A Sociological Assessment of ‘Continuity and Discontinuity’ in Allan Anderson’s Spirit-Filled World.
Allan Anderson’s Spirit-Filled World: Religious Dis/Continuity in African Pentecostalism (2018) is an exceptional study of African religion and Pentecostalism. Anderson’s book builds upon his earlier studies in South Africa where he was involved with an extensive research project that included a rich data base from surveys, demographic data, interviews, and observations in the early 1990s. As Anderson says, he returned to his first love in 2016, where he again took up questions about the relationship between Pentecostalism and African culture. In Spirit-Filled World Anderson augments his previous research with new observations, face-to-face interviews, and focus groups in a South African township outside the city of Pretoria. His participants are from three different but related Christian groups which allows him to conduct a comparative analysis among those who are from Apostolic, Zionist, and Pentecostal churches on a range of questions about ancestors, divination, witchcraft, demons, healing, prosperity, and spirits. Anderson’s argument is that African Pentecostalism illustrates a tension between continuity and discontinuity in the interrelationship between Christianity and African culture.
The book is structured around three major areas that includes 1) the social, religious, and historical context of African Pentecostalism; 2) a rich in-depth description of the spirit-filled world of African Pentecostalism; and 3) an analytical discussion around his findings with attention given to the issues of continuity/discontinuity, syncretism, and intercultural theology. Overall, the book is compelling and convincing for the following reasons.
First, Anderson raises important methodological issues that are not often discussed outside of method textbooks and theoretical discussions about research methods. Anderson brings into the research himself as a primary interrogator of African Pentecostalism and the problems that are associated with such a position. He discusses his long family history of missionary work in Africa including the many decades he spent as a missionary, pastor, and theological educator prior to coming to the University of Birmingham. He problematizes the relationship between white and black in South Africa which he openly admits that in spite of his long history in South Africa, he is still privileged by his whiteness, gender, education, and status as a Professor in a British University. Anderson also addresses the problems of selecting from a rich array of data particular items that suit his theoretical concerns and leaves it to the readers to question how this selection fits both his theoretical purposes but also his description of African Pentecostalism. What is especially of importance in his book is the admission, which is not always explicit in research, is that whatever any researcher can ever claim about their findings, all accounts have limitations and are selective, subjective, and interpretive. As Anderson rhetorically asks, “So, for whose primary benefit are these studies conducted, for those being researched or for us researchers ourselves? We need to admit that studies like this one and most academic studies do not fundamentally empower the communities being studied, although they may help promote mutual understanding and cooperation” (75).
Second, the empirically rich and detailed descriptions found in chapters four through six, are exceptional and offer some of the most insightful accounts of African religion as it intersects with Christianity in the Apostolic, Zionist, and Pentecostal churches. These three chapters comprise the heart of the study. Anderson demonstrates a sharp ability to draw upon his observations and interviews while showing how each of the participants and their churches approach the spirits through their understanding and practices around ancestors, witchcraft, and divination. For example, his description of burial rites and the nuances between the various practices is insightful along with his discussion of how they represent the tension between continuity and discontinuity. Anderson writes: “Burial rituals are closely connected to the ancestors throughout southern Africa. Africans here don’t perform cremations, and all their dead are buried in graves. Some of the funerals I have attended in Soshanguve and those which people have been willing to talk about reveal the extent to which pre-Christian religious practices still abound in South African urban areas. For the most part, these are harmless customs, but some of the practices provoke a strong reaction from Pentecostals and “born again” Christians” (87).
Clearly, there is a tension between African culture and Christianity in African Pentecostalism. Anderson goes on to discuss the variations among his participants and outlines the different ways in which Apostolic, Zionist, and Pentecostal churches accommodate traditional African practices with Christianity through a process of rejection, acceptance, or indifference. Regardless of the response, all three groups illustrate how African Christianity interacts with traditional African religion acknowledging its existence in some way.
Anderson continues in his book with descriptions of witchcraft and how the participants demonstrate an understanding of spirits, affliction, evil and suffering, and prosperity, acknowledge the spirt world, albeit with variations on how each group engages it. Especially insightful is Anderson’s evaluation of western views about demons and exorcism that do not readily fit an African view of spirits and their relationship to good and evil as well as Christian responses to these spirits. For example, the discussion about prosperity demonstrates how an African perspective is quite different than an American one. Anderson discusses how poverty and hardship is linked with malevolent spirits and witchcraft. Prosperity is a sign not only of the Holy Spirit’s blessing but also that successful persons are somewhat immune or protected from evil spirits and the use of witchcraft. Anderson states: “So, the question is not whether the ‘prosperity gospel’ is compatible with African religions, but how it relates to the continuity/discontinuity tension and has been appropriated and transformed in Pentecostalism” (139-40).
Anderson then moves on to describe the role of divination, healing and deliverance in the spirit-world of Africans with attention to the ways in which Pentecostalism operates and manipulates power. Diviners, prophets, pastors, all in some way, negotiate with the spirit-world and offer solutions for the problems of daily life. Responses to questions about divination among the participants again reveal a range of views from rejection of the work of diviners to the accommodation of certain practices like healing within the church context which may link back to notions of ancestors with Pentecostal teachings about generational curses or deliverance from evil spirits that are intended to harm them.
The third strength of Spirit-Filled World is the analytical discussion about African religion and Pentecostalism. Here Anderson draws upon the views of several scholars in theology and anthropology to makes sense of what is believed to be continuous with traditional religion and at the same time discontinuous with the embracing of Pentecostalism. Specifically, Anderson entertains the view from Birgit Meyer that what is occurring is a cultural process of translating the spirit-world from the western missionaries into an African Pentecostal context. Anderson interprets Meyer’s assessment to include continuity and discontinuity. However, I wonder to what extent Meyer’s concept of “translating the devil” suggests dis/continuity with her distinction between content and form suggesting that Pentecostalism is a new form through which the old content is expressed.
Anderson also raises questions about syncretism, a theological debate about the mixing of what is thought to be a pure form of Christianity or orthodoxy, with cultural practices that pollute or taint the pure. Syncretism is a pejorative term at best and highly contested in theology. To counter this, Anderson adopts Walter Hollenweger’s “responsible syncretism” view and argues that all of Christianity in every historical era and culture represents a Christianity that is characterized by continuity and discontinuity. Responsible syncretism represents a move towards “common understanding and dialogue” (200) and the recognition that the issue, according to Hollenweger, is not about “whether there is syncretism but what kind of syncretism” (201). While theologians discuss the various issues with the concept of syncretism, analytically, it is still an explosive term that may not allow people to move beyond how contentious it is to understand what they empirically observe.
Perhaps this is why Hollenweger and Anderson move in the direction of intercultural theology to raise broader questions about Christianity and culture, including the theologizing process raised by cultural interaction. Anderson questions why very little work has addressed intercultural theology from Pentecostal perspectives and then raises a research agenda with particular attention to African Pentecostalism. Anderson outlines six areas for intercultural theologians to address in relation to his concerns about continuity and discontinuity. These include the role of 1) oral liturgy as a non-verbal form of communication; 2) narrative theology and witness through preaching, prayer, singing and dancing; 3) reconciliatory and participatory community in church and society; 4) visions and dreams as spiritual guidance; 5) healing and deliverance prayer for dealing with the threats of daily life; and 6) liturgical music and dance as a site for celebratory praise. All of the above represents for Anderson “the translation of African ideas into Christian language” (213).
The analytical turn upon which continuity and discontinuity work, has been utilized by historians and anthropologists as they have attempted to offer explanations for the mixing and merging of cultures over time. Anderson engages these ideas with the theological discussions that have revolved around syncretism and intercultural theology and together his interdisciplinary approach offers insight into African Pentecostalism. It also offers, he claims, insight into what is argued to be a global process with the interaction of Pentecostalism and indigenous cultures throughout the world. This is not the focus of his book but the claim needs some clarification as to what is exactly the same but also different. In other words, to employ the same analytical tool, what is continuous and discontinuous about his observations from an African context with for example, the Māori in New Zealand or the Sto:lo people in British Columbia?
To continue the conversation and to invite another dialogue partner to the table, I want introduce three similar but different analytical concepts that sociologists have employed to make sense of a globalizing world where the interactions of cultures and religions are not just within our awareness but also accelerating with great speed. This acceleration of cultural contact whether through digital technologies, migration, transnational networks, missionaries, makes the task of dialogue and understanding even more paramount. It is not my intention to raise these ideas from sociology to discount the work of historians, anthropologists, and theologians, but to add to the complexity of making sense of the globalization of Pentecostalism and the many cultural expressions observed throughout the world. Each of these ideas have attempted to make sense of globalization and its impact on religions and cultures. However, we ought not to forget the agency of local religions and cultures who respond to globalizing trends in their own unique ways to give meaning and make sense of their own lived experiences. This too includes Pentecostals around the world.
The British sociologist, Anthony Giddens, argued that the whole world is becoming modern and that the modernization process is unique and represents the discontinuous character of global society (1990, 3). Globalization is the modernization of the whole world. It is a linear process whereby modern structures are lifted out of their western context through a process called dis-embedding. Modern social structures and culture, argues Giddens, are unique to this period of history and do not represent anything that is continuous with traditional societies. He states, “The modes of life brought into being by modernity have swept us away from all traditional types of social order” (4).The process of dis-embedding has a destabilizing impact on traditional cultures, produces insecurity, and erodes social cohesion. Religious revivalism is a reflexive response to globalization. All over the world new forms of social life, political forms, even religions like Pentecostalism have emerged in response to modernity. For Giddens, “The reflexivity of modern social life consists in the fact that social practices are constantly examined and re-formed in the light of incoming information about those very practices, thus constitutively altering their character” (38). However, Giddens’ view of religion is that it is still largely fundamentalist, and transitory, representing a refusal to enter into the global world. He states, “Fundamentalism is beleaguered tradition. It is tradition defended in the traditional way – by reference to ritual truth – in a globalising world that asks for reasons” (2000, 67). The implications for the study of Pentecostalism are 1) Globalization erodes traditional cultures outside the west as they become modern 2) Modernity represents a new epoch that is not continuous with the previous era 3) Pentecostalism is a reflexive response to modernization 4) traditional cultures embrace Pentecostalism because of its appeal to tradition, and 5) as South Africans become modern, traditional cultural practices do not simply change or adapt, they are altered. Pentecostalism represents an anti-modern response to globalization, an attempt to hold on to what is traditional, albeit in a new community.
The second argument by Jan Nederveen Pieterse (2004) is that globalization is hybridization, a process whereby the world is characterized by cultural mélange. Hybridization is partly about the blending of different cultures. But hybridization is not just about mixing and merging religion and culture through the global flows of unique cultural and religious practices from around the world. It is for Pieterse, the generation of new religious and cultural forms that are unique to the contemporary world. Where Giddens focuses on the world becoming the same, Pieterse observes difference. Both, however, observe global change as discontinuity with the emergence of the new. African Pentecostalism, therefore, is not quite African traditional religion nor is it American. It is something new. Pentecostalism is a hybrid that has emerged through global interaction and negotiation. What emerges, however, is also controversial with a range of debates among Pentecostals about which version is authentic and authoritative (Wilkinson 2016). However, the hybridization of Pentecostalism, most notably from outside the regions of power, has the effect of destabilizing those voices from the centre. Allan Anderson’s Spirit-Filled World will certainly do this for those who read it from regions outside of South Africa. And not only will the centre’s power be questioned, but even the notion of a central or universal Pentecostalism will be challenged.
The third sociological idea, only briefly raised in Spirit-Filled World comes from Roland Robertson. Anderson references Robertson’s definition of globalization as global awareness and interconnectedness. Anderson also uses the language of sameness and difference to talk about continuity and discontinuity. But Robertson’s major analytical contribution to the globalization debate is his employment of the concept glocalization (1992; 1995). First, Glocalization challenges notions of linear expansion throughout the world by pointing to what is universal and particular or similar and different in culture. Robertson does not assume that globalization means cultural homogeneity across space and time. Nor does he assume that everything is characterized by difference. Rather, glocal refers to the way in which culture is global and local, universal, and particular, at the same time. The global is not somewhere else but always local; the local is never absent from the global. Furthermore, glocalization is an ongoing dynamic process with constant cultural interaction so that every site of religious and cultural interaction has the possibility of forming new cultural beliefs, practices, and sentiments through migration, missionaries, and the exporting of new ideas and symbols through digital technologies. What was once a new site for continuity and discontinuity will become another site for ongoing social change.
Pentecostalism in Anderson’s Spirit-Filled World is simultaneously local and global meaning that it is traditional and modern, South African and from somewhere else whether that be Nigeria, Ghana, or America. Futhermore, because South African Pentecostals are aware of the world as a single place and access Pentecostalism from elsewhere, the local continuously interacts with the global and the process of glocalization transforms it, once again, into something else. As Pentecostalism criss-crosses around the globe, it finds new cultures to make a home, and returns to previous locations as something new to be embraced or rejected. Pentecostalim is continuously globalized and is therefore characterized by contingency so that no single version of Pentecostalism exists (Wilkinson 2007). South African Pentecostalism is dynamic and will continue to change as it interacts with the many variations of Pentecostalism throughout the world from far and near. Pentecostalism is interconnected throughout the world and we are increasingly aware of what it means to be Pentecostal here and there at the same time.
In all three cases, sociology engages the continuity/discontinuity debate in similar but different ways. 1) Pentecostalism represents a new religious kind of social life or community that is discontinuous from the traditional, 2) Pentecostalism illustrates global hybridization, the generation of a new form that is not quite African or American but a hybrid, and 3) Pentecostalism represents a new religious culture that is local and global, universal and particular, but always changing through ongoing interaction in what Anderson calls, The Spirit-Filled World.
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Giddens, Anthony. 1990. The Consequences of Modernity. Stanford, CA: Stanford University
Giddens, Anthony. 2000. Runaway World: How Globalization is Shaping our Lives. New York:
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Robertson, Roland. 1992. Globalization: Social Theory and Global Culture. London, UK: Sage.
Robertson, Roland. 1995. “Glocalization: Time-Space and Homogeneity-Heterogeneity.” In
Global Modernities, edited by Mike Featherstone, Scott Lasch, and Roland Robertson, 25-44. London, UK: Sage.
Wilkinson, Michael. 2007. “Religion and Global Flows.” In Globalization, Religion and
Culture, edited by Peter Beyer and Lori Beaman, 375-89. Leiden: Brill.
Wilkinson, Michael. “Pentecostals and the World: Theoretical and Methodological Issues for
Studying Global Pentecostalism.” Pneuma: The Journal of the Society for Pentecostal Studies 38 (2016): 373-93.
* A version of this post was presented at the Society for Pentecostal Studies annual meeting, February 28, 2019, Baltimore, Maryland.