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(Photo Credit: The Pew Forum)

By Julia Polese

Mainline Protestants in liberal-led denominations are long used to advocacy of GLBT causes.  But is this advocacy now even in generally conservative Pentecostalism?   Seemingly so, based on presentations at the Society of Pentecostal Studies (SPS) gathering at, ironically, Pat Robertson’s Regent University earlier this year.

The SPS is an academic organization “dedicated to providing a forum of discussion for all academic disciplines as a spiritual service to the kingdom of God.” Started in 1970, the SPS is the oldest academic society in the charismatic movement and was founded principally to serve the mission of the Pentecostal church worldwide. Pentecostals and charismatics take up a unique place in the world of evangelicalism. While charismatic denominations like the Assemblies of God and the World Church of God in Christ are not known for their liberalism, Pentecostalism has birthed its fair share of heresies. The Oneness movement – a Modalist aberrance that imitates the Sabellians of old by denying the three persons of God in favor of three modes – grew out of charismatic circles.  And some charismatics are associated with the “Word of Faith” movement that has birthed many a televangelist.  However, the SPS seems to have been established as a means to counteract this tendency in Pentecostalism. Applying rigorous academic study to a movement occasionally plagued by fideism is commendable, especially as it continues to grow exponentially in South America and Africa.

This year, the SPS Meeting was held in March at Pat Robertson’s Regent University in Virginia Beach The theme was “Pentecostalisms, Peacemaking, and Social Justice/Righteousness.” Papers covered a variety of historical, theological, and philosophical themes unique to the world of Pentecostalism including “Willing to Know: Searching for Inspiration in the Epistemological Approaches of Bonaventure, Duns Scotus and Blaise Pascal” and “African Pentecostal Biblical Hermeneutics: How Do ‘Ordinary African Pentecostals’ Read / Interact with the Bible?” Two papers in particular, however, seemed a bit out of the ordinary for the Pentecostal movement at large.

In “Queer Tongues Confess, ‘I Know, That I Know, That I Know’:  A Queer Reading of James K.A. Smith’s Thinking In Tongues,” Jared Vazquez of Philips Theological Seminary argues that the Twentieth Century hermeneutics of suspicion initiated by Freud, Marx and Nietzsche and continued by Foucault and Derrida later is the  pentecostal (small ‘P’) hermeneutic. He argues that “queering” theology is natural for charismatics because “queer model or methodology is similar in metaphor to speaking in tongues, phenomenologically, epistemologically, and affectively. If Pentecostals speak in tongues and subvert language, queers embrace embodiment that subverts social norms.” The paper is general Foucault and Derrida, peppered with words like “deconstruction” and “transgression” and phrases like: “Thus our work begins first by deflecting textual violence, then outing the text, and finally befriending the text.” But it argues that this hermeneutic is natural to the charismatic experience and should be embraced by those seeking to affirm homosexuality in the church.

Another paper that engaged how sexuality is viewed within Pentecostal circles was Queen’s University’s Pamela M. S. Holmes’ “’Can We Find A Way To Address Human Sexuality Without Fighting About It?’  One Pentecostal’s Response to Brian D. McLaren.”  Her arguments are largely experiential, beginning with her personal testimony about growing up in Canadian Pentecostalism with a mother who had been divorced and then remarried and continuing with her story about considering abortion when she and her husband became pregnant at an inconvenient time in their lives. Using Nietzsche’s preferred genealogical approach to history, Holmes reproduces McLaren’s exploration of the discontents of “Greco-Roman narrative with its dualistic frameworks including a distinction between the real and the idealregarding sexuality. Proving there’s nothing new under the Sun, McLaren betrays himself as a run-of-the-mill progressive, arguing that while God does not change, the Old Testament records reveal only the Israelite tribe’s understanding of him as a “a warring and vengeful tribal god…who demanded that enemies be wiped out.” Only as humanity “matured” could the true, loving nature of God be revealed. Thus, Holmes argues, it falls to us, who, presumably are even more mature than the people of the New Testament, to question the “heteronormativity” of our predecessors and, in a Foucaultian fashion, to reveal and deconstruct the power behind traditional ideas of homosexuality in the church.

Though these approaches may be shocking to the charismatic community, they are not new. The intellectual heritage of Nietzsche, Foucault, and Derrida even touches the Pentecostals. Vazquez and Holmes begin with experience and try to make Scripture conform to their arbitration of what is good.

J.I. Packer wrote about the growing differences of authority in the 1950’s in “Fundamentalism” and the Word of God. Evangelicals take Scripture alone as the final authority, Catholics, Scripture and Tradition, and, responding to the intellectual trends at the time, Packer explains that modernists take empiricism as their final authority, discounting all supernatural events recorded in Scripture. Updated for today, the hermeneutic of suspicion still makes the individual skeptic the final authority, but now the individual does not even stand on solid ground. While I might argue that Pentecostalism is, in fact, epistemologically more responsive to this sort of interpretation with its affirmation of continuing personal revelation in the form of the spiritual gifts, these trends can be seen across the theological board. It is truly kowtowing to the spirit of the age over the authority of God’s revealed word. Progressive hermeneutics like Vazquez’s or the process theologians at Claremont could not exist without the development of post-modern interpretations and their myriad discontents.

What orthodoxy needs to stem this flow is an understanding of biblical epistemology. What does Scripture tell us about what it means to “know”? If the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, how do we respond to the process theologians of the world? It is a charge for members of the Society for Pentecostal Studies and others to form robust responses to these ideas that understand their origin and the roots of their departure from biblical understanding.