A Global Pentecost
In their hasty efforts to explain Islam to the American public, media commentators have offered some dubious statistics that, if true, would have striking consequences for the picture of religion worldwide. How many times of late have you heard that Islam is the world's fastest-growing religion, that Islam will be the world's largest religion within a few decades? The figures are spurious, since Christians will far outnumber Muslims at least through the coming century. That North Americans so readily accept such predictions testifies to our continuing ignorance of the flourishing state of Christianity in the global South, in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. Despite all the superb scholarship on "Southern" Christianity over the last 20 years, many North Americans are oblivious to the booming numbers of Christians worldwide. For our secular Élites, at least, there are ideological reasons to ignore this Christian explosion—to hope, perhaps, that if they ignore it, it will go away. Across the global South, the churches that are enjoying the richest harvests are quite alarming even from the viewpoint of mainline liberals, let alone hardcore secularists. These newer churches preach deep personal faith and communal orthodoxy, mysticism and puritanism, all founded on clear scriptural authority. Whether such congregations describe themselves as Pentecostal, independent, or even Catholic, they preach messages that, to many a Westerner, appear simplistically charismatic, visionary, and apocalyptic. In this thought-world, prophecy is an everyday reality, while faith healing, exorcism, and dream-visions are all fundamental parts of religious sensibility. For an American liberal, this emerging Christianity is about as alien as Islam, and perhaps just as frightening.
Published in 1990, David Martin's Tongues of Fire became one of the most influential sociological attempts to analyze the Pentecostal movement, as it exists in its Latin American heartlands. Working from a British perspective, Martin drew parallels between today's growing Pentecostal/Protestant movements and the historic experience of Dissenting and Methodist churches in the United Kingdom in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. (Ultimately, as Martin has argued in these pages, Pentecostalism grows out of Methodism, by way of the Holiness tradition). In Latin America today, as in the industrializing England of 200 years ago, enthusiastic new churches emerge to fill needs left untouched by the traditional society. These needs might be economic, since the new churches offer mutual aid and support, but at least as important is the sense of community that the congregations offer in the wastelands of urban society. The new churches offer transformations that are both personal and cultural. Converts feel free to speak and think for themselves in a way that was not possible when they were required to show deference to the old hierarchies of church and state. In more senses than one, "tongues of fire" are lapping across modern Latin America.
With its sympathetic approach, Martin's book did much to lay to rest the then-popular myth that Latin Pentecostalism was little more than an arm of U.S. cultural imperialism, a cia-sponsored counter to Catholic liberation theology. Indeed, Martin's writings over the years have not only helped to explain the social appeal of modern Pentecostalism but also, perhaps, indicated its patterns of future growth. Though a modern Latino Pentecostal might be unimaginably poor by Western standards, the thrift, sobriety, and self-confidence acquired in his or her congregation promises to lift that family into the ranks of respectability and, within a generation or so, into full middle-class status. Inevitably, the Pentecostal and evangÉlico churches will gain wealth, power, and social influence within their respective countries. Pentecostalism must therefore be seen as a crucial aspect of modernization and social development: so much for the familiar Western dismissal of "fundamentalism" as a panicked rejection of modernity and globalization!
Martin's new book expands his focus to the global phenomenon of "Pentecostalism, and its vast charismatic penumbra." Throughout, his approach is judicious, balanced, and respectful. His range of cultural and historical reference is also impressively broad. Beginning with Pentecostal roots in the "pullulating matrix of American experimental religion," he traces "how the religion of poor whites fused with the religion of poor blacks to create a potent amalgam capable of crossing the cultural species barrier and taking off on a global scale." After revisiting his familiar ground of Latin America, he describes Pentecostal successes across Africa, where the new churches have far outpaced the so-called "African independent" congregations that attracted so much attention a few years ago. His account of Asia is especially significant since Pentecostalism is at the cutting edge of Christian growth in China, Korea, Thailand, Vietnam, and all around what we conventionally call the Pacific Rim—but should increasingly be termed the "Christian Arc." An important chapter discusses the Pentecostal presence among indigenous peoples in Central America and elsewhere, peoples for whom the churches serve as an essential bridge to what would otherwise be a deeply intimidating modern civilization.
As will be obvious from this very diverse listing of regions and societies, Pentecostalism emerges as anything but a homogeneous whole. It appeals to "the respectable poor seeking to enter the modern world" in Latin America; to "the new middle classes of West Africa and South-East Asia"; as well as to minority groupings for whom such familiar class terminology is quite inappropriate. But however its exact appeal varies from place to place, the Pentecostal movement is succeeding dramatically. A global total of 250 million Pentecostals today—and that is a conservative estimate—could rise to a billion by 2040 or so. If that projection is correct, there will then be almost as many Pentecostals as Hindus worldwide, and they will far exceed the number of Buddhists. (But just try going to your local superstore and looking for materials on Pentecostal Christianity, as opposed to those Asian faiths.)
Martin is particularly good at addressing issues that earlier scholars have neglected. It is not too difficult to study regions of runaway Pentecostal success like Korea or Brazil and to suggest why the movement should have burned there like fire in the thatch; but why have other societies proved so resistant? If Latin America has welcomed the new faith, why is Latin Europe (largely) so cool? Martin's explanation stresses the enormous economic gulf that separates the two areas, as we contrast the relative prosperity of even the poorest corners of Europe with the extreme immiseration of urban Brazil or Chile. He may well be right, but the contrast suggests the limitations of his British- and European-oriented perspective. Though analogies can be suggestive, the differences between global South and North might just be too enormous to allow any worthwhile extrapolation. In this context, I note the lovely epigraph that Martin has taken from John Updike: "I don't think God plays well in Sweden … God sticks pretty close to the Equator."
Among the book's many virtues is the perceptive comparison between Pentecostal and Catholic currents in the global South. Too often, researchers implicitly accept the dichotomy offered by the new churches themselves between the spiritual flames of reformation and the lifeless mass of the old churches, especially when (as in Latin America) these older churches are intimately tied to the state and the elite social order. Martin fully recognizes the rhetorical nature of such claims—revolutionaries always need to portray the old order in the grimmest possible terms—and he knows that Southern Catholic congregations share many of the vibrant features that characterize their Pentecostal neighbors. Since Catholic churches are flourishing in the global South, winning millions of converts in Africa and Asia, they must be offering at least some of the same attractions as the Pentecostals. Sometimes, Roman Catholics borrow explicitly from charismatic models. The very successful El Shaddai lay movement, founded in the Philippines, now operates on a near-global scale. Likewise, in Latin America "The most successful response to the Pentecostal challenge is clearly charismatic Catholicism." As Martin writes, "both Catholicism and Pentecostalism are global options, offering the two most vital versions of Christianity in the contemporary world." Worldwide, Catholicism is "the main Christian rival."
My one criticism of his sympathetic interfaith approach is that he does not carry it far enough. He scarcely acknowledges how well some of the other "mission churches" are doing, especially the large Anglican Communion, which in much of Africa has a distinctly Pentecostal tone. Across much of the global South, Anglicans, Lutherans, and Methodists have all experienced some degree of what Martin terms "Pentecostalization," a process that owes much to a close and literal reading of the New Testament, free of the lenses supplied by the Western experience of rationalism and secularization.
David Martin's Pentecostalism is an invaluable survey of what is clearly one of the most important worldwide social movements of the last half-century. One must be struck by the enormous gulf that exists between the events that he describes and the standard media and scholarly accounts of trends in the Two-Thirds World. Depending on one's point of view, such blindness to a spiritual explosion of this magnitude is either hilarious or deeply alarming.
Philip Jenkins is Distinguished Professor of History and Religious Studies at Pennsylvania State University. He is the author of many books, including The Next Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity (Oxford Univ. Press), reviewed in this issue, and Mystics and Messiahs: Cults and New Religions in American History (also from Oxford).
Copyright © 2002 by the author or Christianity Today/Books & Culture magazine.
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