Controversial preacher TB Joshua: Immanuel by Matthew McNaught is an empathetic tale of blind faith and demons – Laura Waddell

This week I have been reading an especially compelling debut. In Immanuel by Matthew McNaught, the author traces his relationship with evangelical Christianity.

The late Nigerian pastor TB Joshua had an international following (Picture: Pius Utomi Ekpei/AFP via Getty Images)
The late Nigerian pastor TB Joshua had an international following (Picture: Pius Utomi Ekpei/AFP via Getty Images)

Having left the church in his student years, he goes back to discover what happened to old friends sucked into the orbit of a radical, charismatic preacher in Nigeria.

How did a megachurch in Lagos have a hold over worshippers in Winchester, England?

McNaught writes: “TB Joshua first entered my awareness as a curiosity: a sharp-suited, goatee-bearded Nigerian preacher on the chunky plastic cover of a VHS tape, which sat among books and audio-cassettes on the table at the back of the assembly room. It was the late nineties and I was in my teens. When I first watched the clips of his healings and exorcisms – which seemed to combine Billy Graham stadium evangelism with the kinetic drama of WWE wrestling – they provoked, above all, my burgeoning teenage scepticism. There was also a faint hope, a question hovering: what if this was the real deal?”

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McNaught was brought up a committed follower of the evangelical church. In his student years, he slipped away from it, at the same time friends in the church grew more and more enmeshed in Joshua’s internationally focused, YouTube popular, radical sermonising to vast crowds of worshippers.

Some of McNaught’s old friends made the journey to Lagos to join Joshua’s ministry. Later, reports would emerge of cult-like behaviour, isolation from the external world, excessive punishment, and, most troubling of all, multiple accounts of grotesque sexual assault.

Under Joshua, his Synagogue Church of All Nations, based in Nigeria but with international outposts including one in London, fostered a culture of not asking questions; not rocking the boat, but blindly believing.

As followers grew more devoted, giving over their lives and finances to the church, Joshua grew richer preaching his prosperity gospel on Emmanuel TV, reaching for ever-more unbelievable scenes of sensation, such as the casting out of demons.

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There are a lot of knots to unpick in this story of cults with international reach and predatory revivalist preachers. In elegant and patient prose, McNaught does an admirable job balancing introspective, tricky questions about his own faith, beliefs, and mistakes with deep empathy for those who, when their paths diverged, were enticed down a much different route.

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