Sunday, July 17, 2005

Launching Pad

Book Review
Title: Fire From Heaven
Subtitle: The Rise of Pentecostal Spirituality and the Reshaping of Religion in the Twenty-First Century
Author: Harvey Cox

There are hardly any books on the subject of the history of the Pentecostal movement at the public library, here in the town of Bogwater. But I checked out one by Harvey Cox, mistakenly thinking that his book was a history.

Nope! How mistaken I was! Cox's book does have a little bit of history in it, but it is hardly what I would call a history written by an historian. What little history there was in his book served mostly as a launching pad for Cox to indulge in lofty theological philosophizing. What I'd really like to call it is a steaming pile of something else, but I'll be nice and just describe it as the kind of liberal twaddle that Ivy League academe is bound to love — jammed packed with all sorts of highfalutin concepts such as "cognitive gridworks" and "perceptional barriers" and whatnot. In fact, the book is so larded with verbal cruff, that by the time I reached chapter four, the induced nausea I was experiencing made it increasingly difficult for me to continue reading the book. That he really had nothing worthwhile to say should not have been surprising, considering that Cox is a professor of religion at Harvard University. But then again Harvard long ago became "a haunt for every unclean spirit and every detestable bird." It's hard to believe that Harvard was once founded by actual xtians.

Therefore, I wouldn't recommend bothering with the book. About the only worthwhile thing were some of the bibliographical notes in the back, which mention the titles of actual histories and which may be worth the trouble trying to find on Amazon.

What was pitiful about the book was watching Cox thrash about trying to understand what's going on, trying to explain things first with this concept and then with that, when all along a simple 10-year old in a Sunday School class, having a heart of faith, could have grasped things with ease. Using the words from an old hymn from long ago:
I serve a risen Savior
He's in the world today;
I know that He is living
No matter what men may say…
Yes, a 10-year old can grasp that, but for a Harvard professor it's completely beyond him.

Friday, July 01, 2005

Sane is Insane

I finished Epstein's biography on Aimee Semple McPherson and am already midway through Blumhofer's lengthier biography. Both books have been very fascinating for me, but the difference between them is very noticible. Epstein writes as if he were genuinely intrigued by Aimee's life. Blumhofer's writing style comes off more like that of a resolutely dispassionate historian, although she supplies far more historical background details — especially on the concurrent events in the history of the Pentecostal revival in the early 20th Century, details which Epstein left out mostly in the interest of brevity. But there are places where Epstein added some telling details that Blumhofer chose to leave out.

However, one strange thing I noticed was a glaring contradiction between Epstein and Blumhofer concerning at least one fact. Epstein gives the date of the death of Aimee's father, James Kennedy, as occuring on October 20, 1927, to which Epstein adds these words (p.127):
Aimee had not seen her father in many years. Nowhere in her writing does she mention his death. She did not attend the funeral.
Blumhofer on the other hand, as she covered the events around Aimee's campaign in Canton, Ohio, in 1921, adds the following (pp.178-179):
During the Canton Crusade, on October 20, Sister's father, James Kennedy, died in Ingersoll, old and alone. Sister was preparing for her last healing service when word arrived… Her associates kept the news from her until the service ended. She took it calmly and spoke with reporters about James Kennedy's influence on her life and his interest in her evangelistic work. He had promised to be in Canton for her last Sunday, she said. Instead, when the meetings ended on Sunday, October 23, she took the night train to Ingersoll for his funeral.
Now that is a remarkable contradiction! One or the other, either Epstein or Blumhofer, has gotten his or her facts wrong. But more than that, while Blumhofer's text gives the year as 1921, the caption beneath a photograph of Kennedy, Aimee, Harold, and Rolf McPherson, on page 179, gives the year of Kennedy's death as 1922. It's odd that somebody couldn't read the obituary correctly.

There's also another seeming contradiction. Epstein says "Aimee had not seen her father in many years". Blumhofer says "James Kennedy had occasionally made long trips to visit Aimee's meetings" (p.179), which would seem to imply that she had still been seeing her father off and on.

As I said, Epstein does supply some telling details. As one example, there was an incident during the December 1919 meeting in the Lyric Theater in Baltimore, Maryland. Blumhofer vaguely and parenthetically notes, on page 147 of her book, that at one point Aimee "forcibly silenced at least one would-be prophetess during a large service". On the other hand, Epstein in his book amplified things considerably more, as can be read on pages 171-172:
In the middle of the auditorium a woman got up. Her face was rosy with excitement. Waving her arms about her head, she pushed her way to the aisle and started toward the altar, knocking off ladies' hats with her arms…

Aimee nudged the elder next to her on the dais, and whispered,: "Go! Go quickly brother, get that woman in her seat; this is not of the Lord."

At first he refused … but moved by Aimee's urgency, he got up. While the evangelist roused the crowd to a chorus to cover the incident, he guided the flailing zealot back to her seat.

In a moment she was in the aisle again, moving from row to row and grimacing. She waved her arms, knocking off hats and eyeglasses, shrieking "Praise God" and shaking her fist in people's faces.

Aime could not leave the platform to restrain the woman—such a thing on the evangelist's part would be so shocking a trangression of Pentecostal custom, it might ruin the meeting. So she pursuaded one of the choristers to get the woman out of the auditorium and into a smaller meeting room. There Aimee later observed her:
"There the enemy showed his true colors and purpose. The woman proved to be a maniac who had been in an asylum. Her delusion seemed to cause her to believe herself a preacher. She paced the floor, crying disconnected sentences, raving and preaching to the chairs… Yet this was the kind of woman many of the saints would have allowed to promenade the platform — fearing lest they quench the Spirit."
This account, published soon after the Baltimore meeting, is Aimee's defense of an action for which she was severely criticized.
I wonder how Epstein knew that the woman's face was "rosy with excitment". Did someone happen to take notes on the color of the woman's face back then? Now both Epstein and Blumhofer, more or less, endeavor to interpret the events of the Baltimore meeting as evidence showing that McPherson was steering things towards the "mainstream".

On the other hand, one of the charismatic gifts listed in the NT is the "discernment of spirits", the ability to intuit what's really happening beneath the visible surface of things, to see whether something has its origin in the Spirit of God or whether it is coming from elsewhere. It's a valuable if not very spectacular gift. Although the question never occured to either Epstein or Blumhofer, what would have happened if Aimee had allowed a deranged fruitcake up on the stage? One can imagine. In any case, it would served only to discredit the message Aimee was preaching. Now, in the past I have also met my share of deranged fruitcakes. For example, the loony groundskeeper at my college long ago who insisted that he was XP. Another was a poor soul debilitated by drug-induced schizophrenia who sat down and visited with me and my wife at a pizza parlor one time, and who happened to be someone she once knew back when he was still sane. Now both of these people looked very normal, that is, until you started talking with them. Would it be a good idea to allow either of them to start off an evangelistic service in front of thousands of people? No, I don't think so.

Therefore, it could just as well be the case that what occurred in the Lyric Theater was Aimee's seeing past the appearances to what was really happening and thus was able to avoid a catastrophe. Unfortunately, as later events in her life would prove, she didn't always exercise such keen discernment in dealing with some of the people who would later prove so damaging to her ministry and to herself personally. Nevertheless, using this incident as an example, it was interesting to compare how Blumhofer the historian and Epstein the biographer handled it; their different approaches are pretty well illustrated by it. Epstein goes for the dramatic, but Blumhofer maintains a detached, scholarly respectablity.

Many hard-core secularists regard conservative, Bible-believing xtians as already being ipso facto deranged. And consequently, they probably would not say there is any substantive distinction between Aimee Semple McPherson and the poor deranged woman who was in the auditorium that day, going around knocking off people's hats and eyeglasses. On the other hand, in this "enlightened" culture of ours, what is insane is sane, what is perverted is normal, and what is darkness is light.