The Spreading Flame
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.
The first thing I noticed last week in walking onto the campus of North Central University in Minneapolis for the 39th Annual Meeting of the Society of Pentecostal Studies is the global flavor of Pentecostal studies today. The field, once dominated by the America-centered work of such leading lights as Vinson Synan, Edith Blumhofer, Cecil M. Robeck, and Grant Wacker (all still leading scholars in the field) is now increasingly opening up the vast fields of the global movement.
That, actually, had been a second burden of Dr. Rosell's little chat with me: the growing edge of church history was to be found in the new study of global Christianity. Marvelous, but I was intimidated by the language requirement, and so turned to "American church history." (If only the Azusa Street faithful had been right, and God would give the gift of foreign languages to missionaries, or scholars, going abroad for his purposes! We can't all claim the dazzling multilingual fluency of Fuller Seminary's world-traveling Pentecostal scholar David Bundy!)
Actually, the fact that we do not receive the Acts 2 gift of other languages creates a wonderful need for collegial scholarly work: the global Christian histories of this generation cannot be written by individual scholars, however erudite or magisterial their knowledge. These new worldwide narratives must follow the pattern of Adrian Hastings' A World History of Christianity or Dale Irvin and Scott Sunquist's History of the World Christian Movement: Earliest Christianity to 1453, bringing together the expertise of a veritable United Nations of scholars to tell the many interwoven stories of the faith worldwide. And standing astride that global landscape is the colossus of Pentecostalism.
The diverse and lively response of Pentecostal scholars to this reality is written all over this year's SPS conference program.
Asian studies stand out as a vibrant area. This year's program offers papers on "A Model for Asian Pentecostal-Charismatic Spiritual Formation: Critical Response to Spiritual Phenomenology in Asian Religious Resurgence," "Holy Spirit and Ch'i: A ch'iological Approach to the Western Spirit," "A Question of Balance: Eph. 6:10-17 in Light of an Asian Perspective on the World of Spirits," "Exploring Yonggi Cho's Thought and Ministry from the Perspective of Worldview."
Latin American studies are also thick on the ground: "The Mysticism of Gustavo Gutierez: Open Door to a Pentecostal Theology of Liberation," "Reconciling Liberation Theology and Classic Pentecostalism: Toward a Pentecostal Theology of Liberation," "Spirit-filled Politics: A Quantitative Analysis of Brazilian Pentecostalism." Less numerous but also present are African studies: "Historiography of Ethiopian Pentecostalism," "African Epistemology and the Christian Faith: Towards the Epistemic Use of Orality and Symbolism in African Christian Scholarship."
Most numerous are studies that detail the interactions between Pentecostalism and Islam: "Acceptance Without Compromise: The Personal Journey of a Pentecostal and a Muslim," "The People of Acts 2 and Islam," "Pentecostalism and Islam," and "Rediscovering Narrative as a New Voice for Reaching New Peoples" (from a representative of the "Center for Ministries to Muslims")
Then there are the overviews, in "The Global Christian Forum," "Pentecostalism and the Transformation of Global Christianity," and "Denominationalism in Classical and Global Pentecostal Ecclesiology."
Friends in the society tell me that it still has a long way to go to become thoroughly global in its efforts. But the study of the global movement seems at least to be entering a kind of springtime, with a lush undergrowth of work beginning to emerge, to the great joy of such charismatic bookworms as myself.
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Image: Detail from "Outpouring of the Holy Spirit," by El Greco (1541-1614). Public domain image via Wikimedia Commons.