The Charismatic and Culture: Reflections on 1994
As a teenager in Brighton in the second half of the 1980’s I had a slow introduction to the club scene. Nightclubs did not hold a huge appeal for me, and I only visited one on a handful of occasions. They were loud, the drinks expensive, and the whole thing felt pretty tacky. They were not a significant part of my peer groups’ experience.
From October 1988 to September 1989 I was away in southern Africa, and upon my return began to notice a different kind of culture emerging in Brighton. People I had known from school or church were appearing dressed in dungarees and sporting smiley badges, and the talk was of a new musical genre: Acid House. Going up to university at Newcastle that autumn I was still personally uninterested in the club scene – and rather intimidated by the flash and flesh of Newcastle’s Bigg Market, with its girls in short skirts and men with short tempers. However, even from within my own particular bubble I was aware of other students who were into ‘clubbing’ and ‘raves’ and visiting Manchester at weekends to dance at the Hacienda – a club that was already notorious because of the UK’s first ecstasy-related death in July 1989; and dance bands like 808 State and The Shaman were booked to play in our Student Union.
Drugs, of course, were a prominent feature of the dance scene – both in reality, and in the way dance culture was reported by an anxious press. The tripped out happy buzz created by drugs like ecstasy was a key part of the scene, but a source of great concern to others.
The early Acid House music parties were held in derelict warehouses in a newly post-industrial northwest. Always existing on the margins of legality, and often outright illegal, these parties, and the larger raves that grew from them, represented freedom from restrictive laws governing clubs and drugs. They deliberately appropriated the symbols of previous generations and mashed them into new use – whether former mills, or the legend of 1967’s ‘summer of love’.
Over time the rave scene morphed from something illicit and a largely northern and working class phenomenon, into the cultural mainstream. In many ways, dance culture became the culture of British youth, reflected in musical taste, fashion, and with the spectacular growth of popularity in music festivals. The apogee of this is, of course, Glastonbury, which started in the 1970’s as a hippy festival and is now a middle-class fixture of the summer season, attracting 175,000 festival goers each July. The 120,000 tickets for Glastonbury 2014 (costing £250 each) sold out within 87 minutes of becoming available. (I applied, unsuccessfully.) While not a dance music festival, Glastonbury now features dance music as part of its annual line-up. Dance has shaped everything.
In 1994 I was a postgraduate student, recently married, and living in Canterbury, when news started to swirl about an extraordinary move of the Spirit which had leap-frogged the Atlantic from Toronto. I cannot recall the first meeting I was in when ‘the Spirit fell’ – to be honest, the whole period is such a blur of experiences. However, I do know that our church meetings quickly became something other than they had been, and that Grace and I would regularly travel to Brighton to be at meetings at Church of Christ the King (in a former warehouse – the church also appropriating a post-industrial landscape) where the power of the Spirit was, well, especially powerful. By spring 1995 I had moved to Sidcup, another epicentre of the outpouring, and for a time the pattern of ‘receiving/outpouring/catch-the-fire’ meetings continued, until by the end of the century, like a once-raging forest fire, the flames diminished, and we were left with the smell still in our nostrils of the extraordinary things we had experienced.
Yet even as the visceral power of 1994 began to fade something of its form remained, and entered the evangelical mainstream. This is probably best represented by New Wine/Soul Survivor, at which tens of thousands of mainly middle-class Brits gather in a west country field, just a stones throw from Glastonbury, attending meetings where they sing, dance, and receive ‘ministry’.
I experienced some extraordinary moments during what we came to know as ‘the Toronto blessing’, or, ‘the present move of the Holy Spirit’ (‘PMOTS’ for short). I remember flailing the air like a boxer on speed when Carol Arnott prophesied over me at CCK; lying on the floor feeling like I was being electrocuted during a ministry team pray meeting at Stoneleigh Bible Week; and – again at Stoneleigh – falling backwards ‘under the power of the Spirit’ and memorably smashing a vintage guitar amp.
And then there was the laughter. Gut-wrenching, rib-aching laughter.
There was the attempt at explanation – the oft-quoted, “These men are not drunk as you suppose.” And, of course, there were those who never ‘received’, some of whom left our churches disillusioned and sorrowful as a consequence.
Often, in subsequent years, I have asked myself, “What was that all about?” At the time I remember those of us who advocated what was happening responding to our critics by saying, “By their fruit you shall know them.” We expected PMOTS to bear fruit. Whether or not it did is open to debate and difficult to prove empirically. Arguably, PMOTS was fruitful in terms of the growth of Alpha, New Wine, and the creation of evangelical ‘brands’. Personally, my prayer life was invigorated by it, but I find it difficult to track much other obvious fruit, whether in my own life or that of others. Certainly, there did not seem to be any direct evangelistic breakthrough as a result of all that laughing and falling over. Perhaps this was because really it wasn’t about meetings that were attractive to non-Christians, but meetings in which “I” was comfortable. At times I wonder, Was I making it all up? What was really going on? And why did we respond the way that we did? Was it, perhaps, simply a sanctified rave?
As the years have gone by and we have spent more time debating the nature of baptism in the Spirit, and the use of sign gifts in our meetings, I have increasingly mused upon the connection between culture and religious experience. To what extent was PMOTS culturally shaped? To what extent baptism in the Spirit? These questions were perhaps first prompted during PMOTS itself when I heard the observation made that there were those who had ‘received’ during PMOTS meetings but were not baptised in the Spirit. How was this distinction made, I wondered.
I now look back at my experience of growing up in a church that was wrestling its way through the charismatic renewal in the 1970’s and wonder how much of that period was culturally shaped. There was a terrific, often painful and costly, break with previous expressions of church. Cold formality was swept away, people started wearing jeans to church, we lifted our hands in worship, danced, and some began to speak in other languages. At the same time we experienced what I can now see was an extraordinary depth of community. My childhood memory is of church picnics and church teas and endless hours in the homes of church members.
The 1970’s were years when there was a general resurgence of interest in community living and self-sufficiency – represented both in hippy communes and TV sit-com The Good Life. To what extent was something special and unique happening in our churches, and to what extent were our churches simply mirroring trends common to the culture? At the prosaic level, did we start wearing jeans to church because of new-found spiritual freedoms, or more because we started to do what the wider culture was doing? And do we overemphasise the impact of the charismatic movement on wider evangelicalism in such matters? Surely the main reason everyone now wears jeans to church is not because of the charismatic movement; rather, the charismatic movement of the early 70’s was reflecting youth culture of the late 60’s and within a few years the rest of the church caught up. The many (irritating!) exhortations I heard during PMOTS that, “We mustn’t be so British” really meant, “We mustn’t be so 1950’s British; we should be more 1990’s.”
These observations have led me to reflect on the manner in which we ‘receive the Spirit’. The culture of the UK has been shaped by dance culture – it has been far more than simply a style of music. Even those of us who have never been to a rave or listened to Acid House have been affected by it, and it seems more than coincidental to me that much of the form that PMOTS took closely paralleled what had happened at raves a few years earlier – actually, some of the meetings we had back then don’t look so odd when held up against the rave mirror.
Moreover, the experience of baptism in the Spirit (and the kind of church communities it created) in the 1970’s doesn’t look that different from the communitarian, experience-rich, hippy culture of the summer of love and early 70’s.
Salvation on Sand Mountain, Dennis Covington’s remarkable account of snake handling in southern Appalachia gives further insight into the connection between culture and religious experience. The snake handlers are the spiritual descendants of the 1801 Cane Ridge revival, the Holiness movement, and Pentecostalism. They sing, dance, speak in tongues, prophecy – and handle rattlesnakes and drink strychnine. “The handlers say they do it in order to confirm the Word. Jesus says that believers shall take up serpents. Somebody’s got to do it, or the Word is found to be a lie.” (Parallels of John Wimber’s, “When do we get to do the stuff?”) But why does this particular community take this particular scripture so literally? Covington locates the explanation in the culture and history of the Appalachians – border country inhabited by Scots Irish, poor, mystical, tough and violent. “Over time, I joined the handlers and became one myself – predictably, in retrospect, since I was so much like them: a poor Southern snake boy with an addiction to danger and thirst for ecstatic religious experience.” Within this cultural context it makes total sense for the Spirit to be received when snakes are handled because snake handling is the demonstration of openness to the Spirit. To not handle snakes is actually to quench the Spirit; as Covington illustrates with the anecdote that opens Salvation:
One night in East Tennessee, a snake-handling preacher came up to us and said, “You boys got any snakes in that car?”
We told him we didn’t.
“What? You mean to tell me you don’t have any rattlesnakes in your car?”
His eyes widened. “What’s the matter with you boys?” he said. “Are you crazy?”
While we may want to take exegetical issue with snake handlers, current debates about Baptism in the Spirit illustrate that the manner in which the Spirit is received is by no means settled. I want to argue that the illustrations given so far at least suggest that the surrounding culture affects the form in which we experience the Spirit. And I am absolutely certain that if I found myself in a snake handling service I would want to take up a snake.
The significance and validity of experience
In all the debates about how and when the Spirit is received, the word ‘experience’ is often used pejoratively. “You are interpreting that through your own experience” is a put down used by all sides of the debate – as though the pure light of undiluted reason, free from emotional or somatic connection, can be accessed to resolve all theological dispute.
To me this reveals an irrational dualism that favours the analysis of our brains in providing hermeneutical accuracy over the experience of our totality. This dualism is different from what we see recorded in the Scriptures, where encounters with the Holy Spirit are specifically experiential. Coming into the presence of God is about experience!
However, the form that experience takes seems to vary considerably from time to time, place to place, and culture to culture. Even a cursory reading of the book of Acts reveals there was no single, ‘normative’, pattern of receiving the Spirit. That this is so should be sufficient to make us expect to experience something when we receive the Spirit, but to be cautious in prescribing what that experience should be. The problem is if we make a particular experience (time, place, culture) normative; if that experience becomes in fact the hermeneutical grid through which we interpret all the Spirit’s work.
It is easy for a cessationist to dismiss the charismatic reading of Scripture by saying it is merely interpretation through experience, rather than by what it actually says. In return, it is easy for the charismatic to rebuff the cessationist be arguing that his lack of experience is what defines his biblical interpretation. Moreover, one charismatic might deny the validity of other charismatic experiences, because they do not conform to his own. To me, a more helpful approach is one that recognises the validity of experience, and sets it within some parameters, but doesn’t privilege one kind of experience over others. Nor does it water down the necessity of experience, nor prescribe exactly how and when it should be experienced.
1994 – What was that all about?
Casting an eye over my bookshelves and the books written at the time of PMOTS it is striking how many of the leading figures have subsequently experienced ‘moral failure’ (Benny Hinn – divorced, though now remarried; Mark Stibbe – affair; Paul Cain – homosexuality and alcoholism). Perhaps this is a statistically insignificant anomaly caused by the attrition of the world, the flesh and the devil; but it is striking. Of course, the failings of these men does not in itself invalidate what happened in 1994 (or ignore parallel cases from the cessationist side of the aisle), but as John Arnott wrote at the time (The Father’s Blessing), “The fruit produced in a person’s life is the…way to evaluate a spiritual experience.” Also notable is the theological heterodoxy among those prominent in 1994 and their heirs – from Randy Clark’s open theism, to Todd Bentley’s many extremes, to the more gnostic elements of Bethel. Again, this does not necessarily invalidate PMOTS, but is something of which to be aware.
What can be tentatively suggested is that there is a charismatic/Pentecostal culture that includes 1994 in its narrative, and which is much closer to the snake handlers of Alabama than we might be comfortable with. It is a culture born in the southern United States, and reflects the mores and priorities of that wider culture. This being the case, it is somewhat head-turning that the most successful British appropriation of PMOTS has been in the very English, very middle-class milieu of HTB-style, mile-wide-evangelical-Anglicanism. It is here that Boden Man has succeeded in stripping away the more distasteful Pentecostal elements, and embodying what remains in a respectable therapeutic form. For those used to ‘glamping’ at music festivals and tripping out on designer drugs to dance music, while drinking soya lattes and eating wholegrain flapjack, signing petitions to end human trafficking and attending consciousness-raising therapy sessions, the ministry time at a smart Anglican church must feel a home from home.
The last couple of paragraphs might sound somewhat snide. This is not intended. I am simply trying to make obvious that there is always a cultural envelope which enfolds our spiritual experiences. This does not mean our experiences are not real, but it does make it very difficult for us to objectively evaluate them. And it makes it dangerous if we regard our envelope as normative.
The millenarian sects of 17th century England, every bit as charismatic as 20th century Pentecostalism (Abiezer Coppe and his ‘Fiery Flying Roll’, or George Fox and the inner light), were utterly of a piece with their culture, as they explored newly found religious freedoms and equated the overthrow of the monarchy with the end times. And the Pentecostals of Azuza Street were of a piece with their own culture – the recently urbanised children of freed slaves. So with the charismatics of the 1960’s and 70’s, discovering the baptism of the Spirit, and experiencing a sanctified version of the hippy dream. And with their children in 1994, raving in warehouses.
The danger in my pointing this out is that I will be accused of claiming these experiences are ‘merely cultural’. Not at all. Rather, that we need to be wise in distinguishing what is from God, what is deception, what is imperative, what indicative, and what is our culturally mediated response.
Twenty years on, I’m not sure I have an adequate answer to the question ‘1994 – What was that all about?’ I believe God was in it, but that there were excesses, and that the form PMOTS took reflected other cultural trends evident in western society at the time.
Equally difficult to answer is the question of how and to what extent our current experiences of the Spirit are culturally mediated. Again, a tentative suggestion: trends evident in our society over the past twenty years are a flight from ideology and a focus on brands. Perhaps our ‘successful’ churches mirror these cultural trends – pedalling softly on doctrinal distinctiveness while leveraging ‘brand recognition’. I think there is evidence of this at both a national level with something like Alpha, and more locally with some of the larger, multisite churches. Also significant is the prominence of ‘therapy culture’ in our current cultural experience – arguably something mirrored in many ‘ministry times’ and in the influence of Bill Johnson and Bethel. In such settings it is unlikely that an experience of the Spirit will produce the kind of dramatic structural changes that occurred with ‘restoration’ in the 1970’s. Theology and ecclesiology are considered of less significance than ‘feel’, so the experience of the Spirit is also less confrontational.
An obvious question that arises for us out of this observation is at what point our cultural envelope becomes a hindrance to actively receiving the Spirit. Arguably some cultures are more open than others – would a 1970’s style charismatic renewal have been possible in the more straitlaced 1950’s? At the least, we should be alert to the importance of ‘discerning the times’ and aware of the impact of the wider culture upon us. Over the past few years there has been a lot of conversation about the church ‘impacting the culture’. It seems to me that the impact is rather more likely to be the other way around, and most of the time we do not even realise it. That is how culture works, even when we think of ourselves as charismatic.