Investing in Miracles: El Sjaddai and the Transformation of Popular Catholicism in the Philippines (review)
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Investing in Miracles: El Sjaddai and the Transformation of Popular Catholicism in the Philippines. By Katherine L. Wiegele. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2005. 207 pp.

El Shaddai (the name reportedly comes from that used by Abraham for God in the Old Testament) is one of the more remarkable popular religious movements in the world today. With a following of some 9 million to 11 million in the Philippines and abroad, it is significantly larger than other prosperity movements. Moreover, it differs from similar movements particularly in that it remains — however, uncomfortably — within the fold of an established denomination, in this case the Catholic Church. In this work, Wiegele attempts to understand, from an anthropological point of view, the dynamics of its growth and its impact on Philippine Catholicism.

Begun in Manila in 1981 as a non-denominational Christian radio programme featuring sermons by "Brother Mike" Velarde, a businessman and real estate developer, El Shaddai struck a responsive chord especially among the poor in the slums. Soon after beginning his program, Velarde identified himself with the Catholic charismatic movement. After more than 20 years of phenomenal growth, his movement now brings together up to a million followers for all-night weekly prayer meetings and healing rallies in one of the largest parks in Metro Manila; the meetings are telecast and broadcast by radio throughout the country, there are El Shaddai chapters in practically every province of the Philippines and in 35 countries abroad, tapes of Velarde's sermons circulate widely, and he is a significant force in national politics.

Without any formal training in theology, he appears to have derived much of the content of his preaching from American TV evangelists of the "prosperity gospel", which emphasizes healing, health, and prosperity as God's gifts to the righteous, and "positive confession" (publicly professing one's faith in the Lord's promises). He teaches that by tithing and the making of "seed faith" offerings, the faithful follower puts God in his debt, and by his "positive [End Page 137] confession" brings blessings down upon himself in the form of health, freedom from debt, repaired personal relationships, a job abroad, or whatever.

Velarde's relationship with the Catholic faith, to which some 83% of Filipinos belong at least nominally, has frequently been strained. Many doubt that the prosperity gospel, with its emphasis on material blessings, conveys the whole of the Christian message, and his attempts to interpret scriptural texts in that sense seem more than forced. He plays down many traditional Catholic practices, particularly veneration of Mary, in favour of direct contact with the Holy Spirit. Yet his weekly prayer and healing rallies end with a Catholic Mass, and the Catholic hierarchy has designated theological advisers for El Shaddai. Individual bishops and parish priests are divided, some supporting the movement and seeing it as an alternative to the Pentecostal groups which have been attracting many of the Catholic faithful, others suspicious of it or opposed.

On the political side, he sided with former President Estrada while many of the Catholic bishops and the middle class generally were mobilizing to impeach him on grounds of massive corruption. But he has avoided precipitating an open break with the Catholic Church, and when "push came to shove" in the run-up to the impeachment proceedings, Velarde pulled in his horns and accompanied his wife who was leaving for medical treatment abroad.

In attempting to understand this phenomenon, Wiegele at the outset rejects simplistic interpretations which would reduce El Shaddai's appeal to reactions to stress or to cargo-cult hopes for a bonanza from on high. She notes that such explanations "mask the multifaceted social, political, economic, and personal conditions in which spiritual choices are made — and in which new religious forms arise and become compelling" (p. 14).

For her database, Wiegele did more than a year of fieldwork in the Philippines and in Rome, living much of the time in an urban poor community in Metro Manila with a heavy concentration of El Shaddai followers, attending prayer and healing rallies and counselling sessions, interviewed Mike Velarde and many of his followers as well [End Page 138] as parish...