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Chapter 15:
The Worldwide Explosion of Pentecostalism

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IN 1909, CHARLES W. ELIOT addressed the students of Harvard on the “Religion of the Future.”  It would not, he assured them, be based on “authority,” or “personifications of primitive forces of nature,” or “worship... of dead ancestors, teachers, or rulers.”  It would not be concerned with personal “welfare or salvation,” or be “propitiary, sacrificial, or expiatory.”  It would not “perpetuate the Hebrew anthropomorphic representations of God,” and it would not be gloomy, ascetic, or maledictory.” (Eliot 1909)  But in fact the religions of the twentieth century, secular and transcendental, were all of these.  Authority is everywhere, and the environmental movement dabbles in the personification of nature and in the need for sacrifice to expiate for the sins of pollution.   Salvation is alive and well: socialism deals in class salvation and fascism in race salvation.  Gloom and doom reign as never before, and the biggest religious movement of the century, Pentecostalism, founded in 1906, is determined to perpetuate the Hebrew anthropomorphism with enthusiasm.

Pentecostalism is the most vigorous current of modern Christianity.  It was created by an African-American, William J. Seymour, when he moved to Los Angeles in 1906.  It was at his Azusa Street Mission that the “speaking in tongues” style of worship got its start.  A century later, at the turn of the twenty-first century, there are at least 250 million Pentecostals worldwide.  Some authorities estimate half a billion.  Pentecostalism has been the “most dramatic development of Christianity” in the twentieth century. (Martin 2002 p1)  It has exploded in Latin America, is strong in Africa, it has a firm footing in China and Korea, and a significant presence in other Asian nations.  What happened, and why?

Western scholars did not bring the Pentecostal phenomenon to the notice of an educated readership until about 1990, when David Martin in Tongues of Fire and David Stoll in Is Latin America Turning Protestant? first publicized the growth of Pentecostalism in Latin America to the reading public.  The reason is not hard to find.  Everyone knew that Latin America was Catholic.  The future of its religion, if any, given the identification of the church with the oppressive upper class, was with the liberation theology associated with populist left-wing movements like the Sandinistas in Nicaragua.  In Africa, on the other hand, everyone looked to the post-colonialist rulers and their aid-fueled politics to drive the future.  In the words of David Martin:

Liberal humanism, with its dominance in the western elites, is perhaps the major reason why educated people are so little conscious of the size and impact of Pentecostalism in the non-western world.  It provides the glasses through which we misread or edit out much of what is going forward there. (Martin 2002 p174)

And now we learn that Pentecostalism is surging in China.  The unofficial “house” churches all feature an evangelical Christianity with a strong emotional component.

When Latin American Pentecostalism first registered on the radar screen, the first impulse was to assume that US imperialism was at work.  And indeed, the initial seeding of Pentecostalism had owed something to American missionaries.  But it was clear, even to David Stoll, who was looking for validation of his left-wing agenda, that Pentecostalism was authentic and homegrown.  It was closely associated with the migration to the city, and to the cultural transition from an aboriginal spiritist world of familiar powers and demons to the urban world of trust and reciprocity.  Since 1990, numerous sociologists have conducted fieldwork among Pentecostals all over the world.  Their findings amplify and confirm the original conclusions of Martin and Stoll.  In Pentecostalism: The World Their Parish, Martin rehearses the numerous confirming research studies that he and others have sponsored.  Their findings confirm the argument of this book.  There is something about enthusiastic Christianity that appeals directly to the millions committed to the great worldwide migration to the city.  It helps them acquire the skills and the culture they need to thrive in the city.

Pentecostalism appeals directly and dramatically to women.  This needs emphasizing, if only to counter the weight of feminist scholarship that equates Christianity and its male God with patriarchy and oppression of women.  In the left-wing feminist narrative, religion and politics intertwine in a male dance of power to oppress and marginalize the traditional objects of left-wing compassion.  To give the feminists their due, it is important to remember that all religions, all belief systems, with their search for truth and for a compelling source of meaning, are always enticed by and usually succumb to the temptation to enforce truth with the help of temporal powers.  But Pentecostalism usually appears in subcultures far from the corridors of power.  In Latin America, it characteristically empowers and frees women from their subjection to the humiliation and depredations of the Latin machista culture of the “street, bar, brothel, football stadium, and drug culture.”(Martin 2002 p75)  “The restoration of the family as a viable moral, cultural, and economic household, largely through the reformation of the male and the elimination of the double standard of morality for the two sexes” is the key result of converting to Pentecostalism.  From this, more good things can flow, for instance the improvement in health that follows from abandoning the machista life,

in work, in giving priority to feeding, clothing, disciplining, and educating the children, and oneself, in discovering a potential for leadership and initiative within the life of the church.

And the Protestant movement easily accommodates the prosperity gospel, as a celebration of the improvement in material prosperity that follows the abandonment of machista culture.

It is a culture which positively celebrates material and physical goods as the Lord’s blessings, especially the healed bodies and full tables which everywhere signal domestic comfort in place of machista chaos and waste.  As one Chilean ex-alcoholic put it: “We believers may have given up manly drink (alcohol) for the drink of young girls (cola and orange juice) but in the women’s kitchen we eat better.” (Martin 2002 p76)

Pentecostalism calls upon women “to leave passivity and fatalism behind and demand the reform of their menfolk.”

The embarrassing thing about Pentecostalism, from the viewpoint of the western educated secularist, is that not only does it set itself up in willful opposition to modernist and postmodernist elites with its patriarchal male God of the Bible and his rigid table of rules and the eternal and irreconcilable conflict between right and wrong, but it also displays irrational elements, deeply embarrassing to the secularist, in its glossolalia, faith healing, and exorcisms.  In fact, of course, it is precisely the genius of enthusiastic Christianity that it perches so precariously and so daringly on the fault line between the fatalistic, passive culture of the country, with its age-old submission to the power of nature and of the landowner, and the rational, cause-and-effect world of the middle class culture, with its reason, its purpose, its faithful performance of promises, and its society of equals.  With its roots in both the red culture of power and the blue culture of rules it provides a bridge from power to rules, providing rituals of power to exorcize the ghosts of the power consciousness and then, when the ghosts have been driven away, to provide a new culture of rules and mutual support to sustain the newly arrived candidates in the challenging world of the city.  It is perhaps more intelligent to ask by what miracle of cultural genius anyone has succeeded in constructing a bridge between two apparently irreconcilable cultures.  The answer is, ever since the Axial Age, to look around you.  Every one of the great religions is involved in precisely this feat of levitation, showing people acculturated to a world of power—the power of nature and of the oppressor—the possibility of a world of purpose and fairness and reciprocity, and bringing them to belief in the extraordinary possibility, that a woman, even a subservient and reviled woman victimized by a male machista culture had the power to set herself up against this power and win.  It is, of course, on the face of it, absurd.  But perhaps the apparently contradictory combination of ecstatic excitement and rigid rules is precisely the combination that helps people most decisively on the road to the middle class.  There are demons to be exorcised, the powerful pagan gods of pre-city life, the powerful gods of nature, and the powerful sons of heaven.  Perhaps only a wrathful father God, who combines the judgmentalism of the Strict Father with the love of the Son, has the power to banish the old gods and bring in the new world of the law and contract, the world of the city and its essential relations of trust.  City commerce is powered by a network of trust and fair dealing.  A religion that directs its adherents that “my word is my bond” or “honesty is the best policy” is training its faithful to live a life without waste and dissipation, to strive for fair and reciprocal dealings, “to learn skills of administration and to exercise responsibility, to gain a good reputation, to belong to useful networks,” is teaching its flock how to thrive in the city.

It is in Latin America where the three forces contending for the support of the migrant from country to city are most clearly represented.  First, there is the tug of spiritism, an African and aboriginal American mélange of rural power spirits.  Then there is the liberationist theology of the Catholic Church, the conquistadors’ Christianity allied with elitist leftism to confirm the lower orders in a red culture of powerlessness and victimization.  These forces offer relief from oppression by placating the spirits or by enrolling as the rank-and-file of a political religion that leaves the educated leaders to call the big shots and organize the post-revolutionary pensions and benefits.  The former offers respite from the elitist political powers that talk of empowerment but deliver corruption and cronyism.  The latter offers the cathartic miracle of revolution, of cleansing violence that will sweep away in a single transcendent moment the dreadful powers that oppress, and provide for its middle-class leaders the blissful pleasures of “social engineering from above in the name of those below.” (Martin 2002 p171)  It is these possibilities that come most easily to the modernist and the postmodernist temperament.  The one presents it with a comfortable, non-threatening tableau of picturesque pre-modern culture, waiting to be rescued by the compassion and caring of an enlightened elite.  The other flatters the saviors into believing that their narcissistic self-promotion to political power is not an act of pure self-interest, but an act of selflessness and altruism.  The third force, enthusiastic Christianity, liberates the people from both spiritist and leftist witch doctors. It is entirely appropriate, and demonstrates the irreducible playfulness of the universe, that this authentic movement that really prepares people for life in the city, that really empowers them by promoting them to responsibility and trust, is precisely the movement most reviled and rejected by the better classes as a sink of bigotry and superstition.

There is another area of the world that is about to surprise the western elites with its Christianity.  It is China.  Beginning in the desperate years of the Cultural Revolution in the 1960s, the Han people have experienced a vast religious awakening that is only now coming to light.  It has been reported by David Aikman in Jesus in Beijing.  At the turn of the twenty-first century there are perhaps 80 million Christians in China including 70 million Protestants, chiefly members of the house church movement.  Actually, nobody knows for sure, since the unofficial “house churches” function outside the law, defiantly separate from the government-sanctioned, government-controlled Three Self Patriotic Movement (of Protestants) and the Catholic Patriotic Movement. 

All we know is that Christianity has grown at a staggering speed since 1979, when China began to relax the fierce restrictions on religious activity that had been imposed during the Cultural Revolution in the 1960s (Aikman 2003 p8).

Paradoxically, the twentieth century convulsions of revolution, civil war, invasion, and economic failure seem to have provoked China into a Christian outburst, by purifying its existing Christian culture into a refiner’s fire.  The western missionary presence, symbolized for us by Eric Liddell, the muscular Christian missionary athlete of Chariots of Fire, was severely damaged by the Japanese occupation of the 1930s and 1940s (Liddell, for instance, died in a Japanese internment camp in 1945).  It was finished off by Mao’s victory in 1949 when westerners were chased out of China and all religious activity was subsumed under the totalizing political power of the Chinese Communist party.

But the precipitate from all this violence was a residue of extraordinary Christians, the generation of “patriarchs:” Wang Mingdao, Allen Yuan, Samuel Lamb, Moses Yie, and Li Tianen.  To read of their sufferings—the imprisonments, the beatings, and the humiliations—is to understand the power of the human spirit.  When Mao had finally brought China to cultural despair under the rule of teenage gangs in the Cultural Revolution of 1966-76, the Chinese people ached for something to succor them in their need.  These brave Chinese Christians lighted a fire of hope that has burned brightly ever since.

One of the sparks that began the fire landed in Fangcheng County in the province of Henan.  Christian conversions began in the 1940s, but the new Christians suffered extreme persecution in the 1950s and the Cultural Revolution.  The intensity of the persecution only served to encourage them into secret meetings in their homes for prayer and worship.  Then there were miracles: the boy lifted up by “a man in white” after falling down a well.  And there were “healings” of people who recovered after being prayed over by their Christian fellow villagers.  In 1970, the “patriarch” Li Tianen traveled through Henan after his release from labor camp training a new generation of Christian leaders.  Then things started to get out of hand.  By the 1980s local “Communist cadres would commonly refer to Fangcheng county as ‘the Jesus nest’ and the whole problem of rapid evangelization in the rural areas as ‘Christianity fever.’” (Aikman 2003 p77)

As the new networks of Christian fellowship developed they created a new pattern of evangelization.  They trained young people and “send them out in pairs all over China.”  By the early 1990s the Fangcheng fellowship counted its members at about 5 million in 30 provinces and municipal regions.  It is one of the loosely organized all-China fellowships that constitute the house church movement.

Although Chinese Christians are overwhelmingly female, the leadership of the house church movement is mostly male.  But then there is Ding Hei, born Ding Xiuling in 1961.  Becoming a Christian at the age of thirteen, “she was the only Christian among the students” at her school but within six months forty of the students had found faith, “meeting secretly after school.”  While still a teenager she acquired a reputation as a powerful speaker.  But her father was not amused.  As village leader, he was embarrassed by her faith and her preaching, and he beat her for attending meetings.  At twenty, advised by her Christian mother, she left home and went to live with the family of preacher Zhang Rongliang in a village 30 miles away.  The next several years were filled with active preaching and organizing, including the staging of open meetings in defiance of the authorities.  In 1989 Ding was arrested and sentenced to three years at a labor camp.

The prison authorities soon discovered that Ding “was an astonishingly gifted leader and administrator.”  Within months, she had been appointed head of her hut, and became an intermediary between the authorities and the prison population: helping the prison fulfill its norms, yet fighting for better food and better treatment for the inmates.  She “became a legend of good management among the nine women’s labor camps in Henan Province.”  But after her early release in 1992 she resumed evangelizing, becoming one of the top Christian leaders in Fangcheng, organizing national prayer events.

Christians, our cultural elite knows, are people who are ill-educated and easily led.  Who cares if the daughters of village elders get Christianity?  It’s in the city that the modern world lives.  So it is in China, except that Christianity is growing on the intellectual classes too, people like documentary filmmaker Yuan Zhiming.

In 1988, Yuan’s River Elegy aired on Chinese TV.  It proposed that China’s symbols of greatness, its two great rivers and its wall, were “emblems of captivity and restriction.”  The great rivers had held it back from access to the rest of the world, and China needed to sail out beyond its rivers into the “Ocean Blue” of the west.  After the Tienanmen massacre, the government sought him out as a scapegoat, but Yuan escaped to the west.  At Princeton University, he encountered committed Chinese Christians who believed that the answer to China’s problems was not just in instituting the forms of democracy but in building a foundation of faith.  “Yuan began to read the Bible... and became baptized in August 1990.”  He came to believe that “the root of democracy is the spirit of Christ.”  His River Elegy, he came to think, “was superficial because it left out ‘the most important thing, the core of Western civilization, which is Christianity.  Without that you cannot have democracy or human rights.’”  (Aikman 2003 p247)

Yuan then created a new multi-part documentary, “Land of God,” (in English, China’s Confession) that reinterprets China’s history as a fall from God, starting in the Spring and Autumn period of 770-476 BC.  Its narrative presents a solution to the Chinese people for the difficult problem that God revealed Himself to mankind in the Middle East and not China, the most advanced and culturally sophisticated country in the world.  In fact, Yuan proposes, China had a foundation that could have led to God’s self-revelation in China, but fell away from its initial potential as “the ancient land of God where people believed in God, feared heaven, [and] obeyed the Tao.”  Now Yuan is engaged in a project called The Cross that “seeks to explain to ordinary Chinese what major contributions Christians have made to Chinese life in the past century or more,” relating Christianity to Chinese culture.

There seems to be in the Christianity of the educated Chinese an attempt to breathe transcendental meaning into the Chinese project.  Scholar Liu Xaiofeng, who has written titles like Salvation and Freedom and Toward the Truth of the Cross, has noted that “throughout Chinese history the Chinese have lacked any kind of transcendent religious character at their root” and “Chinese culture has lacked the religious temperament of love and fear... and the moral sense of the tragic.”  By the end of the Cultural Revolution China had experienced not the Nietzschean transvaluation of values but the utter annihilation of values.  China was reduced once more to the culture of the teenage gang, the “harsh baseline to which all collapsing civilizations return,” according to Lee Harris.  This is great fun for teenage boys, but utterly humiliating for everyone else.  It is the genius of the West that it has, in its separation of powers and its mediating institutions, developed a defense-in-depth against the kamikaze of the teenage gang.  From the point of few of the Chinese demoralized after two hundred years of Troubles, the most intriguing institution in the western package is Protestant Christianity.  It is popular, yet it is hierarchical.  It is emotional, yet it is practical.  It is transcendent, yet it is down to earth.  And now they have found for themselves a particularly Chinese role within worldwide Christianity.  They have a dream of taking the Gospel “back to Jerusalem.”  They experience Christianity as a westward moving phenomenon that originated in the Middle East, moved west to Europe, then to America, and then to East Asia.  Now it is the turn of the Chinese people to complete the westward movement and bring Christianity to west Asia, evangelize the House of Islam, and return to Jerusalem.

Despite the skepticism of the elites, ordinary people demonstrate a pretty good instinct for that which benefits them.  They instinctively search for beliefs and the knowledge that solve their problems.  But humans have a less than stellar record in judging what is good for other people.  The program that humans construct for the “rest of the world” commonly gets tangled up with what they think is best for themselves.  The beginning of wisdom to entertain the possibility that other people might possibly possess the competence, or readily develop the competence, to judge what is best for themselves without the constant supervision of enlightened elites.   Our modern elites have regaled an uncaring world with the frightful possibility that a bigoted and hypocritical religious subculture is engaged upon a campaign to destroy creativity and alternative lifestyles.  This is, to say the least, improbable, first of all because the enthusiastic Christians of the Religious Right really don’t understand what it is that the creative classes want, and not understanding are therefore hardly in a position to develop and execute a strategy to destroy them, and secondly because the creative classes, by natural right, occupy all the positions of trust and power in the world of cultural production and transmission.  This relegates the bigoted and the superstitious to a subcultural redoubt.  They can succeed in maintaining a subculture, in tension with the general elite culture, but cannot hope to take over under normal conditions.  It is a monstrous canard to pretend that the cramped and limited subculture of the lower middle class can ever succeed in toppling the best and brightest.  It is true, of course, that ordinary people may elect fascists to power, as they did after World War I when the reigning elites failed to sustain a working polity and economy for them.  But this should be a warning to the elites rather than an excuse: fascism is the wages of elite failure.  Anyway, fascism in its Italian and German versions enjoyed widespread support from the elites.  Fascism wanted to control and dominate bourgeois culture and commerce; the elites were all in favor of that.  Unfortunately, fascism lost.  So history had to be rewritten to show that the enlightened elites were really against it all along.

American philosopher Lee Harris tells us with surpassing clarity what is going on when Christianity erupts somewhere in the world.  It means that a people has declared itself ready for self-government, just like the burghers of Germany around 1500 who

Had learned to handle an enormous complexity of human interactions without the continual appeal to the decision-making authority of some outside agent...  What happened was that one day, in their great pride as their achievement, they noticed what they had done, and they decided to turn their spontaneously evolved ethos into a consciously articulated and explicitly confessed principle. (Harris 2004 p187)

What they had discovered was conscience.  This Protestant conscience was the faith of people who had learned to control their behavior into an ethos of professional respectability.  It is the autonomous self-regulator in a man whose well-being depends upon his reputation as one who can be trusted.  It is what makes sense of the priesthood of every man that would seem to be a recipe for anarchy.  “If the ultimate law was God’s Book, and the ultimate authority on this law was you, who was in a position to contradict you?”  Only your conscience.

The problem with a trustworthy, self-governing middle class is that it leaves no role for powerful political leaders.  That is why it has been necessary for left-wing activists to drill with inexhaustible ferocity into the edifice of bourgeois trustworthiness.  In The Communist Manifesto, Marx and Engels punch all the buttons.  Not only were the capitalists shamefully oppressing the proletarians but they were swapping wives and dishonoring their female servants.  This accusation is a constant theme of the war on the middle class.  Businessmen are exploiters, they are robber barons, they are monopolists, they are price fixers, they are unsafe at any speed, they are killing little birds, they are raping the earth, they are exporting jobs, they are exploiting Third World peasants.

Every coin has two sides.  Capitalism is built upon the notion of buying low and selling high.  That means giving jobs to young teenage girls just off the farm at very low wages (but indoor work that is much easier than planting rice in all weathers).  But capitalism is also the world of the self-governing, conscientious, creative team.  It worships the aggressive, creative, reliable individual who can leverage his skills across a team and deliver services to the world.  Entwined with world capitalism is world Protestantism.  Together they form the road to the middle class.

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Harry Stein, I Can't Believe I'm Sitting Next to a Republican

US Life in 1842

Families helped each other putting up homes and barns. Together, they built churches, schools, and common civic buildings. They collaborated to build roads and bridges. They took pride in being free persons, independent, and self-reliant; but the texture of their lives was cooperative and fraternal.
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For [the left] there is only the state and the individual, nothing in between. No family to rely on, no friend to depend on, no community to call on. No neighbourhood to grow in, no faith to share in, no charities to work in. No-one but the Minister, nowhere but Whitehall, no such thing as society - just them, and their laws, and their rules, and their arrogance.
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Responsible Self

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[T]he way “to achieve a system of determining admission to the public schools on a nonracial basis,” Brown II, 349 U. S., at 300–301, is to stop assigning students on a racial basis. The way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race.
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A writer who says that there are no truths, or that all truth is ’merely relative’, is asking you not to believe him. So don’t.
Roger Scruton, Modern Philosophy

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