Berger on the Pentecostal Elephant in the Room

Peter Berger at American Interest has offered this week a helpful reminder about the importance of understanding Pentecostalism.  Berger’s article reminds us of a few looming intellectual traps that anyone hoping to understand Fundamentalist America must avoid.  The first is that conservative religion in America is some sort of monolith.  Far from it.  The first generation of Protestant fundamentalists that I’ve studied vehemently disputed the legitimacy of the Pentecostal style.  One typical fundamentalist writer in the early 1920s dismissed Pentecostalism as a kind of “hysterical fanaticism,” arguing that “Disorderly confusion in the assembly is not of God.”   Another agreed: “Usually people carried away by this movement are of a nervous, mystical, hysterical temperament, such as are considered a bit queer.”

Historian Grant Wacker has called this division the “Travail of a Broken Family.”  As Berger notes, even among the Pentecostal tradition there are a variety of sub-traditions.  As a generalization, though, Pentecostals emphasize an immediate connection with, and a baptism by, the Holy Spirit.  Pentecostal worship can be characterized by distinctive physical manifestations among worshippers, including “jerking,” laughing, or glossolalia (“speaking in tongues”).  The faith has also long been known for its emphasis on divine healing.  But beyond those headline-grabbing outward signs, Pentecostal faiths are also focused on a very “fundamentalist” reading of the Bible.  And although Pentecostals can be less noticably political than their evangelical cousins, they often have equally conservative political and cultural beliefs.

Berger’s article also reminds us of the danger of dismissing any intellectual tradition much different from our own.  As Berger notes,

I think that even today the notion of Pentecostal scholarship, especially if undertaken by scholars who are themselves Pentecostals, must strike many people as an oxymoron. Evangelicals in general are still widely regarded as backwoods provincials, like those described with contempt by H.L. Mencken in his reports on the 1925 “monkey trial” in Dayton, Tennessee—or, in the profoundly revealing 2008 comment by Barack Obama about folk in small towns (revealing, that is, about him, not about the people he was talking about): “They get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them.” These stereotypes were never empirically correct, and now are grossly incorrect. What has been happening in recent decades is the emergence of an increasingly sophisticated Evangelical intelligentsia, some of it based in a network of Evangelical academic institutions, publishing houses and journals, some (more interesting) infiltrating secular elite academia. Pentecostals are still lagging behind other Evangelicals in this development, but they have started to move in the same direction in America and elsewhere.

I would add that another disturbing part of this tendency to ignore the intellectual aspect of Pentecostalism is its heavy load of racial and class prejudice.  In the United States, Pentecostal churches have long been popular among low-income folks from ethnic minorities, especially Latinos and African Americans.  If those of us outside of conservative religion dismiss all emotive, traditional worship as mere snake-handling, we risk misunderstanding the cultural experiences of huge numbers of people who don’t have a lot of money or a lot of cultural clout.  This is the sort of misunderstanding that fuels the bitterness of America’s culture wars.  When activists on each side wholly misunderstand one another, the amount of wiggle room for compromise and mutual respect vanishes.  Berger’s article reminds us of the importance of approaching different cultural traditions with a healthy dose of humility and open-mindedness.

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  1. A great post. I grew up Pentecostal (well, Charismatic, which was functionally the same in my case), yet middle class and white. And English. The idea of an evangelical intelligentsia is baffling to me, because the levels of cognitive dissonance must be phenomenal. I don’t understand how they can demand rigorous standards of evidence and scholarship in one area while living by logical fallacies in another.

    I suppose I can remember good things in the pentecostal tradition, but I don’t think people should be so attached to humility that they are afraid to criticise what can legitimately be criticised.

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