Pentecostal Scholars Call for Academic Freedom

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I have always had a conflicted relationship with my religious persuasion. Like the time I inadvertently donated 25 bucks to a ministry from our church whose sole purpose apparently was to go on a search for Noah’s Ark. Needless to say, my faux Young Earth creationist phase did not last, just like my brief career as a staff member for a Pentecostal church in suburban Chicago.

My conflicts with my own Pentecostalism, and the Pentecostal culture that I work in, write about, and called my spiritual home for 25 years stem from one huge problem: a dangerous codependent relationship with the extreme quarters of the culture wars. My separate refuge has been the academy—(one may wonder about the state of my soul in hearing that the academy is any type of refuge) but it is the only place where I have been able to doubt, entertain questions, and leave behind the forced high-tension piety that is legalism dressed up as spirituality.

So it was with some measure of ambivalence that when the leadership of the Society for Pentecostal Studies (SPS) asked me to put my name up for nomination for president, I did, and was duly elected. A year later, this past December, I resigned that office. The reason? Denominational leaders of the Assemblies of God had tried to dissuade the SPS from keeping their commitments to speakers invited to the annual meeting because they took issue with some speakers’ stances on GLBT issues—their dislike of one of the scholars’ rather biting critiques of the denominations’ growing spiritual malaise chafed even more.

Not About Faith, But About Power

My initial reaction was to dismiss these critiques as part of the standard ideological toolkit that culture warriors use to maintain control over their flocks; in this case, the members or attendees at the annual SPS meeting in March. What followed was a good deal more bizarre. Emails flew back and forth, which I read with alternating bemusement and anger about the utter lack of intellectual honesty on display. I realized that I would never be able to preside over this society without fears that one day, when someone read something I wrote—or worse yet, read my postings on Facebook—I would be summoned before the Magisterium (Pentecostals are kidding themselves if they believe they have rid themselves of the “Catholic” residue of tradition), and made to repent.

The email exchange among the leadership was dishonest because it talked around the real issues. One highly-placed leader even equated homosexuality with bestiality; his claims about trying to vet the future leadership of the society when the SPS is not, nor ever has been a part of any denomination or institution, were very telling. It was sanctimony dressed up in feigned concern for intellectual pursuit. After weeks of emails and a conference call that was basically a shakedown of the leadership of the SPS, we held the line, and refused to remove the speakers from their assignments.

It did not stop there. After that was settled, there was another month of handwringing and appeasement that I simply did not understand. Why some of us felt the compulsion to answer these denominational bosses when it was never about faith at all—it was about power, pure and simple. An academic meeting was put into jeopardy simply because Tony Jones, an Emergent church pastor who has come out on the side of gay marriage, was asked to speak, and other speakers were perceived to be open and affirming, a stance that many Pentecostals do not accept for reasons of biblical interpretation.

It is truly scandalous that disagreements over academic freedom disintegrated into what amounted to schoolyard name-calling where the leadership of the SPS, it was inferred, at once supported bestiality, was partially responsible for the decline of the sanctity of marriage, and was to blame for driving a wedge into the once unified alliance of Pentecostalism. None of those leaders ever told anyone not to go to other academic meetings. But because this had “Pentecostal” in the name, and was being held at an Assemblies of God School, well, the culture war and the political grandstanding had to stay in place.

From Echo Chamber to Academic Freedom

Pentecostalism, fortunately, is not the private reserve of adherents who wish to excuse the movement’s excesses, minimize its gravest sins, and continue to crush the “least of these” under the weight of sanctimony and guilt—it is a phenomenological phoenix. For believers, it brings life and allows resuscitation to the most beaten down parts of existence.

For students of the movement, Pentecostalism is a fascinating religious excursion. Access to understanding and writing about Pentecostalism will not be sealed off by provincial gatekeepers. Pentecostalism as a global phenomenon is simply too complicated, too controversial, too intriguing a movement to maintain the pristine qualities vaunted by denominational sycophants and leaders. The media and the academic world have already seen to that.

As evangelical scholar Mark Noll so aptly put it in his own scathing critique of evangelical anti-intellectualism: like evangelical scholars, Pentecostal scholars have often been “pressed beyond their intellectual resources.” For many, it is preferable to showcase their scholarship, some of it promising, through the echo chamber that is now masquerading as the Society for Pentecostal Studies.

As much as some Pentecostal scholars have internalized their oppression they have also internalized their inferiority, convinced that the secular academic world doesn’t understand them, or worse, that their scholarship is unworthy of those lofty Ivy League perches—they write for, talk to, and meet with spiritual fellow travelers rather than risk being taken to task for being too narrow, too confessional, and too parochial.

Pentecostal scholars need to own their work, their musings, their critical insights; they can not hide under the comfort of evangelical gentility, nor can they abandon the life of the mind that they have fought so hard to attain. I have done my best to convey that I believe studying Pentecostalism is worth fighting for, that intellectual rigor is worth fighting for, but in the case of the SPS, institutions that do not value academic freedom and serious critical inquiry I can do without.

As such, my colleague (and RD contributor) Anthea Butler and I have been busy putting together another study group that will serve the academic needs of students and scholars alike, with malice towards none and charity for all. We just thought it was time to broaden the vistas out of which the world sees the global Pentecostal movement. GloPent-Americas (Global Pentecostalisms in the Americas), will begin with our inaugural conference in November 2010. We hope for a reasoned conversation about all those things we could never talk about in the SPS echo chamber: sexuality, race, gender, politics, hegemony. Our motto: whoever so will come. Except for denominational leaders!

To live outside the law you must be honest…” is simply one of the best Dylan lines ever. It also simplifies much of Pentecostal scholarship conundrum today. Being honest with yourself and your intellectual pursuits means being free to disagree, to become angry, to cast doubt—on everything. For some, living outside those boundaries is simply too costly; for many of my SPS colleagues, what is at stake is their livelihoods, and in this academic hiring climate, no one would be foolish enough to risk losing their jobs.

Engaging in the culture wars may be distasteful and not reflect what someone really thinks, but it is also a ruthlessly pragmatic decision. What has been lost in the process though, is a generation of Pentecostal scholars who have left the fold, non-Pentecostal scholars who don’t waste their precious travel funds on attending meetings such as the SPS, and people like me. The rest of us? I will see you in Atlanta in November.