The Adaptability Of Pentecostalism The Fit Between Prosperity Theology And Globalized Individualization In A Los Angeles Church

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The Adaptability of Pentecostalism: The Fit between Prosperity Theology and Globalized

Individualization in a Los Angeles Church

Gerardo Marti

Department of Sociology, Davidson College, Box 7011, Davidson, North Carolina


A main theme in the study of global Pentecostalism is its adaptability to the modern world sys- tem; yet, the way in which adaptability “works” is not well theorized. Hannah Arendt’s analysis of “the private and public realm” and Ulrich Beck’s description of “individualization and self- culture” offer heuristic frameworks for understanding how prosperity theology is well-suited to macro-historical patterns that address the growing individualization of everyday life, especially in relation to uncertain career paths and risk-oriented work structures. Arendt’s and Beck’s theoretical conceptualizations move away from sect-like notions of Pentecostals cultivating a bounded system among the non-Spirit-filled natives. Instead, their theoretical conceptualiza- tions reveal Pentecostalism — especially in its prosperity orientation — to be fully compatible with individualization processes experienced by and demanded from today’s workers. A case study of the ministry of Oasis Christian Center to Hollywood entertainment industry workers illustrates connections between the Prosperity/Word of Faith orientation of the congregation and overarching processes of individualization.


Prosperity Theology, Word of Faith, adaptability, theory, individualism, globalization, capitalism, congregations, church, Hollywood, Los Angeles, work and occupations, identity, ethnography, sociology


In my previously published studies analyzing the relationship between Pente- costalism and advanced capitalist structures at the Oasis Christian Center in Los Angeles, I did not fully appreciate the significance of Pentecostalism’s

© Koninklijke Brill NV, Leiden, 2012 DOI: 10.1163/157007412X621662



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global adaptability.1 I have now, however, become aware of deeper connections between the processes of modernization and the particular enabling of Pente- costal theology in this congregation.2 Therefore, this article provides an oppor- tunity to reread previous ethnographic material by examining the practice of prosperity theology in this congregation through a fresh theoretical lens drawn from the writings of Hannah Arendt and Ulrich Beck.

The rapid global expansion of Pentecostalism in the past century is com- monly associated with its adaptability to the modern world system.3 Over and over, the literature that seeks to understand the vitality of Pentecostalism amidst its variety and complexity contains assertions, such as that found in the introduction to the new book Studying Global Pentecostalism: Theories and Methods, that this relatively modern religious phenomenon “has shown remark- able ability to adapt to diverse cultural contexts.”4 Scholars generally agree that Pentecostalism addresses the changing bodily and material needs of people’s lives prompted by modernization and that Pentecostalism adapts to local cir- cumstances while, at the same time, it retains its overarching “family resemblance.”5 Andre Droogers even calls the adaptability of Pentecostalism to local circumstances a “gift.”6 Underlying the assertion of adaptability is the assumption that the world’s economic, political, and other societal structures have shifted (and continue to shift), and that Pentecostalism as a religious orientation has the ability to accommodate — perhaps even leverage — those shifts.

1 See Gerardo Marti, Hollywood Faith: Holiness, Prosperity, and Ambition in a Los Angeles Church (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2008); Gerardo Marti, “Ego-affirming Evangelical- ism: How a Hollywood Church Appropriates Religion for Workers in the Creative Class,” Sociology of Religion 71, no. 1 (2010): 52-75.

2 See also Gerardo Marti, “ ‘I Determine My Harvest’: Risky Careers and Spirit-Guided Prosper- ity,” in A. Yong and K. Attanasi, eds., Pentecostalism and Prosperity: The Socio-Economics of Global Charismatic Movement (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, forthcoming).

3 David B. Barrett, Todd M. Johnson, and Peter F. Crossing, “Missiometrics 2008: Reality Checks for Christian World Communions,” International Bulletin of Missionary Research 32, no. 1 (2008): 30. 4 Allen Anderson, Michael Bergunder, Andre Droogers, and Cornelis Van Der Laan, “Introduc- tion,” in Studying Global Pentecostalism: Theories and Methods, ed. Allen Anderson et al. (Berke- ley, CA: University of California Press, 2010), 1.

5 For an overview of Pentecostalism’s “family resemblances,” see Allen Anderson, “Varieties, Taxonomies, and Definitions,” in Studying Global Pentecostalism: Theories and Methods, ed. Allen Anderson et al. (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2010).

6 Andre Droogers, “Essentialist and Normative Approaches,” in Studying Global Pentecostalism: Theories and Methods, ed. Allen Anderson et al. (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2010), 37.


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From a sociological perspective, it can be readily acknowledged that the widespread adaptation of Pentecostalism is associated with widespread changes in societal structures.7 Yet, sociologists desire conceptual specificity in accounting for the nature of such connections. As the study of Pentecostalism is relatively young and still welcomes exploration as to its cause and conse- quences, this article seeks to develop further our understanding of the move- ment by appropriating new theoretical resources for connecting religion, identity, and the demands of the global capitalist system, specifically by exam- ining the relationship between prosperity theology and individualization as a core dynamic within globalization.8 Sociologists like me use conceptual frame- works to explain widespread phenomena and isolate pervasive, nonpersonal global structures, and I argue here that there is a striking affinity between the religious structure of Pentecostalism, especially in its prosperity orientation, and the new globalized structures of what Hannah Arendt labeled “the public realm” and what Ulrich Beck labeled “individualization” in “the risk society.”9 Sociologists of religion have largely neglected the conceptualizations of civil society provided by Arendt and Beck, and yet both theorists describe over- arching transformations in the structure of modern societies that correspond with the emergence of new religious orientations within Pentecostalism. Both Arendt’s and Beck’s theoretical conceptualizations move away from a sect-like consideration of Pentecostals as cultivating a bounded system among the non- Spirit-filled natives; instead, they recognize that Pentecostalism, especially in its prosperity orientation, is fully compatible with the individualization experi- enced by and demanded from today’s workers.10 By theoretically highlighting the operation of these globalized structures in one local congregation, I hope that this article will contribute a heuristic for other scholars seeking to account for Pentecostalism’s success in adapting to a much wider variety of cultural contexts.

Ethnographic data for this investigation was gathered from the Oasis Chris- tian Center, a nondenominational church in Hollywood, California that attracts

7 Marti, “Ego-affirming Evangelicalism.”

8 See Allen Anderson, Michael Bergunder, Andre Droogers, and Cornelis Van Der Laan, eds., Studying Global Pentecostalism: Theories and Methods (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2010).

9 Ulrich Beck, Risk Society: Towards a New Modernity (Newbury Park, CA: Sage Publications, 1992).

10 Other recent theorists of modern individualization include Zygmunt Bauman, The Individu- alized Society (Cambridge, UK: Polity Press, 2000) and Anthony Giddens, Modernity and Self- Identity (Cambridge, UK: Polity Press, 1991).



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just over two thousand attendees to its weekend services. Oasis is a generally conservative Christian congregation whose “Word of Faith” theology is drawn from a lineage that originates with Kenneth Hagin and continues through Fred Price and Kenneth and Gloria Copeland. The Word of Faith movement is “far from monolithic” and “not only controversial and sensitive, but theologically, sociologically and historically complex” ; nevertheless, Oasis pastors Philip and Holly Wagner consider Hagin, Price, and the Copelands to be spiritual mentors, along with Casey and Wendy Treat and Brian and Bobbie Houston.11 Also, members call Oasis a faith church and the pastors faith teachers, and many say they had been members of other faith churches as well. Between 2003 and 2004 I spent twelve months of field work participating in regularly scheduled events, including weekend and midweek church functions. I also participated in the “membership process” and attended various classes and seminars for highly committed volunteer leaders. In addition to regular observations and numer- ous casual conversations, I collected archival material available at the church and conducted semi-structured interviews with a total of fifty people. Formal interviews averaged around ninety minutes and were transcribed and coded using NVIVO qualitative software.12

Using data from Oasis, this article follows other social scientific approaches by avoiding polemical theological concerns and focusing on the dynamics of broad social structures to account for the “lived experience” of Pentecostalism in a specific congregation. Maintaining a social scientific approach that ignores doctrinal pronouncements and apologetic corrections, I focus on how the “prosperity theology” operating at Oasis Christian Center embodies an intrigu- ing adaptation of Christian belief and practice to what Arendt and Beck char- acterize as a globalized, capitalistic economic atmosphere that is radically reshaping the structure of modern work. The writings of Arendt and Beck effectively expand the theoretical “tool box” for scholars who study Pentecos- talism by framing its development in relation to the global societal changes emerging from modernization, specifically by drawing out insights for describ- ing the increased individualization of global society and its many affinities to prosperity theology.

11 Andrew Perriman, ed., Faith: Health and Prosperity (Waynesboro, PA: Paternoster Press, 2003), vii, xi.

12 For more on data gathering and research methodology, see Marti, Hollywood Faith, 193-200.


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Theorizing the Historical Shifts in Modern Social Structures: Courageous Individuals Laboring in the Public Realm

The roots of the “prosperity orientation” can be traced through the writings of Hannah Arendt and Ulrich Beck to shifts in political structures and economic arrangements that bring new emphasis to the individual. In The Human Condi- tion, Arendt describes the transformations of “the public and private realm.”13 Arendt notes that medieval political thought failed to perceive the radical dif- ference between the “sheltered life in the household” and the “merciless expo- sure of the polis.”14 In the modern world, individuals increasingly leave their homes to pursue lives in the city, and the newly public nature of modern labor necessitates individual courage. Arendt writes, “Whoever entered the political realm had first to be ready to risk his life, and too great a love for life obstructed freedom, was a sure sign of slavishness. Courage therefore became the political virtue par excellence. . . .”15

As mobility took root, the “virtue of courage” became an essential trait for living in the public realm. Moreover, the larger the population, the more the social rather than the political becomes the public realm, and “laborers and jobholders” dominate the social realm. As everyone centers their efforts on activities required to sustain themselves and their livelihood, society trans- forms into “a society of laborers.”16 The public realm is distinctive because our work can be seen and heard potentially by everyone and “has the widest pos- sible publicity.”17 Arendt affirms that “appearance is the essence of reality” as the lives that we lead must be “deprivatized and deindividualized . . . to fit them for public appearance.”18 Our public work inevitably involves the pursuit of recognizable affirmation and types of celebrity status. This new public world presents a need for a suitable religion that facilitates making the individual ready for public consumption.

In other words, Arendt shows how work has attained a unique status in the modern world; we all must work, and our work takes place in public. This gives our work lives significance previously unknown. And the religious accommo- dation to such a life experience as seen in congregations like Oasis Christian Center is, therefore, part of a longer historical arch of religious adaptation. For

13 Hannah Arendt. The Human Condition (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1958). 14 Ibid., 35.

15 Ibid., 36.

16 Ibid., 46.

17 Ibid., 50.

18 Ibid.



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Arendt, our sense of reality utterly depends upon appearances in the public realm.19 Within this framework, Pentecostal congregations can be seen as oper- ating as a type of public realm, a smaller cosmos for the shaping of the modern self in the presence of others. As the private realm of the “family” is lost, the space for affirmation is left to the public realm, which necessarily involves the transformation of the private into a recognizable (deprivatized, depersonal- ized, and ritualized) form of self. Only that which makes it into the public realm is deemed worthy of being seen and heard, and here again is where the power of local congregations come in.20 Congregations allow the unseen realm of the Spirit to be seen and authenticated, further fueling the courage laborers must possess to face the modern, public world. The private place of a congregation becomes a public outlet for the formation of the modern, courageous, and pub- lic self.

Ulrich Beck presents a more comprehensive, but also more troubling, pic- ture of the new emphasis on individuals as laborers. Beck agrees with Arendt that work is enormously important, more so now than any other period in his- tory because the traditional support or means of care from family and village are disappearing. For both Arendt and Beck, dependency on “the market” for earning a livelihood is imposed on every person. Beck further argues that pro- cesses of globalization and individualization are concurrent; as particular eco- nomic and political processes spread throughout the globe, new structures are shaping the concrete lives of people. Specifically, with globalization comes the determination of each human being as “the author of his or her own life.”21 Other scholars have noted connections between Pentecostalism and struc- tures of individualization in regions that are characterized by “the erosion of traditional family structures, and, in urban areas, of large numbers of migrant peoples and the poor.”22 Yet, the newly institutionalized individualism theo- retically described by Beck means that all people increasingly live outside the bonds of family, tribe, and religion as new, globalized institutions structure highly individualized relationships for the state and the market. Individuals are disembedded or removed from traditional norms and commitments and

19 Ibid., 51.

20 Ibid.

21 Beck, Risk Society, 22-23.

22 Stephen Hunt, “Sociology of Religion,” in Studying Global Pentecostalism: Theories and Meth- ods, ed. Allen Anderson et al. (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2010), 179-201; see also Steve Brouwer, Paul Gifford, and Susan D. Rose, Exporting the American Gospel (New York: Rout- ledge, 1996).


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experience the loss of security associated with being guided by traditional expectations. This is not an expressive individualism that encourages people to live out their values in freedom; rather, Beck insists that individuals are caught in a new type of oppressive system. Individuals must learn to see them- selves as “the center of action” and put plans in place for actualizing their biography.23

What appears to be an inversion of traditional ethics (caring for others) is a practical necessity (assertion of self  ). Beck states, “The ethic of individual self- fulfillment and achievement is the most powerful current in modern society.”24 While these new value orientations are typically seen as expressions of egoism and narcissism, Beck insists that this limited perspective misses what is truly novel in these orientations. The focus on self-enlightenment and self-liberation is a process forced upon all individuals as the means by which they accomplish their individualized search for sustainable social and economic ties.25 What Beck calls “institutional dependency” leaves individuals more vulnerable to crises and uncertainty. In this new society, Beck writes, “What is demanded is a vigorous model of action in everyday life, which puts the ego at its center, allots and opens up opportunities for action to it, and permits it in this manner to work through the emerging possibilities of decision and arrangement with respect to one’s own biography in a meaningful way.”26 Moreover, “in order for one to survive, an ego-centered world view must be developed.”27

While in the past failure may have been attributed to larger forces of God or nature in which the individual has no responsibility, today the responsibility for failure is placed squarely on the individual. Now each of us is overwhelmed with the need to manage our self, navigate group memberships, and maintain our image.28 Because of various “prescriptions” of what our lives should be like, there arise various identity construction kits to forge different combinations of biographical possibilities.29 The continued power of religion in the modern world is found in its effectiveness for providing a packaged, ritualized life plan. Religion allows the enactment of an empowered, coherent identity through participation in a congregational community. Further, the power of religion to

23 Beck, Risk Society, 135. 24 Ibid., 22.

25 Ibid., 38.

26 Ibid., 136. 27 Ibid.

28 Ibid.

29 Ibid., 135.



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foster coherent identities is enhanced when contemporary social structures oblige and compel the actualization of individuality amidst chaotic streams of personal and professional pressures.

Case Study: Hollywood Workers Display Characteristics of Advanced Capitalistic Labor

The globalized pressure for individualization and sustainable work is evident in the ego-oriented lives of members at the Oasis Christian Center. Pastored by husband and wife team Philip and Holly Wagner, Oasis began in 1983 as a small group of entertainment industry believers meeting for Bible study in Beverly Hills at an Academy Award winner’s home. Today, over 80 percent of attendees at Oasis are connected in some way to Hollywood. Regardless of race, age, or church tenure, the great majority has working experience in the entertainment industry. Some are successful. Many are aspiring. And many, while having left the business, carry a lingering heartache from their all-too-often disappointing experiences.

The majority of attendees at Oasis moved to Los Angeles to be involved in the Hollywood entertainment industry. I was initially puzzled in figuring out how this Spirit-filled church could aggressively promote ambition and encour- age the faithful to succeed in a materialistic, exploitative, and profit-driven industry. I erroneously expected leaders to domesticate ambition as a way to protect their people from a dangerous world. Instead I found that Oasis inten- tionally strives for relevance to those in the entertainment industry where suc- cess is measured in fame and profit using distinctively religious resources. Oasis leverages its prosperity theology to move members toward a collective — while ego-affirming — vision for their occupations by addressing members’ uncertainty and failure amidst the near-constant disappointment and heart- ache of their work lives.

Examining the lives of workers in Hollywood is strategic because they repre- sent the lives of all workers within the globalized capitalist system. The vast changes in systems of work and occupation as described by both Arendt and Beck are manifested in the pioneering structural changes of the Hollywood movie industry. Flexible work arrangements based on project assignments and a broad pool of creative, available talent are the chaotic norm in the vast net- work of activities within the entertainment industry. Allen J. Scott writes, “The advent of the new Hollywood represents a dramatic Vanguard case of the flexi- bilization of work arrangements that was later to spread much more widely


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throughout the United States.”30 When the Hollywood industry radically recon- figured itself from large studios into small and medium-sized firms in the 1950s and 1960s with shifting coalitions of networks and flexible production sched- ules, the conditions of workers in Hollywood were further defined by project- to-project contract work that requires that individuals keep themselves attractive to employers as they struggle to construct a cohesive line of projects into a “career.” The need to manage uncertainty and create a flow of work is what structures the core goal of becoming a celebrity or star among industry workers. Such personal branding is evident among all modern workers, and structuring one’s celebrity toward work security is now standard wisdom among job seekers in all industries.

The nation-state produces and affirms individualization in the “paradox of ‘institutional individualism’ ” such that the creation of an individual biography is a new form of “standardized life.”31 Not only among workers in the entertain- ment industry but among all workers, today’s social structures call for each person to brand themselves as a “unique” individual. Moreover, the individual- ism found in prosperity theology is an extension of the individualism found among modern evangelicals that carries historical impetus from the Reforma- tion forward. The legal norms of the welfare state make individuals (not groups) recipients of benefits; by extension, new religious norms found within forms of prosperity theology like those at Oasis also make individuals (not groups) the recipients of benefits — a classic Protestant orientation. Beck writes:

People used to be born into traditional societies, as they were into social classes or religions. Today even God himself has to be chosen. And the ubiquitous rule is that, in order to survive the rat race, one has to become active, inventive and resourceful, to develop ideas of one’s own, to be faster, nimbler and more creative — not just on one occasion, but constantly, day after day. Individuals become actors, builders, jugglers, stage managers of their own biographies and identities and also of their social links and networks.32

By implication, the rise of prosperity theology mirrors the global expansion of the welfare-slanted nation-state, such that a profound affinity exists between

30 Allen J. Scott, On Hollywood: The Place, The Industry (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2005), 121.

31 Ulrich Beck and Elizabeth Beck-Gernsheim. Individualization: Institutionalized Individual- ism and its Social and Political Consequences (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, 2002). 32 Beck and Beck-Gernsheim. Individualization, 23.



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globalized forms of commerce and governance and the new forms of Pentecos- tal-influenced religious orientations.

The Active Life, Full of Mistakes

Religious orientations provide resources for creating a stable identity, and the active-life, prosperity-orientation faith at Oasis is a powerful resource for dis- covering the self-enlightenment and self-liberation demanded by modern workers. Luther, an African American, said, “The whole vibe of Oasis is, ‘Hey I can do things.’ It gave me an idea that Christianity is like riding a bike. If you fall down, get up, dust yourself off and ride again.” By seeing how the frustration of another person results in a manner that blends their devotion to God with an attempt to make it in the world, every person experiences a greater sense of well-being that knowing God and serving him makes a difference in living life. All believers at Oasis experience frustration, yet through this congregation frustration turns into an attitude that blends devotion to God with an attempt to make it in the world. As they witness one another transforming their frus- tration into Spirit-empowered ambition, believers experience a greater sense of well-being through a profound belief that trusting God and serving him makes a positive difference in the way they live their lives. Charlene said, “I have such a hunger and thirst and I know it’s coming from a ministry like this and making myself understand that it’s okay if I don’t do it all perfectly. I remember I was listening to a radio preacher and when he finished telling me all of the things I needed to do as a Christian, I started to cry because I thought, ‘I’ll never measure up. I can’t.’ I felt so hopeless for a moment. And I come here and I realize, ‘Yes I can. I can do this if I take it step by step. If I just understand that God’s got the big picture. All I need to do is just on a daily basis come to him, trust him, I can do this.’ ” As Simon Coleman noted, the promotion of wealth “is linked to the promotion of not only personal growth, but also a sense of projecting a mobile and inspired self into the world.”33 The self is interjected into the world in order to transform it.

The prosperity theology found at Oasis contains a profound model of God willing to commune intimately with human imperfection as the believer pursues personal holiness and extends the Kingdom of God through Spirit- empowered action. Holiness and Pentecostal churches historically separated

33 Simon Coleman, The Globalization of Charismatic Christianity: Spreading the Gospel of Pros- perity (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2000), 188.


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conversion and moral perfection. A fully perfected, sanctified life is not a pre- requisite for the indwelling of the Spirit. Rather, the distinctive emphasis among Holiness/Pentecostal churches from the mid-nineteenth century onward is that the Spirit of God aids fleshly-weak believers by empowering them to live acceptable lives before God. The separation between the baptism of the Holy Spirit and perfectionism allows for an empowerment of service in the midst of personal imperfections. God does not shun the imperfect person, but rather the spiritual empowerment of corrupted and less-than-perfect human beings is the normal and necessary part of God’s plan. Struggling Christians trying to live spiritual lives can be empowered for success in their personal and professional lives, while still continuing to struggle with moral issues.

Empowerment is particularly significant in our contemporary societal con- text as described by Arendt and Beck, where everything rests on the action of the individual. Guidelines in education, employment, and participation in the welfare state — even in congregations — demand that individuals run their own lives. Both Arendt and Beck emphasize that since responsibility now rests on each individual, individuals bear the blame for unanticipated events and personal misfortunes.”34 Oasis’s continual reflection on failure and “mistakes” takes into account how the possibility for “biographical collapse” are ever present.35 Risk is a more ubiquitous aspect of individual life experience. To avoid failure, individuals must plan for the long term while continually adapt- ing to change. Beck writes that modern individuals “must organize and impro- vise, set goals, recognize obstacles, accept defeats and attempt new starts. They need initiative, tenacity, flexibility and tolerance of frustration.”36 Ser- mons, small groups, workshops, and “coaching sessions” with pastoral staff all affirm the need to plan deliberately for one’s life while remaining steadfast and determinate.

The prosperity teaching at Oasis involves less a promise of prosperity than an expectation that working diligently to exercise one’s talents creates the con- dition for success in secular careers. A male member in his twenties said, “When they talk about being prosperous and successful, it may not be what you expect. There is a lot more to it, your relationships with other people, your job, and issues that you may be struggling with.” A long-time member and small

34 Arendt, The Human Condition, 35-37; Beck and Beck-Gernsheim, Individualization, 24. 35 Beck and Beck-Gernsheim, Individualization, 24.

36 Ibid., 4.



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group leader said, “If you get in line with what God wants you to do, you will be blessed and that will give you the desires of your heart.” Rather than challeng- ing Christians toward asceticism and retreat from the world, Oasis embraces aspects of the Prosperity/Word of Faith message that challenge believers to take responsibility over their lives as an extension of their stewardship to God. Frequently drawing on images of God as king, believers are heirs to divine roy- alty. They are not to squander their abilities and the potential wealth available to them.

Despite the push for initiative in modern life, individuals are not able to assess their own interests or the consequences of their actions. Beck empha- sizes that while people today are flooded with knowledge, they remain far from certain. Even more, moral choices are increasingly left up to voluntarily and haphazardly formed affinity groups. For Beck, individualization actualizes a new ethics “based on the principle of ‘duty to oneself.’ ”37 Beck writes that when these new value orientations are seen as egoistic and narcissistic, “it misunder- stands the essence of what is new about them: namely, their focus on self- enlightenment and self-liberation as an active process to be accomplished in their own lives, including the search for new social ties in family, workplace, and politics.”

The public ministry of Oasis is oriented around working through the inevi- table disappointment, abuse, suffering, and hardship encountered in modern life. Indeed, one of the most important practices of this community is express- ing one’s mistake and inviting others to be in relationship on the basis of the rapport built from sharing how one works through failures. Are you an actor having difficulty finding work? Are you a single mom struggling with parent- ing? Are you divorced and unsure where life will take you next? Come to this ministry and you’ll find many who are experiencing the same. Are you an entrepreneur trying to keep your business in the black? Come to this ministry where you can be with others who are in the same situation and pick up a few tips on how to succeed. People who experience failures don’t have to feel like losers; instead, they see their ongoing efforts as part of learning how to make it through life today and growing through what they learned.

Encouragement and accountability are necessary because living in a manner consistent with the morality of this conservative congregation is diffi- cult. Even sustaining an ambition for “success” can be daunting. One staff member defined champions as “people who succeed” in every area of their

37 Ibid., 38.


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lives. Champions are “people who have a positive outlook on life. People who enjoy their faith. People who are able to lead, who are able to affect the com- munity around them in a positive way. People who are able to be successful in their marriages, to be successful in their finances, to be successful in their careers, to be successful in their social life and in their friendships. . . . So that the world can look at these people and go, ‘They’ve got something going on.’ ” Oasis strives to provide relational community characterized by warmth, love, and acceptance that holds people to moral standards alongside an assurance that a person does not need to be “perfect.” Bridgette began defining a cham- pion as “someone who serves, someone who tithes,” and then added, “Some- one who’s not afraid to make a mistake. Somebody who’s able to say they are wrong when they are wrong. That’s a big one. Somebody who makes mistakes. Somebody who has good friends, accountable friends. Someone who keeps striving to be better.” Rodrigo said, “We support each other and we know the areas that are difficult for us that we need to work on.” He added, “You don’t have to be perfect because it’s a work in process.”

Messages continually advertise brokenness as a normal state of being among believers, but one that can be healed and overcome. Santiago said, “In their teaching the pastors use their experiences. It’s just cool because sometimes you look at them and say, ‘Do they make mistakes?’ They tell you what their mistakes are. You know, like we all make mistakes.” Gladys said the leaders are genuine: “When they make mistakes, they acknowledge it and try to make amends to the extent possible. They are transparent about their processes as Christians. They don’t hold themselves as faultless paragons of Christian virtue but acknowledge that there are struggles and they are growing and not neces- sarily all knowing.”

Rather than securing a miracle, messages reinforce how God is working through the disappointing events of one’s life and that learning from one’s mis- takes is where the lessons of godly living are found. For example, Pastor Philip freely admits from the pulpit the failure of his first marriage, which lasted until his wife left him after three months. His parents had divorced, and although he never wanted to repeat that in his life, disappointment is evident in his voice that it did indeed happen. The admission of Pastor Philip’s failed marriage is a good example of a mistake story. Another is a message by Pastor Philip called “I Blew It, I Knew It and What I Learned Through It.” One member described this message as classic Philip “just being real, like he is all the time, sharing personal examples in his marriage and his life and even ministry of blowing it and having the wrong idea and it’s a great message.”



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A mistake story is a form of testimony, a public declaration that involves a person telling a disappointing life story in the context of church service.38 What is expressed in a mistake story is a sharing of a particular type of spiritual expe- rience. It is a public processing of an experience of failure. There is no preten- sion in telling a mistake story. Through mistakes, the image of the speaker is brought down to earth, and the speakers thus become everyday people. Public conversations like this serve “as a way of humanizing preachers who are often thought of as ‘larger than life.’ ”39 From the context of the Black Church, Anthony Pinn writes, “Sharing a personal experience in this way allows minis- ters to create a sense of commonality, of solidarity, and allows congregants to think of their struggles as communal challenges. It provides a form of vulnera- bility that many preachers argue creates a stronger connection between the preached word and the congregation.”40 What is important here is the empha- sis on struggles as communal challenges. I often heard speakers up front say, “Anybody else relate to that mistake?” Individual mistakes become shared mis- takes that affirm our common, broken humanity before God. Although we strive and we try, we don’t always make it.

Combining a therapeutic concern with Spirit empowerment, conservative Christian morality becomes a manageable form of spirituality in a world in which personal failure rests squarely on the individual. Internalizing the demands of “holy living” raises anxiety, but living in a supportive and forgiving community eases it. Charlene said, “Oasis is helping me to process, to realize the ambition of wanting to be everything God wants me to be.” The new church family encourages and protects an ambitious religious identity even when choices and lifestyles fail to measure up. Bridgette said, “Nobody’s perfect. . . . It’s so human. But you get back up. What does God say? You’ve got to get up.” Mistakes are okay and that gives members hope. Even amidst talking about a sense of failure in talking about their work lives, members often remark, “don’t give up,” and “God has something better for you. We just have to find out what that better is.” At Oasis, wealth and fame are not promised, but the ability to serve in ministry and exercise Christian virtues is. In the transformation of objectives, happiness is therefore attainable through the morality cultivated at the Oasis. Denny said, “That’s what Oasis is, a resting place. And when you

38 Anthony B. Pinn, The Black Church in the Post-Civil Rights Era (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2002), 64-65.

39 Ibid., 61.

40 Ibid., 61-62.


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begin to rest in God, He begins to speak to your heart. He begins to reveal things that you probably have never thought about before.”

Courage and Prosperity amidst the Uncertainty of Globalization

Congregational life in this Prosperity/Word of Faith congregation (admitting mistakes, embracing ambition, pursuing your role in life as God’s representa- tive) allows for a distinctive identity formation that is at once communal, yet assertive of the individual ego.41 At Oasis, the sense of personal fulfillment through work is inherent to the concept of prosperity. Prosperity is defined at Oasis as the faithful exercise of gifts and talents for God’s purposes. Self- advancement becomes a form of community advancement. The pursuit of fame and fortune is not wild egotism but a faithful fulfillment of a moral imperative — to integrate oneself successfully into the mainstream culture through influential positions so that the message and reputation of Christian- ity is extended and enhanced to the utmost degree. The processes of individu- alization and the attendant uncertainties are both subverted and leveraged as persistence in a sacred calling.

The emphasis on “courage” at Oasis — a virtue emphasized by Arendt as characteristic of the modern age — is shorthand for the need to assert oneself and to be prepared to deal with greater risks in the public sphere. The courage to live to one’s convictions in the midst of work is constantly impressed upon believers at Oasis. The fully-formed disciple at Oasis is an empowered achiever, and “Champion of Life” is the guiding image of Christian discipleship. While the image of being a “Champion of Life” is not deterministic, it is a rich base of common identity that vitalizes worship in the congregation and repurposes their work. Champions of life allow God to use their desires to fulfill his overall plan to actualize his purposes in the world such that even mundane work transforms into Spirit-guided activity. Charlene said, “Regardless of my work, my real work is working for God.” While workers in the entertainment industry have no confidence in the stability of their occupations, workers at Oasis take supreme confidence in the stability of a sense of purpose they achieve through the church regardless of their level of celebrity.

41 Other scholars also emphasize processes of identity construction within Pentecostalism, including Rosewith Gerloff, “Pentecostals in the African Diaspora,” in Pentecostals after a Century: Global Perspectives on a Movement in Transition, ed. Allan Anderson and Walter Hollenweger (Sheffield, UK: Sheffield Academic Press, 1999), 115-20; Stephen Hunt, “Deprivation and Western Pentecostalism Revisited: The Case of ‘Classical’ Pentecostalism,” PentecoStudies 1 (2002): 1-29.



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Oasis negotiates social change through its prosperity theology by providing a religious identity as “champion” and “overcomer” that anchors difficult career choices and failed opportunities. Individuals subsume themselves to a reli- gious system that sanctions ambition and provides handles on how to work through failure, cope with challenges from overwhelming social structures, and manage exploitation and injustice. By framing the frustrations of members of the church, believers at Oasis come to see themselves as working in the dif- ficult field of God’s orchard. The places in which they live and work are places in which God is actively attempting to accomplish his will despite obstructive spiritual forces and the inevitable recalcitrance of a fallen world. Worship ser- vices at the church and interaction through various levels of involvement in the congregation cultivate a strong sense of being part of a group that encour- ages you and your ambitions but will be there if you fail.

Oasis achieves a strategic reorientation of personal identity that forms a community of ambitious achievers able to withstand the constant disappoint- ments and frustrations of pursuing a career in a difficult industry. A new, privi- leged self is constructed that wards off low self-esteem, disappointment, and loneliness. Believers at Oasis achieve a great sense of personal purpose. Gladys said, “What has kept me coming back is [the] understanding [that] I do have a purpose, that there really is a destiny, and that God created me because he has something that he wants me to do.” Specifically, for those seeking to make it in the Hollywood industry Oasis helps members work through the difficulties of living in this “spiritually foreign” culture. At its root, much of the pastoral work of the congregation is geared toward helping people separate from their “Hol- lywood” identity to embrace a broader, church-based Christian identity. Another staff member said, “We are constantly challenging and getting in peo- ple’s business about serving and selling out and putting God first and making him a priority and honoring him.” Their new identities are to be embodied in the day-to-day world energized by a corporate purpose. Oasis seeks to change the world by “staffing” influential positions in the city with devoted Christians. One producer said, “What I’ve learned is that the entertainment industry needs the light in me. That’s what I’ve learned here. They have helped me to con- stantly remember that I can be a light in a dark place.” Again, “My part is to be a light in this world that I work in.”

For Beck, issues of individuality and identity, the “development of personal capacities” and “keeping things moving” in the modern world, become para- mount.42 Yet, the symbols of success of income, career track, or general social

42 Beck and Beck-Gernsheim, Individualization, 38.


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status fail to “fulfill their need for self-discovery and self assertion or their hun- ger for a ‘fuller life.’ ” Beck continues: “People therefore end up more and more in a labyrinth of self-doubt and uncertainty. The (infinite) regress involved in this self-questioning — ‘Am I really happy?’, ‘Am I really fulfilled?’, ‘Who exactly is the I saying and asking this:’ — leads to ever new kinds of response, which then often provide a market niche for experts, industries and religious movements.”43 It is essentially a “quest for self-fulfillment” pushed on to each person out of new, global, economic and political structures. We are burdened with a “self-culture” in which individuals are “geared toward action . . .to take charge of matters they deem important.”44 It the circumstances of this “self- culture” that the prosperity orientation addresses.

Amidst uncertainty and disappointment, the prosperity orientation restores a sense of agency and turns the obligation of “individualization” into a reli- giously sanctioned missional necessity. Oasis nurtures individual achievement in the context of collective frustrations. Champions are empowered individu- als, empowered by the community to work confidently and independently for God. Christians who arrive at Oasis find acceptance for their ambitions and sympathy for their heartaches. The ambition observed among the people of Oasis is primarily one of achieving a sense of security, of keeping at bay dangers that would threaten one’s economic well-being. What is distinctive about the ambition found at Oasis is that the ambition also includes the promotion of a set of religious ideals intended for the whole world. Gladys said, “I’m ambitious but perhaps not in ways many people would think of ambitious. I’m passionate about people and helping them be and do the best they can be.” She said, “My ambition has changed because it became more other-focused. . . .” Their focus is less on material prosperity and more on human flourishing in service to God and others. Believers subsume themselves to a religious system that sanctions ambition, but gives handles on how to handle failure, how to handle challenges that emerge from structure, and how to handle exploitation and injustice. By redefining prosperity as human flourishing, Oasis not only allows for a reli- gious absorption of economic and relational failure but also further grounds believers in core aspects of Pentecostal theology in which virtuous behavior before God leads to a stable, life-sustaining, and other-nurturing identity.

43 Ibid., 38 (emphasis mine). 44 Ibid., 43.



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Oasis accentuates the dynamic field of Pentecostal Christianity in the twenty- first century by revealing a distinctively religious adaptation to the local cir- cumstances of the occupational challenges of workers in the Hollywood entertainment industry. While the risk-ridden and disappointment-inducing circumstances of these workers may seem exceptional, the theoretical orienta- tion of Arendt and Beck suggests that what may appear exceptional is closer to the norm among all workers within globalized capitalistic structures. The Pen- tecostal framework contains varieties of prosperity theology that are applied to the lived experience of wage-laborers wracked with uncertainty regarding their identities and their economic futures. At Oasis, the prosperity orientation allows members to accommodate to the structures of work in the Hollywood entertainment industry and, by extension, reveals a form of religious accom- modation among Pentecostal believers within the climate of work ubiquitous to U.S. culture. Broader globalization processes today structure the attainment of highly personal, highly practical issues that burden modern individuals. Rec- ognizing these societal dynamics, this article describes how the religious beliefs and practices of this Pentecostal church effectively affirm the newly required egoism (meaning self-assertion rather than selfishness) in modern life that simultaneously reconfigures notions of individual “success.”

Joel Robbins suggests a question to guide the investigation of Pentecostal- ism: “What is it like to live in a culture in which the production of discontinuity is a goal and the existence of cultural tensions is taken for granted and actively embraced?”45 Robbins asserts that anthropologists see an emphasis on “rup- ture,” that is, the active cultivation of a discontinuity between the religious ori- entation of Pentecostals and the world they live in. The discontinuity of Pentecostalism raises tensions. Drawing on my analysis of Oasis Christian Cen- ter, however, the tension is used productively in such a way that individuals find affinity between their interactions with the world “outside” the church and the orientation promoted for themselves “inside” the church. What bridges the discontinuity between religion and society is the distinctive way in which prosperity theology as enacted in this congregation resolves the pressures toward individualization pressed upon them by the broader world. The living out of one’s faith goes beyond liturgical events to actualizing one’s identity as a faithful believer in everyday life. As Robbins and others point out, “Pentecostals

45 Joel Robbins, “Anthropology of Religion,” in Studying Global Pentecostalism: Theories and Methods, ed. Allen Anderson et al. (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2010), 156-78.


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work to maintain a break between themselves and profane life such that they never participate in contexts they define as wholly profane.”46 On first reading, this may mean that Pentecostal adherents willingly segregate themselves into exclusionary networks; however, Pentecostalism does not necessarily involve retreat into religious or ethnic enclaves as seen among Caribbean Pentecostal sects.47 The understanding of ritual must be broadened to include not only per- sonal involvement in congregational events but also the enactment of Pente- costal faith as it applies to school, home, and, especially, work. The power of Pentecostalism lies in the orientation of believers to their own identity such that they come to see themselves as fulfilling a sacred mission in every context they live. As Robbins states, “Pentecostals see ritual as relevant in all social domains, and it comes to permeate their everyday life.”48 The reason why this resonates so broadly with workers in globalized capitalistic structures is that Pentecostalism allows for a framing of one’s work life, one’s “career,” as a sacred act, yet continues to prompt the individual to exercise his or her own “self ” in egocentric ways.

Rather than simply arguing that individuals become more capable of par- ticipating and succeeding in capitalist structures through cleaning up their lives and becoming more responsible, Arendt’s notion of the ever-expanding “public realm” and Beck’s “individualization thesis” moves us toward seeing modern individuals as thrust into globalized social structures who must find ways to cope with the uncertainties of their circumstances as individuals in order to survive and perhaps thrive economically. Pentecostalism achieves resonance with “individualized” persons, not only among believers moving up the socioeconomic ladder (so to speak), but also among the more urban, edu- cated, middle-class workers who migrate from mainline congregations, or from not attending any congregation, into Pentecostal ones.49 David Martin and Steve Offutt are among the scholars who point out that Pentecostal leaders in South America include entrepreneurs and small businessmen.50 Also, Arendt’s

46 Ibid., 164.

47 See Malcolm Calley, God’s People: West Indian Sects in England (London: Oxford University Press, 1965).

48 Robbins, “Anthropology of Religion,” 164.

49 Paul Gifford, African Christianity: Its Public Role (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1998); Paul Gifford, Ghana’s New Christianity: Pentecostalism in a Globalising African Economy (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2004).

50 David Martin, Tongues of Fire: The Explosion of Protestantism in Latin America (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1990); Stephen W. Offutt, The Changing Face of Evangelicalism in The Global South: Networks and Moral Entrepreneurship in El Salvador and South Africa (unpublished Ph.D. Dis- sertation, Boston University, 2008).



G. Marti / Pneuma 34 (2012) 5-25

and Beck’s conceptualizations move us away from a deprivation theory of prosperity theology compensating for individual failures and, instead, provide a conceptualization of how prosperity theology empowers individuals to exer- cise their individuality in exactly those ways that are required by our new soci- etal systems. Congregations take on significance for the ways in which they allow for a collective accentuation of ego-centered religious individuals. Oasis is not revolutionary; there is no attempt to overthrow the basic frame- work of the current economic system. Instead, prosperity theology is used to instill a profound Christian morality in which wealth and status can accrue to a successful believer while elevating their social status with attendant privi- leges, power, and influence as a part of a distinctive moral community — that of being a Christian. Prosperity theology provides a way of affirming a distinc- tively Christian identity within secular workplaces and a set of doctrinal beliefs that encourage believers to remain vitally connected with the Spirit of God through any type of challenge or temptation. The successful believer channels wealth and privilege with generosity on behalf of the believing community first, and the world in need next. Personal ego is affirmed while, at the same time, it is subsumed to the corporate initiatives represented in the spiritual mission of the congregation.

Joel Robbins writes, “Pentecostalism was born in modernity and could not exist without it; at the same time, however, it is something more than simply modern.”51 The Pentecostal self is a distinctly modern self, thrusting itself into the world. The ambitions, values, and goals sought are not to be confused, how- ever, with profit-maximizing or self-orienting pursuit of fame. Robbins states that Pentecostalism “clearly helps people cope with many of the disorienting aspects of modernity, but it does not necessarily lead them to single-mindedly quest to build modern lives in the same way, say, market ideology does.”52 The context of the United States may especially allow for the affinity between pros- perity theology and individualization to be actualized, as the U.S. is, perhaps, more generally characterized by individualism. Nevertheless, religious believ- ers in the contemporary world actively seek affinities between their religious beliefs and their occupational concerns. By using the notion of ambition as well as by acknowledging the increased pressures for self-promotion and self- management of one’s career in contemporary American society, the version of religion found at Oasis steadily empowers the believer to construct an ambi- tious, meaningful biography while he or she experiences frustration and obsta-

51 Robbins, “Anthropology of Religion,” 172. 52 Ibid.


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cles along the way. Thus it is possible for a person to be quite well off financially and to seem to have a fair degree of success career wise, and yet, in the desire to achieve even more and to continue to move higher on the status ladder and achieve a measure of fame as a way of establishing job security, to commit to Pentecostalism as a form of empowerment. It is no longer necessary for a per- son to be poor or destitute to depend on religion for its empowering aspects. Both the upwardly mobile and those desiring to move upwardly in any socio- economic bracket can usefully take advantage of the resources available through the prosperity orientation and the community established around it. In sum, it is by affirming the stress on individualization as a global process through the work of Arendt and Beck that we can expand our theoretical resources and further reveal the adaptability of Pentecostalism, especially in its prosperity orientation, and the demands of global capitalism both in and beyond the U.S.


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