The Charism of the Charismatics: Part 4, Hermeneutics as Enchantment

The second facet of the pentecostal worldview as described by James Smith in his book Thinking in Tongues is an "enchanted" experience of the world.

Specifically, as James writes, "pentecostal spirituality is marked by a deep sense of the Spirit's imminence" where "creation is 'charged' with the Spirit's presence."

Again, this description fits the charismatic spirituality I've experienced at Freedom Fellowship. The Spirit is alive and active, regularly encountered in everyday life. When good things happen, when prayers are answered, this is taken to be a sign of the Spirit's providential care.

And beyond the activity of the Spirit there is the experience of malevolent forces in the world. References to Satan and demons are common. Prayers are spoken asking for spiritual and angelic protection from these forces.

Once during a worship service at Freedom a women began howling and screaming and writhing, ostensibly in the grip of an evil spirit. Hands were laid upon her and prayers worded asking for deliverance. Eventually the woman stopped howling. She calmed. Praise was offered as the demon had been cast out.

I was driving some friends home afterwards. Talking about the shrieking lady Henry remarked, "I was freaked out. I got away from her. I didn't want that spirit coming out of her and getting into me. I don't like messing around with that stuff." Everyone in the car murmured their agreement. Lord Jesus, Sweet Jesus, protect us.

As Smith writes,
[T]here is a flip side of the Spirit's enchantment of creation: pentecostal spirituality is also deeply attentive to what we might describe as the mis-enchantment of the world by others spirits...There is a deep sense that multiple modes of oppression--from illness to poverty--are in some way the work of forces that are not just "natural."
Because of my life at Freedom I've come to talk a lot more about "the demonic" or about "Satan." Long time readers have likely noticed this shift. My interests in Christus Victor theology and frequent writing about "the principalities and powers." My attempt to articulate a progressive vision of "spiritual warfare." All these things flow out of my life with Freedom, me, a skeptical social scientist and progressive Christian trying to make contact with the enchanted world of my charismatic brothers and sisters.

In Chapter 4 of Thinking in Tongues James Smith spends a whole chapter discussing how to make sense of the "enchanted" worldview of pentecostalism in light of modern science. His proposal is interesting. Specifically, he makes a contrast between what he calls a non-interventionist/enchanted supernaturalism vs. an interventionist supernaturalism. According to James, a part of the trouble with "miracles," from a variety of perspectives, scientific and theological, is that they are often described as the actions of God "breaking into" or "interrupting" the natural world. In this view God is outside and separate from the system. This view, interventionist supernaturalism, James rejects as God is not outside or separate from the natural order. God is, rather, immanently present in all things. God is already on the inside. There should be no distinction between natural and supernatural. Thus, what might be called "a miracle" isn't God interrupting or disrupting the flow of events than a process of what James describes as intensification, God being more or less present at any given time or place.

I definitely like the idea that God is more intensely present in some places rather than in others. More intensely present in some events, experiences, times and people rather than in others. What I'm not sure about his how God's intense presence in any given location affects physical laws. I don't know how intensification relates to causality. That's an open question for me.

So how do I understand enchantment?

I understand enchantment in a way that borrows from James' description of what we described in the last post as a radical openness to God doing something different or new in the world, a radical openness to surprise. As I see it, James's description of being radically open to God's activity in the world is very similar to the experience of enchantment, the Spirit's activity in the world.

Given this similarity, what is interesting to me is how James describes a radical openness to God as a hermeneutical activity.

Specifically, James describes the events in Acts 2, the primordial account of the pentecostal experience. At the heart of Acts 2, James notes, is a hermeneutical act: Peter's re-description, re-narration and re-interpretation of the events talking place. James writes,
I take the central point of the narrative of Acts 2 to be Peter's courage and willingness to recognize in these strange phenomena the operation of the Spirit and declare it to be a work of God. To declare "this is that" (Acts 2:16) was to be open to God working in unexpected ways. In other words, the crux of the Pentecost story is not the spectacular events of Acts 2:1-4, but rather later, in 2:16, where Peter, with characteristic hermeneutical boldness, asserts: "This is from God!"
I believe this also applies to the experience of enchantment. The issue in enchantment--that God is intensely present--is less about "the spectacular event" (the "miracle") than the "hermeneutical boldness" (the re-interpretation of experience) in declaring that "This is from God!"

This parallels many of the musings I've shared on this blog, all driven by my experiences with Freedom.

In modernity we experience a "flatness" in life. Lacking depth or height life is just one damn thing after another. Under the naturalizing eye of modern science no atom is any more sacred than any other atom. They are all the same, interchangeable.

Enchantment, as I've often described it here, is the process of experiencing existential texture, depth and elevation. Enchantment is the experience of the holy, sacred, and divine.

The world is enchanted through rituals of hallowing. When we hallow we declare events, experiences, places, things and people to be holy and sacred, set apart and elevated from the regular flat flow of events where it's just one damn thing after another. Rituals of hallowing sacralize life in the hermeneutical act of boldness to declare "This is holy ground!" or "This is the gateway of heaven!" or "Surely God is in this place!"

Enchantment, then, is a hermeneutical activity, a way of re-reading, re-interpreting, re-describing and re-narrating our lives. Enchantment takes something "ordinary" and reads it as "extraordinary." Enchantment takes something "common" and reads it as "sacred." More from James Smith:
[In Acts 2] Peter stood up and boldly proclaimed: "This is God! This is what the prophets spoke about! This is what we've been waiting for! This is the Spirit!" Such a claim required a unique hermeneutic able to nimbly respond to the advent of surprise, as well as a kind of hermeneutical courage to make such a claim.
This is how I understand enchantment in my life at Freedom. Enchantment is the courage to read the world in a certain way. Enchantment, from Pentecost on, is hermeneutical boldness responding to the advent of surprise. Enchantment is the courage to read the divine in mundane happenings. Enchantment is the courage to read resurrection in the midst of death.

Enchantment is the courage to declare that this--this moment, this face, this life, this pain, this sorrow, this joy, this place, this time, this people, this tear, this touch--that this is holy and sacred and divine.

Enchantment is the hallowing of life, your life and mine, re-reading, re-describing, re-interpreting and re-narrating the world through prayer and the laying on of hands and the preaching of the Word. Hallowing through the water and the ashes and the bread and the wine and the oil and the incense. Hallowing through the song and the dance and the raised hand and the bended knee and the silence and the fasting and the washing of feet. Hallowing through the church as she is gathered as she is blessed as she is consecrated as she is commissioned and as she is sent.

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32 thoughts on “The Charism of the Charismatics: Part 4, Hermeneutics as Enchantment”

  1. "... if what is sustaining every reality is the energy, the action, of God, then is it so difficult to believe that from God's point of view and not ours, there are bits of the universal order where the fabric is thinner, where the coming together of certain conditions makes it possible for the act of God to be a little more transparent? And when we talk of miracle, it's that. It's not God making a punctiliar intervention - 'Oh, I think I'd better sort that out,' leaning down from heaven and adjusting a few nuts and bolts - it's more that the world is such that when certain conditions arise, certain responses are made, and all right, let's say it, certain prayers are prayed, a door is opened for divine action to act irregularly, to act in a way you would not, from the rest of the picture, have expected. So I think you have to start by trying to get hold of the implication of that picture of the universe in which the glory and energy of God is always pretty near the surface, and in certain circumstances very near the surface."

    -- Rowan Williams, in God's Advocates: Christian Thinkers in Conversation (London: Darton, Longman and Todd, 2005), p.8.

  2. Wonderful post!
    It’s not really mentioned here, but I’m curious how this return to the enchanted is possible when the hierarchical, a more medieval cosmology even, is still eschewed. Most people I’ve met who are also finding their way, post-evangelical, into the more liturgical, into the seasons and rhythms of sacred spaces, seem unrelenting in their prior commitment to a ‘flattened’ social order (and we can all recite the verses that make this appear the only true Christian order). I’m just curious if this is sustainable.

    With so many offering an almost allergic reaction to the social textures that gave birth to these ‘bells and smells’ (institutions and hierarchy), something appears awry with our using them. Sometimes I worry we’ve simply found a new way for late capitalist affluence to try to have its cake and eat it too—strip mining history and other cultures for new practices to distract us from deeper anxieties.

    While I like and endorse the return of liturgical aesthetics—intentional, liminal spaces that help shape a hermeneutic of enchantment—I have my doubts that I will be able to resist also rethinking the larger structures that pull me toward a “buffered-self”.

  3. This post reminds me of the big reveal at the end of Life of Pi. (Spoilers ahead, obviously) From the outset, we are told that this story is one that will make you believe in God. When the facts of this fantastic story are revealed to be quite mundane, it could be read as a bait and switch. But then the question that the whole novel hinges on: "Which is the better story?" And so God is found in the re-interpretation of the facts, in telling the story that reveals more about the journey than the details found merely in space and time could.

    Richard, I'm glad you found Freedom Fellowship and I'm enjoying this series immensely.

  4. Richard, in terms of the reality of the demonic or the "anti-enchantment" aspects of reality, what do you make of Pete Rollin's idea here that the demonic may be a sort of "virtual reality"?

    "However there is a different way of understanding the demonic that
    views it as describing neither actual things, nor as referring to a
    fictional world but rather as describing a virtual reality.

    In philosophical terms the virtual is a type of reality that cannot be adequately said to either exist or not exist, but which insists.

    For example, fascism doesn’t exist in the sense that it would not be
    found in a universe where all conscious being were removed. Yet it is
    something that stands over and above us. It is something that is bigger
    than any one individual and which can influence behavior even in one who
    is not conscious of it.

    A virtual reality does not necessarily even exist in the mind, for
    individuals can be deeply influenced by a virtual reality that they
    don’t even believe in or know exists. For instance, in Northern Ireland
    sectarianism is a type of reality that continues to insist even
    though most of the population does not embrace it (meaning that they do
    not believe one side of the community to be inferior to the other).

    Yet sectarianism still has a large (though diminishing) influence on
    people’s everyday material lives. While not being conscious of it people
    know what bars they can go to and which are best to avoid, where to buy
    a house and where to send their children to school....

    This is why one can say that virtual realities insist – for they exert force upon us whether we know it or not...

    In light of this understanding of the demonic, demon possession can
    be approached as the subjective inscription of these systems of
    injustice into an individuals consciousness. The demonic is the system
    of injustice that influences the material actions of all those in a
    society while demon possession is where an individual becomes the actual
    mouthpiece of that injustice, thus taking the virtuality and making it
    live in ones direct consciousness."

  5. OK, so it's time to put on your pastoral-academic hat for a sec.

    What would you say to fellow academics who, upon reading your account of enchantment and being taken with it as a desirable alternative to or enhancement of the modernist project in which they are constantly swimming, begin to wonder, "what must I do to be saved?" (Saved, of course, meaning at least - among other things - delivered from the oppressive uniformity of the modernist project.) Is it as simple a matter as seeking and engaging a certain way of "doing church?" In other words: mutatis mutandis, is your experience to be taken in some sense as normative? Or is that act necessary but insufficient...which then begs the question, "wherein lies sufficiency?"

  6. Further, what is the role of discernment here, given the pervasiveness of cynical manipulation by the Enlightened among the religious, the wolves in sheep's clothing? Can one enter fully into the life of enchantment that you and Smith describe without having checked one's discernment at the door?

  7. Finally, at least for now, given that the proposed realities described in this account of enchantment do, in fact, violate what our modernist studies have thus far proposed as inviolate laws (conservation of mass, for example), does your account leave room for God's immanence at a much grander, even astronomical scale, such that e. g. "Peak Oil" or "anthropogenic climate change" theories ought to be set forth more provisionally than their proponents are wont to do? If Psalm 8 leads us in the same direction as the enchanted world you describe, are there political implications that will challenge progressives to humble their pet certitudes a bit?

  8. Not quite sure if I am tracking this post, but this idea of "hallowing" is deeply meaningful to folks I work with in the hospital. That their suffering is in some way divine, gives them the courage to continue when days are dark. They often cite Job and compare themselves to him as one whom God is betting on and the powers of evil will not win.

  9. What I find ironic regarding the thought of God immanently present in all things, is that while it is probably the healthiest of all ideas about God, most of the Evangelical world finds it the most radical, meaning for them, a very liberal and dangerous doctrine.

    However, the idea of God's intensity breaking through the physical laws here and there does not really excite me since reality itself is a wonder. As Abraham J. Heschel points out, BEING itself is holy; and to keep this in mind is what keeps us in awe. He also emphasizes that all phenomenon is of God.

    What I see is God's intensity as always present and available, and our diverse experiences, gifts and needs, born from our diverse backgrounds, claiming and partaking of God's moment in which we find ourselves. God presence is as real for me when I stand in silence, without the TV or radio, in my kitchen each afternoon while watching our five Yorkies eat their dinner, as when I find myself in the Psalms and in prayer at 3:00 AM. It is the miracle, or the enchantment, of "being here".

  10. I suspect some readers may have read George MacDonald's 'The Miracles of our Lord'. As so often with GM, it is difficult to agree with all the details, but a joy to receive the spirit of his words, as fresh as when first published in 1870. He views miracles "as simply a rare manifestation of the perfect working of nature." Nature is seen as operating under God's laws: God himself is seen as operating within his own laws, but in unexpected ways. "This, I think, is the true nature of the miracles, an epitome of God's processes in nature beheld in immediate connection with their source--a source as yet lost to the eyes and too often to the hearts of men in the far-receding gradations of continuous law. That men might see the will of God at work, Jesus did the works of his Father thus."

  11. "Once during a worship service at Freedom a women began howling and
    screaming and writhing, ostensibly in the grip of an evil spirit. Hands
    were laid upon her and prayers worded asking for deliverance. Eventually
    the woman stopped howling. She calmed. Praise was offered as the demon
    had been cast out."

    I'm 52, been in church all my life and I have never experienced anything like this. Why do you suppose this is? Are there no demons present in non-Pentecostal churches? Or is the Spirit not present so that demons, simply aren't threatened and don't show themselves?

  12. Well, Charles Taylor (whom it sounds like you've been reading) does lump together all enchanted-world thinking into the hierarchical-complementary rubric, but I think it's important to keep in mind that he's only looking at European cultures during their recorded history. Not every "enchanted" society in the world is a land of princes and peasants. So it may be possible to re-enchant the world in ways that don't haul us back into the past (and the Pentecostal emphasis on newness does seem like a step in that direction). Also, to use Taylor's terminology, I think a lot of the ancient hierarchy came from their embeddedness -- their social order was seen as an extension of the eternal order of nature. That's a somewhat different issue from enchantment.

    However, it is true that the more radical modern versions of equality depend on the disenchantment of flesh and its reduction into an instrument of the mind -- that is, the idea that whether someone is female/gay/transgendered/disabled shouldn't stop them from choosing whatever social role they want to fill. IWhat an enchanted body would mean in the modern world is an interesting question.

  13. In retrospect, having spent 20 or so years in a very well known "non-denominational" Charasmatic denomination, I was "in" the church but never "of" it (not that I didn't try to open up to the paradigm). Perhaps God compensates the poor (here in America and definitely third world communities) using more enchanted expressions. Missionaries I know have witnessed much more spiritual activity (both Godly and ungodly) in such settings.

    Perhaps some people are more innately receptive (lightning rods) to spiritual connection.
    My ex (married nearly 20 years) was very gifted with prayer and what some call the "gift of knowledge". She too grew up under adverse poverty. Frequently, she was demonically attacked during her sleep. It became old-hat (and very annoying). I'd lay a hand on her, and prayed something like - "Lord, in JESUS NAME, please help remove this demon and stop this shit now" and immediately, "it" would go away. Being very agnostic when it comes to prayer, it doesn't make sense and it was probably my fault for being a crappy faithless husband, but I'm grateful God answered anyway. Also, my grandmother suffered from Paranoid Schizophrenia (hearing voices). My cousin from back east would visit my grandmother (bringing her close friend and on remaining visits, her would-be husband). In total, 6 people have witnessed manifestations such as voices, footsteps in the attic, knocking on windows, and kitchen drawers opening/closing in that house. After my father made the difficult decision of placing my grandmother in a convalescent home, I volunteered to watch the house (1 year plus) by moving in (living ALONE). Very well aware of the vibe, I NEVER experienced any such event. I wasn't really a "Christian" nor "walking with the Lord" at the time. I guess God shielded me anyway.

    It probably doesn't help being an engineer and currently employed as a software technical phone support agent (analyze, diagnose, and solve technical problems for a living). It's almost impossible to trust prayer when rampant global child-trafficking continues to flourish. It also seems people who have spiritual sensitivity have extreme swings in behavior/conduct. My ex and step-son (both very gifted and "annointed" in the perception of many, including myself) are prone to sociopathic lying, malice, substance addictions, etc when not "filled with the Spirit". This has been true of several others I know in this system. The Charasmatic community I fellowshiped with generally gloats over the prospect of ECT for MANY - without batting an eye. The emphasis on spiritual gifts seems self-indulgent. I got pissed in a study/fellowship one night and threw out the question "what about the FRUIT of the Spirit - shouldn't that be standard equipment for every "believer"?" The teaching pastor paused and everyone got awkwardly quiet.

    Having witnessed with several others (both Godly and demonic experiences), I very much respect/acknowledge God expresses Himself in an enchanted manner to those He chooses. But with many of the same people, I've witnessed huge discrepancies with regard to their character. I don't know. For some of us, the life of "faith" in the things you discuss in general - having a good attitude with bosses/customers, a good attitude waiting in store checkout lines, patience/longsuffering with many inequities, being challenged to take genuine interest in a homeless person (who is dirty, smells and infested with lice), being a racially slighted minority, being HONEST with EVERYONE - the regular, damn boring, mundane, thankless everyday stuff - brings SANITY (for me anyway). Deep inside (not sure why), I wouldn't trade the "mundane Christian life" for the apparent enchanted life (not to dismiss or demean a more "spiritually striving" life for others).

  14. I'm with Camassia, I don't see any logical connection between enchantment and hierarchy, especially if what you hallow is of a cruciform and a kenostic shape.

  15. Thanks Zach! I need to read Life of Pi, what you describe sounds exactly like what I'm after.

    And thanks for welcoming me at Freedom. Still feel like a newcomer at times, but I hope my writing can attract more people over from Highland. I still get very disappointed at how little overlap there is between Highland and Freedom.

  16. Hi Tim,
    I've not read Peter's account, just what you quote here. My assessment of this passage is that he's describing the cultural, supra-human, and emergent properties/patterns that have been described by people like Wink and Stringfellow as "the principalities and powers." Relatedly, I find the label "virtual reality" to be a poor description. The forces here are real, just emergent. Basically, I agree with what he's saying (it sounds basically like Wink) but would choose a different word.

  17. Great questions. I don't think there is anything particularly exotic, spooky, or necessarily charismatic about about a hermanutics of enchantment. I've just discovered that, among charismatics, a hermeneutics of enchantment gets a huge, huge workout. But there isn't a necessary connection. Christians of all sorts (and I'd say even atheists as well) use hermeneutics of enchantment. You don't have to be charismatic or worship at a charismatic church.

    At root, I think a hermanutics of enchantment is simply hallowing, making something holy. Which means simply setting something "apart." To make something "special." For example, observing something like Sabbath or the liturgical calander is a hallowing of time, an "enchanting" of time, giving time a sacred texture. And you don't have to be charismatic to do that. In fact, most charismatic Christians don't hallow time in this way. But liturgical traditions do. So there are different traditions of enchantment.

  18. Lots of ways one might approach that question. Maybe she was just hysterical. Or mentally ill. Or on drugs. Or maybe she was literally possessed by an evil spirit. My default stance is simply to see whatever is going on as an manifestation of psychic brokenness, affliction and pain. I tend to keep the frame descriptive rather than explanatory.

  19. Thanks for this. As mentioned in this thread I think "discerning the spirits" is important to any hermeneutic of enchantment. Basically, because this is a hermeneutic, it is a very intentional and deliberative process. One must make decisions about what one will or will not hallow. It's not about believing in or experiencing spooky stuff. It's about consecrating the sacred things in life. That's where the discernment comes in. What here is holy and sacred? Because if we pattern our hermeneutic on Jesus then I agree with you, we end up hallowing small things and weak things and mundane things.

  20. Fair enough, but the attention you pay to it suggests at least this: enchantment creates its own psychological weather, which means it affects the way humans approach things from small to large. I'm not being critical, BTW, just thinking out loud. I swim in those modernist seas, after all...the original question I posed was autobiographical. I do wonder about stuff like this precisely because it offers solutions, provisional and question-begging though they be, to the toxicity that is academic life.

  21. Oh, I agree. It very much creates its own psychological weather. I think that very much goes to the point of why I think this is so necessary. I have a post coming out in June about the sort of reciprocal causation between us and the symbols/rituals of enchantment. Specifically, we deploy these symbols/rituals and, initially, it all seems very one-way and decisional. But eventually these symbols create an environment that starts pushing back upon you. A sort of feedback loop is created, like a weather system where material (moisture, heat) is fed into the system creating emergent properties that take on top-down causal properties of their own, sucking in more moisture, etc.

    Autobiographically, as one who also moves in an academic environment (though ACU is Christian), I have all sorts of "enchantments" in my office and in my life. For example, in one corner of my office I have a prayer kneeler that I use (I knee and pray before my 8:00 classes). I have Eastern Orthodox icons on my wall. Prayer beads are in my pocket. I wear a crucifix. This year I even "enchanted" my syllabus, inserting alongside the dates of classes and tests where we were in the liturgical calender. Not everyone can do such things, of course, but all these things create a spiritually enchanted climate.

  22. I have appreciated watching how you have thrown yourself into the life of our little community. It is hard to find words to say other than, "Come and see." I'm glad you are trying anyway.

  23. What you seem to be doing, rather than a couple of framed "Prayer of St. Francis" and "Philippians 4:8" pieces on the wall above your Mac monitors (hypothetically speaking), is pretty well saturating your space-time with imagery. *pondering*

  24. Re. enchantment and hierarchy: I don't know, bishops with their mitres and croziers and hocus-pocus do bear a resemblance to traditional images of Merlin. ;)

  25. Martin Luther King repeatedly criticised the African-American church for its emotionalism and anti-intellectualism, and for its focus on the consolations of heaven to the exclusion of issues of here-and-now systemic oppression. "The danger in such a church," he said, "is that the members may have more religion in their hands and feet than in their hearts and souls."

    Now I know, Richard, that your church takes very seriously its mission to the poor, the homeless, and the imprisoned. But am I correct in thinking - and, please, mercilessly correct me if I'm wrong - that women are marginalised from (at least some) positions of authority (e.g., they are not permitted to preach), and that the the issue of same-sex relationships is not even on the radar? And if I am correct, what does this say about the consistency of Freedom's "courage to read the world in a certain way," to have "the hermeneutical boldness responding to the advent of surprise", "to declare that ... this moment, this life, this pain ... is holy and sacred and divine"?

    I ask these questions as a minister who failed to convince my own local (albeit non-pentecostal) church that we were being called to be open to the blessing of same-sex relationships, and therefore failed to convince it of the seamless garment of your wonderfully expressed last three paragraphs. That the United Reformed Church (UK) has accepted the full inclusion of women in the life of the church, including positions of pastoral leadership, for almost a hundred years was little consolation.

    [Btw, given (a) the trajectory of his developing thinking about liberation and (b) the fact that he was a shepherd in the fold of liberal theology (absolutely rejecting biblical inerrancy), there is no doubt in my own mind that King would have come to embrace feminist and LGBT issues (cf. Desmond Tutu).]

  26. Thanks for the pushback Kim.

    Woman can and do preach at Freedom. So Freedom is further along than the "parent church" (which is one of the reason I prefer being at Freedom). But on LGBT issues, you're correct. We don't have any LGBT persons who are out in leadership positions.

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