A false prophet?
But, a heretic?
Not a chance.
One of the greatest minds of the previous century, G. K. Chesterton once wrote: “The word “heresy” not only means no longer being wrong; it practically means being clear-headed and courageous.”
My Professor, Justin Holcomb, in his book Know the Heretics notes that the sense of the word “heresy” has been lost. He adds “To some people today, a heretic suggests a rebel – someone with courage, the kind of person who can think for himself and stand up to the institutional church.”
In the early church, heretics were those guys who came up with new and novel ideas on who God was. Their crime was not the creativity and thoughtfulness they exhibited, it was the deviation from a unified position, call it doctrine, that the Universal Church taught.
That is not how we use the term today.
Today, the term carries connotations that are less religious. It is more of a cultural term.
Elvis Mbonye would agree that he is a ‘rebel’, ‘courageous’, and that he is ‘standing up to the institutional church’. In fact, he rues the “religious establishment” for spending too much time practicing a static spirituality, and dead theology with nothing to show for it.
I want to submit that Elvis Mbonye is a product of the current social and cultural forces that have shaped the way we live, interact.
The contemporary catchphrase all wannabe entrepreneurs talk about is ‘disruption’.
Millennials will walk into an incubating hub in one of the suburbs of Kampala, hoping that their business idea will be the one to serve a market that could not be served previously.
With the use of words like ‘unprecedented’, ‘accurate’, etcetera, concerning his predictions, Elvis Mbonye has positioned himself as a disrupter in the religious space.
He is different and unapologetic. His ministry is like a regular high-end startup, operating in a rented space, probably because of an anticipation of future exponential growth.
His selling point, though, is his personal brand.
The idea of a personal brand is new. Older folks don’t ‘get’ it, for the most part, because they don’t ‘get’ social media. The other day President Yoweri Museveni tried to resist the idea of building a personal brand when his Bazzukulu (grandchildren) told him that these days “appearances matter.”
He responded in a classic Museveni fashion by reminding everyone that he is the son of Kaguta and therefore does not need PR. Recently, he has jumped on the train, and it is working well for him.
Now back to Mr Mbonye.
While his ministry—Zoe Fellowship—sells him as the brand, his skill is what completes this equation. You see, a personal brand is built around something you can sell to people. Mbonye sells predictions, packaged as Christian prophecies.
That is why his public image matters to him (not that it shouldn’t matter): the classy outfits, latest cars, and the marketing language sprinkled with religious words.
The other thing about personal branding is what is called “social proof”, the idea that they will only “believe if ya show ’em”. It’s a game of perception, and people will adopt a certain way of life akin to those who ‘influence’ them. Have you seen people on Facebook add ‘Elvis’ to their names? Or others entering the prophecy business calling themselves his sons with the same haircut, and flashy outfits?
Because, if you mimic his observable behaviour, you become like him. Well, in reality, not really.
What they try to mimic—the tip of the iceberg—is what they see in pictures, videos or two hours a week. Mostly, it is someone who has makeup on and is trying to portray themselves in a particular light. What about the other part of the iceberg which is submerged in the icy waters of personal struggles, sin, marital fights, vulnerability and all the other ‘thorns in the flesh’?
The question above is important because one day, when a teenage daughter starts to blur parental boundaries, or a scary medical diagnosis comes in, or a marriage can’t work anymore, etc., one will need an authentic spiritual leader, not a social media, photoshopped version of a man of God.
They that make them are like unto them
—so is every one that trusts in them, says the Psalmist in Ps 115:8. One thing that has been evident with Elvis Mbonye and his followers has been the arrogance with which they speak.
About a year and a half ago, when two of Mr Mbonye’s followers were hosted on a talk show on NTV, a youthful fellow spent all those two hours swimming in arrogance to the dismay of everyone on the show. He turned to one of the guests on the program and pointed out how his faith was ‘dead’ because he was putting on eyeglasses. Indeed, if his God was living, he would cure his eye problem, the young man reasoned.
That lack of cultural intelligence is analogous to small three-year-old children who have not yet developed social skills. It’s the kind of behaviour that should never be condoned by anyone in their right mind, yet such is what sets you apart as Mr Mbonye’s son or daughter.
This week, Elvis Mbonye exhibited the same arrogant pride in the interview he gave to Solomon Serwanjja. It is now evident who taught that youthful fellow to behave and speak the way he did.
The arrogance that Mr Mbonye exuded in the interview can pass for a spiritual endeavour. It seems to me that that arrogance is to them a fruit of the spirit, Mbonye’s spirit.
Everyone who trusts in them will become like them. Elvis is teaching them well, and they are becoming like him.
Why Elvis Mbonye is not a Heretic
Going back to our definition of heresy above, I mean the traditional definition. I still hold that Elvis Mbonye is not a heretic.
You see, heresy demands that you compromise an essential doctrine of the faith, and in the process disfigure the traditional understanding of who God is. Mr Mbonye has not done that.
Not even close.
He is a product of the social and cultural forces that have shaped the way we interact and live. What he does is done by so many other spiritual entrepreneurs.
What he has failed to do, however, is use these socio-cultural forces, like social media and today’s redefined view of self and personhood to shape, at best, or alter, at worst, the essential doctrines of the Christian faith. He is theologically bankrupt.
Yesterday while on a walk with two friends, one of them told us a story about his time in a Christian college. It went like this. A certain student prefaced his in-class submission with the words “For fear of being a heretic…” His professor quickly interjected and said, “Son, you are not smart enough to be a heretic.”