Saturday, March 21, 2009

Old Tent Revivals

Book Review

Title: All Things Are Possible
Author: David Edwin Harrell Jr.

David Edwin Harrell Jr. wrote a fascinating book entitled "All Things Are Possible: The Healing and Charismatic Revival in Modern America". It primarily covers two periods: the modern tent revivalists who had their greatest heyday in the years from 1947 to 1958, and the fainter echo which Harrell termed the "charismatic revival" from 1958 to 1974.

Harrell did an enormous amount of in-depth research, and his book ends with a lengthy bibliographical essay concerning his sources. He provides many of the historical details that Vinson Synan's broader history would not have been able to supply. Harrell mentioned some personalities whose names I recognize, the most notable being Oral Roberts. But he also covered other major tent revivalists of the early 1950s, whom I never heard of before, such as Jack Coe, A.A. Allen, and William Branham.

Now I confess that I've never seen an old time "tent revivalist" in action. Back in the 1950s, my mother, being a stout Southern Baptist at the time, with a strong adversion to anything Pentecostal, would never have set foot in a revival tent, and least of all would she have allowed any of her kids near one. Anyhow, traveling tent revivalists were not common in southern California, where I grew up. Even to this day, just mentioning the name of Oral Roberts, for example, will elicit an askanced look from my mother, even though Roberts has undergone quite a transformation since his early tent revival days. The nearest I've gotten to a tent revival was listening to Neil Diamond's song "Brother Love's Traveling Salvation Show", which I suppose harkens back to those tent revivalists of the 1950s and earlier.

Back then the main Pentecostal denominations had an on-and-off relationship with the independent, healing tent-revivalists. But I must point out that Harrell presents a fairly a complicated story, and one should read his book to get the complete picture. On one hand, for example, one early tent revivalist, Aimee Semple McPherson—who by the way also had a remarkable healing ministry of her own for a time in the early 1920s—would later go on to start a major Pentecostal denomination, the Foursquare Church. But on the other hand, the Pentecostal denominations often kept their distance from some of the revival tentsters of the 1950s. But it was understandable as to why. Besides having strongly individualistic, ambitious, even combative, personalities, some of the healing revivalists were flaky in their doctrine, and their methods and claims were sometimes very questionable. As to the miraculous and healing aspects of the revivals, Harrell really didn't make any effort to explore these in any depth. This was odd considering that other authors I have read who covered Aimee Semple McPherson, for example, did go into detail about various testimonies of healing, even if they tried at times to explain them away as being merely psychologically induced phenomena. I suspect that Harrell simply took it for granted that "divine healing" just does not happen, that a healing revival is simply another cultural phenomenon, more under the category of "mass hysteria", and therefore nothing needed said on this aspect of the subject. I do think the biggest deficiency in his book is that Harrell really never conveys just what it was like to attend a tent revival. Nor does he convey adequately what the revivalists actually preached. Something which Harrell never made clear is the revivalists' own viewpoint on why healing and miracles occur. Harrell seemed content to suggest that they thought of themselves as possessing the power to heal people. But I am fairly sure such is probably not the case: they would disagree vehemently with such a suggestion, and they would loudly insist that it was God who was the true source of all miracles and healing, although they would add that they were merely the instruments of His deliverance.

Harrell's book does provide, however, what I would call a "vertical" history of the revivals, since it is organized mostly around covering the individual personalities, instead of providing an over-all, horizontal picture based on chronology. Although he supplied historical information that would difficult now to find elsewhere, organizing his book in this way tended to make it a pastiche of mini-biographies, thus making it more difficult to grasp the larger historical picture of what was happening and why. For example, Harrell almost completely leaves out what was going on with the main Pentecostal denominations at the time. Thus the reader never really has a complete explanation of why those denominations held the attitudes they did about the revivalists, who mostly were independent from denominational control. In fact, a few of the tent revivalists were strongly anti-institutional, even to the point of deep hostility; one even described membership in a denomination as the "mark of the beast".

The second part of Harrell's book covers the period of 1958 to 1974. In this time frame, the picture began to change considerably. But because of Harrell's vertical focus, I don't think he coherently pulled together the reasons for the change, other than mentioning some economic factors. He does cover some of the bigger names of the period, such as Oral Roberts, T.L. Olson, W.V. Grant, and several others, again mostly in a biographical fashion. He also briefly mentioned Kathyrn Kuhlman and David Wilkerson, giving them a few paragraphs.

Now, geographically speaking, Harrell's book tends to focus mostly on what was happening in the eastern half of the United States, and it is little surprise that the southern states are the primary backdrop for the old-time tent revivalists. However, Harrell entirely missed the "Jesus People Movement", which also had its halcyon in the late 1960s and early 1970s, and happened mostly on the west coast of the United States.

Friday, March 06, 2009

Raining on Frank Viola's Parade

A Book Review
Title: Reimagining Church
Author: Frank Viola

In his book, Frank Viola does present a serious thesis that should be given attention. In fact, it's so serious that all the pastors in America need to put their heads together and come up with some kind of irrefragable rebuttal, because in effect Viola is saying that the entire raison d'ĂȘtre for their salaried positions is built on nothing but air.

But his book did have my attention, and very much so because at one time in my life I watched first hand the effects of what happens when a pastorship degenerates into a personality cult. Let me just say that it was very destructive. Therefore, it gave me pause to consider whether Viola might have a point.

However, my one criticism is that Viola tends to diminish the impact of what he is saying by trying to cover too many topics in one book, and sometimes he covers them in a manner that is not as convincing as he imagines. For example, I thought Viola's chapter on "apostolic tradition" ended up being a silly straw-man exercise. He set up a straw man which he calls "biblical blueprintism," knocked it down, and then proceeded to set up in its place what really amounts to assent to the authority of Scriptures. But what is the point? No conservative evangelical would dispute that. And the chapter ended up being a pointless detour over terminology and words. When some people say "blueprint," they are merely using a building contractor metaphor for the authority of Scriptures. And the Scriptures are the only way we have functional access to the Apostolic tradition by which we are to be guided, a "blueprint" as it were—unless you want to add to the picture Papalism. Of course Viola is not advocating Papalism, but this chapter should have been cut out of the book as fluff, as a mistaken attempt to say nothing particularly illuminating, even if it may have been a confused effort to try to prove his viewpoint as being more "apostolic" than everybody elses. But this is a good example of an ongoing problem with Viola's writing: after he makes a good point, he doesn't know when to shut up and consequently over-extends himself.

I also thought his previous book, Pagan Christianity, also had much the same problem in that Viola tended to fall down various rabbit-holes into subjects that were quite frivolous, and that some of his treatment of church history veered into the over-simplistic.¹ My other criticism of Reimagining Church is that he overuses the "organic" label. Just slapping the word "organic" on everything does not constitute an adequate explanation and it tended to get tiresome, sounding more like verbal foofaraw about not using artificial fertilizers, insecticides, or food preservatives.

In my opinion, Viola needed to keep the book's focus on his two main points and hammer them with everything he's got: (1) why the whole clergy-laity dichotomy must be discarded now, and (2) how a "house church" can be made to function in practice in the real world — not to mention the messy transition period wherein a lot of ex-pastors will be out looking for paying jobs as plumbers and bakers and candlestick makers, and also all those mortgages for the church buildings that will need to be paid off, and … I think we get the picture.

And very importantly, he needed to explain how it can function without necessarily tying things in some manner to organizations that are connected to or recommended by himself. The big question, that he never really explains in any detail, is just exactly where do these organic "church planters" or "apostolic workers" come from? Who are they? Who picks them? Who trains them? Do they draw a salaries or make tents? Who decides? Or do they just sprout from the ground like mushrooms?

This issue is left dangling mid-air with no real explanations. Pardon me, but I detect a chicken-or-egg problem here. Viola never goes beyond just pointing readers to his recommended web sites. This is especially irksome to me because when I go there, one of them is compiling a database of names and addresses. Why do I have to provide this kind of information just to get an answer on what "house churches" exist in my vicinity? For me it makes it look as if, lurking behind the scenes somewhere, this is just another organization out pushing its own agenda. And what is so "organic" about that? Somebody is paying for these web sites. Why should I give any of Viola's recommended outfits primacy? Maybe if one of these "apostolic workers" showed up in my town and was doing works of a true apostle with "upmost patience and signs and wonders and mighty works,"² I might have reason to stand up and pay attention.

I think that Viola makes the schoolish mistake that supposes the way to solve a problem in the Church is to write yet another book with footnotes and a bibliography and toss it out there. I hate to rain on Frank Viola's parade, but I don't think this is what is needed. If the Church really is a spiritual organism, then another book publishing venture is not going to change things, no more than another book on astronomy will alter the motions of the Sun, Moon, and stars. If the Church was created by the Power of God, then it's going to take the operation of that same Power to alter and mold and correct it.

By the way, if there are any genuine, bona-fide, "organic" house churches here in Land-In-Between, they have done an excellent job of keeping their existence and whereabouts more secret than even the CIA's Black Ops Budget. So if I am going to associate with the xtian community, I am stuck with what I can actually find around here, even if it's still that bad old un-organic evangelical pastor-congregation paradigm that Viola says the New Testament doesn't really sanction.

You have to fight the war with the army you got, not the one you wish you had.

¹ See my brief review of his book Pagan Christianity.

² See 2 Corinthians 12:12 (ESV)