The Charism of the Charismatics: Part 5, Bodies and Souls

The third aspect of the pentecostal worldview described by James Smith in his book Thinking in Tongues is "a non-dualistic affirmation of embodiment and materiality."

In the "distinctive belief in the healing of the body" James Smith sees within pentecostalism an implicit theology that keeps the soul tightly tethered to body. James writes,
[Among pentecostals the gospel is] a message of liberation from sin and its effects, including the material effects of illness and disease, as well as oppression and poverty (Luke 4:18-19). Deliverance and liberation, then, are not just "spiritual"; the gospel is not just a tonic for souls. Implicit in this affirmation of bodily healing is a broader affirmation, namely, a sense that the full gospel values the whole person.
Intriguingly, James goes on to suggest that this vision of salvation--liberation of both body and soul--is what so often connects pentecostalism to the prosperity gospel:
We might note that it is precisely the holism of this aspect of pentecostal spirituality that might also explain why pentecostal spirituality is also often attended by a prosperity gospel. That is, the prosperity gospel (for all its failures) might be an unwitting testimony to the holism of pentecostal spirituality. The prosperity gospel--which often attends pentecostalism whether in Africa, Brazil, or suburban Dallas--is, we must recognize, a testament to the very "worldliness" of pentecostal theology. It is one of the most un-Gnostic moments of pentecostal spirituality that refuses to spiritualize the promise that the gospel is "good news for the poor." In this sense, we might suggest that the implicit theological intuition that informs pentecostal renditions of the prosperity gospel is not very far from Catholic social teaching or liberation theology. It is evidence of a core affirmation that God cares about our bellies and bodies.
Now that's quite an argument. Bet you never saw anyone compare the prosperity gospel to liberation theology. And whether you agree with that assessment or not, I agree with the core contention: that we refuse to spiritualize the good news for the poor. God cares about our material well-being.

One of the things that I love about life at Freedom is that we always serve a meal. No strings attached. During our weekly Wednesday night gatherings a meal is served from 6:00 to 7:00. Worship starts at 7:00. Many people stay for the worship. But many don't. Again, no strings attached.

And after the service is over many go back to bag up the leftovers to take home for another meal or two. And across the street is the community garden planted by Bob, one of our elders. Many bags of freshly picked vegetables are taken home after worship at Freedom.

Prayer requests at Freedom focus very much on material needs. People need rent money. Electric bills need to be paid. Food to get through the last days of the month.

There are needs for a car or car repairs. Needs for dental work. A place to sleep at night. A shower. Some new clothes. A blanket. The next meal. Bus fare.

There are prayers for healing and health. Prayers for addiction and recovery.

We don't believe in a prosperity gospel at Freedom, but we are awash in material as well as spiritual needs.

You can't leave the body behind at Freedom. Bodies are ever present. In their needs, brokenness, sweat and smells. It's bodies and souls together.

We will worship, yes. But before that, we eat. We always eat.

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12 thoughts on “The Charism of the Charismatics: Part 5, Bodies and Souls”

  1. This is interesting. My experience with charismatics was mostly with middle-class suburban types, and I always found their prayers for material things to be a bit crass. I think it is easier to see God at work paying electric bills or providing bus fare than it is to see God helping me pick stocks, but I still don't really get why God would help one person get dental work and let another starve to death. So I think I'm pretty into Jesus' solidarity with those who suffer and less into God actively aiding (materially) those who struggle.

    But I think I really disagree with James about the charismatic focus on healing emphasizing the importance of the body. In my experience, charismatic insistence that God opposes illness and injury, that God has/is overcoming suffering, fails to take seriously the reality of our bodies. Namely, it won't take seriously that they break down. It insists in the triumph of the Spirit over the body, a movement away from flesh-bound, temporally located, suffering. In particular, I've heard preaching that says that God will heal those with true faith, that a reward for trusting God is being healed. Suffering and sickness are thus indicators that one does not have an in with God, which seems pretty Gnostic to me.

  2. I think that last part--"Suffering and sickness are thus indicators that one does not have an in with God"--is a pretty potent criticism.

  3. Hello,

    Thank you for your email. However, I am no longer using this email address. Emails sent to this address are not being read. Instead, I am using
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    Greg Jeffers

  4. "I've heard preaching that says that God will heal those with true faith, that a reward for trusting God is being healed. "

    It's interesting that before ~323 AD the reward for trusting God was all too often being lunch for wild beast.

  5. Hello,

    Thank you for your email. However, I am no longer using this email address. Emails sent to this address are not being read. Instead, I am using
    Thank you,

    Greg Jeffers

  6. I think there is an important distinction to be made between the stereotypical prosperity gospel—“if I draw near to God all my needs will be met”—and the more missional position that Mr. Beck describes praises at Freedom: perhaps paraphrased as “if we draw near to God, we will be called to meet the needs of others.”

    Gregory, you touch on this a bit in your first point; a community that focuses on the second will be less inclined to expect provision for picking stocks and will instead be focused on the most pressing needs of its members, all the while affirming that God cares deeply about our needs, spiritual, material, and even physical.

    The biggest failure of stereotypical prosperity gospel messages, in my mind, is that they focus only on receiving the ministry of Christ, and not at all on extending that ministry to others; disregarding the fact that it is us the church who are called to be the hands and the feet of Christ through the ministry of the Holy Spirit.

    When you divorce the expectation of blessing from the means of blessing, it is very easy indeed to fall into the trap of treating suffering and sickness as indicators of proximity to God (or the lack thereof) instead of seeing them as the opportunities for ministry that they really are.

  7. Hello,

    Thank you for your email. However, I am no longer using this email address. Emails sent to this address are not being read. Instead, I am using
    Thank you,

    Greg Jeffers

  8. When we talk about bodies and matter are we just talking about the little bits (atoms, quarks, electrons), or are we talking about full reality rich with symbols, meanings, essences, ideals and purposes? A lot of "embodied" theologies, both liberal and supposedly conservative, have a radically impoverished notion of exactly what a body is.

    Some good thoughts here:

    Though I am largely Catholic in my theology, I grew up Evangelical and so speak with an Evangelical twang; on account of this, I am not in much of a position to give advice to my Catholic readers, but there is one caveat I want to make for Evangelicals, particularly of the emergent sort. Such emerging Evangelicals have played, and played loudly, the problems of Evangelical neo-gnosticism, and rightly so (cf. Parker’s Back by Flannery O’Conner). However, in disabusing themselves of gnosticism, Evangelicals, with the much chronicled scandal of their minds, do not have the deep liturgical and philosophical traditions of the Catholic church, which is the home of TOB. Thus, whereas Leah and John Paul II can reject gnosticism but also imagine a form of Christian embodiment different from secular materialism, I am not sure that emergent Evangelicals have the tradition necessary to give them the imaginative capacity for this. Let me put it this way: When I go into the Cathedral at Notre Dame U in South Bend, I am certainly called out of my gnostic proclivities – here is an entire building where every stone cries out to God – but there is a difference between this kind of embodiment and the materialism that a secular person might consider embodiment; in the former, heaven and earth meet, while in the latter, there is just earth. However, when I go into an emergent “pub church” or “coffee shop” church, I suppose I am embodied insofar as I am enjoying the material culture of a secular world. However, I am not made uncomfortable by the fact that there must be something more than coffee shops and pubs – there is no yearning – and so while I may be very embodied, that embodiment might be too comfortable to be church, however commendable it might be as a social activity; the Church should pique in us a longing for embodiment of a holy kind, the kind that hungers for the Eucharist, and that experiences this as an expansion rather than a reduction of meaning.

    So, the question is, do some forms of spirituality just put a sanctified gloss on secular materialism?

    A prime example of this can be found here. Anyone who thinks that cookies and hot chocolate are just as good as anything else for the eucharist is tone deaf to the symbolic meaning inherent in material things like wine and bread. Hey, any material substance will do.

    - Thursday

  9. Good stuff as always. I'm sometimes struck by "prosperity gospel phobia" among my middle class friends, who all have retirement plans and health insurance and are extremely savvy at protecting their own financial and medical interests. As much of our lives as we devote to this, I simply don't believe them when they imply that they don't like praying for it because it isn't "important enough" or because "God doesn't necessarily want us to be healthy and wealthy." I'm always suspicious that the REAL reason we don't pray more for money/ health is because we don't want to give God a say in things like that--we'd rather keep the control in our own hands. At Freedom, and places like it, people bring their struggle for health and wealth--things that to a degree we all desperately want, even need--into Christian community. Hurray for bodies!

  10. This is, of course, a valid critique. But I don't think it is always fair. In specific, it seems to attribute to charismatics a sort of logic that I think does not fit their actual position. The very charismatics who tell me that God opposes my suffering, that faith leads to healing, are also the charismatics who tell stories of terrible suffering and loss that called for great faith while waiting for God to bring some sort of peace in the midst of struggles. I think that it is non-charismatics who take the "logical" step that suffering and sickness show a lack of an "in" with God--nobody at Freedom, or other charismatic communities I know, thinks that way. They think that suffering is a sign that one needs to call on God, and wait on God, and trust in God, all the more--because God does/ can/ will (sometimes mysteriously) work to fight suffering. This is not Gnostic.

  11. Hello,

    Thank you for your email. However, I am no longer using this email address. Emails sent to this address are not being read. Instead, I am using
    Thank you,

    Greg Jeffers

  12. I dig that last line. At least the last part! And I really like that reframing: the gospel is about prosperity. The question is what kind of prosperity, whose defining it, and how it's attained.

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