Those who monitor developments in American Protestantism are well aware that the so-called mainline denominations have experienced some membership loss, while what they loosely refer to as the evangelical churches have been growing rapidly.
What they are probably not as cognizant of, however, is that the fastest growing churches are the Pentecostal, and that this growth is a worldwide phenomenon. In his newest book, ``Fire from Heaven: The Rise of Pentecostal Spirituality and the Reshaping of Religion in the Twenty-first Century,'' Harvard Divinity School Professor Harvey Cox continues his chronicling of the changing religious patterns begun a generation ago with ``The Secular City.''
Today, instead of the ``God is dead'' mood of the 1960s, Cox notes, there is a worldwide resurgence of religious interest. ``Religions that some theologians thought had been stunted by western materialism or suffocated by totalitarian repression have regained a whole new vigor.... We may or may not be entering into a new `age of the Spirit' as some more sanguine observers hope. But we are definitely in a period of renewed religious vitality....''
In terms of numbers, more than 400 million Pentecostalists around the world are leading this renewal, which is ``increasing more rapidly than either militant Islam or the Christian fundamentalist sects with which it is sometimes confused.''
Cox begins by noting the problem a theologian has in dealing with the Pentecostal movement, standing as it does at one extreme of the ``experimental'' versus creedal expression of Christianity.
``The difference,'' Cox explains, ``is that while the beliefs of the fundamentalists, and of many other religious groups, are enshrined in formal theological systems, those of pentecostalism are imbedded in testimonies, ecstatic speech, and bodily movement. But it is a theology, a full-blown religious cosmos, an intricate system of symbols that respond to the perennial questions of human meaning and value.''
He also finds that while many Americans regard it as a ``narrow cult,'' it is ``actually a kind of ecumenical movement, an original - and highly successful - synthesis of elements from a number of other sources, and not all of them Christian.''
Modern Pentecostalism began with the preaching of an African-American, William Seymour, in Los Angeles in 1906. It proclaimed the imminent coming of the kingdom of God, as well as its immediate experience through a repetition of the events of the Day of Pentecost, when men spoke in strange tongues, yet understood each other as one human family. Pentecostalism included speaking in tongues, faith healing, and at least in its beginnings, an erasure of race and gender barriers.
As the movement spread, it divided (in America) into black and white denominations; other dividing lines over minor matters also created schisms. But, Cox writes, each schism seemed to increase the number of Pentecostals.
While Pentecostalism still draws heavily from the poorer and less educated, Cox finds its drawing power to have strong corollaries with many ancient Christian traditions. In three chapters devoted to what he calls elemental spirituality, he says that the Pentecostalists have helped people recover primal speech, primal piety, and primal hope.
Whatever theological explanation are given for primal speech, or speaking in tongues, Cox says: ``Almost all religious traditions have now, or have had at one time or another, the basic phenomenon of what might best be called `ecstatic utterance.''' Moreover, it is a ``radically democratizing practice, enabling even the least educated person and not just the trained preacher to speak out.''
By primal piety, Cox means that need to express spirituality that remained unsatisfied either by older dogmas or modernistic secular thought. Here he includes not only the economically less fortunate, but the millions of people worldwide who have lost their former cultural moorings. Through sermons that were ``stories instead of disquisitions'' and through physical healing that took place in many congregations, they found a more meaningful expression of Christianity.
Finally, the new movement restored the vision of hope that is an essential part of the Christian message. It ``provided despondent people with an alternative metaphor, a life vision at variance from the image of the `good life' the culture had dangled before them. In this sense theirs was the latest in a long line of Christian utopian visions....''
The movement would not have come as far as it has without the efforts of women, he says. Another reason for its spread is its music, ``not just as embellishment but as the wavelength on which the message is carried.'' In one chapter, Cox notes the coincidence of Pentecostalism and jazz both coming out of the Southern black experience.
What is the most surprising element is its spread abroad. In some Latin American countries, it is approaching the status of the major religion. In Korea, most of the growth in Christian denominations has been among the Pentecostalists.
Its spread to other cultures raises some worries for Cox. As Pentecostalists incorporate other cultural practices into their religion, does it at its core remain Christian? In Africa, for instance, there is still a belief in the reality of evil spirits. But, Cox claims, where the traditional African healer tries to placate the evil spirits, the Pentecostalist ``banishes them in the name of the Spirit of God....''
Cox worries that some Pentecostalists in the United States have become too involved with the political right wing, that some groups have become too interested in personal wealth, and that parts of the movement are involved in studying theories of demonology.
``Fire From Heaven'' provides valuable and sympathetic insight, as well as friendly concern, into one of the least studied expressions of Christianity to have arisen in the 20th century.