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Fire From Heaven: The Rise of Pentecostal Spirituality and the Reshaping of Religion in the 21st Century.

Autobiographical passages, historical threads, biographical lines of charismatic leaders, commentary, analysis and ultimately questions permeate the pages of Harvey Cox's sensitive and readable tome on the rise and growth of the Pentecostal movement in the United States and across four continents. As the fastest-growing religious movement in the world, the phenomenon cannot be ignored.

Vital elements of the Pentecostal movement date back to the first Christian Pentecost around the year A.D. 34. They have been felt in various mystical traditions in the Catholic church throughout the ages. However, Cox traces the current movement back to Los Angeles in 1906. There, an African-American, self-educated preacher, William Joseph Seymour, began to attract hundreds of lower-class African-Americans and white people to his spirit-filled services.

From these humble beginnings in a converted stable to worship spaces that hold thousands of people, the movement has spread around the world. The Pentecostal movement continues to draw primarily from poor people who find themselves often "displaced" to the big cities. What started as an urban inter-racial movement split within Seymour's lifetime, in many cases along racial lines. White people did not want to be led by blacks. One division, the Assemblies of God, attracted white people.

Pentecostalism is diverse. In addition to racial diversity, it has various theological emphases. At times, significance is given to the Second Coming of Christ, at times stress is put on the gifts of the Spirit for the here and now, and at other times importance is put on conversion to a more "pure lifestyle." Diversity in theology, in leadership and in function is fostered because there is no hierarchical structure to guide the movement.

To some this is one of Pentecostalism's strengths; to others, it is disastrous. Cox notes that the "tame" version of Pentecostalism in the Catholic church is known as the "charismatic movement." It primarily attracts the white middle class and has experienced very little growth in the past 15 years, except in Germany and France. The charismatic movement has more structure than other branches of Pentecostalism and operates as a worldwide spirituality within the institutional Catholic church.

Cox describes five characteristics of the Pentecostal movement. Three of these concern its underlying girders: primal speech, primal piety and primal hope.

Primal speech, known as "speaking in tongues," typifies Pentecostal prayer. Such speech is not the communication of a foreign tongue but rather the "sighs too deep for human words." It is speech that does not rely on formal education; it is available to all who are baptized in the Spirit.

Cox maintains that primal speech continues because it "represents the core of all Pentecostal conviction: that the Spirit of God needs no mediators but is available to anyone in an intense, immediate, indeed interior way." Cox uses psychologists Ann and Barry Ulanov and novelist-critic Susan Sontag to shed light on the "speaking in tongues" occurrences.

The second significant characteristic of the movement is primal piety. This includes such things as trances, healings, dances, bodily movements often reminiscent of African religious consciousness and religious elements that portray a touch of the transcendental. Cox notes that for many of the newly urbanized masses there was "a double-barreled disillusionment both with conventional religion and its institutional expressions and with pseudoreligions of technical advancement and rational enlightenment."

He notes that at times of tremendous cultural change, such as the 20th century, conservatives dig in and insist on immutable dogmas and indispensable hierarchies. Cox compares the satisfaction some get from the emotionalism and healing of Pentecostalism to the gratification that increasing throngs of people get in making pilgrimages to and searching for healing at Lourdes, even though these same people may not be regular participants in any structured church.

He quotes a Catholic priest who works at Lourdes: "Perhaps people find religious life too monotonous and want something more intense, more festive, more emotional."

Cox has some further insights into the healing aspects of the Pentecostal movement. He notes that throughout history there has been a complementarity of religion and healing, not a separation. It is only recently in the West that a chasm has begun to develop between the two. As physicians became more powerful, sick people became more feeble and dependent and the spiritual dimensions of healing became more peripheral.

Cox writes about the need for reciprocity found in Pentecostalism between the healer and the healed. The movement of the Spirit fills the vacuum created by modern medicine and the perception of modern doctors.

Primal hope is a notable identification mark of the movement. Among the urban poor, hope is often seen as the yearning for the end of strife, wars and racism. Inherent in the hope is an eschatology that points to a "city without death or tears, which God is preparing for those who hear and respond."

Eighty-seven percent of the world's Pentecostals live below the world poverty line. For these, the hoped-for New City of Jerusalem is coming soon. In a culture of chaos, poverty, discrimination and despair, a Spirit that can transform the imagination with hope empowers people to deal with the injustices of their daily lives. Hence the rise of Pentecostalism among the urban poor.

The last two characteristics Cox distinguishes as vital to the Pentecostal movement are the prominent leadership role of women and the critical role music plays. Cox says women have played. a disproportionately prominent place in the Pentecostal movement, not just in terms of racial integration, but rather in "presenting a dramatically different conception of who God is, and the quiet subversion of centuries of patriarchal theology."

Cox traces the influence of women in the movement within the United States, Brazil and Asia and concludes that among other things their ease with narrative theology contributes to their successful leadership.

If women are the primary leaders in the Pentecostal movement, music has been its principal medium. Jazz lends itself authentically to the work of the Spirit. Cox notes that both Pentecostalism and jazz share similar characteristics. Both abolish structural distinctions; both are open to improvisation. Once jazz gets "structured on paper" it may be jazzlike but it is not really jazz. "Jazz, like Pentecostalism, seems to hold within itself an unfailing self-renewing quality," according to Cox.

Cox is perhaps most insightful when he looks at the tensions within the Pentecostal movement between the fundamentalists and experientialists. He sees the movement as a battlefield between the religious-political right and those who want to cut through creeds and canons and "bring the gospel of God's justice and the Spirit's nearness to everyone."

Cox's hope would be that the experiential element of Pentecostalism would hook up with liberation theology and that the small Catholic base communities - such as those in Brazil - would be the new "offspring ... more powerful than either of its parents."

Cox's scholarship and reflections are valuable to anyone interested not only in Pentecostalism, but also in the future of religious movements and their influence on the structured world religions. Pentecostal theology is "communal, narrational, hopeful and radically embodied." Its theology both uses elements from the culture and critiques the culture. Its rapid growth from a ghetto in Los Angeles across North America to the Pacific Rim, Africa, Europe and South America illustrates the human yearning for experiential communion with a loving and just God. More organized religions and churches cannot ignore this remarkable phenomenon.

If there is a weakness in the book, it is the fact that Cox does not spend, significant time exploring what the more staid religious congregations can learn from Pentecostalism. He speaks of the Pentecostals' great welcoming hospitality. He highlights some Pentecostal communities s that work for justice, but the reader would welcome a description of what the more structured churches/religions could assimilate from Pentecostalism and vice versa.

While hierarchies may have become oppressive and dogmas may have lost their appeal to the religious imagination, it is hard to believe that the fluidity and emotionalism of the Pentecostal movement alone can contribute to the religious development of peoples over the long term. When society experiences great social, political and economic change, a stable, structured spirituality, renewed and well-articulated, may have invaluable contributions to make.
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Author:Gallagher, Maureen
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 3, 1995
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