Week 8: Scripture and Pentecostalism

  • Wacker, Grant. Heaven Below: Early Pentecostals and American Culture. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2003.
  • Theusen, Peter. In Discordance with the Scriptures: American Protestant Battles over Translating the Bible. Oxford University Press, 2002.

This weeks readings covered seemingly disparate but in some ways connected topics. The first text, Grant Wacker’s Heaven Below: Early Pentecostals and American Culture, offers a sweeping overview of first generation pentecostals. Rather than organizing the text chronologically, Wacker designates each chapter to address a different aspect of pentecostalism from its obsession with speaking in tongues to their everyday actions in modern society. His argument is structured around the tension between primitivism and pragmatism. The second text, Peter Thuesen’s In Discordance with the Scriptures: American Protestant Battles over Translating the Bible, offers an interesting narrative of the conflicts arising from the Revised Version and Revised Standard Version of the Bible. Thuesen holds that the contention is the result of their attempt to rectify the textual question (What does the text say?) vs. the historical question (What actually happened?). Both of these texts touch on questions of secularization, ecumenism, and the impact of modernity.

Wacker ends his introduction by addressing the significance of his study. He notes that “the story of the early pentecostals casts grave doubt on the glib use of secularization theory” [17]. Both of these texts provide a narrative of a robust and even growing religious tradition during the twentieth century. The story of Pentecostalism could be seen almost as anachronistic – a remnant of former centuries. Furthermore, the controversy surrounding the Revised Edition and the Revised Standard Version of the Bible illustrates the intensity and fervor surrounding Protestant religion and their scripture during the twentieth century. Both Wacker and Thuesen articulate the energized and tenacious religious adherents of the time. In illustrating these two narratives, they directly engage with a common secularization stomping ground – modernity.

In “Jack in the Box Faith: The Religion Problem in Modern American History” Jon Butler notes that religion is often depicted as “a fixed embodiment of premodern culture and tradition.” Modernity features in both texts as saints and believers grapple with their role in society and American culture. Even in Pentecostalism’s rejection of the conventional pastimes and society’s modern culture was their faith strengthened and their position as Christ’s “Holy Spirit filled children” [96]. Thuesen illustrates the rise of the New International Version as a rebuttal to the largely modernity-infuenced Revised Standard Version. In each case, modernity does not force a secularization of society but instead entrenches religionists whiten their own theology and societal world view. Yet modernity informed the approach for the numerous translators for the RSV Bible.

Finally, Thuesen addresses the question of ecumenism. It is most evident int he desire to establish or create a “trans-protestant” Bible in the RSV. Numerous scholars of differing religious backgrounds came together to translate and produce a new Bible. Wacker touches on ecumenism almost as a tongue-in-cheek in stating the Pentecostals were ecumenical…only if you were going to covert to their faith. Ecumenism is an intriguing position as Wiesenfeld’s text on the African American YWCA in New York also addresses an ecumenical movement among Christianity. Perhaps I am stepping beyond my knowledge base but it appears that the twentieth century produced greater levels of ecumenism among various denominations and faiths than did occur in previous centuries. Modernity, it could be surmised, played a role in the increase in ecumenical work amongst Protestants. Urbanization and increased transportation brought larger numbers of people into contact with one another, thus allowing for the transfer of ideas and even work. Ironically, Thuesen notes that this ecumenical work, in part, led protestants to invoke “the authority of ecclesiastical (or quasi-ecclesiastical) entities to pass judgement upon particular translations and interpretations of Holy Writ” [155].

As I worked through Wacker’s text and pondered on his methodological framework of primitivism and pragmatism, I tried to apply that to Tweed’s definition of religion.  Perhaps this is a skewed application but the primitivism and pragmatism appear to relate to the “intensify joy and confront suffering” section of the definition. Primitivism focused entirely on helping the community relate to the divine while pragmatism aided the community as they navigated the intricacies of modern life. Thus primitivism fostered or “intensified” their joy while pragmatism helped them “confront” the drudgery of mortal existence (some could label that as suffering). It is a tenuous connection but one that is intriguing and thought provoking.


Week 8: Scripture and Pentecostalism

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