Does Knowing God Just Take Practice?

For both the faithful and the doubtful, the source of religious experience can seem mysterious. One anthropologist explores belief in more mundane terms—as a form of expertise.

James Woo
November 2, 2020
Does Knowing God Just Take Practice?

I was nine or ten when my parents left their stolid Anglican church for one that was undergoing what was known as “charismatic renewal.” This was the mid-nineteen-seventies, in the northern English city of Durham, but the energies were all American. The young congregants—our church was popular with local university students—played guitars, gave testimonials, raised their hands in rhapsody, and “danced with the spirit” in the aisles. Sometimes, though not often, people spoke in tongues, a diabolical glossolalia that I found deeply fascinating. There was a church band—twelve-string guitars, tambourines, trumpet, and flute. We sang American hymns, songs I vaguely thought of as “Californian.” I grew to dread one of the most popular, “I Am the Bread of Life,” which had a chorus with the words “And I will raise him up.” As the chorus soared, earnest hands were raised heavenward—including the hands of my parents, who were always moved by this song to forgo their customary physical reticence. I would glance sideways at them and then quickly look away, as if I’d witnessed the throes of some primal scene.

The extremity of emotion that pulsed through the congregation every Sunday alarmed me. I came to think of that church as the place where grownups weep. Charismatic or evangelical churches are theatres of spiritual catharsis. You come to such places and lay your burdens before the Lord, open your soul to the Holy Spirit, and “let all the sadness and evil out” (as my mother once put it). This crisis of transformation was often physically arduous. People shuddered and their eyes filled with tears, while others who had already been through such experiences held their hands or prayed over them. “Free prayer” was encouraged; worshippers might blurt out their hopes, secrets, prophecies. The natural order of things was inverted: adults, spasming in emotion, appeared to need the calm intervention of the dry-eyed child. This was where perfectly ordinary English people seemed to lead a kind of double life, an existence that, in its strange abandon and abnormality, appeared almost criminally intense.

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