Wading through the “To Read” Pile: Post Charismatic by Robby McAlpine

I love reading books. I enjoy buying books. Yet the reality is, I buy more books than I read. At the moment, there are a good number of books on my Kindle, and on my shelves, that I purchased at some point over the last few years that I have not got round to reading. Having never been one for New Year’s resolutions, I’ve decided to start one before 2016 dawns upon us. That’s right, I’m going to attempt to actually bring down the “to Read” Pile.

In order to motivate the reading, I’m intending to post a blog about each of the books I read. Some posts will be more extensive than others. Not all of them will be in-depth reviews. God willing, the pile will greatly be reduced over the coming year.

Post Charismatic 0.2 by Robby McAlpine

This book was brought to my attention by a commenter on the blog who interacted with my review of The Radical Middle by Bill Jackson. I just finished McAlpine’s book last night after dipping in and out of it for a few months.

This is a good book in many ways. McAlpine’s book outlines something of his own journey as he has navigated through the confusion of the charismatic movement. However, McAlpine’s book is not just a personal account, he is touching on a present cultural trend – many charismatics are re-evaluating their beliefs, commitments and experiences. In other words, there are a great number of people who have become disillusioned with charismatic Christianity. Early on the book McAlpine highlights that,

“In growing numbers, people from charismatic backgrounds have fled churches that they once found to be sources of life. In almost every instance, what was ultimately behind the dysfunction that drove them away was some form of twisted theology.”

McAlpine has done a very good job of highlighting a number of the core issues within the charismatic movement. In particular, he evaluates,

  1. The History of Pentecostalism
  2. The Latter Rain Movement and its ongoing influence
  3. The Word of Faith movement (Prosperity Gospel)
  4. The Shepherding Movement (issues surrounding ‘Covering’ and ‘Spiritual Authority’)

I find McAlpine’s research solid, his analysis and evaluation sound and his experiences resonate with my own. Many of the examples he cites are almost identical to my own encounters within the charismatic movement. The following humorous example is a classic, and it has been played out multiple times – anyone who has spent any time in the charismatic movement will have encountered something similar.

“Shortly after we were married, Wendy and I took a group of teenagers to a Christian music festival west of Toronto, where we spent five days enjoying leaky tents, mostly-cooked campfire food, and a lot of great Christian bands. During the festival, we ran into friends whom we hadn’t seen in a while, and it was a great time of catching up, as well as building deeper relationships with the teenagers who had accompanied us. On the third day, the weather was grey and overcast, and as we sat on the grass about twenty yards from the main stage, we were remarking on the threatening sky. Thunderstorms in southern Ontario, after all, can be quite intense. A friend from summer camp, Carolyn, looked up at the heavy clouds and commented in an off-hand manner, “Man, I sure hope it doesn’t rain.” A woman seated a few yards away whirled around to face us, quite agitated. “Don’t talk like that!” she rebuked Carolyn. “Don’t you know your words have power, and the demons can make it rain because of your bad confession?” We thought she was joking at first. We had never heard anyone speak this way in person; televangelists, sure, but we weren’t expecting this at a Christian music festival. “Oh, and I suppose you believe God wants us all rich and healthy, too?” asked Carolyn. “Of course!’ the woman exclaimed, looking at us as if she wondered if we were truly Christians. “As your faith is, so be it unto you!” And with that, she abruptly turned on her heel and quickly departed. We all looked at each other, eyebrows raised, and then collectively shrugged and went back to waiting for the next concert to begin. “I still hope it doesn’t rain,” said Carolyn, with a mischievous grin. (It didn’t.)”

For anyone unfamiliar with this teaching, such an example may seem extreme – but it is not uncommon. I’ve seen countless examples of this scenario, and I know others have too. There really are Christians out there who think that their words have that level of power. The devastating reality is, they have made themselves to be too powerful, and their God too small.

McAlpine doesn’t just criticise, he corrects. I found most of his own biblical observations to be faithful attempts at interpreting scripture. Consequently, McAlpine’s book would be a great resource for people in the charismatic movement. It’s not written by a McArthur, it’s written from within the camp – this makes a difference.

However, it is precisely at this point that I found McAlpine’s book to be weak. When people awaken to charismatic errors, the next step is vitally important. Some leave church, and faith altogether – (McAlpine recognises this, and is writing out of a motivation to offer pastoral help to those who are disillusioned). However, I was as left wondering if McAlpine’s book goes far enough. From what I understand, McAlpine has landed in the Vineyard movement – which is interesting as Wimber never considered Vineyard charismatic. In many ways, Vineyard was an attempt at the Radical Middle – i.e. the best of Pentecostalism and evangelicalism. However, whilst the aim is commendable, the goal was not necessarily achieved. Vineyard itself became a catalyst and facilitator of some of the most extreme expressions of charismatic Christianity – not least the so-called Toronto Blessing.

In looking at the options available to Christians, I find that McAlpine is restrictive in the options.

“It’s easier, in some ways, to focus entirely on the crisis moments at the altar, and to bury ourselves in endless revival meetings, waiting in anticipation for the next great move of the Spirit, as many charismatics presently do. It’s equally easy for us to embrace a more hands-on approach via spiritual disciplines and doing acts of mercy and justice, but relegate the Spirit to stories of the old days.”

McAlpine doesn’t offer a clear cut third option, but it is clear that a third option is hoped for. This is likely where McAlpine and I would differ. His alternative to nominalism, or charismania is being outworked in the vineyard movement, my alternative is being outworked in the Reformed movement.

I can see the appeal of Vineyard for post-charismatics, but my own concern is that it is simply more of the same issues only slightly different clothing. Vineyard is a melting pot. Whilst they have strengths that bring correction to some charismatic errors, they themselves are not free from charismatic error.

Overall, I find that McAlpine’s book continues to embrace a core charismatic myth. It is this myth that lies at the heart of all charismatic movements – what’s the Myth? The myth is this, the presence of the Spirit is something unique to charismatic theology and practice. In other words, the activity of the Holy Spirit is bound up in spiritual gifts or post-conversion encounter/s.

I tend to find that this overlooks the essential role of the Holy Spirit found within all Christian traditions. Granted, not all traditions are fully realising their own teachings – but none-the-less the Holy Spirit is central to all true Christianity.

This is one of the key reasons I have landed in the reformed church, and not Vineyard or New Frontiers. Whilst each of these movements have many strengths, and have an admirable aim of being committed to ‘Word and Spirit’ in reality, I tend to find their charismatic commitments often serve to hinder the true and more essential work of the Spirit. When we emphasise the charismata to the point where it becomes essential and central, we lose sight of the primary work of the Spirit which is to reveal Christ. We lose sight of the work of the Spirit in partnership with the church proclaiming and explaining the gospel. We forget that it is the Spirit of God who turns dead sinners into living saints.

This is why I don’t think it is enough to simply become post-charismatic. I would argue that charismatic hermeneutic itself is suspect. Let us press on to the whole counsel of God. Let us understand that the real experience of the Holy Spirit is not found in seeking gifts, or experiences but is instead to be found in fellowship with the triune God. This fellowship with God only becomes a reality through the vehicle of the gospel. The gospel can only be communicated when we have a high view of scripture – therefore our answer must be found in a church which is deeply Trinitarian, thoroughly gospel-centred and scripturally focused.