Cynic to Sympathetic - Pentecostalism Moves Researcher to Look at the S Factor ~ Praxis Habitus - On Race Religion & Culture

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Cynic to Sympathetic - Pentecostalism Moves Researcher to Look at the S Factor

Full disclosure: I have a good relationship with Don Miller, Firestone Professor of Religion at the University of Southern California and executive director of the Center for Religion and Civic Culture, and he was a member of my dissertation committee.

Even so, Don's interview in the latest Books & Culture magazine is a fascinating look at how one social scientist negotiates his relationship between "empirical reality" and "spiritual reality."

In the course of conducting a sweeping study of Global Pentecostalism, Don Miller changed. He went from being cynical to a sympathetic in his analytical stance. In the process, he proposes that social scientists take into account the "S Factor" in studying religion.

In a recent interview, Don states:
At some point early on in the project, I felt that I made a turn in my own interpretation of what I was witnessing, from potentially writing a book that could have been debunking, maybe even cynical at points, to wanting to try to explain why Pentecostalism is the fastest growing religious movement in the world.

At a purely personal, spiritual level, it had a profound effect on me.

My worldview actually changed in the process of the project, and I became much more open to the possibility that there are dimensions of reality that we normally exclude from a Western, scientific, Enlightenment perspective.

Don does not become uncritical, but rather carefully altered his stance to reflect more fully all aspects of what he believed he was observing.

The letter 'S'Image by grytr via Flickr

Obviously, there were times when I felt there was manipulation going on, particularly in some of the "prosperity gospel" churches that we visited, even though we didn't actually study them. There were other instances where one could have a purely naturalistic explanation of something. But in the last chapter of Global Pentecostalism, picking up a hint from the opening chapter, Ted Yamamori and I write about something called "the S factor," the Spirit with a capital S.

We make the argument that if you exclude the Spirit from religion, and particularly Pentecostal religion, it may be difficult to explain many of the things that occur, or at least you have to go through mental gymnastics to explain certain phenomena.

This is not to exclude the role of social class, the role of race and ethnicity, the role of culture more generally, because these are factors that shape every experience. But there is this other dimension that needs to be considered.

Coming from a sociologist, this is a highly controversial statement. But Don is a good scholar and mixes all these considerations in an insightful way. His discussion of Prosperity gospel is a case in point:
...there is a certain element of the prosperity gospel that is oftentimes overlooked in negative critiques: the appeal of the prosperity gospel is to people who are poor and without hope. Prosperity gospel preachers give people hope; they give them a vision for changing their lives.

The negative side of the prosperity gospel is that it is sometimes founded solely on the magical belief that if you donate to this ministry, you will be rewarded a hundred times over.

On the other hand, if you are giving people hope, and if the solution does not produce change, there is the possibility that these individuals who have had their consciousness raised will turn to other alternatives, such as political means of changing their life circumstances. Sometimes these prosperity gospel preachers give sound advice because they tell individuals how to multiply their flock of sheep, of goats, of chickens, and save money.

One could cynically say that they are doing this purely out of self-interest—to enable people to give even more—but often the preachers are teaching their people the very rudiments of capitalism, giving them an opportunity to change their lives decisively for the better.

Furthermore, by avoiding alcohol, gambling, womanizing, and other such taboos, extremely poor people may eventually have surplus capital that they can in turn use to give better education to their children and provide better healthcare for their families, and all this, in turn, may lead to upward social mobility.

Hands raised in worshipImage by D G Butcher via Flickr

Many scholars studying religion, because of their Marxist, psychoanalytic, or other deprivation theory leanings, can only see the compensatory elements of Pentecostal worship.

But in my experience, this worship is something that empowers people and doesn't simply compensate. An even more nuanced interpretation might be that in order for people to be empowered, they need, in fact, to be comforted. So, by compensation I mean feeling that someone, namely God, is caring for you, that you can trust that your life has a destiny and purpose that is beyond your own imagination. Dynamic worship, singing, all-night prayer meetings, and fasting: these are things that give a power and discipline to one's vision and enable people to attempt the seemingly impossible.

More on Don's understanding of Pentecostalism is found in Global Pentecostalism: The New Face of Christian Social Engagement, written with Ted Yamamori.

The full interview quoted here is available online.

Finally, The Center for Religion and Civic Culture is just now launching a multi-million dollar research initiative on Charismatic and Pentecostal religion.

No comments: