Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Book Write-Up: Fire from Heaven, by Harvey Cox

Harvey Cox.  Fire from Heaven: The Rise of Pentecostal Spirituality and the Reshaping of Religion in the Twenty-first Century.  Addison-Wesley Publishing Company, 1995.

Harvey Cox is a theologian who had taught at Harvard Divinity School.  My more conservative friends saw him as one who jumped on the latest theological bandwagon, rather than consistently standing up for any theological convictions of his own (what a fundamentalist friend called “contending for the faith,” in reference to Jude 1:3).  They noted that he first wrote The Secular City about the increasing tide of secularism of the 1960′s and the Death of God movement.  Then, Cox turned his attention towards Eastern religions.  Later, Cox’s interest was Pentecostalism.  My conservative friends thought it was pretty noteworthy that Cox went from writing about the Death of God to writing about Pentecostalism, a movement that claims to experience God intimately and that sees God as very much alive and active in the world.  Regarding Cox’s interest in Eastern religions, one friend told me about a conference where a presenter mockingly said that, for a while, Cox was telling us to turn East, but now Cox was telling us to turn South—-to look at the rise of Pentecostalism in Latin and South American countries.

I had not read any of Harvey Cox’s books when my friends were saying this.  Since that time, I have read three of his books, and I am about to start a fourth.  I read Cox’s 1965 book The Secular City, in which Cox discusses how Christians can view and respond to secularization, the marginalization of religion, the Death of God movement, and the increasing migration to cities.  You can read some posts that I wrote about that here and here.  Years later, I read Cox’s 1988 (updated in 1992) book, Many Mansions: A Christian’s Encounter with Other Faiths.  This book contained material from Cox’s “turning east” phase, as Cox offered thoughts about Hinduism and Buddhism and their increasing appeal to people in the West, but it also touched on secularization and how that was not necessarily inconsistent with biblical ideas.  You can read my post about this book here.  Just now, I finished Cox’s 1995 book about Pentecostalism, Fire from Heaven.  His next book that I will read is his 1984 Religion in the Secular City: Toward a Postmodern Theology.

What have been my impressions of Cox’s work thus far?  I like his books because they convey thoughtfulness and knowledge about history and religious thought.  Regarding the charge that he jumps onto the latest theological bandwagon, I do not think that it is particularly fair.  In my opinion, Cox’s focus changes because times change, and new trends emerge.  In the 1960′s, it truly appeared that American society was moving towards secularism, so Cox wrote about how Christians can view that as an opportunity rather than as something to fear.  Later, many Americans were becoming interested in Eastern religions and were studying under Eastern gurus, so Cox addressed what Americans might be looking for as they did so (i.e., a teacher to guide them), and he looked at that trend from his own Christian perspective.  Later, Pentecostalism was on the rise, as many became disenchanted with secularism and sought experience with the divine and community, so Cox wrote about that.  Trends rose and fell, and sometimes one trend bled into the other: In Fire from Heaven, for example, Cox offers ideas about why many Americans no longer study under Eastern gurus (i.e., they are too abstruse), yet he notes that Eastern practices (i.e., yoga) are still popular, that the West’s contact with the East contributed to the West having a greater focus on intuition and experience, and that there are Americans who gravitate towards the non-dogmatic elements of Eastern religions (though, as Cox points out, Eastern religions have their own fundamentalist elements as well!).  These developments are consistent with the growing popularity of Pentecostalism, which emphasizes intuition and experience, and even (in some instances) non-dogmatism.  Throughout all of these trends, Cox maintained certain beliefs: that Jesus Christ associated with and championed the poor, that his followers should do the same, and that social justice is important.  Cox in Fire from Heaven acknowledges that his work in The Secular City did not anticipate the trend of Pentecostalism's increasing popularity, and yet my impression is that he still held to a certain Christian worldview throughout his time as a theologian, looking at the changing world.  If I detect any inconsistency in his thought, it is that, in The Secular City, he tends to champion the anonymity and freedom that comes with living in cities, whereas in Fire from Heaven he stresses community and belonging.

Fire from Heaven is an engaging look at Pentecostalism in the United States, England, Asia, and Latin and South America.  Cox discusses the history of the movement, his own experiences with it, and its paradoxes and complexity.  While acknowledging that many Pentecostals have adopted a view of the Bible as inerrant, he distinguishes Pentecostals from fundamentalists,  for Pentecostals stress experience of the divine rather than dogma, plus a number of fundamentalists shied away from Pentecostalism out of the belief that the time of miracles had ceased with the close of the New Testament era.  Cox also looks at Pentecostalism’s characteristic features, such as speaking in tongues and healings, offering explanations for these phenomena and (in the case of healings) referring to how scientists have attempted to account for them.

Two issues that were prominent to me as I read Fire from Heaven were political engagement and interfaith dialogue.  On political engagement, Cox notes historical and current trends within Pentecostalism, some of which he admires, and others that disturb him greatly.  Pentecostalism began as a movement among the poor that believed that Christ’s second coming was near, and, on some level, it continues to be that in certain areas of the world, where adherents in worship protest against an unjust society and remind themselves of God’s love for them and intention to redress wrongs.  This mindset can (and has) discouraged political activity, for why seek to change the world, if Christ will come back soon anyway and set things right?  Yet, political engagement is on the rise among Pentecostals.  While critics have stated that Pentecostalism reinforces conservatism in Latin and South America, Cox notes that a number of Pentecostals there participate and are influential in the political left.  Cox values Pentecostalism as a movement that has championed the poor while (with prominent exceptions) promoting racial equality, as occurred in the United States under the auspices of William Joseph Seymour and Aimee Semple McPherson (a controversial figure in her own right, yet Cox seems to admire her, and part of me now admires her, too!).  Pentecostalism also allowed women to participate more actively in proclaiming the word.  But Cox also observes trends that he finds disturbing: that many white American Pentecostals are gravitating towards the religious right, particularly the brand that wants its interpretation of Old Testament law to be the law of the land, that there is a focus on health and wealth that stigmatizes the poor and the sick, and that commercialism has undermined the authenticity and spontaneity of Pentecostal experience.  In short, Cox believes that there are progressive and regressive trends within Pentecostalism, and he is rooting for the former to prevail.

On interfaith dialogue, Cox continues in the spirit of what he says in Many Mansions: he appears to be rather critical of how it is often a matter of stale academic discussion among liberals.  In Fire from Heaven, Cox extensively discusses the 1893 World’s Parliament of Religions, where adherents to different religions met and presented papers.  Cox considers it groundbreaking and well-intentioned, and yet he notes several salient flaws: certain voices were excluded, each religion wanted to subsume the others in the name of bringing religions together, etc.  Later, when talking about his own experience in England, Cox discusses a peaceful confrontation between a Pentecostal preacher and Muslims.  They were all respectful to each other, and yet they were honest about what they thought and felt: they did not hesitate to guffaw or to say that the other guy was wrong, and to give their reasons.  Cox saw this as inter-religious dialogue in the raw, and he wished that his liberal academic friends could see it!  In addition, a couple of times in the book, Cox refers to Thomas Merton’s insight that perhaps inter-religious dialogue would be more fruitful among the mystics of the different traditions than among academics, for the mystics have so much in common!  I enjoyed reading these insights, for, while I am all for academic discussions because they can be thoughtful and nuanced, I would also like to see interfaith dialogue that is raw and honest, and that focuses on testimonies and experiences.

So much of this book resonated with me.  I will offer two ways that this was so.  For one, Pentecostalism has long attracted me, while also scaring and repulsing me.  Growing up, I was raised to be rather suspicious of Pentecostalism.  We knew Pentecostals who were always saying that the “Lord told” them such-and-such, and their dogmatism looked pretty absurd to us, especially when they changed their mind or turned out to be wrong.  The things that Pentecostals did also struck us as rather strange, maybe even evil, as if they were being possessed.  We championed our version of Christianity as more level-headed, biblical, and business-like, in contrast to the apparent  craziness of Pentecostalism.  As I grew up, I continued to have similar reservations about Pentecostalism, yet there were things about it that I came to admire: Pentecostals’ sense of joy and peace, their belief that God loves them and that they can experience him intimately, their solid belief that God is real, the way that they look to God in faith for healing, and the manner in which they seemed to really love God, at a deep emotional level.  As I was reading Fire from Heaven, I was feeling the thrill of my pro-Pentecostal side!  I especially appreciated Cox’s reference to a scientific insight that positive thinking, faith, and feeling love from another can trigger the immune system and result in physical healing.  I can use that sort of attitude in my own life, especially in a world that can get pretty cold!

Second, the issue of political engagement was significant to me because my own religious background discouraged voting, out of the belief that we should look to Christ’s second coming rather than earthly politics to fix the world’s problems.  This idea was long a turn-off to me, as one who was interested in politics!  I appreciated several of Cox’s insights on this topic.  On the one hand, he argued, believing in imminent apocalyptic change can be good because it can encourage people to repudiate the world’s injustice and to embrace alternative possibilities.  In the history of Pentecostalism, he notes, there have been times when a belief in Christ’s imminent second coming has coincided with social change here and now, as Pentecostals believe that they are currently experiencing the Kingdom of God, find hope that injustice will soon come to an end, and encourage racial harmony in the meantime.  On the other hand, an imminent apocalyptic mindset can discourage efforts to address the wrongs of this world.  Consider President Ronald Reagan’s Interior Secretary, James Watt, who remarked that Christ will come back anyway, so why worry so much about the environment!  I believe that there should be a balance: Christ may have believed in a coming apocalypse, yet he still worked to improve the human condition whenever he could.

Good book.

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