Friday, July 09, 2010

George Whitefield - The Divine Dramatist?

I had to go to London on Wednesday to attend a meeting of the Kensit Memorial Trust, the body entrusted amongst other things with looking after the Kensit Memorial College, which is currently home to the London Theological Seminary. I chose to travel by rail rather than car partly so I could redeem some time by reading on the journey, which is a little difficult when driving. I almost finished Philip Blond's Red Tory, which I've been dipping in and out of for a couple of months and made a good start on The Imperative of Preaching by John Carrick, purchased at the Banner Conference back in April. In a chapter on The Exclamative, Carrick quotes from Harry S. Stout's The Divine Dramatist: George Whitefield and the Rise of Modern Evangelicalism, and gives a withering critique of the historian's interpretation of the great 18th century preacher.

According to Stout,
To appreciate Whitefield's printed sermons fully, we have to read them less as lectures or treatises than as dramatic scripts, each with a series of verbal clues that released improvised body language and pathos. Words or phrases such as 'Hark!' 'Behold!' 'Alas!' and 'Oh!' invariably signaled the pathos Whitefield dramatically recreated with his whole body. The words were the scaffolding over which the body climbed, stomped, cavorted, and kneedled, all in an attempt - as much intuitive as contrived - to startle and completely overtake his listeners.
To which Carrick responds with almost Whitefieldian eloquence, tearing Stout's thesis apart with a powerful use of the interrogative.
This is an astonishing evaluation. We do not deny that Whitefield possessed remarkable natural gifts and abilities which, but for the grace of God in his life, might well have brought him great success and even fame on the stage. But to focus so exclusively on the natural at the expense of the spiritual is to do a grave injustice to the memory of this great and saintly preacher. What about Whitefield's prayerfulness? we ask What about Whitefield's spirituality? What about Whitefield's godliness?  Indeed, what about Whitefield's God? What about the whole concept of divine authority, power, and unction in preaching? What about the Spirit of God? In that most mysterious and complex of activities, namely, preaching, are these factors not absolutely pivotal?
While is is fitting for Christian historians to try and understand the natural historical factors involved in an episode like the Evangelical Revival, we must never forget that the living God is involved in the historical process and that he sometimes intervenes in a most powerful way. It is reductionist to try and explain  revival events or the effects of preaching that takes place in revivals on a purely natural level. The model historian for the Christian is not Kant with his dichotomy between the 'phenomenal' the and 'noumenal', but Luke, author of the Acts of the Apostles, Acts 4:31.

No comments: