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The Spreading Flame
Pentecostal Scholarship Goes Global
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In the mid-nineties, when I was almost finished with my studies at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, my adviser, Dr. Garth Rosell, took me aside for a "career chat." He hazarded a prediction: "In the coming years, young Pentecostal and charismatic students will do well in graduate studies and make an impact in the academy." I was one of those young charismatics (though a late bloomer—already a decade older than many of my classmates). And I wondered whether Dr. Rosell was right. I hoped so. Though I still had all sorts of questions about the value of graduate study for the church, I had plunged into this academic world (and its ubiquitous dark reality of student debt) with both feet. It was becoming my world, and I hoped I could make my way in it.
I was that oddball creature: a "charismatic bookworm." For ten years after my conversion in 1985, I was formed as a Christian in the fires of Pentecostal experience. But despite the hand-raising, tongues-singing exuberance of that experience, I was no natural-born extrovert (I probably could have used this book). It took me quite some time to struggle out of my bookish shell and experience the "joy of the Lord" so evident at the interdenominational Rock Church in Lower Sackville, Nova Scotia.
Even in the midst of the intensive religious experience and activism so characteristic of that movement, I struggled with a welter of questions: What was the salvific meaning, if any, of these experiences I was having? Their biblical background? Who had discovered them first in the church, and how did they become what they were in the charismatic culture of the 1980s? What about the many other quirks and habits of this charismatic culture? How could I negotiate the myriad claims made by visiting and TV evangelists? How did such claims and experiences relate to Scripture? To the historical foundations of the church worldwide?
Those sorts of questions brought me to a decision.
After eight post-college years in the "real world," I would head for graduate school and the academic path. As Sharon and I visited Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in Massachusetts and decided that this was the right place for us, I was supported by some at my church—especially my friend Bruce Belair, who saw giftedness in me that I couldn't see. Bruce encouraged me that graduate school and the life of an academic could be God's calling for me.
Most folks in the church, however, were mildly puzzled. Graduate study? In religion? When God had so obviously given us all we needed in our Bibles and through the empowering guidance of his Holy Spirit? During one worship service just before our family left Nova Scotia for Gordon-Conwell, a teenager in the church was given a grand send-off to a short-term missionary experience, with raucous and celebratory corporate prayer from the front of the church. No such recognition accompanied my leaving on what I hoped would be a lifetime's vocation in service of the church. I never sensed any alienation from my church family, but most of my brothers and sisters there simply hoped I'd "still be saved" when I came back.
Now, a decade and a half later and an ecclesiological world away, I've had a lot of chances to see Garth Rosell's words come true, both in my own life and within the growing evangelical academic culture around me. Many of the most dedicated and accomplished young scholars I know owe their drive and perseverance through graduate studies (a grueling experience that many start but few complete) to formation in the lively context of the charismatic movement. The faculty ranks in universities across America and even around the world are full of these folks. The pages of many academic journals reflect their scholarly labors. And the Society of Pentecostal Studies (SPS), founded in 1970 by a tiny group of a dozen or so "charismatic bookworms," now boasts an ecumenical membership of over 600, operating a scholarly journal, Pneuma (sharing the landscape with Brill's Journal of Pentecostal Theology), and hosting the significant Roman Catholic/Pentecostal dialogue.
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