A Fire Transforming the World
Published on: May 29, 2013
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  • Wayne Lusvardi

    It is perhaps no surprise that Pentecostalism was birthed in an abandoned stable by a Black minister in 1906 on Azusa Street in Los Angeles. As sociologist Max Weber might have postulated, there was an elective disaffinity between the modernization of Los Angeles and the experiences of the “oppressed” at the bottom of the social order.

    Weber wrote that there was an “elective affinity” between the “Spirit” of Protestant norms of a work ethic, discipline, saving and Capitalism. “Elective affinity” means a resonance or mutual attraction between a particular economic status, political power or powerlessness, and religious practice and worldview in a way that all complemented the other. By “spirit” Weber meant the powerful synergy of all these forces.

    1906 California was undergoing modernization by the coming of the railroad monopolies – specifically the Southern Pacific Railroad – that allowed railroads to run over people. The price to transport goods to markets were set by monopolists based on “rational” pricing to cover their costs and make a profit not on what prices farmers or open markets sought. Hence the pejorative term: “railroaded.” This was captured up in Frank Norris’ leftist novel The Octopus: A Story of California about how wheat farmers lost their leased railroad lands to larger farm operations. From this experience, the Progressive Political movement was concurrently birthed in California. As Pentecostalism became a religion of the oppressed the Social Gospel became a religion of elites.

    In the 1920’s Aimee Semple McPherson established the Foursquare Church in Los Angeles and was a pioneer in religious radio and media. She drew crowds to her Angelus Temple. She was a farm girl and émigré from Canada. McPherson married a Pentecostal minister who died of malaria. Her new husband was an accountant who she converted to Christianity and speaking in tongues. McPherson was also a faith healer.

    Into the vacuum of meaning that Weber’s “Iron Cage” of modernity brought with it in Los Angeles came the Pentecostal religious movement of religious mediating structures: spirits, ancestors, objects, speaking in tongues, religious operas, trances, faith healing, and spontaneous body movement, with little hierarchical or even gender distinction.

    Weber inferred that rationality is too limited to provide an answer whether life has meaning in the face of suffering — theodicy — and the homeless alienation that modernity brings with it.

    Pentecostalism initially was the experience of reality unmediated by orthodoxy, a priestly hierarchy or Pope, or even by Holy Scripture as epitomized by the Pentecostal “Oneness” movement. To Pentecostalists it was an encounter with what Rudolph Otto called the mysterium tremendem of a transcendent reality. All overly rational plans, laws, and bureaucracies were revealed as arbitrary and insignificant.

    A secularized version of Pentecostalism emerged much later with the Esalen Institute in Big Sur, California. Unlike Pentecostalism, the Esalen movement sought wholeness and the “realization” of inner human potentiality rather than transcendence. Drugs gave an escape into an alternative reality. Instead of tongue speaking and spontaneous bodily movement of Pentecostalism came meditation, yoga, “spirituality,” Buddhism, and healing by organic food. If Pentecostalism was a mediator of modernization, the Esalen Movement was post-modern or anti-modern rejection of the world. The Esalen Movement of post-modern elites went nowhere; Pentecostalism spread around the world mostly in societies undergoing rapid modernization.

  • Wayne Lusvardi

    For those interested there is an interview in this week’s Forbes.com magazine online with Peter Berger: “Is Religion an Essential Driver of Economic Growth?” (May 29 issue).

    If the Mortgage Bubble was a secular version of “inner world profligacy” then its antidote might be “inner world aestheticism” as discussed in Forbes interview with Berger.

  • roastytoasty

    In the 2000+ years since God walked the earth as a man among men, much of traditional, man-made religious practice in Christianity has moved farther & farther away from the original mission. Regarding the work of His Spirit, the words of the LORD Christ himself are instructive: Gospel of John, chapters 14, 15, 16 & 17: http://www.blueletterbible.org/Bible.cfm?b=Jhn&c=14&v=1&t=KJV#top
    A contemporary example of the Holy Spirit at work:

  • Jim__L

    Another article from the self-confessed “incurable” but curiously asymptomatic Lutheran…

    “I will not speculate about this here, except to suggest that developments extraneous to religion (mostly political and economic) will greatly influence the direction taken by religion in all countries.”

    Doesn’t Berger’s bland statement here constitute a complete rejection of Pentecostalism, and perhaps even Christianity itself? It’s hard for me to see how Luther’s “Sola Gratia” principle coexists with Berger’s “extraneous developments”.

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