For it is written: “Be holy, for I am holy.”
—1 Peter 1:16
Like more and more people the world over, I was raised a charismatic Christian. We attended traditional mainline Protestant worship on Sunday mornings, but the rest of the week our spirituality was devoted to the more dramatic of the gifts of the Spirit—speaking in tongues, faith healing, and prophesying. There was a lot of Christian tv, a lot of Christian concerts, and a lot of trips to bigger churches for praise and worship services and for visits by our favorite televangelists.
But more than anything, there was a lot of prayer and Bible study. In the weeks following church camp especially, I would sit on my bed for an hour or two of prayer and Bible study every night. We were taught how to do prayer and Bible study at church camp. It was important to do it daily, of course. But more than anything it was important to search ourselves, to discern God’s will in our lives and to root out sin.
There were mistakes for us to make, we were told, every moment of our lives. Following God’s will and avoiding sin were momentary responsibilities—which is to say, in a live filled with moments, we needed to be constantly, eternally vigiliant, in each moment, that we never stray. (Dedication to God was of course important, but the big clincher for a campful of adolescents was avoiding lust.)
We failed at this more often than not. If you ask adolescents to practice a purity of intention and action that the most mature of adults fail to realize, those adolescents will rise to the occasion with all the hope they can muster and then fail at a follow through their neurochemistry has not yet equipped them—or well, anyone—to accomplish. A remarkable few adolescents will taste some success with this, maybe even beyond church camp. Their success, if lifted up to their peers, will be a source first of hope and then, as their peers fail to imitate their success, despair or self-loathing.
You could give the form of spirituality I was raised in a lot of names—charismatic, Pentecostal, or, since we were Methodists, Methodistecostal. (There are also Bapticostals.) But the one name that captures what it really felt like every night as I sat on my bed praying and reading my Bible is pietist. Because pietists search themselves endlessly for failure and find failure endlessly.
Pietism has come to mean excessive or just especially earnest spirituality, which is often also true. But it is the form of that rigidity, and the reason for it, that is so important about pietism.
The original German Pietists—and I speak of them here with a capital-P—advanced a spirituality that was much more full and broad. Eager to internalize the lessons of Martin Luther’s Reformation, they sought to become holier individuals together. They held each other to strict standards, emphasized individual devotion to God, and founded countless universities, orphanages, and hospitals as expressions of that devotion. In the English speaking world, pietism arose among Wesleyans and Methodists, then Nazarenes and the Holiness Movement, then Pentecostals and charismatics. It has sought, and found, a new form in every century since the seventeenth.
But the pietism I’m speaking of—and there are no doubt many forms of pietism in the world today—doesn’t found universities and orphanages. It is a form of spirituality defined by the way the self is treated and how non-pietists are viewed. In a way, it is a postmodern, post-theological pietism because you can practice it based on any “-ism” you like, not just conservative Christianity. Pick your ideology and just follow the form.
The thought that pietism could be post-theological first occurred to me when talking to an activist friend about her leadership of a local chapter of an environmental group. Hearing her talk about her frustrations with the petty judgementalism and one-ups-manship of group members, I said it reminded me of a dysfunctional fundamentalist church. (This video clip from The Goode Family has all the examples you could ever want.)
It turns out that she grew up fundamentalist too—and was still fundamentalist—but had changed all the labels. She had moved from a life with Christian fundamentalists to a life with environmental fundamentalists. I think the realization blew both our minds. It made me desperately want to be sure I wasn’t doing the same.
Next post: How to Make a Postmodern Pietist (6 Easy Steps!)
(Photo by bratmandeau. Used under Creative Commons license.)