Whatever doctrine might be preached, when there is Christian worship within the walls of prisons—among the world’s damned—an ancient theology of hell is being recovered, incarnated on earth. It is Christ’s descent to the dead, his triumphant ekklesia conquering the gates of Hades.
We don’t recognize our lived theologies that quickly, though, because we don’t use those words—the damned, the dead—when talking about the human beings we lock away in prisons or dispose of through legal violence. We say “criminals,” “offenders,” “convicts,” “felons.”
But up-and-coming religious studies scholar Andrew Johnson, in his dynamic first book, If I Give My Soul: Faith Behind Bars in Rio de Janeiro, discovers in the poorest Brazilian favelas, or hillside shantytowns, a fresh and direct term for the souls a society deems worthy of torment: the “killable people.”
To kick off his more general investigation of religion in Brazil’s prisons, Johnson spent two weeks living inside two different lockdown facilities. He slept in crowded cells with the inmates. He ate, played soccer, and conducted interviews, while observing and attending religious activities. And he quickly narrowed his study to the primary faith expression that was pouring into the grim prisons from the outside community: Pentecostalism. It is flourishing within the hardest gang-populated units.
For the next several years, Johnson tracked the shape, history, and power of Pentecostalism as “the faith of the killable people.” In Rio, these are the urban poor, those with black and brown skin, those living in the swelling, improvised slum mazes known as favelas, where the narco-gangs have been an ongoing counter-state presence among a people long excluded from the benefits of official society.
The Pentecostal Difference
If I Give My Soul rises above its academic niche not just because Johnson has spent years inside the prisons with scores of religious volunteers, in and out of the favelas, speaking the language, and building trusting relationships with Pentecostal pastors, narco-gang leaders, crowds of prisoners, and even guards. And it’s not just because his writing is crisp and quick, capable of dramatizing an afternoon of dialogue and conflict in an open-air drug market or a blaring worship service inside concrete walls.
What really sets this book apart is Johnson’s quiet mastery of several areas of study necessary to make this subject academically three-dimensional. He integrates the sociology of prisons, the history of Brazil, of Rio and its favelas, the cultural and economic inner-workings of narco-gangs, and the practices and history of Pentecostal Christianity from before Azusa Street clear through to its presence in global slums today. All this while developing a compelling thesis and wrapping up in less than 200 pages.
Johnson makes clear early on that his study is sociological. That is, he investigates not doctrine but observable religious practices. But before covering here these practices—which are different than what readers may assume when thinking about Pentecostals—we need to appreciate the history of Pentecostal Christianity, as well as the horizon of global Pentecostal growth, topics Johnson handles in compelling fashion.