“The English Garden, the Holy Spirit, and the Future of Christianity” by Jack Levison

Jack Levison
Jack Levison

Jack Levison is professor of New Testament at Seattle Pacific University and author of Filled with the Spirit (authored under the name John R. Levison). He kindly sent us this “souvenir” — much better than a postcard, we think — from his recent trip to Germany.

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I’m sitting in Munich, Germany, where church bells peal an invitation to worship that goes largely ignored. 4,300 miles to my south, in Lagos, Nigeria, Pentecostal Christians swarm to all-night healing services. This is a dramatic contrast — the explosive growth of Pentecostalism and the withering of more traditional branches of Christianity — that threatens to poison unity and precipitate a global schism within Christianity.

Let’s face it. Can anyone expect traditional churches to survive the firestorm of nearly a billion Pentecostal believers, many of whom will spend dusk to dawn in praise and prayer?

Add to this the geopolitical rift that separates Pentecostals from traditional mainline Christians: most Pentecostals live in the Global South — places like Africa — and the majority of traditional Christians in the Global North.

Combine these contrasts with an economic one: many of the world’s poorest are drawn to the promise of Pentecostalism, while the relatively affluent are attracted to mainline churches. Have you heard this quip about Christians in Latin America? “Liberation theologians opted for the poor, but the poor opted for Pentecostalism.” In the eighties and nineties, liberation theologians called Protestant and Catholic churches to side with the poor, as Jesus had done. The poor became Pentecostals instead.

As I wrote Filled with the Spirit a few years back, I began to fret this wedge in the world church because I discovered an ancient wedge, a millennia old split between the embrace of ecstasy and a penchant for intellectual rigor. And I saw, as if in a mirror, a similar split in the church today — and, regrettably, tomorrow.

English Garden, Munich
Munich’s English Garden
Source: Jiuguang Wang, Wikimedia Commons

I’m fretting this dichotomy again, as I sit on a green wooden bench in the famed English Garden — an expanse bigger even than Central Park in Manhattan — smack dab in the middle of Munich. And then it dawns on me: the English Garden contains the essential elements for saving Christianity from schism. Not soil and trees and creeks, of course, but a unique blend of the tame and untamed. The English Garden (designed by an American born British citizen) is not manicured, like Versailles or nearby Nymphenburg Palace, where we strolled amidst patterned flowerbeds just a few days ago. The place is an uncanny mixture of apparent planning jumbled up with a call to the wild. Its paths look tame, more or less, then you get lost — we have gotten lost — in their turns and twists.

The breathtaking combination of the cultivated and the untamed, which makes the English Garden so special, reflects exactly what happened, according to the story in the New Testament book of Acts, when the holy spirit first filled Jesus’ followers. The story of Pentecost unfolds abruptly (Acts 2), full of the unexpected, the apparently unplanned, even the chaotic.  A violent wind raises a ruckus as it rushes through a room. Fiery tongues descend on Jesus’ followers. They, in turn, are accused, at least by some of the spectators, of being drunk. This is wild stuff.

But there is order here as well. The single word “other” in Acts 2:4 tells us this: “All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them to utter.” Rather than saying Jesus’ followers “spoke in tongues,” Luke says they “spoke in other tongues.” Real languages. Known dialects.

Filled with the Spirit
Filled with the Spirit

And those tongues had content, too: the praiseworthy acts of God. “Amazed and astonished,” spectators asked, “How is it that . . . in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s praiseworthy acts” (Acts 2:8-11). Spectators understand exactlywhat Jesus’ followers are communicating.

This, then, is the stuff of Pentecost: chaos and impeccable order in perfect proportion. Fiery tongues descending, not at random, but on each and every one of Jesus’ followers. Speaking in tongues, but not quite: speaking in other, comprehensible tongues.  And people who look to bystanders to be drunk yet who actually communicate God’s praiseworthy acts with remarkable acuity.

In my next book for Eerdmans, due out in 2013, I’ll do more excavation on the wedge that divides ecstasy from intellectual acuity. More important, I’ll try to dissolve this dichotomy and set an agenda for Christianity that blends ecstasy and clear headedness. I believe the Bible offers important pointers for the future of Christianity — Pentecostal and Presbyterian, charismatic and Catholic — and I intend to present them with all of the hardheaded exegesis and persuasive gusto I can muster.

For now, this hope springs within me while I sit in the English Garden: a future for Christianity lies with the holy spirit, which takes us simultaneously into apparent chaos while leading us into perfect, sublime control. Only this experience of the holy spirit can rescue Christianity from a deeply divided future.

Click to order John R. (Jack) Levison’s Filled with the Spirit or to find out more about his upcoming author events at independent bookstores in the Northwest — September 27 at Third Place Books in Seattle, September 28 at Powell’s City of Books in Portland, and October 1 at University Bookstore, again in Seattle.