Tuesday, August 2, 2011

On My Pentecostal Roots (and Why They Still Matter to Me)

[This is a brief reflection on my years in evangelical Pentecostal circles.  The moral of the story is: even though I've moved on to be a progressive, I'm generally thankful for my experiences in the Pentecostal church and even remain fascinated by much that goes on in those circles.  I really know it's difficult for some - maybe impossible - but I do hope more post-evangelical progressives are able to recognize the good that they received from their evangelical upbringing, even if they need to criticize the foundations of evangelical theology.]

William Seymour, initiator of Azusa St.
I was raised an evangelical - more specifically, I was raised in the Assembly of God denomination until I was 16.  If you aren't familiar with the AG, it's one of the earliest and largest Pentecostal denominations that was formed in the wake of the Azusa Street revival in the early 20th century.  Even after leaving the AG church my family was a part of (and my dad was on staff at), I found myself in and out of other Pentecostal and charismatic churches until I was 22: first, I attended a Foursquare denomination church for one year (Foursquare was founded by Pentecostal televangelist Aimee Semple McPherson in 1927); next, I attended a charismatic Baptist church for a few years; after my wife and I got married, we attended another AG church for a year until finding ourselves in an emergent church five years ago (we are currently attending a UMC next door to my school).  It's due to my work in philosophy and religious studies in college, combined with the emergent church (plus some long-held deep doubts about evangelical theology) that led me away from my conservative Pentecostal roots.

Oral Roberts
But let me back up a bit.  I have a lot of Pentecostal "cred": I spoke in tongues many times, probably saw some people healed of illnesses (a couple of which I honestly can't explain away, try as I have), participated in 24-hour prayer rooms, and once even had a startling experience of being 'slain in the Spirit' (as Pentecostals call it).   My great grandfather was a Pentecostal missionary and pastor on Native American reservations in the early-mid 20th century (I'm Native American from my dad's side); my grandparents are lifelong Pentecostals to this day (mostly the AG); my dad graduated from Oral Roberts University in the 1970's (the largest Charismatic Christian university in the world) and pastored in the AG for over 20 years, leading worship, teaching, and pastoring youth.  I learned to play music largely because of the Pentecostal church's love of unhinged, loud, creative, vibrant music (to this day, I can't stand liberal mainline hymnal/organ music!).  I helped lead youth groups for years and played on worship teams from the age of 12 on, mostly in Pentecostal churches.  I was even a part of a charismatic 'revival' in the 1990's-2002, stemming from such charismatic epicenters as Toronto, the UK, and Redding, CA.  I also worked in Nashville for a year with a good friend who is a very well-known worship leader and songwriter in charismatic circles.  Even before Nashville, he and I played together for almost four years, traveling around the west coast and the south, even a bit in Europe, playing charismatic conferences and churches.  I've seen some crazy stuff, and met some major figures in contemporary Pentecostal/charismatic circles.  There are some amazing people who I remain friends with in those same circles, and even when they are suspicious of my progressive-turn, they are generally equally gracious.  Looking back, I must admit that I have very few bruises from my years in Pentecostal circles.  I'm not one of those bitter ex-evangelicals, even if I often get frustrated at some evangelicals today for their conservative theological and political stances.  It was actually in Pentecostal churches that I learned to love theology - somewhat
Pinnock's classic Pneumatology
'edgy' evangelical theology actually: C.S. Lewis (who spared me from ever really being a young earth creationist), open theist Clark Pinnock, and even the evangelical universalist Thomas Talbott (ok, that one generally got me into some trouble with evangelicals).  We Pentecostals certainly weren't as strict as, say, the Southern Baptists - for instance, my church ordained women as pastors, and many tended to move towards gender egalitarianism in the home.  It was in those same churches that I learned to appreciate artistic creativity, and even value the mystical side of faith through
exposure to Celtic Christian spirituality.  Even so, by the time I was 20, I knew I was more-or-less done with identifying as a Pentecostal/charismatic.  It was time to move on.  It took me a long time to wiggle out though.  To this day, I still get invited on occasion to play music for Pentecostal churches, which I actually appreciate.  If and when I participate in Pentecostal church services as a musician, my motivation is first and foremost friendship.

Sufi "Whirling Dervishes
So how do I reconcile some of these experiences in the Pentecostal church with where I am at now?  Furthermore, even for those who aren't a part of the Pentecostal church, how should one respond to the quickly growing Pentecostal movement around the world (especially Asia, Africa, and Latin America)?  If sociological projections are right, we will have a billion charismatic/Pentecostals by 2050.  Even now, the numbers are staggering: half-a-billion of the world's 2 billion Christians are charismatic/Pentecostal.  Should we just dismiss this large group of Christians as totally delusional, like Richard Dawkins and even some progressive Christians do?  I, for one, cannot make that kind of reductive move.  Even if I ultimately think Pentecostalism in general is built on a flimsy foundation, and the way they interpret their religious experiences in narrow ways are not so good, ecstatic religious experiences are all too real to me, and I think materialistic atheism is profoundly mistaken to think otherwise (yes, even considering modern science and psychology - I see no reason to be so reductive at this point).  Personally, I've really found process theology extremely helpful, as it leaves a lot of space for the mystical and extraordinary experiences with its non-interventionist, non-reductive metaphysic.  And after studying religion, spending a good deal of time in a Buddhist monastery and zendo learning meditation, participating in a dozen Sufi dances, observing Native American rituals, and participating in a weekend of Jewish mysticism at a local synagogue, I also needed something like process theology to make sense of religious pluralism while remaining a Christian.  It is extremely obvious to me that it is not only Pentecostals who have what seem to be authentic, often intense religious experiences of an extraordinary nature.  Process theology is generally able to affirm the complexity and authenticity of religious experiences from a variety of perspectives, including Pentecostalism.  I recommend Bruce Epperly's latest book, "Process Theology: Guide for the Perplexed" if you are interested in exploring these ideas further.

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