What foray into the future and integration of the Pentecostal and charismatic movements would be complete without revisiting the one of the most popular series ever on my blog? This is the post that started it all, inspiring a four-part interview with arguably the most controversial contemporary charismatic minister, John Crowder. It’s worth noting that Crowder’s ministry has evolved since 2008, and that he’s recently released two new books reflecting this: Mystical Union & Seven Spirits Burning. And now, without further ado…
What in the name of Pete & Kester is going on? Avant-garde “Holy Ghost house parties” filled with dancing, drinking shots of blessed holy water, and getting “stoned in the Spirit.” Pop cultural references – both muted and obvious – to Cheech & Chong, and Talladega Nights from the pulpit…er, the dance floor in which the speakers convert staid sanctuaries into the threshing floor for something quite different.
But you don’t have to take my word for it. See how a couple of these strike you. The first one, from a meeting with John and Ben:
Now this one, which I think they would see as a ‘prophetic satire’:
Whaddaya think? Steve Knight, in his post The New Charismatics? sums up what I think is a typical (and for him as a non-charismatic, quite generous) take on all this:
“I’d like to introduce you to John Crowder. I’m tempted to describe this guy as an “Emergent” pentecostal…[he] represent[s] a stream of Christianity that I, frankly, have very little experience or contact with: the charismatic, speaking in tongues, no-holds-barred, barking like a dog “in the Spirit” stream…The Crowders’ tagline, “a postmodern prophetic ministry,” is another emergent connection that I find intriguing (although I’m not exactly sure what is “postmodern” about the Crowders’ ministry)…John Crowder literally acts “high on Jesus,” laughing awkwardly and squinting as if his eyes have become dilated, etc. At one point, he says he’s “possessed by joy.” One has to wonder if he isn’t “possessed” indeed…As an emergent Christian, the last thing I want to do is put God in a box and say, “God can’t operate this way.” So instead, I’m simply asking some questions (as good emergents do): “Does God really operate this way?” Or rather, “Why would God operate this way?”
Excellent question, Steve! And I’ll confess: The videos made me – a long-time (post?)charismatic – a little uncomfortable too. But more on that next post. Today, I want to examine what I think could be a bit of unintentional emergent snobbery, as well as put out a (de)constructive way to look at the ‘bizarre creative miracles’ of Crowder & Dunn.
First let me say that I’ve never met John Crowder before, though my friends at Destiny Image published his 2006 book The New Mystics. As a wannabe contemplative, I agree with Carl McColman that this book is an intriguing offering by a fiery charismatic guy looking at a sweep of church history oft-ignored by many Protestant and Evangelical types: the mystics of the church, and their contribution to vibrant Christian spirituality. (He also spends considerable time with Pentecostal/charismatic history, including the controversial Voice of Healing revivals of the 1950s and 60s, whose mantle folks like Crowder and Bentley claim) Crowder’s sweeping, journalistic style makes The New Mystics a good read. And though it might seem to some who read this book that Crowder has strayed far from the contemplative/discernment insights that he expounded in his own book (ie, his saying “I used to have a teaching gift. Now I have a good gift of being struck mute in the middle of a service.”), I think that’s too simplistic a read on him. He still believes in mystical maturity, and coherent teaching, as this segment attests:
So what do we make of ‘tokin’ the Ghost’ and ‘redeeming drug culture for Jesus’? Personally, I think that we emergent types could very easily look down our noses at all this unfairly. In other words, if something this bizarre happened at iKon with a note of irony, we’d be applauding it. But if it happens with our (by our lights) theologically un-enlightened cousins, with apparent seriousness, we’re up in arms. Not that we shouldn’t be curious and express concern if that’s our honest reaction–but what if we’re not giving God enough credit as an actor in this Vaudevillian drama?
As my buddy Spencer likes to ask, what if (that’s really the only part of this sentence that’s a Burke quote) this is actually the Holy Spirit deconstructing Pentecostalism?!
Think of it this way: At its most rancorous, the “Spirit-filled” world has been comprised of sideshow entertainers and hucksters, memorialized in pop culture by everything from The Grapes of Wrath to Robert Duvall’s The Apostle to this:
But even The Apostle is from the 1990s; because this big-tent-revival worship style is from a bygone era, it’s recently attained its own level of collective non-scrutiny (read: polite boredom) by the culture at large. And among the faithful, once-controversial styles and practices have gained the respectability (and the accompanying non-reflection) that comes with time.
So enter the 21st century, when twenty-something DIY charismatics (and the charismatic movement is always its most luminescent when it’s DIY) start appropriating a 1990s “drunk in the Spirit” Toronto-esque spirituality with aspects of contemporary culture (as opposed to early 20th-century culture) thrown in for good measure! So instead of the circus and the theater being the cultural scaffolding on which a move of the Spirit is built, we have Punk’d, SNL, party culture and Talladehga Nights. The result is a praxis of the intoxicating beauty and presence of God being available via an interaction of holy imagination, in which one tokes a baby Jesus figurine, does shots of “Godka,” or drops (invisible, but apparently potent) “‘taste & see’ tabs” on your tongue.
Absurdity? Blasphemy? Charlatanry? Maybe. But people who operate in ‘the prophetic’ are sometimes inspired to do bizarre, demonstrative, symbolic gestures to become living parables, are they not? Ezekiel was called to cook meals over human feces (he managed to bargain God down to animal dung to be a tad more kosher) Getting naked was the order of the day for Isaiah, Micah, and Saul–how would that fly in church? Jeremiah yoked himself up to a cart like a mule. Hosea married a sex worker to make a point. Even Jesus would engage in behavior that gave him the rep of being “a prophet like one of the old prophets.” (Mark 6:15) While I’m not ready to say “Pass the Jehovah-juana” yet (I’m not the only one), Dunn & Crowder’s outré style doesn’t inherently short circuit my spirituality or my praxis.
To look at the ’emergent snobbery’ idea from another lens: Most emerging folks I know are all about creativity and the arts in worship gatherings. But while for us it might look like something carefully planned – or at least a stage set – charismatics are masters of the impromptu (even if it becomes a learned impromptu over time, and is always poured into a certain cultural wineskin). Further, a staple of radical charismatic culture from way back (at least from the ’90s, maybe before, I dunno) is “offending the religious spirit,” at least in rhetoric if not reality. So Dunn and Crowder, they seem actually creative, and actually offensive.
But does the emporer have any clothes, you ask? Perhaps you didn’t think that speaking in tongues could involve inonations ob-la-dee, ob-la-da. Well, here’s where deliberate creativity and spontaneity could be playing with each other in the Spirit. I have no argument for the idea that some of their altered states are put-ons. But if we’re honest, isn’t much of our spirituality ‘fake it ’till you make it’? They could be pre-empting being ‘stoned in the Spirit,’ but that could be the catalyst to truly enter into that state. I think intention creates actuality many times. It might be too postmodern of me, but I think that, when it comes to spiritual manifestations, what we expect/act out of ends up being made real in our midst–for better or worse. It’s how spirituality is activated.
I have a genuine affection for the charismatic church of my youth. And I long to see a de-cultured, re-cultured (post)charismatic expression firmly situated in the web of emergent spirituality. I care very little for the culture, but along with Jamie Smith I love the core theopraxis assertion: That God the Spirit is integrally involved in all reality, and is intimately stirring in our midst, here and now, in each unfolding moment. I think that even as we are entering a milieu beyond classical theism and its untenable dictates, we are simultaneously plunged into the powers of God’s new covenant world, spiritual enablings that the first-century sign-gifts were but a foretaste of. (Yes, this is an eschatological assertion) Not only am I not a cessationist, but I think we’re in an era of unparalleled possibility with regards to co-creating a new world with God, based on God’s good dream for the cosmos enabled by the amazing grace radiated from Christ.
But before we get to working with God’s 4-D Renaissance paintbrushes, we need to grow tired of the tinker-toys and the paint-by-numbers kits. To this end of (wholly) spirited deconstruction, I think that Ruah Hakodesh might well be using the John Crowders and Ben Dunns (and who knows? Lakelands and Todd Bentleys) of the world to explore, in a playful way, the potentials and limitations of the Pentecostal/charismatic experience.
At least, these are my thoughts at the moment, subject to change. But lest you think that I’ve chucked True Discernment™ and common sense for some undergrad literary-criticism approach to the spiritual health and vitality of roughly half of the planet’s Christians (yeah, about 1 billion globally are either charismatic or Pentecostal or both), I will air three concerns I have about Holy Ghost House Parties, next post. But for now, what do you make of all this?
Related blog roundup spanning the gamut of opinion:
Available Light thinks we shouldn’t even watch the stuff
Jesse Kade gets stoned in the Spirit
The Wittenburg Door is not pleased, and self-identifies as the “non-emergent Old Fart church.”
Ed Cyzewski favorably explores the Biblical roots of revival
Oregon Mountaineer makes hay about El-Shaddai’s alleged breasts
Kingdom Grace is gracious as always
Brother Maynard Asks But Is It Revival?
…and Cynthia Clack reminisces from her Holy Spirit glory days but also raises some interesting questions regarding the power of suggestion, something I might get into next post.
This was originally posted on May 27, 2008 – and sparked off a quite intriguing conversation. More to come…