Book Review: Words, Wonders and Power

This book has been on my radar and on my bookshelves for a number of years. Written over twenty years ago, back when I was six and the Third-wave charismatic movement (of which I am now theologically a part) was grappling with the onrushing tide of the so-called Toronto Blessing. And Martyn Percy, now a leading light in Anglican liberalism, was writing this book, ‘Words, Wonders and Power: Understanding Contemporary Christian Fundamentalism and Revivalism’. I say all this by way of context – I am late to the party, according to some, and certainly late to the reviewing of this book – and to set up this review for what it is (A review of book twenty years after publication) and not what it is not (whatever you might be thinking).

Percy writes this book as a theologian, seeking to explain a theological phenomenon. As someone who has personally moved from a cessationist evangelicalism to a charismatic evangelicalism, I’m reasonably well rehearsed around the discussions and debates on that spectrum. As I’ve studied theology, been married a bit longer, changed churches and cities, and become exposed to more, I’m gradually realising that there is a wide ocean of responses to the Charismatic movement, from various angles within and without the Church. This book is one from within the Church, informed by Anglicanism but not beholden to it, and open to genuine and careful investigation of charismatic phenomena.

This book, at first examination, is an examination of various movements through the lens of discussion of power. Reasonably early on, however, it becomes clear that this book is actually a theological and sociological examination of John Wimber, one of the founders of the Vineyard movement. With twenty years of hindsight, this is actually quite good, because Wimber had a profound and ecumenical influence, but casting one’s mind back it is easy to see why ‘Wimber’ or ‘Vineyard’ don’t appear on the front cover copy. Here, then, is one of the most amusing parts of the book – reading it twenty years on, several challenges and criticisms seem petty, whilst other seem prescient and relevant, linked to the essential theological core of what Wimber was doing and teaching, and what the Vineyard has gone on to do.

The focus of this book on the person and ministry of John Wimber, then, makes it useful in two ways. Firstly, this is a dispassionate, non-cheerleading engagement with a key figure in charismatic evangelicalism. Secondly, it allows the skill of the author and his engagement with questions of power to be put on full display. The problem with the second part of this is that sometimes Percy is very clear that Wimber is ‘wrong’, without necessarily making it clear what ‘right’ might look like. For instance, I was struck by his discussion of ‘Power and Purity’, particularly with reference to how Wimber saw himself in relation to the Vineyard Movement. As a 3rd generation member of the Vineyard (I’ve been discipled by people who were discipled by/peers of those who were discipled by, Wimber’s generation) I can confidently say two things. a) God has no Grandchildren. b) Wimber is not above reproach or re-interpretation, and is seen less as a father and more as a reasonably savvy uncle. I’ve explored the unintended but not uncritically-swallowed legacy of Wimber as a new tradition, elsewhere on this blog.

So, to close, having not necessarily engaged with the argument around power and theology that Percy makes, but hopefully having giving you a flavour of the book and what it is about, why did I read this book? I read this book because, as part of my 2017 Reading Challenge I’m keen to read widely and broadly, and this is a book I should have read long ago. This is a book from a critical but careful outsider – a model in how to explore something you disagree with without condemning it. This book has some helpful and ever-relevant reflections on charismatic practice and ecclesial power. Overall, this book is a key part of the growing corpus of literature on the Vineyard/Revival movements from a theological perspective, and bears reading. Twenty years on, I’d love to ask Martyn Percy about what he makes of the present state and expansion of the Vineyard, the effect that Wimber’s untimely death had (or didn’t have), and what (if anything) he’d change about his analysis.

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