Gender and Pentecostal Christianity:

A comparative focus on Africa and Melanesia

Pentecostal Christianity (PC) is among the fastest growing religions. Based on conservative estimates, it claims at least 250 million adherents worldwide (Robbins 2004:117, Casanova 2001) and has therefore received growing attention in anthropological analysis, especially in the southern hemisphere, as in Latin America (see for example Stoll 1990, Martin 2002), in Africa (see for example Meyer 1998, 2004, Engelke 2004, 2005, 2010), but also, to some extent in Oceania and in Melanesia (see for instance Robbins 1998, 2004, Stewart and Strathern 2000a, 2000b, Jorgensen 2005, Jebens 2005). Pentecostal movements have a number of different variants ranging from congregations that expect the immediate doomsday, to the more prosperity-oriented followers who expect the enjoyment of an earthly paradise. The usual characteristics of this kind of Christianity however is the belief in the gifts of the Holy Spirit, such as prophesying and the ability to speak in tongues and heal (Robbins 2004:117).

Theoretically, the great growth in Pentecostal movements, especially of the prosperity-oriented variants, has been connected to the shift from industrial capitalism to what has been called ‘casino capitalism’ (Comaroff and Comaroff 2002, Strange 1986). It is argued that the transformed relationship between labour and capital has made the former invisible in the search for instant returns in a financial market that appears as a ‘casino’ (Comaroff and Comaroff 2002:297). Lottery and speculative investments have thus become the new ‘ethic’, and the religious dimension of this is the belief in deliverance not only of spiritual dimensions but of earthly wealth in the here and now.  The argument is that when there is no longer a visibly ‘rational’ way to capital through labour, when ‘luck’ and ‘probability’ become the keys, spiritual empowerment becomes important, and Pentecostal Christianity, among other new forms of spirituality (see Carrette and King 2005), becomes attractive. In many Pentecostal congregations, the gospel is perceived not only as promising a second coming of Christ, but also a coming of investment results (Meyer 2004, Coleman 2002).

Sociological dimensions of Pentecostal Churches have also been emphasized, especially in disrupted, migrant communities (Garrard-Burnett and Stoll 1993). These churches represent the restoration of group boundaries and signal a new morality, making them different from the majority community (see for instance Brodwin 2003). The global character of the movements is another key element. Meyer (2004) has argued that the new African Pentecostal churches create an image of a brotherhood beyond the local: an imagined transnational community. The rhetoric and the images created in radio broadcasted messages and on American evangelical TV are familiar to people worldwide. It has therefore also been argued that the Pentecostal religion and its mobile identity represent the Diaspora’s postmodern religion par excellence (see for instance Martin 2002, Meyer 2004).

Pentecostal Christianity has thus been studied first and foremost in its relation to economy, to modernity and to globalization (see also Pelkman 2009). In 2004 Meyer pointed out that “though the issue of gender appears to be pertinent, little research has been conducted in this regard” (2004:460). Over the last couple of years a few more studies have emerged where the focus on gender seems to be highlighted. From the African region, Pfeiffer, Gimbel-Scherr and Augosto (2007) have for instance pointed out that after a period with structural adjustment economic reforms in Mozambique, new forms of inequality affected men and women differently. Whereas women tended to seek spiritual help for health problems from Pentecostal churches, men were more likely to seek help from “traditional” healers. Statistical analysis shows that women to a larger extent than men become members of Pentecostal churches, and up to 80 percent of the adult participants in Sunday services in the city of Chimoio were women. According to this study, Pentecostal Christianity “appear[s] to be almost perfectly tailored to the spiritual and material vulnerability experienced within poor households” (2007:697), and within the poor households women are the ones with least access to money. Pentecostal churches offer protection and healing without the high cost of traditional healer treatment.

Pentecostal churches not only appeal to women of the poor and marginalized groups, but also to aspiring middle-class women. As Mate (2002) has pointed out, Pentecostal churches offer norms of proper domestic behavior, modern and decent clothing, interior decorations and general living conditions. Pentecostal churches and especially their women’s organizations focus on domesticity as a way of “setting born again women apart from other women” (Mate 2002: 549).

These studies focus mainly on the sociological dimension of Pentecostal Christianity and its effect on gender. This has also been the tendency in studies from other region. From Latin Americas Stoll has pointed out that women’s conversion to Pentecostal Christianity often is a way of coping with male addiction to alcohol, and where church authorities become “an appeal court for aggrieved women” (1990:12). Thus there are a few studies wherein the issue of gender relations has been mentioned, but it seems to me that the issue of gender seldom is the main topic of any analysis of Pentecostal Christianity, and in the few examples where this is the case (as for instance Mate 2002), it is very often the sociological dimensions which are focused upon.

This project makes gender relations the main focus. The primary aim is to develop an analytical model of how gender can be used in an understanding of the extreme appeal and growth of the Pentecostal churches. The sociological analysis of what men and women do in the churches, what different roles they inhabit and what kind of socioeconomic effect these roles produce is fundamental. We need however to expand the analysis and include a more symbolically oriented analysis of gender for these kinds of Christian movements. It is necessary to question what models for femininity and masculinity Pentecostal Christianity develops, and how these models are communicated and expressed, and how they feed onto other discourses. We need to focus on fundamental ideas of what gender is, how it structures cosmologies and how it shapes practice. An understanding of the gendering of the Christian cosmology will give us insights into the process of making the theology meaningful. Thus, an understanding of, for instance, why men often inhabit the role as pastor, and how he is regarded a leader (for the congregation, for the future, for the nation etc) must be connected to an understanding of what masculinity is, not only within a Christian cosmology per se, but also with regard to a specific ethnographic context

This project is based on extensive studies in specifically chosen locations in two different regions; one location in Africa and two in Melanesia.

The comparative axis Africa-Melanesia is interesting in the sense that there is a history of anthropological theory development which has tended to transfer ideas on the general level from one region to the other. Early kinship theory for instance was often based on African linage models and then applied on Melanesian ethnography (see Barnes 1962) whereas more recent theoretical development on the concept of gender from Melanesia (Strathern 1988) has been applied to African realties (see Broch Due 1993, Hakansson 1994). This project aims at developing perspectives on how gender structures encounters between established cosmologies and Christian cosmologies through a comparison of concrete ethnography from two different regions.

Administered by: University of Bergen, Department of Social Anthropology, PO box: 7802, NO-5020 Bergen,
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