As you know, I’ve been researching the Welsh revival of 1904 and, more broadly, the place of ecstasy in modern culture. On Tuesday, I drove to Cwmbran in the south of Wales, where something called the Welsh Outpouring has broken out. I wondered if the Outpouring was the beginning of a new Welsh revival, so off I went to Cwmbran, like a storm-chaser.
The Outpouring is happening in the Victory Church, which is a breeze-block warehouse in an industrial estate on the outskirts of Cwmbran. There was a small queue of people outside, waiting for the doors to open for the 7pm service (they hold services every day since the Outpouring began in April). I went in and found a seat, in this windowless cavernous warehouse, filled with I guess 400 people, with the band already blaring out the Christian rock. ‘Come on!’ shouted the podgy singer. ‘Don’t hold anything back!’
Then the preacher came on stage. ‘This is day 62 of the Outpouring! Hundreds of people have turned to Jesus!’ There was a sort of large plastic paddling pool on the right, where the baptisms took place. ‘And there have been incredible miracles – just yesterday somebody was watching the service online, and their abdominal pain was healed! Amen?’ ‘Amen! Praise Jesus!’ a woman shouted behind me. ‘Pray in your own words’ said the preacher-man. ‘Shadappa shadappa shadappa’ babbled the woman. ‘Shadappa yourself’, I thought.
Then he asked if anyone wanted to be healed today, and a forest of hands shot up. ‘Now is the time! Amen?’ said the preacher-man. People went forward and the ministry team prayed for them. And many of them keeled right over. Timber! And they were immediately covered up with a blanket, very efficiently. ‘We also have some cloths we have anointed with oil’, said the preacher-man, putting a bucket on stage. ‘You can take them home and use them for healing’. There was a mad-rush for the cloths.
Well, after half an hour I’d had enough. I felt filled with contempt and intellectual snobbery for the scenes I’d witnessed. Is this what Christianity has come to, I thought. Buckets of oily cloths and ignorant popular emotionalism. Perhaps it had only been redeemed by its long association with Greek philosophy, and now it had reverted its initial primitive miracle-working. And a voice in me asked, ‘what did you expect?’
The next day I drove on to Pembrokeshire, to attend a four-day conference near Fishguard, at a Christian retreat called Ffald-y-Brenin. A Christian friend had recommended I read a book called the Grace Outpouring, by Roy Godwin. He and his wife Daphne had moved to Ffald-y-Brenin in 2000, and since then, all kinds of miracles have been happening there, apparently. I read the book two weeks ago, and it piqued my curiosity with its tales of people turning up at their door, saying ‘what’s going on here?’ then suddenly being knocked out by the Holy Spirit, like it was Magnumopus hiding behind the door with a club (obscure Asterix reference for you there). So on I drove to Pembrokeshire, like a storm-chaser.
I checked into a lovely hotel in Newport (not the big Newport, this is a little village also called Newport on a beautiful stretch of the Pembrokeshire coast), then I drove to a nearby village hall for dinner with the other conference delegates. They were all over 55. I found a place at a table, feeling a little self-conscious, and introduced myself to the two old ladies sitting there. ‘So’, I said breezily, ‘what can we expect from the conference?’ ‘You can expect to be invaded by God’, said this rather prim-looking old lady, as if I’d asked a crushingly-obvious question.
After dinner we all drove to a nearby church, with very uncomfortable pews. There was a lot of worship, with the old pensioners raising their hands in the air and some of them jumping up and down. Jesus is clearly a good retirement plan, I thought. Then Roy Godwin took the mike. He’s a small man, with a tanned balding head, glasses, a quiet voice and a twinkling sense of humour. He spoke of the 1904 revival, of how Wales is the land of revivals, of how the first drops of a new revival were just starting to be felt, in Cwmbran and elsewhere. ‘But we want more. Come on Lord. Bring it on. We want another revival, in our own time. Come on Lord. Turn all of Wales into a house of prayer. Not just for Wales, but for all the nations.’ Yeah, I thought. Right! Aim low. Start with Wales and go from there.
The next day I attended the morning worship and the talks. I realised everyone there were absolutely passionate Christians, looking to start up missions or houses of prayer or what-have-you. Not only was I the youngest, I was clearly the only ‘seeker’. I kept this quiet, and when people asked ‘what church do you go to?’ I felt like an escaped POW being asked for their papers. ‘Er…Holy Trinity Brompton!’ I’d say, and their faces would relax with relief. Phew!
In the evenings I retreated from the retreat, and locked myself into my hotel room. What was I doing here? What kind of a stupid holiday was this? What kind of an idiot goes on holiday, on their own, to a Christian conference? Well, it was research, I told myself. So I carried on my research into ecstasy in my hotel-room, reading books on how Enlightenment thinkers defined religious ecstasy as a medical pathology called ‘enthusiasm’ (from the Greek word entheos, meaning God within). Enthusiasm, the historian JGA Pocock has written, was the ‘anti-self of the Enlightenment’, that which had to be contained and cured, just as Pentheus tried to lock up Dionysus. I’d sit in my hotel-room researching modern ecstatic movements like Pentecostalism, then I’d go back to the church and watch the pensioners being filled with the Holy Spirit, a few of them laughing and twitching and even being ‘slain’ in the Holy Spirit. I’d take notes like a zoologist.
On Saturday, the talks were interesting. A pastor (and former GP and psychotherapist) called Richard Roberts gave a very funny talk, and he mentioned that he’d returned to the blues guitar as a hobby to get him through his winter melancholy. He’d started a band, with some Christians and some non-Christians, they played weddings and so forth, and some of the guests had ended up coming to his church, ‘which must be the first time Honky-Tonk Woman has been a tool of evangelism’. He said: ‘There’s Spirit in there, in rock and roll. You know Jerry Lee Lewis was part of a Pentecostal church, until they kicked him out for playing the piano with too much syncopation? The song Great Balls of Fire was partly inspired by the Pentecostals’ experience of the fire of the Holy Spirit’. How interesting, I thought. Just what I’m researching.
I went up and said hello after his talk, told him I was a drummer – his son is as well, at an HTB church in Battersea (I didn’t tell him I’m drumming in an atheist church!) I told him I also thought the Holy Spirit was there in rock music, perhaps more than in Contemporary Christian Music. There’s more Spirit in U2’s I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For than in most of the bland major-key bubblegum-pop of worship music. That’s because the latter lacks the despair and brokenness and lostness you sometimes get in rock and roll. ‘Yes’, said Rich. ‘The Church isn’t very good at the dark side. But read the Psalms, it’s all there.’
In the afternoon, I sat in my hotel trying to write this newsletter, but it kept on turning into this long and rambling history of ecstasy in modern culture. I decided to leave it for a bit, and go and check out the famous Ffald-y-Brenin. I parked my car at the bottom of the hill and walked up the steep path. At the top is this enclave of little hobbit-houses nestled in a garden, high above the most gorgeous valley like an eagle’s nest. In one corner is a small round chapel, where apparently people often have a direct experience of God. In I went, feeling slightly wobbly, but the Spirit didn’t bonk me on the head with its club. Inside it was like a Russian bath-house, with about ten of the conference attendees sitting in a circle in silence, soaking it in.
I sat there for a bit. I found myself thinking about the incarnation. I had a sense of the physicality of it, even the sensuality of it. How different to Greek philosophy, to Platonism, where the Logos is imprisoned in the body. In Christianity, the Logos loves the flesh, it became it, it delights in it. So I got into that for a bit. Then I strolled around the garden and looked out over the valley, purring as its back was stroked by the wind.
4. Saturday evening
At the evening session, a pastor from Vancouver called Eric gave a talk, where he quoted an Elizabeth Barrett Browning poem:
Earth’s crammed with heaven,
And every common bush afire with God;
But only he who sees, takes off his shoes -
The rest sit round it and pluck blackberries.
This nice old fella called Malcolm, to whom I’d admitted I wasn’t a Christian, gave me a nudge in the ribs. ‘That’s for you!’ he said. ‘Too much plucking blackberries!’ Then Roy took the mike and was speaking, the music was playing and we were standing up. And this thought came to me, ‘yours are the gifts, Lord’. I’d been researching charismatic Christianity – the word charismatic comes from the Greek charis, meaning gifts. So I was sort of internally dedicating my life and my work to God. And I felt my chest fill with a painful joy, a powerful energy, which pushed my head back, further, further, until it almost hurt my neck muscles. It took a real effort to push my head forward, then another wave would sweep it back. It was like the pleasure was bursting from my chest, lifting it up, pushing my head and body back so I was rocking on my heels. Sinner that I am, I can only compare it to MDMA, like coming up on a really strong pill, when it’s almost too powerful, it takes your breath away, and you’re just feeling this intense sensual pleasure coursing through you. I remember reading about the 1904 revival, and someone in the congregation saying ‘too much!’, like he was afraid the Holy Spirit would overwhelm him. Well, it was a bit like that.
Rich took the mike, moved by the Spirit and talked about this idea in Orthodox Christianity of the song of God holding creation together, and that triggered another wave of ecstasy in me. This went on for…I don’t know, three quarters of an hour. Then we sat down, and I shakily went and got a bottle of water. I offered some water to the guy next to me – it really reminded me of a rave, when you’re like, whew, that was a strong wave but I appear to be still on the surf-board, and you want to share your joy and your possessions with the people around you. Eunoia, the Greeks call it. Goodwill. Malcolm came up, full of joy for me, and said ‘I take it you’re done with blackberry picking?’ And he hugged me – he was more excited for me than I was for myself. So I drove home, luckily it wasn’t very far and I made it without crashing into a ditch. I lay in bed and I could still feel the joy licking my limbs like flames.
On Sunday I went to the morning session, there was some worship, then Roy spoke again, and once again I felt completely filled with ecstasy, more than the night before, I was standing up but my body was pushed right back, luckily the pew supported my shaking legs. I remembered Roy saying at the start of the conference, ‘we’re going to lean back into God’s love’. A tiny part of me wondered what everyone around me must think of this oddball standing there with his head pushed back and his mouth agape, although I wasn’t making a noise (it was a very reserved, English sort of rapture) then I thought, it’s OK, they’re all nutters too! I also remembered my Quaker ancestry and thought, I have an excuse: I’m descended from mentalists. This was what they were talking about. This was why they quaked.
Roy was speaking to God, saying we wanted another revival, we wanted more of the Spirit, that Wales needed another revival, for itself and for the nations, we wanted the kingdom here on Earth. He was almost demanding grace to pour out, like a lamb stubbornly demanding milk from its mother. He said we’d all been commissioned to work for this revival, to pass on the flame however we could, including online, which I thought was pretty weird considering it was a church full of pensioners. ‘Imagine an online revival’, he said. ‘Imagine an email where people opened it and felt filled with the Spirit’.
His wife Daphne got on stage, she’d had a word from God. She said: ‘I hope this doesn’t offend, but God says that some of you are going back to museums. He says, the museum is closed, but the garden is open.’ I got my breath back, and the service ended. I went up to thank Roy – I hadn’t spoken to him the entire week. He said, almost immediately, ‘don’t take this the wrong way, but God says to you that at some point you have to decide: you can stand on the outside analyzing, but He is here and open for you.’
So then I left, hugging some of these dear people I’d met, like Mary, this sweet cockney lady who I’d met on the first evening, who lived in Cyprus. ‘I’ve adopted this one’, she said, hugging me. I’d given her a copy of my book the evening before. ‘I’ve got as far as Aristotle’, she said. ‘He’s alright, old Ari, isn’t he?’ I drove back, the fire still in me, the fire survived the M4, survived the Long Delays from Junction 8 to Junction 4, survived through the fields and suburbs of the United Kingdom back to London. While I was driving, I got an email from BBC Radio 3 – I’m one of their ‘New Generation Thinkers’ this year – inviting me to speak at their Free Thinking festival in October. The theme of the festival, the email said, was ‘Who’s in Control?’ Who indeed!
In other news:
If like me you’re interested in the connection between Pentecostalism and rock & roll, check out this excellent article on that, although it’s behind a pay wall alas. Also have a listen to this fantastic NPR story about Brother Claude Ely, the Pentecostal Holy Roller guitarist who was a huge early influence on rock and roll.
This afternoon I interviewed Bernd Bosel, who is a historian of enthusiasm. I’ll post it later this week. And tomorrow I’m interviewing Brian Eno! He has some very interesting thoughts on ecstasy and surrender in music and religion – and he should know all about it, having produced some of the great ecstatic anthems of pop, like David Bowie’s Heroes, U2’s Streets Have No Name and Talking Heads’ Once In A Lifetime. So look out for that later this week too.
It’s funny how little science and psychology has got to grips with ecstasy, though it’s beginning to do so – Jonathan Haidt discusses it in his book, The Righteous Mind, but he is very much standing on the outside analyzing, like Durkheim did, with their clipboards, nodding, and saying ‘yes, it’s all very good for social cohesion’. Haidt criticises utilitarians for their over-rationalism, but he also has a utilitarian view of ecstasy, seeing it as socially useful, which to me misses the mystery and awe of being invaded by God. But still, at least he’s exploring these experiences in a positive and non-pathologising way.
Another interesting avenue of scientific research is recent stuff on Autonomic Sensory Meridien Response (ASMR), or brain-tingling. There’s even an ASMR online community, where people try to trigger brain-chills by watching YouTube videos of women whispering lovingly, for all those lonely YouTube babies out there. To me that’s taking a mechanistic view of ecstasy, missing the theos in enthusiasm, but still, worth a look.
How strange that the experience of spine-tingling etc – such a core human experience – should be so little researched by science. I guess that’s because the Enlightenment has a fear of ecstasy, has kept it locked up and pathologised. And now it’s beginning to research it and to try and find the mechanism that triggers it – whispering or grooming or certain chords or chemicals, so that science can say ‘it’s not God, it’s these neural mechanisms’. And it’s true that you can trigger a sort of ecstasy with chemicals. But there are varieties of ecstasy, surely, and some are better than others. The fire isn’t the point – it’s what the fire motivates you to do.
Anyway, I urge you to go visit Ffald-y-Brenin, or go see Roy and Daphne talk, they’re doing a talk in Norwich on the 26th of June, and in Nottingham sometime in July. Or read Roy’s book. I am quite a sceptical person (as I hope regular readers know) but I think they’re the real thing, genuine people of God.