Faith in Flux

Pentecostalism in Rural Mozambique

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Devaka Premawardhana
Contemporary Ethnography
  • Philadelphia, PA: 
    University of Pennsylvania Press
    , March
     2018.
     232 pages.
     $49.95.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9780812249989.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Devaka Premawardhana’s Faith in Flux is an examination of how modern, rural Mozambicans “localize and indigenize” global experiences, materials, and beliefs, whether it be entertainment technology or Pentecostal Christianity (4-5). Specifically focused on the latter, Premawardhana presents an ethnographic study of communities in Niassa, Mozambique, intending to complicate statistics about global Pentecostalism and move “attention from the amply documented places where Pentecostal churches flourish to the relatively unknown places where they fail, from the centers of global Christianity to the fringes” (11). Thus, this monograph is an effort toward a more textured view of world Christianity that critiques scholars’ use of “grand theories and metanarratives” that disregard individual, on-the-ground experience and become overly reliant on categorical explanations of religious and social trends (14-5). At its core, Faith in Flux is a study of dissatisfaction, specifically with the prevailing theories of Pentecostalism’s undeniable global boom. Premawardhana does not wish to disprove that this form of Christianity has a legitimate worldwide presence, but he wants to achieve a better understanding of how the individual Mozambicans he studied—not big-picture statistics—muddy Western understandings of religious conversion and maintain a critical mobility between local tradition and “new” culture (25).

Citing anthropologists like Joel Robbins and Charles Piot, Premawardhana is clearly invested in correcting some anthropological historiography on the tension between religion, globalization, indigenous societies, hybridity, and culture severing. Affirming Robbins’s theory of “Pentecostal discontinuity”—namely that, in some sense, Pentecostals demand fissure with pre-existing custom—Premawardhana concedes that Pentecostalism has offered Majority World peoples, not just Americans, the “possibilities of transcending one’s formative context, of breaking with the past, of taking on the new” (6-8). However, this narrative needs nuance according to him. Africans are not discarding their pasts for Pentecostalism but are actually employing their histories to convert in the first place. Thus, we need to understand global Pentecostalism less as a special, fiery mediator of cultural fissure and more as a “mundane extension of an already convertible way of being” (8). In other words, it is Premawardhana’s objective to show how Africans—the Makhuwa of Mozambique for this particular study—encountered Pentecostalism with pre-existing value systems predicated on fluidity and porousness between religions, indigenous traditions, and cultural reservoirs (29). 

The Makhuwa, Faith in Flux shows, exhibit this repeatedly. Giving readers an overview of Mozambican government, politics, and demographics, Premawardhana argues that the Makhuwa complicate the idea that Pentecostalism has simply swept through the African continent and eradicated local culture. From 19th-century slave caravans to 20th-century civil war, these rural Africans “came into being as a people on the move” who valued a posture of mobility, particularly in the realm of existential systems (43-44). An unrooted (in all senses) set of communities, the Makhuwa came to Christianity intending to maintain “fluid involvements with Pentecostalism” and local “rituals, metaphors, and histories” (159). They did not “convert” in the sense that old lifeways would simply dissolve; they did not even affirm such a concept. Instead, Premawardhana argues, Africans “converted” to Pentecostalism insofar as they adopted it into their collection of other religious options. 

Makhuwa religious mobility, however, has not come without consequences. Premawardhana ends Faith in Flux with a reflection on the tenuous relationship between rigid forms of Pentecostalism and rural Mozambicans known for “oscillating between Pentecostal churches and proscribed ancestral spaces” (164). While Pentecostalism has largely been known as a malleable stream of Christianity, the Makhuwa disposition toward existential fluidity has prevented Pentecostal dominance, resisting the movement’s stringent emphases on “biblical literalism and moral asceticism” (145). If Pentecostalism is to gain steam (or simply survive) in rural Mozambique, Premawardhana asserts, perhaps it will take a “massive conversion—not of the Makhuwa to Pentecostalism but of Pentecostalism to the Makhuwa” (169).

Faith in Flux is a worthwhile ethnography for its challenging, realistic narrative. Premawardhana’s approach to world Christianity does not presume the inevitability of Christianity’s global presence. He does not ground his study in historiographical arguments he himself could not affirm during fieldwork. His take-nothing-for-granted approach allows for a fresh analysis that illustrates a fascinating tension between global Christianity and local tradition, helping readers consider the disparate set of worldviews new believers use to negotiate the conditions of conversion. If the book has a flaw, it is Premawardhana’s lack of an extended, focused discussion on Mozambican Christianity. To be clear, he does an excellent job presenting the relevant cultural, political, and existential factors undergirding the tenuous Pentecostalization of rural Mozambique. However, Faith in Flux gives only brief pictures of what this specific brand of African Christianity actually looks like materially or intellectually. Readers specifically interested in how Mozambicans synthesize local culture and Pentecostal practice or thought will be left wanting more. Readers invested in theory and method in the field of world Christianity, however, will leave more than satisfied. 

About the Reviewer(s): 

Tucker Adkins is a doctoral student in the Department of Religion at Florida State University.

Date of Review: 
August 16, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Devaka Premawardhana teaches in the Religion Department of Colorado College.

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