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I have been slow in writing this post because I have wanted to do my experience justice. In late November I crossed the country, stopping off in Lawrence Kansas for Thanksgiving with family before returning to California. Starting from the east coast, on my way to Kansas I visited friends who had moved to Springfield, Missouri. As much as any place Springfield probably deserves to be called the “buckle on the Bible Belt” and is certainly not noted for its Pagan community. There might be one, but if so I did not have the pleasure of meeting any. Instead I stayed with an old friend from college and his wife, who is an ordained minister in the Assemblies of God, the largest Pentecostal denomination in the United States and a major force within conservative Christianity.
I arrived Saturday, and Sunday they invited me to a meeting at the James River Assembly of God, a megachurch just outside Springfield. I have never been interested in attending or listening to Southern Baptists, but the Pentecostals have always interested me. Their focus is on personal interaction with the Holy Spirit rather than exclusively on a crabbed, selective, and heartless parsing of Biblical texts.
Some of their congregations are known for speaking in tongues and other manifestations of their encounter with Spirit. Years ago when I worked at a healing center in Berkeley oriented towards Brazilian Umbanda we learned a great deal about such phenomena, although there was no speaking in tongues. A wonderful Black woman there visited a Black Pentecostal church in San Francisco and reported to me that the energies appeared to her to be the same, but that the congregation seemed less knowledgeable as to how to work with them. Karen’s report made me permanently curious to see for myself, though I never made it to the San Francisco group.
Their openness to direct encounters with Spirit has also made them disreputable in the eyes of many mainstream churches, and some conservative Evangelical churches regard them as possessed by demons. For them God somehow decided not to communicate with people directly after Jesus. Maybe He was tired. Interestingly, the Pentecostals are also much more open to the role of women in positions of authority, as with their having women ministers. This is interesting to me in my social science guise because openness to such phenomena is traditional greater among women than among men in Asia, Africa and Latin America.
Do not misunderstand me. These folks are not liberal Christians although at least some do not reject science in favor of such mindless silliness as taking Genesis “literally.” I am pretty sure their voting patterns have little if any overlap with my own. Michele Bachmann and Sarah Palin are members of the Assemblies of God. There is much within the denomination to worry those of us who believe that government should be under the control of citizens rather than those who think they know their God’s plans. While my friends knew I was a Pagan, most did not. But if that were all there was to it, there would be no need to write this post.
But there is more to it.
Chaged views of Christianity
I have been trying to understand the mixes of spiritual truth and darkness in Christianity ever since I became a Pagan. In the years before becoming a Pagan I had become intensely anti-Christian. The fear and pain involved of working myself free from the deeply instilled fear that my brief flirtation with a variety of fundamentalism had instilled a deep antagonism. I am sure many readers can appreciate this. However, after having a series of spiritual experiences that made me a Pagan, I had to rethink my blanket anti-Christian attitude. If Spirit was immanent within the world then everything in the world had some kind of connection to it, however small or misunderstood. Even Christianity. To the surprise of some Evangelicals I interacted with in an interfaith conference, becoming Pagan mellowed my outlook on Christianity.
I have come to look at Christianity as one vehicle among many by which people could try and bring themselves into better harmony with Spirit. There was Torquemada but there was also St. Francis, for every corrupt minister and stone-hearted parishnoer there were others with good hearts who found meaning in their services and rituals, meaning that helped make them better people. Some were attracted to Power, others to the Sacred. Should we become a well established and numerous community I am sure we will find the same variety among us, although currently there are not enough “perks” to attract many of the worst sort.
Like us Pagans, Christians sincerely attracted to Spirit faced the problem of understanding what was beyond the power of words to communicate. I and many Pagans take our lessons from nature, Christians from scripture, and for some such as Pentecostals and Quakers, also from personal encounter. I have no doubt my approach is best for me, but I can not be dismissive of the approaches followed by others.
I also had to take seriously the fact that while the criticisms of Christianity by many atheists were often well taken, it was equally true that other Christian denominations had developed in wonderful directions, the Quakers for one. Very interestingly, the reason the Quakers got that name was because they were also personally often taken over by the power of what they thought of as the Holy Spirit. Quakers quaked. They also increasingly put personal revelation and openness of heart in place of the crabbed readings of theologians and ministers. The fruits the Quakers left to European civilization are wonderful, most spectacularly in initiating the abolition of slavery, one of humankind’s oldest institutions while the Biblical literalists condemned them as heretics and argued God approved of slavery. Today as I understand it, Quakers no longer “quake,” but many churches still practice collective silence until someone is moved by Spirit to speak. I have been deeply impressed with the Quakers I have met.
It is from this rather complex perspective that I attended services at the James River church. It was unlike any church I had entered, resembling more a combination of mall and concert hall. The building was huge, with room for some thousand attendees. It seemed as if the most devoted members could spend their entire non-working or sleeping hours there if they wanted, and some likely did. The main assembly room was huge, with a spacious stage. As I entered with my friends a rock band started playing devotional Christian music.
They were good, very good and their music was lively. Devotional did not necessarily translate to “Rock of Ages.” The music had zip and zing and audience of mostly younger families began to stand and sway and sometimes sing with the music. The songs were mostly if not entirely about God’s love. Compared to what I had expected from what I had heard about Pentecostal services, it was pretty sedate, but compared to any Christian gathering I had even seen, it was very lively and the energy was good. A giant screen behind the musicians broadcast their faces so no matter how far away we were we could see them.
I thought this was a “pre-service” event, and as I had my camera with me, I started taking pictures. Immediately someone came up and very politely said it was fine to take pictures, but I could not use a flash. The place was dark enough that without a flash pictures were impossible. But much more importantly, the music was actually a part of the service. Had I known, I never would have been so disrespectful as to try and photograph it. It would have been like taking pictures of a circle casting while a guest. Embarrassed, I put my camera down and never thought of photography again till it was over.
While the “packaging” of the music was entirely alien (I prefer small groups and meeting in nature), the message seemed to me a good one. No words about Hell, no references to fear, no talk of “us versus them.” It was positive.
What about the energy?
My years of shamanic training have made me quite open to what I call “spiritual energy,” and as I said, one of the things I most hoped to experience was the kinds of energies Pentecostals are known for having. I was not entirely disappointed. It was definitely there although standing in a row of theater seats made it hard to “go with it.” And indeed, I did not see anyone else in the congregation get very taken with Spirit at the time, although their involvement was far more bodily and joyous than I had ever seen in any church I had ever been in, be it High Church Episcopal or a Fundamentalist gathering. I suspect a smaller congregation, where people were less spectators and more participants, would have brought in more lively behavior. My friends told me that was precisely what happened in smaller churches with older participants. If I make it to Springfield perhaps they will take me to such a service.
After the music ended James Lindell, the pastor, arrived and at first reported on charitable activities within the community, which included work rebuilding homes destroyed by the tornado this past May. Hundreds of food baskets had been created and a giving tree established.
The pastor then asked if people had need of healing, and for those who did to come to the front . I was disappointed because they then disappeared with people assigned I assume to do healing work on them. My own years of healing work made me very curious as to how they did theirs. But I could not see what was done, let along experience the quality of energies involved. Perhaps a smaller more traditional church would have been different.
Lindell then gave his sermon, which was different from any Christian sermon I had heard before, and again, as with the singing I could largely agree with its concrete content which was essentially a focus on divine love and that the greatest sin was self-righteousness. The masks of Spirit were strange to me, but the inner meaning seemed right on.
Obviously these folks were not Southern Baptists. Nor did they seem at all similar to Bachmann or Palin. Politics was never mentioned, anger never directed at anybody.
I have since thought a great deal about the service, the open and friendly people I met, and how I enjoyed much of it without being tempted even in the slightest to reconsider my own Pagan beliefs. The Assemblies of God could bring forth a service such as I experienced, where nothing in the message seemed off to me, and they could also give us the likes of Sarah Palin and Michelle Bachmann and their efforts to subordinate democracy to theocracy. (Yet I imagine many in the Springfield community would vote for one of these, given the chance.) And here is where I think there is hope for the Assemblies of God, and for us all, in a way I think is vastly more difficult for the Southern Baptists.
The individual churches are self-governing and also choose their ministers. I imagine the kinds of nastiness or corrupt opportunism that comes from centralized hierarchies is absent whereas as I understand it the original decentralization of the Southern Baptists has been seriously compromised. But this is not enough.
In addition, these congregations are open to Spirit in other than written form, or in the words of someone claiming to speak for God. Each person is individually open to inspiration, at least in principle. The tensions between dead dogma and living Spirit are always highest when people are themselves open to Spirit and so can question with confidence someone’s interpretation of what scripture says. The Springfield community, my friends told me, were not Biblical ‘literalists.’ (Neither are the ‘literalists,’ but that’s another topic.)
Such groups can evolve. They can learn and grow, just as many of us have deepened our understanding the longer we remain Pagans.
If the mix of good and bad that seems to me to be such an intimate part of the Assemblies of God can shift towards politics and seeking power and dominion, the bad, it can also shift towards personal devotion and service. While the former deeply scares me with the violence that always accompanies those who think they speak for God in telling others what to do and how to live as soon as they believe they have the power to coerce, it is also able to shift in the direction of genuine service to Spirit in the form it presents itself to them.
The Southern Baptists seem a lost cause to me, permanently distorted by their having been so identified in their own minds with slavery and the Confederacy and trapped in the spiritual death of confusing their understanding of words written long ago with Spirit’s demands on the world today. The Assemblies of God on the other hand are open to rethinking those words by virtue of the experiences they have personally, experiences that in this instance at least put heart and spirit ahead of the spiritual death of texts worshipped but never understood. Christianity gave us the Quakers and maybe, just maybe, something as good for people will arise again in Missouri.