Manoela Carpenedo is associate lecturer in religious studies at the University of Kent and an affiliated researcher at the Department of Sociology at the University of Cambridge. The following is a summary of some of her doctoral research at Cambridge, which she presented at the Centre for the Study of World Christianity’s weekly research seminar. We present it here as an example of ethnographic research in our ongoing discussion of methods in world Christianity begun with Jason Bruner’s post on 30 January 2018.
Ritual borrowing and appropriation of Jewish religious tenets by Christians is not something new. On the contrary, it constitutes the very basis of Christian tradition itself. Yet, the current appropriation of Jewish narratives, rituals and even political anxieties by Christians is gaining more and more relevance in the religious and socio-political landscape.
The praise showed by Evangelicals regarding the recent decision by the US government to recognise Jerusalem as Israel’s capital is just one example of this phenomenon. While the adoption of Jewish liturgy, symbols and artefacts by Christians is becoming very salient; the rationale of such Philo-Semitic behaviour remains little understood. The scholarship exploring this phenomenon is mostly focused in cases located in the Anglophone world. In this context, the combination of Jewish and Christian religious discourses usually take one of two forms; either aligning with Messianic Judaism, where Jewish-born people identify as believers in Jesus, or Christian Zionism, where Evangelicals emphasise the eschatological importance of the Jews living in Israel. Although extremely useful for comprehending Christian Philo-Semitic dispositions in most of the Western landscape, these categories fail in explaining the organisation of ‘Judaising’ groups in the Southern Hemisphere. In filling this lacuna, I conducted between 2013 to 2015 an ethnographic study in a former Charismatic Evangelical network in Brazil to comprehend how Jewish tenets, liturgy, and even identities are being mobilised by Christians in the global South.
In the Brazilian context, I found that the identification of Christians with Judaism is dramatically different from previously documented cases in the West. In contrast to Christian Zionist and Messianic Jewish movements, which despite their Philo-Semitic attitudes strongly preserve a Christian core of beliefs, ethos and Christian identities; I found that some Christian communities in Brazil are detaching themselves from Christianity by strictly observing Jewish written and oral law based on rabbinic understandings.
For instance, I investigated a group of former Charismatic Evangelicals that for the past thirteen years have developed a dramatic Jewish revival. While members still believe in a non-divine version of Jesus as the Messiah, the observance of Jewish laws dominates their religious discourse and praxis. This ‘Judaising Evangelical’ community I documented is the largest of this type in Brazil. They have a network of nearly 100 affiliated congregations and around eight to ten thousand members only in Brazil. This ‘Judaising Evangelical’ group is also articulating its international expansion within Latin American and African countries as well as the South of the US.
Over the course of my ethnography, I could observe this radical religious change taking place in this rapidly changing community. I watched as mikvoth (ritual pools) were placed in backyards; male adults, teenagers, and children were circumcised; kosher food was incorporated in their diets, and more and more women chose to respect Jewish menstruation taboos (Taharat Ha-Mishpacha) and modesty dress codes. Focusing on women’s conversion narratives, my ethnographic research explored the reasons why these former Charismatic believers abandoned Christianity’s universal claims of salvation and divine grace to embrace an ethnic religion that was not part of their upbringing.
I found that this shift was motivated by a rejection of Charismatic Evangelical tenets and ethos. Through adherence to rabbinic understandings, the Judaising Evangelicals I worked with, aim to reject some “pagan” practices of their former churches. Pointing to scriptural inaccuracy, moral permissiveness, and materialism (i.e. Prosperity Gospel) enforced in their former Charismatic Evangelical churches, members embrace an austere religious style centred on Jewish ritual and ethos. Through their Judaising, the community rejects not only Evangelical petitionary rhetoric and public pressure to make donations to church but also the syncretic elements present in most charismatic supernatural manifestations found in Brazil. Therefore, my findings indicate that the emergence of these ‘Judaising Evangelical’ communities should be understood as a fundamentalist revival, seeking to restore Charismatic Evangelicalism through what the group deems being the authentic roots of Christianity: Judaism.
Their dramatic transformation is also motivated by a myth of a hidden Jewish origin. Curiously, the community identifies as Jewish not only religiously, but also ethnically as descendants of the Iberian Jews who were forced to convert to Christianity during the Inquisition – Bnei Anussim – and who eventually immigrated to Latin America. By mobilising crypto-Jewish practices and ethnohistorical narratives of a hidden Jewish identity these former Christians come to identify more and more, religiously and ethnically, with Judaism. Thus, my investigation reveals that the allusion of a hidden Jewish ‘collective memory’ – either imagined or real – plays a key role in the dramatic Judaising process undertook by this community.
The gender dimension of the religious change I documented is also central to understand how these former Christian are now ‘believing and living’ like Orthodox Jews. In a context where religious rules are not inherited, ‘Judaising Evangelical’ women played a central role in this cultural transformation. They are now responsible for the adoption of strict modesty codes (including the daily use of headscarves), strict taboos regarding menstrual periods, dietary restrictions, uncountable Jewish rituals and their children’s education. I also found that while appropriating Judaism, these women challenge both: secular premises and modern lifestyles, as well as their previous Charismatic Evangelical subjectivities. Through these women’s embrace of a new system of practices of beliefs based on Orthodox Judaism, a new individual and collective ‘Judaising Evangelical’ identity is being gradually fostered within this growing community.
To conclude, the case of these former Brazilian Charismatic Evangelicals, who are now becoming austere Jews, is relevant not only because it complicates conventional ideas of what it means to be ‘Jewish’ or ‘Christian’ in the current ethnoreligious landscape, but also because it theorises the organisation of Philo-Semitic Christian tendencies in the Southern hemisphere. I anticipate that this revivalist movement emerging within Latin American Charismatic Evangelicalism could be indicating the ways in which Charismatic Evangelicalism as we know it today may be losing ground or even changing its contours in some parts of the Latin American continent.
Read more about Manoela Carpendo’s research in her recently published paper ‘Collective memory in the making of Religious Change: the case of “emerging/recovered” Jews followers of Jesus’ in Religion 48, no. 1 (2017): 83-104. DOI 10.1080/0048721X.2017.1386136.