Book Review: How an ecstatic moment failed: Washington Times 2.03.10 February 3, 2010Posted by geoconger in Academic writing & book reviews, Washington Times.
First printed in The Washington Times.
DAYS OF FIRE AND GLORY: THE RISE AND FALL OF A CHARISMATIC COMMUNITY
By Julia Duin
Crossland Press, $24.95, 336 pages Reviewed by George Conger
Gin was the “quickest way out of Manchester,” the Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawn observed in “The Age of Revolution.” Flight from the difficult and dreary often found its wings in alcohol or narcotics, while ecstatic religion could also provide the opiate that relieved the pains of life.
It has been ever thus. Religious movements that release the believer from his trials through connection with the divine can be found in most faiths: Sufism in Islam, the Hasidic movement in Judaism and Pentecostalism in modern Christianity are but a few examples. Some ecstatic movements flower under the guidance of a charismatic leader then fade upon his passing.
But from its roots in working-class Los Angeles 100 years ago, Pentecostalism has flourished in Africa, South America and in parts of Asia. It has become the fastest-growing segment of American religious life – even moving into the political spotlight with Sarah Palin and the 2008 presidential race.
In the early 1960s, the Christian charismatic renewal movement of signs and wonders made the jump into the “mainline” – and Julia Duin, religion editor of The Washington Times, deftly chronicles its meteoric rise and collapse in the Episcopal Church, focusing on the saga of the Rev. Graham Pulkingham and Houston’s Church of the Redeemer.
Ms. Duin’s “Days of Fire and Glory: The Rise and Fall of a Charismatic Community” is both a frightening and fascinating look at the glory days of the renewal movement that, at its height, gave meaning to the lives of thousands, but eventually collapsed in a welter of sexual, financial and theological misconduct – or to use that wonderful but seldom used word: heresy.
Two decades in the making, and based upon 182 face-to-face interviews and an intimate knowledge of the people and passions at play, Ms. Duin’s book is a cautionary tale. For those touched by the charismatic renewal, it will reawaken memories of the passion and enthusiasm of the heady days when it seemed the power of God was made manifest.
It is also a frightening book, as it illustrates the denial of some seekers of Augustine’s opening declaration in the “Confessions”:
“You have made us, O Lord, for yourself, and our heart is restless until it rests in you.” “Days of Fire and Glory” demonstrates that communion with God is not enough for some, as the desire to be god is just as powerful.
In 1963, the 37-year-old Graham Pulkingham, a polished and ambitious Episcopal priest, uprooted his wife and children from a comfortable suburban life in Austin, Texas, to take over a fading church on the east side of Houston. Intent on addressing the social ills of a mixed-race urban neigh-borhood, he launched himself into a year’s enlightened social work in the community, which proved a failure.
At low ebb, Pulkingham received a revelation from God to go to New York, where he was “baptized in the Spirit” through the prayers of David Wilkerson, author of “The Cross and the Switchblade.”
Pulkingham returned to Houston a changed man and began a ministry of signs and wonders – speaking in tongues, offering healings and other manifestations of the divine. He saw his congregation come alive, becoming one of the first “mega-churches.” Redeemer also launched itself into the communal-living movement, seeking to replicate the base communities described in the Book of Acts, and it soon created dozens of extended Christian households encompassing more than 400 people.
Redeemer became a media sensation, and was featured in books, newspapers and a 1972 CBS News one-hour special that attracted even more curious baby-boomer Christians from across the country, eager to see what they believed was the dawn of a new age of Christianity – a return to the early days of the faith, where the miraculous was the norm.
But by 1980, the project had collapsed from within. In the mid-’70s, Pulkingham turned over the leadership of the church to a cadre of elders, who implemented an authoritarian, collectivist policy with disastrous pastoral and per-sonal results, while he attempted to clone his Christian communities in Britain.
Pulkingham’s theology also began to change as he moved away from the beliefs of his early charismatic days, now placing the primacy of the collective over all relationships – including those of husband and wife and parent and child. He continued to pursue the experience of ecstatic worship, but the anchor of the Bible had been severed. What God told him was no longer to be tested against Scripture, the Pentecostal norm, but was tested against his own experience and opinions.
During his baptism in the spirit in New York, Pulkingham confessed and repented of a secret homosexual life. By the mid-’70s, his secret life had returned, and he began to seduce secretly some of his male followers.
Pulkingham began to teach that all goods should be held in common. There would be no need of any scriptures or an institutional church, as the Holy Spirit would guide all hearts. “Fay ce que voudres.” (“Do whatever you will.”) The church, like the state for Karl Marx, would wither away, leading to a property-free reign of universal earthly bliss.
However, the old magic and new teachings no longer seemed to work for Pulkingham at Redeemer, and by 1982, he was forced to move on. He took over an ailing Episcopal congregation near Pittsburgh, and sought to create a new religious community based on his collectivist principles.
But his past caught up with him when the wife of one of his lovers went public about his adulteries and homosexuality. In disgrace and facing dismissal from the ministry, Pulkingham died of a heart attack in 1993.
Julia Duin writes both as an insider and as a dispassionate chronicler of the rise and fall of Graham Pulkingham. A reporter at the Houston Chronicle in the mid-1980s, she also attended Redeemer after Pulkingham left, and was the reporter whose investigation led to his downfall and public disgrace.
The way out of Houston for the poor, oppressed and spiritually lost for a few bright years could be found at Redeemer. But as Pulkingham and his charismatic movement moved away from its biblical anchor, it became another example of what happens when the enlightened get it into their heads that they can throw out the past, and build a new society.
Ms. Duin’s chronicle of Graham Pulkingham and the Redeemer is a superb tale of how a movement that started out with the intentions of building a spiritual kingdom on earth, was corrupted by sex, money and the pursuit of power.
George Conger is an Episcopal priest and chief correspondent of the Church of England Newspaper in London.