Deep chuch: looking behind the charismatic curtain?

 

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Ian is Senior Pastor of Guildford Baptist Church and a contributer to the book, Remembering our future, he writes...

The relationship of theology to personal biography is a close one, no doubt. All of us are in reaction to something: in my case, a particular kind of charismatic experience which, in my opinion, consistently flouted the norms of orthodoxy. I am not talking about charismatic experience per se. What kind of Christianity would we be talking about without the charismatic?

Indeed, I have been fortunate to pastor churches that have had a healthy regard for life in the Spirit (by which I mean more than having an overhead projector). What I am talking about is a brand of Christian leadership, so called, that regards it as a virtue to pit the Spirit against the Word; or, more crudely, the Spirit against the cross.   I have had to put up with that false dichotomy for as long as I have been a Christian, and unless one has inhabited this rarefied atmosphere of charismania, as I have, it is difficult to understand the frustration that people like me have felt. Part of the anger is to do with the way the term charismatic has been hijacked over the years by a particular expression of the charismatic: namely only that which is loud and demonstrative. But the main part of the anger concerns the way this dichotomy between the Spirit and the cross plays in to the hands of the Gnostics.

The point of my essay in Remembering Our Future is to say that once you detach from the notion of mediation through the Word and the sacraments, for the sake of freedom in the Spirit, you end up with something akin to Gnosticism. In essence our religion ends up being more to do with personal light than about divine revelation.

 

Not only is this emphasis on inner light weak in terms of the dogmatic core of the gospel, it is also exhausting, because of course by focusing so much on personal experience in worship you never really know if you have done enough to access the holy. Without the Word and the sacraments, the primary movement of worship ceases to be towards us, in the grace of Christ; but inwards in what can often times amount to nothing more than existential anxiety.  

Christianity is personal, to be sure. Here is where it gets really tricky. I could not imagine being in a setting of worship that did not impact me at the personal level; furthermore, believe it or not, I am one of those who loves to sing. But as a pastor I know that many of my congregation arrive on a Sunday in various states of disrepair, and to serve up, week after week, a diet of unreflective, unmediated, ahistorical worship is not only uncaring, it is also un-Christian.  

The personal biographies of those in the early charismatic movement led them to reject traditionalism in the name of freedom. It was a valid stance. There is nothing worse than dead orthodoxy. My own biography at the extreme end of the charismatic movement has led me to wonder, however, whether the rejection of traditionalism has also developed, in some circles at least, into a rejection of the Christian tradition itself.

What do you think? What is your experience?  How do you react when you read this?