Pentecostalism is known for a lot of things: its weirdness, its adherents speaking in tongues, its prosperity preaching, its rich, white pastors, its fundamentalism, its anti-intellectualism.
These all used to bug me, and many of them are why I left Pentecostalism for a while. And it wasn’t just Pentecostalism, but Christianity as a whole of which I wasn’t too fond. But something about the faith (and, in particular, this Pentecostal form of the faith) kept drawing me back. While I wanted nothing to do with a religious commitment that prevented me from asking any question I pleased or promised wealth to its faithful if they just prayed enough and believed enough and especially tithed enough, Pentecostalism was basically the faith of my childhood, and I couldn’t quite shake it off like I so desperately wanted.
So what is it about this strange form of Christianity, and why should it be considered in a time like this? After all, we live in a highly secularized, technological age. One in which spirituality is often sidelined by the rational elite – those highly trained individuals that demand objective, verified, unbiased evidence for making claims about reality. Pentecostalism would seem to go against the very grain of the hyper-modern age in which we live and move and have our being.
Perhaps, though, Charles Taylor was right in his assessment of our secular age. Rather than creating a homogenized era of rational secularism (one in which we could all start from a neutral, areligious foundation when making political, economic, and social decisions), our modern quest for enlightenment via science and “objective” reason only revealed to us that there is no neutral space. In fact, in our supposedly (post)modern era, we encounter what Taylor calls “cracks in the secular” – existential, subjective encounters with an other type of world – a transcendent reality that whispers through our immanent s experience.
Even when we think our base model of the world inherently discounts transcendence, we encounter beauty in ways that overwhelm our faculties. Times in which we spend sharing a meal with friends and experiencing the bliss of good community upend our categories for a life that modernity tells us is supposed to have arisen from a random assortment of atoms. Nights when our children are sick or we experience the death of a loved one bring more angst and terror than they should if we assume anything that happens in this universe, in light of its inevitable decay into chaos and heat death, has no true significance.
Pentecostalism, as a radical, and yes, emotional, form of Christianity, provides the perfect foil to secular (post/hyper/anti)modernity. It breaks the boundaries of the social, economic, and racial categories modernity imposes on human societies. It sees in the every day experience of human beings a God directly at work in the midst of our lives, from the mundane to the extraordinary. Like Jonathan Martin once wrote, it was “born on the wrong side of the tracks.” (Post)modern secularism wants to relegate religion to a tiny category of human existence and create a “neutral” space (as if there could be such a thing!) from which societies can do “real life.” Pentecostalism, on the other hand, refuses these boundaries. And it goes one step further: it doesn’t just demand a more robust spirituality – it insists that nothing is secular, and everything is spiritual.