My Metacostal re-awakening
The other day I watched the new Netflix movie, "Come Sunday," with a great interest. It is a biopic of Bishop Carlton D. Pearson during a period of great spiritual introspection and subsequent theological evolution, which resulted in him being declared a heretic and losing his highly-influential megachurch.
The film roughly covers a timeframe between 1996 and 2004, starting from Pearson being one of the most popular TV preachers on the Trinity Broadcasting Network and ending with his meeting with the Rev. Yvette Flunder, of City of Refuge United Church of Christ in Oakland, California.
The last time I heard of Carlton Pearson was when I read about his "apostasy" in the Charisma magazine that I found at the Fort Vancouver Regional Library (Vancouver, Washington). When I lived in Seattle, I had a half-broken, black-and-white television that I bought from my neighbor for $5 and I watched a lot of TBN since that was the only channel the TV was able to receive with little problem. Fresh out of high school and first year in college, I was a sincere seeker of the charismatic blessings -- I even traveled to Alaska for a week chasing two of the TV preachers, Benny Hinn and Marilyn Hickey, once I found out that Hinn was having a "Miracle Crusade" in Anchorage and Hickey was doing her "Bible Encounter" in Juneau during the same week.
After I watched "Come Sunday," I did some online digging on what Carlton Pearson is up to, and pleasantly, I have found that his theological evolution (or as he calls, "expanding consciousness") to be almost parallel to my trajectory since I last attended any Pentecostal church (it was in the spring of 1999).
Since he was being declared a heretic by Bishop J. Delano Ellis, II, of the Joint College of Bishops (JCOB), Pearson became credentialed by United Church of Christ and what was left of Higher Dimensions Family Church became New Dimensions Worship Center United Church of Christ. A few years later, Pearson accepted a call as an interim senior minister of Christ Universal Temple, the main congregation of the Universal Foundation for Better Living (a New Thought denomination started by the Rev. Johnnie Colemon, a former Unity minister who quit the Association of Unity Churches -- now known as Unity Worldwide Ministries -- because of rampant racism she experienced). In the meantime, New Dimensions merged with All Souls Unitarian Church (the largest congregation of Unitarian Universalist Association). When Pearson resigned from Christ Universal Temple over conflicts with its board of directors, he started New Dimensions Chicago, an independent New Thought group, while he moved back to Tulsa and now serving as an affiliate minister of All Souls Unitarian Church.
Like Pearson, after my departure from the Pentecostal church, I have at various points held membership in Unitarian Universalist Association, United Church of Christ, and Unity. (And during some intervening years, I was a minister in an independent Reformed Catholic church, and also had attended but never formally joined a Metropolitan Community Church and an Episcopal Church -- and for several times I experimented with Neo-Paganism.)
I have not been a very religious or spiritual person since I began involved with political activism around 2011. I went "all-in" to support and organize the Occupy movement and at the time I thought I was simply looking for human connections and a sense of community in a church and have never been able to find them, and I, at last, found them in Occupy. But when it all fell apart in 2015, after four years of my very active commitment to the movement, I began attending a Unity church and ultimately, joining it as a member.
Every once in a while, I had a flashback of the days when I was a Pentecostal and I generally had a very fond memory of it. I was naive, but I was always hopeful, optimistic, and full of energy. Even though some of my beliefs were definitely fear-based at the time, I was courageous in spite of that fear. As a young adult, I accomplished many things very few had a courage to even try. And most importantly, I had a worldview that understood that my life had a higher purpose and I was part of "God's army" of victory. The temperament, music, beats, and energy that are inherent in Pentecostalism was what shaped my late teenage and early adult years from age 18 through 21 -- the important formative year where a young person established their own life's narratives and sense of meaning.
So much of that "oomph" somehow got lost when I became part of a liberal religion and then no religion.
I missed that aspect of me. For a long time.
But until I learned about Carlton Pearson's life after his "heresy" and subsequent development of what he calls a "Metacostal" theology, I have not been able to make peace with that aspect of me.
After all these years, I realize that I am still deeply a Pentecostal at heart.
As a Pentecostal, I always had music and beats in my heart. A typical worship service meant an hour to 90 minutes of singing out and loud. I had a large collection of Integrity Music's praise and worship CDs and tapes, which was always playing in my apartment -- unless I had the radio tuned into a Christian music station (in particular, KWPZ or KCMS). Songs and rhythms were just as much part of me as my breaths back then.
But that music died out somewhere long time ago, in the midst of a series of hardship. Nothing quite replaced it. Political activism did not, liberal "spirituality" did not, and certainly, the woo-woo garbage didn't. Somewhere down the road, I became a walking corpse just surviving.
These days it is easy to characterize Pentecostalism -- a uniquely American spiritual expression with roots in Kansas and California -- as a bastion of far-right political ideology and backward thinking. Yet, the history that I have studied presents a vastly different picture. As a spiritual movement of the Southern working-class whites and African-Americans, it was the church of the oppressed and marginalized. They were counter-institutional, anti-elitist, anti-clerical, and among the first in Christianity to racially integrate their congregations and ordain women at all levels of ministries and leadership. Aimee Semple MacPherson, the founding leader of the International Church of the Foursquare Gospel, was by her contemporary standard, almost scandalous because of her media savvy, style, and sexual morality (divorce and extramarital affairs) -- and because of her extensive commitment to social service and pacifism.
As Carlton Pearson explains, Pentecostals are to Christianity what Sufism is to Islam and what Hasidism is to Judaism -- the mystics who emphasize the direct spiritual experience of the Divine not intermediated by the religious middlemen.
The Metacostal movement points to a great possibility in which a New Thought theology that is rooted in a Pentecostal tradition that once again rediscovers the zeal, commitment to the oppressed people, direct spiritual experiences, and radical equality in the Holy Spirit.
"Come Sunday" was a catalyst for my Metacostal (re-)awakening... and I am bringing back the music.