Antonio Montañés Jiménez
The digital world has become a key medium through which Christians imagine themselves as a global community, reshape their religious practices and communicate religious ideas worldwide. Social media and the internet create digital spaces where believers express their identities and forge images of and narratives about themselves. The adoption of digital technologies by Christian churches and believers has also introduced new methods of engaging believers and reaching potential converts. Religion-based YouTube content, WhatsApp messages, Facebook posts and TikTok videos are gaining traction and prominence, especially among young believer social media users. Thus, the digital becomes a site where believers explore, express and reclaim their religious selves.
The exceptional circumstances surrounding the ongoing COVID-19 global pandemic offer an opportunity to interrogate from new angles the role of digital media in Christian believers’ lives. Drawing on my ethnographic fieldwork with Pentecostal communities in Spain, I will address the digital’s critical relevance to an understanding of how religious groups and individuals deal with experiences of disease and make sense of the current global health crisis.
Pentecostal Christianity and the COVID-19 Pandemic
Pentecostalism is a form of spiritual Evangelical Christianity that emphasises the figure of the Holy Spirit and stresses the importance of radical personal conversion. Pentecostals believe that faith must be powerfully experiential and perform emotion-laden rituals where believers claim to sense the presence of God. Morally conservative and rooted in millennial views, central to Pentecostal doctrine is the idea of ‘spiritual warfare’: a battle in which God and the Devil, rightful churches and hordes of demons and spiritual maladies confront one another; a battle in which born-again Christians are engaged as warriors armed with faith and prayers. In Spain, Pentecostalism is spreading among certain communities, particularly among immigrants of Latin American backgrounds and Roma/Gitano families (Montañés Jiménez 2015).
The ongoing COVID-19 global health crisis has posed an unparalleled threat to Pentecostal believers’ spiritual lives. In March 2020 (Royal Decree 463/2020 of March 14), Spain entered an unprecedented national lockdown to contain the virus’s rapid spread. The drastic measures approved by the Spanish government limited freedom of movement and non-essential economic activities. Consequently, churches were ordered to close, and to this day face demanding restrictions on the number of believers allowed inside. Ontop of these restrictions, Pentecostal Christian communities face the death of relatives, infections, and threat of virus transmission, lockdowns, and limits on physical movement.
Pentecostals around the world have been reported as interpreting the global pandemic in a myriad of ways, from a cleansing plague sent by God to a bioweapon engineered by Satan and members of the Illuminati who control Western capital and technology (Ukah 2020:454). My Pentecostal interlocutors in Spain interpret the pandemic through spiritual and biblical lenses too. Gory, a Gitano Evangelical man in Madrid, claims that the outbreak of COVID-19 is a chastisement from God, signalling the eschatological end of human history and the second coming of Jesus Christ (Montañes Jiménez forthcoming). Juan, a Peruvian interlocutor based in Barcelona, considers that certain behaviours––such as the increasingly normalised homosexuality of countries like Spain––are ‘immoral’ and contravene Christian ethics and biblical teachings, therefore contributing to an increase in God’s anger. In one of our conversations, Juan reproached sinners for causing God’s wrath and, eventually, the pandemic itself.
Despite the heterogeneity of Christian interpretations of the causes of the pandemic, they all converge in looking to biblical narratives and Christian spiritual cosmologies to make sense of a context of radical uncertainty. Of note, many Christian ideas regarding the sources of the COVID-19 pandemic originate from or are widely disseminated through social media sites and the digital world. Bible-based conspiracy theories and Pentecostal interpretations circulate globally across Pentecostal communities via YouTube videos, WhatsApp messages and Facebook posts. As a result, believers are constantly exposed to Christian views regarding the pandemic and become recipients of religiously-based flows of messages, interpretations and warnings. Thus, the digital world becomes a prime source and provider of Pentecostal understandings and imaginaries that shape believers’ worldviews.
Believers, though, do not necessarily take messages at face value or lack critical skills. While discussing the content of some YouTube videos circulating on WhatsApp that negate the pandemic and conceptualise it as a Satan-led media scheme to prevent Christians from attending church, Gory laughed and asserted that ‘algunos Cristianos, a veces, van Demasiado lejos’ (Christians sometimes go too far). However, and this point is essential to fully grasping the digital world’s impact on Pentecostal believers’ consciousnesses, the emerging online Pentecostal global communicative sphere is increasingly shaping the dialogue between and the argumentative repertoire of Christian believers.
(Re)creating Togetherness and Hope
Crisis and tribulation are recurrent themes that give shape to Christians’ understanding of human history. The Bible includes countless episodes, such as wars, plagues, floods or famines, in which humanity repeatedly faces enormous calamities. One crucial teaching common to all branches of Christianity is that in times of suffering, Christians must seek God, stick together and remain hopeful. Online media-driven Pentecostal views follow such core Christian teaching. They provide believers with a heterogeneous interpretative framework through which to make sense of the pandemic, and which also aids them in coping with the global health crisis.
Against a backdrop of church closures and strong regulation of church attendance, online religious ceremonies and events have become essential to sustaining the social bonds that keep together religious communities and comfort Christians in times of need. The circulation of messages of encouragement via social media proves the digital world’s importance in this task.
When Christians are infected with Covid-19, it is common for Pentecostal congregations to begin prayer chains to request the Holy Spirit to intervene and cure the sick. Group prayer––often announced and orchestrated online––makes up one of Pentecostalism’s most crucial social integration mechanisms as it fosters a sense of group identity through joint participation. By sharing a spiritual activity based on solidarity and compassion, believers affirm their moral high ground, strengthen their community belonging and reinforce their inner bonds with other believers.
Many of these messages claim faith has a positive effect on believers’ health. Pentecostals use the term ‘testimonies’ to describe the public narrative act of recalling a specific life event in which they believe God performed a miracle. Testimonies about Christians being cured by God of COVID-19 circulate widely on social media. The belief in miracles helps to foster a strong sense of hope among Pentecostal believers. Testimonies’ primary functions are in providing healing promises to the sick and reassuring the rest of believers that they are under divine protection.
For those believers who face bereavement, Pentecostal beliefs offer support too. My interlocutor Juan wrote this message in his Facebook post:
Some of our brave and beloved Christian warriors dropped dead. However, Glory to God! Thanks to God, we have hope! Everyone who left us, we will see again in Heaven. Together with God, we will rule the world for a thousand years. When I think of you, my heart aches, but the pain goes away when I remember you are in a better place now, in the hands of our God. When you are back, you will carry the crest of God. I love you, my warriors.(My translation)
The message above was shared widely among the believers of Juan’s church. More importantly, this message was inspired by and replicated other viral messages that circulate among networks of believers. It shows that a strong sense of togetherness and hope lie at the core of Pentecostal believers’ self-representation and sense of community and that the digital world is a significant communication channel where such togetherness and hope are (re)created.
As this post has shown, Pentecostal believers turn to the digital world to cope with disease and sorrow in a context of radical uncertainty. Indeed, the digital world opens new possibilities for disseminating Christian messages that resonate with believers’ experiences of suffering during the COVID-19 pandemic. Digital technology, which is frequently portrayed as a disruptive force that alienates individuals and dehumanises society in popular discourses, shows here a potential to act as a cohesive element that assists Spanish Pentecostal Christians in maintaining their sense of community.
Of note, among religious people, the digital world also has a role within broader conversations about how religion and politics intersect in the global communicative sphere during the pandemic. Christian messages disseminated through social media, some of which feed fundamentalist political discourses by finding political elites or social minorities guilty of directly causing the pandemic, provide religiously-based alternative understandings of the current global health crisis.
Antonio Montañés Jiménez holds a PhD from the University of St. Andrews and the Autonomous University of Barcelona. His work on Christian minorities in Spain has been awarded numerous prizes, including the Peter B. Clarke Memorial Essay Prize, awarded by the British Sociological Association; the David Riches Medal for Postgraduate Research, awarded by the Ladislav Holy Memorial Trust at the University of St. Andrews; and the Young Sociologist Prize, awarded by the Institute of Catalan Studies.
Montañés Jimenez, A. 2015. ‘Interacciones entre Cultura(s) y Religión en Minorías Socio-Religiosas. El Caso de los Musulmanes y Evangélicos-Pentecostales en España.’ Papeles del CEIC 2015(3/142).
Montañés Jimenez, A. Forthcoming. ‘“COVID-19 is a Trial from God”. Gitanos, Pentecostal Imaginaries and Compliance’. In Romani Chronicles of COVID-19: Marginal Lives at a Time of Global Health Crisis, P. Gay y Blasco and M. Fotta. Oxford: Berghahn Books.
Ukah, Asonzeh 2020. ‘Prosperity, Prophecy and the Covid-19 Pandemic. The Healing Economy of African Pentecostalism.’ Pneuma 42:430–459