Suspicion and Spectacle
By Scott Hughes
Over the past few days, I’ve been getting lots of texts and messages inquiring about the revival at Asbury University. I attended Asbury Theological Seminary, and my son attends Asbury University. Several folks have shared their thoughts and forwarded me the perspectives of others. I, too, have seen the many reports and commentaries on my social media timelines. Some people shared their celebrations; and others, their cynicism. As an ordained elder in The United Methodist Church, Associate General Secretary of a United Methodist agency, and a father of a current student, I have heard this common question, “What are we to make of this?”
We live in an age of skepticism and suspicion. In some ways, with the proliferation of “deepfakes” and manufactured experiences along with so many experiences and news reports of harm done in the name of religion, suspicion should be expected. My son expressed his hesitation the first evening when reports were going around campus that the chapel service that began as normal that morning was still going on. To his credit, he checked it out to give it a chance. What he found was not what he feared or anticipated. In a word, what he found was something much more “authentic.”
I have seen several reports use the word revival in quotes. Perhaps that is not wrong, as I wonder if “revival” is the best descriptor of what is happening. Revivals are usually planned and often center on a personality. One of the unique features of this current expression is how student-led it has been. (And I hope that the focus continues to be on the students.)
What he found was not what he feared or anticipated. In a word, what he found was something much more "authentic."
A few days after this moment of God began, I checked in with my son and read various social media posts from those who were rejoicing over what was happening at the news of another revival at the Hughes Auditorium (no relation that I know of). I also read posts from those who were cynical about such experiences. I have been trying to make sense of this movement of the Spirit. I, too, can be suspicious of those seeking religious highs or spiritual experiences that serve only to conform to their biases and previously held beliefs.
In moments when I’m aware of being overly suspicious, I remember Merold Westphal’s Suspicion and Faith. Of the many lessons in his treatment of the “hermeneutics of suspicion” (a fun phrase to use at dinner parties – especially if you want to be left alone), he says, “It is easy . . . to become a Pharisee in the process of unmasking Pharisaic hypocrisy” (285). In other words, it can be easy for adults who have seen religion’s manipulative and abusive side to become jaded by religious spectacles. The goal of a rightfully directed suspicion, Westphal points out, is not just to see the “Pharisaism” in others, but to see it in ourselves. As Jesus said to Nicodemus, “God’s Spirit blows where it wishes” (John 3:8). As much as we might want to control what this movement of God at Asbury University looks like or have specific outcomes we’d like to see, perhaps it is best to celebrate what is happening at the moment — repentance, praise, forgiveness, commitments, conversion, and so on.
The other reason Westphal’s book came to mind is his insistence that we use suspicion as a tool for Lent. Lent is, after all, as he notes, a move from “penance to penitence to repentance.” As we see in the Pharisees and Sadducees and pointed out by the prophets, we tend to use godly things in idolatrous ways. Spectacles of God’s grace and mercy can end up becoming just spectacles unto themselves. Lent offers us a season of intentional spiritual practices (giving something up, being more disciplined with spiritual disciplines, etc.) that place us in a position for the Holy Spirit to reveal areas of idolatry as well as provide fertile ground for growth in the fruit of the Spirit. Thus, I wonder how we might be challenged this coming Lenten season by the students of Asbury University when it comes to surrendering to the movement of God in our lives. How might we be challenged, not by pointing out what’s wrong in the world, but by beginning with what’s wrong in us and how we’ve contributed to the ills of society?
Now that this chapel service has continued for more than a week, my son and I continue to correspond, as this has reached “viral” status. True encounters with God, as we see in Scripture from the stories of Moses to Paul, are experiences that challenge how we view God and the world. One of the ways John Wesley (who was deeply formed by campus life) described the character of a Methodist was as one who has “the love of God shed abroad in [our] hearts.” I take that phrase to mean that our capacity to love God and our neighbor is increased by God’s grace. The students at Asbury University and the now many pilgrims joining them in the chapel are pouring their hearts out to God. Of that, there is no doubt and should be celebrated. AND I hope God’s love shed abroad in their hearts reaches out into their daily lives; and as in true revivals of the past that resulted in new churches, people joining the abolition movement, and so forth, I hope that there will be ripple effects in the community through acts of mercy and compassion.
As this movement of God continues (or doesn’t; at some point, this will shift into something else), I pray that at the very least we are challenged by what God appears to be doing in the lives of Asbury students (and now students on other campuses) who are experiencing refreshment, renewal, reconciliation, and the presence of God. I pray for all who long for renewal to find it in God’s abundance in the days to come, through the refining days of Lent, and through the Easter season we will know afresh Resurrection joy.
- As a disciple of Jesus Christ, what are some simple steps you can take to be open to the Holy Spirit’s movement in your life?
- How are young people currently being formed in their faith in your church? How do you think they would react if they found themselves in a revival?
- How might spiritual practices (routine chapel services, prayer, Bible study, etc.) set the table and increase the odds for a revival like this to happen?
- What spiritual practices might you partake in this coming Lent to prepare you for a fresh experience of God’s love shed abroad in your life?
Scott Hughes is the Executive Director of Congregational Vitality & Intentional Discipleship, Elder in the North Georgia Conference, M.Div. Asbury Theological Seminary, D. Min. Southern Methodist University, co-host of the Small Groups in the Wesleyan Way podcast, creator of the Courageous Conversations project, and facilitator of the How to Start Small Groups teaching series.
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