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Press: Sunday Times scores a goal for Pentecostalism  

19 November 2021


Bukayo Saka gives thanks after scoring a goal for Arsenal in a Europa League match against Benfica, in February

Bukayo Saka gives thanks after scoring a goal for Arsenal in a Europa League match against Benfica, in February

IT IS hard to avoid the story of Emad Al Swealmeen, the Christian convert asylum-seeker who appears to have deconverted to a form of radical Islam and died in an explosion outside a maternity hospital in Liverpool; but I’m happy to leave that to the news pages.


FROM a purely media point of view, the interesting stories of the week were two long, well-informed explorations of Pentecostal Christianity. Both of them plug an upcoming book by the Australian journalist Elle Hardy, who, by a strange coincidence, wrote both. Given that the rise of Charismatic Christianity is one of the most interesting religious stories of the past decades, and certainly the least covered, getting those plugs published is an achievement.

Pentecostal Christianity affects people who are not at all like the consumers of elite media. They are not rich, seldom white, and not in the least bit fashionable. The only people from that sort of background who make the front pages are entertainers and professional sportsmen, especially footballers. Ms Hardy, as an Australian, understands the importance of sport. One of her recent tweets read: “The object is not to win the tournament — the object is to strike terror into the hearts of the British people.” And so her Sunday Times piece led with footballers.

“In January last year, Liverpool’s Brazilian striker Roberto Firmino was born again in his swimming pool with goalkeeper Alisson Becker weeping alongside him. ‘I gave you my failures and I will give you victories too,’ the striker wrote afterwards on Instagram. ‘My greatest title is your love, Jesus. . . The old things have passed away; behold, new things have appeared.’

“The England stars Bukayo Saka, Marcus Rashford and Raheem Sterling were all raised in the faith.

“The world heavyweight champion Tyson Fury is part of the church, which has a strong presence in British traveller and Gypsy communities. ‘I’m a believer in the Lord Jesus Christ,’ Fury told Sky Sports News in 2015. ‘I’ll say it no matter how many people it offends. I’ll say it.’”

Of course, a six-foot-nine-inch shaven-headed millionaire who could kill you with a single punch has less to worry about offending people than most of us. But the strength of Hardy’s account is that she understands the appeal of Pentecostalism to those who do have to worry constantly whom they might offend.

In UnHerd, she wrote about Travellers: “When you’re writing about religion, people tend to confess a lot of crimes to you. Some have done their time; others have a heavy weight on their souls. A former boxer, crook and ten-out-of-ten sinner — ten commandments, that is — Uncle John soon came clean. ‘I plotted a couple of murders, love,’ he confided in me, our bond sealed as we faced down Arctic winds together. ‘Never went through with them, but I had murder in my heart, so in God’s eyes, I broke it.’

“But Uncle John was born again on 16 January 1994 and has been spreading the word ever since. He spends his weekends pacing pavements, sporting Ugg boots and a worn bible covered completely in black gaffer tape, offering whomever will have him a kind ear — and a dire warning about the End Times.”

And, tying the whole thing together, there came the revenge of the repressed — the linkage of Pentecostal churches with populist politics, from Brazil to Hungary and Australia, with, of course, the United States at the apex. “Pentecostals have changed the born-again narrative from one of liberation to conquering. It is a muscle-bound view of the world, where Jesus is more Marvel hero than meek and mild.”


EVEN further off the mainstream radar, a man named Richard Kyanka shot himself last week. He had been the founder of an early internet forum, “Something Awful”, in the 1990s. It was a nursery for many of the funniest — and the most appalling — instances of the culture that has not taken over the world. Let “Garbage Day”, The Atlantic’s newsletter about internet culture, take the story up: “Something Awful used to have a subforum called ‘Anime Death Tentacle Rape Whorehouse’ (ADTRW). It was modeled after the extremely radicalized Japanese message board Futaba Channel, or 2chan.net. ADTRW was quickly growing out of control and Kyanka made the decision in 2003 to ban hentai, or cartoon Japanese pornography, from Something Awful.

“That’s when a then-15-year-old Goon named Christopher ‘Moot’ Poole created a spillover site for angry users to go to. That site was called 4chan, which would go on to become Steve Bannon’s Gamergate testing ground and then his full-on digital battle station during Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign. 4chan was where Pizzagate first launched, which then mutated into a series of related conspiracy theories such as FBIAnon and, then, of course, QAnon. . . Unsure what we all do with that, frankly, but you can honestly say that this very dark and uncertain era of American history was largely created by a bunch of teenage boys who really wanted to share cartoon porn.”

Maybe the Traveller preachers are right, and we really are all living in the End Times.

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