Thanking my Pentecostal teachers

Thanking my Pentecostal teachers May 20, 2013

We just celebrated Pentecost Sunday by pulling out all the Pentecostal musical stops at our Anglican church: I was on piano and I hit a few charismatic chord progressions, i.e. the ones designed to manipulate congregants to raise their hands (old habits die hard, and I don’t feel bad about good music, unfortunately). Because I learned those chords from Pentecostals, I want to give thanks to the Pentecostals who shaped me into the Chinglican I am today. Several years ago in Chicago, the radical Catholic priest Fr. Michael Pfleger told his congregation, St. Sabina, ‘It’s time to become Pentecostal.’ My reply is that I already am one.

Snicker as you might (does this Chinglican guy really have one foot in like every Christian tradition?), real bona fide Pentecostals have a special place in my Chinglican heart. I went to an Assemblies of God (AOG) school from preschool to the eighth grade, finishing what we in the States called ‘junior high’ before I went to a Catholic high school. My kindergarten teacher was, for example, an Episcopal Church parishioner until the charismatic movement washed through her parish, at which point she moved next door to the AOG church. This meant that at school, we were very used to hearing about God speaking to people randomly (usually our teachers), people (usually our teachers’ kids) randomly crying because they had suddenly been touched by the Spirit, and the need to surrender one’s life totally to the control of the Holy Spirit (as our Bible textbook said). There was a lot of stuff about prophecy too, both in the imminent season (‘God told me that you should…’) and the end times (‘in Revelation, it says…’). To be sure, not all of my teachers at the AOG school were Pentecostal, which made the experience more ecumenical than at first blush. I had one teacher in the fifth grade from a conservative Baptist background who took issue with our Bible textbook’s declaration that we should be ‘controlled by the Holy Spirit’ (she preferred ‘indwelling’), and come to think of it, our junior high principal was a Presbyterian pastor and choir director, a junior high Bible teacher was a Southern Baptist who later did a PhD in philosophical theology from a Southern Baptist seminary, and one of my favourite English teachers was a Mennonite from the Canadian prairies.

My Pentecostal exposure was not only limited to school. Come to think of it, the Holy Spirit was also causing trouble in my Chinese church as well. The senior pastor at the time, a Taiwanese guy who has recently become the senior pastor of one of Taipei’s largest megachurches, took two courses from John Wimber and C. Peter Wagner at Fuller Theological Seminary. Coming back in the power of the Spirit, this guy brought back to our church Vineyard songs, spiritual gifts checklists, and the uncanny ability to ‘slay people in the Spirit,’ i.e. put his hand on people, and they fall down. I might be making this up, but I think there was a little Toronto Blessing thing that happened too where people had this ‘holy laughter’ thing where they just laughed uncontrollably in the Spirit (it’s called the ‘Toronto Blessing’ because, apparently, the bizarre practices came out of this Vineyard offshoot called the Toronto Airport Christian Fellowship). Nobody told me if anyone barked like dogs (which is apparently what they did in Toronto); maybe they didn’t want to traumatize me. I should note that this pastor baptized me when I was nine; thankfully, he didn’t slay me in the Spirit, or else there was no way I’d come out of that baptismal pool. Shortly after he did that, two things happened. The first was they changed the baptismal age to twelve to prevent kids like me from wanting to get baptized because our friends were getting baptized (true story). The second was that when that pastor left shortly thereafter, pastoral search committees from then on always asked whether incoming candidates were into the ‘third wave charismatic movement’ because they didn’t feel like getting slain again.

Pentecostals have also influenced my family’s theological education. My father attended a Pentecostal Bible college in Oakland founded by Violet Kiteley, a British Columbian disciple of the (in)famous Aimee Semple McPherson, the icon of second-wave Pentecostalism (if you want to get technical, the ‘first wave’ would be the Azusa Street revivals; the ‘third wave’ are the Vineyard charismatics, extending into the Toronto Blessing). Kiteley moved down from British Columbia to Oakland as a single parent, starting a home church in an African American woman’s house in the midst of the Black Panther skirmishes, seeking racial and gender reconciliation in Oakland. Mirroring Kiteley’s move, my father moved from British Columbia to the East Bay after receiving a call to ministry. He learned about Shiloh Bible College while listening to Christian radio; memorizing the phone number, he called them when he got home, got admitted into a master’s program, and read through his Bible the first time with these Oakland Pentecostals. He credits them with teaching him basic dispensationalist theology, i.e. the fairly modern framework in which the ages of the world are divided into dispensations (supposedly by St. Augustine) that categorically divide up the stuff God does in each specific age while foreshadowing the future dispensations with his current actions. Of course, when he went to Berkeley to do his Master of Divinity, they told him that he had to leave all that stuff behind to do ‘real’ hermeneutics. But that’s a story for a different day…

I’d venture to say that my dad never actually let go of the Pentecostal thing, especially the dispensationalism they taught him. My dad was in fact so excited when I was exploring a call to pastoral ministry that he encouraged me as a high school senior to enroll at Calvary Chapel Bible College, the non-accredited educational shoot-off of the Jesus Movement centre, Calvary Chapel Costa Mesa and its founding pastor, Chuck Smith.  What I remember doing most in the distance education courses was reading my Bible in the King James Version because they were KJV-only as it was translated from the Textus Receptus, not what they considered the Trinity-denying Greek text of the Westcott-Hort. What I learned on the side, however, that Calvary Chapel was actually the origin point of the Vineyard Movement–for the record, Wimber was originally a Calvary Chapel pastor, and when he left, he also took Lonnie Frisbee, a key lay preacher in the Jesus Movement, as his go-to Holy Spirit guy. As I was steeped in these circles, I realized that the Calvary Chapel concerts were one of the birth places of contemporary Christian music, launching the careers of LoveSong (i.e. Chuck Girard), Ernie and Debby Retino (i.e. Psalty the Singing Songbook and Charity Churchmouse), Paul and Rita Baloche, and Kelly Willard through this entity that became known as Maranatha Music. I also discovered, like my dad, that these Pentecostals really liked their dispensationalist theology, almost as much as Dallas Theological Seminary–I mean, I hate to break it to you, but we used a disproportionate amount of Howard Hendricks, John Walvoord, Roy Zuck, and Charles Ryrie in our stuff. Oh, and Henry Thiessen’s Lecutres in Systematic Theology, which should be renamed as dispensationalism Wheaton-style, was the systematics textbook.

Of course, unlike Dallas, Calvary Chapel was charismatic–in fact, Chuck Smith was from the true-blue second-wave Pentecostal Full Gospel Church–which meant that we also talked a lot about the gifts of the Holy Spirit. In fact, in Calvary Chapel Distinctives, Smith lays out his whole Pentecostal framework using three Greek words associated with the work of the Spirit. I can’t remember what the first two were–probably because they weren’t really important to Smith–but they were associated with the preparation and indwelling of the Spirit. But after you become regenerated and saved as a Christian, you have to undergo the Pentecostal ‘second blessing,’ associated with the Greek word epi, as in the Spirit comes upon you and fills you with spiritual gifts, which includes tongues, but can include all the other stuff too. (You see where C. Peter Wagner got some of his stuff.)

All of this is to say, I’m no book Pentecostal, although that relatively new edited volume called Studying Global Pentecostalism makes for fun methodological reading. But this is all very much part of my lived Christian experience, so much that I found myself nodding very much in approval much later on when I read Donald Miller’s Reinventing American Protestantism and Tanya Luhrmann’s When God Talks Back because both credited Calvary Chapel and its later derivative, the Vineyard Movement, for being the progenitors of what they termed ‘new paradigm evangelicalism.’ I was like: Damn straight. (Oh sorry, I shouldn’t say ‘damn’; it might grieve the Holy Spirit.)

You might say, then, that I have a pretty well-rounded Pentecostal education, thank you very much. In fact, I credit them for much of my journey, including my neo-Reformed stint (someone needs to give the neo-Reformed tribe some credit for being moderately charismatic and very influenced by Jesus Movement tradition) and my accidental entry into the Anglican Church (which is a long story in and of itself). More on those things in another post.

What I will say now, however, is that the Pentecostals prepared me to read Henri de Lubac’s Catholicism. When I read de Lubac, I felt like I was hit by a ton of bricks. In Catholicism, de Lubac argues that dogma always has social implications because human personhood is social, originating in what he calls ‘original unity.’ This unity was in turn sundered by sin; in other words, de Lubac suggests that the greatest of all sins is the sin of schism because that’s basically to what sin boils down. Our redemption in turn happens as we participate again in the work of the Spirit, the Spirit who is ‘catholic’ because he restores our original communion.

It was then that everything the Pentecostals had taught me began to come together. See, the Pentecostals who taught me didn’t have it all wrong. They were right to emphasize the work of the Spirit. They understood that the redemptive power of the Spirit shook present scientific realities. They comprehended at some level that what it means to be a Christian is to participate in the work of the Spirit (which is why a participation soteriology has always made more sense to me than a strictly substitutionary one). But what de Lubac made me understand was that the work of the Spirit is not individualistic; it is to join us back into original communion. This is where right when Pentecostal theology has it right, it can get terribly wrong, emphasizing individual power, an instrumentalization of the Spirit, the parsing of Greek terms out of context to justify that power, the importation of pagan categories to fight power with power. But done rightly, I am starting to see that some of the most interesting stuff in evangelical theology these days is done by Pentecostals like Amos Yong, Veli-Matti Karkainnen, Rikk Watts, and Cherith Fee Nordling (Pentecostal scholar Gordon Fee’s daughter) who understand that our participation in the Spirit makes us catholic, not individually powerful.

Violet Kiteley once told my dad, ‘Don’t forget that we taught you about the Holy Spirit.’ I won’t forget either. I may have my serious reservations about dispensationalist eschatology, apocalyptic Zionist geopolitics, spiritual gifts checklists, weird charismatic hierarchies, crazy ecstasies where you can get slain in the Spirit, holy laughter, and literalistic fundamentalist hermeneutics. But these guys opened the door to the Spirit for me. I am grateful, and as always, my hope and prayer is that as the Spirit guides us into all the truth, we will all shed the chaff and come into the full catholicity of the mystical tradition that has always been a part of a Christian encounter with the Triune God.

Fr. Pfleger tells us that it’s time to be Pentecostal. He might as well be saying that it’s time to be catholic.

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