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Revival IS You
Revival is complex ... but it gets a lot simpler when we take ourselves out of the center of the story.
Before we get into this issue of Bitter Scroll, a question: Would you be willing to leave an honest review of Orphaned Believers on Amazon if you haven’t yet? It takes a couple of minutes but makes a huge difference in expanding the reach of the book — and means a lot to me as a little fish swimming in a very big pond. If you believe in my writing and the message of the book, please take a moment to rate and review the book. Thank you so much!
I used to edit a restaurant news website, and I’d spend as much time sleuthing for fodder to scoop a competing restaurant news site than I would writing restaurant news. And I mean a lot of writing, up to six articles a day. I’d scour Seattle’s liquor license application database and Craigslist want ads looking for clues about openings. This was 2014. It was the first time I understood the power of social media to suck you in. I mean, I’d be reading a bedtime story to my kid and get up halfway through to refresh Chef Twitter (is that a thing?)
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I had that same dusty old trait follow me into writing about faith and culture in 2018. If I could scoop someone, get out early, then more eyes would see whatever words I toss into the culture wars ring.
I’ve stopped, because I truly believe that moving quickly to get out in front is a manifestation of capitalism and productivity culture. It’s gross.
Still, the thought occurred to me when news broke about the Asbury Revival. Write early, get in there. I know now when that tug pulls to wait, pray, distance my own voice from the news.
Part of my interest in Asbury is because I spent a few months researching revivals — the first narrative arc of Orphaned Believers included a pairing of each section with a historical revival. Azusa Street in California. Hebrides in Scotland. You’ll see the Toronto Blessing in the “Gold Teeth” chapter in the book, but that’s all that made the cut. It turns out revivals are easy to criticize, fun to write about — at least if they’re Charismatic in origin (people roaring like lions! Gold dust appearing on palms!) but ultimately, the topic of revival did not serve the central work. Maybe it will someday.
Writing well, with integrity, about revival is tricky. When I heard about Asbury, I felt my Gen X cynicism and skepticism flood in. In 2020, the word “revival” is linked to American politics. After a failed congressional bid, Sean Feucht traveled to protest zones across the U.S. and presented concerts under the moniker “Riots to Revival.” He traveled to Asbury, of course, tweeting along the way.
I felt angry about Fox News covering the revival — how what seems pure on the inside became political on the outside lickety-split (and heartened by the wisdom of school leaders who worked to keep students centered.) I beaome annoyed at pilgrims heading to campus and wondered why people couldn’t let revival spread if they wanted. We don’t need to see everything for ourselves.
Noticing a theme in my own processing? Feelings. The whole way I’m thinking about Asbury is filtered through a misty light of self. It’s so easy to center self. To want to talk about our take. To want to get in there early with commentary. But I wondered, are there lessons to learn, and is there hope to be found, in this latest manifestation of revival?
Revival is the name of a very cool online rug company, a coffee roaster in Austin, Texas, and a cocktail bar in Mount Vernon, Washington. Revival is ubiquitous in culture generally — a boost, fresh look, or pick-me-up — and a common theme in Christianity specifically.
The fall before the pandemic began, I stood in an Indiana kitchen talking with close friends. It was late, and the seven kids between our two families were finally asleep. “I want to see revival,” I earnestly told my husband and friends. The moment was charged and my heart felt pure, like how I’d imagined Anna or Simeon felt waiting for the Messiah.
15 years earlier, when we lived in that Indiana town after college, we used to walk around the streets and pray for revival. We walked past big falling down houses like the ones we rented for cheap for a year or two and prayed for the holy spirit to come.
Look Back for a Sec
Christians from many traditions affirm that God can work through revival. But depending on cultural and political affiliation, the word has a very different connotation.
Just about every generation says we’re ripe for a revival, probably because humanity always faces natural disaster, war, social unrest, and other visceral complications. Billy Graham’s big tent revivals caught fire in the late 1940s, when the U.S. was still reeling from World War II. Some rapture-ready Christians who follow a premillennial interpretation of the book of Revelation believe the rapture will be preceded by revival, so Jesus can turn as many hearts as possible back to him before the end of the world.
In the early 1900s, there were reports of revivals in Australia and at an Indian school for girls. In that same decade, there were accounts from Wales of a revival of young people mysteriously drawn out of a dance hall to a church after two octogenarian women held middle-of-the-night prayer sessions in Wales. In the weeks after, Welsh farmers were found lying prostrate in the grass, repenting, hearts burning after listening to sermons from revivalist preachers.
There are some examples of diversity in revivals — Azusa Street in the 1920s is well-known for including participants from various racial and ethnic backgrounds. But there’s little denying that just like the broader story of American Evangelicalism and the Church’s larger story of colonization, Western revivals have been white-centered, as explained in this excellent post from Black Coffee with White Friends.
Whether you write off early revival accounts as sweeping emotionalism or hard evidence of the spirit, it’s clear that some folks from every generation wait for revival, and look for it in different contexts.
I watched a documentary on Cornerstone, the music festival held from the mid-80s to early 2000s in Illinois produced by JPUSA, with roots in the Jesus Movement (a sort of revival in its own right). An unidentified concert attendee is interviewed in a denim jacket in the festival parking lot, saying, “You remember how in the 60s music was such a big part of what was going on. That maybe before the Lord comes back, you know, there’ll be a real revival, and the Lord will really use music.”
I recently listened to a 1990 sermon by Redeemer pastor Tim Keller on revival. If there was a pattern of revivals looking back, there are some through lines: The church has a crisis or a people group or culture is oppressed; a group of lay people say we have got to do something and there is an extraordinary seeking after God (including travailing prayer), and then a visitation — God’s presence comes down, there is a grace outpouring.
While it can’t be predicted, Keller argues that we can remove roadblocks to welcome revival, from discarding dead or defective orthodoxy to getting quieter instead of louder about our longings to be near Jesus. Change is internal, not emotional—or in our context political.
A Personal Overcorrection
I met my friend Josh for dinner in Austin last month, and Asbury came up. I talked about the time I prayed for revival in the kitchen with friends as representative of a particular season when I craved experiencing the Holy Spirit at work, but I now see how it was about me centering myself in the story and seeking some sort of rush. I’m also experiential by nature, I told him. It’s wise for folks with temperaments like mine to check our motives and intentions.
So I stopped seeking something miraculous and got practical. When my dad got sick, I began to pray with full belief that he could be healed but realistic acceptance that cancer will probably take him. There’s wisdom here, but also a different sort of self-preservation. A different protection.
In the years since, I told my friend that I’ve worked to take myself out of God’s story so much that I’ve overcorrected. My friend reminded me that it’s possible to move too far into the posture of becoming a-spiritual, of assuming we won’t see God at work in surprising ways in our lives. That might feel safe, but it deprives us of access to the full gifts of the spirit.
Grumpy by Nature
When I heard about Asbury, I was grumpy in my spirit. Because these are middle-class Gen Z kids who haven’t seen hard stuff, I assumed. Why wouldn’t God revive people who need revival? A therapist friend offered a different perspective that snapped my heart into alignment.
“Maybe their hearts are pure,” she said. Of course. What I called out as access to a life without trial was clouded with assumption and judgement. Maybe they wanted healing or release, and God was gracious and picked up the proverbial phone when they called.
As Ruth Graham’s excellent NYT piece on Asbury captured,
“The Asbury revival is ‘marked by overwhelming peace for a generation marked by anxiety,’ said Madison Pierce, a student at the unaffiliated Asbury Theological Seminary across the street who volunteered to pray with visitors and help with logistics.
‘It’s marked by joy for a generation marked by suicidal ideation,’ Mr. Pierce said. ‘it’s marked by humility for a generation traumatized by the abuse of religious power.’”
As a mother, writer, friend, and person on the Vestry at church, it’s impossible to not notice the massive wave of generational anxiety and mental health crisis that centers on and swelling amongst young people, many of whom have not been made welcome in the American church.
If I’m honest, underneath my cynicism, at a truer layer of self, my heart has become guardedly hopeful about the work God is doing right now within members of Gen Z. If Asbury was about reconciliation, hope for anxiety, a healing of relationships and some freeing of mental burden or affliction, then thanks be to God.
Photo: Jenny James
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