Home Features My experience studying Ifa, the Yoruba deity-Bishop Bako

My experience studying Ifa, the Yoruba deity-Bishop Bako

by Church Times

Ifa: My experience studying Ifa, the Yoruba deity


Ifa Bishop George Bako

Bishop George Bako, one- time Director General of Nigeria Broadcasting Corporation and retired Bishop of Lokoja Diocese of the Church of Nigeria, Anglican Communion, shares his thought with the duo of Gbenga Osinaike and Florence Alo on the state of the church in Nigeria

You were in the church system, but you have been out for well over a decade. How would you appraise what is going on in the church today?

I am not satisfied with the Nigerian presentation of Christianity. The missionaries who introduced the faith to us were limited by the cultural environment. They tried to keep to the tradition they met to the point that they could not transmit the core of the Christian faith to our fathers. Because of that we have not been able to see the practicality of the Christian faith in its original form.

But has that always been the trend?
There has been some measure of improvement over the years but we are still largely the same. What we have is a replica of what happened in Rome. Paul for instance did not establish Christianity in Rome. Those who took the gospel to Rome were slaves and servants who were captured and were in the palace of the emperor of Rome. The mother of Constantine was the one who discovered a slave girl who lived a uniquely different life from the rest of the slaves. Incidentally that slave girl was also from a royal family but because she was captured in the war she had to serve in the palace in the Roman Empire.

The mother of the emperor was the one that was inspired by the life of the girl and she became a Christian through her. It was the mother of the emperor who introduced Christ to the emperor and that was how the emperor bought into Christianity and later introduced Christianity to the whole of Rome. The fascination for the mother was that serving Jesus was better than the several gods that was known to Rome.

How do we reconcile this account with the story that Constantine saw a sign of the cross in his dream and a voice told him that he would win an impending war by the sign of the cross. He did win and that led to the introduction of Christianity to Rome as the official religion?

Well there are different accounts. It’s like the case of the mysterious fire that engulfed Rome during the time of Emperor Nero. The incident was linked to Christians in order to have a ground to kill them. So they were served to lions as foods. When they were being led to the arena where lions tore them to shreds they were singing and smiling. The emperor could not understand why they could be so happy in the face of death. Peter was one of the Christians that were captured. But the other Christians felt it was not proper that Peter be killed along with them so they tried to get Peter out of the place. A young boy led him out but as they were about to pass the escape route, the boy heard a voice which Peter did not hear. The voice said, “I am Jesus whom you denied three times. If you escape from being killed I will come back a second time to be crucified.” Peter turned back when the boy relayed what he heard to him and went back to the place where Christians were being killed. They wanted to crucify him the way Jesus was crucified but he pleaded that they crucify him headlong that he was not worthy to die the way Jesus died. So that is another account of Christianity in Rome.

So how do we reconcile all these stories?

In those days we had Jewish, pagan and Christian accounts of the history of the church. People had different perspectives. But like my boss when I was at the Nigeria Broadcasting Corporation would say, “if you want to know the truth buy all the lies, put them together you will get the truth.”

You were trying to make a point about the Christian faith in Rome and how it came to Nigeria

Constantine made Christianity a state religion. But the issue then is: How do you take Christianity as it was then and bring it to an idolatrous setting like Rome? There were many gods in the Roman Empire. The people were extremely idolatrous. The Berom people in Hausaland for instance had over 1000 gods. It was like Rome. When Constantine was to adopt Christianity he now had to amend Christianity by likening the saints in Christianity to the gods in Rome. He deified the saints. It was easier for the Romans to identify with the saints. But the Christianity they practiced was not the Christianity in the Acts of Apostles. It was a Christianity that has been polluted with idolatry. And that was the gospel to some extent that was presented to us in Africa.

Unfortunately, Nigeria is also an idolatrous country. That is why no matter how Christianized a person is; he will behave like a Nigerian. Our fore fathers accepted Christianity because it came with some largess but they did not dump some of the bad cultural values that they had. What I am saying is that we need to discover this true Christianity because even in Britain before the reformation of Martin Luther there was already a discovery of the true Christianity when the Celtic came to Britain with what was close to the original faith in the Acts of Apostle. But the Roman church forced them out of Europe. So, Nigeria had to grapple with the double tragedy of a syncretic Christianity in an idolatrous environment. That has largely accounted for the corruption in the church today.

Are you saying the culture and faith are mutually exclusive?
From my study of the Bible I found that though the Christian faith is the same, the understanding varies from culture to culture. That is why the epistles of Paul are specifically addressed to a people group. What he wrote to the Galatians on the same issue is different from how he put it to the Corinthians. He is saying the same thing but he was contextualizing it. He did not allow the culture to diffuse the Christianity but rather he Christianized their cultures. That was what Archdeacon Ogunbiyi was trying to do with the Reformed Ogboni Fraternity. But he did not appreciate the enormity of what he was about to do. He got stuck half way and got his hands burnt and he was hated for it. I guess his intention was not to introduce cult to the church but to find a way of Christianizing the culture of the people. That was the same problem Holy Johnson who masterminded the breakaway of the African Church from the Anglican Church, had. He believed in native pasturing. The challenge then was that the whites did not want to leave pasturing to the natives. When Ajayi Crowther became Bishop, they carved out the areas of where the whites were away from his jurisdiction. They did not approve of the natives becoming pastors especially where the whites were. So Holy Johnson was concerned about native pasturing and not introduction of culture into the faith.

What you are saying in essence is that a particular culture can actually be Christianized without Christianity losing its essence?

There is the need to separate the faith from culture. But there are some forms of our cultural norms that are not occult oriented that ought to have been encouraged alongside the Christian faith. The white missionaries ought to have researched into our culture and look at areas that are not fetish and see how they could be used to bring people to Christ. Unfortunately, in those days they rejected even our local drums from being used in the church. But the issues they ought to have tackled were more that the local drums. The issues are deeper. They brought in hymns, which was good but it should have been in parallel with our culture devoid of the occult element. They could not sieve the occult element from the elements that are not injurious to our spiritual growth.

But culture has a way of infiltrating into what we do. For instance a Yoruba priest preaching will unconsciously say in the process of his sermon that egun nla ni gbeyin igbale,(it is the big masquerade that comes out last from the groove) I used to ask them what has egun (masquerade) got to do with the church. The truth is that we grew up with these things and we don’t see the problem until our attention is pointed to them. Christianity should be part of our lives such that when a Christian is in government he will not embezzle money. But when he has his tradition at the back of his mind, he would say, Ona kan kowo oja. …ie There are several routes to the market place. He will then be tempted to steal because of this cultural orientation that many routes lead to the market place.

Are you saying it’s the traditional elements that have informed some of the deviant behavior we have in the church today?
It is our inability to do away with the bad aspect of our tradition. I can show you volumes of Wande Abimbola’s books on Ifa because I studied Ifa. He understood Ifa so much to the point that he was saying the basic understanding of the computer which is binary configuration came from Ifa. He was trying to move Ifa to the centre of civilization. But his claim is not true. Until you study Ifa yourself you will then know that it’s a lie.
For instance, Orunmila is the supreme deity. If you go to a herbalist for instance he does some incantations and he is able to use the divination tool to determine the solution to your problem. He then makes some incantation to determine what step to take by the outcome of the configuration of the divination tool known as Opele in Yoruba land. Depending on the configuration he goes to Ese Ifa (documented but learnt by heart ifa verses) and then tells you what to do to come out of your problem. He tells you for instance that you have to sacrifice a monkey. He says there is a particular specie you must not use for the sacrifice.

He then goes further to inquire why the specie should not be used. He is made to understand that there was a day Orunmila, the supreme deity was trapped in a pit; that it was the tail of the monkey that Orunmila leverage on to save his life. So, one is surprised that a monkey saved Orunmila the supreme deity from the pit and by extension from dying. This revelation punctures the veracity of the faith in Orunmila. If we critically look at all the idolatrous practices and point out these gaffes; we will be presenting our own understanding of the Nigerian Christianity. That is taking the gospel to the roots. With that many of the pollution in the church will not be there because the person coming to Christ has fundamental understanding of faith. There is a need to understand other religions and bring the adherents to the Christians faith in a way that will make them see clearly that they are threading a wrong path.

But how was it studying Ifa?
Well I love religion generally and I got to a point where I offered myself as a student to learn. When you learn as long as you are solid in faith the question of moving away from your own belief will not be there. It’s like talking about Yoga…there is Christian meditation also. There are those who read people’s palms and use all kinds of things to predict one’s future. In Christianity we have something similar which is based on the understanding of the power of resurrection and the word of God which tells us about the end of age. We have Christian meditation using the scripture but you don’t cross over to the occult while meditating on the word. The totality of what we have in the faith is almost a replica in the occult world because when Satan was driven out of heaven God did not take from him his power. He came down with all his power. As you have it on the side of Christ so you have it on the side of evil.
To round it up we need a Nigerian contribution to Christianity. This is a challenge to all our academicians. The department of religions should be able to do research on it. Our children should be taught properly so that they would have basic understanding.

How did you get your own personal conviction about the Christian faith?

I had a gradual understanding of the faith. People vary and the way God works is different. Jesus healed differently. One cannot put God in a box. He took a lot of time for me to come to certain understanding. My father was a priest but I still had my own peculiarities. In my case I get punished whether by people or something happens to me whenever I did something wrong. So I began to ask questions. That was what pushed me to God. It was the circumstances that I found myself that informed my faith in Christ.
In those days we used to like magic. We wanted to know the exams questions before the day of the exams. We were told to go to the graveyard and make some incantation and that an angel would appear with the questions and some people actually did go to the burial ground.

But were they real?
They were not working but they were real. I remember the case of two boys who experienced it and were brought to me for prayers. They were actually eccentric because they had encounters with some magical powers. I prayed for them nothing happened. I asked them to go and come back in two weeks. But I gave myself two weeks of praying for them and invited them for prayers after the end of the two weeks and prayed for them. One became normal and the other was not. I began to investigate and found that the one that was alright had been baptized at some point in his life and had relationship with God. Every man has been given the free will to reject or accept salvation. At every situation the devil makes himself look like the person you want. You are the only one that can use your free will to denounce the devil.

By the time the other young man was introduced to Jesus and he accepted him and was baptized, he was able to reject the devil inside of him. In the case of the friend that first got his deliverance the evil spirit was a usurper because by his baptism he had been grafted into Christ.

If those guys had had good foundation they would not go into occult practice. They actually went to the graveyard but the angels that appeared to them was a bloody one which made them run mad.

With your exposure to the church system and your experience in ministry what do you have to tell the church?

We need to go back to the basics and within ourselves do refresher course and reexamine ourselves. What you don’t know you can’t give. For instance, how do you explain church leaders who are into occult practices? We need to rededicate ourselves and seek the face of God on what it means to serve the Lord. Our problem is attitudinal. Our values have been compromised and that has affected our flock which makes us think we need to base everything on physical values. Our men of God want to have the best car, the best house. Our understanding of God has been corrupted that is why we deliberately misinterpret the word of God.

Read also: My journey from Islam to Christianityhttps://churchtimesnigeria.net/muslim-asafa-christianity/

There is an ongoing debate on tithe. What is your position on this?
The grace of God was paid for by Jesus. It did not come free and it cannot be free for us. When God was to save the children of Israel, he asked them to kill a ram and use the blood on the lintel to avert the destructive angel killing their first sons. They were to later give those sons to the service of the Lord in the temple.
In the New Testament Jesus became the Passover lamb. He died around the same time of the Passover feast. In appreciation of his death, you take Jesus 100 percent and give yourself to him. What you are required to do is to submit yourself to him totally. Tithe has now become total submission to Christ and not a 10 per cent thing. The Old Testament leads to the new. Look at Pentecost, there was already the Jewish priest of Pentecost and that was when the Holy Spirit was given. The trouble is that the gentiles were more than Jewish Christians and that was why Paul kept warning against importing human tradition to the faith. We are to allow the Holy Spirit to lead us.

What do you make of the Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN) in this dispensation?
CAN is not leading the way it should lead. CAN wants to see itself as another political block which should not be. CAN should look at the country, Christian principles and ensure that all Christians are clear and know what they are doing. It then means that every member of CAN who goes into politics will reflect the life of Christ. People are being brainwashed to do weird things in the church. The congregation is being made to believe they could attain wealth anyhow. The average Christian has a conflict in his mind and believes that one day he too will become like his pastor and live big like his pastor who paints the picture of material gain to him. So he keeps hoping against hope.
People need money. But to do the work of God truthfully the pastor cannot be rich because in your flock there are those who are in need who will need your help one way or the other. Unfortunately, pastors need money to maintain their epicurean lifestyle. They believe they can always brainwash their congregation continuously. I saw on television a pastor who has so much brainwashed the congregation that a girl was saying that she would kill herself if anything happened to her pastor because that pastor was being questioned by the authority. Today we lack that aspect of sacrificial ministry in the church. The sacrificial ministry is when you allow the life of Christ to reflect in your life.

So what do you suggest as a way forward?
I think the first thing is transparency in the way money is being spent in the church. I think the Corporate Affairs Commission is trying to separate the profit making and the non-profit organisations. To some extent some are still hiding under the non-profit to make money and not pay their dues to government. That should stop.
For the church to raise money the members can be asked to pay dues since they are members of the group. People should be able to give the church anything as it is laid in their hearts. But to be a member of a body you should contribute to the upkeep of that body.

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Victor Adelugba ( venerable) July 23, 2019 - 1:43 pm

Mr Gbenga Osinaike, thanks for your thoughts, very deep

Arlen July 8, 2020 - 6:19 am

One may wish to see more about Jesus and more of the Bible in a conversation with a Christian leader.


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