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2017 Capital LGBTQ Pride, Washington DC (photo by Ted Eytan)
Religion and the Public Life

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.

“Did you know poc, women, and queer students have been leading worship all 8 days? Both student bodies have lended  themselves into being towards the throne of God”

—Queer Asbury Seminarian

During a revival event, time moves differently. During a revival event, time feels different. The outpouring at Asbury College was spontaneous; a regular chapel meeting stretched out, filling two weeks. The pattern of life at the Christian school changed: some students stopped attending classes; students prayed and worshiped through the night. The revival cracked open the quotidian flow of time and a new mode of being— “revival time”—replaced normal time. 

Protestant revival events, like the one at Asbury, are inextricably linked to Christian formulations of time. Time is going towards a goal: towards the second coming of Christ and the establishment of the long-awaited establishment Kingdom of God. Time for Christians is, therefore, both teleological and apocalyptic. Time starts at the creation of the universe and moves toward a catastrophic end. The promise of Christianity is that there is something at the end–a new world, the Kingdom of God. What future was performed, enacted at Asbury? Might the students at Asbury University and Asbury Seminary have glimpsed the aesthetics of a queer future? 

The Kingdom of God was promised during the first appearance of Jesus, but did not come to full fruition–and then Jesus was killed. After his death the resurrected Jesus appears to his followers to reassure them that his promises will still be fulfilled when he returns again. Jesus gives his disciples a mission: tell other people about his life, death, and imminent return. Jesus told his followers to go to Jerusalem and wait for a “promise” which would give them the power to demonstrate the message of God; or to enact a taste of the future Kingdom in the present. 

And on the appointed day, Pentecost, Jesus’s followers receive baptism in the Holy Spirit: “And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like a rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting” (Acts 2:2). Then “divided tongues as of fire” rest over the head of each person–this is the appearance of the Holy Spirit. What happens next is miraculous, people who speak different languages are suddenly able to understand one another. Community is created. The gathered crowd appears “drunk” because they are so overwhelmed by this new presence of God. When people are filled with the Spirit they speak and move differently.

Then Peter–the head disciple–gets up to speak and presents a list of signs of the end days: God will “pour out my Spirit upon all flesh” people will “prophesy” and there will be “portents in the heavens” (Acts 2: 17, 19).  After the events of Pentecost the disciples go out to fulfill their mission, and the truth of their words is proven by their ability to do miraculous works of healing and deliverance. The Kingdom of God is not yet present–and yet the disciples model the future Kingdom through the gifts of the Spirit. And these future oriented followers of Jesus move through time differently–a performance of the future has its own aesthetics. 

Revival moments in Christianity are always in some sense a reenactment of the original events of the Christian Pentecost: an outpouring of the Holy Spirit that is marked by miraculous happenings, which are a taste of the future. When the future is visible in the present, it is entangled in oppressive structures of the present. Calling the Asbury events a “revival” or an “outpouring” draws the events of February 2023 into a long lineage of post-Pentecost outpouring moments, like the 1906 Azusa Street Revival.

Ashon T. Crawley in Blackpentecostal Breath traces the origin of the contemporary Black Pentecostal tradition in the US to Azusa Street in Los Angeles, California. Revival events were not new in 1906: US Christianity is shaped by the waves of the Holy Spirit that spread through the Great Awakenings, but just 45 years after the ratification of the 13th Amendment and amidst the emergence of Jim Crow laws, Azusa was distinctive for its multiracial community. Led by William Seymour, a black preacher, at Azusa Street, white people, black people, Spanish-speaking people, men and women all prayed and worshiped together

Seymour was born in Centerville, Louisiana to parents who were recently emancipated and was baptized into the Catholic faith. From a young age, Seymour attended a variety of Christian communities, including Baptist, and then Simpson Chapel Methodist Episcopal, a black church, where Seymour accepted a call to itinerant ministry (Crawley 9). Seymour briefly studied in Houston, Texas with Charles Parham, a white preacher from the Wesleyan-Holiness tradition, which is the lineage that Asbury University and Seminary claim. Parham led revival meetings in Topeka, Kansas where speaking in tongues reappeared in popular imagination  as a mark of the gift of the Spirit (Heaton Anderson 13). Seymour was allowed to study at Parham’s bible school, learning about the Baptism of the Spirit, but was segregated from white students. 

After Houston, Seymour made his way to Los Angeles, where he and his followers experienced an outpouring. Tongues accompanied the Spirit at Azusa Street like it did in Topeka for Parham. Modern tongues is a recurrence of the events of the New Testament Pentecost, albeit with a slight variation. At Pentecost people were able to speak and understand unfamiliar but existing languages. The outpouring of the Spirit facilitated communication across cultural boundaries–and created greater community. Contemporary tongues have individuals speak in prayer languages that are indecipherable to human ears. These languages of the heavens became a marker of a person’s baptism in the Holy Spirit. This version of speaking in tongues is an echo of the original story, perhaps less able to facilitate communication–though able to create community. 

The outpouring of the Spirit at 312 Azusa Street created a community that crossed racial, cultural, and ethnic barriers. Crawley writes the “disruptive capacities found in the otherwise world of Blackpentecostalism is but one example of how to produce a break with the known, the normative, the violent world of western thought and material condition” (4-5).  So, the racial, gender, and social reconciliation present at Azusa Street is an “otherwise world,” it holds the promise of a different world–one where people worship together across dividing lines. At Azusa Street, time folds and the Blackpentecostal future is visible in the present. And the future looks different: it has its own aesthetics. People pray in angelic languages and community is created across racial and social boundaries. 

At the same time, a glimpse of the future does not fully inaugurate the Kingdom. The past, the legacy of the Transatlantic slave trade and white supremacy, also made itself visible at Azusa Street. For example, Seymour’s teacher Charles Parham visited Azusa Street but refused to participate in the events, disgusted by the racial co-mingling and the affective chaos of the events. When the revival at Azusa Street ended, segregation prevailed, and the people formed  two different denominations, white people in the Assemblies of Christ and Black people in the Church of God in Christ.

Crawley traces the origin of the Blackpentecostal movement to Azusa Street–not the Pentecostal movement or the “whitepentecostal” movement. No,with Cheryl Harris, he describes whiteness as “grounded in the capacity for ownership”–and the attendant settler-colonial histories and practices (Crawley 6). Blackpentecostalism is a way of knowing and moving that disrupts whiteness. 

So what about Asbury? What future is visible in the February 2023 meetings? Here I return to the opening epigraph that describes “poc, women, and queer students… leading worship all 8 days.” I followed the unfolding events of the revival through the Twitter account of a self identified queer seminarian, whose skepticism and then genuine delight at the turn of events was compelling. According to this student central to the events was the practice of reconciliation: he recounts mending broken relationships. And this reconciliation, this creation of community was reported by other students. A documentary about the event describes the early moments of the outpouring as “tightknit, family” that it felt as though “Asbury was being unified in prayer” (8:02). In another video the student body president says  “I know exactly what people on campus hate one another and those are the people praying together, singing together” (3:23). Like Pentecost, like Azusa Street, the outpouring at Asbury facilitated the creation of community. There are some reports of speaking in tongues and other miraculous happenings at Asbury, but it was not a defining feature. 

A few days into the revival, the queer seminarian wrote a prayer request for queer students at Asbury on a whiteboard full of prayer requests–only to come back later and find it erased. Saddened by this erasure, the student went to the altar to pray. There, a Methodist pastor who drove to Asbury at 10pm asked to pray for him. When the seminarian recounted his erasure from the record of prayer requests, the pastor prays, feeling the “groans of pain for the awkward middle place sexual and gender minority Christians feel in the world.” After they parted, the man returned to whisper “your prayer request is back on the board.” The student writes about this event, “I am ruined. Not everyone will see you. But some will. You might feel erased. But not always.” There was no supernatural communication across language barriers, not angelic language, just the recognition of and support for a queer person. Perhaps this is a glimpse of queer time?

Arguably in tension with the narrative of unity and reconciliation at Asbury, are the reports of God “raising an army.” For example, when Tucker Carlson reports on the events, he includes the student body president again, but now she shares, “A young army of believers is rising to claim Christainty as its own. As a young generation and as a free generation.” It is not likely this student is explicitly linking the Asbury revival to white evangelical political projects and yet the language of “army” and “freedom” is heard by conservative Christians as a push for the kind of world they want. And as historian Helen Kim argues in her piece about the the Asbury revival, when evangelical leaders like Sean Fecht start tweeting about the revival, “it reminds us that the culture wars—in which white evangelicals are deeply entrenched—have connections to religious experiences like praise and worship, and revivals where people sing for days together.”

The queer seminarian suffered for his public presence on Twitter–and continues to experience online harassment. Because the outpouring spread through the right-wing media market, conservative white evangelicals latched onto the presence of  queer students at the outpouring to claim that it was not a “real” revival. Asbury University and Asbury Seminary did not confirm or deny the presence of queer students at the revival–and both institutions hold that sexual intimacy outside of heterosexual cisgendered marriage is prohibited by God

And yet, perhaps the disruption that the presence of queer people at the Asbury revival caused in the reception of the revival by the white evangelical Christian world is akin to Azusa Street’s rejection by Charles Parham. Maybe the persistent, visible presence of “poc, women, and queer students leading worship” is a glimpse of what Crawley calls “an otherwise world” or Jose Munoz calls a “queerness” that “is not yet here” (1). The official narrative of the Asbury outpouring doesn’t include queer people, but the online conversations, bubbling up from below, did. Time moved differently at the revival, feeling slower and at the same time more intense and weighted than normal time for the students. Maybe this disruption was an in-breaking of queer time. 

After two weeks, the Asbury schools gradually brought the revival time to an end, returning students to their daily patterns of class, hanging out, and chapel. Time returned to normal, but maybe normal with a difference? On October 26th, 2023 the queer seminarian wrote:

“I never would have expected it, but in my 3.5 years at Asbury Theological Seminary I’ve garnered an entire community of LGBTQ/SSA+ students on campus. 

I don’t go a single day without speaking to, praying with, and worshipping alongside non-straight people committed to Christ”

Queer people are more visible at Asbury and the outpouring was part of that process. 

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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