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Reason to Believe

Reason to Believe: Cultural Agency in Latin American Evangelicalism

David Smilde
Copyright Date: 2007
Edition: 1
Pages: 277
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  • Book Info
    Reason to Believe
    Book Description:

    Evangelical Protestantism has arguably become the fastest-growing religion in South America, if not the world. For converts, it emphasizes self-discipline and provides a network of communal support, which together have helped many overcome substance abuse, avoid crime and violence, and resolve relationship problems. But can people simply decide to believe in a religion because of the benefits it reportedly delivers? Based on extensive fieldwork among Pentecostal men in Caracas, Venezuela, this rich urban ethnography seeks an explanation for the explosion of Evangelical Protestantism, unraveling the cultural and personal dynamics of Evangelical conversion to show how and why these men make the choice to convert, and how they come to have faith in a new system of beliefs and practices.

    eISBN: 978-0-520-94014-7
    Subjects: Anthropology

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Note on Translations and Names
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xi-xvi)
  5. PART ONE Beginnings

    • CHAPTER 1 Making Sense of Cultural Agency
      (pp. 3-15)

      Jorge was born in the Afro-Venezuelan coastal region of Barlovento and as a child moved with his family to Petare, the massive group of barrios at the eastern end of Caracas. At fourteen he dropped out of school to work and help his mother support eleven brothers and sisters. During Jorge’s formative years, Petare evolved from a slum with grinding poverty into a slum with grinding poverty, drugs, and violence—a process Jorge’s family experienced in concrete and tragic terms. When Jorge was in his late teens a feud between some of his brothers and othermalandros(delinquents) led the...

    • CHAPTER 2 The Venezuelan Context: Confronting La Crisis
      (pp. 16-44)

      One of the few places you can still perceive the colonial past in Caracas is the downtown Plaza Bolívar. Colonial Spanish authorities always located a plaza at the center of the city, and here it is inevitably named after “the liberator,” Simón Bolívar. Caracas’s Plaza Bolívar has a triumphant equestrian statue of Bolívar at its center and is surrounded by a wrought iron fence. There are eight entrances—one at each corner and one in the middle of each side. A tiled walkway leads from each entrance to the statue of Bolívar, and another walkway encloses the plaza’s perimeter. This...

  6. PART TWO Imaginative Rationality

    • [PART TWO Introduction]
      (pp. 45-54)

      The question of whether people can decide to believe not only affects our understanding of Evangelicalism and empowerment in Latin America; it runs through the center of contemporary sociological research on culture and religion. In the past twenty-five years approaches that portray people as strategic actors who consciously choose their meanings have reinvigorated the sociology of culture and religion after the decline of the modernization and secularization theories of the 1950s and 1960s. However, these approaches are increasingly being criticized as reductionist, incoherent, or incomplete by scholars who recommend a return to emphases on religion and culture as autonomous symbolic...

    • CHAPTER 3 Imagining Social Life I: Confronting Akrasia, Crime, and Violence
      (pp. 55-76)

      Participant observation in hundreds of services and events, as well as with church members in everyday life over the course of three years, left me with little doubt that hardship and suffering have permanent seats in Venezuelan Evangelical discourse. Exhortations to gain control of one’s life through Jesus Christ were mixed with warnings of what will happen if one backslides from the Way, were interspersed with testimonies about God’s power to resolve intractable problems and impossible situations. My findings agree, then, with the dominant social scientific interpretation that Latin American Evangelicalism is a religion oriented toward those experiencing sustained life...

    • CHAPTER 4 Imagining Social Life II: Addressing Personal and Social Issues
      (pp. 77-99)

      The complex of substance abuse, gambling, crime, and violence described in the previous chapter constitutes the most common reason the men I studied gave for conversion to Evangelicalism. Leaving the analysis there would amount to a serious distortion. Often the problems leading to conversion are simply acute versions of the issues of personal development and social connection that most people experience at some point in their lives. The men I discuss in this chapter reported enduring periods of dis-ease that they found difficult to shake. In Evangelicalism they found a package of meanings and practices that helped them to both...

    • CHAPTER 5 Imagining Evangelical Practice
      (pp. 100-152)

      In the preceding chapters I showed that Evangelical religious practice can fit into projects of self-reform among poor Caracas men. But I am yet to address the most difficult question: how can people intentionally adopt a set of religious beliefs and practices in order to confront life problems? The tradition of thought that defines religion and culture in contradistinction to individual rationalistic action can be traced to Durkheim if not earlier. But despite this long-term conceptual trend, the incompatibility of intention and belief has been built on as a presupposition, not established through argument. One exception is the political philosopher...

  7. PART THREE Relational Imagination

    • [PART THREE Introduction]
      (pp. 153-156)

      An adequate theory of cultural agency needs both a nonreductionist concept of culture as something that can have an independent impact and a concept of human agency in which people can adopt cultural meanings because they understand these impacts. I have argued that such a theory can be built on the concept of imaginative rationality. In some situations people may certainly create meanings in order to avoid or escape from their problematic experiences, as neo-Marxists would have it. However, the Evangelical men studied here seem to create meanings in order to confront problematic experiences. These decisions to believe are made...

    • CHAPTER 6 The Social Structure of Conversion
      (pp. 157-183)

      Gabriel has suffered from epileptic seizures for most of his life. When he was a boy he worked for seven years in a shoe-repair factory. In his context it was a decent job that provided resources for his poor family; and his cousin would fill in for him when his health made it impossible to work. However, at fifteen he was in one of Caracas’s nightmarish bus accidents—in this case the bus plunged into the Guaire River that runs along most of the main highway. The injuries he suffered made his seizures more frequent and eventually obliged him to...

    • CHAPTER 7 Two Lives, Five Years Later
      (pp. 184-207)

      Chapter 6 provided a relational analysis of Evangelical conversion based on a comparable sample of Evangelical and non-Evangelical men. The relatively large size of this sample allowed me to render the variety of relational situations that facilitate or prevent Evangelical conversion. Here I want to look more deeply into these issues by focusing on two cases: Augusto and Ugeth. Each was in my original sample: Augusto was one of my non-Evangelical respondents; Ugeth was one of my Evangelical informants from the first days of my research. I reinterviewed each two more times, five and six years after our original interview....

    • CHAPTER 8 Toward a Relational Pragmatic Theory of Cultural Agency
      (pp. 208-222)

      My analysis suggests that the distinctions social scientists make between empowerment and moral order, self-interest and morality, calculation and contemplation need to be rethought. Among Evangelical men in Caracas, religion does not begin with disinterest. It begins with dis-ease that is consciously and rationally addressed through religious practice. And this pragmatic quality does nothing to challenge its viability or its sincerity. The smiles and tears, courage and fear are all real. It would be a mistake to regard this as unique to Latin American Evangelicalism. I suspect any close review of empirical research on contemporary religious and cultural practices around...

  8. Epilogue
    (pp. 223-224)

    My last visit to Caracas in January 2006 allowed me to catch up on some of the people and spaces analyzed in this book. Ramiro, his wife, and their two daughters moved to a small town in the Andes so that he could become the pastor of an Emmanuel Federation church—representing a radical change from the dangerous Caracas barrio they left. The move was made easier by the ongoing legal difficulties over the possession of Ramiro’s rancho. During his previous marriage, he had built a two-story house on top of his wife’s parents’ rancho. When his wife left him...

  9. APPENDIX A: Status of Evangelical Respondents after Five Years
    (pp. 225-227)
  10. APPENDIX B: Methods and Methodology
    (pp. 228-236)
  11. APPENDIX C: Quantitative Analysis of Networks and Conversion
    (pp. 237-242)
  12. Glossary of Spanish Terms
    (pp. 243-244)
  13. References
    (pp. 245-258)
  14. Index
    (pp. 259-262)
  15. Back Matter
    (pp. 263-263)