John Lathrop interviewed Harvey Cox at Harvard Divinity School in Cambridge, Massachusetts in 1996 about his book, Fire From Heaven.
What prompted you to write a book about the Pentecostal Movement?
Two things prompted me. One was my discovery which came through my great interest in urban ministry. This discovery was that although the mainline denominations sometimes issue marvelous statements and do great studies of urban life, on the front lines of urban ministry, many of the churches are Pentecostal. This is true both here and in other parts of the world. And I got to know Eldin Villafane, who I value as a very close friend. He is a Pentecostal minister. We actually gave a course together on urban ministry. There were some Pentecostal pastors in the course, and I began visiting some of these churches. I came to believe that the Spirit was really saying something to the entire Christian world through the Pentecostal movement. I also thought that the Pentecostals got bad press. They have been misunderstood and bad mouthed a lot. I wanted to write something that would be more accurate and fair.
The other reason I got interested in Pentecostals grew out of my work in Latin America and other parts of the Third World. I give courses here on Christianity and in the non-western world, especially Latin America. I began to notice many years ago that the Pentecostal movement in Latin American countries was growing very rapidly. I noticed that it was in many ways not just a reflection of North American Pentecostalism; it had its own qualities and strengths. So I decided when I finally bit off writing this book that I would deal with the whole worldwide picture of Pentecostals. People have written things about this or that part of its history or theology or some special study. I really wanted to write a book that would talk about the global emergence of this new stream of Christian vitality. That is how I got started, and I’m glad I did because I had a wonderful time doing that.
As you have studied the Pentecostal Movement, what do you see as some of its strengths?
Well, I think the main strengths of the movement are two. The major strength is that Pentecostalism is solidly based on the direct, personal experience of the Spirit. It’s based on an experience in a time when many churches have an audience format in which the experiential dimension has been lost in either the creedal or the institutional aspects of the church. There is an old Pentecostal saying from way back in the early years of Pentecostalism: “A man with an argument has no chance against a man with an experience.” There is something to be said for that.