Thinking Revivals: One Way to Understand What Happened at Asbury
By Rodney Kennedy
Rodney Kennedy has his M.Div. from New Orleans Theological Seminary and his Ph.D. in Rhetoric from Louisiana State University. He pastored the First Baptist Church of Dayton (OH) – which is an American Baptist Church – for 13 years, after which he served as interim pastor of ABC USA churches in Illinois, Pennsylvania, and Kansas. He is currently interim pastor of Emmanuel Friedens Federated Church, Schenectady, NY. His sixth book – The Immaculate Mistake: How Evangelicals Gave Birth to Donald Trump – has recently been published by Wipf and Stock (Cascades). And his newest book, Good and Evil in the Garden of Democracy, will appear by the end of April.
“The kingdom of God is at hand: repent and believe the good news!” To repent is not to feel bad but to think differently. In its concern for helping every individual to make his own authentic choice in full awareness and sincerity, Protestantism (especially evangelical Protestantism) is in constant danger of confusing the kingdom itself with the benefits of the kingdom.
If the revival at Asbury has helped students make their own authentic choice to follow Jesus in full awareness and sincerity, then God bless that revival. But if the revival confuses the kingdom of God with the benefits of the kingdom, we have a problem.
John Howard Yoder says, “If anyone repents, if anyone turns around to follow Jesus in his new way of life, this will do something for the aimlessness of his life. It will do something for his loneliness by giving him fellowship. It will do something for his anxiety and guilt by giving him a good conscience.” So the students at Asbury, whose “revival” is to proclaim a closer walk with Jesus and liberation from anxiety and guilt, are not wrong. Repentance, after all, as a “change of mind” is a good thing. As Yoder notes, if anyone repents, it will do something for his intellectual confusion by giving them doctrinal meat to digest, a heritage to appreciate, and conscience about telling it all as it is. If students repent it will do something for their moral weakness by giving them the focus for wholesome self-discipline, it will keep them from immorality, it will get them to work on time. So, revivals have their place.
But all this is not the Gospel.
Turning to a rhetorical critique of the Asbury revival, I submit that it sounds more like a movement of melancholy – a sense of loss of an old way of life. Barbara Biesecker, in “No Time for Mourning: The Rhetorical Production of the Melancholic Citizen-Subject in the War on Terror,” says Slavoj Zizek’s definition of the melancholic’s so-called lost object is “nothing but the positivization of a void or lack, a purely anamorphic entity that does not exist in itself.” Evangelicals, caught in the fantasy of a lost time – a lost glory of when America was truly righteous, Christians were truly Christians, and men were truly men – are, in this sense, melancholic. While there has never been a time in our history when America was holy and righteous, evangelicals long for the imagined “good old days,” and they are trying to repair the breaks in the imagined dome of American piety and recover the age of enchantment.
The Asbury revival – and the related revivals at other evangelical schools – then turns out to be the equivalent to American’s post-9/11 patriotism. Instead of a bona fide collective conversion, Americans flocked back to churches for a few Sundays and then reverted back to the old habits of neglecting the gathering together. The only thing left was the commitment to hyper-patriotism and continued outbreaks of anger, resentment, and revenge against a secular world.
Such a critique of a student revival may sound harsh, but such critiques have always shown up in evaluations of revivals in American religion. Jonathan Edwards, a thorough-going and thoughtful Calvinist, the reluctant leader of the First Great Awakening, and perhaps America’s greatest theologian, critiqued his own revival and argued that there were differences between genuine revivals and fake revivals. I can’t think of any preacher who has ever given as much attention to the nature of revival as Edwards. His works on revival include Faithful Narrative of Surprising Conversions, Thoughts on the Revival of Religion in New England, Treatise on Religious Affections and Distinguishing Marks of a Work of the Spirit of God. From the latter work, Edwards reflected on the nature of revival:
Is the revival genuine, or is it a mere outburst of superficial emotion? Do we find empty enthusiasm backed by nothing of substance, or does the enthusiasm itself signal a major work of God? In every recorded revival in church history, the signs that follow it are mixed. The gold is always mixed with dross. Every revival has its counterfeits.
When Billy Sunday dominated the “sawdust trail” as America’s most famous revivalist, he faced waves of criticism. For example, a liberal Congregationalist minister in Oak Park, Illinois, William E. Barton (1861-1930), attacked Sunday’s pulpit manner:
We wish he would stop his profanity….damned stinking something-or-other, ‘To hell with’ something or somebody…. We wish he were a gentleman….He is a harsh, unjust, bad-tempered man…a very defective Christian.
From Jonathan Edwards – scholar, Calvinist, and quiet preacher – to Billy Sunday – athletic, populist, rude talking, ill-mannered, and emotional – America has run the gamut of revivalists. Criticism of revivalists has varied from excessive prejudice to thoughtful reflection, but criticism of revival is as relevant now as it ever was.
From the perspective of this critic, I would say that the revival at Asbury is genuine. There is no doubt that the students are very sincere. I think the revival exemplifies the moving of the Holy Spirit in individual lives. I believe that the students were deeply moved and many of them transformed. The experiences in this revival suggest students being born again to a stronger Christian commitment.
My concern is that the revival didn’t go far enough. It didn’t demonstrate a genuine “change of mind” – the literal rendering of repentance. As Stanley Hauerwas makes clear,
The gospel is the proclamation of a new age begun through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. That gospel, moreover, has a form, a political form. It is embodied in a church that is required to be always ready to give hospitality to the stranger.
A revival in a bastion of evangelical exclusion, a revival that re-intensifies anti-gay, anti-diversity, anti-science, and anti-history, is not deserving of the name revival.
A revival should focus on the “lack” rather than the perceived mythological “loss.” Future-oriented revival opens the door to new interpretations of how people who are different are to be treated. Revival would offer a counter to the severe rationalism of evangelical faith that no longer rely on universal principles chiseled in stone in a literal Bible. Instead, it will be fluid and deal with particular circumstances, changing circumstances, including the advance of ethical consciousness as a new way of interpreting the Bible.
I want to suggest that the Jewish approach to the interpretation of Scripture offers a better way of approaching the possibility of genuine revival. The Hebrew word “peshat” means “straight” and refers primarily to the surface of literal meaning of the text. This is the plain, simple, and often decontextualized interpretation of the text. The second method of Jewish exegesis, the “drash,” refers to how the text is to be lived and applied. Here is the seedbed for revival.
On this reading, revival is not God doing something in our hearts. This is the kind of sequestered revival that offers meaning and purpose to the individual, but has little to do with the production of practices that will save us from a lack of showing hospitality to strangers.
A revival has to be more than immediate, individual, and narcissistic. Instead, true revival leads to concrete, physical, bodily practices for the benefit of Others.
True revival would involve the Hebrew definition of repentance: “to turn” or “to return to the paths of justice and righteousness. The Jewish sense of justice (Tsedek) calls for those who are “revived” to be compassionate and caring. Built into the notion of Tsedek is a natural tension between the dictates of equity and mercy. There is a blending of love and justice, truth and peace. Ultimately, revival produces actual, material, physical changes in the lives of Others, especially the “least of these.” Justice cannot be achieved by the affects of personal revival.
My prayer would be that the student revival at Asbury move beyond a grasping for the old orientation – the imagined idyllic world of a pious and righteous America – and instead create a reorientation in favor of justice and mercy. If this revival moves in this direction, then the students may bring about the conversion of their older leaders who are so wedded to secular politics and MAGA philosophy. If this revival moves in this direction, then we may have a true Methodist revival of social concern and “catholic” faith, and a true Baptist insistence on “Jesus as Lord” as opposed to the powers and principalities.
May it be so.