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Lewi's Journey, by Per Olov Enquist, trans Tiina Nunnally
When fundamentalism swept Europe
Friday 26 August 2005
At first he envisaged this movement as independent of organised society. He arranged soup-kitchens for the poor, finding supporters among marginal people in what was still an economically shaky country, and antagonised its establishment. Later, with the same ruthlessness, Lewi sought to use the press, the finance sector, the political parties. But though there was change, indeed U-turns, in his programme, there was also an inner consistency.
Lewi's God was not the Father of the Old Testament, but the Jesus of the Gospels, a figure to be loved who had redeemed you and could never be betrayed. Speaking in his own person, as one whose mother was a Pentecostal, Enquist exclaims: "The blood of Christ, we had been raised on it... We couldn't escape it... no matter how hard we tried." The appeal of the Pentecostal Christ is to the emotions and, paradoxically, also to the senses - of which the movement was extremely suspicious. It condemned theatres, cinemas and, worst of all, dancing. Hence the speaking in tongues, the swooning at prayer meetings, the professions of faith, the locatable moments of salvation.
It was a happy turn of fate which brought to Lewi that man who (himself apart) attracted the widest attention, Sven Lidman. Author, amorist, socialite and romantic reactionary, Lidman proved to have just the ability to mesmerise crowds with his rhetoric that the movement needed. It grew and grew, with 80 per cent of its adherents women, until all Swedish institutions, from the state church to the Social Democrat party, had to come to terms with it. Overseas, its success had serious impact. Nor is this past history: world-wide, in 2000, the Pentecostal movement numbered 250 million.
Enquist's presentation of Lewi and Sven is complex. He writes as himself, trying to fathom the reasons both intimate and cultural for their extraordinary careers and their far-reaching effect on Swedish society. But as a novelist of formidable empathetic powers, he also attempts entry into their minds, both curiously compounded of worldly ambition and spiritual hunger.
Enquist sees Pentecostalism as a shadow analogue of the Labour movements that transformed Sweden, offering charismatic faith in place of their "irresistible" belief in reason and progress. He perceives here what others at the time perceived: a kinship to Nazism. But these interpretations are never allowed to be reductive. Continually, the human dimension stubbornly asserts itself in all its mysterious depths.
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