A History of Charisma: Book Review

May 15, 2010

A History of Charisma, by John Potts, Palgrave MacMillan, 2009 ISBN 9780 230 55153 4

If you like detective stories, you will enjoy A History of Charisma by Australian media scholar John Potts. It may not have been for that genre, but I found myself reading it as a well-constructed and highly intelligent ‘who done it’. It takes a skilful author to make such a page-turner based on a ‘history of a word’. Potts has succeeded by writing in a lucid and intelligent style, sticking to a brief account of less than 300 pages, with a strong historical story line.

He fingers Saint Paul, one of the founders of the Christian church as the person who gave the word enormous significance. “The term ‘charisma’ emerged in the early Christian church of the first century .. was eclipsed as a religious concept by the end of the third century…lay submerged for many centuries with intermittent appearances .. [and] was reinvented in Max Weber’s sociology in the early twentieth century”

What is Charisma?

After an extensive study of popular and scholarly texts, Potts arrives at the view that the meaning of the word charisma has changed considerably from that of its original theological context. We learn that the roots of charisma can be traced to early Jewish and Graeco-Roman cultures and the ideas of gifts (we are familiar with the semantically-related term charity). Paul, educated in Greek was aware of the concept of divine grace which had found its ways into Greek translations of Hebrew texts.

Paul gets a good idea

Or, as Potts writes, “Paul Invents Charisma.” Driven on by what Paul believed to be with a divinely-ordained mission, he set about establishing his own vision for a religion that would survive and replace prevailing alternatives. He needed what in modern secular terms might be called a clear manifesto. He chooses to do this through a relabeling of older ideas under the new(ish) term which we now receive phonetically from the Greek as charisma.

Rise and Fall of Paul’s Charismatic Theology

Paul’s manifesto was enormously successful at first, giving momentum to the growth and establishment of the institution of the early Christian church. Over time, however, there was a shift which saw “the rise of bishops, the demise of prophets … and transition from the rather free-wheeling Christian community of Paul’s time to the structured ministry of the second-century.” Charisma was to move to the margins of Church dogma, often becoming weakened by association with various contrarian views often castigated as heresies.

Thus Spoke Weber

Which is where the term might have languished, if it had not been for the impact of the sociological writings of the great sociologist Max Weber. What might have remained a brilliant but obscure scholarly work in the original German in the 1920s, was translated into and by the 1960s had become part of a popular (if misunderstood) discourse of bureaucracy and social change, including the role of leaders in traditional and modern societies. Such was Weber’s influence that it was assumed to carry with it the original conceptualisation of charisma, as an attribute of a special kind of revolutionary leader. For Potts, Weber misinterpreted the earlier Christian concept, replacing the notion of a spiritual gift bestowed on a community, to that of “a specific form of domination, an individual endowment used by remarkable leaders to command authority over their followers.”

And so to modern times

A charismatic renewal has occurred since the 1960s as a religious movement. Evangelical Christians have rediscovered modes of worship finding strong appeal in The USA, but also internationally (South Korea’s Yoido Full Gospel Church has been claimed to be the largest Christian community). Potts observed that the religious and secular outpourings with charismatic overtones occurred at roughly the same time and paralleled the emergence of ‘youth culture.. rock stars commanding delirious audiences.’

Charisma, Celebrity and Iceberg Sandwitches

Fame can be traced to acts of stage-managed achievements. Alexander the Great hit on the basic principle by taking along artists, painters, even his own historian-cum- publicist (Callisthenes) on his journeys of conquest. It was Carlyle who spotted in the 19th century how the marketplace for fame could produce heroes who were no more than celebrities with puffed-up reputations. The stage-management persists but now in a form thoroughly mediated by ‘consumer capitalism and a media technology adept at the reproduction of images, sounds and text.’). He points to the expanding scope of the notion of charisma to include places (Berlin); lakes (Lake Como); plays (Pinter’s The Homecoming);and my favourite, a sandwich (iceberg lettuce with dressings which ‘add charisma to its crunch’ ).

Teach-yourself Charisma

Potts is particularly critical of the self-help, unleash-your-charisma literature. He points to the inherent contradictions within the examples he selects. One one hand they remind us that that charisma is special, but on the other promise that (almost) anyone can be special, and rather quickly if their advice is followed. Do I hear an echo of Paul’s warnings about false prophets ? I felt a moment of nausea to learn that a so-called ‘master of charisma’ had been ‘brought into the House of Lords in 1999 to “inject some charisma” into the peers’ speeches, to make them a “little more Clintonesque”.’

Leadership Theory

The recent increase in interest among management theorists is touched on. Work by Conger and Kanungo is seen as confirming Weber’s model of charisma. Their attributional approach (we get the leaders we approve of) also warns against delusional choices and consequent business disasters. Potts also makes an interesting point in suggesting that the transformational model of leadership of Bernard Bass helps understand Weber’s proposals for the ‘routinisation’ of charisma.

Charisma and Political Leadership

Charisma is widely applied in examining political figures. Potts briefly examines recent towering figures from (Jack) Kennedy to Fidel Castro, Benazir Butto, Bill Clinton, Tony Blair (unprepossessing, but with mesmeric pale eyes), and Barack Obama. Among the mostly uncritical enthusiasm for the future President, he notes one article, following Durkheim’s ‘projection of a collectivity’ warning of the dangers of ‘the politics of charisma.’

The Elusiveness of Charisma

In a crisp final chapter, Potts returns to the historical trajectory of the notion of charisma. He starts by offering the narrative of a radical break between ancient and modern treatments. The spiritual meaning introduced by Paul was utterly reconstructed by the secular version of Weber. Or was it? Although the term may have been ‘stripped of its religious meaning, it nevertheless conveys a meaning of “giftedness”, shrouded in mystery…This idea has travelled 2000 years preserving its core meaning: that is, an extraordinary gift.”.

Reviewer’s last words

This was a page-turner. A mystery wrapped up as a work of historical scholarship. I learned that charisma is a term which can be applied to our political leaders and to an iceberg lettuce sandwich. Worth reading by anyone who wants to make any contribution to a discussion on charisma (with or without mayonnaise).