Magazine article The Christian Century

Sects without Tradition

Magazine article The Christian Century

Sects without Tradition

Article excerpt

Scholars of contemporary Christianity rightly stress the enormous worldwide upsurge of Pentecostalism. In numerical terms at least, it represents the greatest success story in modern religion. A new movement just a century ago, Pentecostalism today claims hundreds of millions of adherents.

Much of that story involves demographic change. As populations have swelled in Africa, Asia, and Latin America, many millions have been uprooted from traditional villages.

Most have moved to new megacities in their own countries, but other former rural dwellers have journeyed to cities in the Global North. In the challenging situations they face in their new homes, migrants naturally gravitate to those religious groups that offer them the means of survival. They find there opportunities for fellowship and community, but also the basic necessities of welfare, education, and health that the state cannot provide. Commonly, it is the Pentecostal and charismatic churches that are best organized to supply these needs, and in turn they benefit most from the repeated infusions of the uprooted.

Social change means religious transformation. People abandon the old sacred landscapes they knew in their rural homes, with all their saints and shrines, and a sacred year marked by religious feasts and fasts. In the cities, they adopt a globalized form of modern faith, characterized by sophisticated modern media and advertising, including the most contemporary social media. They abandon their old languages and dialects, so that pastors hold their revival crusades in the global languages of modernity--English, French, Spanish, and Portuguese.

But whatever new believers have lost through cultural change, they feel that they have gained much. However poor in material things, they know in their hearts that they are following a pristine form of apostolic faith.

So far, that story is familiar enough and has been retold by many scholars. What is surprising, though, is how very closely that Christian narrative echoes trends in modern Islam. I have for years used the work of distinguished French scholar Olivier Roy as a source for understanding globalized Islam and resurgent fundamentalism, but only recently have I come to appreciate how much it illuminates the Christian story.

In books like Holy Ignorance, Roy relates global religious change to such megatrends as mass migration, urbanization, and modernization. He stresses how deeply integrated Islam was in traditional societies like Morocco or Pakistan, where faith was tied to particular communities and clan structures, to shrines, saints, and sacred landscapes, and to a sacred calendar. …

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