Pentecostalism and Weak Pneumatology

I presented this paper at the Fordham Theological Graduate Conference on May 2, 2015. It was fun to write and think through my family’s tradition. Enjoy!

John Caputo called one Sunday afternoon and said that he wanted to meet me that night at an Assemblies of God church for a revival. I agreed and arrived at the church extra early so I could save a seat for him. Of course, he arrived as the service started and sat in the pew behind me. The organ wailed, some prayers prayed, and tongues commenced. At this point, Caputo leans forward and in a hushed voice says, “It spooks.” Intrigued by this curious phrase, I wait for some explanation, but instead he sits back. A little later in the service, there’s time for testimonies. A mother stood from her pew and shared her thankfulness for the congregation. They had provided her family with meals and kind words, after her daughter died tragically. Caputo hands me a ripped out bible page with the words, “It spooks.” As the sermon started, Caputo got up and left. After the service, he met me in the graveled parking lot outside. He didn’t say a word and so we stood there, people watching. We observed hugs exchanged, hands held, and dinner plans made. I turn around and he’s gone. But on my dirty car window, he had etched “It spooks.” I leave slightly confused and go back to my apartment to think on these things. (for those wondering, this is a fictional story.)

The following presentation is inspired by John Caputo’s recent essay, It Spooks, which uses the language of haunting and spooking to speak of God’s Spirit. I take up the language of spooking throughout this paper because it is a fine conduit between Pentecostalism and weak theology.

Pentecostalism and weak theology represent different poles on the spectrum of theology and practice. On the one pole, Pentecostalism in the US exemplifies the very essence of conservatism, anti-intellectualism, and exclusivism. Culturally characterized as snake-handlers and tongues speakers, they emphasize God’s Spirit as healer, gift-giver, and sustainer of the universe. Far on the other pole, waves weak theology. This was popularized in John Caputo’s book, The Weakness of God, where he writes, “I do not take the name of God to pick out an entity, … but an event, an advent, a future and a promise, a call and a claim, a hope and an aspiration.” (123-124). Weak theology, an arm of postmodern theology, explains that the name of God is found in the event, but is not the event itself. It rejects, or at least, holds loosely, any kind of religious doctrine, recognizing that certainty got us into this mess, and it certainly can’t help what we’re in today. Thus, any attempt to put into discussion Pentecostalism and weak theology, one must carefully not envelope either side into the other. In this paper, I want to demonstrate that Pentecostalism has the tools for revolution, i.e. anti-hierarchical and direct democracy. And here the spirit spooks and the function of this spooking is to suspend binaries of race, class, sex, and gender. But to help sharpen these revolutionary tools, I propose that weak theology encourages novelty in the Pentecostalism Project.

Pentecostalism, from its genesis, found non-cerebral ways to experience the holy specter. Avery Gordon theorizes haunting in her book Ghostly Matters: Haunting and the Sociological Imagination. She writes, “Being haunted draws us affectively, something against our will and always a bit magically, into the structure of feeling of a reality we come to experience, not as cold knowledge, but as a transformative recognition.”[1] In other words, haunting opens new faculties of knowledge, away from the cerebral-only understandings of life. Many Pentecostal and Charismatic worship services are haunted in this way. They are spaces in which one’s theological knowledge is deferred because of the overwhelming experiences of the wholly ghastly. For instance, every Sunday morning of my youth, my great-grandmother would speak in tongues during worship. The holy ghost landed on this woman, who was born and raised in a country trailer park. She had no formal education beyond middle school and this hallowed haunter swept into her during the service without any qualms. She was haunted.

To gain some context, let’s start at the beginning of the Pentecostal Movement. Two ministers helped establish American Pentecostalism. First was the founder of the Bethel Bible College in Topeka, KS and was one of the first preachers to teach about speaking-in-tongues. He was a Southern white man named Charles Parham. He was pastor of the service in January 1901, where speaking in tongues was first inaugurated. A few years later, a young black man, the son of two slaves and blind in one eye, came to hear Parham speak about this phenomenon. He was William J. Seymour. Yet because of the Jim Crow reality, Seymour was not able to sit in the same room as Parham, so he sat outside the door and listened. After spending a few days there, Seymour took up the cause of Pentecostalism and started to preach about it. And he would eventually lead the Azusa Street Revival from 1906-1909.

From the very beginning, Seymour believed that the geist of eternity did not commend social or racial divisions. Gastón Espinosa, a Pentecostal Latino theologian wrote that the Azusa Revival “grew precisely because it was a transgressive social space wherein racial-ethnic minorities, women, the working class, and others could cross some of the deeply inscribed unbiblical racial-ethnic, class, gender, and national borders and boundaries of the day.”[2] This revival transcended time and place, growing in number and color.

In those three years, Charles Parham visited the Azusa Street Revival a few times. The last time he attended, he wrote an editorial piece condemning the Revival for its African-American spirituality wrapped up in Pentecostalism. He wrote, “Frequently a white woman, perhaps of wealth and culture, could be seen thrown back in the arms of a big buck [blank] and held tightly as she shook in freak imitation of Pentecost.”[3] Parham’s original vision of Pentecostalism was segregated. Blacks, browns, and whites should not attend the same services. The Azusa Street Revival spooked him and after the editorial, Seymour never publicly wrote of or acknowledged Parham again.

Transitioning to the biblical text, this holy ghost can be found haunting the pages of Christianity’s sacred script declaring an egalitarian religious participation. Paul included a well-known ancient metaphor of the body in 1st Corinthians 12:12-31, which is highly functional: if one is an ear they should do their best to listen well and if one is a foot they should respect their position and walk or run the best they are able. Yet, Paul equalizing this seemingly hierarchical metaphor declares, “But God has so arranged the body, giving the greater honor to the inferior member, that there may be no dissension within the body, but the members may have the same care for one another” (12:24-25). As a result, the holy ghost’s gifts are for the common good, whether it is wisdom, knowledge, healing, miraculous powers, speaking in tongues, or the interpretation of tongues (1 Cor. 12:8-10). And these gifts, which are received from the holy ghost are an extension of God’s grace. Thus, what one receives from the holy haunter is for the building up of faith communities and not for personal gain.

This political cartoon takes the interpretative lens of the passage from 1st Corinthians as hierarchical. William Seymour is pictured as the foot inside the church with seemingly all white men, which was certainly not the case historically. Standing outside is Charles Parham with an oversized head and a book of the apostolic faith, which apparently Seymour was not following. This political cartoon is trying to, as Mason in the film Snowpiercer says to those lower class persons in the caboose of the train, “When the foot seeks the place of the head, the sacred line is crossed. Know your place. Keep your place. Be a shoe.”

Moving forward, the holy specter disrupts oppression through haunting. Once again, Avery Gordon lays out a beautifully theological statement:

The ghost is not other or alterity as such, ever. It is pregnant with unfulfilled possibility, with the something to be done that the wavering present is demanding. This something to be done is not a return to the past but a reckoning with its repression in the present, a reckoning with what which we have lost, but never had.[4]

Ghosts, and specifically the holy specter, haunts not so that one becomes fearful of it, but so that it can waver one’s present state of comfort. For Parham, the state of his racism, his sympathy for the KKK, and his pro-Jim Crow attitude shook when he encountered the revival. Potentially, when the ghoulish spirit enters faith communities today, it could shake them of their apathy for the poor, their neglect of the systems of injustice including racism, sexism, transphobia, and so many more I could name. Hence the holy specter does not side with the powerful, but haunts them until they share with those without.

Yet, where might the haunting happen? William Seymour provides for us a response. He wrote an article in 1908, titled “Questions Answered” featured in the magazine Apostolic Faith. One of the questions asked was, “Is it necessary for a person to leave their home duties in order to wait at some place for the Holy Ghost?” He responded, “No; you can wait right in the kitchen or in the parlor or in the barn. Some have received the baptism of the Spirit in their barns, some in the kitchen, some at family worship, some on their porch, some about their business.”[5] The holy ghost can spook anyone at anytime, no where is safe. For the holy ghost is not a kindly Casper the Friendly Ghost, who got along with everyone without any problems. No, this holy specter haunts the world for the common good disrupting the lives of the comfortable and well-off. The holy specter haunts: that one can love better, share fuller, and listen more deeply to the needs of others.

Pentecostalism was one of the first Christian denominations, especially the Azusa Street Revival, to demonstrate equality among all persons regardless of race, class, or gender. Yet, has forgotten its tradition and become crystallized in conservative ideology and rhetoric. Weak theology, seen throughout this paper as constructing new possibilities in pneumatological discourse, haunts one towards justice. Once again, Avery Gordon, our spookologist, writes, “haunting, unlike trauma by contrast, is distinctive for producing a something-to-be-done.”[6] As we heard Caputo in the opening story creepily say and spell out, “It spooks.” Pentecostalism has rendered these words, in some way, for more than a hundred years, but sometimes need to be reminded again and again.

[1] Avery F. Gordon and Janice Radway, Ghostly Matters: Haunting and the Sociological Imagination, 2nd edition (Minneapolis: Univ Of Minnesota Press, 2008), 8.

[2] Gastón Espinosa, William J. Seymour and the Origins of Global Pentecostalism: A Biography and Documentary History (Durham ; London: Duke University Press Books, 2014), 101.

[3] Gastón Espinosa, William J. Seymour and the Origins of Global Pentecostalism: A Biography and Documentary History (Durham ; London: Duke University Press Books, 2014), 99.

[4] Avery F. Gordon and Janice Radway, Ghostly Matters: Haunting and the Sociological Imagination, 2nd edition (Minneapolis: Univ Of Minnesota Press, 2008), 183.

[5] Gastón Espinosa, William J. Seymour and the Origins of Global Pentecostalism: A Biography and Documentary History (Durham ; London: Duke University Press Books, 2014), 194.

[6] Avery F. Gordon, “Who”s there?’: some answers to questions about Ghostly Matters., website, October 26, 2007, http://www.averygordon.net/writing-haunting/whos-there/.