Monday, May 21, 2012

Lightening in a Bottle

A friend of mine owns a cabin in the woods by a small lake, about an hour’s drive away from my house. Last week, I went there to spend a night and the next day to read, think and pray. I took several books with me.

I ended up reading Heaven Below: Early Pentecostalism and American Culture, By Grant Wacker.
I am not always impressed with books about Pentecostalism.  They often seem to miss the real spirit of the movement. I grew up in the Pentecostal movement. I can tell when a writer doesn't really get it. I am also old enough to remember many of the characters quoted in the book. This writer knows the territory.
He suggests that Pentecostals united three principles that formed their movement’s ethos:
1. Community that  contains and processes spiritual ecstasy;
2. Primitivism; and,
3. Pragmatism.
Non Pentecostals visiting a Pentecostal church, he says, may think the worshippers are utterly uncontrolled.  However, as any Pentecostal knows, there are boundaries that define and contain their experiences. If a worshipper crosses that boundary, they will be pulled back. The spirituality is only apparently individualistic; the community actually controls the boundaries of ecstasy and how it can be expressed.
By primitivism, the author refers to the word’s original Latin root, “primus,” which means “first.” He is saying that Pentecostals continually seek a return to the first stages of Christianity. They are unconcerned with what occurred between the apostolic age and the early twentieth century. At worse, this principle calls Christian history itself into question. In that case, the teaching, art, and actions of past believers are either irrelevant or even deliberate and malicious errors. At its best, the principle merely requires tradition to explain itself.
It is the third principle, he says, pragmatism, which grounds Pentecostals to their own time and local culture. Despite their yearning for otherworldly experiences, Pentecostals often turn doctrine, structure, habit and old alliances on a dime when conditions seem to warrant it. As an example, he cites how each generation gradually moved away from the pacifism and apolitical nature of the movement’s early days. He also points to the movement’s entrepreneurial nature that encourages its adherents to launch great dreams with little money or without careful planning. Most of these enterprises don't turn out well, of course. But many of them do.
These three principles, Wacker says, allowed Pentecostals to “put lightening in a bottle.”
After I finished that book , I read a few pages from Sister Mercian Joseph’s book, The Trivium: The Liberal Arts of Logic, Grammar, and Rhetoric. This book draws from the philosophy of Thomas Aquinas to train the reader’s mind in critical thinking.
It is a powerful book that must be sipped rather than gulped.
After I had read awhile in The Trivium, I wrote: “It’s amazing how our faith produces such different approaches. And yet, if one digs a bit, he discovers underneath all the difference a common essence that flows from Christ and His apostles to become the teachings and practices of Quakers, Baptists, Presbyterians, Pentecostals and Copts."
The Trivium flows from the mind of the apostle Paul, which was formed by both his Hebrew and Greco-Roman education. Paul was interpreted and explained by St. Augustine. Augustin's ideas were codified into an intellectual system by Aquinas after he rediscovered Aristotle. Educators used this tradition to develop the Trivium because they wanted Christians to learn how to think. They wanted us to experience the world as something created, orderly and deliberately constructed to reveal the Presence above and beyond it.

Science and Technology; medicine and jurisprudence; philosophy and psychology are all the results of centuries of work produced by people educated in the Trivium. The Thomasts -- followers of Aquinas -- were some of the most important warriors in the battle to make education a vital part of Western Civilization and this classic model of learning was their weapon of choice. 
In its own way, I guess the Trivium was also “lightning in a bottle.” The classical thinkers created the bottle but they got the lightning from the same place Pentecostals got theirs.
Pentecostals and Thomasts guard the borders of our faith.
Beyond Pentecostalism one walks into Gnostic and pantheistic territory.
Beyond Thomas one enters rationalism and humanism. 
In between one encounters a spirit-filled life disciplined by a rigorous and honest intellect.
That is healthy Christianity, or so it seems to me.
I have experienced God too many times in a Pentecostal service to believe it is all hype or mass hypnotism. However, I also know that pure primitivism quickly becomes a justification for ignorance and intellectual sloth.
I have experienced God reading C. S. Lewis, Thomas Aquinas, and Alister McGrath but I know that reading about God can be an excuse to avoid intimacy with God.

I honor its borders but I respect the whole faith too much to restrict my loyalty to one of its parts. Just as New England offers gifts that one cannot find in Colorado, each of Christianity’s expressions offer gifts difficult to obtain in the others. Pentecostals offer celebration and release more than other parts of our faith. Quakers and Anglicans offer the worshipful structure of silence. Presbyterians offer the intellectual foundation that arguably produced the American government and its economic system.
That day in the cabin, I read books that took me from one border of the Kingdom of God to the next. Heaven Below made me want to listen to James Cleveland sing Something Got a Hold of Me. The appropriate music for reading the Trivium however was Motzart’s Ave Verum.

Ecstasy ought to lead to intellectual formation. Intellectual formation ought to lead to ecstasy. Joy opens the mind. Learning makes the heart rejoice.
Most Christians live closer to one of these borders than to the other. Our various denominational cultures reflect that. Calvinists tend not to think well of Aquinas but they live closer to him than they admit. Quakers are rather like introverted Pentecostals. Black Gospel choirs are not that different from the soul shattering music of the Russian liturgy. From border to border, our faith draws upon the same spirit and drinks from the same streams.
You can’t really carry lightning in a bottle, although my family thought so three generations ago. Every West Virginian knows that his grandfather's unmarked bottles contain lightening. But that sort of lightning can burn down one's house and turn his dreams into ashes. St. Paul actually said that once; “don’t be drunk with wine; be filled with the Holy Spirit!”
My great grandparents walked away from the production and consumption of our region's famous bottled lightening. One night at the edge of their village they entered a tent meeting  and were seized by a power that propelled them into the family of God. Like James Cleveland says, “They went to the meeting one night and their heart wasn’t right but something got a hold of them.” That something made them shake and weep. However, at least in my family, it also made them read: first the Bible, then commentaries on the Bible, but in time books about history, literature, current events and all the rest.
Our family slipped into this kingdom over a distant border but because we are wondering souls we have keep walking the land. As we go, we always carry with us bottles of Joel’s fiery brew.
That’s why, after reading a few pages from the Trivium, I shouted out my gratitude to God for His power that shatters  ignorance and enlightens the mind as His joy delights the soul.


Anonymous said...

Pastor Dan -

Thanks for sharing the books your read. I've added them to my Amazon "wish list." Keep these great posts coming!

David Peterson said...

Growing up in the 1970's I have fond memories of the charismatic renewal in the oldline churches. It seemed for a moment the two tendencies were going to be integrated to the benefit of both parties. There are few places today that bring the streams together, though there is a growing segment of evangelical churches that are continuist when it comes to the gifts. This seems to be a lasting legacy of the charismatic movement, along with praise music.

Randy Blankenship said...

Good stuff, Dan. We are not alone!