Enchanted Protestantism – III

5 10 2009

Signs, wonders, and the twilight of “doctrinal” Protestantism

People of late have thought me some sort of waivering Catholic who is too friendly with the Protestants. I think half the stuff that I post here would be more than enough to prove that this is a ridiculous. I do have a number of Protestant fans, a couple of whom I know personally. You could even call them, “friends”. They tend to be of the “magisterial Protestant” type, people who take their Luther and Calvin very seriously. I have been told by some that they appreciate my honesty, saying that all of the other Catholics that they encounter are not nearly as honest as I am about what Catholicism is really like. And if Catholicism is merely conceived as a “completion” of a person’s Protestantism, no matter how “Scriptural” they may think it ultimately is, then I think that he is barking up the wrong tree. You can no more get a religion out of a book than you can build a DVD player using the consumer instructional manual. To think as a human being is to think in a context, and not even Muslims treat the Koran the same way that modern Protestants think of the Bible; as some sort of key to an individualistic, bourgeois religion.

That being said, I have always been completely honest with my “magisterial Protestant” acquaintances that I think that their churches are about as marginal as the sedevacantists in the Catholic Church. Maybe there are a bunch of kids at a Bible college debating the finer points of Calvin’s Institutes over Domino’s Pizza, Moutain Dew, and cheesy Christian rock, but they are NOT the future of Protestantism in this country. They may be the future of the Protestant Internet, and no doubt some will come to Catholicism on some personal journey to Damascus, and perhaps a few will get their fifteen minutes of fame on an EWTN convert show. But a far greater number of Catholics and others of a less computer saavy and “scholarly” disposition will go over to greener, evangelical megachurch pastures. If in Latin America or Africa, they will probably end up in one of the numerous Pentecostal sects, full of signs and wonders, apparently fulfilling the promise of Jesus that His followers will do far greater things than He did. They won’t care much about Calvin or Luther, justification or even denominational divides. They will care only for the wanderings of the Spirit and catching His live-giving breath: the menace of Joachim di Fiore redivivus.

No piece of modern media has made this clearer than Darren Wilson’s film, The Finger of God, on the growth of “miraculous” Protestantism in the First and Third Worlds. Above I have posted the first segment of it posted on Youtube. The Protestantism portrayed in this film is fervrent, familiar, and “Bible-believing”, but the way it manifests itself would make Benny Hinn make a double take. Some of the miracles in the film are pretty trifling even by Catholic standards. People are given gold teeth miraculously while in church, gold dust appears in Bibles and on preachers giving sermons, and “manna” falls in some rather unforseen places. There are also, however, “resurrections” and other extraordinary cures, the blind see and the lame walk, and so on. There is even a “squad” of aspiring preachers who stalk people in strip malls on Friday nights looking for those they can “heal”. People aren’t looking in their Bibles for “the truth”, but rather for signs, or rather for the truth in a God who works wonders.

There are some interesting philosophical and theological aspects to what many of the people interviewed in this documentary say. When it comes to the gold dust and gold teeth, people explain that God’s miracles do not necessarily follow our logic. Yes, they are frivoulous, but to us mortals, God’s actions can seem to be almost strange cosmic pranks that manifest His power using His logic, not necessarily ours. One of the people featured, an evangelist in Mozambique who has a doctorate in divinity from Oxford, but threw it all away to work with children who pray over people and cure them of their ailments. Apparently, they are quite good at it, and they often walk into random villages curing the long-term sicknesses of the inhabitants. If theology has a role at all in this film, it is the plaything of the “frozen chosen”; those who believe God’s work happened a long time ago, and all we have to do is believe and argue about the finer points of those beliefs. In other words, it is the faith of the declining “Protestant mainline”.

Confessional divides are also not something that is spoken of, probably because they are deemed irrelevant. As long as you believe in Jesus and the healing power of the Holy Ghost, I don’t think these people would care on what side of the historical dividing line you happen to fall. Indeed, these Protestants have a “super-realized” eschatology where the presence of God is the not the “authority of the Church” as it is in Catholicism; an almost Hegelian parody of God’s incarnation in the world. The presence of God is in God’s power doing things, whether it is putting gold fillings in your mouth for no reason to opening the ears of a girl deaf from birth. I think all the Catholic apologetics tracts or cyber-debates about Calvin’s TULIP matter as much to these people as an explanation of the various levels of the Bardo plain in Tibetan Buddhism. In our postmodern, skeptical world, devoid of history and tradition, this is the type of Christianity that appeals to people on any side of the confessional line.

That is not to say that I think that these people are right, on the contrary. I think this phenomenon is at best annoying, and at worst, sinister. I am of the opinion that miracles do not necessarily denote that something is in the right; any cursory study of the history of religions would make one think that they are ALL right in some way, for miracles happen in all of them. And while my faith is often critical of institutions, it by no means discards them. I think that even if the institutional Church is not always right concerning the “enchanted”, I feel that its voice must be respected nonetheless. We live in a strange universe where a lot of confusing things happen, and 90% of the time, the voice of the Catholic Church and its shepherds should be heeded when confronted with these phenomena lest we be deceived. But what we have in this new “religiosity” is a system where the miraculous is all there is, with no recourse to tradition or history, intellectual rigor or the wisdom of the ages; a faith that is amorphous in what it believes except for a vague love for the Bible and “clean living”.

An Australian Catholic friend of mine once described his people as “Canadians on anti-depressants”. In other words, they worshipped the lifestyle of the beach and secular pleasure with little regard for the “spiritual”. He once told me that where he was living, he felt he had found a kindred spirit when he found someone who merely believed in God. In the U.S., of course, things are far from that dire: most people believe in God in some vague way, and many are still Christian. But dig deeper, and you will find three tendencies of Christianity: a variation of the “wealth and prosperity” Gospel (the Purpose Driven Life stuff), a suburban religion of “decent folk” who go to church, and the “signs and wonders” crowd described in the documentary. The Christians who read this blog I do not think are included in any of these categories. You care about history, you care about what people believed a hundred years ago, and therefore your voice in the Church is becoming less and less relevant. We are merely barking into the wind here, and barring God’s miraculous intervention (not on par with putting gold caps on my teeth), that is the future we are facing. (Even the charismatic movement in our church speaks volumes regarding this trend.) And that is why I am “so friendly” with my magisterial Protestant friends, not because I think they have a point. They only have a point insofar as they are quixotic as I am, the poor confused “Catholic trad” with a blog. And we all know that eccentricity loves company.

(And truth be told, when it comes to the miraculous, I prefer my bleeding relics and brown scapulars to gold dust in Bibles any day of the week and twice on Sunday.)



4 responses

8 10 2009
James Findlayson

Does it ever cross their minds that it’s not only God who can do these sorts of things?
That is, they might not be magic tricks but very, very real – But not from God?

6 10 2009
The Scylding

Eccenticity loves company – I like that. I think that with you and Owen as some of my favourite blogs, I’m in the right company…;) . And I really enjoyed your “Canadians on anti-depressants” line… good illustration. I am happy though I do not live in the US – even here on the Prairies, Believers are rare. Outside of my own congregation, I know some Orthodox people, an unhappy Pentecostal, a few Mennonites, and some Evangelical types – well actually, 2 families. O yes, and 2 nominal Lutherans (‘Liberal’ denomination) and a nominal Methodist. The general culture is not anti-Christian, mostly, but not Christian either. It is better this way than the sort of vague Christianity you describe.

Meanwhile, I’ll cling to my eccentricity….

5 10 2009
Arturo Vasquez

Note: This essay is NOT a screed against Catholic converts. If that is what you think, PLEASE READ THE ESSAY AGAIN.

5 10 2009
Steven Wedgeworth


You are mostly right. But as a good magisterial Protestant, I believe in the future, the substance of things yet unseen.

And there are signs of life: http://www.time.com/time/specials/packages/article/0,28804,1884779_1884782_1884760,00.html

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