A modern 'revival'? What is that all about?
March 04, 2023
Religious revivals are a tradition in American Christianity.
They began, in fact, before there officially was a United States, with the "Great Awakening" from 1734 to 1743. Jonathan Edwards, most famous for his preach-fear sermon "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God," was a young pastor in Northampton, Mass., where a revival broke out. (See? And you thought only people today got woke.)
You can read about that and other revivals, as they came to be called, in this article, which also deals with the recent revival activity at Asbury University in Kentucky. It's that latest revival I want to explore a bit today. You can read other details about it here (a Religious News Service story) and here (an opinion piece from The Atlantic).
The Asbury Revival, so-called, seemed to break out without warning about a month ago and eventually drew thousands of people to the small town of Wilmore -- so many, in fact, that the place was overwhelmed and the head of the school had to change rules to control things. (And as this RNS story reports, the Asbury Revival seems to be over on campus but in some ways has moved elsewhere.)
Some folks, predictably, described the Asbury event as a manipulation of the emotions of eager young adults that they'd eventually feel a little silly about.
But others, including the author of The Atlantic piece to which I linked you above, believed something genuine and generative was happening there.
I'm in no position to make any judgment about the authenticity of the Asbury Revival, and won't. But it does give all of us a chance to think about what I could call spiritual hunger in a time of religious diminishment in the U.S.
There's evidence of spiritual hunger all around, if you really look for it. For instance, the latest surveys about religious participation in the U.S. reveal that almost one-third of adults now describe themselves as religiously unaffiliated. But dig a little deeper and you'll find that only a small percentage of them -- and a smaller percentage of the whole population -- identifies as atheist.
So lots of people may have abandoned institutional religion in the U.S., but they still search for answers to the eternal questions. And, in the end, are there more important questions with which to wrestle than those that deal with our being, our purpose, our connections to the divine? No.
In fact, if what I call the eternal questions don't interest you, I would say your brain and your heart have gone AWOL.
I don't know what the long-term results of the Asbury Revival will be (nobody does), but if anyone who attended was moved to adopt something close to what the New Testament book of James describes as true religion, then the revival will have done at least some good. James 1:27 says this: "Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world."
The term "orphans and widows" there is a shortcut way of saying, "Love your neighbor," which is half of the biblical command that ultimately describes healthy religion: Love God, neighbor and self -- and maybe even in that order. What James means by "the world" we might translate in our time to mindless consumerism. Or endless soul-killing entertainment. Or mis- and dis-information. Or, simply, the internet.
* * *
WAS THE ASBURY REVIVAL INEVITABLE?
In at least partial response to the Asbury Revival, Robert N. McCauley, a professor of philosophy at Emory University, has written this article for The Conversation, speculating about whether such events in religion are predictable. Maybe not, he suggests. See what you think.