Wednesday, July 12, 2006

A Century of Pentecostalism

The century is a common unit of measure when thinking historically, although it had never really occurred to me to ask why until I read this passage recently in Diarmaid McCulloch’s The Reformation: A History (p. 474):

The centenary of Martin Luther’s first declaration of rebellion in Wittenberg approached in 1617. Lutheran historians greatly encouraged the idea that such patterns of years were important. Indeed, the scholars nicknamed the Centuriators of Magdeburg, led by that ultimate Gnesio-Lutheran Flacius Illyricus [Matthias Vlacich], had more or less invented the century as a significant unit of historical measurement. The celebrations of the anniversary mounted as the outlook for Protestantism seemed ever more uncertain.

Who knew?

(Incidentally, I can clear up a couple of points from the passage above: The Gnesio-Lutherans were so-called because they considered themselves absolutely faithful to Luther’s teachings--gnesio is Greek for "the real thing"--unlike the "Philippists," or followers of Philipp Melanchthon. The Centuriators of Magdeburg were the authors of a multi-volume history of the Christian church; their account was broken down by centuries.)

Be that as it may, I’ve learned from reading Karen Armstrong’s The Battle for God that 2006 is a religiously significant centennial. (Had I been reading the Los Angeles Times more carefully back in April I could have picked up this bit of information somewhat earlier.) Pentecostalism was born in 1906 in Los Angeles when a group led by William Joseph Seymour had an experience of the Holy Spirit similar to that experienced by Christ’s apostles on Pentecost. Word (or perhaps I should say "ecstatic utterance") spread quickly and people flocked to Seymour’s services so that the congregation was forced to move from the home where it had been meeting to an abandoned building on Azusa Street in downtown Los Angeles (about three blocks from the present-day City Hall). Within four years, there were Pentecostal churches all over the United States and in fifty other countries.

Reporting on the "Azusa Street Revival" in April 1906, the Los Angeles Daily Times stated:

Breathing strange utterances and mouthing a creed which it would seem no sane mortal could understand, the newest religious sect has started in Los Angeles. Meetings are held in a tumble-down shack on Azusa Street near San Pedro [Street], and devotees of the weird doctrine practice the most fanatical rites, preach the wildest theories, and work themselves into a state of mad excitement in their peculiar zeal. Colored people and a sprinkling of whites compose the congregation, and night is made hideous in the neighborhood by the howlings of the worshippers who spend hours swaying back and forth in nerve-racking attitude of prayer and supplication. They claim to have the gift of tongues and to be able to comprehend the babble. Such a startling claim has never yet been made by any company of fanatics even in Los Angeles, the home of almost numberless creeds.

Armstrong fits this development into her general perspective on the rise of fundamentalisms in Christianity, Judaism, and Islam. She writes (p. 181):

Pentecostalism took hold at a time when people were beginning to have doubts about science, and when religious people were becoming uncomfortably aware that a reliance upon reason alone had worrying implications for faith, which had traditionally depended on the more intuitive, imaginative, and aesthetic mental disciplines. While fundamentalists were trying to make their Bible-based religion entirely reasonable and scientific, Pentecostalists were returning to the core of religiousness, defined by [Harvey] Cox as "that largely unprocessed nucleus of the psyche in which the unending struggle for a sense of purpose and significance goes on." Where fundamentalists, by identifying faith with rationally proven dogma, were confining the religious experience to the outermost cerebral rim of the mind, Pentecostalists were delving back into the unconscious source of mythology and religiousness. While fundamentalists stressed the importance of the Word and the literal, Pentecostalists bypassed conventional speech and tried to access the primal spirituality that lies beneath the credal formulations of a tradition. Where the modern ethos insisted that men and women focus pragmatically only upon this world, Pentecostalists demonstrated the human yearning for ecstasy and transcendence. The meteoric explosion of this form of faith showed that by no means everybody was enthralled by the scientific rationalism of modernity. This instinctive recoil from many of the shibboleths of modernity showed that many people felt that something was missing from the brave new world of the West.

But what does Pentecostalism have to do with international politics? First, Pentacostalism is a rapidly growing segment of Christianity, especially in the developing world. There may be as many as 500 million–yes, half a billion–Pentecostals in the world. To put it differently, up to a quarter of all the Christians in the world today are Pentecostals. Pentecostalism is a religious forced to be reckoned with.

Second, while Pentecostals have historically been focused on individual salvation and not social transformation, some are becoming more political, especially in the developing world. (Former attorney general John Ashcroft is one of the few Pentecostals to rise very high in the ranks of American politics.) Increasingly, Pentecostals are establishing non-governmental institutions to address health and social welfare concerns in their states. Although they are generally conservative with regard to personal morality and family issues, Pentecostals can be very progressive where social welfare issues are involved. In fact, Hugo Chavez has had significant support from Pentecostals in Venezuela (notwithstanding Pat Robertson's comments about him).

As a coda to the passage quoted above, Armstrong states, "We shall often find in our story that the religious behavior of people who have not been major beneficiaries of modernity articulates a strongly felt need for the spiritual, which is so often either excluded or marginalized in a secularist society." Those of us who have been "major beneficiaries of modernity" (witness the computer sitting in front of us at this very moment) invariably seem to have tremendous difficulty understanding those who haven't. It's not necessary--or even prudent--for us to accept the religious beliefs or the political ideologies or the military tactics of those who feel the modern world has passed them by, but we would do well to try to understand them if for no other reason than that they outnumber us.