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Confessions of an "Enthusiast" - by Robert Hart

Confessions of an "Enthusiast"

Robert Hart

There it is said that a recent convert named Montanus, while Gratus was proconsul of Syria, in his unbridled passion to reach the top laid himself open to the adversary, was filled with spiritual excitement and suddenly fell into a trance and unnatural ecstasy. He raved and began to chatter and talk nonsense, prophesying in a way that conflicted with the practice of the Church handed down generation by generation.

Apolinarius as quoted by Eusebius in The History of the Church.

And the spirits of the prophets are subject to the prophets.

I Corinthians 14: 32

I saw him for the first time in October of 1974, when I was sixteen years old, and only the year before had been brought into the Charismatic movement by a dramatic conversion. I was very impressed by the style and sophistication of this British intellectual, a former Cambridge Philosophy professor known throughout the world. But, he was not known as an academic, despite his credentials and background. He was known as a "Bible teacher," having been a Pentecostal preacher turned Charismatic leader, having led an unusual and interesting life following his own epiphany shortly after World War II. The combination of intellectual prowess and spiritual power caused me to feel that truly "he spake with authority, and not as the scribes."

And, he needed to be speaking with authority, for the topic of his ninety minute talk was "deliverance," the word used in Charismatic circles for the exorcism of demons. He proceeded for that hour and a half to speak of the subject with clinical precision, drawing upon many years of experience in the world’s demon possession capital, Africa. This was authority for sure, for he spoke on one of the most frightening of subjects, for many people, with an obvious confidence that defied expectations. Was this faith or was it presumption, or stage acting? How could he speak with such ease and grace, with such conviction and certitude, in short, with such authority, on this topic that most people fear even to touch?

Even his name had flare- Derek Prince (1915 - 2003). His mastery of Greek and Hebrew, the complete absence of any trace of vulgarity, the combination of education and proper upbringing in a fine British Anglican home, made him seem out of place among the Pentecostals. They are supposed to shout, and roll on the floor, are they not? But this was the age of the Charismatic movement in the mainline Protestant churches, in the Episcopal Church, and in the Roman Catholic Church. So, his image was that of the progressive Pentecostals, the pioneers heralding the future. He spoke as a professor of logic, for that was who he had been, a Cambridge Fellow.

Using an overhead projector he drew up a list of just about every area of human health and psychology, and explained how a specific demon specialized in afflicting people in each and every category. He spoke as if he were a scientist, going about it with the aid of having been a logician, never boring the crowd, often inserting humor spontaneously. By the time he was finished not a person there would fail to see his own life as having been diagnosed and explained. So that is it; a demon in my grandfather is why I inherited this or that tendency, why I suffer this or that strong temptation to sin, or even this medical condition. Apparently demons stay in families you see. It was not comforting, such as "the devil made me do it" reasoning. Rather, it created hope that all could be shaken off so that life would be free of evils and temptations.

His talk was ended, and it was time for ministry. Everyone who wanted to be exorcised, that is "delivered," was invited to stay. After a few people left, he led a short prayer in which everyone forgave any and all against whom they might harbor resentment. And then he began to command the demons to come out of the people, with his quiet and authoritative confidence, as he went down the list which he had written on the overhead, point by point in each category. On the stage was one very relaxed, cool man. In the auditorium was the appearance of pure hysteria.

"We move to the area of the emotions...spirit of depression, I command you to come out of these people..." And the crowd, numbering in the hundreds, would, as if on cue, begin screaming, shaking, at the very least coughing. Often descriptions of this sort of event present the image that people have lost self-control, have become mesmerized and are in some sort of group trance. The reality was in fact very different. All of the sights and sounds of Enthusiasms, and religious hysteria were present, except for the loss of control.

The fact is that everyone participating in this exercise (or exorcize?) was making the effort to free himself from the bondage that had been so thoroughly diagnosed during the talk. This was in fact a group of people who were retaining complete self-control and deliberately behaving as if, for the moment, all of them had gone insane. They stayed with him through to the end, participating willingly and following his lead, as he went down the whole list.

After this, which took about hour, everyone there was free and clean, delivered of every evil and every potential evil, from sexual deviancy to cancer, from kleptomania to post nasal drip. And, if they would walk right before God, never slipping into any bad behavior, they would "keep" their deliverance. But the freedom one felt after being liberated from bondage could give way to a new problem- the fear that any slip, any sudden venial sin of anger (not that they would call it by that name), any involuntary feeling of lust, could bring back the demons.

When reading the passages from the Bible in which the Lord, or in one case St. Paul, directly drives the demons out of people, the indications are not as subtle as what was presented that night. It does not seem, in the scriptural accounts, as if most ordinary people needed this ministry; nor does it seem that the presence of evil spirits was hidden to the public. Nor does it seem as if, in scripture, the freedom given to people was something that could be lost easily in a moment of human weakness. Nor does it appear that the Lord spent ninety minutes creating a sort of mass spiritual hypochondria.

When I think back on that night I cannot help but believe that for most people, time spent confessing their sins to a priest, and being absolved, would have been far more worthwhile. But, I do remember learning a few useful things: I still hear that very British voice saying, "forgiveness is not an emotion; it is a decision." That was very useful indeed, and worth the whole evening. And, certainly it was worth the time to know that we should not fear the evil spirits, but that they are subject to us in Christ’s name. But, another thing I learned, on that and other occasions, is to be fair in judging by something other than appearance.

I have no doubt that religious Enthusiasms still exist, such as the descriptions of Montanus and his followers going into trances and behaving like lunatics, or, for example, Appalachian snake-handlers of the present. Often the descriptions we read of group fervor causing people to lose self-control seem- not to be ironic- more like cases of genuine demon possession (for I do believe that it is quite real) than anything done by the Holy Spirit "decently and in order."

But, when I read essays in which scholars try to explain the religious behavior of Charismatics, in most cases I have to laugh. People who roll around in a fit, whether of laughter or babbling, or who seek the excitement of "spiritual" experiences in trance like states, with visions and ecstasies, and make boastful and incredible claims of personal revelations, certainly do exist. But, when a writer describes the experience of Charismatics who "speak in tongues" as having to be accompanied by overwhelming emotion and loss of control, I know one thing. The writer is lazy; probably he has not seen these things at all, and writes based upon expectations rather than observations. Or he assumes that such things simply must involve loss of self-control, and so manages to ignore the parts of the picture that should dispel this prejudice.

At least he has not seen what I saw in the 70s and into the 80s. The truth is that people generally are very much in possession of themselves, and are using what they believe to be the gifts of the Holy Spirit in a very deliberate way. At least that was how it was in the days when the Charismatic movement was mainstream. Another and more important issue must be raised, and it must be in the form of a question.

Whether one believes what the Charismatics believe, or believes that it is sometimes real and sometimes not, in whatever complicated and variable fashion, or whether one completely rejects it, the question is, why do people seek the supernatural in their religion? And why did the Charismatic movement go mainstream only after the watershed of Vatican II and its effect upon, not only the Roman Catholic Church, but all of the Western liturgical churches? Why did it appear mainly among Catholics, Episcopalians and liturgical Lutherans?

Was this a reaction by people who saw their cherished beliefs and practices being changed, having the mystery removed, the beauty of the language stripped away? Three possibilities present themselves in these questions: Was the timing merely a coincidence? Was it part of the misguided revision of religious faith? Or was it a reaction? I am not calling into question the validity of the Charismatic gifts and experiences people had in those years (nor am I suggesting that it is all over), even though I do reject certain theological positions held by some of the people who have been part of it; I am asking instead, why did liturgical and mainstream Christians, that is traditional Christians, look for the experiences and gifts, and accept them?

I have to answer two of the questions: First, I do not believe in coincidences that involve large numbers of people over several years. Second, though the mainstream and Catholic Charismatics were using the new post Vatican II liturgies, about which they mostly had no choice, they were generally true believers rather than theologically "progressive" liberals. Therefore, though caught up in the revisions of their churches, they were not to blame for them. The generation that sought and received this entire Charismatic movement was the one that had learned the traditions of their churches in the old ways, but who were now being forced to accept changes and revisions.

Was this a movement of Enthusiasts, or a desire that everything supernatural, lofty and powerful not be taken away, seemingly and quite often by the Church itself? Was this a measure to fill up a gap that opened once sacraments were reduced by minimalist doctrine into mere community events, and once God was no longer transcendent (I am referring to the generation in the late 60s and the 70s; before the introduction of many ideas that have since become commonplace)? Lex Orandi Lex Credendi: But when prayers address someone relegated to being almost a mere equal, and sound no more grand than a page from the newspaper, who can blame a good Catholic, Episcopalian or Lutheran for seeking to speak in tongues, "speaking mysteries to God?" And when a Church no longer confronts a real devil, who can blame someone for learning about "deliverance" from Derek Prince?

The appearance of Enthusiasm in the Charismatic movement was, I know, just that; appearance. Many unfortunate things happened, and quite a lot of unstable people were drawn into it, some manifesting paranoid delusions which they took for visions and revelations. Nonetheless, the actions and behavior were, generally speaking, very deliberate whether right or wrong. The spirits of the prophets were subject to the prophets, and mostly they simply wanted that God be God. They wanted mystery to be part of their lives as Christians, and for worship to be foretaste of heaven. What they really wanted had been in the Tradition all along.

Robert Hart is an Anglican priest, and the Vicar of St. Andrew's Church in Easton MD, a Continuing Anglican Parish. He is also a contributing editor of Touchstone: A Journal of mere Christianity.

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