Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Pentecostal Shamanism?

This essay will attempt to explore the similarities between Pastor Brian Houston, the head Pastor of Hillsong Church, a Pentecostal mega church, and the theoretical framework of shamans and shamanistic practices. It will attempt to draw a link between Pastor Houston and the role of a modern day shaman and show a direct relationship between the spiritual qualities exhibited by Pastor Houston and those used in describing shaman. It will be shown that through these similarities lies a spiritual link and that Pastor Houston can be considered as a modern day shaman. Although such a proposal may be somewhat contradictory to the Christian perception of shaman and their practices, a definitive link is seen when a neutral perspective is taken. This will illuminate certain facets of Pentecostal services, as performed by Pastor Houston, which coincide with the structure of ritual shamanic practices.
Degrees of altered states of consciousness (ASC), trance and meditative practices are present throughout the religious services conducted by Pastor Houston. Shamans use ASC to enter the spirit realm and draw upon such forces for healing and spiritualistic purposes (Jilek, 2005). Glossolalia and outward displays of prayer can be seen as stages of ASC which become attained during services led by Pastor Houston (SMH). Such degrees of ASC are utilized by the Pastor to become overwhelmed by the presence of the Holy Spirit. It is once possessed by the Holy Spirit that Pastor Houston is able to provide healing and spiritual nourishment, which is further propagated outwards towards the congregation (SMH). It will be discussed in detail that ASC elicited by Pentecostal pastors such as Pastor Houston correlate directly with those experienced by Shaman. Pastor Houston was not chosen specifically for this dissection, for these purposes he may be considered the archetypal Pentecostal minister and much of the similarities surrounding Pastor Houston can be used interchangeably with many Pentecostal ministers, also exhibiting shamanic qualities.
Shamans are spiritual and religious leaders who possess the ability to channel spirits by means of ASC induced through enthogenic or ritualistic practices (Modern Day Shamanism). They are channelled for the purpose of spiritual healing, guidance and enlightenment. The shaman is seen as possessing the ability to transcend the living realm, allowing for communication and interaction with supernatural spirits (Peters & Prince-William, 1980). Such communication is granted through trance, meditation, prayer and chanting, vital initiatory components for ASC induction (Jilek, 2005). The role of the shaman has been acknowledged as having a degree of fluidity, in which definitions can encompass particular aspects of religious and spiritual requirement at varying levels of shamanic practices (McCann, 2000). In essence, shamans play important roles as social healers, spiritual leaders, soul guides and teachers. For this essay a modern day shaman is considered to be anyone displaying qualities through their respective ritualistic or religious practices, whereby a similarity is drawn by adapting ancient wisdom to modern applications (King, 2002).

Several coinciding characteristics can be identified within Pastor Houston and his practices which may be considered of shamanic origin, or having a degree of similarity to shamanic ideologies. Transcendent states of consciousness are exhibited through outward displays of prayer, glossolalia and the laying of hands when overcome by the Holy Spirit. Such a possessive state is considered necessary for promoting spiritual healing within those in which it is required (Wagner). This is a particularly important characteristic seen in both ancient and modern shaman, the ability to bridge the gap between the spiritual and earthly realm and utilising such ability for spiritual and physical healing. The role of the Pastor (Houston) is one of a spiritual healer, teacher and advisor, a community leadership role shared with ancient shaman (King, 2002). Spirit worship is evident through worship of the Holy Spirit and its healing powers, a characteristic somewhat removed from the shamanic framework of multiple spirit worship. Such a progression can be seen as evolutionary shamanistic practice, a divergence from calling upon multiple spirits to a singular entity. Despite this deviation, the shamanic principle of spirit manipulation has been retained. This becomes evident in Pastor Houston through the possession of the Holy Spirit and the wielding of the spiritual powers.
When questioned as to whether or not Pastor Houston possesses shamanic similarities in his religious and spiritual methodology it can be assumed that, due to the Christian viewpoint of shaman and occultist practices, Pastor Houston would refute the suggestion of any possible resemblance. Pentecostal Christians view shamanic and spiritual worship as a sinful act against God (Jilek, 2005). There is little evidence to suggest otherwise that Pastor Houston would draw any comparison between himself and ancient shamanic ritual practices. This becomes interesting when viewed from the perspective of a non-Christian neutral observer. The shamanic belief is one of soulful and spiritual healing through the interaction and channelling of spirits (Modern Day Shamanism). Conversely, the Christian belief views this as a sinful practice. Such an approach appears to be selective. Possessions by the Holy Spirit, such as those experienced by Pastor Houston are deemed acceptable whereas shamanic possessions are considered evil. In light of this it is still argued that the Christian Pentecostal perspective as that upheld by Pastor Houston would be unable to draw reason from such a comparison.

ASC and stages of ASC are of considerable importance in Pastor Houston’s profession, as they are with all Pentecostal ministers. It is critical to note that such episodes of ASC would often not be acknowledged as such in the Christian community. Without religious or spiritual bias ASC episodes such as glossolalia, possessions by the Holy Spirit and the laying of hands are considered to be deliberately induced forms of ASC. An important aspect of eliciting such episodes of ASC in Pastor Houston is the accompaniment of music alongside healing sessions. Repetitive, charismatic, intense music is known to be a necessary driver for inducing an ASC and is a common component of shamanic healing ceremonies (Prattis). Such music is played extensively during religious proceedings held by Pastor Houston and serves to incite a frenzy of ecstasy within the crowd, assisting eliciting an ASC within the speaker (Houston), the crowd and promoting a transcendent state by proxy through the speaker into the crowd (SMH).
Shamanic practitioners have the ability to self-induce an ASC within themselves for healing and spiritual requirements. They may also induce an ASC within clients or devotees through symbols, hypnosis or suggestive methods (Jilek, 2005). This is of significance when considering that Pentecostal congregations such as those led by Pastor Houston experience varying degrees of ASC within themselves as induced through their spiritual leader (Houston). This reinforces the notion in which the shaman (Houston) has an extent of control over the spiritual possession for which it can be propagated outwardly. Further control is seen when slipping between ASC and conscious thought. Shamans are differentiated by their control of degrees of ASC and when they choose to enter and leave such states (Peters & Prince-William, 1980). This idea extends towards selectively changing between glossolalia, blessings from the Holy Spirit and meditative prayer as seen during healing practices exhibited by Pastor Houston.
Servicing the communities spiritual and religious needs, as seen with ancient shamanic healers and practitioners, is an important component of Christian Pastoral care. These practices are important in promoting spiritual healing, fellowship and harmony amongst devotees. Ancient shamans were considered important community and spiritual leaders and this role has been reinforced through many modern day shamans such as Pastor Brian Houston. It was this similarity in community care, coupled with transcendent states of ASC witnessed in Pentecostal services which aided in choosing Pastor Houston for comparative analysis as a modern day shaman. By further examination of many modern day religious and spiritual practices and leaders, more individuals may be re-profiled and deemed to be modern day shaman; and their practices and belief structures showing links to ancient spiritual belief.

Hillsong’s True Believers, Online Newspaper Article, Sydney Morning Herald, Viewed 3 May 2011
Jilek, WG 2005 'Transforming the Shaman: Changing Western Views of Shamanism and Altered States of Consciousness', Artículo de investigación, vol. 7, no. 1, pp. 8-15.
King, SK 2002, Modern Shamanism, Website Article, Aloha International, Viewed 2 May 2011
Prattis, I ‘Healing Journeys: Shamanism as Therapy’, available online at:
Peters, LG & Prince-Williams, D 1980 ‘Towards an Experiential Analysis of Shamanism’, American Ethnologist, vol. 7, no. 3, pp. 397-418.
McCann, V 2000, Modern Shamanism, Website Article, Spotlight Ministries, Viewed 3 May, 2011
Modern Day Shamanism, Website Article, Modern Day Shamanism, Viewed 3 May, 2011
Wagner, S, The Shamanic Healing, Website Article, Newage Mystic, Viewed 2 May, 2011

1 comment:

  1. I was directed to your essay through Alena Govorounova's essay on shamanism recommended to me by Amos Yong. However, this is the strangest reified account of Sydney's Hillsong Church that I am yet to read. There are many conflated issues within this essay, and I hope scholars do not cite you as an authoritative voice on Hillsong Church without reading some of the actual ethnography available. While you may have some strong points, which are also taken up by the Pentecostal community as Govorounova points out, I have issue with the use of Houston as the epitome of Pentecostal preachers, particularly as there are so many features that do not correlate to reality. Rather than my rejection of your assessment being based in a desire to be distinguished from shamanism as you suggest (in fact, Christian missiologist Paul Hiebert is entirely comfortable with the term and concept of shamanism, as Hollenweger seems also to be), I just cannot see any evidence for what you are suggesting. Not only has Brian Houston rejected many of the alternate states of consciousness his father Frank upheld within Sydney Christian Life Centre and the CLC movement, Brian also does not display the type of leadership or power you seem to indicate he has over the service, or the members. In fact, he is the leader LEAST likely to conduct himself as a shaman. I could see this correlation being made with other more charismatically influenced leaders in the church, many of whom have more power over the liturgy. However, the balances and checks offered by the rotation of the preaching and musical staff means that none of these leaders have a regular or un-hindered engagement with the members. The organization or brand of Hillsong is a collective that is highly responsive to the participation of the members, as Tom Wagner (2012) points out.

    In addition, Hillsong's musical worship is used primarily as a ritual negotiation of self, with members subjugating their individual desire to both the collective and the will of God in an entirely conscious activity, such as described by Christine Kray (Dec 2001) amongst Mayan Pentecostals. I hope that you can gain some experience with Hillsong's services to understand and compare their practices with say, the Australian Pentecostal movement C3.

    Cheers and I hope this critique assists your analysis of Australian Pentecostalism.