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The South Indian Pentecostal Movement in the Twentieth Century.
Grand Rapids-Cambridge: Eerdmans 2008. XII, 380 S. m. Abb. u. Ktn. gr.8° = Studies in the History of Christian Missions. Kart. US$ 40,00. ISBN 978-0-8028-2734-0.
J. Jayakiran Sebastian
When the Church History Association of India began its multivolume project of the History of Christianity in India, its avowed aim was »to present a comprehensive history of Christianity in the socio-political and cultural context of the Indian people« (D. V. Singh, »Foreword« in A. Mathias Mundadan, History of Christianity in India, Vol. I: From the Beginning up to the Middle of the Sixteenth Century [up to 1542], Bangalore: Theological Publications in India, 1984, X). While this project continues slowly and steadily, this book by Michael Bergunder manifests the same spirit by situating the local, national, and global history of the south Indian Pentecostal movement in the 20th century as part of wider social, religious, and cultural currents. Hence it is a welcome and important contribution to the history of the church in India, a history that goes back to the time of the early expansion of the Jesus movement (if the deeply held St. Thomas tradition is taken seriously). While it is not improbable that Thomas went to India, Christianity in India has a long and venerable history, filled with twists and turns, vicissitudes and intrigues, accounts of staggering heroism and dogged persistence, together with stories of cynical denominational politics and colonial overlordship over native practitioners of the Christian faith. In a land of multiple religions which have overlapped for millennia, the coming of various Christian families – Orthodox, Catholic, Protestant, and Pentecostal – added another set of fac-tors into an already volatile religious mix, resulting in complex outcomes, the consequences of which persist well into our 21 st century.
While the existence of the Orthodox churches in India for almost 2000 years, the Catholics for more than 500 years, and the Protestants for just over 300 years has attracted a lot of ongoing scholarly attention, the history of Pentecostalism in India – a movement that permeated and spread all over India during the past 100 years – has not yet gained the scholarly attention that it deserves. While there are monographs about general trends and impacts, academic theses at various levels, and more or less hagiographical works regarding the founders of various Pentecostal churches and their teachings, B. has succeeded in comprehensively presenting and interpreting this history in a serious and sustained manner. His impressive and wide-ranging research, clearly evident in the sources cited in the bibliography, his fieldwork including in-depth interviews with leaders and members of Pentecostal churches, and experiential participation in the worship life of several Pentecostal churches have all contributed towards making this book not only an important reference tool, but a model of historical research into recent religious movements. While the photographs of posters, advertisements, and buildings are a valuable part of the book, some pictures of the followers, leaders, and worshippers would have enhanced an already fine book.
The book begins by clarifying terminological fuzziness, especially with regard to words like »Pentecostal«, »charismatic«, and »evangelical« and moves on to document the rapid expansion and spread of the movement that looked back to Azuza Street as a defining moment in Christian self-understanding. At the same time, the particularly Indian roots of this movement even pre-dating Azuza Street, as manifested by events in the Mukti Mission started by Pandita Ramabai, and the revival wave that swept the tribal Khasi Hills are clearly acknowledged. This reality makes it clear that to look for a one-dimensional linear-oriented explanation for the arrival, growth, and spread of Pentecostalism in south India would not be doing justice to the multiple springs that fed into the many streams that comprise the larger movement. The methodological questions as to whether these streams fed into a larger river or ran their own separate courses, if they included branch canals to one another, and how they drew from and flowed into the existing churches and denominations, are explored in depth in the subsequent chapters. What is also of value is that the seemingly mundane questions of leadership and delegation of responsibilities, personalities and authority, splits and mergers, properties and their ownership, qualifications and manifestations of spiritual gifts, self-application of Biblical texts, caste equations and discrimination, are all investigated in a crisp crisscross narration. The genealogy of various churches, including the Assemblies of God, the Indian Pentecostal Church, the Full Gospel Church, the Ceylon Pentecostal Mission, Sharon Fellowship, Gospel for Asia, and a host of others, with detailed biographies of the prominent leaders, their links with churches in the West, or their emergence as indigenous movements in the four south Indian states of Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh, are all surveyed in meticulous detail. In considering the adherents of these many movements, B. has indicated that many were not exclusive members of this or that group, but had a more fluid identity, moving from group to group, or in the case of many followers of prominent evangelists like Brother D. G. S. Dhinakaran, continued to remain members of other churches, including older so-called mainline churches, while enthusiastically supporting his Jesus Calls ministry. Apart from such intra-Christian boundary crossing, the intriguing life of Paulaseer Lawrie, who had become widely known as a very prominent healing evangelist, encapsulates a wider inter-religious quest. For Lawrie, it led to his proclamation as Gurudev Shri Lahari Krishna, an embodiment of the divine savior foretold in Hindu scriptures. He attracted followers from all over the world, who, after his death in 1989, await his return as judge.
Apart from the history of the Pentecostal movement in south India, the book also deals with the interconnections and matrices formed by the spirituality of the movement with Hindu spirituality, especially folk religiosity in the Indian context. In a country where misfortune, illness, and suffering are not only wide-spread but attributed to forces seemingly beyond one’s control, claims that such forces can be appeased and even harnessed to work for one’s well-being, including health, wholeness, and material prosperity, are certainly attractive. All this coupled with the veneer of Western modernity and particular notions of progress make for a heady combination that to a large extent forms the basis of what makes Pentecostal/charismatic forms of spirituality and worship appealing in the Indian context. B. clearly indicates how forms of spirituality that offer tangible returns and benefits, attached to promises of this-worldly and other-worldly attainments, with clearly laid out ethical and moral standards of holiness and behavioral expectations, found wide resonance within the Indian ethos. All this leads to the important conclusion that any attempt to locate south Indian Pentecostalism as a clone of American export-oriented prosperity religion is too simplistic and the integrally contextual nature of Pentecostal religion has to be recognized in all its complexity and interconnectivity.