BOOK REVIEW: Hallelujah for the sceptic

The Hallelujah Revolution: The Rise of the New Christians Ian Cotton Little Brown, pounds 16.99
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The Independent Online
Is Britain experiencing a religious revival? The statistics are less spectacular than in the United States, where most of the contenders for public office claim to have been born more than once and the freeways abound with "Bikers for Jesus" or cars with stickers warning that the moment the millennium arrives the driver will disappear. The British do religion without the populism or razzmatazz one finds in the US.

But they do it none the less.House churches (freelance prayer groups that usually begin in members' living rooms) have seen a steady if unspectacular growth since the late Seventies, spawning a whole series of New Church groups, many of them rooted in relatively prosperous parishes in the South- east. The "Toronto Blessing", a charismatic "outpouring" said to include holy laughter, moanings, shrieks and dog-barks, with believers threshing around or crashing to the floor, "slain in the spirit", has penetrated at least one formerly respectable C of E church in Oxfordshire.

Though written in a racy, cliche-ridden style, Cotton's account of the evangelical-charismatic revival is admirably balanced between empathy and detachment. He salutes the achievements of New Christian groups like the Peckham-based Ichthus, whose community projects include nurseries and primary schools, and Pecan, an interdenominational project that provides training schemes for the young unemployed and claims a 40 per cent success rate in placing them in work.

At the same time he is highly sceptical about healing miracles, and bewildered, if not alarmed, when a hymn-singing service filled with joyous spiritual balm is transformed into a hysterical collective denunciation of a non- existent phenomenon, Satanic child abuse. The revival of supernaturalism - the belief that God intervenes routinely in the mundane affairs of individuals, that diabolic powers can dominate, even control physical spaces like problem housing estates, to be exorcised by prayer - is the hallmark of Nineties populist religiosity.

Many of the more preposterous tenets of this Manichean, do-it-yourself faith - such as the belief that the mark of the Beast mentioned in the Book of Revelation is to be found in supermarket bar-codes - belong to pre-millennialist ideas directly imported from the US. Encouragingly, the distinctly British and European contribution to a paranoid brew which can only increase in toxicity as 2000 approaches has been an injection of practical social concern. British "fundamentalists", whether charismatics or evangelicals, seem, unlike most of their American counterparts, mercifully free from the self-serving cant known as prosperity theology, according to which wealth is a sign of divine favour and poverty the consequence of sin.

Cotton makes interesting and plausible connections between the charismatic movement of the Nineties and the counter-culture of the Sixties: many of his New Christians are former hippies, in at least one instance converted after Bosch-like visions of Hell sustained during a bad narcotic trip.

He also lets us in on some fascinating research that links religious conversions not just to personal or collective insecurity, but to the specific operations of the human brain. The climax of his book is a visit to the laboratory of Michael Persinger, a Canadian scientist who has invented an electronic helmet capable of inducing mystical experiences - not, as with virtual reality, from a pre-programmed package, but from the resources of the subject's unconscious mind. Cotton - clearly a man with New Age sensibilities - found himself to be a grave-eyed, brown-cowled Tibetan monk.

Prophecy, reincarnation, resurrection, mystical union: the whole range of religious experience may lie here, in the interaction between left and right hemispheres and the synaptic patterns of individuals' brains, and, by extension, the collective somatic experiences of whole cultures. Despite its loose construction and irritating style, Cotton's book contains enough fascinating material for an encyclopaedia of speculation.