Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Pentecostalism and the evaluation of personal experience

In the current edition of Books & Culture, Arlene M. Sanchez Walsh reflects on an afternoon tour she took of Angelus Temple, where the late Pentecostal hero Aimee Semple McPherson ministered. Sanchez, herself a licensed minister in the Pentecostal denomination called International Church of the Foursquare Gospel, writes that "the Pentecostal cult of personality tells us more about who Pentecostals are than it does about the leaders they hold in such high esteem."

The personality cults abound in Pentecostal and charismatic versions of Christianity. Right now, in Lakeland, Fla., some of my friends and family members are visiting an "outpouring" that is being presided-over by one of the latest personalities to gather a cult following: Todd Bentley, who can be seen on numerous YouTube videos leading crowds into near-hysterical frenzies.

The problem, these days, in our mass culture, is that charismatic personalities (using charismatic in the broadest sense of the term) and intense experiences are considered indications of reality or truth or God's presence. No one seems to think that senses and perceptions could be manipulated -- wittingly or unwittingly -- by a leader or by a crowd, in politics as well as religion.

"When a leader has the quality of charisma, he is able to arouse an extraordinary level of trust and devotion from his followers," wrote Wendy Duncan in her book I Can't Hear God Anymore: Life in a Dallas Cult. "The charismatic leader attracts people to his ideas and causes them to desire to be in his presence."

What follows that initial devotion, though, is a movement from one personality to the next, from one "move of God" to the next, from one "outpouring" to the next, from one "revival" to the next. Len Oakes, in his book Prophetic Charisma: The Psychology of Revolutionary Religious Personalities (Syracuse University Press, 1997), wrote, "The followers surrender not to the person of the leader but to the power manifest in him, and they will desert him if his power fails. The followers attain freedom from routine and the commonplace by surrendering to the leader and -- through him -- to their own emotional depths."

Following Oakes, it seems to me, based on my own 20 growing-up years in neo-Pentecostal/charismatic churches, that the promise of a new personality, as well as the alleged new move of God that comes with him, is never delivered and eventually fades away, so one is always eagerly looking for that next fix, whether it is a fix that will finally bring healing or guidance, or a fix that will bring a new experience of "emotional depths."

Consider again Oakes' phrase "freedom from routine and the commonplace." It is interesting that a common accusation against institutional churches is that their rituals and their orderliness smack of spiritual deadness. To be sure, as Jaroslav Pelikan said, "Tradition is the living faith of the dead; traditionalism is the dead faith of the living." But what are the accusers of institutional churches seeking from the charismatic leader and the latest outpouring, the latest revival? Not truth. Instead, they seek experiences. The accusers of institutional churches never seem to consider that rituals and orderliness might be structured in such a way so that truth could be handed down to generation after generation.

But if a guy has been brought up with television and rock 'n' roll, how is he going to see the value in quietness and orderliness and the repetition of old texts unless he has the help of a little teaching or training? He wants sensation. Sensations dictate to him whether or not truth is being communicated. If the sensations come with Jesus' name attached, then they must be from God, never mind all affronts to historical doctrine and theology, never mind the atmosphere created by music and the mantra-like repetition of phrases.

Perhaps he should consider that church and worship are not about his personal experiences.

The fact that he does not consider such thoughts is evidence enough that Sanchez was right: "the Pentecostal cult of personality tells us more about who Pentecostals are than it does about the leaders they hold in such high esteem." All they want, as Oakes said, is "freedom from routine and the commonplace" and the resulting experience of "emotional depths."

-Colin Foote Burch

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