Making All Things New

This past Sunday morning, worship in the Lutheran church I was visiting opened with a Brazilian hymn. Verse 1 was easy enough: “Oh, sing to the Lord, oh, sing God a new song.” But as we got deeper into the hymn, I wondered what my fellow white Midwestern congregants would have thought if someone had actually started to act out the words we sang: “So dance for our God and blow all the trumpets.” Sure, “David danced before the Lord with all his might” (2 Sam 6:14, KJV), but I’d fall out of my pew in shock if I actually saw someone in any 21st century American church of my acquaintance get up and do likewise. (Or a latter-day Gideon start to play a brass instrument, more loudly and spontaneously than the trombonist who added a quiet, precise countermelody to the hymn.)

But given the rise of Pentecostal and Charismatic Christianity in Brazil, I suspect that the line about dancing was meant no more metaphorically than the one about singing. Or the one in which we “Shout to our God, who gave us the Spirit.” After all, writes Terry Todd in our final lead essay, Pentecostals of all kinds share in common “the experience of worship as a theater of divine encounter, a space of intense emotion and intimacy where God meets us at the altar,” where they “learn what it means to follow Jesus through encountering the empowering presence of the Holy Spirit.”

Which makes me wonder if some of the phrases commonly repeated in my Pietist tradition are meant no more literally than I meant the words of that hymn. Like Pentecostals, Pietists emphasize religious experience, but any “intense emotion and intimacy” is found in the private space of personal conversion, not the public space of worship. And while some Pietists have described the Bible as “an altar where we meet the living God,” that encounter is typically — to use Todd’s words — more subtle than the kinetic; most familiar to the Pietist tradition would be Todd’s description of the altar as “a place of expectation, waiting, a place of surrender and reception, before it becomes the place of transformation.”

If the Pietist experience of encountering God is rarely kinetic, it’s even less commonly another of Todd’s terms: transgressive. Which brings me to the second, more significant way in which I felt Todd’s essay challenging me to rethink the commonplaces of my own tradition.

Pietists think of themselves as heirs to a movement of renewal, participants in God’s work of making all things — including the church itself — new. But as I wrote earlier this week (quoting Covenant historian Zenos Hawkinson), Pietists are generally “mainline in theological conviction”; they “tend to occupy the broadest point of the Protestant mainstream.” I wonder how many Pietists could join enthusiastically in “renewalism” as Todd describes it, by which the church itself becomes a place “where the edge gathers” and the Holy Spirit inspires rethinking — queering? — of what the majority had long assumed.

That makes the Pentecostal Tradition a challenging but potentially inspiring place to end our conversation. I’m glad that our discussion over the past year was organized around the concept of tradition, which pushes us to understand the context, change and continuity, and particularity that shape all attempts to follow Jesus. But if I can recycle the Jaroslav Pelikan line I used in my first response, there is a difference between tradition (the living faith of the dead) and traditionalism (the dead faith of the living). It’s so easy for any version of the former to decay into the latter if we do not open ourselves to new, often marginalized voices asking better questions of long-settled answers.

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