“So… how is it that you’re Pentecostal again?”
It’s a question that I get more often than I care to admit and for reasons too vast to number. I can say, though, that of all those reasons, one pretty much stands above the rest. I get asked this question not necessarily because of the things I say, or because of what I do. At the end of the day, it’s mostly about where I am at.
You see, I am lucky enough to have pursued theological degrees at two major research universities. I have gotten to sit in the same classrooms as great civil rights leaders, groundbreaking theologians, public personalities, social activists, and even presidents. In short, the question behind the question is:
“What are you doing here?”
It’s a good question, and people don’t mean it as a slight (nor do I take it that way). Truthfully, I ask myself that question fairly regularly. The fact of the matter is the people who check the “Pentecostal” box on the religious survey don’t usually end up talking to the people I do.
But, the question we all should be asking is: “Why?”
I do understand that part of people asking me to explain my Pentecostalness comes from their own lack of experience with Pentecostals. In truth, those who roam the ivied halls haven’t typically gotten a chance to have a long conversation with a Pentecostal. Pentecostals are those people who handle snakes in the Appalachians, right?
There’s a lot to that idea. Pentecostals have a history of doing some pretty crazy things and refusing to feel the need to explain. Either you have faith, or you don’t. As much as I wish it weren’t the case, Pentecostals have long embraced a hearty tradition of anti-intellectualism, even when they pushed against the boundaries of that tradition. It’s not a mistake that one of the favorite advertising slogans of my charismatic alma matter was,”Get your learnin’, keep your burnin’.”
And while I would like to say that that is a thing of the past, the anti-intellectual tradition is alive and well. According to a 2014 Pew Study on the American Religious Landscape, US Pentecostals were markedly less educated than other religious groups, placing in the bottom of the ladder in terms of educational attainment. What is more, they are far less likely to receive the same degree of education as the average US adult.
And while futuristic predictions are inherently problematic, the overall trend doesn’t seem to be changing. Populism, with it’s simplistic solutions to complex problems, is on the rise the world over. Politicians have long realized “sounding smart” doesn’t guarantee votes. And if we consider the overall conservative political identity of most Pentecostals in the US (and stretch a comparison in lieu of data) a recent 2017 Pew Survey might have more bad news. It seems Republicans as a whole have become more wary of institutions of higher learning. Even if Pentecostals are only part of that conservative trend, it seems that college continues to be held at a fearful distance for most Pentecostals.
A future of bright, well-educated Spirit-filled professionals doesn’t appear to be close on the horizon.
Or… does it?
Because here is the thing, most of the people who ask me to explain my Pentecostalness are doing so because they don’t have a full picture of what it means to be Pentecostal. They don’t realize that I have arrived where I am not as some strange outlier (though I may be strange), but because of the very tradition that I continue to embrace.
They forget that the Pentecostal tradition has often embraced a disciplined ethic of hard work and moral uprightness. They don’t realize it is a tradition that has long valued the studious acquisition of knowledge (albeit of the biblical and theological variety). They’ve never been told that some Pentecostals were as passionate about God healing social ills as they were about God healing at revivals . Last I checked, discipline, studiousness, and passion are all good selling points on a college application.
Still, it is true that many Pentecostals continue to be mistrustful of education. The specters of evolution, or environmentalism, or taking-prayer-out-of-schools continue to haunt sermons; fundamentalism is no stranger to the Pentecostal pulpit. Yet, it is also true that I know many Pentecostal men and women who are different. These people talk like me, think more sharply than me, and have more letters after their name than I ever hope to. In fact, I am only where I am today because of those sorts of Pentecostals, people who refused to place God’s gift of the Spirit over and against God’s gift of the intellect.
It is true, there is a long way to go, and I will continue to have to explain my existence to people: academics, Pentecostals, and others alike. But as in all things, God’s Spirit sustains; and hopefully one day the question people will be asking Pentecostals like myself isn’t, “Why are you here?” but…
“Where have you been all this time?”
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