In honor of the Easter weekend I suppose, the Sunday Magazine lead article in the NyTimes this week was about the immigration of African forms of Christianity into America, particularly of a Pentecostal variety.
Andrew Rice’s long, winding article covers a whole mess of ground–some of it well, some of maybe not so well inevitable I imagine given its scope–and is worth the read in full.
There are a number of major themes in the article that need addressing; I can’t get to all of them but I’ll try to touch what I think are the major bases.
1. As scholarly background to this discussion is the still dominant notion referred to as the secularization thesis which has dominated sociology since Comte, Marx, and Weber. This thesis holds that as societies grow more modern (in the Western sense) then they will inevitably decline in religious affiliation and membership. A corollary of this hypothesis then of course is that religious belief is inherently backward and regressive.
There are a number of problems with this thesis.
e.g. The secularization thesis takes what is essentially the European version of modernization as paradigmatic for all societies, cultures, religions, and nations across the globe. The postmodernists calls this Euro-centric, but basically it means that the entire world is judged against the standard of the West: to the degree they become more like “us” they are advancing, to the degree they don’t they are regressing or mutating in some negative variety instead of perhaps just developing on their own trajectory.
But perhaps more importantly it falsely reads the history of its own paradigmatic case: Europe. While historical reconstructions of the modern European era focus on the decline of Christianity–since it is following the reconstruction of the authors who supported the secularization thesis themselves, in no small part with their own ideological agendas (conscious or otherwise)–a better analysis would show the ways in which there was a transformation of forms of Christianity, which still was quite forceful even in Europe until the 1960s.
Really full-on secularization of belief as we undestand the term does not come until postmodernity.
As religious anthropologist Talal Asad has it, when the secular nation-state is formed in the modern period, then religious belief becomes a private, inner experience. Robbed of public sphere legitimacy, religion goes within. That is why evangelicalism in the form of revivals, born-againism, the Great Awakenings, became the dominant form of Christianity in the modern era (particularly in the United States).
Now others part of the world are undergoing modernization, especially The Middle East, China, and Africa. And right on cue “Protestant” forms of religion–even within Islam–are taking over. These contemporary experiential-based religion can take different forms relative to the public sphere. They can attempt to take back over the public sphere: i.e. Islamism in the Middle East and Moral Majority cultural wars in the US. They can become very quietistic politically (again both Christian and Muslim varieties of this type). Or some combination.
The traditional or classical forms of these religions are dying out. This is as true for Islam as Christianity btw. The traditional forms dying out was mistaken by the early secularization thesis proponents as proof of the total demise of religion en toto.
What this article in the NyTimes details–which was first studied by Harvey Cox a couple of decades back–is that Pentecostalism is the new now dominant form of experiential Christianity. Pentecostalism, in terms of numbers, it could be argued, has been the most successful idea/movement of the 20th century.
Rice’s essay follows a Nigerian-based indigenous form of Christianity that has begun to form its own missionary effort. The West which is now largely secularized and which is beginning to lose its evangelical momentum even in the US, is now being missionized by the former missionary/colonies of the colonial powers.
This process is what Scott, elsewhere here at the League, calls glocalization: the globalization of the local. In the 20th century, Christianity (and Islam) in Africa exploded as they both become much more culturally and socially indigenous. These (for lack of a better term) indigenous forms of African Christianities grew out in parallel to but technically separate from Pentecostalism which is a US creation. But the church profiled in Rice’s essay, The Redeemed Christian Church of God, joined with the Pentecostal church umbrella for larger legitimacy.
Or has Rice correctly points out:
Pentecostalism is not so much an organized religion — it has no central authority — as a set of beliefs and practices that can be adapted by local entrepreneurs. It is perfectly suited to harness the modern forces of global crosspollination [i.e. glocalism].
Pentecostalism is the new evangelicalism.
As (post)modern life becomes ever drearier, ever more pre-fabricated, ever more filled with anomic loneliness, with the superficiality of consumer existence, with the marketing away of our pain and humanity, converting our sores and traumas into “issues” and the like, then the intensity of inner experience is sought as a succor and ballast: e.g. extreme sports, sex, “reality” TV, and religious experience. Pentecostalism rides on the global network of the world to bring that inner intensity while simultaneously largely abandoning the outer world to the forces of secularizing globalism.
While the classic self-description of the modern European era is as rational, perhaps excessively so, the reality was quite different. As Paul Tillich decades ago observed, the modern European bourgeoisie was known also for his/her public tears and emotional displays. [Reason having become detached from emotion, lets emotion run wild].
Consider that point in relation to what Rice says here:
Even by the passionate standards of Africa, the Redeemed are renowned for the intensity of their prayer. In Nigeria, it has been called “the weeping church.”
In more expressly Christian theological language, the 3rd millennium of the faith belongs to the third (and largely forgotten) person of the Trinity: The Holy Spirit. As the author of the Gospel of Luke and The Acts of the Apostles has it, there are three ages corresponding to three persons of the Divine Godhead. We are now in the third, belonging to the Spirit.
And as St. Basil the Great said back in the 4th century, The Spirit is really a place, a location (like an abode/home). Being “in”-spired, being in The Spirit. At its best (and even in its worst) Pentecostalism is about offering the experience of the place of the Divine.
2. And here is where the trick comes in. The actual Pentecostal experience is a human universal. Its roots go back to shamanism, long pre-dating Christianity. Shamans would describe an intense feeling of being overtaken by a spirit/force, which would often leave them falling into a trance-like state where they felt an experience of being killed and then rising to travel into heaven. In Pentecostalism this is called being “slain in the Spirit.” It is a common feature of primal religious traditions of Amerindians, Australian, Africa, and Asiatic aboriginal peoples. It has certainly been long a feature of African-American religious and musical traditions (black gospel, the blues, even krumping for the kids today). There is a more specifically Christian form of shamanism (i.e. Pentecostalism) but its a unique variation on a basic template not a totally unique construct unto itself. e.g. Primal shamans describe learning to communicate with plans/animals/dead ancestors while Pentecostal Christians speak in the “tongues of angels”–i.e. both (claim to) communicate with non-human entites although of different varieties.
Given Pentecostalism’s structural roots, it is generally much closer to the primal human experience of life: generally known as animism. In that view, there are spirits inherent/alive in all things. Now various forms of Pentecostalism generally tend to argue that these other spirits are in fact malevolent and the only genuine Spirit is God’s–thereby being both closer to and rejecting of the more primal animistic traditions. Not unlike early Christianity in its relationship to agrarian European religion (i.e.paganism).
The question then is not the experience per se (which seems quite available to all peoples) but the manner in which it is interpreted (what meaning is given to it) and to what ends these experiences are deployed. Pentecostalism–from all points on the globe–is struggling by its co-opted by the so-called prosperity gospel. By televangelism, chicanery, money, sex, and power as lubricants of coming scandal. Basic human sin in other words.
The Pentecostal experience in other words does not have to be linked with beliefs in “fighting witches/demons” or evil spirits that need to be exorcised. Nor does it have to be (though it can be and is in some quarters) aligned with modern capitalist excess and the formation of bourgeoisie value system.
As an example… The original Pentecostal explosion (what they call The Latter Rain) in 1906 at Asuza Street initially joined poor whites, blacks, Asians, and Latinos. The blissful heat of the Spirit’s embrace–of being “located in God” or “located by God”–was to overcome racial and class boundaries. Sadly particularly in the US as Pentecostalism has become more mainstreamed the churches tend to be separated more and more by class and race.
[The Church in Rice’s essay seems to have had some success in overcoming this trend, although interestingly as Rice notes unlike many Pentecostal churches they are quite possibly the most top-down power structured of the Pentecostal churches around. Much more Roman Catholic in that regard].
For a Christian, all experiences, even legitimate spiritual ones like this (and they undoubtedly are faked all the time) only matter insofar as they are subjected to the critique of love: do they buildup the community or bring spiritual arrogance, division, and jealousy? (See Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians on this point).
But more broadly, I think the explosion of these ecstatic forms of worship should make us re-evaluate the ways in which our contemporary existence (esp. those who live in dense urban environments) deadens our emotional life. They will find a manner of expression no matter what–the key is to find a healthy way in which to let this out. Otherwise it tends to explode in other and self-destructive manners.