Archive for May, 2011

Beyond Pentecostalism: The Crisis of Global Christianity and the Renewal of the Theological Agenda

Tuesday, May 31st, 2011 by Nicholas Daniels

Wolfgang Vondey, Beyond Pentecostalism: The Crisis of Global Christianity and the Renewal of the Theological Agenda. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2010. xiii + 267 pp. $32.00 paperback.

In a well-known verse from Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus exhorts his disciples with the following: “I tell you the truth, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 18:3). Sadly, few theologians have followed the Lord’s advice; and theology has grown old, taking the visage of stodgy, European men—dominated by reason and Western ideology—rather than the joyful play of children. This has brought global Christianity to a state of crisis, for Christianity has rapidly expanded around the world, while theology has remained static, dominated by Western orthodoxy, ethnocentrism, and reason.

In response to this crisis, Vondey suggests that theology must return to the playground so that it may be renewed and flourish in its current global space. Inspired largely by Gadamer and Suurmond, he applies the metaphor of “play” to the theological crisis, painting a unique way forward for theology, in which the stodgy ways of performance are traded for childlike play. Thus, theology becomes an “activity done for the joy of doing it and not for any performative, competitive, functionalistic, rationalistic, or utilitarian reasons. Theologically speaking, play is the joy of God in which we participate” (13).

Particularly essential to Vondey’s quest is introducing classical Pentecostalism into global theological play. He recognizes Pentecostalism as a particular manifestation of the contemporary crisis, because its transitional nature challenges established social, cultural, and religious forms of thought and praxis. Consequently, each chapter consists of three parts: the examination of a specific aspect of the crisis, an analysis of classical Pentecostalism as a manifestation of the particular attribute, and a proposal for global Christianity, offering resources from the Pentecostal tradition to overcome the particular element of the crisis.

This is far from a mere call for a Pentecostal revival though. Vondey’s vision is much grander. In fact, he notes that play “seeks to transform everything that existed before and apart from play into something that now exists due to its absorption into the reality of play” (76). Thus, by bringing Pentecostal tradition into play with global Christianity, Pentecostalism is transformed and absorbed. Hence, Beyond Pentecostalism suggests “both that Pentecostal faith and praxis are significant beyond Pentecostal circles and that Pentecostalism, as it engages the global Christian agenda, is in the process of going beyond its own historical, theological, sociocultural, and institutional boundaries” (7).

This is precisely what makes Vondey’s proposal refreshing. The performance-oriented methods of theologians such as Vanhoozer fail to liberate theology from the cognitive-linguistic level of Scripture. This focus continues to favor competition for “right” interpretation and performance, perpetuating the battle among Christian communities for the singular title of “church.” In contrast, Vondey calls for a shift from cognitive performance to imaginative play, allowing orthodoxy and orthopraxy to integrate with orthopathy. Subsequently, theology transcends orthodox structures dominated by reason, challenging them to change, expand, and grow. Therefore, revelation expands beyond the textuality and performance of written text, doctrine beyond the creed as a rule of faith, liturgy beyond its identity as a product of the church, ecclesiality beyond the structures of Western culture, and classical Pentecostalism beyond its own self-identity. Hence, rather than a Pentecostal revival—which often contains separatist tendencies and an interest in self-growth—Vondey desires for a change in agenda to that of renewal—a globally focused agenda emphasizing “changes in religious life, institutions, structures, liturgy, catechesis, worship, preaching, ecumenical relations, and theological parlance” (193).

While Vondey’s proposal for an imaginatively playful theology of the heart maps a joyful and restored Christian theology for the global sphere, his offering does raise a few questions as well. These primarily center on the nature of play and the exclusivity of the Christian message. For instance, he recommends that there be play between culture and the church, wherein spiritual discernment comes from both sides. However, one wonders how global Christianity protects itself against syncretism and a loss of its exclusivity? Moreover, one wonders if play is a sufficient metaphor to deal with more serious issues such as sin and judgment. While play invites areas of nonplay into play, what is to be done with those areas which refuse to play? In the same vein, is it possible that combining elements of performance and play will address these concerns?


Hell and the Ida Syndrome

Monday, May 30th, 2011 by Dale M. Coulter

In the past few weeks, there has been another splash on the internet with respect to the doctrine of hell. Yes. . .again. It was created by the popular Christian speaker and author Francis Chan’s video about his forthcoming book, Erasing Hell. You can view the video at his website. I find it somewhat ironic that there is a rush on the part of some detractors to critique a video, not unlike the rush to criticize Rob Bell. But then, this is the brave new world of the internet.

Without commenting on Chan, mainly because I weary of dissecting comments on a video that are explicitly designed to market a book and thus must be provocative, it seems to me at this point that both the defenders and growing detractors of the doctrine of hell get it wrong, especially in the evangelical world where this debate is primarily being waged. I’ll try to spell out several areas that both sides need to deal with before they arrive at any conclusions about hell, but the debate reveals how persons can be “biblical” without being biblical. This current debate in and around the edges of the evangelical world has confirmed my own growing sense that one cannot be authentically biblical without immersing oneself thoroughly into the great river of Christian tradition. I say thoroughly because folks like Bell will stand on the banks of the great river and cherry pick select authors in the same way that many individuals employ selective scriptures as proof texts.

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Response to PCUSA Announcement on Gay Clergy

Thursday, May 12th, 2011 by Diane Chandler

A few months ago, I came across a vignette in a book that noted a discussion between an African and American clergyman.  The American clergyman was sharing how the American church has become more lenient toward homosexuality and that it was counter-cultural to voice any disapproval on the issue.  The African clergyman was perplexed, believing that what the Bible said about homosexuality is true and that the growing laissez-faire stance of the American church on this issue was cause for great concern.  The African clergyman responded, “If you do not believe the Bible, then why did you bring it to us in the first place?”

As reported by the New York Times, the national assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) of 2.1 million members voted 205 to 56, with 3 abstentions, to eliminate the celibacy requirement for unmarried clergy in its constitution on Tuesday, May 10, 2011, opening the door for the gays to openly serve as ordained clergy. This vote reverses a decision made two years ago where the majority of presbyteries voted against the measure. The change takes effect on July 10, 2011.  The PCUSA follows in the footsteps of the Episcopal Church in 2003, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America in 2009, and other denominations caving into continual gay and lesbian advocacy and the tide of cultural acceptability.

On their website, the PCUSA, headquartered in Louisville, offered both before and after wording comparisons:  Read the rest of this entry »

Beyond Pentecostalism: The Crisis of Global Christianity and the Renewal of the Theological Agenda

Monday, May 9th, 2011 by Peter Althouse

Wolfgang Vondey, Beyond Pentecostalism: The Crisis of Global Christianity and the Renewal of the Theological Agenda. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2010. xiii + 267 pp. $32.00 paperback.

Theology is serious stuff, is it not? After all, theology deals with the God and God in Christ, the necessity of salvation and impending judgment of the world. To define theology as a type of play seems counter-intuitive. Yet the possibility that a theology of play can address the crisis of current theological discussions is the task taken up by Wolfgang Vondey. He proposes that Pentecostalism’s global character is best interpreted through the lens of the theology of play and is therefore in a position to revitalize the ecumenical crisis of theology in late modernity.

Vondey’s concern is an ecumenical one in that he refuses to privilege Western theological perspectives, even Pentecostal ones, while minimizing global contexts. Vondey does not look to the origins of classical Pentecostalism as a golden age, but pushes beyond their boundaries to propose a global and ecumenical theology. Theology is in crisis because a paradigm shift has occurred where the majority of Christians are in the developing world and this shift is creating new theological insights and trajectories. Pentecostalism broadly defined is also a developing world phenomenon, which makes its transnational, transethnic, and multicultural voices important in theological discourse.

The theology of play captures the essence of global Christianity and especially Pentecostalism. Play is understood as an engagement with the divine in liturgical worship that through the subjunctive (“as if”) ritual envisions an alternate reality. Ritual play crosses the liminal boundary from the mundane to the sacred (V. Turner). Modernity however has truncated the “field of play” with its emphasis on the utilitarian use of resources defined by usefulness. The modernist theological project is thus defined by performance, competition, rationalism, and functional concerns. Vondey’s argues the root metaphor of “performance” succumbs to the modernist agenda. When theology is understood as performance, then God’s work is cast as useful, productive and ordered, and privileges purpose over existence.

Play rather than performance is a better metaphor for grounding global theology, argues Vondey, though the terms are related. Performance is a dramatic expression that attempts to correlate the narrative of Scripture with the church’s theological project. Performance gives priority to cognitive faculties in order to define the narrative and creedal boundaries of liturgy and theology. However, performance leaves little space at the margins for the theological imagination to contextualize the gospel in its various cultural situations. Performance also creates a divide between the enactors of ritual (i.e., the ministerial) and the laity who passively “observe” the performance. Conversely, the spontaneous improvisation of play allows for an active kinesthetic embodiment of the gospel though the free play of the Spirit and full participation of the people of God. In liturgical practice, Pentecostals “discern” with the Spirit in unexpected and transformative ways.

The opposition between performance and play is not as sharp however as Vondey suggests. Granted, performance can be co-opted for utilitarian reasons and used as a metaphor for market competition, but performance can also be seen as a subset of play. In Ritual and its Consequences,1 Seligmann, Weller, Puett and Simon propose a fourfold typology of play that either affirms or subverts social roles, and allows the player to either retain or lose self control in ritual: Agôn is a type of play that develops skills in competitive games through ritualized battles or games, such as football or chess, while mimicry is a type of play characterized by simulation or drama with rites of reversal and drama. Performance is a key characteristic of both agôn and mimicry. Alea is a type of play characterized by chance in which the player has no control over the outcome of the game, while ilinx is the pursuit of vertigo (i.e., spinning in circles or riding roller coasters) in acts similar to intoxification and spirit possession. Pentecostal liturgy is predominantly characterized by alea and ilinx with its kinesthetic and emotional expressiveness. Historic liturgy is characterized by agôn and mimicry with its formal mastery of liturgical practice. The point is that performance is a form of play rather than in opposition to it.

Despite this concern, Vondey offers an intriguing proposal for pushing Pentecostal theology beyond its own boundaries to dialogue in the ecumenical field as a prominent player in the theological game. Beyond Pentecostalism has far reaching implications for the negotiation of theology in the global context that liberates and gives voice to the margins.

 

1 Adam B. Seligman, Robert P Weller, Michael J. Puett and Bennett Simon, Ritual and its Consequences: An Essay of the Limits of Sincerity (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), 76-80