The rise and spread of Pentecostal-Charismatic movements, arguably the most salient form of global Christianity, has transformed Christian belief and practice. Particularly striking is the strong emphasis placed on believers’ immediate and personal contact with the Holy Spirit, implying a “transposable message” and “portable practices” (Thomas Csordas) that are at the disposal of individual believers. The nature of the transformation of Christianity brought about by Pentecostal religiosity is central to recent work in the field of the anthropology of Christianity and beyond. Stimulated by, above all, the ground-breaking work of Joel Robbins, there is a strong concern with grasping the implications of the proverbial “complete break with the past” invoked by Pentecostals all over the world. The importance of rethinking the nexus of continuity and rupture by critiquing anthropologists’ failure to grant the possibility of the rise of something new is beyond doubt. Such a project obviously calls for engaging with the work of philosophers of the event who focus on Paul as a figure of radical change, for whom the event of conversion implied transcending the specificity of his previous identity. This is one of the threads running through this special issue of South Atlantic Quarterly, Global Christianity, Global Critique.
While I am sympathetic to this project, I pursue another aspect of global Christianity in my contribution to the issue. The salience of ideas and practices that emphasize rupture from previous social settings and modes of thought should not blind us to the fact that Pentecostalism arises as a new social-aesthetic formation. Next to the indeed remarkable emphasis placed on rupture and newness, as well as on the possibility of miraculous divine intervention in Pentecostal accounts, we should not overlook that Pentecostal religiosity also entails authorized and socially shared practices and techniques that are required for the event of divine intervention to occur. In other words, the call for a “break with the past,” deliverance from “evil spirits,” taking “Christ as personal savior,” being “born again” and “filled with the Holy Spirit,” all of which emphasize newness, rupture, and an immediate encounter with the divine, is voiced—over and over again—in an established manner that is characteristic of Pentecostal religiosity.
What struck me most in my research on Pentecostal-Charismatic churches in Africa is their sensational appeal, often operating via music and powerful oratory, through which born again Christians are enabled to sense the presence of the Holy Spirit with and in their bodies wherever they are and to act upon this sensation. This is typical of Pentecostals, not only in Africa and the Global South, but also in Europe and the United States (which is reason enough to doubt Philip Jenkins’s proposition of a newly emergent Christendom specific to the Global South). While for born again Christians the experience of the Holy Spirit is immediate and authentic—a truth event in Badiou’s sense—it is clear all the same that sensations of the divine do not happen out of the blue but require the existence of a particular shared religious aesthetic through which the Holy Spirit becomes accessible and “sense-able.” Thus, the eventful embodiment of the Holy Spirit necessarily requires the existence of certain authorized structures of repetition, or what I call “sensational forms,” that tune the senses and allow for personal religious experience to occur.
In the study of religion (in particular, the study of Protestant Christianity), form is usually regarded as something “outward” that distracts from and is—at best—a necessary vehicle for content. We encounter an explicit dismissal of form in, for instance, the work of Max Weber, arguably one of the most path-breaking scholars in the study of Protestantism, whose ideas still shape the “lens” through which the rise of Pentecostalism is often analyzed. Mentioning key dimensions of religion—artifacts, music, dance, buildings—in his essay “Religious Rejections of the World and Their Directions,” Weber stressed the initial synthesis of religion and art, suggesting that the former was the cradle of the latter. This synthesis brought about the development of particular religious “styles” that ensured the fixing of traditions that would convey particular magical-religious effects. Weber regarded this “stereotyped” religiosity with its outward forms geared towards “magical efficacy” as lower than the religiosity of “salvation religions” that is severed from art and induces a “religious ethic of brotherliness.” The denigration of form, art, and aesthetics in Weber’s narrative occurs in favor of the appraisal of pure meaning and, ultimately, the genesis of a more rational attitude that transcends feeling. While this devaluation of form may resonate with internal perspectives—certainly within Protestant theology, or in believers’ accounts of their conversion from indigenous traditional religion to Christianity—it is misleading in a theoretical sense (as pointed out by Talal Asad in his critique of meaning-centered approaches of religion) and unsuited for analyzing Pentecostalism’s current growth. Indeed, this growth challenges us to critique the ‘Protestant lens’ that still seems to shape the analysis of Pentecostalism, and to develop a new vocabulary.
In my view, one of the main concerns in the study of modern religion—and Pentecostalism in particular—today should be the reappraisal of form (and of related terms, such as style) in shaping and addressing the sensing body. Therefore, I have coined the notion of “sensational form.” In recent work I have laid out this notion in some detail, explaining that it is based on my understanding of religion as a practice of mediation between the levels of humans and God (or, more broadly, some transcendental realm or force). The notion of mediation posits the existence of a distance between these levels that is bridged by sensational forms. I circumscribe sensational forms as authorized modes for invoking and organizing access to the transcendental, which shape both religious content (beliefs, doctrines, sets of symbols) and norms. Involving religious practitioners in particular practices of worship and patterns of feeling, these forms play a central role in modulating them as religious subjects. Thus, sensational forms are part and parcel of a particular religious aesthetic (understood as the field of the sensing body), which governs a sensory engagement with the divine and among humans, and which generates particular sensibilities, such as feeling the presence of the Holy Spirit.
There are intriguing resonances between these ideas and the article by C.J.C. Pickstock on liturgy and the senses in this issue of SAQ, the point being that Christianity offers particular, established sensorial practices for approaching, and being approached by, God that are never just outward and symbolic, but “contain a surplus that thought can never fully fathom.” Like Pickstock, I contend that Pentecostalism is “not a straightforwardly Protestant phenomenon,” and that it calls us to retrieve alternative (Catholic or post-Protestant) theologies—or, to invoke Webb Keane, “semiotic ideologies”—that attribute value to religious forms such as sacraments, liturgy, and that appeal to the body and the senses. Here I envision the possibility of a stimulating interdisciplinary debate between anthropologists of Christianity and theologians, the point being to better understand how religion conveys particular modes of sensing and feeling that, in turn, contribute to its aura of truth and credibility.
To conclude, the disavowal of structure and form at the expense of event and content, which we encounter both in Protestant (especially Calvinist) theology and philosophers such as Badiou, expresses a questionable “fantasy of immediacy” (as Matthew Engelke puts it in his contribution to the special issue of SAQ) that requires our scholarly attention, but should not be taken at face value. Instead, we need to ask, as suggested in recent work on religion and media, how practices of religious mediation evoke experiences which believers qualify as “immediate” (often by rendering invisible the very media employed in mediation). The re-appreciation of form, not just as a mere “outward” expression, but as necessary for enabling sublime experience entails moving beyond such oppositions as structure and event, form and content, or mediation and immediacy. While these oppositions are often mobilized within religious traditions, as well as in secular modes of thought, we are well advised not to succumb to them in our analysis.