Pentecostals And Emergents: Preliminary Thoughts

I have been invited to speak in the upcoming conference, Subverting the Norm, on the intersections between the Pentecostal movement and the Emergent conference, specifically in terms of radical theology. Suffice it to say, I am pretty excited. World-class philosopher John Caputo and Doug Pagitt, a prominent voice within the Emergent conversation will both be there. I attended the Society of Pentecostal Studies (SPS) last Spring in Minneapolis, and had the privilege of listening to presentation by emergent thinker Tony Jones. Tony Jones’s presentation and blog posts on the subject are to this point the most sustained intellectual interaction of the two movements to date. I highly recommend that anyone interested in the subject explore Jones’s blogs. His involvement with SPS, I found out after the event, was highly controversial, based on his stance concerning homosexuality and other issues (see here). I use Jones’s existing thoughts, then, as a starting point for my own careful contrast and comparison of the movements. While many of Jones’s points are insightful, I aver that his work in general seems to highlight more of the contrasts between the movements than numerous points of overlap and meaningful points agreement similitude that I see existing between them.
My foremost task in my presentation at Subverting the Norm, then, will be to extend the discussion on the ways that the movements work to complement one another, both historically and contemporarily. There is much in common between the two, particularly in terms of ethos, or essence, of the movements. The following list represents my earliest thoughts on this relationship, building on some of Jones’s points while reformulating others.

1. One element I found lacking from Jones’s work was an extended treatment of the element of primitivity. Both Pentecostals and Emergents tend to be intensely primitivistic in outlook. In sermons given from the pulpits of Pentecostal churches, the term “the Early Church” or “New Testament Christians” are referenced frequently. In my experience, this tends to be a common theme in much of emergent thought, particularly in terms of the rejection of the influence of capitalism on the church and a return to some sort of authentic, untainted, and more original form of Christianity. Whether this “New Testament Christianity” is attainable for the modern church, however, is another argument. 

2. Working hand-in-hand, both Pentecostalism and the Emergent Church are at root movements of social-religious protest. Pentecostalism, in the nascent years of the twentieth-century, was extremely anti-institutional, anti-establishment, and anti-structure. While it has undeniably evolved in its 100 year history, becoming more institutionalized and formalized, it cannot deny the fact that it was at base a religious expression of rebellion from the norm. 

3. Another common theme between Pentecostals and Emergents is an obvious one: both have strained relationships with the broader Evangelical community. Emergent thought is often described as being exemplary of post-evangelical Christianity; Pentecostalism has a similar relationship. Several scholarly voices from within the study of Pentecostalism have decried the relationship of the movement with Evangelicalism, Pentecostalism’s awkward step-parent. Pentecostalism’s growing relationship with Evangelicalism in the second half of the twentieth- century has been cited as the cause of Pentecostalism’s erosion of “distinctives,” in particular issues such as women’s roles in ministry, positions of anti-violence and pacifism. Many of these are argued to have been played down as Pentecostals tried to fit in with their more refined Evangelical brethren. 

4. Both of the movements have been historically and continue to be beacons of civil-rights: involving both gender and race. At Azusa street, it is reported that “the color line was washed away in the blood.” Both men and women shared responsibility in ministry. For these inchoate Pentecostals, the Holy Spirit was no respecter of persons; it was poured out freely on whoever desired it. Neither skin color or gender mattered. And, they were convinced, they had biblical backing! (Yet, as I will demonstrate in my presentation, all was not perfect in the early years in regards to civil rights and equality. As time progressed, problems ensued. Not all Pentecostal denominations allowed ordination to women, and race issues constantly creeped up, even at the Azusa mission.) 

5. Jones does do a fantastic job describing perhaps the most important similarity between the two movements: that of a pneumatologically-oriented theology and praxis, and a re-instatement of trinitarianism (in contrast to binitarianism). In essence, both movements see God as directly at work in the world through the Spirit, and the involvement of the Christian in God’s work. Christians co-op with God, partnering with God in this lifetime. This sort of praxis ultimately rejects Calvinism for the more experiential and participatory Armenian point of view, and as Jones eloquently demonstrates, this might make the neo-Calvinists uncomfortable as it might be seen as an undermining of God’s sovereignty. If humans are actively involved in God’s work on this earth, they might wonder, is not God then dependent upon them? Both Pentecostals and Emergents are acutely aware of the movement of God on this earth in the here-and-now; both appropriate a theology of the Kingdom as already-but-not-yet; this kingdom is one that is something that is not entirely attainable but is something to be sought diligently, and built, here and now. For both Emergents and Pentecsotals, the Kingdom of God has an important social dimension. 

6. Lastly, another point of parallel is that of the hermeneutics of the two movements. Some scholars of Pentecostalism claim that the movement’s ways of interpreting the Bible are, in essence, relational and experiential, thus situating Pentecostal hermeneutics as a postmodern endeavor. This, I might point out, is difficult to conceptualize, given the common understanding of Pentecostals as biblical literalists, or the even more inaccurate description as fundamentalists. These scholars argue that in the course of its ritualization (i.e., “evangelicalization”), Pentecostal Bible scholars opted out of their hermeneutics of the Spirit for a more rigid and dogmatic interpretation of the Bible. Still, however, Pentecostal hermeneutics are characterized as Spirit-led. Such a perspective has allowed Pentecostals to ordain women, even though there are passages that, for biblical literalists, prohibit them from speaking from the pulpit. One thing is certain: if contemporary Pentecostals are more literalists than pneumatological interpreters, they are just plain bad ones. They pick-and-choose. I feel, as do a growing number of Pentecostal scholars of the Bible, that pneumatological readings of the Bible are anti-modern (perhaps even anti-historical- critical?). 

Is the Emergent movement the culmination of Azusa Street? While I am hesitant to make such a presumptuous statement, I have to consider the fact that the Emergent movement may just be a continuation of, fulfillment of, or renewal movement of the original renewal movement: Pentecostalism. Yet, in its current state, the Emergent movement bears striking resemblance to the Pentecostal movement, only without its ritualized, formalized, and evangelicalized addendums. Certainly there are differences regarding particular moral and political issues (the Jones presentation controversy embodies this contention), but this simply does not do away with the fact that the movements have more similarities than they do differences. In my opinion. Currently. 

So what do you think? Keep in mind that these points represent the beginning stages of my thoughts on the subject. These points will certainly become more well-defined and nuanced as I get closer to the presentation date. I appreciate and look forward to any thoughts or opinions concerning the overlapping nature or contention surrounding these two movements. If I receive any good insight, I will more than likely graft that thought into my presentation. Thanks for the interaction. 



3 thoughts on “Pentecostals And Emergents: Preliminary Thoughts

  1. Ooo! Ooo! I have some thoughts. I’ll try to be fairly systematic and not get too carried away:

    1) Check out Robert Webber on the idea of “ancient-future.” Emergents love to quote him, either explicitly or accidentally (depending on whether they’ve actually read Webber or just heard about this hip new “ancient=future” thing from another emergent-type).

    2) I like where you’re going with this point. I’d look at the level of institutionalization going on in Emergent now. Is it walking a similar path? Or is it avoiding that path? Check out some stuff that Kester Brewin wrote in late June on his blog and some of the responses by Katharine Moody on her blog.

    3) I’d say something similar here as I said on the second point: Is Emergent headed this way? Or the opposite? I’d argue the opposite, but no one has yet to really explore the implications of this nearly unanimous leftward shift. What will it mean for the future of American politics with regards to religion? Will there be a new Religious Left that spurs the creation of an even Newer Religious Right? Will there be another culture war? (Mind you, I’m being a little over-dramatic here intentionally.)

    4) Emergence doesn’t have the greatest track record on actually following through on this. I think the current board of EV is working to correct this (see the line=up of this year’s Theological Conversation, particularly in comparison to years past). I also think the implications of point 3 might have influence on the civil rights of something like same-sex marriage here. Politics and religion are frequent bedfellows, no matter your leanings.

    5 & 6) I might stick these together as I think they are both ultimately about pneumatology: What does the Spirit demand of the church, in its life and its response to sacred text? I see a bit more conflict here than commonality in emergence and Pentecostalism, though I could see a relation separated by time. I would ask one question: Which Spirit? It seems to me that Pentecostals at this stage in the game have a very definite understanding of what the Spirit does or, perhaps more importantly, does not do. In other words, the Spirit in Pentecostal thought is wildly evocative and powerful, but it operates with a specific and knowable theological M.O. Pentecostals don’t expect to hear “heretical” ideas thrown about with the Spirit’s validation. In my own experience, this makes Pentecostal hermeneutics circular and a bit tricky: the Spirit leads in interpretation of the text, but one must validate what the Spirit is saying by the text itself.

    On the other hand, emergents–and let me make clear that I am often classified in this group and speak, at least in part, confessionally here–are so afraid of theological dogma that the Spirit, which is often elevated and revered, is so nebulous that it doesn’t seem to always say much. One might wonder if the “Spirit” isn’t just a socially contingent sensibility passed down through a combination of a general ethos liberal democracy in America and an intentional rejection of evangelicalism. Or maybe I can’t escape my autobiography. Perhaps there are emergents with a richer pneumatology, but I could see this issue being something very similar to what Mark C. Taylor describes in After God: God may be so transcendent that God becomes irrelevant or so imminent that God is just “one of us.” In this context, the Spirit is either so bound by religious tradition and theology that it is entirely “tame” and not capable of doing much or it is so free that it doesn’t attempt much to begin with.

    I think it goes without saying that these comments are off the cuff and responsive and, therefore, not intended to be definitive, absolute, or essentialist comments about emergence. I’m just trying to stimulate some thought and discussion because I think your presentation will be one of the best–and most contextually relevant and appropriate–portion of the conference.


  2. That’s a very insightful post, Travis, and also an insightful response, Matt.

    In comparing Pentecostalism and emergentism I would want to look very closely at the audience to which each has appealed. As I understand it, Pentecostalism has been, historically, mostly a religion of the working class. From what I know of Emergentism, it seems to be largely a religion of the intellectual class. Whether this observation is correct or not would require some close empirical study (for example, surveys of various emergent congregations and emergent missions works, if there are such things), but it seems correct to me.

    Another thought you could work on is that quite a few early Pentecostal leaders talked about not wanting to form any permanent organization, but thought that their purpose was to restore apostolic elements to all churches and denominations. The goal was for the Pentecostal movement to play its role and then disappear. I think I have read and heard parallel ideas from emergents.

    Another thought I’ve had about Pentecostalism (one that runs somewhat counter to what I just said) is that its leaders have been highly creative religious entrepreneurs. They have seen unfilled niches that were invisible to others and then exploited those niches and in the process stimulated increased demand for what they have to offer. Emergentism (or really just about any religious movement) could be described the same way. I think emergentism capitalizes on a lot of intellectual discontent within evangelicalism and also on discontent with a perceived right-wing social and political bias in American Christianity. One could surely locate discontents within early 20th century American Christianity that served a parallel purpose.

    On the lines of entrepreneurship, I like this review of Maclaren’s new book. It emphasizes the idea that Maclaren and Jones and other emergent leaders may be viewed as “consultants,” and thus are definitely in step with the ethos of the present age, even while they invoke the timelessness of “ancient-future” nomenclature.

    Thanks for the discussion and I hope you’ll post more especially after your conference.

  3. Well said, Travis, Matt and Ken.

    Quite discordantly, I view the evolution of these two movements with both fascination as a scholar who is at one time detached and a participant-observer and as an insider who mourns with the tears of Jeremiah. And, because I see with the eyes of one or the other, or both, I increasingly find myself in a third role: that of the mistrusted foreigner or even the exile, marginal relative to multiple centers (or, as it were, a hybrid). I am a stranger among my fellow Pentecostals and I am a stranger to everyone else because I am a Pentecostal, and the same applies for the “emerging church” (it doesn’t ease my hybridity to be straddling the social classes noted by Ken).

    Gaah! To even think this way stigmatizes me!

    Do I hear an “amen”?

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