Reflections on a Pietist Identity (Tim Johnson)

Today’s guest post comes from Tim Johnson, who attended last week’s Bethel Colloquium on Pietism. (To watch video of all sessions, click here, select the On Demand tab, and look under December 13, 2016.) Tim is Curator of Special Collections & Rare Books and the E. W. McDiarmid Curator of the Sherlock Holmes Collections for the University of Minnesota Libraries. A member of Excelsior Covenant Church, Tim studied history at North Park College with Zenos Hawkinson, author of the essay that gave this blog its name.

Tim Johnson
A big part of Tim’s job — what originally connected him and me — is to curate the world’s largest gathering of material related to that most famous consulting detective, Sherlock Holmes

A recent post here caught my eye, in part because it concluded with a one-question poll: “Do You Identify as an Evangelical?” Normally, I don’t reply to online polls. But roiling thoughts, conversations, and readings following our recent presidential election conspired to convict me (perhaps prompted by the Spirit?) to respond. I cast my vote in the negative: “No, I used to identify as an evangelical Christian, but no longer do so.” My vote caused me pain in publicly voicing what to that point remained part of a private pilgrimage. But can we ever travel together, in faith, privately? This declaration, given in response to a single question, came with a sense of being stripped in a Lewisian, Narnian way. I’m still not sure what to make of it.

Not content with simply casting a ballot, I offered additional commentary:

I’ve wrestled with this for some time. Given my liturgical leanings and my own sense of witness in the public space of secular higher education, I decided that in honesty to myself and my faith I needed to abandon this label. I still worship in an evangelical congregation, am part of an evangelical denomination, but increasingly find myself uncomfortable in this milieu. Where will promptings of the Spirit lead me? I don’t know. Family, marriage, tradition all conspire to keep me in the Pietist fold while being pulled toward an historic, catholic Church. We live in interesting times….

Such was (and is) my frame of mind as I attended the most recent Colloquium on Pietism at Bethel University. A Pietist poll set the table for a Pietist gathering. My live-tweeting of the event prompted Chris’ invitation to offer this further response/reflection on the colloquium. I am thankful for this opportunity to continue meditating not only on that day at Bethel, but on what it means to be stripped of an “unusable” past—on being redeemed in body, mind, and soul “for God’s glory and neighbors’ good.”

My use of opposing terms — unusable and usable — is deliberate. An overarching concern of these colloquiums has been to search for “a usable past,” or as Christian Collins Winn introduced the day, an interest “in understanding the underlying spiritual, religious, and theological dynamics that shaped these movements in the hopes of translating some of that into the present.” I found myself thinking that Collins Winn’s use of the phrase “some of that” was — perhaps unintentionally — really quite loaded, something different than “all of that.” It was usable and unusable in a different form. Usable embraces intense longings for community, a desire to grow individually and communally, and a yearning to find meaningful and graceful places in creation. Part of those dynamics—what I brought to Bethel on the day — was a pursuit for an “irenic and peaceable spirit,” pietistic characteristics Bethel provost Deb Harless reminded us of in her opening remarks. In a time that is, for many of us, neither irenic nor peaceable, I came to the colloquium quietly desiring to find something — anything — usable. It was a question of identity.

And it was a family affair. Surrounded by brothers and sisters from various related traditions (my own table featured a couple laypeople and five Covenant pastors — including my father and the venerable Glen Wiberg), I watchfully (prayerfully?) listened and engaged as each presentation revealed something new. Talks, responses, and casual conversations intertwined, mingled, or dovetailed with each other. If eighteenth century Scottish revivalists had their “concerts of prayer,” then what we experienced was something akin (ironically?) to a marvelously rhythmic and melodic Scandinavian folk dance.

Clifton-Soderstrom, Angels, Worms, and BogeysIt really was something quite astonishing — and maybe not readily apparent at the time; a realization of the day’s whisperings continues to break over me the more I contemplate the day. (You must—if you haven’t already—watch the colloquium videos.) Mark Safstrom’s exploration of biblical reading and sermonizing flowed easily out of Mark Granquist’s engagement with modern and postmodern complexities while Efrem Smith’s pre-lunch keynote “sermontation” literally set the table. Kyle Roberts followed with a Kierkegaardian response that, in turn (and after lunchtime conversation), opened us to Michelle Clifton-Soderstrom’s sensitively conceived consideration of the conventicle as a space for renewal and reparative justice. Carrie Peffley’s intriguing response, informed by her expertise in Latin and Arabic medieval philosophy, brought new and illuminating thoughts to the conversation. Clifton-Soderstrom and Safstrom brought this dance to a satisfying conclusion with segments from a developing film documentary, God’s Glory, Neighbor’s Good: The Story of Pietism. A smile crept to my face as I heard a familiar narrative voice accompanying the film, one of the other—and more famous—Tim Johnsons in the Covenant: “Dr. Tim,” longtime Chief Medical Correspondent for ABC News and a Covenant pastor.

These summary paragraphs above give a sense of the day, but barely scratch its depth. My meager Twitter-streamed posts later expanded to pages of notes as I watched and re-watched the archived video stream. (Thank you Bethel and Colloquium organizers!) Why such interest? Because I found hints, and more than hints, for something “usable.” Pietist tradition and practice have much to offer (quoting Christian Collins Winn) “the challenges that we find ourselves dealing with today.” He wondered

if Pietism might not provide a different way of conceiving what it might mean to be a Christian, one that describes a deep commitment to the living and risen Christ whose presence not only enlivens and changes the heart, but also the head and the hands (and the feet), sending us out into the world as witnesses to the reign of God, which is good news to the poor and the dispossessed.

For someone like me, casting off as I had the label “evangelical,” the colloquium provided a new sense of identity and a new direction in my pilgrimage. Sisters and brothers wiser and more learned than I provided me with new markings.

Granquist, Scandinavian PietistsMark Granquist’s foundational observations on how Pietists dealt with (then and now) rapidly changing contexts and situations in an ever mutable environment is perfectly comprehensible to me, working as I do in some of the “bleeding edge” areas of higher education. Our own immigrant experience, part of a great 19th century diaspora, should bring us side by side with neighbors newer to our shores. (I am, by one reckoning, a third generation immigrant; fourth generation, tops. I should not consider myself so far removed from current experiences.) “How shall we sing the LORD’S song in a strange land?”

• In a similar fashion Mark Safstrom caused me to re-examine how I might read the Bible and theologically reflect on the world as a “Luther reader.” He convinced me that I need to give Scripture (and devotional writings) more time than the few minutes I allot each morning. Safstrom asked “What kind of Biblicism are we talking about?” and replied with a strong affirmation of the Bible as “highest authority,” a nuanced difference from other types of biblical authority. We might understand this as Luther’s sola scriptura, yet informed by tradition, reason, and experience—a Wesleyan quadrilateral—and a dash of pietistic “Where is it written?” In the midst of it all, Luther plays the role of “proto-pietist.” Mark’s poignant reconstruction of Rosenius and Waldenström’s sermonizing around the John 4:5-26 text put me in the place of the Samaritan woman at the well (Rosenius) and as a disciple of Jesus (Waldenström). In either case I came away with a new sense of self and bearing. Both woman and disciples “are awakened out of their deathlike slumber…. Christ is the agent and catalyst of our awakening. Like the disciples, we are confused but we are assured that we may move forward in faith and trust God’s grace.”

Boesak & DeYoung, Radical ReconciliationEfrem Smith’s hesitancy in this time of distress and division to identify himself as an evangelical obviously struck a chord in my being. Our difference—one I wrestle with—is his ability to claim the identity, fortified as he is with a sense of missional Pietism, while I cast it aside. This “black liberation Pietist” sweetly and passionately sees the expression and extension of “kingdom elements”—reconciliation, transformation, empowerment, and discipleship formation—as the “overflow of intimacy with God, identity with Christ, and the indwelling of the Holy Spirit.” I see this “overflow of intimacy” intimately linked with Safstrom’s biblical readership and Clifton-Soderstrom’s conventicle communities. At the same time, informed by the writing of Allan Boesak and Curtiss DeYoung, Smith warns us of a quiet Pietism which hinders movement of God’s kingdom in others. Our goal is to make (and take) our Pietism public. Missional Pietism is “a theological framework with practical implications” that “can liberate evangelicalism from the captivity of political plantations.” We are not “held captive to a rugged individualism.” Instead, “the love of Christ controls us,” even with those whom we don’t see eye to eye. In a time of a divided land and a divided church, Efrem urges us to follow his (and Christ’s) example: “I’m going to love the hell out of them in the meantime.”

Michelle Clifton-Soderstrom framed her reflection on the conventicle as a space of renewal and reparative justice with a quotation from Spener’s Pia Desideria. These words are a fitting way for me to end this reflection on the colloquium:

Let us not abandon all hope before we have set our hands to the task. Let us not lay down our rod and staff if we do not have the desired success at once. What is impossible for men remains possible for God. Eventually God’s hour must come, if only we wait for it. Our fruit, like other fruit, must be borne in patience, and the fruit in others must be cultivated by us with perseverance. The work of the Lord is accomplished in wondrous ways, even as he is himself wonderful. For this very reason his work is done in complete secrecy, yet all the more surely, provided we do not relax our efforts. If God does not give you the pleasure of seeing the result of your work quickly, perhaps he intends to hide it from you, lest you become too proud of it. Seeds are there, and you may think they are unproductive, but do your part in watering them, and ears will surely sprout and in time become ripe.

Michelle reminded us of a sometimes frustrating feature of this movement: Pietism is not just taught, but caught. It is caught through the faithful habits of people, the same folks who dealt with their own sense of hopelessness, societal volatility, and lack of identity. Spener, Francke, Luther, Rosenius, Waldenström, Petersen, Nilsdotter, Collins Winn, Gehrz, Granquist, Safstrom, Smith, and others bring me to a place of renewal, and to a conviction to take and make my faith public.

– Tim Johnson


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