This is an intriguing study both methodologically and theoretically. Methodologically because the authors take seriously what their informants tell them about the workings of the Holy Spirit – what they call methodological agnosticism – and theoretically because they combine the intriguing work of Pitirim Sorokin on the sociology of love with Randall Collins theory of interaction ritual chains. Personally, I found combining Sorokin and Collins fascinating, first, because I was unaware of Sorokin’s work on love, second, because I think Randall Collins’ theory of “interaction ritual chains” needs to be applied more broadly within the sociology of religion, and, third, because of their methodological agnosticism -- a clear departure from the more common position of methodological atheism. Listen to what the authors say about their method: “There is always a chance that those who claim to hear from God may actually be hearing from the divine. . . . Rather than deny their reality, we explore how a defined reality is maintained within a community of people who attempt to live it out” (p. 8). The book is intriguing and well worth reading for these reasons alone.
More specifically, Blood-n-Fire is a religious movement that started in 1991 which branched off from the mega-church phenomenon. The leaders of this movement claim it is part of the “emerging church” phenomenon which has as its primary mission “outreach to the homeless,” in this case, specifically the homeless in the city of Atlanta. The authors present the book as a systematic study “that explores the relationship between charismatic encounters with God, sacrificial giving of personal dreams and ambitions, and empowerment for service to the poor and broken” (p. 2). The love of God and its energizing power, which is at the heart of the BnF ministry, is what the authors call ‘godly love.” Sorokin, therefore, is used to analyze this “godly love” and Collins is used to decipher the groups’ “energizing power” derived from God as well as the holy spirit.
Impressively, this was a four year study, mostly qualitative, though some survey work was done, that tells the personal and communal story of the rise and decline of the BnF church and, more importantly, why it rose and why it failed. Actually, the reasons for the rise and decline are nothing new for sociologists of religion, especially when keeping in mind the tradition’s long standing church/sect theory, but the richly textured narrative behind the reasons is well written and thoroughly informed with qualitative data coming from many varied voices captured in the field and in personal interviews.
BnF’s rise and fall revolves around the charismatic leader David VanCronkhite and his second in command (sort of) Chris Franklin. VanCronkhite is a charismatic figure with a broad and energizing vision that focused on a mission to not only help the homeless in Atlanta but change them through the love of God and the holy spirit. David, in other words, was not only a charismatic leader but had a charismatically oriented mission as well. Chris, on the other hand, was more managerial but with a compassionate pastoral touch. Indeed, it was Chris not David who worked closely with the poor. Chris, therefore, knew in detail the day to day costs of running such an operation/ministry, and, to his benefit, so did the more business-minded board of trustees. By 2004 the ministry was in debt for various reasons which mostly had to do with David acting strangely, (according to some) see-sawing back and forth from energetic and positive to depressed and out of touch, and, secondly, with Chris and the board simply getting fed up with David’s financial unaccountability. Chris and the board believed that David “walked in the supernatural,” as most of his followers had as well, but financial accountability must also be a priority and not be overlooked. As in many previous studies, this study shows the precariousness of charismatic leadership and how it often leads to a community failing to continue its existence. Poloma and Hood, to their credit, present troves of qualitative data documenting the rise of the religious movement, the organizing of it, the struggles with maintaining the movement’s momentum, the surges and droughts of collective effervescence, the many narratives about “walking in the supernatural,” and the many narratives of David’s erratic behavior. There is much to be mined and analyzed here for anyone interested in new religious movements.
Finally, minor though they are, I want to mention two weaknesses of the book. The first is that there are so many typos that I found it distracting, indeed, I started re-reading many passages because I thought I was reading typos where there were none. Consequently, I started writing in the margins of the book “typo” every time I came across one. After finishing the book, I quickly flipped through the book counting my “typos” in the margin and counted more than twenty-five. Although annoying, it did not deter me from reading on because the story being told was intriguing and, besides, typos can be fixed. The second weakness is more substantial and it has to do with the application of Randall Collin’s theory of interaction ritual chains. I cannot go into detail here except to say that his theory could have been applied more comprehensively. I think Collin’s theoretical perspective works, but it is scantily introduced and applied. I wish they would have done more with it.