Thursday, December 28, 2006

Spirit-filled religion: Pentecostals (from the Economist)

I've been happily perusing the Holiday special double-issue of The Economist, always a good read, and exceptionally so with this issue. I think I could blog about every article. There are several I'll probably end up talking about, but here's the first one ... a neat survey of Pentcostal Christianity, which is one of the fastest growing forms of Christianity across the globe. [In October, the Pew Forum published a widely-quoted survey on Pentecostalism, or "renwalist movements" as they call the phenomenon. It's worth a look.]
IN 1906 Ambrose Bierce, one of America's finest satirists, published a guide to bullshit, “The Cynic's Word Book” or, as it was later rechristened, “The Devil's Dictionary”. Bierce reserved his sharpest barbs for religion. To pray, he said, is “to ask that the laws of the universe be annulled in behalf of a single petitioner confessedly unworthy”. Religion is “a daughter of Hope and Fear, explaining to Ignorance the nature of the Unknowable”. For Bierce, Christianity was an antiquated superstition with no place in the modern world.

In the same year an itinerant black preacher arrived in Los Angeles. William J. Seymour was “disheveled in appearance”, blind in one eye and scarred by smallpox. He was also on fire with a vision—that Jesus would soon return and God would send a new Pentecost if only people would pray hard enough. He began to preach from a makeshift church in Azusa Street, in a run-down part of town. Soon thousands joined him. People spoke in tongues, floated six feet in the air, or so we are told, and fell to the floor in trances, “slain by the Lord”. The faithful prayed day after day for three years on the trot, and dispatched dozens of missionaries abroad.
Yet, with the possible exception of Europe, history has moved in Seymour's direction rather than Bierce's. The great secular ideologies of the 19th and early 20th centuries—from Marxism to Freudianism—have faded while Seymour's spirit-filled version of Christianity has flourished. Pentecostal denominations have prospered, and Pentecostalism has infused traditional denominations through the wildly popular charismatic movement.

Today there are more than 500m “revivalists” in the world (ie, members of Pentecostal denominations plus “charismatics” in traditional denominations). In a recent survey of Pentecostalism, the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life argues that “renewalist movements” are the world's fastest-growing religious movement: the World Christian Database shows that renewalists now make up about a quarter of the world's Christian population compared with just 6% 30 years ago. The evidence of this can be seen everywhere in America and the developing world: in churches the size of football stadiums in Latin America, in 12,000-acre “redemption camps” in Nigeria, in storefront churches in the slums of Rio and Los Angeles. LA's most successful export is not Hollywood but Pentecostalism.

Pentecostals believe in things that set Bierce's teeth on edge. The Pew Forum made a particularly detailed study of ten countries. In all ten large majorities of Pentecostals (ranging from 56% in South Korea to 87% in Kenya) say that they have either experienced or witnessed divine healing. In eight of them majorities say that they have received a “direct revelation from God”. In six countries more than half believe that Jesus will return to earth during their lifetimes—and in all ten more than 80% believe that the faithful will be gathered up before the end of the world and transported to heaven.
This being the Economist, whose coverage of religion always has a little of that secularist smugness (-- "wow, people actually still believe in all this kind of stuff!" --) about it (well, "smug" pretty much sums up the publication's attitude, doesn't it?:-)), they try to hone in on various explanations for the phenomenal success of Pentecostalism, including, of course, economics ...
[Adam] Smith offers a third view: that Pentecostalism thrives because of the effects of competition. Whereas the Catholic Church is a would-be monopoly, Pentecostals create thousands of competing churches. The barriers to entry are low—almost anyone can set up a church—but the pressure to perform is relentless: if you can't preach a mesmerising service, people will go elsewhere. “We have to work against the competition as well as the devil,” says a young preacher.

One result of this is that Pentecostalism draws on the full talents of the population. The Catholic Church is perpetually short of priests, not least because it limits its recruitment to well-educated celibate males. But Pentecostal churches have a genius for elevating charismatic sheep from the flock. They are particularly good at using female talent. Women not only fill the pews. They get up and testify. And they are increasingly becoming preachers in their own right—a particularly striking development in patriarchal Latin America.

Another result is that Pentecostalism is wonderfully innovative. What other Christian movement can produce churches with names like the Mountain of Fire and Miracles (in Nigeria) and the Church of Christ's Spit (in Brazil)? And what other religious movement can produce “hallelujah robotics”—a sort of frenzied dancing and chanting? Churches also make aggressive use of modern media. With its charismatic preachers, dramatic testimonials and miraculous cures, Pentecostalism is telegenic.

Many churches are therefore superb businesses—honed by competition and obsessed with expansion. The Universal Church of the Kingdom of God in Brazil, which was only created in 1977, has more than 2m members today. Its founder, “Bishop” Edir Macedo, owns one of Brazil's largest television stations as well as radio stations, newspapers and a football team. The “cathedral” of the Jotabeche Methodist Pentecostal Church in Santiago, Chile, can seat 18,000. The Yoido Full Gospel Church is the biggest church in the world: every Sunday 250,000 people turn up to worship.
Most ingriguing is the suggestion that Pentecostalism is simply a response to modernism, or rather, is one of the results of the encounter between Christianity and modernity ...
Peter Berger, the dean of sociologists of religion, argues that “Max Weber is alive and well and living in Guatemala City”. Pentecostalism is making dramatic advances among the upwardly mobile. One of the movement's central messages is self-respect—Pentecostals are “dynamite in the hands of God” rather than deferential servants. Relying on ordinary people to spread the word, the churches are particularly good at conveying the rudiments of management. They teach people to speak in public, organise meetings and, as they become more successful, manage large organisations. The bookshops in the mega churches are full of tomes on management as well as spiritual uplift.

This argument is far from perfect. Weber's God remained aloof whereas the Pentecostals' God reaches down to touch the human heart. Pentecostals are restoring much that the Puritans drove out of Christianity, such as visions, miracles and healing cures. It is clearly backward-looking as well as forward-looking—and in its worst forms it is a licence for fraudsters. Before he was caught with a prostitute, Jimmy Swaggart, an Assemblies of God minister, reached 500m viewers a week and attracted an estimated half a million dollars in donations every day. A number of Latin American preachers have a weakness for silk suits and fancy houses.
500 million is a lot of people ... so, this bears watching, for sure!


pritcher said...

A couple months ago the Cendrowskis (mom and dad) went to the Charismatic Catholic conference in Columbia. They gave us CDs of some of the talks for Christmas, and I'm looking forward to listening to them.

Gashwin said...

Hmm ... was this back in Feb. 06 or thereabouts? The main speaker was Fr. Bruce Neilli, CSP ... a fantastic Paulist preacher who's been serving in Memphis, TN for years. I went the first night to hear his talk, and it was just superb. Couldn't catch the rest of the weekend ... RCIA stuff or some other parish stuff. You recall how it was :-). If those tapes can be shared, that would be neat.

pritcher said...

It was actually in October, so it may be a different conference than that one, but I'd be happy to loan you a copy of the talks.

St. Elizabeth of Cayce said...

We studied the Azuza Street revival at my first undergrad. The outgrowth of this and similar revivals lead to and/or influenced denominational movements (Pentecostal Holiness, Assemblies of God, etc.)

The Charismatic movement began in 1960 with Fr. Dennis Bennett (Episcopal.) The big difference betweent the two eras (skipping neo-pentecostalism in between), was that the Pentecostals and Assemblies folks were regarded as less-educated, lower class, etc. Charismatics were "like everyone else," i.e., educated, middle class, etc.

The Faith/Word/Prosperity preachers made the Charismatic movement much more popular than it would have been had it remained a movement of prayer and prophecy. Per their teaching, folks who were "like everyone else" could rise even higher in the social strata. Speaking prosperity would bring prosperity to pass. Speaking against disease would bring about health.

The prosperity movement as a phenomenon lead again to what you referred to as appearing obliquely in the Economist article:

"wow, people actually still believe in all this kind of stuff!"


Weber's God remained aloof whereas the Pentecostals' God reaches down to touch the human heart. Pentecostals are restoring much that the Puritans drove out of Christianity, such as visions, miracles and healing cures.

Have they met the Catholic church?

Seriously, we as Catholics don't do a good enough job in reaching those people who are hungry for a personal encounter with God, whether in Brazil or Nigeria or Chicago...

Gashwin said...

A good point about class attitudes as well, St. Lizzy. I agree with you about the Catholic Church as a whole in the US, and perhaps in the Americas as well -- which is why, for instance, we're losing out to the "sects" when it comes to the Hispanics. From what I've gathered, I think that it's not quite that bad in Africa. I've no idea really about India or Asia ...

Regardless, that whole "personal encounter" thing is at the heart of the matter. Just read what the recent Popes have said. Oh yeah, and the New Testament as well ... :-)