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Religion Library: Holiness and Pentecostal

Sacred Narratives

Written by: Arlene Sanchez Walsh

Pentecostals, like other Christians, adhere to the biblical narratives as inspired texts.  As such, Pentecostals have focused on several of these narratives in particular to help make sense of their religious world, a world that is filled with supernatural activity in contexts that range from the most mundane to the most transcendent.  The Book of Acts has traditionally been a blueprint for the Pentecostal experience.  Other foundational scriptures include Paul's first Letter to the Corinthians, especially chapters 12-13 where the gifts are discussed, and some sections of the Hebrew Bible, like Joel 2: 28-29.

More than other Christians though, Pentecostals focus on the making of what can be called "spiritual life stories" as a way to corroborate the biblical sacred narrative. Such testimonies take on a sacred nature because they are stories told and re-told to validate the ongoing active work of the Holy Spirit in the world.  As such, even though many Pentecostals might not view testimonies as "sacred," they function in Pentecostal communities in ways that are similar to the way that the Bible functions for the community.  This is not to suggest that testimonies supersede the Bible as the source of religious authority, since testimonies need to be judged based on their agreement with the Bible.  It does, however, mean that these narratives have their own spiritual authority and thereby can become part of the canons that Pentecostals view as sacred.

Among the most common forms of testimonies in Pentecostalism are the following: conversion, Spirit baptism, healing, and "signs and wonders."  Conversion testimonies are intended to promote the idea that one has come to some understanding of the truth, and is thus somehow different-spiritually transformed-than before conversion to faith in Christ.  The testimony usually is marked by a pre-conversion story and a post-conversion story.  The more harrowing the story, the more emotional and therefore lasting the impact the story has on the community.  The testimonies that garner the most emotional reaction are often the conversion stories that offer a supernatural deliverance from the depths of socially and physically destructive behavior; these are often the stories of those who were in prison, former substance abusers, gang members, and so on.  They are told to different audiences with the intent that the testimony serve as an entry way by which God can work through the speaker to "soften the heart" of a listener and allow the Holy Spirit to change that person's heart and mind, leading to the individual's conversion and adding to the ongoing process of creating testimonies.  

Testimonies of Spirit baptism function a bit differently than those of conversion.  Spirit baptism narratives are intended to sacralize the practice by which most people become Pentecostal.  What is different in this type of testimonies is that since this practice demands an immediate response, they are usually offered when there will be prayers for people to receive Spirit baptism.  This baptism becomes evident in speaking in tongues. These testimonies assure listeners that Spirit baptism is possible, and that it is a good experience that they too can have if they pray for it and allow the Holy Spirit to work.  If someone responds and speaks in tongues-as is often the case in such testimonies-that person now becomes part of the ongoing narrative, assuring that others will hear a similar story and assuaging the doubts and fears of both fellow congregants and visitors, who may view the practice with suspicion.

Probably no sacred narrative is more prized in the Pentecostal world than the testimony of healing.  Physical healing, provided for in the atonement, is expected and anticipated.  As such, it is celebrated and reiterated.  Such stories, from their recordings in the early Pentecostal magazines through today's testimony in many churches, share many similar characteristics and, overwhelmingly, follow a biblical script that adds sacrality to the narrative.  Because one of the key elements of Pentecostal theology is the belief that the ongoing supernatural work of God exists as an unbroken continuum, healing solidifies today's Pentecostals in their spiritual lineage, connecting them to the biblical times as no other narrative can.  

Healing narratives, aside from proving the beneficence of God, demonstrate that there is an ongoing relationship between the Divine and humanity. Early Pentecostal magazines chronicled physical healing almost exclusively, especially relating accounts of occasional bouts of "neurasthenia" (nervous exhaustion, or mental fatigue) being cured.  As Pentecostalism's focus on healing broadened from physical to mental and later emotional ills, the narratives attached to these types of healing were imbued with the same kind of energy as physical healing.  Someone being healed of depression, or being healed even of low self-esteem, often garner the same emotional response as someone being healed of back pain.  

Certainly dynamic stories of people being completely healed from terminal illnesses trump virtually any other kind of healing narrative, but Pentecostals have found ways to harness all of these narratives to create "spiritual life stories." These healing narratives function in much the same way as other oral genres, as stories with certain characteristics, structures, and content that make them familiar.  These narratives are deployed to create a sense of holiness and power, to impart a sacred view of a world where God is always active, in all sorts of ways-from the most minor, such as finding lost luggage, to the most magnificent, such as healing terminal cancer.  Pentecostalism holds that God cares about all of it and has a close, deeply personal relationship with humanity.  These narratives celebrate the sacred nature of that ongoing relationship.

 
     
     
     
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