The Dialectic Transcended: Beyond Popular Religion

Popular Catholicism revolves around rituals which take place at particular times, in accordance with long-established formulae, and in particular places, conducted by designated persons (not always priests, but always with priestly approval) in fixed roles. Although these practices change over time, they do so incrementally and imperceptibly and they carry an aura of faithfulness to deep tradition, with a strong sense of origins and authenticity. Official ritual shares these characteristics but, in addition, carries the imprint of faithfulness to ancient texts and recorded commandments, in addition to institutionalization, traditions of music and bodily expression, liturgy carried out by personnel invested with charisma and versed in esoteric procedures whose meaning is enshrined in age-old interpretations. The official rarely suppresses the popular even if the latter strays from strict orthodoxy: indeed very often it is encouraged, as we saw earlier on, and the popular is usually respectful of official orthodoxy. But the popular does respond to the demand for immediate this-worldly solutions to life's problems in a way that the official does not.

Pentecostal churches, in contrast, cannot be said either to have stable sets of rituals or to have a codified, written liturgy in the Catholic, Anglican or Jewish sense. However, they certainly have recourse to an identifiable repertoire of calls on supernatural forces, but these are short invocations rather than ritual procedures, and their services do not follow a fixed set of written invariant prayers. Many invocations are in the form of exchanges between preachers and their listeners, when the preacher calls for a response and the congregation cry 'Amen!' or 'Hallelujah!'. They can be thought of as cues: during services preachers at several points make apparently improvised perorations often backed up with sound effects designed to manage emotion. This absence of elaborate ritual procedures is related to the core Pentecostal doctrine that gifts of the spirit are precisely that - gifts - not learnt in prolonged training - and to the concomitant idea of the potential for priesthood on the part of all believers, and is incompatible with the notion that a particular status conferred by the hierarchy or organization (comparable to that of a priest in the Catholic or Anglican churches) would bring with it charismatic gifts or a privileged role of intermediary with the supernatural. If Pentecostal services nevertheless exhibit a remarkably uniform set of speaking styles, iterated across the globe, this is not because they are subordinated to any sort of common authority.

Despite this democracy of the spiritual, decision-making authority in most evangelical churches in Latin America and Africa is usually heavily concentrated and exercised in impenetrable ways. To be sure there is enormous variation, but accounts of pastors who involve their congregants in decision-making are unusual (Garma Navarro 2004; Englund 2007), and unheard of in large-scale neo-Pentecostal organizations.[1]

Among Pentecostals there is not a set of procedures to be executed at fixed times of a life cycle, an annual cycle, or a seasonal cycle. When an obreiro or obrero (Portuguese/Spanish for church workers, usually volunteers) approaches you, places three fingers of one hand on your forehead and yells 'Out, out, out', that is hardly an esoteric procedure. Pastors, preachers, obreiros are authorized or empowered to bless congregants, to invoke the supernatural power of Jesus to heal physical and psychological ailments, and to exorcise the forces of evil from their lives, their families, their homes.

Neo-Pentecostalism is in many ways an even more radical break than its predecessor Pentecostalism. At its core is a model of a highly centralized and global Church organization in which the themes of donation, diabolic possession and exorcism take pride of place. Pentecostalism, in contrast, is more discrete on these subjects and is highly decentralized, so that pastors have to manage their own churches and if they want to be professionals it is their business to achieve a corresponding growth in their churches. The earliest model of neo-Pentecostalism is probably the Brazil-based Universal Church of the Kingdom of God, which has millions of followers in Brazil and millions more across the world, especially in other Latin American countries, in Portugal and in Africa. The Universal Church has also been strongly influenced by the prosperity Gospel, but that is only one, and perhaps not the principal, feature distinguishing it and others like it from classic Pentecostalism (Lehmann 2011a, 2011b).

Roles in Pentecostal churches - which still have many more adherents

- and neo-Pentecostal churches relate more to organizational than to ritual responsibilities: obreiros undertake practical tasks, patrol the aisles in the larger churches, and ensure everything is in order. In the Universal Church I have encountered pastors responsible for tasks like education, public relations or security, as well as preaching or managing a church, and, at the upper end, there is something like a senior management whose members are known as bishops. When I sought to interview their leading architect, responsible for the massive 'Temple of Solomon' which the Church opened in Sao Paulo in 2014.[2] for example, I was told that this required the 'permission of the top management'

- which was eventually obtained. In the classic model of small churches and chapels the dynamic is quite different: one individual controls all aspects of the church, material and spiritual, and if someone in the congregation has leadership ambitions he will set up a separate church or chapel. The context is however a dynamic one, and the Pentecostal field is changing, so that we observe a trend towards the neo-Pentecostal model even among the pastors of the Assemblies of God, a loose worldwide confederation which is the umbrella group for the classic model.

Little is known about training in neo-Pentecostal churches, and they are certainly not keen to open it up to researchers: to judge by their conduct of services, they may learn techniques of effective preaching and management of the emotional state of a congregation. The widespread distrust in Pentecostal culture of erudite knowledge and of the sort of theological training which is required of Catholic and mainstream Protestant clergy, is well documented (Anderson 2004): such learning is regarded as detracting from the spiritual and inspirational, though there are variations and exceptions. Nonetheless, as evidence of the constantly changing landscape of evangelical Christianity, the leaders of the Igreja Apostolica Unidade em Deus in the Ilha do Governador in Rio de Janeiro who have developed programmes and initiatives in religious tourism, social work in local communities, and hospital visiting and hope to establish a recognized university level course in Ministry, precisely because they see a need for a more intellectual sort of training for evangelical pastors.

  • [1] Garma does describe a pastor opening up decision-making in a medium-sized church in Mexico City. Englund describes an attempt by a pastor to hold elections in his church in an impoverished township in Malawi, which failed because members were afraid that the process would become enmeshed in witchcraft and did not credit the secrecy of the vote.
  • [2] Costing a reputed $300 million, this monumental construction measures 55 metres in height and 75 metres along its frontage, covers an entire street block and in addition to a hall to accommodate 10,000 people, with replicas of the two pillars at the entrance to the original temple (Boaz and Jachin) and, in its precincts, of the tent which housed the Ark of the Covenant as it was carried across the desert. The building contains broadcasting studios, classrooms, a large baptismal pool, and the future burial place of the Church's leader and his family. The design is inspired by the Roman concept of Herod's Temple and can be appreciated on the Church's many websites worldwide including templodesalomao. com. The inauguration was a rolling event over a month in July-August 2014.
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