an exploration into ancient cults and modern church


“The Homeric gods were not gods in the theological sense, since they were as immoral as human beings. As such they could be neither the objects of worship nor the source of any spiritual power to overcome the pervading sense of moral uncleanliness and the anxiety that people had over the shortness of life and the finality of death. … The worship of Dionysus satisfied to some extent those yearnings for cleansing and immortality. Organized into small, secret, and mystical societies, the devotees would worship Dionysus under various animal forms. Working themselves into a frenzy of wild dances and song, they would drink the blood of these animals, which they had torn apart in a state of intoxication. They would finally drop in complete exhaustion, convinced that at the height of their frenzy, the spirit of Dionysius had entered their bodies, purifying them and conferring his own immortality upon their souls.” — Samuel Stumpf and James Fieser, Socrates to Sartre and Beyond, pg. 11-12 

“According to her autobiography, What God Hath Wrought, Agnes Ozman was thirty years old when she received the Holy Ghost. In many ways, her experience at Bethel was the culmination of a lifetime of spiritual seeking. As a girl, she had attended a Methodist Church with her family and appreciated “the joy, rejoicing and shouts of victory.” … At [Bethel Bible College in Topeka, Kansas], Ozman achieved the zenith of her spiritual experience, receiving the baptism of the Holy Ghost during a late-night tarrying service at the school. In a 1922 letter to Eudorus N. Bell, Ozman claims that she did not understand tongues to be the evidence of the Spirit prior to her infilling: ‘Before receiving the Comforter, I did not know that I would speak in tongues when I received the Holy Ghost for I did not know it was Bible. But after I received the Holy Spirit speaking in tongues it was revealed to me that I had the promise of the Father as it is written and as Jesus said.'” — Matthew Shaw, The Old Landmark: Celebrating Apostolic Heritage “Agnes Ozman and the Topeka Outpouring,” 27 April 2010

Many Pentecostals are rhetorically and doctrinally adamant about the separation between spirit regeneration and spirit baptism, that is, between salvation and ecstatic, charismatic experience. If that were practically the case, I wouldn’t have qualms with it. However, in revisiting my old history of philosophy survey textbook, there is an admittedly uncomfortably strong echo of the religious experience of the Dionysians in the context of the days stemming from the second Great Awakening to the advent of neo-Pentecostal Christianity in the aforementioned Topeka Outpouring. (Outpouring becomes an odd word choice in comparison, no?)

No, they weren’t hacking up animals or drinking blood, but they gladly spent days in tents, encouraged extended times of song and preaching, developed the altar call and the anxiety bench [EDITORIAL ASIDE: I desperately want to go to a service where the minister invites all the heathens to sit facing the congregation during the sermon. How is it that one survived the decades and not the other?] and steeped in their fervor for close to a decade before the “zenith of…spiritual experience” in the manifestation of tongues.

To this day, a member of the clergy in the Assemblies of God must submit an annual report which asks the minister, amongst requested responses to other religious quota, how many laypeople under his or her ministry have been baptized in the Holy Spirit. Salvation and water baptisms are important, to be sure, but if that response is a zero, the reporting minister is red-flagged. It’s not a dismissible offense, but it certainly is cause for concern.

Long story short, while I am not willing to condemn the Assemblies and other Pentecostal sects for or imply that they serve at the altar of a lesser god, the demarcation between salvation and demonstrated charismata as the negotiation of full humanity is murky at best, and I would suggest it has been since the outset of modern Pentecostalism. If we are interested in an honest examination of how the pneumatological sausage is made, and further interested in a healthy and vibrant theology of the charismata, we have to accept and confront this discomforting reality and then somehow reconcile it in theory and praxis. Pentecostalism is the dominant strand of global Christianity right now, and its rapid ascendancy in its current state poses a serious theological concern for future generations, if for no other reason than the fact that Pentecostalism is generally disinterested in establishing theology for fear of quenching the Spirit.

The early Pentecostals linked the outpouring to the Acts 2 and Joel and viewed the event as a divine indicator that the temporal experience was beginning its descent into the apocalypse. As such, tongues was considered ‘missionary tongues’ to reach the unreached (Shaw goes on to note that Charles Parham, who ran Bethel Bible College, read Ozman’s writing during her ecstasy as Chinese) and this experience codified itself into the doctrinal tenet known as initial physical evidence. The Assemblies demands its clergy to have it and practice it, while adherents are expected to seek it. It’s what makes Pentecostalism distinct.

The problem with the pentecostal distinctive is that the distinctive becomes, by fiat, the ultimate concern. The way the movement rationalizes the obvious discrepancy is that the person is not to seek the gifts, but the giver. This writer did not speak in tongues until he was 18 years old. Had I not hit that benchmark, my ministerial application would have been dismissed out of hand. (Instead, it was dismissed two other times before I earned a license to preach, which lapsed two years ago.) We are to seek the giver and not the gift; but without the gift, the applicant is not allowed to work vocationally for the giver.

Not speaking in tongues is a deal-breaker, like gambling, sexual immorality, drinking, carrying a heavy debt load or not towing the premillennial dispensational eschatological party line. The rationalization for this other obvious discrepancy is that, in the words of a retired Assemblies of God Bible college faculty member, the kingdom of God is bigger than the Assemblies of God. Or, as the unofficial mantra of the same Bible college’s student life department goes: If you don’t like it, you can leave. The notion of a distinctive necessarily moves from being subsequent to salvation to part and parcel of it, and whether they would admit it or not, they have no choice but to look down upon anyone who decides that they don’t like it or has frustratedly pursued tongues to no avail.

And this is where an obscure ancient cult becomes uncomfortably flirtatious with a modern religious movement. Dionysians pursued the frenzy of their religious activity in order to reach the salvation of catharsis. An entire generation of American Christians lurched toward the frenzy of fundamentalist Christianity to attain this act of grace, using Acts 2 as a justification for their pursuit, when the practice of an ancient cult would have done the same thing. Thus, the Acts 2-Joel defense is special pleading, considering that similar charismatic activity has been found throughout the world and throughout history. Tongues qua Topeka (or Wales, if we are to disregard social and cultural location) to the present day is the catharsis the frenzied Dionysians sought, which is the animal-free living of veganism, the capitalism and republican-democracy of the American civic religion, shared existence for the Marxist, the missing link for the naturalist, the Hajj of the Muslim, the sacrament of the Catholic.

Paul Tillich argued–rightly–that faith is whatever dominates one’s ultimate concern, religion being the pursuit of said ultimate concern. (I was working through Dynamics of Faith during an Assemblies of God young adults conference many years ago. One of the keynote speakers, a prominent Assemblies of God seminary professor, noticed the book while he was around the convention center during our free time and asked me, “You’re reading Tillich? And you understand it?” Yes, sir, yes I do; and in hindsight, it appears you don’t.) If the deal-breaker for a Christian sect is one’s virginity to Pentecostal experience as they define it, then it is no longer Christianity qua Pentecostalism, but Pentecostalism qua Pentecostalism. I remain unconvinced that Jesus would be OK with this, what amounts to washing the cup and platter. It’s not distinct, rather it’s nothing more than a pitiful exercise in the religious status quo, the same old, same old for humanity for thousands of years and counting. While ignorance of the law is no excuse and grace abounds for creation, at some point we have to come to the convicting reality of a misguided emphasis on doctrinal distinctive.

(Fieser and Stumph go on to cite a contextually-appropriate apocryphal story concerning the Pythagorans: “Hippasus … was drowned in the Hellespont for letting out the secret that [the Pythagoran principle] does not hold true in the case of the isosceles right-angled triangle.” As far as I’m concerned, that’s what comes to mind when I think of water baptism.)

Christianity is the radical notion that we no longer need to justify ourselves, but that we place our justification in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. Pentecostalism, whether it likes it or not, demands that its adherents justify themselves with glossolalia in an attempt to place undue importance on themselves at the perceived end of the epoch. Current popular eschatology becomes problematic, here, as well: how can one be interested in redeeming creation when its cynical millennial vision of global calamity validates the religious pursuits of the sanctified?

I do not offer these thoughts as condemnation or judgment, but as a clarion call for charismatic Christianity to reconsider its doctrinal commitments. The present state of affairs presents a host of difficulties that cannot be wished away by qualifiers and invitations for those who disagree to find another home. Intellectual honesty demands we not only pursue truth but seek to avoid falsity, and to accept our place in the lineage of Western Civilization, following the truth wherever it leads.

There is a place for our faith and practice in the world; to stubbornly ignore that fact is to render ourselves obsolete. The great apostasy is not the moral decline and degradation of a world going to hell in a handbasket at the precipice of tribulation and impending breaking of seals and bowls of wrath: it is our striking resemblance to ancient pagan cult devoted to salvation via passing out, the second coming of the First Assembly of Dionysius, the rapture of fainting, the continued and persistent futility of religion in our own image according to our own terms.

There is nothing more blasphemous than doctrinal purity, and nothing more sacred than to continue to marvel at an empty tomb. We, of all denominational strands and persuasions, excel in the former and are discontented with the latter, even though it is the latter that is the source of our hope and existence. All the while, the bodies in the Hellespont continue to pile up as we remain content with our all-too-human commitment to mediocrity.

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