Occasionally, you come across a book that resonates with your own story. As someone who has accidentally become a Charismatic, I’m always interested to read books by people who disagree with me, but claim to follow Jesus. Similarly, I’m also excited to explain my own perspective, which I hope offers ‘Charismatic Clarity’. My Search for Charismatic Reality by Neil Babcox is an older American book that offers a unique and quite valuable perspective.
One of the best things about this book is the author’s admission that this story is his own, and his humility and honesty about his own experience means that this is a helpful book, well worth reading by contemporary Charismatics. A theme that flows through the book is his argument/assertion that there is a) a great confusion over biblical terms for things like prophecy, when compared to the practices seen in many churches today, and b) minimal theological or biblical reflection on charismatic experience, particularly around the veracity of the miraculous today. As ever, convinced charismatics such as myself should take note of this, particularly the challenge for us to both do our homework and be honest about what we are seeing.
It is worth noting that this book was originally published in 1985, and subsequently updated in 1991. Babcox clearly lived through a fascinating time in recent church history – and he certainly writes as someone who was a genuinely convinced and practicing charismatic. As his story unfolds, and he recounts his experience of becoming disillusioned with the practice of ‘prophecy’ around him, he writes “it is possible that many of my prophecies were genuine exhortations (Romans 12:8) that were misappropriated and spoken in the form of prophecies“. As someone who has been told by others that I can be a bit prophetic, and is passionate about explaining to people how to hear from God, I think it is important to note that distinction, and be honest, and say that sometimes in charismatic churches we talk about ‘doing prophecy’ when actually what we are doing (or, if we are deluded, think we are doing) theologically is seeking to give words of knowledge and words of encouragement. No one gift of the Spirit is greater than another – and that is important to remember.
Another theme in Babcox’s book that I resonated with was his frustration at ‘prophets’ or people giving prophecies saying ‘thus saith the Lord’. Rightly, I think we need to be very wary of saying this, and this is why in my experience of the Vineyard I’ve appreciated the value of ‘dialling down’ (Rather than hyping up) and also avoiding, at least in public, ‘hatches, matches and dispatches’. If we think God is offering guidance on things like that, rather than smaller things or actually not prophecy but enouragement/rebuke/knowledge, then we do not need to puff ourselves up and can have a quiet, measured word with the person we think God has something to say to. And this leads to perhaps the most striking thing about this book – beyond the measured, nuance theological position that doesn’t fit with the worst excesses of cessationism, and is respectfully critical of charismatic belief and practice – the integrity of the author. Upon changing his mind, he went to his church, set out his case, and offered to resign if they felt he could not continue to pastor them. That takes integrity, particularly when your livelihood (and that of your family) is conditional on what you believe and practice in the name of Jesus.
In closing, then, this is quite a unique book in the enormous library of Christian writing on charismatic issues. If nothing else, I hope this kind of book could offer a model for biblical disagreement over these kinds of issues – and offer hope to pastors thinking through a theological revolution. I would recommend it to people seeking to understand why and how Christians who love the Bible and love the Holy Spirit change their minds on how the Spirit works today, as well as to pastors and leaders of ‘mixed’ churches, where the body has a range of views on these kinds of things. My Search for Charismatic Reality is a short book, and well worth reading.
Upon reading to the end, I noted that the publishers inserted two book recommendations, both by Peter Masters. In the name of balance, and to demonstrate that there is a biblical way to be a charismatic and take seriously the criticsms of brothers and sisters who disagree, I’ve written an on/off series of posts under the theme of ‘Charismatic Clarity‘. I’d also recommend a few books…
- R. T. Kendall’s Holy Fire is an excellent riposte to John MacArthur’s Strange Fire/Charismatic Chaos, respectful, biblical, and balanced.
- Rob McAlpine’s Post-Charismatic is a beautiful book, that represents a different, nuanced and continued-ly-charismatic response to some of the issues that Babcox’s book raises.
- Simon Ponsonby’s MORE is one of my favourite books, that was key in my own journey of faith.
- Rich Nathan and Ken Wilson’s Empowered Evangelicals is another vital book for wrestling with these kinds of questions.