I Used to Speak in Tongues: Spirituality and Pentecostal Deconversion Narratives

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Connolly, Andrew




This dissertation examines Pentecostal deconversion narratives in memoirs by Kim Barnes and Dennis Covington, in novels and short stories by Lee Smith, and in promotional interviews with Katy Perry and Megan Fox. They feature protagonists who grow out of Pentecostalism. In most cases, they are young girls who are raised in Pentecostal homes and leave their homes and religions at the same time. In place of Pentecostalism, the protagonists adopt a spirituality that is either liberal or neoliberal. Liberal spirituality encourages experimentation and assimilation of various religious practices and beliefs as long as they complement classic liberal values like individualism, freedom, rationality, pluralism, etc. Neoliberal spirituality is very similar, but it redefines the classic liberal values with a market sensibility so that freedom becomes freedom in the market, and rationality becomes self-interested rationality based on cost/benefit analysis. In most cases, these protagonists’ spiritualties fall somewhere on a continuum between liberal and neoliberal extremes. The narratives privilege these spiritualties as more modern, more empowering, and more in keeping with contemporary American values. They also help position the authors as people who are educated, modern, and liberal in their approach to religion. By contrast, the conservative theology and ecstatic religious practices of Pentecostals are represented as oppressive, narrow minded, dogmatic, and most of all, irrational. By extension, Pentecostals themselves are underdeveloped, uneducated, and anachronistic. In fact, while conservative Protestants as a whole occupy an “othered” position in relation to both liberal and neoliberal spirituality, Pentecostalism becomes the epitome of “bad religion” because it embraces ecstatic experiences.

These narratives serve three compatible purposes: 1) they promote and celebrate liberal and neoliberal approaches to religion; 2) they help establish and solidify a religious/spiritual identity for the author, and by extension, membership within a religious/spiritual community (although it is an amorphous, undefined community); and 3) they provide access to a large “spiritual but not religious” audience, which embraces consumerism. To accomplish all three of these aims, the narratives use Pentecostalism and Pentecostals as a foil, a caricatured other onto which they project exaggerated negative traits.


Literature - English
History of Religion




Carleton University

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