Tuesday, November 03, 2009

Pentecostals and the Age of the Spirit -- Future of Faith 14


Transforming Theology Project
Harvey Cox, The Future of Faith, Harper One

Chapter 14: The Last Vomit of Satan
and the Persistent List Makers:

Pentecostals and the Age of the Spirit

In 1901, in Topeka, Kansas a student at Charles Parham’s holiness Bible institute had an ecstatic experience of the Spirit, one marked by speaking in unknown tongues, just, they claimed, like the believers did on the day of Pentecost. In 1906, in a storefront church on Los Angeles’s Azusa Street a revival broke out, a revival that included such phenomena as speaking in tongues – but perhaps more importantly this gathering was multi-racial, mult-cultural, and led by a black preacher named William Seymour. That outbreak of the “Spirit” has impacted Christianity ever since. At first there was much resistance, but the influence of that movement has spread throughout the Christian world, even invading the sometimes staid world of Anglicanism and Catholicism. Harvey Cox, writing here in the penultimate chapter of his book, The Future of Faith, points to the offspring of that original American outbreak, an offspring that has taken off like a wildfire throughout Asia and the Global South.

In the previous chapter, Harvey Cox pointed to liberation theology as one sign of this new Age of the Spirit. His reasoning is that liberation theology focuses more on justice and practice than on dogma. He sees similar possibilities with Pentecostalism – though the influence of Pentecostalism, especially in Latin America, has far outstripped liberation theology. In laying out the possibilities of this Pentecostal movement, he contrasts what is going on to the south with what is happening in North America, where fundamentalism and conservative politics has made its mark on Pentecostalism.

Turning to Brazil, Cox notes that evangelicals and Pentecostals make up a growing percentage of the population in this traditionally Catholic nation. These believers are known as the crentes or “People of the Way. What is true in Brazil is also true to some degree in places like Africa and Asia, where Pentecostals make up the majority of Christians. With the growing presence of this movement, Cox suggests that while these Pentecostals affirm biblical authority, unlike fundamentalists, they put a primacy on the direct revelation of the Spirit. Their worship is demonstrative and ecstatic. And it is often found on the margins. Indeed, evangelicals of an earlier era looked askance at this movement, with G. Campbell Morgan calling them the “last vomit of Satan” – thus the title of the chapter. But in time, they sought and obtained a degree of recognition, such as the decision in 1940 of several Pentecostal denominations to join the National Association of Evangelicals, a coalition of what was then called neo-evangelicals. Therefore, in America at least Pentecostalism no longer has the stigma it once did, but it has also changed how it presents itself to the world.

As was noted before, there are differences between the Pentecostalism of the Global South and that of North America and Europe. Politically it tends to be more progressive and focuses on societal outreach. There is even a bit of a fusion between it and liberation theology.

What is interesting is that Pentecostalism has been a means of social uplift. That’s where the other part of the chapter title comes in. They are noted “list makers.” They compile records on who visits meetings, who they visit, who is invited and who responds favorably. This focus on keeping records means that the Pentecostals have a good sense of whom their neighbors are, and what their conditions are like. They have, thus, become leaders in the communities – even if percentage-wise their numbers remain small.

Pentecostalism, at least in Latin America, has another important feature that has social value. Unlike Roman Catholicism, into which most are born, becoming a Pentecostal is something one chooses. This provides a basis for its democratizing values. The question is, to what degree will Pentecostalism lead to strengthening democracy in the areas of its growth. What Cox sees in Pentecostalism is a religious movement that can help shape healthy societies.

Pentecostals give birth to voluntary associations, which are vital to any healthy society and the lifeblood of any genuine democracy. They mediate between ordinary people and the larger structures of economy, government, education, and press. They provide alternative patterns of organization and unofficial networks. They school people in the indispensable skills needed to make democracy work (p. 204).

What Pentecostalism has provided Latin Americans is an alternative voice and encouragement to take control of their lives. In other words, it has laid the foundations for democracy, for as Cox notes several components that analysts believe need to be present so that democracy can flourish. One is, the presence of contending parties (not a one party state), an informed and active populace, a society that legally guarantees and enforces civil rights. He notes that a fourth component that is often seen to be required is a market economy. But, the evidence that these go hand in hand is not born out by the facts. China has a burgeoning market economy and no democracy, while democracy is making in strides in Latin America in places that don’t necessarily have open markets. What is important to note is that historically religion has provided a fertile soil for democracy – this was true in 19th century America and seems to be true in Latin America. Though, in Latin America, choosing to be a Pentecostal may exact a high price in persecution and rejection from friends and family.

Then there’s the question of the degree to which Pentecostalism has a political/social focus. While the Base Communities incorporate public policy into their discussions, among Pentecostals it may be more a byproduct than a focus. Still there is a sizable component of Pentecostalism that is interested in making this world a better place to live. The cautionary tale here is the reality that leadership is very charismatic and can develop in a hierarchical/autocratic manner. There is also the problem of the emergence of a prosperity gospel. But, when taken together, there is the sense that Latin American Pentecostals could be a significant force for social change in the region. The way in which this might happen relates to two core values in this movement – conversion and holiness. Conversion suggests the possibility of change, while holiness suggests that one need not become beholden to consumerism.

Cox reflects on the potential of Pentecostalism contributing to the wave of the future, to the in breaking Age of the Spirit. He recognizes the danger signs, but suggests that “if Pentecostals learn to respect their non-crente neighbors; and if the persistence of the list makers of the favellas continues, they might end up on the side of the angels” (p. 211).

American progressives, if they are to see Pentecostals as contributors to a new age of social transformation, will have to ignore some of the more annoying aspects of American Pentecostalism – especially at manifests itself on TV. But, it bears consideration – what does this ecstatic, emotional, spiritually dynamic faith has to say to us? As a former Pentecostal, I’m deeply interested in this question!

3 comments:

Steve said...

Bob, not wishing to gainsay your major and vital point (Pentecostalism is not your father's religion), I do want to take issue with your opening statement, or perhaps Cox's (it's unclear), that "a student at Charles Parham’s holiness Bible institute had an ecstatic experience of the Spirit, one marked by speaking in unknown tongues, just like they did on the day of Pentecost." (Emphasis mine) To compare the Topeka and Azuza phenomena with Pentecost is unsupportable, especially in making them identical. Many hundreds of studies of glossolalia have ensued and all report the same finding: these are not languages, as found at Pentecost, but gibberish with no characteristics necessary to qualify as a language.

This is not to say that their "speaking in tongues" is a bogus religious experience; merely that it is not the equivalent of Pentecost.

Pastor Bob Cornwall said...

Steve you are correct about Pentecost and Pentecostalism -- re languages. I shall correct that!

Steve said...

Nice correction!

BTW, this is a top-notch series. Thanks for making the effort.