Book Review: 'Signs and Wonders: Why Pentecostalism is the World's Fastest Growing Faith'
Written by Gregg Brekke
May 14, 2009
One of the surprises I encounter as editor of UCNews is the dozen or so new books that cross my desk each month. Many religious publishers send their new titles to our offices hoping to gain a little ink (or pixel) space.
As you can imagine, not every title is of interest to our audience. I do, however, try to take the time to read every preface and/or introduction – I figure I owe it to the publishers. The books run the gamut – some fit our audience well, a few are too academic, some don't apply and others are just plain weird. But a small selection, though on the surface seeming off-topic, strike a chord.
Such was "Signs and Wonders: Why Pentecostalism is the World's Fastest Growing Faith" by Paul Alexander. Were I to judge the book by its cover, I would have quickly put it on the book-sale pile thinking, "What does my (mainly UCC) readership have to do with Pentecostalism?"
Well, it may surprise some readers to know that one of the fastest growing segments of affiliating congregations within the United Church of Christ are from the "radically inclusive" Pentecostal/Charismatic movement known as The Fellowship. This alone is reason enough to explore Alexander's explantion for the growth of Pentecostalism.
But two other things stopped me in my tracks. First, I noticed the foreword was written by the Rev. Martin Marty, a respected ELCA scholar, pastor and professor emeritus of religion at the University of Chicago. Second, in reading the jacket I saw that Alexander is the founder of something called "Pentecostals and Charismatics for Peace and Justice."
My curiosity was piqued, so I began to dig in.
What I found was unexpected. Rather than a treatise on why you should become a Pentecostal or a defense of fringe religious behaviors, "Signs and Wonder" is a careful explanation of how some Christians experience Pentecost – what they claim is God's presence through the Holy Spirit in everyday living.
Labels of fanatic, emotional and ecstatic often attributed to Pentecostals don't stick to Alexander or his writing. He is a scholar – and one who has struggled greatly not only with the perceptions and practices of Pentecostalism but with Christianity itself.
Alexander received his PhD in religion from Baylor University. He studied with famed Mennonite pacifist John Howard Yoder and was deeply influenced by the ethical arguments of Stanley Hauerwas. Along the way, he lost his faith in Christianity. For many years he described himself as a "Christian atheist" – ethically drawn to Jesus' teachings, but quite certain God didn't exist.
As he understood Christianity there was either an all-loving and all-powerful God who could conquer any earthly complication, or the whole proposition fell apart. This problem of theodicy (why suffering and evil exists in the world) - especially the experiences of a friend with MS who though prayed for fervently was left unhealed - ultimately undid Alexander's faith. "If God is loving and powerful, God should be able to do something about evil and suffering," he felt at the time.
Alexander's other gnawing concern was the concept of divine revelation. "If God is going to reveal Godself to humanity, what's the big mystery? What's the big secret? Write it in the sky for crying out loud – tell people about it," he says. "Why was [revelation] only given to people on the backside of some desert thousands of years ago and that's how we're all supposed to figure it out. If it's that important, God could be clearer about it."
"Signs and Wonders" takes readers on a tour of Alexander's Pentecostal upbringing, the challenges he encountered that led him to question his faith, and his ultimate return to the Christian faith and pentecostal practice. Alexander makes a point of calling himself a "small 'p' Pentecostal." He finds his current spiritual home in the Mennonite church - eschewing the nationalism and uncritical support of war in many Pentecostal denominations while embracing the application of spiritual gifts.
Alexander's analysis of Pentecostal practices includes energetic worship, tongue-talking, the promise of prosperity, storytelling, God's power in spiritual warfare, a reliance on visions, prophecy and dreams, and expressions of hope, joy and emotion which are each addressed in separate chapters.
The chapters give an explanation of and/or biblical justification for each Pentecostal "gift" or practice along with stories of Pentecostal experiences. Alexander then takes aim at why these expressions may be troubling, how they have been misused or the theological problems presented. The gloves are off – Alexander doesn't couch his criticisms. Chapters end by giving credence to the thesis proposition that Pentecostalism is the fastest growing expression of Christianity, especially in the global south.
Alexander's social analysis of Pentecostalism hits the nail on the head. An oversimplified explanation of Pentecostalism paints followers with the broad brush of "lower-class" - describing adherents as poor, immigrant, minority and oppressed persons using religion as escapism. Though he acknowledges the truths that illuminate this stereotype, Alexander isn't satisfied with a classist explanation and makes a compelling argument for why and how Pentecostal experiences transcend these boundaries.
At the same time he levels a strong critique of Pentecostals who treat prayer, healing and miracles like magic out of the pages of "Harry Potter" or "Lord of the Rings," saying, "The reason for the appeal of Pentecostalism may lie in the natural, simple human desire to have more control over our lives and circumstances."
Some of what Alexander says is sentimental, especially as it deals with his upbringing or with the extraordinary and miraculous stories he has heard from others. But sentimentality is never used as a means to convince the reader of the Pentecostal experience or those who have that worldview. He is at all times fair and kind to those who are drawn to Pentecostalism while being critical of its abuses – especially as it relates to peace and justice issues.
Most interestingly, Alexander seems surprised to have experienced anything miraculous in his own life. He uses these personal examples sparingly – making them all the more believable in the context of his analysis.
Alexander's argument for why Pentecostalism is growing quickly is also believable. Given the social, political and economic factors described in the book – it is evident (even if circumstantially so) why Pentecostal practice is so liberating to the oppressed.
Being part of a church where coming out as gay or lesbian is seen in many settings as easier than "coming out" as a Pentecostal, I wondered how or if my personal experiences of the Spirit influence my understanding of God's justice. To that end, "Signs and Wonders" left me with some questions – especially regarding my response to the social location of Pentecostals and their experiences of being the "other."
And this is where Alexander's heart is – with the poor and oppressed. Which leads to my only critique of "Signs and Wonders." Alexander's passion for peace and justice, along with what he feels is an important step for non-Pentecostals in relation to the religious "other," could be more fully fleshed out in this work.
As mentioned above, he is the founder of "Pentecostals and Charismatics for Peace and Justice" . The group's justice aims have many parallels to UCC concerns (including torture, war, Israel/Palestine and the death penalty) so I questioned him on this group and the movement toward social justice and its correlation to Pentecostalism.
First of all, Alexander and PCPJ are the real deal. Unlike many Evangelical groups I have encountered – who are actually working to convert those they are serving under the guise of peace and justice efforts – PCPJ seems truly concerned with the process of peace and the actions of justice.
Alexander says he was influenced by the writings of Yoder on the early Pentecostals and their non-violence, pacifism and social justice work. His move out of atheism, after deconstructing all that was wrong with Christianity and Pentecostalism, was "a reconstruction of Pentecostal/Charismatic Christianity as a peace witness."
"Pentecostalism is a church of the poor," he says. "In this context you can learn about homelessness from the homeless. You can learn to work on the injustice issues from the people who are experiencing the injustice."
He challenges the classism that exists in the church, asking how those who don't worship with or walk alongside the poor can understand their real needs. "God is at work in the places where you see the need for transformation," he says. "And there is a lot of wisdom there that we're missing out on from those on the receiving end of oppression and the crushing power of global under-regulated capitalism."
"Ultimately, the practices of Pentecostalism may be resistance discourse that is taking place," he says alluding to concepts found in liberation theology. "There is systemic evil that might be being resisted in Pentecostal or Charismatic practices, because many times they're happening at the places where there is injustice and suffering."
Alexander ended the interview quoting an unknown source saying, "Liberation theology opted for the poor, and the poor opted for Pentecostalism." Alexander isn't promoting Pentecostalism – but he doesn't waver in his conviction that the concerns of peace and justice will be better served by our understanding and acceptance of those who experience signs and wonders.
"Signs and Wonders: Why Pentecostalism is the World's Fastest Growing Faith" by Paul Alexander from Jossey-Bass, April 2009. Cloth, $24.95, ISBN 978-0-470-18396-0.
Comments on this review are open to registered myUCC users at Gregg Brekke's blog.