The Heart of the Matter

Hello, cousin! That’s the first thing that came to mind when I read this month’s “A Week in the Life of a Pietist,” by Christopher Gehrz.  Too few scholars have drawn attention to the deep affinities between Pietism and Pentecostalism, and to Pietism’s influence on Pentecostal faith and practice.  Pentecostalism has a complex root system that includes the Anglo-American Keswick and Higher Life movement and Wesleyan-Methodist-Holiness impulses, but Pietism’s role in the formation of Pentecostalism is often overlooked.  Years before the 1906 Los Angeles Pentecost at Azuza Street, revivals among Scandinavian Pietists in the upper Midwest touched off Holy Ghost manifestations, even tongues-speech.  But the trace ink flows deeper than that.

Pietism’s stamp doesn’t stop with Pentecostalism. Gehrz cites Roger Olson’s claim that in the North American context, Pietism “became the main form of Protestantism.”  Pietism is the absent presence in many Lutheran, Anglican, Baptist, Anabaptist, and Reformed expressions of faith. It thoroughly suffuses Wesleyan and Methodist traditions and has made its mark on American evangelicalism. (Growing up evangelical, little did I know that the question we posed to potential converts was utterly Pietist in its focus if not its effects: Have you asked Jesus into your heart?)

Given that tangled set of influences, meeting Dr. Gehrz’s fictional Pietist was like meeting a long-lost cousin. Like me, she goes to church on Sunday primarily to “meet Jesus,” not to consider ideas about Christ. (Yet I wonder: can’t we do both? Can’t our bodies-in-motion enflesh our discursive ideas of Christ?)  On Monday night, my Pietist cousin is with her beloveds in the Lord. They’re together in someone’s home, or maybe they’re at Starbucks, offering up some home-brewed Christian wisdom and insight. After all, following Christ doesn’t just happen alone, or in church, and not always in the presence of a pastor. Through personal and communal experiences of prayer, scripture reading, and holy listening, just like my Pietist cousin I seek transformation of my heart – the seat of affect and will – through my walk with Jesus.

Pietist sentiments don’t stop at the level of the personal, Dr. Gehrz reminds us. Or at least they shouldn’t. Over the centuries some theologians have criticized Pietists for turning inward in a Just you and me, Jesus! kind of way. Think of Wesley’s disappointment with Moravians over what Wesley saw as the movement’s Quietist and universalist impulses, to the neglect of social engagement in the world. But Gehrz says it’s not so.  He conjures the memory of one Pietism’s great 18th century giants, German theologian August Hermann Francke, to claim that among Pietists “personal conversion to Jesus Christ [should] spark social action.” It hasn’t always worked that way, but a deep impulse within Pietist circles is to see a passion for social justice flowing from transformed Christian lives.

Are Pietists too Quietist? Maybe that’s the wrong question. Quietism, in my view, has gotten a bad rap, as has Pietism.  In a world as loud and distracted as our own, in a world of pumped-up egos and celebrity pastors, maybe it’s time to embrace quietude, soundlessness, even the apophatic in personal and communal prayer and meditation.  Could such practices ground a spiritual revival that links inner personal change to world transformation? I realize it might be a queer thing for a Pentecostal to say such things, given our penchant for loud praise, speaking in tongues, and running the aisles. But we, too, have our quiet moments: in many Pentecostal churches a deep, wordless groan indicates the sincerest and most powerful of prayers.

All of this is to say is that both Pietists and Pentecostals have a storehouse of spiritual inclinations and practices that might help us follow Jesus amid the noisy brass and clanging cymbals of our world.  To retrieve such practices means to rummage imaginatively in the attics of our traditions to uncover things long-lost.

There’s an 18th century painting by the Mennonite artist Johann Haidt that conveys what I have in mind. In Haidt’s work, “Teacher of the People,” Nicolaus Zinzendorf, the German nobleman, Mennonite bishop and Pietist patron, stands at the center of an immense crowd of all colors and hues, a scene reminiscent of the great gathering of the world’s tribes in John’s Apocalypse.  It’s a white Euro-Christian colonialist fantasy, meant to chronicle Mennonite missionary successes in the Americas.

Yet what captures my curiosity is what Haidt has painted in the sky, a disembodied heart shooting golden shafts of divine light toward Zinendorf’s own heart. The heart in the sky is the pierced heart of Jesus, reaching toward humanity. Much to the horror of most other Protestants, early Mennonites practiced meditating on Jesus’ sacred wounds, especially the pierced heart of the side wound.  Too gruesome, too embodied, too “popish,” I’m assuming, especially since the wounded heart is so reminiscent of Catholic Sacred Heart devotions. Methodists and other Protestants cleaned up this deliciously garish bleeding heart by channeling the heart into the language of hymns, poetry, and exhortations.

The practice of wounded heart meditations fell out of favor with Mennonites, but perhaps it’s a Pietist practice worth recovering – even for noisy Pentecostals?!  Pietists were known for cutting through stultifying Protestant orthodoxy to invite people into an earthy, heart-based intimacy with Jesus. Among early Mennonites, silence, prayer, and image-based meditation led ideally to the transformation of the individual’s heart, something like what Gehry’s fictitious Pietist experienced in her quotidian moments.  And with personal transformation came the potential for world-change as well.

In Haidt’s image of Zinzendorf’s heart aflame, and in the individual experiences of real-life Mennonites dead and alive (and possibly other Pietists as well?), heart-based faith calls forth sympathy with a suffering Jesus and a recognition of the mystical bonds that tie together all wounded hearts. In the alchemy of faith, whether Pietist, Pentecostal, or other, perhaps the next step is into a loving engagement with the world and its people that God created and declared good.  To me, that’s the heart of the matter.

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