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Interior of Hughes Auditorium at the Asbury Revival (photo by Mollie Landman Hunker)
Religion and the Public Life

Asbury, Surprise, and the Fate of American Christian Nationalism

And this brings us to the aspect of Asbury that is either hopeful or depressing. Again and again, what happened in Asbury in February of 2023 is presented as first being centered around the youth and, second, as devoid of the common American strain of nationalist muscular Christianity.

There is something about what happened at Asbury College that is either incredibly hopeful or incredibly depressing. Specifically, the Asbury revival tells us something about the troubling issue of Christian Nationalism. 

Whether it is a hopeful or depressing message we should take away, though, is too soon to say. 

This is because of some of the emergent structures of revivals, at least as they have expressed themselves during the 20th and 21st centuries. Revivals are part of the mélange of Evangelical and post-Evangelical forms of Christianity found in much of the anglophone world and beyond; as such, they are shaped by a core contradiction involving agency and epistemology. Revivals are understood as ‘movements of god,’ of course, and what happened in Asbury in February of 2023 is no exception. But how does one know that something is of God? The way to know that ‘this is God at work’ in revivals is the same as it is known in the Pentecostal and Charismatic charisms that are so important in contemporary revivals: they are events that are read as the result of divine fiat because they are understood as being something that humans did not bring about themselves. In short, they are something that defies expectation. But at the same time, to be legible, they have to follow a pattern – in other words, they have to follow expectation as well.

To see what I mean here, consider the more quotidian and democratic forms of prophecy found in charismatic and Pentecostal Christianity. I am thinking here of the type of prophecy that occurs in denominations, churches, or movements where a central figure or figures does not have a monopoly on receiving divine messages. These are the sort of places where prophetic words can be received at a Bible study, or when praying over someone at the end of a Sunday or evening service. (The Southern California-originated network of Vineyard churches, for instance, is a good example of this type, though it is far from the only one.) In these more democratic spaces, it is common for someone to be given a prophecy that they are to communicate to someone else (the latter being the intended ‘recipient’ of the prophetic message). When this occurs, prophecy usually has certain reliable traits – although ironically, what marks these messages as reliable is how much they break with the quotidian. In these cases, the one who is tasked with sharing a prophecy typically knows that they have been given a prophetic message if they suddenly get an image, sensation, or thought that is not typical of their quotidian consciousness. In short, it is the unanticipated and uncommon that marks the prophetic, or in other words, the surprising. However, the importance of surprise is not limited to those who are tasked with voicing the prophecy. When the message is successful, it surprises the intended recipient of the prophecy as well because the prophetic communication contains knowledge that neither the person transmitting the prophecy would have any way of knowing themselves; it speaks to anxieties and hopes that they might have been ruminating upon, but most likely not widely sharing. It is both the inexplicable nature of how the information arrives and the surprising nature of the information to at least one of the two parties that is one of the guarantors that “true” prophecy has occurred. 

But surprise is only one side of the prophetic coin. At the same time, for a particular prophecy to be understood and acknowledged as prophecy, it must be recognizable as an example of a broader type. In many charismatic and Pentecostal communities, this might mean that it comes through a narrow set of expected phenomenological modalities (often a perceived image or a heard voice), and if it is verbal in some way, there may be constraints on the sort of language used either as experienced or as communicated to the ultimate recipient: it might have to be articulated in some pastiche of King James Bible English in more classically Pentecostal spaces, or, in communities that prize ‘authenticity’ and ‘informality,’ it might have to take the form of colloquial, quotidian, and most of all, sincere language, with sincerity understood as a guarantor of something being ‘spiritual’ instead of ‘religious.’ And the content of the prophecy cannot be seen as being at variance with commonly understood ‘biblical’ or ‘doctrinal’ understandings or tenets in that community. A message taken as wildly heterodox, as not being in keeping with God’s character or otherwise incompatible with shared consensus regarding religious life, is likely to be dismissed as false prophecy. Prophecy, therefore, has to be at once surprising and yet still somehow not surprising at all. Similar analyses can be made of the way that other charisms work. After all, what is healing but an otherwise inexplicable change in health conditions that still is recognizable as leading to a familiar type of wellness, or what is demonic deliverance other than a series of unexpected yet stereotypical signs occurring during a contestation that results in a sudden yet teleological determined change in the demeanor and personality of the person from whom the demon or demons are cast out? 

The same is true of revival. This is to say that revival must come across as unexpected, even surprising, as outside of human agency, and yet at the same time recognizable and typified, echoing other revivals beforehand. In the case of Asbury, this can be seen in the narrative that quickly cohered regarding the beginning and character of the event. Take as an example “We’re witnessing a ‘Surprising Work of God,” the Christianity Today published account of what happened that was penned by Asbury Theological Seminary Professor Tom McCall. The Asbury revival is portrayed as at once quotidian and as a radical break. As part of the account of the revival’s genesis, we are told that “[m]ost Wednesday mornings” at Asbury are “like any other” in that students attend the Hughes Auditorium for chapel, with chapel attendance being described as both obligatory (“students are required to attend a certain number of chapels”) and indifferent (students show up “as a matter of routine”). But on the specific Wednesday morning that ended up being the first day of the revival, the students do not decamp after worship is (supposed to be) over. Something “begins to happen that defies easy description,” specifically the students beeing “struck by what seemed to be a quiet but powerful sense of transcendence.” This resulted in the students uncharacteristically staying for open-ended, impromptu worship. This worship also improbably drew large numbers of other students, including students from other nearby Christian educational institutions and even some secular colleges and universities. And what the participants experienced is presented far outside the norm as well. “Many people say that in the chapel they hardly even realize how much time has elapsed,” McCall tells us. “It is almost as though time and eternity blur together as heaven and earth meet. Anyone who has witnessed it can agree that something unusual and unscripted is happening.” As he says later in his report, “I cannot analyze – or even adequately describe – all that is happening, but there is no doubt in my mind that God is present and active.” 

This incapacity to comprehend or communicate obviously suggests something beyond the human. But a surprise that suggests a lack of human agency is not enough. The event also must be typified in order to be recognizable. In this case, Asbury’s history of extensive revival helps provide a stabilizing template: since 1905, Asbury claims to have been the epicenter of eight revivals (most interestingly, almost all occurring in either February or March). These semi-regular effusions include the vaunted 1970 Asbury revival, which some histories present as contributing to that decade’s “Jesus People” movement. The way that Asbury revivals echo other Asbury revivals is not an unalloyed positive, of course. Too strong a typification raises the specter of mere repetition, and this regularity also opens the doors for naturalistic explanations; after all, as anyone who has taught or attended a university that works on the semester system, February is a time where, thanks to weather and exhaustion, both students and faculty become a little restless. 

There are aspects of revival’s emergent structure that act to mitigate the sense of mechanical repetition that typification facilitates. Repetition is never an exact repetition due to changing circumstances and personnel; thanks to the continuous shifts and transformations in the larger society that houses revivals and the inevitable presence of a new set of dramatis personae in different iterations, there are always variances in qualities and particularities that are particular to each instantiation of revival. And, if there is a way to read variances as both positive and as a break with conventional norms that do not go too far, these variances will also be alighted upon as more evidence for those who want to read revival as an exercise of divine agency and not something consciously or unconsciously willed by human desires; each revival’s specific character is further proof of a creative, divine movement meant to speak to this particular moment in time, a break that questions an understanding of revival as mere human mimesis. In short, typification indicates the hand of God, even as the absence of typification simultaneously suggests the same. 

And this brings us to the aspect of Asbury that is either hopeful or depressing. Again and again, what happened in Asbury in February of 2023 is presented as first being centered around the youth and, second, as devoid of the common American strain of nationalist muscular Christianity. (As McCall puts it, when it comes to “political activism and Christian Nationalism…no one at Asbury has that agenda.”) The importance of youth stands out in an age where increasing numbers of teenagers and young adults are not taking up their parent’s faith; it offers a possible picture of a future world where American Christianity escapes the demographic weight of its current circumstance, much of which has been self-authored by a conflation of the political and the religious that, at least in modernist sensibilities, can seem unseemly. 

One of these two factors may not be that puzzling. Many of the prior Asbury revivals have also focused on the young, and doing so is perhaps inevitable in revivals fostered in a Christian University setting; something about the energy, dedication, and singularity of purpose associated with revival really does seem to be a young person’s game.  But this oft-mentioned reported absence of any Christian Nationalist emphasis is a break with much of contemporary American Evangelicalism, Pentecostalism, and Charismatic Christianity. This is especially the case considering how tight Christian Nationalism and revival have been as of late; as McCall puts it, Christian Nationalism and (presumably conservative) political projects have “become associated” with revival “in recent years.” One might say that given the recent predominance of politics and nationalism in American Christianity, their absence from Asbury is surprising. Presenting this absence of conservative Christian political rhetoric as a sign of divine authorship is a notion that marks this particular Asbury revival as singular. But this absence also has another effect. Presenting such a lack of Christian Nationalist sentiment as indicating the presence a divine hand not only fights back against typification by suggesting the revival is not just an iteration of other “political” revivals, but it also suggests that Christian Nationalism is just “culture,” the term for “worldly” ideation and practices that are seen as being merely human-produced.

For those who are disturbed by the exclusionary nature of Christian Nationalism, this turn is a sign of hope; it suggests that there are still aspects of the contemporary Christian political imagination that are at least orthogonal to the nationalist impulse and perhaps effectively opposed to it. But at the same time, the fact that such an absence marks a break with the conventional and the expected is depressing as well. Despite many within and without the Church questioning whether Christian Nationalism is “really” Christian, this nativist religious impulse has become omnipresent in certain American Christian circles. This brings us back to the issue of whether Asbury is a sign of hope or a mark of how far things have fallen. It is true that, at least in the cases where revival spreads, revival is often thought to transform the religious culture of the times; and perhaps here, to the degree that Asbury has any sequela, there is a chance of that occurring. But for those of us who are prone to view events such as the Asbury 2023 revival in naturalistic ways, the fact remains that the underlying political, economic, and demographic forces that foster Christian nationalism, along with the way that these forces have been mediated through such organs as social networking, internet video, and cable television, have such weight and momentum that they cannot be easily shifted or undone. In short, it is the impossibility of escaping Christian Nationalism that marks Asbury’s denial of it as being so shocking that to believers at least, it can only be understood as the result of super-human agency. But then again, perhaps due to generational change, the forces that have brought Christian nationalism to the fore may be less robust than they appear, and as society changes different Christian imaginaries might compete with, and perhaps outperform, the right-leaning political Christianity that we have become used to. 

And wouldn’t that be surprising?

The author would like to acknowledge this essay benefited from conversations regarding Asbury with Naomi Haynes and James Bielo, though unsurprisingly, of course, all infelicities here should be considered his alone.

Revivals: Now & Then

Symposium Essays

Asbury, Surprise, and the Fate of American Christian Nationalism

And this brings us to the aspect of Asbury that is either hopeful or depressing. Again and again, what happened in Asbury in February of 2023 is presented as first being centered around the youth and, second, as devoid of the common American strain of nationalist muscular Christianity.

The Asbury Revival: For Such a Queer Time as This?

Is revival time a kind of queer time? The suspension of quotidian time during a revival event makes possible a queer time and place, but this possibility must be held in tension with the experience of openly queer people at Asbury, whose presence at the revival caused a furor in the conservative media.

Authorizing and Authenticating Revival

Debates around revival persist because of what it promises. Indeed, it could be a site of hope for evangelicals in the midst of stories about declining church membership and religious disaffiliation from younger generations. But for some who experience revival on a regular basis, frustration and disappointment might abound.

American Revival: The Persistence of Miracles

In what follows I want to trace a political theology of miracles that makes possible their circulation in U.S. revivalism. A straightforward theology—namely that God does miracles—is certainly part of the motivating belief for revivalism. But I want to trace here the political contours of revivalisms’ continuous circulation of the miraculous, well past the time that secularization theory suggested that they would give way instead to secularity, science and the enlightenment.

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