The Charism of the Charismatics: Part 2, The Pentecostal Worldview

In his book Thinking in Tongues James Smith identifies five features of the "pentecostal worldview." These features aren't explicit propositional beliefs as much as they are implicit in pentecostal spirituality and worship. James is "reading" the pentecostal tradition and extracting these implicit beliefs, bringing them to the surface, conducting what we might call a sociological or anthropological exegesis.

So, surveying pentecostal worship and spirituality James suggests that the following features characterize the pentecostal worldview (what follows are quotations, emphases in the original, from page 12):
1. A position of radical openness to God, and in particular, God doing something differently or new...

2. An "enchanted" theology of creation and culture that perceives the material creation as "charged" with the presence of the Spirit, but also with other spirits (including demons and "principalities and powers"), with entailed expectation regarding both miracles and spiritual warfare.

3. A nondualistic affirmation of embodiment and materiality expressed in an emphasis on physical healing...

4. ...[R]ooted in an affective, narrative epistemology.

5. An eschatological orientation to mission and justice, both expressed in terms of empowerment, with a certain "preferential option for the marginalized."
No doubt, if you have experience with pentecostal or charismatic traditions, you might have some questions or comments about this list. Two quick points. First, I don't think James is trying to be comprehensive. And second, this list has an aspirational quality about it. These features represent what the pentecostal and charismatic worldview should and could be.

Regardless, this list does do an excellent job in capturing what I've found distinctive and valuable at Freedom Fellowship, the charismatic community I worship with.

Radical openness to God. Enchantment. Embodiment. Affective. Narrative. An eschatological orientation regarding justice. Tthe preferential option for the poor.

In the coming posts I'll be working through these features in more detail.

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14 thoughts on “The Charism of the Charismatics: Part 2, The Pentecostal Worldview”

  1. I spent a good deal of time in my formative years in the third wave charismatic circles; so I agree with you that this list seems ‘aspirational’. I agree most strongly with 1, 4, and 5 of Jamie's list; however 2 and 3 seem a stretch. While I think charismatics are open (1) to an enchanted theology of creation and culture (2), my experience was that we were very Manichean in our outlook. The material world was not bad, per se, but this was just a battlefield for the real spiritual workings that went on behind the scenes—good versus evil. And while we cared about physical health and embodiment (3), it had a kitschy, otherworldly feel to it that belied its true dualistic roots… At least that’s my experience.

  2. Good thoughts, Ryan! I grew up in an A/G church formed in the first wave - hearing stories from those of my grandmother's generation of Aimee Semple-McPherson coming to town and revival breaking out. So I had a different set of agreements and challenges. 1,2, 3 and 5, I'm on board with, 4 is a struggle for me.

    After college, I found myself in a Vineyard (third wave) church. Their "spirit" was such that I can understand you missing 2 & 3. I never saw an attempt to cast out a demon, and while there were prayers for healing, they were not quite the same as they were in my A/G years.

    But I'm still trying to see the idea of narrative epistemology associated with the Pentecostal worldview. My first (conscious) exposure to narrative theology was reading McLaren's "The Story We Find Ourselves In" several years after leaving the Vineyard. I'm open to the idea that the seeds had been planted in my years attending the A/G or the Vineyard and they just didn't germinate until later, but I'm not seeing it. On the other hand, I know a lot of folks who can readily adopt a narrative understanding who grew up Pentecostal, so maybe there's something there. I'm looking forward to Richard developing all of these, as they're all things I cherish about developing spiritually in Charismatic circles.

  3. I’ve read a number of Smith’s books, but admittedly not this one. So by affective, narrative epistemology I assume he is contrasted this with other more analytical modes of doing church (his bobble-head Christianity). My guess is that Smith is more interested in the affective side of the equation than the narrative side. Communal knowledge, language, liturgy (if you can call it that) in my experience was highly affective, and, if I think about It, rooted in narrative as well. We may not have had a robust historically and theologically informed narrative, but it was nonetheless narrative-al—as opposed to the more doctrinal, pedantic, sermonic styles that seem to define how other groups come to know.

    My memories are a mix of good and ill in all of this, but I remember some Sundays where we just skipped the sermon (monological teaching) altogether to just sing or give words of encouragement, "ministry time" or what have you. Looking back (mid to late 90s), for both good and bad it was crazy.

  4. I'm clearly not tracking with you on this one. Love to my friends across the Tiber, but the change to "and also to your spirit" is not what I would call "radical openness to God... doing something different or new".

  5. Perhaps this list does not characterize only the charismatic churches; however there are many groups that would diverge significantly from it. I’ve spent a fair bit of time after my charismatic years in the churches of Christ (moderate to conservative side of the tracks) and I’d say that this list of 5 characteristics above is precisely the opposite of the coC. At least as I see it I would suggest the following describe the churches of Christ:

    1) God has acted and said all He has to say. We are to expect nothing new. The canon is closed. Interpretation is closed—it is plain to all. He said it, we do it.

    2) The coC appears the product of Christianity reborn in a disenchanted, modern, populist worldview (Taylor). Little use for miracles, no gifts of the spirit, etc

    3) A firm dualism between spiritual and physical. Resurrection of the body seems foreign to most. A new heaven and earth, means this earth is literally done away with. No instruments or hand clapping or anything so earthly.

    4) Positivistic, analytic epistemology (very much indebted to Scottish commonsense realism). Very little sense of aesthetics and truth (beauty has no epistemic value)

    5) Old-fashioned evangelistic models of missions—e.g., door to door, tracts, try to get people assimilated into the church community—otherwise there is no mission, per se.

    I mean none of this as a slight against either group. This is just my experience of differences between the two.

  6. I was in a Vineyard church for nearly 7 years; it was the best Protestant congregation of which I was ever a part. The aspirational nature of the list of characteristics was very evident there. We had our difficulties, but in general I experienced it as a healthy place.

    Interestingly, the first thing I thought about when reading the list was that it could be said to also be very characteristic of the writing and life of St Basil the Great. Richard, did you know he put together a whole little city just outside Caesarea, that others named the Basiliad, with people there to care for the physically and mentally ill, disabled, poor and all other marginalized folk? It lasted for a couple of hundred years.

    Christ is risen!

  7. My view of "God in all things and all things in God", in which I believe anything less would not be God, leaves no room for literal demons. Of course, I must admit that even though as a child in the CoC I was taught that demon possession did exist in Bible times, I have never embraced the supernatural. That the sun shines and the rain falls on the good and bad, and that evil is the "NO" to love is, for me, part of the fabric of creation.

    That said, I have respect for those of the Pentecostal spirit, though they may hold to a literal view of demons, who have a faith that sees victory in the scriptures, and unlike many in some evangelical churches, do not see a demon behind every "contemporary political and social rock". And while some may feel uncomfortable with how fast social change is coming about, the fact that those of the Pentecostal faith embrace different races and cultures so well, lets me feel assured that most of them look at the whole human being.

  8. Yep...except perhaps for the "affective" part, which suggests (to me, anyway) that the root distinction here is a matter of religion qua personality more than religion qua fundamental orientation.

  9. I guess I see all of these as the semi-heresies of a few misguided CoC members, and not part of the vibrant, alive-to-God's-actions, praying-for-miracles, God-embodied, affective-love-for-Jesus, and Kingdom-mission that I (growing up in the Restoration Movement) have always thought all Christians were striving for. But maybe that's just me.

  10. Perhaps my experience is not universal, I attended an independent, fundamentalist, pentecostal church. But I also found 1 was far more formulaic than they would admit. I think it was Brian McLaren who said all churches have a liturgy, some are just not formal I found this to be true. We knew when to lift our hands, when to sing out in tongues, when to fall down and dance in the aisles. Every Wednesday at our school chapel (I attended the school too), at the end the pews would clear and everyone would head down to the altar for much weeping and 'lifting each other up' in prayer. The same people led it every week, and I remember distinctly one such event I noticed people toward the back with their one hand stretch toward someone at the alter and their other toward heaven chatting about their plans for the weekend. It was programmed and when I finally stopped drinking the cool-aid it was very transparent. In fact I stopped drinking the cool-aid when I took part in the planning process for a Sunday service. Every supposed 'spontaneous' movement of the spirit was meticulously planned, even to the point of using songs in the correct key to launch into 'spontaneous' parts (apparently there is a correct 'key' for these sorts of things) Obviously they couldn't plan exactly what people were going to do during those periods, but over time you got to learn the rules, what was and was not acceptable and when. Sunday services were generally more tame, since they may have included visitors then, say, a Wednesday night service when (pardon the phrase) all hell broke loose. And when a 'evangelist' came to visit (why we needed to be evangelized I still don't understand to this day) forget about it!

  11. The restoration movement is a pretty big tent. Which restoration? Whose primitive church? Even Pentecostals are restorationists of a kind.

    I have no doubt that there are restorationist churches that fit your description; I’m sure of it. And as I said, I meant no insult. But the group I tried to describe, the group I spent quite some time with (very good, loving people by the way) are not a few 'misguided members'. No, this is a very large group of people whose worldview can roughly be adduced from a constellation of their central periodicals (e.g., the Spiritual Sword, the Gospel Advocate, and the Firm Foundation). Read enough of these old articles (1950s to the 1990s) and you’ll get a good idea of the soil of this movement, the ground of their social imaginary, the gravity many are left to build on or attempt to escape from.

    Perhaps we’d like to judge these folks as ‘semi-heretical’, but I think they’d see it differently. All churches believe they are vibrant and loving, god-embodied, etc. It’s all somewhat relative. From the outside a community like them might seem to us as cold and disconnected, but from the inside we would appear ‘off the rails’ and (semi)heretical wackos—"charismatics" using the full pejorative force of the term—sincere but sincerely wrong! To them we’re too subjective, wishy-washy relativists…etc. etc. And maybe they’re right…maybe not?

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