Fire from Heaven is one massive mea culpa! In 1965 Harvey Cox released The Secular City where he presupposed the arrival of a post-religious age. In the preface to Fire from Heaven, Cox acknowledged that now it is “secularity, not spirituality, that may be headed for extinction” (xv). The growth of worldwide pentecostalism is a major factor in this flip-flop of opinion.
For Cox, pentecostalism represents an outbreak of primal spirituality that had been repressed by the formalism of religion. Through the recovery of primal speech (glossolalia), primal piety (signs and wonders), and primal hope (endtime eschatology), pentecostalism has proven to be the form in which humanity’s latent spiritual desires took shape.
As a container for primal spirituality, pentecostalism is exceedingly adaptable. Cox shows how pentecostalism welcomes liberation theology in Latin America, shamanism in Korea, and even tribal healing practices in Zimbabwe. Far from being an achilles heel, Cox understands this tendency toward religious syncretism as pentecostalism’s great strength.
Fire from Heaven is part spiritual autobiography and part history. Cox’s willingness to pen his own thoughts adds a sense of genuineness to the story. This same autobiographical sense also colors his interpretation. In the chapter “Music Brought Me to Jesus,” Cox developed an extended analogy between jazz music and pentecostalism (Cox is a jazz saxophonist). While some of the points are fitting, there are a couple major flaws with this argument. First, the actual music of pentecostalism has always tended toward simple folk, roots, and rock styles. More importantly, jazz is highly a sophisticated form of music—an ethos in direct contradiction with pentecostalism’s underprivileged roots.
Another obvious flaw in Cox’s book is the way he only criticized North American pentecostalism. His examples deserved the criticism he delivered, but surely a more unbiased view might find reason to critique other expressions of pentecostalism outside the author’s continent.
Cox has delivered a highly readable interesting analysis of global pentecostalism. His central thesis, that pentecostalism is the vehicle for an outburst of primal spirituality, is thought provoking and could very well be true. Time will tell whether his conclusions in Fire from Heaven weather better than Secular City.
Cox, Harvey. Fire from Heaven: The Rise of Pentecostal Spirituality and the Reshaping of Religion in the Twenty-first Century. Cambridge, MA: Da Capo Press, 1995.