By Brandon Hubbard-Heitz
When I was in elementary school, I attended a Pentecostal children’s camp. The days were filled with swimming, hiking, and sports. The nights, however, consisted of friendly puppets, dramatic black light depictions of the chasm between heaven and hell, and fiery sermons that always culminated in a tearful altar call packed with youngsters crying out to God for salvation, healing, and baptism in the Holy Spirit. By midweek I found myself passionately laying hands on whomever I could find praying at the base of the black lit stage.
Pentecostals are weird.
This past weekend I attended the annual Society for Pentecostal Studies conference in Seattle. Though there were no altar calls or puppets (even as some of the scholars looked vaguely like Jim Henson’s Muppets), it was an undoubtedly Pentecostal gathering.
In my opinion, Pentecostalism has always been defined by its radical openness to the movement of the Holy Spirit—no matter how strange or unsettling manifestations of the Spirit might turn out to be. Thus, in her plenary address on Holiness and Economics, Daniela Augustine, an ethicist from Lee University, found the freedom to tear up as she outlined the work of God in the salvation of humanity. In a personal conversation, JR Lilly, the interim director of Wiconi International, described his work in encouraging Pentecostal Amerindians to recognize and cultivate the Spirit’s presence in native ceremonies and rituals.
Unfortunately, Pentecostals have too often failed to extend this openness to people and practices they believe lie outside of their narrow boundaries of holiness. This particular meeting of SPS was divided over a proposed amendment to allow non-Christian scholars to join the Society. Significant (and, might I add, loud) voices expressed dismay at the possibility that non-Christian scholars might dilute the unity and worship of these academics.
It is not just the SPS that founds its identity upon othering those who do not conform to predetermined guidelines. Pentecostals in general have always suppressed and excommunicated those whose lifestyles and theologies do not agree with their literalistic interpretations of the Bible. As a result, Pentecostals, including those in the academy, continue to be defined by white heterosexual men who marginalize alternative and minority voices. In his presidential address to the society Paul Alexander elucidated the continuing gender gap between men and women, while simultaneously shocking the audience with his assertion that gay Pentecostals actually exist.
By challenging Pentecostal scholars to reorient themselves towards inclusivity, Alexander offered a template for Pentecostalism as a whole to step anew into the broad stream of the Spirit. Openness to eccentricity has always defined the movement and, as Daniel Castelo argued in a session on Pentecostal ethics, to renounce eccentricity is to renounce the Pentecostal identity. Perhaps, then, Pentecostals ought to move beyond their provincial theologies and policies in favor of an eccentric openness to that which is strange and unsettling—even weird. Too long have Pentecostals tried to impose limits upon the Spirit. By adopting a radical policy of inclusivity they can open themselves up to the work of the Spirit in all people and in all places. After all, the Spirit blows where she pleases and we can only do our best to seek after her.