Author: Baer, Jonathan R
Date published: March 1, 2013
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Book Reviews and Notes
Through surveys of twenty-one Assemblies of God congregations and their pastors, sociologist Margaret Poloma and political scientist John Green seek to identify sources of stagnation and revitalization in the denomination. The bulk of their congregations are in Ohio and California, and eight of them are ethnic congregations, primarily Hispanic but also African. The authors create a typology based on the congregations' level of identification with the Assemblies of God (AG) and pentecostalism and their eagerness to "walk in the supernatural," or live out their individual and corporate faith in the expectation and practice of miraculous gifts of the Spirit. Traditional congregations score high on both indicators; evangelical AG congregations have strong Pentecostal identity but score low on the supernatural index; renewalist congregations score low on AG identity and high on living in the supernatural; while alternative congregations score low on both indicators.
Amid signs of waning hunger for spiritual renewal and Pentecostal distinctiveness, Poloma and Green hope to promote revitalization. Drawing upon Weber's theory of the routinization of charisma, Poloma and Green suggest that the AG has experienced tension between the ways of the Spirit and the demands of organization building from its earliest days. The authors identify these competing demands with terms Grant Wacker has used regarding early pentecostalism, "primitivism" and "pragmatism," and they locate the realm of primitivism, revival, renewal, and the gifts of the Spirit as the authentic heart of the AG and pentecostalism. This identity is threatened by the growth of pragmatism in the AG and greater skepticism toward movements of the Spirit. In particular, they argue the growing identification of AG congregations with evangelicalism and its conservative morality have quenched the work of the Spirit.
But Poloma and Green see signs of hope for revitalization in what they identify as "Godly Love." Basing their theory on Pitirim Sorokin's idea of "love energy," they define Godly Love as the "dynamic interaction between divine and human love that enlivens and expands benevolence" (103). Exemplars of Godly Love experience what they perceive to be divinely expressed love, often through gifts of the Spirit like prophecy or divine healing, which then leads them to engage in acts of love and care toward others. Poloma and Green deliberately challenge the conventions of social science and its reigning methodological atheism and materialism and promote what they take to be a richer "methodological agnosticism" that can incorporate concepts like Godly Love.
In analyzing and interpreting their data, Poloma and Green chart a declension narrative. In the early days of pentecostalism, primitivism reigned supreme and the barriers of race, gender, and societal norms of all sorts broke down. The Azusa Street Revival, the formation of the AG in 1914, and other events of the fresh dawn of pentecostalism were bathed in the sunlight of the Spirit. But almost immediately, "rationalistic" influences from fundamentalism and evangelicalism began to counteract revival with pragmatic concerns like propositional doctrine and institutional strictures. This influence from evangelicalism, the bête noire of this account, grew apace, such that the AG expressed skepticism at new movements of the Spirit, from the Latter Rain and healing revivals of the 1940s and 1950s to the Toronto and Pensacola revivals of the 1990s. Today, as the authors' survey data indicate, many AG congregations identify more broadly with evangelicalism than with authentic pentecostalism. This has led to diminished expression of the gifts of the Spirit, such as speaking in tongues during worship, as well as to identification with moral crusades that allegedly inhibit Godly Love. Evangelicalism, the authors contend, propounds an altogether different worldview than pentecostalism, and many AG congregations have traded their birthright for "plain-vanilla evangelicalism" or an "evangelical pot of goo," to quote Edmund Rybarczyk (61, 63). Thus, they have given away the Spirit-driven experientialism of genuine pentecostalism--increasingly to be found in neo-pentecostal or Charismatic movements--for the cognitive restrictiveness of evangelicalism.
The authors' survey data of congregations and pastors produce a range of interesting insights, such as positive correlations between claimed experiences of prophecy or glossolalia and benevolent actions. Poloma and Green highlight the challenges of balancing charisma and institutional imperatives, as well as the difficulties of maintaining clear congregational identity in the free-flowing American religious environment. But their account has numerous problems. Like most primitivist declension narratives, the authors maintain a gauzy, romanticized view of the golden age, in this case early pentecostalism. The dichotomy they employ between primitive and pragmatic is far too pronounced; from the beginning Pentecostals sought to make sense of their experiences, to define and delimit what they took to be authentic works of the Spirit in their midst. The Oneness schism of the mid-1910s and numerous other doctrinal controversies in the early days of pentecostalism testify to the inextricable nature of charisma and doctrine, among other expressions of primitivism and pragmatism. Allied with this view of early pentecostalism, the authors embrace the claims of proponents of more recent large-scale renewals and decry skepticism about such claims within the AG. Seemingly, there is no need to "test the spirits," even as there is no account of the excesses and troubles that accompany revivals.
Furthermore, the authors' use of "Godly Love" is limited by their tendency to link--without clear evidence or reasons--the purported benevolence that perceived experiences of the divine produce with left-wing causes and attitudes. Having a positive attitude toward social welfare programs and religious ecumenism, for instance, registers one as compassionate and benevolent, whereas typically conservative approaches are deemed less benevolent. Along with a number of scholars of contemporary pentecostalism, Poloma and Green are eager to identify and promote signs of "progressive Pentecostalism." Identification with evangelicalism has misled many AG members into voting Republican and promoting conservative moral causes, but Spirit-filled revival and recovery of the spirit of early pentecostalism can promote supposedly more godly views of race, gender, sexuality, foreign relations, economic relations, and so forth. No doubt, some readers within and beyond the AG will quarrel with such claims of divine partisanship.