I recently received review copies of two books on the same day. The first, a galley of a book to be published by Eerdmans near the end of July, was Encountering Mystery: Religious Experience in a Secular Age, by Dale C. Allison, Jr. The second, just out from Hurst, was Beyond Belief: How Pentecostal Christianity Is Taking Over the World, by Elle Hardy. The fortuitous juxtaposition was ironic, of course, but more than that, it was very close to my heart. Like you, I expect, I have seen an ever-increasing number of articles and books intimating a radical shrinkage of “religion,” ranging from Ryan Burge’s The Nones to recent provocative columns by Philip Jenkins (to mention just two examples from a vast field). And behind this, of course, we must acknowledge the enormous, though to me still unaccountable, influence of Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age.
I will not issue any predictions. Many years ago, the admirable Joseph Ratzinger foresaw a radical shrinkage of the church, suggesting that, difficult as this passage might be, it could be purifying. I don’t know for sure what the future, even the “near future,” holds in this respect, but I do know that—for the moment, at least—we do not remotely live in a “secular age.” Imagine my surprise when, as I began to read Encountering Mystery, I discovered that Allison himself, despite the subtitle affixed to his book, also does not believe that we live in a “secular age.” On the contrary, and how strange. Whence then the framing? Perhaps that is why the superb scholar and memoirist Carlos Eire describes Encountering Mystery as a “marvelously daring book.” It is just that, describing many experiences (a few firsthand, many recounted by others) of the numinous, the mystical, the supernatural. I hope in due course that you will read it yourself. Nor, it’s important to add, are such experiences limited to Christians; see, for example, Susannah Crockford’s Ripples of the Universe: Spirituality in Sedona, Arizona.
In some respects, Beyond Belief is at the opposite pole from Encountering Mystery. Elle Hardy is a savvy, globetrotting journalist, and if she is cynical (she is), you may not be inclined to blame her too much. Her account is pitched to readers who are likely to view the behavior of Pentecostal Christians with a mixture of condescending amusement and deep alarm. After all, those weirdos are bent on “taking over the world,” as David French has been telling us. Sometimes Hardy catches the spirit (lowercase) herself, as in her account of a service at the Rock House Holiness Church in Section, Alabama, “one of the few remaining snake-handling churches in the country.” “The opening song . . . rolled over and over for 45 minutes,” Hardy writes. “But I didn’t want it to end.” Ranging around the world, from Alabama to North and South Korea, from Nigeria to Guatemala and beyond, Hardy’s book gives the lie to the tired assertion that “we” are living in “a secular age.” What do you mean “we,” Kemo Sabe?
Think about the strange and depressing blessing the hierarchy of Russian Orthodoxy granted to Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. But think also of dear friends of ours who are Christian missionaries in Kazakhstan, a nominally Muslim former republic of the Soviet Union, where Christians are between a rock and a hard place but where the gospel can also be gratefully received. Hold those two realities together in your mind; perhaps we do not, after all, live in “a secular age.”
John Wilson is a contributing editor for The Englewood Review of Books and senior editor at The Marginalia Review of Books.
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