The South Indian Pentecostal Movement in the Twentieth Century.
The South Indian Pentecostal Movement in the Twentieth Century is a welcome addition in English to the growing body of research on the global pentecostal movement. The work was originally published in German almost a decade earlier as Die sudindische Pfingstbewegung im 20. Jahrhundert. Eine historische und systematische Untersuchung (Studien zur interkulturellen Gesehichte des Christentums: 113 [Frankfurt am Main: Peter Lang, 1999]) but has remained relatively unknown in the North American context. Bergunder provides a detailed study of the emergence and development of pentecostalism in South India from the beginning of the twentieth century through the 1980s. His goal is to tell the story of the pentecostal movement in South India on its own terms, capturing the dynamics of the movement in its context and examining its beliefs and practices against this background. His thesis is that pentecostalism in South India made sense to people and grew in this context because it was able to address issues of local social, cultural, and religious concern. Local agency rises to the foreground in his historiography as a result. Bergunder is intent on recovering the names of indigenous leaders and the memory of their efforts that were, in his view, critical for the development of the movement. But he does not for a moment deny or ignore the presence of global missionary forces that are at work as well in and among South Indian pentecostal churches. The result is a fairly detailed recounting of the institutional history and a coherent presentation of the beliefs and practices of South Indian pentecostalism.
One of Bergunder's first tasks in the work is to define pentecostalism. Noting the importance of the North American contributions to the origins of the global pentecostal movement, he outlines briefly several historiographical options that have been advanced and points out the uneasiness among some non-western pentecostals with a North American-centered story. He lifts up the late nineteenth-century Anglo-American "faith missions" that crossed confessional boundaries and nurtured expectations for a worldwide revival and the teachings of Charles Fox Parham regarding the missionary purpose of the gift of tongues as two important streams. These came together at the Azusa Street Revival that began in Los Angeles in 1906 and shaped its efforts to mount a global revival. Within two years of the start of that revival, by 1908, a global pentecostal network had emerged. Bergunder argues here that only with the emergence of this global network could Azusa Street be said to be the start of the worldwide revival: "Azusa Street was the prelude, but the beginning of pentecostalism was reached when a global pentecostal network was established. Pentecostalism is neither a creed, an institution, nor a place, but a vast and vague international network; and in that specific sense Pentecostalism was a global movement fight from its beginnings" (11).
Given such a non-essentialist definition of pentecostalism, Bergunder must then confront the task of delimiting the subject of his investigation. To do so he proposes two criteria for mapping pentecostalism as a global discursive formation: "historical connections and synchronous interrelations" (12). The former is diachronous in nature and demands careful analysis to determine direct historical influences. The latter requires attending to the communicative networks that constitute pentecostalism at any given point in its history. His particular project is to trace these historical connections and uncover the specific discursive networks that constitute the South Indian pentecostal movement as a historical reality.
One more methodological obstacle confronts Bergunder in this endeavor, an obstacle that confronts many who are working in global pentecostal studies today. There is an enormous historical imbalance in the compilation and preservation of documents and source materials pertaining to the pentecostal movement in South India, as in other places throughout the world. Researchers seeking to understand this history have a considerable amount of source material concerning the missionaries who went there but far fewer sources regarding the indigenous Indian church leaders, to say nothing of the wider membership who made up these churches and helped shape the distinctive experience that emerged. To make up for this imbalance Bergunder draws heavily on oral interviews that he conducted with numerous pastors and laypeople in the South Indian pentecostal churches during the early 1990s, as well as on primary source materials that he gathered from the churches on his own, presumably apart from any existing established archive. Drawing on these primary sources and supplementing them with materials from Western missionary sources, he is able to construct a fairly coherent historical narrative. The collection of brief selected biographies of seventy-one indigenous church leaders that is included as an appendix at the end of the book is by itself a valuable contribution to the historiography of global pentecostalism.
The particular participant-observer methodology that Bergunder employs is not without its limitations, of course. At points his relationship to his interlocutors, perhaps coupled with his own historical identity of not being South Indian, seems to prevent him from offering a more critical assessment. The most notable instance of this is the manner in which he approaches the conflict between the upper-caste Thomas Christians and those from lower castes, especially the Nadars and the Dalits, in the history of South Indian pentecostalism. Only in the last two pages of his study, in discussing the prospects for the future of pentecostalism in South India, does he clearly acknowledge the oppression and exclusion of the subaltern groups from leadership in the pentecostal churches in South India that has taken place. Other observers of this history, such as Geomon K. George or Yesunatha Das, have not been as reluctant to identify the conflict and criticize the continuing impact of caste within the life of the pentecostal churches as well as in the historiography of pentecostalism in South India (see Geoman K. George, Religious Pluralism: Challenges for Pentecostalism in India [Bangalore: Centre for Contemporary Christianity, 2006], and Yesunatha Das, "An Evaluation of the History of Pentecostal Dalits in Kerala," unpublished Th.M. thesis, South Asian Institute of Advanced Christian Studies, Bangalore, 2001).
The book's second section identifies several areas of beliefs and practices that Bergunder distills from the history of these churches. This section contains a number of insights into the life and work of these churches. One of the most important concerns the manner in which pentecostalism in South India has effectively engaged popular Hindu religiosity around belief in and, more important, exorcism of evil spirits. Another issue is the continuing problems of South Indian pentecostal churches' dependence on foreign sources of funding, especially from the United States. A third is the ambiguity regarding pentecostal participation in traditional Indian cultural practices such as arranged marriages. These are but some of the insights that emerge from this important study of South Indian pentecostalism, a book that belongs on the syllabus of any course on global pentecostalism today.
Dale T. Irvin
New York Theological Seminary
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|Author:||Irvin, Dale T.|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Jun 1, 2009|
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