The Scandal of the Charismatic Mind (Part I)

The Attitudes

There is something I have wanted to get off my chest for a very long time about the Charismatic Movement (CM). I am not the first to say it neither will I be the last but it is a very pertinent issue that needs to be addressed. Awareness has to be raised so the more talk about it the better. First of all the global Charismatic Movement is one of the best things to have happened to the Church in its entire history. It is evangelizing the world at an unprecedented rate with vibrant energy and creativity. However, as with all things involving people it does have its challenges. One of the major problems I have with the local charismatic scene is the incipient anti-intellectualism found in many quarters. This is not the criticism of an outsider looking in but the observation of a life-long Pentecostal/Charismatic, born and raised.

First of all, I do want to issue a caveat. Whatever I do say about the CM one must remember it is a movement, a loose collection of groups with general similarities. My personal observations maybe true for some but not for others. Being misrepresented is one of the worst things that can happen especially when it is about something you love, and I do sincerely love this brand of Christianity. However, wounds from a friend are faithfully, so I want to be fair but uncompromising in my assessment of the challenges we face. As a young person who has been heavily involved in the local scene, I draw from my own experiences and impression of things.

In the theological world, it is only fairly recently that Pentecostals and Charismatics are gaining more mainstream acceptance and recognition. Of course academia is not the end all be all metric for assessing the place of a mind in a social group. For instance, I recently found out to my surprise, that American universities are very biased in who they hire and tend to employ liberals over conservative Christians. What shocked me even more was the creation of something called a “safe space” which prevents people from debating radically alternative view points for the fear of causing offense. Even places of higher learning can be compromised. However, the limited number of practicing charismatics in the theological sphere is a rough indicator of the overall place of the intellect in the movement. Why is this the case?

One of the strengths of the CM is its amazing capacity to contextualize. Charismatic churches are able to quickly adapt to local settings and become culturally relevant and appealing, making participation in them at all levels very easy. The Pentecostal flame really has spread like wildfire across the globe so unlike siblings in other traditions, it has not had enough time to really formally organize itself as well as others. It is a movement and not a denomination. That is not to say it is an unstructured mess but generally speaking, there are no standard requirements for theological education for its pastors and other church leaders. Even if they do try and get such an education there are not so many options tailored for the movement. There are not many seminaries you can go to where speaking in tongues during worship is seen as quite normal. The informality and spontaneity that is characteristic of the movement, coupled with its vibrancy leads to some very interesting manifestations within the local context.

Generally speaking, there are two charismatic streams in Ghana. They are the indigenous and the imported types. It is the confluence of these two sources that shape contemporary Ghanaian charismatic thinking and praxis. Things are more complicated than this but I believe this serves as a good starting point illustration. (The history and nature of Ghanaian Pentecostalism is quite fascinating but it is a discussion we must leave for another time.) Indigenous Charismatism is home grown and it is shaped by indigenous culture. As such the use of vernacular is one of its hallmarks. This instantly gives it wider appeal than their foreign counterparts, especially among those not so well educated. Imported forms usually come from the West, particular the United States, being heavily influenced by Word of Faith Movement styles and teaching. They are noted for their use of English so tend to be popular among young educated people. However, they are modified to suit Ghanaian existential needs. Theology in Ghana is very pragmatic. People simply want God’s help in overcoming the challenges of daily life, which in our part of the world can be very tough. If God is a caring loving father, it is not too much of a stretch that he will be personally interested and involved in the mundane affairs of life. I think the Bible clearly teaches this but if that is the case, isn’t God interested in our minds and the use of it? Unfortunately from my experience, loving God with your mind as well, ain’t that important.

Whether it is indigenous or foreign, both charismatic streams seem to have similar intellectual attitudes. To borrow from the title of Mark Noll’s hard hitting book in the United States, the charismatic mind is a scandal. Using your faculties critically and engaging with issues in the charismatic world rigorously is effectively a sin. Any sort of well-reasoned, sustained inquiry into views and practices of the charismatic church is at least looked upon with heavy suspicion and foreboding. When you start thinking, you start questioning and it is a slippery slope that leads to unbelief, apostasy and hell, or so they tell us. (I have actually heard someone say theology will take you to hell!)

Some might say charismatic apathy towards the mind is mainly among the not-so-well educated. I can confidently say that is not true. I have not only been part of a charismatic campus fellowship, I occupied leadership roles in it. All sorts of ridiculousness goes on within campus ministries, the same kind of things that happen in the larger world. To think they are receiving higher education means they will know better is not true. Sometimes the reverse happens and they are “educated into imbecility” as British journalist Malcom Muggeridge once said. The sophistication you need to study engineering or politics simply does not translate into their understanding of charismatic faith. Logically inconsistent preaching, factually inaccurate messages, bad exegesis of scripture, disregard for hermeneutical principles, poorly thought out beliefs, an aversion to theological education, narrow reading, overly simplistic answers to complex issues, and the list goes on. The charismatic passionately loves the Bible and wishes to base all that they do on it. The great irony with that is the mind that you need to read, understand and apply it, she will not fully commit.

I doubt these problems I have mentioned are unique to the charismatic world. I suspect they are problems related with orthodox protestant theology especially when it moves in certain directions, some of them extreme e.g. the Word of Faith Movement. One good example of this is the doctrine of the perspicuity (clarity) of scripture. It means the Bible is easy enough for the ordinary Christian to understand such that the interpretation of scripture is not the exclusive domain of an elite group. What this means though, especially in practice, is a matter of intense debate. The Bible is central to Christianity so what it means is very important. Charismatism also appeals to scripture, particularly the events recorded in Acts, for legitimacy. It’s a fulfilment and continuation of the prophecy of Joel as preached by Peter at the spiritual outpouring on Pentecost. The experience and activity of the Spirit which is foregrounded, as it should, has been interpreted in a certain ways in the CM when it comes to the relationship between the mind and faith, and how God interacts with people. This statement from one Prophet Amoateng is quite telling,

“It is the omniscient God who has called me into this ministry. He is able and all knowing, and therefore I will never allow my faith to be destroyed by human ideologies. They should take their books; we shall practice our faith. They should rely on scholars; we shall rely on the Holy Spirit.”

The point he was making is about God equipping people for his service. However, if that is the attitude of leadership surely the congregation will follow. Total reliance on God is imperative but does that mean the total exclusion of scholarship, why can’t it be “both/and”? The Holy Spirit that prophet Amoateng rightly relies on he heard from the Bible. Without scholarship we do not have Bible, the same scholarship he vehemently rejects. As I mentioned earlier our attitudes towards scholarship are to a degree a measure of intellectual attitudes. Scholarship requires rigorous thinking. We shy away from it because we are not willing to make the intellectual investment. It is a general attitude we have as long as it is church related. Just because the Bible is understandable does not mean that understanding comes cheaply or without effort. Anyone who is reasonably well acquainted with the history and development of the Bible is well aware of this. Funnily enough, the Bible never claims to be an “easy” book.

I understand that many of the things the average believer hears from the world of scholarship can be very disturbing, even inimical to Christian faith. Also just because it comes from a scholar does not make it right or even true. Also the goings on in the ivory tower tend not to be very relevant to the ordinary congregant’s life. Being a scholar has become a specialized term for those with niche esoteric interests. Things like that discourage people and cause them to be disinterested or even sceptical. I remember when I read my first theological work in my early teens it put me off. However, no academic has the monopoly on learning. Learning in today’s world, is increasingly being democratised. Access to information has never been easier because of a little thing called the internet. If you really love something, you want to learn as much as you can about it. Take your favourite TV show for example, because you love it you go beyond what is aired. You discuss it with your friends, ponder over the events in it, speculate about what is going to happen, go online to learn more about the cast and production team, you watch interviews of them on YouTube etc. Why do we not go beyond with the Bible as well? There is certainly more to it than words on a page so why not go deeper? If the church is that important to us, if our beliefs really matter and our actions based on them are significant, why are we not willing to fully mentally commit to it? If you truly love something you are willing to candidly face the challenges it presents, including the intellectual ones. That tendency to quietly slink away from things the moment you realise you have to really think about it does not show faith. It betrays a lack of confidence in your own beliefs.

Look, I get it. Thinking about certain things can be scary because of what it might possibly mean. I have been in that position before and I continue to encounter such situations. It isn’t that the charismatic does not notice the issues. You hear a preaching that just does not sit right with you. You have questions about it and you are afraid if you raise them people will misconstrue your intentions. They might think you are trying to disgrace the preacher or you are just being unnecessarily difficult. What do you do? When it comes to such forks in the road, it really comes down to your motivations in deciding which path you will take. Most of us will try to give it a band aid rationalization to satisfy us in the moment and wish to God it will never bother us again. The question is can we really ignore it forever?

What happens when you find yourself among Christians where the leader of the group is abusing power and using the Bible to justify it? What do you do when real damage is being done and you are not allowed to speak out against it because of some supposedly immutable spiritual principle? I found myself deep in such a situation where I and others were being taken advantage of. I was involved in a group that used to say God had nothing to do with logic and unsurprisingly proceeded to do some very silly and irrational things in his name to the hurt of others, including themselves. Of course, we think to ourselves nothing is at stake. Things can’t ever go that bad. Things have been going on fine just the way they are. Is that really true though?

If you live in a church that has no challenges at all, probably no humans attend it. Also I have noticed the same anti-intellectual ways of going about things in controversial churches are often found in non-controversial ones. Usually, the only difference is whether there are people willing to exploit those flaws. I have very sincere friends who use the same hermeneutical principles that unscrupulous church leaders use in justifying their actions, even though these friends of mine condemn their behaviour. When I point it out to them, they refuse to take it seriously. We should not mistake peace for quiet. When we fail to use our minds it does cause problems, whether we realise it or not. Just because something is wrong does not mean its consequences will be immediately felt or will even be obvious. No matter how wonderful something seems, if it is wrong it is wrong. If we believe the devil is the father of lies what does that leave us when we are being intellectually dishonest? The Bible teaches us repeatedly to be discerning but how do we do that when we selectively use our minds and turn a blind eye to things when they make us uncomfortable.

If a failure to think critically and honestly causes trouble then actually doing the right thing must be beneficial. I’m simply not saying we should think but that we should want to think. This is not to say we must solely rely on our intellect. If we are going to serve the Lord faithfully we need to serve him with all our minds. That is what the Lord Jesus himself said the love of God is, along with our entire selves. Love edifies so if that guides how we think we can help build the church. It must not be a cheap form of love but one which rejoices in the truth.

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