If I Give My Soul

Faith Behind Bars in Rio de Janeiro

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Andrew Johnson
Global Pentecostalism and Charismatic Christianity
  • Oxford, England: 
    Oxford University Press
    , July
     2017.
     216 pages.
     $24.95.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9780190238995.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

If I Give My Soul: Faith Behind Bars in Rio de Janeiro, by Andrew Johnson, offers an insider’s perspective on Pentecostalism’s uniquely conjoined relationship with Brazilian gang culture, a strategic position from which it is able to subvert certain destructive and unsavory gang behaviors and replace them with Christian values.

Johnson studied this culture with lived intimacy by moving into a prison for two weeks and sleeping, eating, and participating in all aspects of prison life while interviewing scores of incarcerated men. Afterward, he visited other institutions and conducted interviews outside prison with both gang members and Pentecostal leaders. Johnson produced not a religious study, but a sociological investigation; and one not of doctrine, but of observable religious practices. Such a priority seems appropriate for a study of Pentecostalism with its penchant for focusing on praxis. 

Pentecostalism, notes Johnson, finds a special place among the poor and disenfranchised “killable people”: those Brazilians with darker skin whose lives elicit little respect or consideration, and who are largely deemed expendable. Johnson traces the spread of Pentecostalism from early 20th-century Los Angeles to the favelas (ghettos) of 20th-century Rio de Janeiro, and “explores the complex interactions among the two most prominent institutions in Rio’s favelas: the narco-gang and the Pentecostal church” (63).

The complicated dance between these seemingly polarized institutions is deconstructed brilliantly. Johnson’s work is strongly influenced by that of Robert Brenneman (Homies and Hermanos: Gods and Gangs in Central America, Oxford University Press, 2011), whose research also targeted Central America’s street gangs and their complex relationship with the Pentecostal movement. It was Brenneman who first recognized the unique brand of Pentecostalism arising from the poorest neighborhoods in Central America. Johnson applies Brenneman’s interview methodology to Rio de Janeiro’s “killables” in order to understand the unique interplay of the two groups in this region. 

Interestingly, according to Johnson, the street gangs permit members to leave the gangs without the customary dire retribution upon their self-described Pentecostal conversion. In fact, many of the churches’ pastors and leaders are former gang members. Although holding seemingly contradictory objectives, much of the work of the Pentecostal churches “is indirectly or sometimes directly supported by narco-gangs” (89). This interrelatedness extends even to gangs altering their drug distribution locations to accommodate a church’s outreach activities (80). Coarse language is controlled in the presence of religious leaders. Reasons for this behavior are found in superstitious myths held among the gangs, and because of the large numbers of Pentecostals who originally came from gangs. 

In Brazil, Johnson witnessed first-hand the horrendous conditions experienced by the incarcerated and describes them in vivid detail. He shared crowded, windowless cells where sweaty inmates were forced to sleep standing up, tied to bars, because there was no space to lie down. Violent gang leaders ruled the prisons, drug use flourished, and guards refused to enter their spaces out of fear. The brutal life in such places was contrasted with prison areas—Pentecostal cells—where singing, praying, preaching, and Bible reading were passionately practiced. 

Johnson’s presentation of his courageous research venture into the jails, prisons, and favelas does contain what are, arguably, a few weaknesses. At certain points, the methodology of gathering information primarily via interviews seemed uncomfortably similar to certain forms of excellent journalism, which, although informative and important, do not meet the scientific objectives of academic writing. At other points, critical evaluation, although not absent, appears somewhat weak, causing the reader to wonder whether Johnson had been rigorously critical and probing enough in his assessment of this very complicated relationship of institutions. Nevertheless, Johnson, at other points, is both critical and probing, asking his readers to consider the dangers of compromise that abound in this unusually close relationship between Pentecostal leaders and gang members. 

Along the same lines, Johnson’s methodology of living with gang members in prisons and jails and interviewing them allowed for very close inspection of their lives. Still, the real possibility of developing a false self-perception of empathy also existed, since the researcher was completely free at all times to come and go, and the loss of such a freedom represents a critical aspect of prison life impossible to comprehend by those who are not incarcerated. Additionally, the close proximity so valuable to gathering information about his subjects also portends a diminishment of one’s objectivity. A methodology with some way of weighing, assessing, and independently verifying his personal observations might have insured increased objectivity and unassailable veracity. In the end, Johnson bases the high marks he awards to Pentecostalism upon concepts such as “dignity” offered to the marginalized, which bring genuine change, but these concepts remain vague and beg clearer definition. 

Overall, Johnson’s heroic research efforts garnered much primary information by getting close enough to see beyond stereotypes and facades in order to deconstruct the nuances of this complicated narco-gang/Pentecostal relationship. In so doing, Johnson has offered to the academy a wealth of information in a truly impressive work.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Margaret English de Alminana is Associate Professor of Historical Theology and Gender Studies at Southeastern University in Lakeland, FL. She formerly served as Senior Chaplain of Women at the Orange County, FL, Correctional Facility’s Female Detention Center, overseeing a vibrant ministry to more than 3,000 women in crisis annually.

Date of Review: 
June 18, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Andrew Johnson is assistant professor at Metropolitain State University in St. Paul, Minnesota. He held previous positions at the Center for Religion and Civic Culture at the University of Southern California, at the Center for the Study of Religion at Princeton University, and was a Foreign Service Officer at the United States Agency for International Development.

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