Anthropology of Religion

The Re-Enchantment Of Bodies – The Transformative Power Of Charismatic Healings, Part 2 (Anna Magnasco)

The following is the first of a two-part series. The first installment can be found here. It was originally published in issue 22.1 of the Journal for Cultural and Religious Studies.

The offer of the Pentecostal churches

The growing expansion of Pentecostalism belies any prediction of progressive secularization,[1] and certainly shows that something significant keeps happening in the world of disenchantment. In fact, this phenomenon does not only attract the curiosity of scholars in the religious field: the Pentecostal movement also occupies a considerable place in the social and political sphere.[2] Today, investigating the aspects of a society, implies running into Pentecostalism: the religious dimension of a phenomenon is intrinsically linked to political, social, and economic dynamics.[3]

Pentecostalism presents itself as a movement with a significant transformative force, capable of reconfiguring the “religious geography”[4] of the world by challenging traditional religious and political institutions.

The transnational and dynamic nature of the Pentecostal movement in constant growth in every part of the globe can be explored starting from one of its determining features: charismatic healing. According to Brown, divine healings are not only concerned with the improvement of physical problems; they play a crucial role in the “relief of social maladies”.[5] It is no coincidence, in fact, that Pentecostal communities establish themselves precisely in those spaces where there are institutional gaps – eroded by neoliberal forces[6] and dangerous geopolitical processes – which exacerbate social uncertainty. Here, Pentecostalism emerges as a religion “closer to the people”:[7] compared to the major historical churches, the charismatic movements make wise use of the “media space”.[8] Through technology and digital means of communication, Pentecostals spread “transportable messages”:[9] web pages, messages via radio or WhatsApp, projections on local televisions are easy to understand and elaborate.                                                                  

In this way, Pentecostal theology breaks through private space and is embraced into everyday life, ceasing to be an experience reserved for a few days of the week.

Secondly, the Pentecostal communities build ‘prayer fields’[10] different from the traditional and austere “church-buildings”,[11] where it is possible not only to ‘renew’ the relationship with God by taking part in the characteristic religious functions and rituals but also to share with an attentive group the emotions and sufferings that afflict everyday life. Pentecostal communities make the Temple of the Lord the public space to tell, testify, and get rid of pain, the traumatic past, and one’s fears, letting the group – led by the pastor – welcome them. Tankink, referring to the Born-Again Churches of Southwest Uganda, reports the ability of the churches to configure themselves as the only space where it is allowed to bear witness to the “unbearable pain connected with the war memories”.[12] In a society where there is no space to remember the collective and personal traumas linked to a past of genocides – churches become those ‘safe’ places where it is possible to bear the heavy burden of the traumatic past: to draw closer to God and to the religious community it is therapeutic.

In addition to painful memories, in Pentecostal communities, there is space to share and express daily difficulties, such as work and sentimental failures[13] or chronic pains with which one is forced to live, for which the family or institutions have no answers. What is staged through the service of charismatic healings is first of all an atmosphere of festive participation and warm solidarity, which begins at the entrance of the church – as Canevari reports in his ethnography at a Pentecostal church and charismatic Italian[14] – where there is always someone smiling ready to welcome those who arrive.

Often joining Pentecostal communities means finding and building a network of material and spiritual help: it is not just a question of sharing “intensely emotional and collective experiences”[15] such as ritual healings, but of finding true and proper friends: “Brothers and Sisters in the Lord”[16] connected to one another and ready to support each other even in everyday life. The emotional support provided by the community during therapeutic practices is a determining element in our discourse: the group welcomes the wounded person and recognizes him or her as a bearer of value throughout the therapeutic process.

Therapeutic rituals and existential transformations

Pedron-Colombani speaks of charismatic communities as “places of regeneration”:[17] here, we intend them in the sense of Csordas, i.e., as places of phenomenological regeneration of the self. Compared to the medical-scientific tradition, which – as we have seen in the first part of the text – intends health as the simple restoration of previous biological functions, following an alteration of an organic malfunction, the Pentecostal therapeutic system goes further. By offering the service of ritual healing, the intent is not so much the relief of disease symptoms through the intercession of divine power and love, but to guide one towards the attainment of spiritual maturity – ‘renewed’. Healing and spiritual growth are therefore interconnected: there is no healing without spiritual redemption, and vice versa spiritual growth contributes to the maintenance of good health.[18]

At the basis of ritual healing systems is the ‘holistic’ and tripartite conception of the human being, surpassing the Cartesian dualism of the biomedical paradigm. According to charismatic Pentecostals, the body is never separated from the spirit and from the processes of the mind: people are made up of the three interconnected dimensions. Consequently, the disease is never ‘only’ physical, but related to inner or spiritual problems, which prevent the spiritual maturation of believers.

In his ethnographies of the Catholic charismatic movements (CCR) in New England, Thomas Csordas reports numerous testimonies of the experience of illness, recounted here by a healing minister: 

[There is one] person who walked, and is still walking, with a weight problem (my emphasis), but in the midst of that she had a real need for Deliverance […]. Then finally she came to me and said, “I think I need Healing of Memories and Deliverance regarding food”. She had really fought the battle of food intake. As we began to pray it was pretty obvious that there was a real cluster there, of Gluttony, Lust (meaning lust for food, you know), there was Insecurity – well, the person felt insecure about herself, so she would eat to make herself more secure – the whole cycle of being overweight was there. But in addition to that there was a cluster of six or seven demons (my emphasis) that were feeding onto that… [including] Guilt….[19]

In this description, the etiology of what conventional medicine would term ‘accumulation excessive body fat’ seeks the incarnate presence of demons, such as “Gluttony” or “Insecurity”. Milsev (2018)[20] develops the same points: illness is a wound of life, including traumas, disappointments and pain. Consequently, the healing process will also have to contemplate a spiritual and inner treatment, as in the case cited, where the healing minister suggests the practice of deliverance. In fact, although a type of healing corresponds to each part of the person – physical, inner or delivering from spirits – most Charismatic healers combine the different practices: the human being is made up of three parts in constant “pneumopsychosomatic” interaction.[21][91] 

Here is another case:

Father P. asked that five people who had had pain or trouble (my emphasis) walking come forth for healing. A chair was placed in front of the altar [the service is in a church]. At this time, he beckoned me [the research assistant] to join him and his healing team, as four women came up to the altar [for prayer]. […] Fr. P asked the congregation to pray for each person and to lift their arms in prayer toward the supplicant as the team performed its task. […] The male healer prayed out loud in English. Fr. P asked the supplicant in a very low voice several rapid questions about troubles in primary relationships, particularly about husbands and fathers, kneeling before the person with his hands placed firmly on her (my emphasis) usually on the upper legs. Once the problem relationship (my emphasis) was identified, he firmly grasped the supplicant’s feet (shoes still on) and made a firm, determined tugging motion on the supplicant’s outstretched legs. […] During prayer for one of the four supplicants, Fr. P asked the woman team member for a discernment (my emphasis), which she rapidly gave, and he agreed with her assessment.[22]

Here we observe how the conception of the disease does not necessarily coincide with ‘biological’, but may be the result of an inner problem – e.g. problematic relationships in the family – or due to the presence of evil spirits, or even all things together. Furthermore, healing is built on a holistic process, aimed at treating every part of the person – and not just the empirically evident symptoms. Curing suffering means freeing the person from evil and welcoming the Spirit together in body, mind, and heart:

[…] All I can describe [of] it is a feeling (my emphasis) which I now know as the presence of God (my emphasis) came on my [pause], dropped on, I can’t really describe it, understand it. It was like if someone placed a sheet, a cotton sheet, it started on the top of my head, and it flopped down over my body (my emphasis). And I just broke into tears, I was just sat in the back, crying…[23]

In this testimony reported by Williams, the subject perceives the “presence of God” as a visceral force – even in materially absent:[24] it was like a cotton sheet, but it flopped down over the body. God’s ‘positive energy’[25] enters people’s bodies, “connecting them with their heart and spirit”:[26] it touches their emotions and soul, to the point that they burst into tears. It is God’s love in supplicants’ bodies that “brings up what needs healing”,[27] as one healer confirms to Csordas, and “releases the negative energy”.

The Therapeutic Process: The Transformation of the Self

The feature issue of Pentecostal anthropology is not only the theoretical dimension of the tripartite conception of the person but rather the performative aspect. The human being as  body-mind-soul is an illustrative figure of Pentecostal theology, but also a culturally performing discourse,[28] offering alternative modes of perception and experience. Embodied by ‘renewed’ subjects, the tripartite image serves as a symbolic resource that structures existential orientation in the world, involving their sensory, perceptive modalities.

Within a ritual therapeutic performance, writes Csordas,[29] participants must chiefly be disposed to the charismatic healing and the persuasive possibility of the experience of the sacred. Thirdly,they must know how to elaborate realistic alternatives to their suffering and actualize them. Ritual healing, therefore, implies a transformation in the semantic elaboration of oneself and one’s suffering, producing realistically possible alternatives in the world.

Consider the case of a man with chronic and often debilitating back pain getting religious healing: through rest in the Spirit and a “purely spiritual” experience, he ceased to get backaches with very rare exceptions (my emphasis), and even those [he] got have been unlike the others. Every once in a while [he] would feel a backache just barely starting, and [he] would thank God for having cured it, and usually it goes away. [He’ll] just feel the start of a tightness of the muscles, of a spasm, and all [he’ll] do is say to God, “Thank you for curing my backaches”. And then it will go away, and may do the same thing once or twice more during the day and so [he] say the same thing and it never develops into anything, with very few exceptions… On two occasions [he] could feel a burning nerve sensation in [his] back, [he] thought it was a nerve that was inflamed. [he] felt burning. That happened a couple of times, but [he] never felt any stiffness or soreness at all. [He] could just feel the inflamed nerve [not painful]. [He] was just keenly aware of it. […] It was almost as if [he] could feel the origin of the problem but without the symptoms or the spasms 

As we observe from this testimony, what has changed is the awareness that man has of his suffering. Back pain has not disappeared, but it has qualitatively reduced, because he developed on it an altered somatic form of attention,[31] preventing debilitating symptoms. Therefore, healed people are not those who live ‘without disease’, but who manage to experiment and explore new ‘postural modalities’ and body patterns with which to actively inhabit the world, up to the margins of their own disability[32] – like a supplicant who, convinced of the therapeutic power of the divine and supported by the assembly that listened to his testimony, hesitantly gets up from his wheelchair in response to the healer’s request:[33] “the walk is as much a test of his physical capacity and of his willingness to improve as it is a proof of a divinely caused amelioration of his condition (my emphasis)”.[34]
The therapeutic process is comparable to the gesture of “planting a seed”:[35] it begins with charismatic healing, but continues beyond the ritual event itself, into everyday life. The healed people are ‘reborn’, and improve their life, not just their bodies, including more elements in the concept of health, such as the relationship with society, affections, faith as well as with themselves. From the therapeutic relationship with the sacred and supported by the group,[36] empowered supplicants experience a real ‘transformation of the self’ producing a re-interpretation of their life in the “desacralized world”[37].


Through the lens of medical anthropology, we have observed both ‘what comes done to the body’ by medical science, and ‘what the body does and produces’ – if thought otherwise.

In the space of Pentecostal movements, the conventional meaning of the human body is transformed: it is no longer an organic entity investigated by the medical gaze, but an active resource involved in constant emotional, mental, and social processes, in line with what Scheper-Hughes and Lock call ‘mindful body’.[38]

Charismatic healing experience returns the ‘mindful bodies’ to the complexity and agency that medicine, heir to Cartesian reductionism, too often ignores. In the course of the healing process, people see themselves recognized by the community as the carriers of subjective experience capable of producing other perceptions and other representations of themselves, thus modifying their actions in the world. The transformative power of charismatic movements lies here: involving subjects in a realistic reconfiguration of their existence[92] .

Anna Magnasco is a graduate student in Cultural Anthropology and Ethnology at the University of Turin. Her areas of research are within the urgent framework of the Anthropocene, a concept that is capable of uniting the environment, humanity and politics in a nexus of entanglements and frictions. On the one hand, she aims to deconstruct many of our paradigms, those that have brought us this far — such as that of nature, politics, health, progress, suffering, future.

[1] Cf. Thomas Luckmann, La Religione Invisible (Bologna: Il Mulino, 1969).

[2] Cf. Pietro Cingolani, Alessandro Gusman, “Il Pentecostalismo e le Sfide della Contemporaneità”, La Ricerca Folklorica 65 (2012): 3-18.

[3] The inescapable intertwining of religion and politics clearly embraces one of the theological perspectives of more recent Pentecostal and charismatic movements: through the concept of ‘spiritual struggle’, the world becomes a place of confrontation between God and Satan, between good and evil, between the sacred and the mundane. Cf. Birgit Meyer, “Pentecostalism and Globalisation“, in: Allan Anderson et. al. (ed.) Studying Global Pentecostalism. Theories and Methods. (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press,  2010).

[4] Cingolani & Gusman, “Il Pentecostalismo e le Sfide della Contemporaneità”, 5.

[5] Brown, Global Pentecostal and Charismatic Healing, 14.

[6] Comaroff and Comaroff, “Second Comings: Neo-Protestant Ethics and Millennial Capitalism in Africa, and Elsewhere”.

[7] Cf. Pietro Cingolani, Alessandro Gusman, “Il Pentecostalismo e le Sfide della Contemporaneità”, La Ricerca Folklorica 65 (2012): 3-18.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Cf. Justine Howe, “Transnational Transcendence. Essays on religion and globalization”, in: J. Thomas Csordas (ed.) Social Anthropology 18/2 (2010), 228-9. DOI:

[10] Cf. Alessandro Gusman, “La Deliverance Come Tecnica di Contrasto all‘ Insicurezza Spirituale. Il Caso della Mutundwe Christian Fellowship di Kampala’”, Antropologia 6/2 (2019): 117-133.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Cf. Marian Tankink, “‘The Moment I Became Born-Again the Pain Disappeared’: The Heading of Devastating War Memories in Born-Again Churches in Mbara District, Southwest Uganda”, Transcultural Psychiatry 44/2 (2007): 1-23.

[13] Cf. Alessandro Gusman, “La Deliverance Come Tecnica Di Contrasto all’‘Insicurezza Spirituale’. Il Caso Delle Chiese Pentecostali Di Kampala (Uganda)”, ANUAC 5/1 (2016): 107-128.

[14] Cf. Matteo Canevari, “‘È la prima volta che ho visto qualcosa’. Immagine, Guardigione e Retoriche della Rinascita nel Movimento Pentecostale”, Antropologia 7/2 (2020): 130-154. DOI:

[15] Cf. Nancy Scheper-Hughes and Margaret Lock, “The Mindful Body”, Social Science & Medicine, 39/ 7 (1994): 991–1003. Doi:

[16] Cf. Marian Tankink, “‘The Moment I Became Born-Again the Pain Disappeared’: The Heading of Devastating War Memories in Born-Again Churches in Mbara District, Southwest Uganda”, Transcultural Psychiatry 44/2 (2007): 1-23.

[17] Cf. Pedron-Colombani, “Le Pentecôtisme au Guatemala. Conversion et identité, In Pietro Cingolani and Alessandro Gusman, “Il Pentecostalismo e le Sfide della Contemporaneità”, La Ricerca Folklorica 65 (2012): 3-18.

[18] Cf. J. Thomas Csordas, Body/Meaning/Healing (New York: Palgrava MacMillan, 2002).

[19] Ibid.

[20] Cf. Magdalena Milsev, “Religious Narratives of Healing and Conversion in a Charismatic Catholic Church in Montevideo: a Brief Approach”, International Journal of Latin American Religions 2/2 (2019): 334-47.

[21] This concept is reported in The Sacred Self (40-43): it is a word by which Csordas’ religious healers define their therapeutic ability, that acts simultaneously on the body (‘somatic’), inner experience (‘psycho’) and spirit (‘pneumo’).

[22] Ivi., 58-59.

[23] Cf. Andrew Williams, Spiritual Landscapes of Pentecostal Worship, Belief, and Embodiment in a Therapeutic Community: New Critical Perspectives”, Elsevier 28 (2023).

[24] Csordas, in describing the theology of charismatic Pentecostals, speaks of the Holy Spirit as a force that is “ineffable and empirical at the same time” (The Sacred Self, 39).

[25] Cf. J. Thomas Csordas, The Sacred Self: A Cultural Phenomenology of Charismatic Healing (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997).

[26] Ibid.

[27] Ivi., 53.

[28] Cf. Matteo Canevari, “‘È la Prima Volta che ho Visto Qualcosa’: Immagine, Guardigione e Retoriche della Rinascita nel Movimento Pentecostale”, Antropologia 7/2 (2020): 130-154. DOI:

[29] Cf. J. Thomas Csordas, “Elements of Charismatic Persuasion and Healing”, Medical Anthropology Quarterly, 2/2 (1988): 121-142. DOI:

[30] Cf. J. Thomas Csordas, The Sacred Self: A Cultural Phenomenology of Charismatic Healing (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997).

[31] Cf. J. Thomas Csordas,  “Somatic Modes of Attention”, Cultural Anthropology,  8/2 (1993): 135–56. DOI:

[32] Cf. J. Thomas Csordas, The Sacred Self: A Cultural Phenomenology of Charismatic Healing (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997).

[33] Ivi., 70.

[34] Ivi., 164.

[35] Cf. J. Thomas Csordas, Body/Meaning/Healing (New York: Palgrave MacMillian, 2002).

[36] The collective dimension of Pentecostal rituals is a theme widely addressed in contemporary anthropological literature: collective participation, group support in prayer rituals produces, in the heterogeneous Pentecostal contexts of the world, profound effects on society. In addition to the material already mentioned, Cf. Stroeken, “Witchcraft Simplex: Experiences of Globalized Pentecostalism in Central and Northwestern Tanzania”; Kliueva, Vera and Ryazanova, Svetlana, “Praying practices in Pentecostal environment: a universal multicultural model”; Csordas, Thomas, “A global geography of the spirit: the case of the Catholic Charismatic communities”,

[37] Cf. Magdalena Milsev, “Religious Narratives of Healing and Conversion in a Charismatic Catholic Church in Montevideo: a Brief Approach”, International Journal of Latin American Religions, 2/2 (2019): 334-347.

[38] Cf. Nancy Scheper-Hughes and Margaret Lock, “The Mindful Body: A Prolegomenon to Future Work in Medical Anthropology”, Medical Anthropology Quarterly, New Series, 1/ 1 (1987): 6-41.

 [91]For me it´s not exactly clear where the difference between pneumo and psyche is. Is the pneumo the space of mythlogical figures and thinking and the psyche, the psychological of actual feeling and secular sorrow?

A small passage that elaborates it would be nice I think

 [92]I like the idea of religion enabling a well being in this world by opening a space for non-positivist or empirical/epistomological dimensions of being, that are also integrated in a praxis of healing

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