So last week I read Fire From Heaven upon the recommendation of a friend of mine. Written by Harvey Cox, the Victor Thomas Professor of Religion at Harvard University, the book is not quite a page turner. I found it rather thick and sometimes felt that reading it was like plowing a field or grinding at the mill. That being said, it was definitely refreshing to read commentary on pentecostalism from outside that is not derogatory in nature and truly makes an attempt to understand the ins and outs of the branch of Christianity in which I grew up. It’s nice to read some literature about pentecostalism that isn’t overtly biased, because I find so often the people who write about pentecostalism, from without or within, are write very slanted.
Cox’s research took him to innumerable church services on four continents. He took time to get to know the background and history of the pentecostal movement, and to explore some of the possible reasons for its incredibly rapid spread. Cox rightly compares this global spread of pentecostalism to fire. Can you believe that pentecostalism went from about 0-500,000,000 people in about 100 years? I still can’t get over the fact that pentecostalism is the second largest branch of Christianity, behind Catholicism, and yet it’s only been around a little over 100 years now.
Cox begins the book with an exploration of the religious climate of America before the turn of the 20th century. He then moves on to the beginnings of the pentecostal movement tracing the story of the Azusa Street Revival and William Seymour, including his influences. I found it interesting that in the beginnings of the movement, Pentecostals claimed that the evidence of the Holy Spirit was speaking in tongues AND the racial barriers falling down, not just tongues. Pentecostalism began as a movement that tore down the walls between the races, but as the years went on, many white ministers caught flak for worshiping with blacks. These white churches viewed tongues as the main evidence of the Spirit, and ignored the part about racial integration. In the beginning of the movement, ministers were quote, “the color line was washed away by the blood,” but many racial walls were re-built thereafter. That being said, pentecostalism remains one of the most racially integrated forms of Christianity.
Cox also talks in the beginning of the early pentecostals disdain for “man-made creeds” and dead rituals. Also, he spoke of the movements undeniable resilience. When early ministers were locked out of other churches for their beliefs, like Seymour, they just picked themselves up and kept preaching. Similarly, this environment of dividing and multiplying is present even within pentecostal churches. Today pentecostal churches have a tendency to divide and make new churches because of all kinds of issues.
In the book, 5 main factors are identified as reasons that Pentecostalism has done so well in an age when scientists and academics had all predicted the death of religion after the ‘death of God.’ Cox labels 3 main aspects of pentecostalism that he terms “primal” because in his point of view, pentecostalism has tapped into some forms of human religiosity that are present in all humans across all cultures. Primal speech, primal piety, and primal hope.
- Primal speech: ecstatic utterance, the language of the heart, beyond the words of men. This is what pentecostals refer to as “speaking in tongues” and scholars refer to as “glossolalia.” In the beginning, tongues were though by pentecostals to be a sure sign of the near second coming, and an enabling by the Spirit to speak in other human languages they had previously not known. As a result, many of the early pentecostals bought one-way tickets to countries across the globe in order to preach the gospel to unreached cultures by speaking in tongues. As the years went on, most pentecostals have changed their theology behind tongues, and usually refer to it as a language between a person and God that only God can understand. Despite the evolution of theology behind tongues, Cox believe that it is a reminder of a fundamental pentecostal belief, that God is available to all in an immediate, intense, and interior way.
- Primal piety: trances, visions, dreams, healing, dancing. Cox believes that pentecostals engaging in these activities are tapping into something deeply embedded in human spirituality. He spends a few chapters of the book addressing how pentecostals in Asia and Africa have built theologies and even churches around these aspects of spirituality, including the similarities of shamanism present in Asian pentecostalism and the healing aspect that is so central to African indigenous churches.
- Primal hope: here the author is referring to the millenial expectancy into which pentecostalism was born. I have even experienced within my upbringing that much of pentecostal preaching revolves around the imminent return of Christ and his Kingdom. This aspect has appealed to many people because it is the hope of a brighter future, that things will get better, that the Kingdom of God is at hand. This hope may have a hand in explaining why pentecostalism tends to draw in the poor, outcast, and people from the wrong side of the tracks. (If you disagree or are offended, I’m speaking of the beginnings of pentecostalism and the global pentecostal population by and large.)
The author also refers to the role of women in the movement and the role of music. Often women are drawn to pentecostal churches in numbers much larger than men. Cox had to ask why, especially because most pentecostal churches are against female leadership, at least in theory. He determines that it must have something to do with the pentecostal belief that the Spirit of God may speak to and use any one at any time. God is no respector of persons, your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, etc. Also, he recounts of stories like Aimee Semple Mcpherson, who traveled across the country preaching and singing with a full band. When she met criticism, she began her own church in L.A. and later on her own denomination (FourSquare, with now over 1.7 million members). In Aimee’s case, she was successful in pentecostalism simply because she didn’t ask permission to lead.
The author also references the role of music in pentecostal churches and the openness with which pentecostals allow people to play their instruments, whatever they may be, in church services. He also draws quite a compelling parallel between pentecostalism as a religious movement an jazz as a musical genre. Both begun with down-and-outs, both began in African-American cultures and them became more divers, both involve improvisation (think of anecdotal and Spirit-led pentecostal preaching as opposed to sermons, and improv jazz nights as opposed to orchestral sheet music), both are expressions straight from the soul, both appeared at approximately the same time, etc.
Cox also speaks of some of the great strengths and weaknesses of pentecostalism. One aspect that is possibly both a strength and weakness is the ability to absorb aspects already in the local spiritual landscape and to incorporate them into pentecostal worship. On the one hand it has helped pentecostalism spread all over the world, and on the other hand it is hard to tell exactly which ideas are absorbing and which are being absorbed.
The author ends the book by addressing some of the parts of the movement he deems as unattractive or dangerous, such as the health-and-wealth gospel, name-it-claim-it ministries, and the obsession with demonology. He then talks about the future of pentecostalism, and the choices to make between fundamentalism and experientialism. I find it interesting that the pentecostal movement began as a stark contrast against the man-made creeds that fundamentalists hold so dear, and yet is now sought after as an political ally with fundamentalist groups. The movement seems to place a high emphasis on personal experience, as evidenced in the old adage, “the man with an experience is never at the mercy of the man with a doctrine.” But as a movement that centers around personal experience of the Holy Spirit, pentecostalism could run into trouble if more defined terms for “experience” and “Spirit” are not generated. In a post-modern age, where people judge all truth by their own personal experience, a person can claim any sort of experience to be from God.
All in all, I thought the book was great commentary on the rise of pentecostal spirituality. Although I may not fully agree with Cox’s explanations of why pentecostalism has spread so quickly and been so far reaching, I applaud his efforts and his ability to define some of the key areas of the pentecostal movement that speak to the souls of all of us left in the wake of modernity. He did a great job explaining the ways in which women leaders in pentecostalism have pressed against the boundaries in a good way.
I would recommend Fire From Heaven to anyone who wants to know more about this thing called pentecostalism. As some elements found within the pentecostal movement have tended to embarrass many pentecostals, I think this book does a great job of highlighting the aspects of pentecostalism that pentecostals can be proud of. (With a good pride, of course. . . not the sinful kind.)
Well, there it is; the second book review. Since last week’s reading was a bit thick, I’ll be taking it easy this week. The next book review will be over: Life Together by Dietrich Bonhoeffer.