T.S. Eliot’s Pentecostal agenda

Refined by Pentecost’s blaze or consumed by war's conflagration

by Ken Sehested

        Pentecost Sunday is far and away my favorite moment on the church’s liturgical calendar.

        It wasn’t always so. In fact, I grew up with inherited suspicion of “Pentecostal” Christians. Their rambunctious style of worship—speaking in “tongues,” ecstatic trances, slayings in the spirit and, generally, excitable emotions—were considered reprobate in my pietist-revivalist culture. We had our amen corners, but other outbursts were frowned upon. Such intrusions into more restrained Baptist sanctuaries were considered divisive and inflammatory.

        I have this bit of news in my files as illustration. When Southern Baptists in Georgia came to their 1998 convention meeting, among the first orders of business was to vote on two proposed constitutional amendments for congregational membership in the body, both being causes for being “disfellowshiped.” The first was endorsement of homosexual behavior; the second, engaging “in non-biblical charismatic worship practices.”

        (“Pentecostal” and “charismatic” now are used interchangeably, though the traditions have different origins, the latter arising within socially marginalized populations—interestingly, the earliest institutions were significantly interracial.)

        It wasn’t until I chose chapters 2 and 4 in the book of Act as the subject of my seminary master’s thesis—an exegetical and historical study, with particular focus on the “community of goods” accounts—did I come to see how socially incendiary this narrative is.

        The story begins in chapter two, specifically naming a long list of nationalities present on that day in Jerusalem. The miracle of the fracture of linguistic boundaries—“each one heard [the disciples’ preaching] in their own native language”—represents a larger symbolic framework, with “tongues of fire” representing the presence of the Holy Spirit, which then overturned a profound horizon of social fragmentation, including economic sharing, and the Spirit being poured out without reference to age or gender or nationality.

        This is when I began understanding Pentecost as God’s Resurrection Movement (the birthday of the church) resulting from God’s Resurrection Moment (at Easter).

        Pentecost represents not so much the reversal of the story of the Tower of Babel in Genesis 11—though in Acts there is an implicit rejection of the human hubris to “make a name for ourselves” outside the providence of God. The diffusion of many languages in the Babel story does not become univocal in the Acts story. But now all can “hear” each other. Babel is consummated.

        Nevertheless, the prophetic acts of spiritually-infused social regeneration begun at Pentecost are as threatening to current ordering as fiercely as ever. The Commonwealth of God will, everywhere and always until the end of days, be seen as subversive to the rulers of this broken, bounded, and troublesome age.

        Pentecost, T.S. Eliot wrote in his poem, “Little Gidding,” written after he survived the German bombing of London in 1941-42, occasions a fateful choice:

        “The only hope, or else despair / Lies in the choice of pyre . . . / To be redeemed from fire by fire.” Namely, to be refined by Pentecost’s blaze or consumed by war's conflagration.

        This is Pentecost's agenda. From what other purpose, or from what other premise, are we to proceed?

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©ken sehested @ prayerandpolitiks.org