As pews empty across the West, Pentecostal, spirit-filled churches and worship groups are flourishing. Their members experience an intensity of feeling that trumps reason and language. A psychologist and former believer has written about his time as a youthful member of an Evangelical church – and the sense of loss that still haunts him
“Words make things happen,” Matthew McNaught tells me. “It’s something we don’t think about enough.” Words set the world in motion; they call it to a halt. The process of articulation language involves – taking the inert and unseen and making it tangible, gifting it form – is for sociologists the foundation of the self. And for Christians, words are “hierophanic”, sites of divine self-revelation; places where a prophet opens their mouth, and God speaks.
In Immanuel, winner of the inaugural Fitzcarraldo Editions Essay Prize, McNaught examines two points where prophecy entered his life and left it altered. One was Immanuel, the Evangelical church of his childhood in the southern English city of Winchester – informal, enthusiastic, middle-class. The other was the Synagogue, Church of All Nations (Scoan), the followers of celebrity Nigerian pastor T.B. Joshua – glossy, ecstatic, cultish, thoroughly, even extravagantly, Nigerian. But somehow, friends of his from Immanuel had joined. Following their journeys to enlisting as Scoan disciples – and the experiences of abuse and manipulation that drove them out again – McNaught realises the two churches were bound together more tightly than he had imagined.