Days of Fire and Glory: The Rise and Fall of a Charismatic Community by Julia Duin
Crossland Press (September 8, 2009)
Julia Duin, religion editor for the Washington Times has written a very interesting account of the influential Houston Charismatic Episcopal church, Church of the Redeemer. She builds on first hand knowledge and close to 150 members who were parishioners. The story pivots around the church’s rector Graham Pulkingham. The bare facts of what happened to Graham are not new. After two decades of influence in Charismatic and Evangelical circles as an author, speaker, and bible teacher, Graham admitted to having seduced many of his male coworkers. As the person who finally got Graham to admit what he’d done, Julia broke the story to the larger news media. Her book, Days of Fire and Glory: The Rise and Fall of a Charismatic Community, is a biographical narrative whose primary interest seeks an answer to the question: “How could things go so wrong at Redeemer?”
Set alongside other communal biographies, Julia Duin’s research is equally detailed, chronological, including everything from where the money came from and went to how time was spent among members on a daily basis. Her very vivid use of word pictures to describe a given setting really draw you into each moment. Her description of the workings of communal households is especially inviting. Redeemer’s household style, where a particular nuclear family would take in singles to live with them and be cared for, was adopted by Reba Place Fellowship in Evanston, IL. The book uses interviews from so many different families that it can get rather cumbersome to remember all the names and situations involved. Days of Fire and Glory references and builds on the five books written during the 1970s by Graham and Betty Pulkingham and Michael Harper.
The book’s weaknesses are found simply in its being a biography as deconstruction. Duin mirrors the fast changes at Redeemer with those of the larger Charismatic movement. As a religion editor during the many scandals and moral failures among Charismatic leadership beginning with the Shepherding Movement and into the early 1990s, she writes of Redeemer in reference to larger trends. But the further she gets from first person accounts, the more subjective her reporting becomes. Her narrative tries to weave seamlessly between communities in different places: Redeemer in Houston, Woodlawn in Colorado, Word of God in Ann Arbor, and Celebration in Scotland. She looks for abuses in leadership, suffering members, or a general lack of spiritual power. But if hard pressed, many of the stories she alludes to might seem incidental if kept separate and her perspective anecdotal. Charismatic communities live or die by their sense of identity in the worship and teaching, their sense of mutual calling and their commitment to the story they’re living. It’s clear that each of these different communities in her story have similarities, but with different membership they are also very distinct. She looked for a common sickness infecting the whole. This is where her narrative is much more about deconstruction and less about the people and stories themselves.
There are several things that really unnerve me about Duin’s approach in this book. The first concerns the importance of the gift of prophecy to direct the future of the communities. Of equal importance is spiritual discernment. Taken together we see the development of some kind of spiritual sixth sense. If church leaders and members are both tuned into the life of the spirit, everything falls into place. The future of the church is assured. God’s protection will cover everyone from all harm, no one will fall into sin and everyone will be one big happy family full of the Holy Spirit’s power. The power and influence will continue to increase and spread the world over. As I read the book I get the feeling that this is what the author and members were expecting to come of their worship and common life. She is constantly taking the church’s spiritual pulse in her expectation that things will just pull back in line and they’ll all be one happy family again.
Of course there are some other assumptions as well. Part in parcel to the Spirit’s infilling comes a conservative doctrinal and political worldview. She points out everything that smacks of a politics reflecting Graham Pulkingham’s liberal period before the infilling. That period where he smoked cigarettes and tried to change the neighborhood out of liberal altruism. These political allusions are few and far enough between to keep from belaboring the point, but she makes it clear—Spirit filled Christians are conservative. Backslidden ones go all liberal again. This is just as narrow and devoid of political imagination as it sounds.
What’s taken as a given is Duin’s own ability to know where God is moving and when things are dead or dying. Of chief importance is evidence of an impact. Long after Graham Pulkingham had left Redeemer and had settled in Aliquippa Pennsylvania with the Community of Celebration she is assessing their impact in the early 1990’s:
“The community still envisioned itself as a group of poor believers, living in the neighborhood and challenging the larger political and social structure for change, but it was questionable whether such laudable things had made a dent in Aliquippa. After five years there, they had not made nearly the impact that Redeemer had made in Houston in the five years after Graham’s baptism in the Spirit. Instead, the community seemed more shell-shocked by Aliquippa’s daunting challenges and the need to constantly protect themselves. Graham and his community, I realized, did not have the spiritual power to make changes. They were the same actors with a similar script, but 25 years had made all the difference in the world.” (Pg. 269)
Excuse me, but I just have to ask where she lays claim to the authority to say where God is working and where He is not? I mean, let’s think about this. When I die I would hope that there would be family and friends there who could say, “This man loved God and his family. He served the church and was used by God.” This is every Christian’s greatest hope right? But who gets to go further than that and say x number of people’s lives were forever changed because of his impact? Who before God gets to say I have or don’t have the spiritual power to change anything?
There are a number of things that break my heart about Graham Pulkingham’s teaching recounted in the book, and much of the teaching in the Charismatic and Jesus Movement circles he moved in. The first is that they were preaching community. Now I’ve lived in two different Charismatic communities and I’m still close to both of them. But to my knowledge, neither of these preached community as some sort of special spiritual endowment. The leadership sought out the writings of other communities that had been at it quite a bit longer and learned that community is simply not for everyone, and we don’t get some special favor from God for living in it. We’re certainly not more spiritual for living in community.
But more than that, what Graham and the other leaders and families at Redeemer experienced in the early years of the Spirit’s power seemed to cause them to want more power and not necessarily more love. They wanted more of the worship experiences, the healings, the new converts, and these things didn’t necessarily strengthen their marriages, their families, or even their social skills. What we’re left with is a great sense of loss.
It’s a book of great sadness, shattered hopes, and broken relationships in the midst of great yearning. In the end she writes:
“Graham was right. It was community that made Redeemer and other powerful charismatic fellowships across the country what they were; it was community that allowed the Holy Spirit to move so quickly; it was community that birthed the music and the worship, that encouraged the spiritual gifts, that created an indefinable quality of love that drew thousands to Houston, that caused millions to read the books and listen to the music. People there gave generously because they had been loved generously by God, so much like the Christians who, 2000 years earlier, gave away all they had to gain Christ. It was a sacrificing community that made love so real to so many, that rescued the neighborhood for a brief few decades, that drew in the lost and unwanted. This is not the conclusion I expected to find, but a reporter’s job is to tell the truth. My task is done, and here you see it complete.” (pg. 318)
My only response to this is that community is not some special place that we dream about but that only comes in heaven. Community happens where we work for it. It’s not always the place we want to be. In my case it was where I was born, not what I chose initially. It’s full of many impossible people who without the love of Christ we would never choose to live with. Most importantly, Christian community does not belong to us. Serving Jesus involves laying down our visions of what the outcome of our efforts will look like. This is perhaps what is most difficult in the best of communities, where leaders don’t lie and cover up sexual sin and deceive their parishioners. How can we not have expectations when we put so much time and money and attention into our little projects, which we’re so certain are blessed of God? Attempts to shape people into our image will fail or God willing should hopefully fail soon. A lot can be learned from Julia Duin’s work. It is sad that so much heartbreak went into this story and that in the end Duin’s own relationship with the Community of Celebration is broken.
I keep thinking about all the failed expectations for the many white upwardly mobile Houstonians who sold everything in order to buy dilapidated houses in Redeemer’s neighborhood. Communities are rarely formed from so many professional elites. They all came looking for something. They wanted to bring God glory the way they knew how. That meant making a name for themselves: writing books, hymns, and influencing the world over. It all happened so fast, and as I look back at it I can’t help but think why should their dream succeed? Everything I know of God is that the first things that get sacrificed along with money and time are my expectations. I get hurt the most when I’m going to write that great book for God, knock them dead with my preaching, or simply say the exact “right” thing in the wrong spirit at the wrong time.
Finally, I think it’s important to realize that we never know the whole story where people are concerned. Every person entering community remains their own individual while they are there, with their own perspectives and spin on what goes down at a given time. There are many others who were at Redeemer or are now maybe at Celebration who would tell their story very differently. In so far as Julia Duin stuck to the facts that she received from her interviews and sources, her story is a valuable witness for us today. I dare say many other communities from the same era, Charismatic or not, are now passing from memory without anyone to tell their story. If you have an interest in communal narratives pick up a copy of Julia Duin’s book Days of Fire and Glory: The Rise and Fall of a Charismatic Community.