A Dynamic View of Following Jesus

As teenagers at Fifty-Ninth Street church in the Bay Ridge neighborhood of Brooklyn who had made a commitment to following Jesus, we used to flock to Saturday night church rallies, particularly attracted to announced sermon topics like “How to Find the Will of God for Your Life.” An underlying assumption behind such sermons seemed to be that there was a static blueprint for each of our lives, and we needed all the help we could get to discern what that blueprint was as soon as possible, before we make irrevocable blunders.

I now believe that the idea of there being a blueprint for working out my aspiration to follow Jesus does not bear up under biblical scrutiny. For example, Isaiah 58:10-11 reads, “If you offer your food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted, then … the Lord will guide you continually.” This passage suggests that it is in the very process of helping others that you gain greater discernment as to how to continue helping others.

This suggests a dynamism in my attempts to follow Jesus. At any given time, I decide on a course of action that reflects my present understanding of what it means to follow Jesus. The results that emerge from this course of action help me to refine my understanding of what it means to follow Jesus. This refined understanding, in turn, informs my decision as to a subsequent course of action. This cycle then continues for the rest of my life.

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Jim Crow & Jesus Christ

I hope my longtime friend and colleague Terry Todd won’t mind my opening with a story. When Terry and I were filming the PBS version of Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory during the summer of 1991, one of our most memorable stops was the True Bibleway Church of the Lord Jesus Christ of the Apostolic Faith, in Natchez, Mississippi. There, Pastor Elder Andre Ramsey presided over a congregation of African American Pentecostals who were, to say the least, lively. The service we filmed lasted several hours, punctuated with gospel singing, energetic call-and-response preaching, and ecstatic dancing under the influence of the Holy Spirit. One of those dancing was Sister Ramsey, the pastor’s wife, moving fluidly back and forth in front of the congregation, her eyes lifted rhapsodically toward the heavens.

I was still struggling somewhat to understand Pentecostalism in those days; my father, an evangelical minister, referred to Pentecostals as “holy rollers.” We evangelicals took a dim view of Pentecostals, and his voice reverberated in my head.

Following the service, the entire crew talked about what we had just witnessed. Most of the crew was British, and as you can imagine they were utterly dumbfounded by what they saw. But Terry talked about the beauty of the entire service, especially Sister Ramsey’s liquid dance, and I began to see—and to appreciate—Pentecostalism through new eyes.

And so, I am not entirely surprised to learn that Terry himself has gravitated to Pentecostalism, finding there, in his words, “a place of expectation, waiting, a place of surrender and reception, before it becomes the place of transformation.”

Transformative, indeed. As a historian of religion in North America, I often cite Pentecostalism as one of the great tragedies of the twentieth century. Here you have a movement of contested origins—Acts 2, to be sure, but also Charles Fox Parham’s Bethel Bible College, in Topeka, Kansas, on the first day of the twentieth century, or Chicago, depending on the narrative—that finds its fullest expression in the Azusa Street Revival in Los Angeles, beginning in 1906. This was, as Terry says, a place where Blacks, whites, Latinos, and Asian-American Christians gathered in a movement inspired by an African American hotel waiter, William J. Seymour. Women held leadership positions at Azusa Street. As Frank Bartleman, a contemporary, said about Azusa Street, “the color line was washed away in the blood” of Jesus.

Sadly, as Pentecostalism began to institutionalize, Jim Crow outflanked Jesus Christ in the contestation between the “JC”s. As Pentecostal denominations formed—the Church of God in Christ, the Assemblies of God, and others—they stratified along racial lines. That is the great lost opportunity of Pentecostalism—although to be fair, other Christian denominations can similarly be classified by one race or another. What makes the Pentecostal story so poignant is that Pentecostals once were far more inclusive than they were by the end of the twentieth century.

I haven’t had the privilege of witnessing the “renewalists” at Terry’s Fellowship of Affirming Ministries, but I look forward to doing so. No organization is perfect, of course, and as I’ve argued before, institutions are remarkably poor vessels for piety. But the Holy Spirit-inspired inclusion at the heart of the Fellowship of Affirming Ministries—on matters of race, ethnicity, and sexuality—may take us closer than ever to a recovery of the promise of early Pentecostalism.

Although Pentecostal enthusiasm is not my worship métier, I join Terry in awaiting the Third Pentecost, “grateful for the radically relational pneumatology that undergirds it.”

Hallelujah, indeed!

Following Jesus to the Altar: One Pentecostal’s Reflection

Bearing the weight of a grief I couldn’t name, one Sunday I tarried at the altar, a classical Pentecostal phrase that involves praying mightily for a divine encounter with the Holy Spirit.  I stood, along with others, near the front of the worship space, my body enveloped by the band’s percussive rhythms and the praise team’s soaring vocals.  I, I’ve seen God do it, and I know / it’s working out for me. / It’s getting ready to happen. The entire assembly chanted the song’s refrain, again and again: It’s getting ready to happen, it’s getting ready to happen.  I wasn’t kneeling at a structure but standing, walking, rocking on my heels at the “altar,” a space that in most Pentecostal settings encompasses the center front of the church, stage left and stage right as well.

My moments of tarrying, or waiting expectantly, involved both the fervent hope for a divine encounter with the Holy Ghost, and a struggle with my willingness to surrender to the experience. And then it happened . . .

When you’re filled with the Holy Spirit, there’s an entire array of possible embodied expressions – raising hands, speaking (or singing) in tongues, shuddering or jerking, holy dancing, weeping, moaning, fainting, or being slain in the Spirit, which can put your body prone. (We sometimes call this, tongue-in-cheek, “floor duty.”) I began to “run the aisles,” as it’s called in Pentecostal practice, sprinting clockwise around the room’s periphery. I was in motion, yet somehow still “at the altar,” within the space of encounter. I wept as I ran, conscious of the Spirit’s presence and nearing the point of surrender:  I’ve seen God do it, and I know . . . it’s working out for me.  My run ended moments later as my body crumpled at the center-front of the worship space, where many others, too, labored under the power of the Spirit.  Some ended up, like me, on the floor, eyes closed, body shuddering, some speaking in tongues, others moaning deeply.

As I returned to waking consciousness, the deacons brought me water, and I sat up to drink it in the afterglow of this divine encounter. Bishop Levi then asked me in a whisper, “You got what you came for?”  He meant not just the emotional catharsis but the meeting of the Holy Spirit.

What, for Pentecostals, does it mean to follow Jesus? And what do expressive embodied encounters like the one I’ve described have to do with following Jesus? What are the ethical implications of such encounters?  Those are crucial questions, but first I want to tackle matters of definition and scope: What do we mean when we speak of Pentecostalism?  What are the boundaries of this confusing category? Who does it include or exclude?

As our year-long conversations have revealed, each of our respective traditions are diverse, even when that internal diversity is overlooked or suppressed.  But the Pentecostal world resembles the nightmare scenarios of Reformation-era popes who fretted about the fragmentation of Christ’s Body due to the anti-Roman revolts across Latin Christendom. Pentecostalism carries the spiritual DNA of sectarian Protestantism, with pronounced tendencies to splinter endlessly across countless vectors – doctrine and biblical interpretation, competing leadership styles, as well as around race, ethnicity, region, and national origin, as well as matters regarding access to wealth and other resources.

Is it even possible to speak of a coherent Pentecostal tradition? Do we mean “classical Pentecostalism,” a category that includes the Church of God in Christ (COGIC), the largest Pentecostal denomination in the U.S., the Assemblies of God, the Church of God (Cleveland, Tennessee), the Church of God in Prophecy, the Apostolic Pentecostal Church, hundreds of smaller groups, and thousands of independent Pentecostal churches? Do we include charismatics in non-Pentecostal denominations? What about neo-charismatics? Neo-Pentecostals? What about Christians who belong to churches that fall between these categories?  No wonder some scholars have taken up the umbrella term “renewalist” to describe movements of Christians that emphasize the work of the Holy Spirit.

There are certain common experiences shared by many if not most renewalist Christians– family resemblances within this thicket of diversity. One of these resemblances is the experience of worship as a theater of divine encounter, a space of intense emotion and intimacy where God meets us at the altar.

I came into Pentecostal faith after decades inside and at the margins of the Episcopal Church where the “altar” is an object made of wood, stone, or other material, set within a designated space called the chancel. In Anglican settings, as in Orthodox and Roman Catholic traditions, altars are also places of divine encounters, where Christians encounter God in the Eucharist.

Yet the Pentecostal altar is not just a place but a space within the assembly. To be sure, Pentecostal altars might include material objects such as a table or a prayer railing at the front of the worship space where the faithful kneel, but as an experience, the Pentecostal altar is more than that.  The altar is the space where Pentecostals learn what it means to follow Jesus through encountering the empowering presence of the Holy Spirit. As the early Pentecostal leader William J. Seymour taught, the altar is where “the great Shekina of glory is continually burning and filling with heavenly light.”

Renewalist praise music has much to say about the altar as a dynamic space of encounter.  Take, for example, the Elevation Worship neo-charismatic ballad, O Come to the Altar.  The message is one of vulnerability, desire, confession, forgiveness, and the yearning for transformation: “Have you come to the end of yourself? / Do you thirst for a drink from the well? / Jesus is calling,” . . . “O Come to the altar / The Father’s arms are open wide,” “Bow down before him,” “Bear the cross as you wait for the crown.” The ballad is an old-school altar call dressed in new fashions, but God is calling these Christians not to a particular place, not to a table or a railing. Wherever in the assembly they’re standing, arms uplifted in a pose of surrender, they are at the altar, at the space of divine encounter. In a moment like this, the Holy Spirit is present in subtler ways than in my own kinetic experience that I related earlier.  You can see it in the arms gently raised, the flutter of an eyelid, the soft murmur of tongues-speech, the tilt of the head toward heaven, the tapping of the heart with the palm of one’s hand.

In more classical Pentecostal style, the late Gospel singer LaShun Pace sings about the fire of the Holy Spirit in Is Your All on the Altar:  “You can only be blessed and have peace and sweet rest / when you yield to Him your body and soul,” reminding the assembly that the altar is a place of expectation, waiting, a place of surrender and reception, before it becomes the place of transformation. The Spirit burns away sin and whatever pain and burden we bring to sacrifice upon the altar.  (For Pace in that moment, it was the grief she carried from the recent loss of her daughter.)

As a theater of divine encounter, the Pentecostal (or renewalist) altar can be a “transgressive space,” a term Gastón Espinoza has used to describe the altars at Azusa Street, the 1906 Los Angeles revivals that helped put the Pentecostal movement on the Christian map.  As Espinoza argues, Azusa Street’s altar was transgressive for many reasons, not just because of its intensely embodied practices but also because black, white, Latino, and Asian-American Christians gathered there.  Together. Transgressive indeed, this race-mixing in Jim Crow America, and certainly one of the reasons the earliest Pentecostals were despised by the mainline white Protestant establishment. Azusa street represented a fleeting but powerful moment of cross-racial comity, itself a sign of life.

The altar where I first experienced the baptism of the Holy Ghost is a transgressive space, which is why I use the provocative language of “flying the freak flag” to unabashedly embrace Pentecostal ideas and (especially?) actions that might puzzle or even repel others.  The explosive global growth of renewalist versions of the faith continues unabated, yet I’m under no illusion that most American Christians will soon dance in the aisles, even though that’s exactly what they do at Middle Church, one of the old Dutch Reformed Collegiate congregations in New York City, historically one of the least renewalist places one could imagine.

Neither in my experience nor in my conviction is being “filled with the Spirit” an end unto itself.  It’s nothing short of earth shattering – or should I say ego shattering? –  that the indwelling of the Holy Ghost leads to self-transformation:  God is now within me, or at least within my metaphorical heart!  Personal transformation also holds within it the potential for the transformation of the Christian assembly, and indeed the community beyond.  In other words, spiritual transformation can and should have real-world effects.

In a Pentecostal world of such bewildering variety, it’s not surprising that there are disagreements aplenty about those real-world effects, as our present American moment demonstrates.  Renewalist Christians have been among the most ardent proponents of the prosperity Gospel, and the most fervent supporters of Trumpist attacks on American democracy, racial equality, and gender and sexual justice.

Yet there are other Spirit-filled Christians who preach and practice a version of renewalism that is wildly different in terms of everyday ethics.  For instance, my Pentecostal life is centered in communities affiliated with the Fellowship of Affirming Ministries (TFAM), a network of mostly queer and mostly black Christians described by the anthropologist Ellen Lewin in her recent book, Filled with the Spirit. TFAM has deep roots within the largest black Pentecostal denomination in the U.S., the Church of God in Christ (COGIC), in part because our founder, Bishop Yvette Flunder, emerged from that tradition. At the same time, the congregation I serve is also associated with the United Church of Christ (UCC), a mostly white liberal mainline (or oldline?) denomination where some local congregations – surprise! – are increasingly awakening to Spirit-filled worship.

How queer is that context?!

This isn’t the place to recount the history of how TFAM and other queer-positive groups emerged from classical Pentecostalism, but in shorthand:  a Spirit-filled community of people rejected the demonization of gender non-conforming people and sexual minorities. They offered instead a vision of church as a place “where the edge gathers,” as Bishop Flunder puts it, a place of radical inclusivity open to people whose churches had marginalized or expelled them.

Many renewalist Christians would regard the communities where I worship to be a wellspring of satanic rather than sanctified power. They’d be repulsed by doctrinal transgressions, no doubt, but what would likely rankle them most is that we understand gender diversity and sexual difference as God-given, precious, holy.  Our praise and worship are a reversal of the experience of some whom have endured the trauma of exorcisms – out, foul spirits of homosexuality! – and expulsion from churches and families.

Renewalist Christians are a Spirit-loving people, yet as scripture tells us, it’s imperative to test the spirits. What are the everyday ethics of Christians who claim the moniker Pentecostal? What is the fruit of the Holy Spirit?  It’s not running the aisles, speaking in tongues, or exhibiting other charisms at the altar, though these embodied experiences are, for some of us, harbingers of the Spirit’s arrival. But they are certainly not what it means to follow Jesus. Paul’s words to the fractious communities he addressed in Galatians gives us clues about how the apostle understood everyday Christian ethics:

But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. Against such things there is no law. Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit. Let us not become conceited, provoking and envying each other.

At the altars of TFAM communities, here in the United States, in Kenya, Uganda, and the U.K., I’ve witnessed my Spirit-anointed Bishop prophesy the coming of a third Pentecost, one more expansive than St. Paul’s wildest dreams, more inclusive and transgressive than the second Pentecost at Azusa Street.  The “fresh wind” of this Third Pentecost, Bishop Flunder says, is an invitation to all of God’s people – everyone – to work together for the spiritual, emotional, and material flourishing of all people.  After all, isn’t that what love is?

Bishop sings it better than I can ever say it, in her sermonic riff on a classic Pentecostal praise song,  I Hear the Sound of Pentecost

I need some people to believe with me . . . that the power of love is stronger than the power of hatred, and the power is peace is stronger than the power of war. And if you believe with me, and trust with me, our voices will connect, one person to another and another . . . God is greater than the power of the enemy.

That prophecy makes me dance with joy at the altar, as I await this Third Pentecost, grateful for the radically relational pneumatology that undergirds it.

Somebody shout Hallelujah, please.

The Latter-day Saints and the Resilience of Faith

My friend Robert Millet has been talking about his faith in relation to other expressions of the Christian faith for decades now, and I salute him for his contributions to fostering a better understanding. He has taken the initiative with me and others to engage him and other Latter-day Saints leaders in conversations about our similarities and our differences.

His essay here in Respectful Conversations is no different. He quotes both from church leaders and the New Testament to highlight the importance of prayer, service, worship, and the study of scriptures in the lives of Latter-day Saints. He also underscores the centrality of service to others, which the Latter-day Saints do as well as, or better than, most Christian groups.

As a historian of religion in North America, I’ve long been fascinated with the Latter-day Saints. (I’m sure, out of long habit, I will lapse into referring to them as “Mormons,” even though I know the current president is trying to stamp out that appellation. I mean no disrespect, but I also note that previous church authorities have launched similar initiatives, and yet the terms “Mormon” and “Mormonism” keep resurfacing.) I often remind my students that, aside from the obvious fact that the plethora of Native American religions are indigenous, Mormonism (there I go again!) is the first and certainly the most successful indigenous religion in North America.

My fascination with the Latter-day Saints is due in part to their resilience. Here you have a tradition that was widely reviled and persecuted in the nineteenth century; I doubt very much that the Supreme Court’s Reynolds decision would stand today, for example. And yet the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints not only persevered, it flourished, and it became by the middle of the twentieth century one of the religious groups most associated with patriotism and American values (it probably didn’t hurt that the Mormons consider America’s charter documents to be divinely inspired).

One thing that I find so admirable about the Latter-day Saints is the strength and durability of their faith – and I hope that my comments here will not be viewed as dismissive or condescending; I don’t mean that at all. When you look objectively at the controversies surrounding the Spaulding manuscript or Joseph Smith’s sexual history or the Mountain Meadows Massacre or the Book of Abraham, for example, you might reasonably expect that many of the faithful would simply walk away out of disillusion or even disgust. Some surely did so, but most remained loyal to the tradition. I have to believe that a true, authentic, and abiding faith played a role.

Despite my appreciation for Mr. Millet’s contribution, I wish he’d said a bit more about some of the distinctive characteristics of the Latter-day Saints. I know he’s spent his career trying to build bridges to various Christian groups, but one of the glories of religion in America is its diversity. As someone who harbors deep reservations about ecumenism, I’d love to hear more about what distinguishes Mormonism – uh, Latter-day Saints – from other Christian groups.

The Complement of Sacramentalism

Many thanks to Ferris Blount for his nuanced discussion of the Black Church, and especially his reminder that the Black Church is anything but monolithic. Indeed, I see extraordinary diversity, from the relatively dignified African Methodist Episcopal Church to the rollicking expressions characteristic of Pentecostalism. When I taught in New York City, one of my favorite places on a Sunday morning was the storied Abyssinian Baptist Church, and I shall never forget Pastor Elder Andre Ramsey and his congregation of the True Bibleway Church of the Lord Jesus Christ of the Apostolic Faith, in Natchez, Mississippi, memorably captured in the first episode of Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory.

I was particularly struck by Mr. Blount’s statement that “the historical mistreatment and marginalization of African-Americans can explain how many Black Jesus followers have understood that to follow Jesus means working towards the liberation of all those who are oppressed, particularly Black people.” I guess I’d like to add that this tradition of advocacy in the Black Church dates to the days of slavery, when the Black preacher served as spokesman for slaves for the simple reason that other avenues of leadership within the slave community simply were not available.

This circumstance has reverberated through the decades, the centuries. It explains why, for example, until very recently the Black Congressional Caucus consisted primarily of ordained ministers (Senator Raphael Warnock of Georgia, pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, would be the most recent and prominent example). Also, while white evangelicals for most he the twentieth century dithered about whether they should engage in politics, Black churches simply didn’t have the luxury of remaining politically or socially somnolent.

And, as Mr. Blount points out, is it any wonder, given the history of suffering that African Americans have endured, that the Black Church is inordinately sensitive to the suffering of others? Christians of all stripes could learn a lot from the Black Church.

While I recognize the importance and the centrality of music and preaching in the Black Church, as an Episcopal priest I’d like to recommend a more salubrious sacramental theology and practice – and, to be fair, I’d probably offer the same suggestion to most of my Christian sisters and brothers in other traditions as well, Catholics and Orthodox excepted. The reason I make that suggestion here is that a robust appreciation for the sacraments, especially Holy Communion, invites the faithful to transcend worldly cares and commune with the Almighty in an almost mystical way. For a people who far too often live with “their backs against the wall,” as Howard Thurman said, I believe that a healthy sacramentalism would serve as a worthy complement to the hallmarks of the Black Church: music, the sermon, and social action.

I acknowledge the presumption of my suggestion, and for that I apologize. The Black Church has its own traditions and integrity; it has flourished for centuries without my help! Still, as someone whose spiritual life has been enriched immeasurably by a robust sacramentalism, my evangelical self cannot help but recommend it to others.

Hearts Strangely Warmed

I deeply appreciate Sarah Lancaster’s summary of the Wesleyan tradition and its emphasis on holiness and piety within the context of community. True, as Ms. Lancaster notes, that emphasis has flagged somewhat at various times within the Wesleyan tradition—a consequence of routinization, no doubt—but the ideal remains, and it is important.

When I think of the Wesleyan tradition, I quickly return to John Wesley’s Aldersgate experience on May 24, 1738, as a formative moment (and I confess I was a bit surprised that Ms. Lancaster didn’t mention it). This is when Wesley attended a religious society on Aldersgate Street in London (not far from St. Paul’s) and felt his heart “strangely warmed.” What I find so arresting about this account is the evident surprise in Wesley’s telling of the story. A disquisition on Martin Luther’s preface to the book of Romans is hardly calculated to produce a pietistic response, but that is exactly what happened “about a quarter before nine” during Wesley’s visit.

Some scholars have referred to the experience as “mystical,” and the term seems about right to me. Whatever the nomenclature, however, it’s clear that it was life-changing for Wesley. And I love the element of surprise, in part because I too have experienced spiritual/mystical moments at unexpected moments. These are gracious visitations of the Spirit.

I see four important lessons from the Wesleyan tradition about following Jesus. The first, building on Aldersgate Street, is the centrality of religious experience. I was struck the other day while rereading Jean Sulivan’s Morning Light by his thoughts about the relation between faith and rationalism, especially regarding the teachings of Jesus. “Rationalistic explanations,” he writes, “transform the message into slogans and render it inoffensive.” The Wesleyan tradition—as well as Wesley’s own experience—affirms that faith is more than mere intellectual assent.

Second, Wesleyanism points to the centrality of community, and this, historically speaking, is important not only for the spiritual formation of individuals but also for social reform. In fact, if we look back on the noble tradition of evangelical social activism in the nineteenth century, we see that the impetus for these reforms was not the Reformed tradition; it came instead, more often than not, from the Wesleyan-Holiness movement. Put another way, it was not Charles Hodge and the Princetonians, writing from their ivory tower hideaways on the leafy Princeton Seminary campus who were working to eradicate slavery or push for women’s rights or ensure the success of public education. No, that energy, as historians Donald W. Dayton and Timothy L. Smith have demonstrated, came largely from the Wesleyan-Holiness tradition. It’s no accident that the formative event of the women’s rights movement took place at Wesleyan Chapel, in Seneca Falls, New York.

Third, and building on the previous point, gender. Unlike many other Christian traditions, the Wesleyan-Holiness movement has not only valued, but encouraged the participation of women. Indeed, one of the tragedies of the Holiness movement’s offspring, Pentecostalism, is that white Pentecostals in particular have steadily shut women out of leadership roles, this despite Azusa Street itself and the long and distinguished history of women’s leadership—Sarah Lankford, Phoebe Palmer, and many others.

Finally, we should congratulate the Wesleyan tradition for finding inventive ways to evangelize, to bring the gospel to the masses. Methodist meetings themselves, derived from and building on Pietist conventicles, provide one example, but the real genius of Wesleyan Methodism was the circuit riders, whose influence on the nineteenth-century American frontier endures to this day.

The Almost Pietist

Wesleyan Methodism may have had its home in the Church of England, but it was deeply shaped by Pietism through John Wesley’s acquaintance and respect for the Moravians. Many of the characteristics with which Christopher Gehrz describes his Pietist seeking to follow Jesus were present in the 18th century movement that Wesley led. Some remain, although probably not as universally and regularly practiced as they used to be.

I was deeply appreciative that hymns were featured prominently in the reflection. As a child, I often sang hymns to myself when I played alone. My mother’s lullaby to me when I was very young was “Blessed Assurance.” My own favorite hymn is “Jesus Lover of My Soul,” written by Charles Wesley in 1738 not long after his conversion. I sang this as a lullaby to my own daughters when they were small, and to my grandchildren as I have opportunity. I regret that this hymn is not a congregational favorite, so I don’t often get to sing it in worship. Hymns have deeply formed my own relationship with God.

There is nothing more glorious to me than singing in the company of other Methodists at a meeting of annual conference or some other large gathering. Wesleyan Methodists have been a singing people, although lately many churchgoers in the United States prefer contemporary “praise and worship music” to hymns. Methodists around the world create their own ways of singing their faith in their own styles, and some of these “global” songs become favorites also in the U.S. Whether old hymns or newer songs, singing has been a practice that has been central to following Jesus.

Another important connection between my tradition and the piety Christopher Gehrz describes is meeting in small groups. John Wesley was already involved in small groups because the Church of England made use of religious societies (which were themselves influenced by Pietism), but after he met Moravians he organized them into effective accountability groups with mutual confession and having no clergy leadership. The purpose of these groups was for Methodists to support one another in following Jesus. Private devotion was also encouraged and practiced, but the small groups (called classes and bands) were the backbone of the movement. I imagine the use of small groups varies around the world, but in the U.S. (in the UMC) they are not used as effectively as they once were. We rarely ask each other the questions that Wesley gave to the bands, for instance: “Have you peace with God, through our Lord Jesus Christ? Is the love of God shed abroad in your heart? Do you desire to be told of your faults? Do you desire that every one of us should tell you from time to time whatsoever is in his heart concerning you?” Anyone who is willing to submit to these questions is really serious about following Jesus.

One of the most effective continuing uses of “small groups” in United Methodism is the United Methodist Women (now changing its name to United Women of Faith). The UWF (UMW) provides women the opportunity to meet, study and work together in “circles.” Educational materials are produced every year so that UWF (UMW) members may intentionally grow in faith together so they may continually learn how to follow Jesus.

Wesleyan Methodists have also seen the connection between the inner experiences of salvation and world transformation. Even small congregations try to be a force for good in their communities. Because of our connectional system, we can and do mobilize quickly to respond to crisis. We suffer from blind spots, of course, and there can be sharp differences among Methodists on various social matters. We are not always agreed upon how following Jesus ought to transform the world.

I was struck by the observation that practice matters more than right belief. This view was also held by John Wesley for whom the distinguishing mark of a Methodist was neither orthodoxy nor opinion nor any particular practices, but rather love for God and neighbor. I note in our history, though, that John Wesley broke with others with whom he shared this love (that is, the Moravians and Calvinist Methodists) but did not agree in theological understanding (namely, he saw tendency toward antinomianism in their theology). I wonder whether any theological differences might trouble the waters between Pietists, especially because Pietism can be spread across traditions?

As I read the description of a Pietist that Christopher Gehrz provides in “A Week in the Life,” I can almost move with her through the week. It does seem that having institutional structure may mute some of the more Pietist aspects of history of Wesleyan Methodism, but I think that most of us seek for new life and authenticity, and we still have some practices that may be used toward that purpose.



Standing against the Tides of Routinization

I open with my appreciation for Christopher Gehrz’s explanation of Pietism, and I love his conceit about a week in the life of a Pietist.

The beauty of Pietism, in my view, is that it functions as a corrective to hyper-ratiocinated religion. Aside from the Pietism evident in the Anabaptist movement, I’m struck by the multiplicity of Pietistic impulses that arose in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries: Methodism among the Anglicans, Continental Pietism, Scandinavian Pietism (which shaped Mr. Gehrz’s tradition as well as my own), Quietism among Catholics and even Hasidism among Jews. All of these Pietistic expressions emerged in reaction to the arid scholasticism into which the larger traditions had fallen.

Pietism tends to emphasize warm-hearted religion over correct theology. Its worship, especially in the case of the Holiness movement or Hasidim, veers into ecstasy. More important, Pietists found inventive ways to circumvent the existing power structures, and none was more important than the conventicle, an expression of the fact that, as Mr. Gehrz points out, the “Pietist Tradition has no ecclesial shape or institutional structure.”

That, in my view, is both positive and negative. I’ve long argued that institutions—human constructs, after all—are remarkably poor vessels for piety. Institutions seek their own longevity, and it’s very difficult to kill an institution. The Pietist conventicle, or the Methodist prayer meeting, provided a means to circumvent calcified and unresponsive institutions. All well and good. But a kind of sociological inevitability kicks in at some point, and as the faith becomes routinized and institutionalized a new wave of scholasticism takes root—and thereby sets the stage for a new Pietistic revival of some sort.

All of this is complicated by the fact that religious fervor, the kind of spirituality favored by Pietists, is very difficult to sustain over a long period of time. This especially complicates the religious formation of children within Pietism because religious fervor—in my experience, at least—does not translated easily across generations. That’s not to say that children do not appropriate the faith for themselves or on their own terms, but that appropriation is sometimes fraught.

The history of Pietism, in my view, teaches us that the lure of scholasticism and a highly rational theology is very strong. A ratiocinated theology provides regularity and predictability, whereas an emphasis on a warm-hearted piety can lead in all sorts of unpredictable directions. Denominational (institutional) authorities can rein in such impulses, but that leads in turn to another pietistic eruption.

I’ve mentioned this example before, but I’ll invoke it again because it is relevant to this conversation. My denomination of origins, the Evangelical Free Church (cousin denomination to Mr. Gehrz’s Evangelical Covenant Church), emerged out of Scandinavian Pietism and has strong ties to the Wesleyan-Holiness tradition. Beginning in the early 1960s, however, the scholastics began their relentless quest to reshape the denomination. As a consequence, a tradition with deep roots in Pietism has become a bastion of Reformed (Calvinist) theology.

Mr. Gehrz’s account suggests that the Evangelical Covenant Church has avoided such a takeover, and for that I applaud him and the denomination’s leadership (and I’d like to learn more about how that was possible).

I’ll conclude with another, more contemporary example: Calvary Chapel and the Jesus movement, which I’ve studied extensively and which bears, at least in its early years, a strong resemblance to Pietism. It began as hip and easy-going, with strong Pentecostal overtones. We can credit (or blame) Calvary Chapel for the ubiquitous “praise music” that has now infected pretty much all of evangelicalism. Even as Calvary Chapel began its tentacular expansion, however, Chuck Smith insisted that it was not a denomination; it was something more akin, he insisted unpersuasively, to a conventicle (though he didn’t use that term).

When Terry Todd and I visited with Smith and quizzed him about the church, he said that anyone speaking in tongues at Calvary Chapel would be ushered out of the auditorium. When we asked whether Calvary Chapel was a denomination, he emphatically denied that it was.

Several years later, I received a phone call from Dan Matthews, rector of Trinity Church in New York City and head of Trinity’s cable channel. The channel offered air time to religious groups, but it insisted that any such group was a denomination. Knowing of my interest in Calvary Chapel, Fr. Matthews was calling to ask if Calvary Chapel was indeed a denomination.

“What did Smith tell you?” I asked, chuckling to myself. Fr. Matthews said that Smith assured him that Calvary Chapel was indeed a denomination.

And so it goes.

Almost Persuaded

Wes Granberg-Michaelson has presented a compelling, even winsome, case for Reformed (Calvinist) Christianity, a tradition that once shaped my theological perspective. He speaks of the emphasis on community (for infant baptism especially), the importance of confessions, the sovereignty of God, ecumenism, and the Reformed tradition’s reckoning with sin. Mr. Granberg-Michaelson, a distinguished Reformed leader himself, also acknowledges that “defining faith by correct propositions can imprison belief in rationalism and mistake ‘correct’ thoughts for faithful practice,” and he cites his own experience walking the Camino de Santiago, memorably recounted in his lovely book Without Oars: Casting Off into a Life of Pilgrimage. That experience, he writes, altered his approach a bit. He now understands that “while what we think and confess carries importance, in the end we walk our way into faith.”

Having expressed my appreciation, I’d like to take this response in a slightly different direction. As a historian, I’ve been fascinated to watch various groups of evangelicals move away from their own theological heritages to embrace Calvinism in recent decades. Al Mohler, president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, provides one example. Mohler is a classic “wind-sock” theologian—a friend calls him a soundbite in search of a theology—who once avidly supported the ordination of women, for instance, but finger to the wind, decided to oppose it early in his career just as conservatives were about to take over the SBC. Theologically, he now identifies as a Calvinist, a curiosity (to say the least) in a denomination not historically connected to the Reformed tradition.

Another example, closer to home. I grew up in the Evangelical Free Church, where my father was a highly successful pastor for more than four decades. The Free Church is rooted in the Wesleyan-Holiness tradition (decidedly not Calvinist), and yet over the past half century the entire denomination has shifted into the Reformed camp. Earlier in the twentieth century, for instance, the Free Church ordained women to the ministry (my father had an elderly ordained Free Church woman in his district as superintendent toward the end of his career); now, however, the Free Church is death on women’s ordination. What happened? I’d love to study this in more depth—and if I still had doctoral students, I would support this as a dissertation topic—but in the case of the Free Church the shift (as nearly as I can determine) began with the appointment of Kenneth Kantzer as dean of Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in the early 1960s. Kantzer in turn hired other Calvinist theologians to the faculty, and as seminary graduates fanned out into the churches, they utterly recast the theological orientation of the entire denomination over the course of several decades.

It’s a fascinating historical development, but my question is: Why? What is the attraction of Reformed theology for evangelicals, especially those who come out of the Arminian branch of evangelicalism?

Some of it may be theological confusion, a desire to identify with Calvin himself because he’s seen as intellectually formidable. And I’ll cite one anecdote. When I was producing Crusade: The Life of Billy Graham in the early 1990s, I asked Graham to characterize his theology. When he responded that he considered himself a Calvinist, my jaw dropped. Here is someone who had spent his entire career enjoining audiences to “make a decision for Christ,” decidedly not a Calvinistic appeal! (If Billy Graham is a Calvinist, I’m a Christadelphian.) Please understand, I don’t accuse Graham of dissembling; not at all. I think he simply believed for some reason that he, a self-confessed non-theologian, should identify himself and his ministry with Reformed theology.

So my question once again: What’s the appeal of Calvinism for evangelicals?

If I had to guess, I think it reflects a desire for order and rational consistency and intellectual respectability—as well as an attempt to distance themselves from those “goofy” Pentecostals. When’s the last time you met a Charismatic Calvinist? (I recognize that as soon as I write this someone is going to come up with a colony of Charismatic Calvinists in the distant exurbs of Grand Rapids or a compound in the hills somewhere north of Orange City.)

My guess is that the lure of Calvinism for evangelicals lies in the nature of Calvinism itself. The beauty of Reformed theology is that once you accept Calvinistic presuppositions—common grace, total depravity, and the like—you enter a theological vortex that allows you to explain everything—everything from human compassion to street crime to denominational schisms. It’s an airtight, self-contained universe, but it’s accessible only if you accept Calvinist presuppositions (which is why, of course, Cornelius Van Til’s apologetics were called presuppositionalism).

Evangelical logic choppers love Calvinism for that reason: its explanatory powers. And besides, John Calvin is more intellectually respectable than, say, A. A. Allen or William Marrion Branham or Sarah Lankford or even Charles Grandison Finney.

The unfortunate trade-off for this evangelical embrace of Reformed theology, as Mr. Granberg-Michaelson himself suggests, is a diminution of piety. The danger in Reformed theology, he writes, is that “spiritual experience is suspect, subjugated to right thinking.”

And I would add that one of the symptoms of this is that Calvinist theology itself too often comes off as arid and sterile. Not always, I’m sure, but frequently enough to raise the issue.

I’m not sure if it was indoctrination or absorption (to use Mr. Granberg-Michaelson’s nice distinction), but I too found Calvinism attractive when I was attending the aforementioned Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. And I did so, I suspect, for many of the same reasons I noted above. In addition, Reformed theology at the seminary was braided inextricably with a fixation on biblical inerrancy, which may represent the pinnacle of ratiocinated theology. (Full disclosure: I wrote my M.A. thesis on the Princetonians and inerrancy.) The effect was to render the Bible as a kind of relic, arid and sterile. Karl Barth’s notion that the Bible becomes the word of God was a, well, revelation to me, and my subsequent realization that Jesus is the word of God (John 1) was even more transformative.

So where am I today with Reformed theology? One of the altar call hymns from my childhood, part of a cycle with “Just as I Am” and “Softly and Tenderly, Jesus Is Calling,” was “Almost Persuaded.”

Color me “Almost Persuaded” by Reformed theology.

The Traditional Latin Mass & Reactionary Politics

I found Christina Wassell’s account of moving from “generic Protestantism” (my term) to the Roman Catholic Church very compelling, and I certainly understand the quest for liturgy. As an Episcopal priest, however, I found the following sentence a tad confusing, explaining her move from the Episcopal Church to Rome: “While we had made an intellectual and theological leap of faith toward the tradition that would give us the Transubstantiated Body of Christ, it felt like moving to the desert.” I wonder: Why would Ms. Wassell move from the Episcopal Church (not “Episcopalian church,” by the way; the adjective form is shorter than the noun) to Rome in search of “real presence”? Most Episcopalians I know—including myself—emphatically believe in the “real presence” of Christ in the Eucharist. (I don’t have statistics for Episcopalians, but according to a 2019 Pew survey, only one-third of U.S. Catholics believe in transubstantiation.)

Ms. Wassell goes on to say, “It was belief in the sacraments that fed us, along with spiritual reading and the scaffolding of Catholic piety.” Again, though I’m not certain what the author means here by “Catholic piety” (and there’s little in the essay to suggest what that might be), Episcopalians certainly believe “in the sacraments”; during the recitation of the Nicene Creed every week, for instance, we affirm our belief in “one baptism for the forgiveness of sins.”

So I’m left to wonder whether the migration from the Episcopal Church to Catholicism to the Traditional Latin Mass is motivated by something else.

I understand the lure of tradition and history, which many find in the Traditional Latin Mass (TLM). And I absolutely share Ms. Wassell’s sense of the centrality of the Eucharist—not music or the sermon—in worship: “The whole point of Mass for Catholics is what happens at this moment on the altar.” I’m also sympathetic with her preference for Gregorian chants over “impoverished Catholic worship tunes,” though I confess a certain fondness for some of the Taize music. I don’t agree, however, that the priest facing the congregation during Holy Eucharist necessarily gives rise to showmanship; I have come to appreciate the holy beauty of a priest celebrating with reverence and care.

But here’s my confusion (and I’ll doubtless raise a similar question when we get to the Reformed tradition): Why does fondness for the Latin Mass necessarily go hand-in-hand with reactionary politics? It seems to me eminently plausible for someone to evince a preference for the Latin Mass on aesthetic or historical grounds without having to buy into an entire conservative agenda. It’s no secret that the TLM leadership—and, I gather, many of the followers—regard Pope Francis as a flaming liberal. That caricature is ludicrous, of course, but it appears to be fervently held by the TLM contingent—and it is suggested in Ms. Wassell’s statement that she and her family “were engaged in a fierce battle against the culture with our dear Catholic friends, but this battle wasn’t truly led by our Catholic priests and bishops.”

This sort of sentiment, I surmise, is behind the Conference of Catholic Bishops’ attempts to deny President Biden access to the communion rail because of his prochoice stance on abortion. Curiously, those same bishops have yet (as far as I know) to censure Roman Catholic politicians who support the death penalty, which also violates Church teaching. Hmmm. Although I disagree with the bishops’ position—in what moral universe is Joe Biden subject to episcopal censure when the same bishops fall over themselves to extol Donald Trump?—I’d have a lot more respect for them if they made even a cursory stab at consistency.

I wonder if TLM has devolved into a kind of signifier, much the way that even displaying the flag in recent years has become, for many, a signifier of allegiance to Trumpism. That’s a pity, in my view. Both the flag and the Latin Mass have their own rich history and integrity; reducing either one to a kind of totem for, let’s face it, division diminishes both.

Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised that conservatives have glommed onto the Latin Mass. One sure way to wage “a fierce battle against the culture,” I suppose, is to embrace Latin. But I still see no necessity for the Traditional Latin Mass to be braided with reactionary politics.