Just Say No--To Revivals
Bill Long 9/21/05
Friends Don't Let Friends Get "Transformed"
This essay functions as a sort of interlude in my long and appreciative review of Marsden's Jonathan Edwards. More than the other essays, this will be my own response to an issue that Marsden brings up time after time because it was so much on Edwards' mind--the issue of revivals. Although I think I can, and have, described them fairly dispassionately, I must state here for the record that I don't think religious revivals are a good thing. Now I need to clarify a lot of things.
First, I want to say that I think that religious faith is a good thing, in general, and that I support people who want to "grow" in their faith. I think maturity in understanding, study, religious exercises, communal celebration are all things to be supported and even admired. Second, I think that people's lives can change. I don't believe for a moment that one's situation is a "fixed" thing or that a deterministic and fatalistic philosophy about life is right or helpful. I believe that you can better yourself and that you can make choices that open up the better possibility of a brighter future for yourself. Third, I think that friends can be very instrumental in helping you reconceptualize your life. Friends are mostly useful, I have found, to keep you talking once you are stymied by your predicament, but they can also be useful in helping to define issues in new ways for you.
Having said all these things, I don't believe that religious revival, which I define to be an impersonal (not one-to-one friendship) method of communicating a purportedly transforming message about how God can and wants to change your life is, in general, a good thing. I don't deny that some people's hearts have been strangely warmed or that their lives may have been changed for the better as a result of responding to a revival preacher. But, on balance, more bad than good things happen through revival. Let me illustrate this through a historical note (from Edwards' time) and then from the present.
Revival and History--1741 in New England
One of the reasons that revival doesn't work is that even "good" revivalists open the door for bad and dangerous people. George Whitefield was, in most people's minds, a good revivalist. He had impeccable credentials (an Anglican ordination), solid theology (Reformed), good education and a wonderful command of the language. Yet, in his wake came Gilbert Tennant and James Davenport. I don't want to get too deeply into the lives of these men beyond saying that their approach to revival inevitably led to divisiveness, judgmentalism and schism in the churches. Not only did they practice itinerancy in 18th century New England, which would be like setting up a rival university on the green of the established college, but they used a new touchstone for fidelity (the "experience of the new birth") which could be used to excise others from grace as easily as Edwards said God could drop sinners into the pit of hell.
An itinerant preacher could set up the experience of the new birth (and his understanding of that) as the criterion or touchstone not simply of godliness but whether young people ought to respect and regard their leaders. If the leader was, by the sole determination of the itinerant, defective in that he hadn't experienced the "new birth," then people ought to forsake him and, presumably, follow the preacher who came into town proclaiming the new birth. Education and training, experience in life, wisdom, all these things could become secondary to the purported experience of the new birth. Thus, the revivalistic preaching of Tennent and Davenport (the former especially) led to a split in a major US denomination over whether and how one should determine whether clergy were really "born again."
Revivalism and the 21st Century
Revivalism is also dangerous in the 21st century primarily because its underlying message is that you don't need skills or training to get ahead in life; what you primarily need is a "new birth." If you tend to believe this line, you become susceptible to what I call "transformation" language. You think that because the most important change in life can be instantaneous (you are taken from the jaws of hell to the doors of heaven by "accepting Jesus"), that all other things in life are of lesser importance and can also, therefore, be "transformed" by a mere utterance of words. Since the most important thing in life can be changed in a trice, then things of lesser importance can be also. Thus, a "revivalist-oriented" person will speak of transformations of institutions, of relationships, of expectations, of nations, of the world. A revivalist-oriented person, therefore, knows no bounds in language because the most important transformation in the universe has already taken place--their heart has been changed (so they think). Everything else is now easy.
This is a dangerous belief because, as I have found, transformation doesn't happen very often. Slow change, if any change, is the order of the day. Training is necessary to do most jobs well. Education, which doesn't happen overnight, puts you in a better position for success than adopting a belief. Moral ambiguity (or even moral absence), rather than blinding moral clarity, is the arena in which we live most of our lives. By holding out the possibility of transformation, which is basically what revivalists do, they are perpetrating a species of deception on their hearers. They are telling them that all you really have to do is to make a decision, and the rest will follow easily. Your life will be transformed. That, my friends, is something to say "NO" to. Repeatedly.
Copyright © 2004-2007 William R. Long