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Global Pentecostal Renaissance? Reflections on Pentecostalism, Culture, and Higher Education, by Jeff Hittenberger

Though these elements are all part of the Pentecostal ethos, they are not always in evidence in practice. Over time, movements can lose their exploratory dynamics, can dichotomize mind and spirit, and can lose their rootedness in Christ and adopt postures toward culture and education that are undiscerning. Impediments to Pentecostalism as a learning movement might include loss of a passion for God, lack of appreciation for learning and creative expression, and growing indifference toward redemptive service and mission.

In order to better understand these dynamics, it is helpful to expand on the notion of orientations toward culture. Crouch offers a taxonomy of these orientations, or modes of engagement (he calls them “gestures”) toward culture and reflects on how Christians in the United States have lived out these various responses over the past century.8 Note that Pentecostals at various times and in various settings have adopted each of these approaches.

The challenges to Pentecostal higher education are many.

Cultural condemnation is an approach that was adopted by many fundamentalists at the turn of the twentieth century, when modernism rose as a dominant force in many Christian institutions, including church-related colleges and universities and even seminaries. The rise of modernism, with its accommodation of naturalist and materialist views of the world, was viewed by fundamentalists as undermining core (“fundamental”) Christian commitments to the veracity of Scripture, the divinity of Christ, and the supernatural and miraculous presence of God in the world. As American and higher education cultures became increasingly hospitable to modernist views, it seemed increasingly inhospitable to Christian fundamentals, with the result that many conservative Christians, including many Pentecostals, withdrew from many domains of the larger culture (entertainment, higher education, politics, and the like). The focus of these Christians became to offer a lifeboat for those who would abandon the sinking ship of modern culture.

Cultural critique was a second approach, one that re-engaged evangelicals (who became uneasy with the connotations of withdrawal and condemnation associated with the term “fundamentalist”) with culture. Evangelical thinkers like Carl F. H. Henry and Francis Schaeffer taught a new generation of post-fundamentalist evangelicals to take culture seriously, but to identify its assumptions, including its falsehoods and failings, so as to serve as more effective witnesses to those living without Christ and under the sway of mainstream cultures. Many Pentecostals, but perhaps not as often as other evangelicals, joined the project of cultural critique.

Cultural copying became much more common with the rise of the Jesus movement in the 1960s and ‘70s, as young evangelicals (many, if not most, of them Pentecostals) threw off the cultural condemnation approach and adopted forms of popular music and dress so as to introduce the Christian message to new generations of secularists (or nominal Christians). This approach resumed a practice that Christians had used for many centuries to advance the Gospel through the idiom and creative expression of the local culture.

Cultural consumption was the most common form of cultural engagement of modernist Christians in the early twentieth century and has become a very common approach among evangelicals (and many Pentecostals) in the early twenty-first century. Having seen the limitations of condemnation (which has often led to legalism), critique (which can seem intellectually arrogant and socially disengaged), and copying (which can seem superficial), many Christians adopt a more open, but too often uncritical, approach to culture and its goods and expressions.

Crouch argues that each of these four “gestures” toward culture has its time and place. Condemnation is the only reasonable response to cultural phenomena like pornography and sex-trafficking. Critique is a reasonable approach to works of art, film, philosophy, or literature that are meant to engage serious thought. Copying is an inevitable and often useful way to communicate the eternal ideas of the Gospel in accessible form. Consumption is a reasonable response to all of the good things that remain a product of common grace in all its cultural forms, such as great cuisine, or riding a bike, or using an iPhone, or attending a baseball game.

The problem, according to Crouch, comes when these gestures become “postures,” as described above. Whether we are condemning all things, or critiquing all things, or copying all things, or consuming all things, we will fail to draw important distinctions informed by Biblical wisdom. Instead, Christian should be discerning about what approach to culture is relevant in a given cultural situation.

According to Crouch, Christians should recapture two approaches too often neglected, especially in twentieth century American Christianity, which are at the heart of God’s intention for humanity from the beginning (and, I would add, essential for a Global Pentecostal Renaissance): creation and cultivation. As makers of culture, we commit ourselves to creating products, processes, designs, messages, mechanisms, institutions, and works of art that honor God, in whatever domain we work. As cultivators of culture, we seek out, nurture, and preserve cultural expressions that glorify God, and such expressions exist in cultures around the world because God’s image is stamped on all people and their cultures, in spite of the distortions and evils brought about by sin. An example of cultural creativity arising from the Pentecostal movement is Teen Challenge, a ministry launched by David Wilkerson in 1958 to help people find freedom from drug addiction through faith in Christ. More than one thousand Teen Challenge centers now operate in more than ninety-three nations.9

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Category: Living the Faith, Pneuma Review, Spring 2013

About the Author: Jeff Hittenberger, Ph.D. (University of Southern California), serves as Provost/Vice President for Academic Affairs at Vanguard University. He previously served as Director of Graduate Studies at Evangel University and as Dean of the School of Education at Vanguard University. He served as a Rotary Ambassadorial Scholar at Mohamed V University in Rabat, Morocco, has served as a consultant and researcher in Cameroon, Mali, South Africa, Israel, and Haiti.

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