in World Christianity about African theology and digital culture, can you tell us what it is about?

Agana: An adaptation of my master’s dissertation, I argue that African theologies or African theology need to take into consideration the new digital realities that people face in formulating their concepts and ideas. A lot of lip service was paid within African academic theology to the relevance of modernity, and its presence in contemporary lived realities, but with little engagement [on digital culture]. And what you tend to find is a focus on what I call past-oriented theologies.

A certain past-looking view of what it means to be an African remains prevalent. Those realities persist, [but] they are no longer the only or the dominant force in shaping identity in many cases, especially for young people. In Africa, when you talk about young people, you already talk about the majority of people in most countries. So the basic demographic profile of the continent is one in which modern and postmodern, and especially digital cultures are as important.

Calida: Why do you think the phenomenon of past-oriented conceptions exists? Do you think it is because the researchers cannot access African media/ fieldwork? Or is it kind of like nostalgia that they feel: the past is the real Africa?

Agana: I would trace it back to the beginnings of African academic theology in the 1950s and the 1960s, [when] a nationalist sentiment drove and informed a desire to break away from the Western mode of thought, including religious thought. African Christians wished to become independent politically, which translated into both religious and spiritual independence, given the fact that in Ghana, many churches were still headed by white missionaries in the early years after independence. A strong nationalist sentiment driving concepts, like inculturation, showed that indigenous culture was enough to portray the Christian gospel.

The project blossomed slowly in the 1980s and 1990s, as it found further expression in the writings of Kwame Bediako (1945–2008) and Kwasi Wiredu (1931–2022). I’m talking about Ghana specifically. But people across the continent were grappling with these sorts of questions. So you have John Gatu and the moratorium, which said that we need to become self-sufficient in missionizing, and we don’t want any foreign missionaries for the time being at least.

In the 1990s and maybe the early 2000s, when digital media came to the forefront, that project was somewhat interrupted by the new realities that it was not prepared to tackle. Even to this day, the hermeneutical orientations within African academic theology are unclear and methodological principles hardly agree.

So it was a hodgepodge of ideas around liberation and post-coloniality and all these things that were not even coalesced before digital came into being. One reason might be that a lot of them were still of the older generations and they didn’t have that much of a grasp of the digital technologies. But I also think that from an epistemological perspective, people were still occupied with the difficult task of trying to define a liberational current within theology as a geographic phenomenon and, in this case, Africa. So this new paradigm had to wait and appeared like it still had to wait for that project to mature. People like me are saying that well, it’s time to open it up and see if the picture is confusing and is rendered even more so today by [digitality].

Calida: Considering the Ghanaian context, in what ways is Ghanaian theology different from African theology?

Agana: In my opinion, there’s no such thing as Ghanaian theology. There’s no such thing as Ghanaian modernity, especially because nation states, particularly in Africa, are arbitrary constructs. They don’t always even reflect actual identity in the way people feel it.

As a field, the theology that happens within West Africa is classified under African theology or African academic theology. In the article, I make a distinction between African theology and African Theology, where the latter refers to its academic form.

African theology in its academic form is concerned with inculturation, or some people used to call it Africanisation. Then you’ve got black theology, which is more prevalent in Southern Africa. You don’t have national designations with theology, [such as] Ivorian theology, Cameroonian theology, and Ghanaian theology. The underlying assumption is that a myth of connectedness unites at least the political goals of African Theology, and that myth of connectedness is the shared struggle with colonialism and the shared aspiration for liberation from colonialism and neo-colonialism. That political undercurrent informs a broad view of what theology is on the continent. [Thus,] I would not personally promote Ghanaian theology as a label.

Calida: Your PhD research focuses on youth identity in digital media. Could you talk briefly about your PhD research and your initial findings, especially on Christians?

Agana: I travelled to Ghana to conduct focus groups and interviews between January and May 2022, and also did some of my interviews via Zoom. My study is interdisciplinary, but it is theological before social scientific. I use ethnography to support my theoretical arguments around concepts of identity formation and digital culture.

Young Christians in Ghana have wholeheartedly adopted digital media, and social media in particular, such as Facebook, Instagram, TikTok, and YouTube. I’m trying to find out whether people think about what they are doing because thinking about what you do has been identified as one of the marks of personal identity within modern societies. In the traditional societies of the past, people didn’t have to think about what they were doing. They assumed the norms of life from their society. And if that society was dominated by the church, the religious authority, or the traditional authority, so be it.

Within modernity, though, things are supposed to have changed. Personal identity is now made up of values that they themselves choose and decide. If that’s the case, then people are thinking hard about who it is they want to be. That’s usually called reflexivity. Ghanaian philosopher Kwame Gyekye (1939–2019) calls them mental features of identity. He sees that identity is formed by both the social forces and the mental features in the individual. He calls it ‘moderate communitarianism’, that is, the community plays a role in shaping the individual, but the individual’s role as a person cannot be overlooked either.

In this fieldwork, I was looking for evidence of this reflexivity and my initial findings are that it is low. There is no great deal of reflection on the personal effects or the effects on the personal sense of self. People talk in general terms about the ills of social media, but they hardly relate them to their own experiences as Christians or as persons. Another thing is they are not aware of some of those behind the scenes, like algorithms. If you ask about shifts in authority structures and authority flows within Christian communities, people are not aware that they are happening or how they are happening. And if you ask about authenticity, how people are sure that they are being who they are, they are not even able to say whether what they are experiencing online is in line with a notion of who they are, because they are not thinking deeply about these things.

Calida: As a researcher residing in the UK, to what extent do you think digital theology/ digital culture overlap between Ghana and the UK, or not?

Agana: There are a lot of similarities between Ghana and the UK. Their content of the expression of identity is only different in terms of cultural expression. In England, for example, it’s all in English. People are dancing to TikTok songs in English and they are giving life coach advice in English.

In Ghana, you have a multiplicity of languages, including English. The forms of expression can also be seen as the substance of identity because of their language. You have a tendency towards ethically liberal views of selfhood and the entertaining aspects of religious faith. Christian comedy, Christian music, skits, and dance challenges, aka Christian popular culture, are popular in both places.

The content creators in Ghana were deliberately [doing videos] to gain large audiences, with high similarity in terms of the priorities emerging online between the two geographies and that, again, might be a function of algorithms. These algorithms are created by relatively few huge tech companies, based in a few places in the world and with narrow commercial interests. The type of content that makes money is likely to be the same everywhere. The form of that content might differ, which can be left to individuals in different cultures, so it gives people a sense of agency.

But sometimes I feel that that agency is a false sense of agency because you might have chosen to put up a dance video to a local Highlife song if you were living in Accra. But it’s a dance video because millions of people are doing it. You’ve noticed that people who do morning devotional videos get six views in one month, and people who do dance videos get 6 million in one day. So, you did a dance video informed by an algorithm or by the algorithmic culture, which operates beneath the stratum of human digital cultures. The big data and commercial interests of these [tech] companies are partly the reason why you see a lot of similarities emerge across the world. It looks the same in its essence. Its expression always differs and brings beautiful variety, but what people are doing seems to have been worked down to a formula determined by the incentive for virality.

Calida: To end our conversation, would you mind introducing one or two books that talk about African theology, which is more forward-looking?

Agana: African Public Theology, edited by Sunday Bobai Agang, Dion A. Forster, and H. Jurgens Hendriks Carlisle and Re-Imagining African Christologies: Conversing with the Interpretations and Appropriations of Jesus in Contemporary African Christianity by Victor I. Ezigbo.

Calida Chu

Contributing editor Calida Chu is a teaching associate at the University of Nottingham.

Agana-Nsiire Agana

Agana Nsiire-Agana is a Ph.D. student at the University of Edinburgh.