Fresh Air, with Jack Levison

Fresh Air, with Jack Levison February 22, 2013

Mark Stevens conducted this excellent interview with Jack Levison, who has written an excellent book on the Holy Spirit and I’m posting the whole interview here with Mark’s permission.

Interview with Jack Levison

MarkFirst of all let me congratulate you on your new book Fresh Air: The Holy Spirit for an inspired life. I know it has been one of, if not, my favourite book this year and as important in my spiritual journey as Fee’s Empowering Presence and Eugene Peterson’s Under the Unpredictable Plant.

I am wondering what prompted you to write the book?

Jack – I was fifteen when a young minister, fresh out of Bible College, dismissed spiritual gifts as quickly as I could snap my fingers. No mystery. No magic. No marvel. I knew he couldn’t be right. Turns out he wasn’t.

But that’s not the whole story. During my first teaching stint, I taught a course on the holy spirit. I didn’t have much experience, so I found a minister who did: Paul Smith, who led a church that has since been booted out of the Southern Baptist Convention. Paul was influenced by the Vineyard movement, so after class we did things like sit around, lay hands on one another, listen for revealed words, and try to discern if they were bogus or true. Most, I think, were remarkably true.

Then, in 1992, I wrote an article for a National Endowment for the Humanities Summer Seminar called—ready for a mouthful?—“Prophetic Inspiration in Pseudo-Philo’s Liber Antiquitatum Biblicarum.” Two decades later, the scholar in me is still enthralled.

So what prompted me to write Fresh Air? The holy spirit, I hope. It was time to gather together forty years as a Christian, thirty years as a scholar, twenty as a father, and a fiery determination to live an inspired life. Fresh Air does that. Because it’s full of personal stories, it’s not arid scholarship. Because it’s rooted in scholarship, it’s not sentimental. I hope it’s a unique combination of both.

Mark – As readers of my blog will know I am quite the fan of Eugene Peterson. He has described your  book as “Good, healthy and sanctified” How did you feel when you first heard his endorsement?

Jack – Priscilla and I are amateur snowshoers. (Is that a word?) We came back from the mountains, and I heard Priscilla call up the stairs, “Jack! You’ve got to come hear this. You’ve got to come hear this.” A voice message from Eugene Peterson. He said, “Jack. This is Eugene Peterson. I loved your book.” Really, he said that. He continued, “I loved reading your book.”

A week later his endorsement arrived in the mail, accompanied by a warm, personal letter. How did I feel? Astonished. Thrilled.

As to the “good, healthy, and sanctified,” that’s another story altogether. I called Eugene, whom I’d never met, and said, “My son Jeremy and I want to make a road trip, and we thought Montana would be fun. Could we come out and film you?” He said yes right away. So Jeremy and I packed up our van with junk food and headed to Montana. Jeremy filmed Eugene and left after a few days with a signed copy of The Message.

So I didn’t read those words. I heard them first in Eugene’s office, as he spoke them. They came from a man who is “good, healthy, and sanctified.”

MarkI don’t think I have come across one negative review of the book thus far. In fact it is my impression that the book has helped a lot of “former Pentecostals and Charismatics”. How have you perceived the response to the book?

Jack – The response has been incredibly heartening. At an academic meeting in Chicago, a youngish (thirty-something) scholar thanked me for the book because it gave him a spirituality in which to stand now that he’s left his more conservative roots. Two weeks ago I heard from an associate dean at a large state university; she’s not a Christian but thanked me at length for Fresh Air. That same week I heard from a chaplain at a Christian college who said he recommended Fresh Air in chapel, complete with a Power Point image of the cover, as the book to read on the holy spirit.

And you’re right about Pentecostals. Fresh Air offers a vital space which affirms the rich presence of the holy spirit—not necessarily in fleeting, if fabulous, mountaintop experiences, but in the valley, even the valley of the shadow of death.

We grow up. Life beats us up. This is a book that black and blue saints can embrace. That’s one reason why it begins on the ash heap, with Job, rather than in the potential triumphalism of Pentecost

Mark – In the book you talk about your own journey in and around Pentecostalism and Charismatic Christianity. Firstly, what do you think the biggest challenge for Pentecostals is right now? Secondly, do you think it is helpful to distinguish between Pentecostals (as related to denominations like the AoG) and those of Pentecost? (Maybe small p Pentecostals who might be exiled from Pentecostal denominations for one reason or another but who, like me, still appreciate the Holy Spirit for an inspired life).

Jack – Were I wiser, I would defer to my Pentecostal colleagues on this, but you asked, so here goes.

1) Challenge #1: Look for the Holy Spirit beyond the spectacular. The sensational is there; no question about that. But the spirit is also the spirit-breath of God that quietly enlivens us in sickness, in grief, in exhaustion.

2) Challenge #2: Rediscover a sense of self-sacrifice. I worry that Pentecostals, with increasing wealth and social standing, will fall prey to a gospel of self-fulfilment. How can the holy spirit help me with my problems? I love the chapter, “Jesus’ Test,” because it challenges to the core the message that the holy spirit fills my needs. What then does the holy spirit do? The holy spirit redefines my needs to conform to the gospel of Jesus Christ.

3) Challenge #3: Embrace spontaneity and study. Time after time, inspired people in the Bible speak words of scripture. Elizabeth. Mary. Simeon. Certainly Peter at Pentecost, who quotes scripture after scripture when the spirit fills him. This is a combination of intense study and spontaneity, preparation and inspiration.

MarkYou are in the unique position of being a “pastor’s husband” and I noted throughout the book that there is pastoral sensitivity in what you have written. How much did your wife and her vocation influence the writing of this book?

Jack – Oh sure, go ahead and credit my wife with my pastoral sensitivity! Okay, so you’re right about Priscilla, though she’s not thoughtful, kind, and generous because she’s a pastor. She has these virtues because she works at it as a Christian. When I toddle off to pee in the morning, I usually see candlelight and hear Priscilla chant psalms.

I couldn’t possibly measure Priscilla’s influence. I’ve known 30 years of deep, faithful, love. I write from that place of grace, the contentedness that draws me away from petty jealousies and back into the scope of love. Shakespeare described this love in his 29th sonnet:

Desiring this man’s art and that man’s scope,

With what I most enjoy contented least;

Yet in these thoughts myself almost despising,

Haply I think on thee, and then my state,

Like to the lark at break of day arising

From sullen earth, sings hymns at heaven’s gate;

For thy sweet love remember’d such wealth brings

That then I scorn to change my state with kings.

Her influence? Immeasurable.

MarkNow for some tough questions!  If you had just a few sentences to explain the role of the Spirit in the Christian life to a believer who was not from a Pentecostal or charismatic background what would you say?

Jack – I’d use only one—a quotation from Fresh Air, of course! The Holy Spirit is “God’s mystical, practical, expansive, unbridled presence in the world, where we least expect it—in every breath we take, in social transformation, in community, in hostile situations, and in serious learning” (page 5).  Okay, then I’d add a question: “Which dimension of the holy spirit do you want to experience together?”

Mark – If you had another paragraph to explain the holy spirit to a non-Christian what would you say?

Jack – I’d start with chapter 2 of Fresh Air, “Daniel’s Discipline.”

You are inspired. Every time you breathe, you breathe God’s ruach, spirit-breath. So breathe often. Breathe deeply. And here’s how—straight from the book of Daniel, of lion’s den and fiery furnace fame.

ü  Eat your veggies! Daniel refused to eat the king’s rich foods and to climb the ladder of success because “the spirit-breath pulses in people who opt for simplicity and humility rather than ambition and acquisition” (Fresh Air, page 62). So learn to live simply.

ü  Live for the long haul! Don’t go for the quick fix, the flashy experience. Live instead for the long haul—like Daniel. Three generations of foreign rulers recognized extraordinary spirit, spirit as spirit was meant to be, in Daniel. So don’t search out the spectacular; discover the spirit in everyday disciplines.

ü  Don’t do a thing! For three generations, “the spirit-breath in Daniel accomplishes nothing. The spirit-breath is verbless, the agent of no powerful acts and no miraculous deeds. The spirit-breath doesn’t well up inside Daniel or knock him over or strip him of control. … In a sustained long-haul, deep, rich settledness, the spirit-breath in Daniel is the source of sheer wisdom, the reservoir of understanding, the spring of knowledge” (Fresh Air, page 65)

I believe the spirit yearns to lead you to Jesus (I’d say). Clear a space in your routine to cultivate that spirit. Live simply; learn to breathe again. Live for the long haul; don’t look for shortcuts. And don’t do a thing; acquaint yourself again quietly with the spirit already in you, the spirit that gives you life, the spirit that introduces you afresh to Jesus.

If I had more than one paragraph, I’d say lots more. For instance, many of us live out-of-breath lives, with little spirit inspiring us. God wants to fill us to the brim—filling us full—with the spirit so that we can know fullness of life, love, and lavish generosity.

MarkThere were a dozen questions I wanted to ask you while I was reading this book but perhaps the one I wrestle with the most  is found in your chapter “Joel’s Dream” in which you argue that Joel’s vision of the pouring out of the Spirit on all flesh expands the Mosaic vision of the Spirit as limited to Israel.  You say, “Joel’s dream horizontally stretches the story of Moses, in which the Spirit is limited to all of the Lord’s people – all Israel…Yet for Joel this experience will reach all flesh” (p. 102).  You go on to explore the spiritual and social reality of Joel’s vision. Could you expand a little on this point and are you speaking about social justice or the Spirit as a witness to Christ apart from the church?

Jack – Both. You’ve hit the nails on the heads. Both. I thought long and hard about this chapter. Not so much the biblical stuff: it’s no scholarly feat to see that the vision of Joel expands the experience of Moses and the elders (Numbers 11); nor is it unique to see how Peter expands Joel’s vision at Pentecost (Acts 2:17-21). But what does this expansion mean?

I think it means the spirit is active outside the church, transforming society. And where would that be? Doctors Without Borders, The Red Cross and Crescent—and other organizations that break down barriers, which is what Moses’ story, Joel’s dream, and the first Pentecostal experience are about.

I meant what I said in Fresh Air: “Supporting organizations such as World Vision may not feel like a work of the spirit, especially if we view this work in personal terms. There may be no private awe or enthralling public worship or powerful preaching. We may not feel elated or euphoric or jubilant. Yet the work of the spirit isn’t just personal in Joel’s vision, where the spirit is not inpoured—poured ininto individuals; the spirit is outpoured—poured outover societies” (Fresh Air, pages 104-105).

Other mission-minded thinkers have said similar things. Lesslie Newbigin, in The Open Secret (one of my favorite books), discerns the holy spirit at work before the arrival of Christians. In fact, the task of Christian missionaries is to identify those places where the spirit is already at work—and join in. (This is a lot like prevenient grace, the belief that God paves the way before us. Now that is a conception I learned from being married to a United Methodist pastor!)

MarkAfter reading this book I have become quite the fan of your writing and now you have me awaiting your next book. May I ask what it is that you are working on?

Jack – I have a book coming out with Eerdmans Publishers late this year or early next, called Ecstasy, Virtue, Learning and Life in the Spirit. (This title is still too long. A free copy to whoever sends me the winning title!) For those who value Fresh Air, this is the next step. It’s got lots more study of scripture, but it stays with the theme that the holy spirit inspires a spectrum of experiences from ecstasy to serious study.

I’m keen to provide the church with a model of inspiration that is both vibrant and virtuous, spontaneous and studious. Fresh Air frequently touches on this. Ecstasy, Virtue, Learning and Life in the Spirit makes a biblical and, I hope, convincing case that the truest sign of the spirit is not a fleeting experience of the spectacular but a lifetime of virtue and learning.

In the meantime, I’ve written an online 10-part study of the book of Acts, which Seattle Pacific University will post every Monday morning, beginning March 25. I loved writing this. It’s whimsical, deeply biblical, and (should I say it?) pastorally sensitive. I’d urge every one of your readers to sign up for this at

Mark – Thank you for your time, Jack.

My pleasure, Mark. I’ve enjoyed every minute of thinking, writing, and revising. Thank you for posing such thoughtful questions. Thank you as well for being such a champion of Fresh Air: the Holy Spirit for an Inspired Life.

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