Monday, March 28, 2011

Azusa Street As a Postmodern Revival & the Power of Testimony

I'm reading two killer books right now - Eugene Peterson's The Pastor, and James K. A. Smith's Thinking in Tongues.

Here's Smith on the value of giving "testimonies" in pentecostal worship. "Making room for testimony is central to pentecostal spirituality precisely because narrative is central to pentecostal identity." Pentecostal Jesus-followers assume "that their personal faith stories have normative implications for others."

Smith says "this narrative function of testimony is bound up in the very DNA of Pentecost" in Acts 2. Peter and the others makes sense "of their experience by weaving it into a larger received narrative to be able to say "this is that"; such as, e.g., Acts 2:16, pointing to Joel 2:28-32. Pentecostalism situates phenomena within narrative. Our personal stories are written "into the larger story of God's redemption." As I think N.T. Wright would say, we Jesus-followers now live out our lives in Act V of the Grand Narrative; viz., "The New Testament and the People of God."

Smith quotes Grant Wacker: "The testimony forcefully asserted that the believer's passage on this earth formed part of a magnificent drama in which cosmic good vanquished evil... Each person's private struggles somehow soared above the merely private and reappeared in a framework that spanned the millennia."

This morning at Redeemer we had testimonies. A lot of them. My associate pastor Josh Bentley asked for people to come forward and share something that had happened to them that strengthened their faith in God. A lot of good stuff was shared. Afterwards some people told me how much the testimonies meant to them. One young woman said, "When I came to church today I was down. Those testimonies were exactly what I needed to hear." My wife Linda expressed how God wove these stories into the entire worship experience. I agree. They were faith-building and encouraging, and moving. It is a good thing to be moved once in a while.

Now watch this. Can you believe what Smith the philosopher is going to do?! He is going to "now consider the philosophical ramifications of this pentecostal "understanding." I want to particularly consider the tacit epistemic commitments that are embedded in the pentecostal practice and experience of testimony, to consider the inchoate "understanding of understanding" at work in the pentecostal claim that "I know that I know that I know." In particular, I want to suggest that at work here is a kind of proto-postmodern intuition about knowledge that constitutes a *performative critique of modern criteria of knowledge - a pentecostal critique of the rationalism (or cognitivism or "intellectualism") that characterizes modern accounts of knowledge. Pentecostal practice can function as a sort of countermodernity. Thus there are elements of a pentecostal worldview that resonate with a "postmodern" critique of autonomous reason such that we might see Azusa Street as a postmodern revival."

For Smith:
  • "pentecostal testimony and experience constitute an implicit critique of rationalism.
  • "the function of story and narrative carries within it fundamental epistemic commitments"
  • "give the centrality of affect and imagination in pentecostal narrative and testimony" Smith will provide "a tentative outline for a pentecostal aesthetics."
I find all of this brilliant and illuminating. And, BTW, one of the testimonies given this morning had the person saying, as they asked God for a certain thing to happen, "I know that I know that I know" God will provide.

(I read, as an undergraduate in philosophy, J.L. Austin's How to Do Things With Words, and there learned about "performative utterances"; viz., language that does something.)