Thought Awakening: A Way to Understand What Happened at Asbury (2023)

by rodney kennedy

Rodney Kennedy has his M.Div. from New Orleans Theological Seminary and his Ph.D. in Rhetoric from Louisiana State University. He pastored First Baptist Church of Dayton (OH), an American Baptist church, for 13 years and later served as interim pastor of ABC USA churches in Illinois, Pennsylvania, and Kansas. He is currently the interim pastor of Emmanuel Peace Federated Church, Schenectady, NY. your sixth bookImpeccable Failure: How Evangelicals Birthed Donald Trump–was recently launched by Wipf and Stock (Cascades). and your last bookgood and evil in the garden of democracy,appears not end of April.

"The kingdom of God has drawn near: repentmibelieve in the good news!” Repentance is not about feeling bad, it is about thinking differently. Protestantism (particularly evangelical Protestantism) is in constant danger of confusing the Kingdom itself with the benefits of the Kingdom in its effort to help each individual make his own authentic choice with full awareness and sincerity.

If the Asbury revival helped students make their own authentic decision to follow Jesus with full awareness and sincerity, then God bless that revival. But when revival confuses the kingdom of God with the benefits of the kingdom, we have a problem.

John Howard Yoder says, “When someone repents, when someone turns to follow Jesus in their new way of life, they will do something about the lack of purpose in their life. He will do something with your loneliness by giving you company. He will do something about his fear and guilt, giving him a good conscience.” So Asbury students whose “revival” is to proclaim a closer walk with Jesus and freedom from fear and guilt are not wrong. After all, repentance as a "change of heart" is a good thing. As Yoder points out, repentance will do something for someone's intellectual confusion, giving them knowledge to digest, a heritage to cherish, and a conscience to tell it like it is. When students repent, he will address their moral weaknesses, focusing them on healthy self-discipline, discouraging immorality, and making them work on time. So revivals have their place.

But none of that is the gospel.

As for Asbury's rhetorical critique of the renaissance, I'd say it sounds more like a melancholic movement: a sense of loss of an ancient way of life. Barbara Biesecker, in"No time for mourning: the rhetorical representation of the melancholic citizen in the war against terrorism"says Slavoj Zizek, the so-called lost object of the melancholic "is nothing more than the positivization of a void or a lack, a purely anamorphic entity that does not exist in itself." Evangelicals caught up in the fantasy of a lost time, a lost glory when America was truly just, Christians were truly Christians, and men were truly men, are melancholy in that sense. While there was never a time in our history when America was holy and just, evangelicals long for the imagined "good old days" and seek to mend the cracks in the imagined dome of American piety and the age of restored charm.

The Asbury revival, and associated revivals in other evangelical schools, emerge as well as the equivalent of post-9/11 American patriotism. Instead of a true collective conversion, Americans went back to church for a few Sundays and then went back to their old habits of neglecting meetings. All that was left was a commitment to hyper-patriotism and continuous outbursts of anger, resentment and revenge against a secular world.

Such criticism of a student revival may sound harsh, but such criticism has always appeared in reviews of revivals in American religion. Jonathan Edwards, a thoughtful and consistent Calvinist, the reluctant leader of the First Great Awakening, and perhaps America's greatest theologian, has criticized his own revival, arguing that there are differences between genuine and bogus revivals. I cannot think of any preacher who paid as much attention to the nature of revival as Edwards did. His revival works includeFaithful storytelling of amazing conversions,Reflections on the Religious Revival in New England,Treatise on religious affectionsmiDistinctive marks of a work of the Spirit of God.Building on this latter work, Edwards reflected on the nature of the revival:

Is the revival real or just a superficial burst of emotion? Do we find empty enthusiasm with nothing substantial behind it, or does the enthusiasm itself point to a great work of God? With every recorded revival in church history, the signs that follow are mixed. Gold is always mixed with scab. Every revival has its counterfeits.

When Billy Sunday dominated the Sawdust Trail as America's most famous wake-up call, he faced a wave of criticism. For example, a liberal Congregationalist minister in Oak Park, Illinois, William E. Barton (1861-1930),attacked the pulpit on sunday:

We'd like him to stop cursing...fuck something stinking, "to hell with" something or someone... We'd like him to be a gentleman... He's a tough, unfair, bad-tempered man. .. a very imperfect Christian.

From studious, Calvinist, and silent preacher Jonathan Edwards to athletic, populist, tough, mischievous, and emotional Billy Sunday, America has run the gamut of activists. Criticism of the revivalists ranges from overly prejudiced to careful thought, but the criticism of the revival is as relevant today as ever.

(Video) Understand what's happening to the Asbury Revival

From that critic's perspective, I'd say the Asbury renaissance is real. There is no doubt that the students are very sincere. I think revival illustrates the work of the Holy Spirit in people's lives. I think the students were deeply moved and many of them changed. The experiences in this revival suggest that the students are being born again with a stronger Christian commitment.

My concern is that the revival has not gone far enough. He didn't show any real "change of heart," the literal translation of repentance. As Stanley Hauerwas makes clear,

The gospel is the proclamation of a new era that began through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. This gospel also has a form, a political form. It is embodied in a church that must always be ready to welcome the stranger.

A renaissance ina bastion of evangelical exclusion, a renaissance that reintensifies antigay, antidiversity, antiscience and antihistory, does not deserve the name of renaissance.

A revival should focus on 'lack' rather than the perception of mythological 'loss'. A forward-thinking renaissance opens the door to new interpretations of dealing with people who are different. The revival would counter the rigid rationalism of the evangelical faith, which is no longer based on universal principles set in stone in a literal Bible. Rather, it will be fluid and will deal with particular circumstances, changing circumstances, including the advancement of ethical awareness as a new way of interpreting the Bible.

I would like to suggest that the Jewish approach to interpreting Scripture offers a better way to approach the possibility of genuine revival. The Hebrew word "Peshat" means "straight" and refers primarily to the superficial literal meaning of the text. This is the clear, simple and often decontextualized interpretation of the text. The second method of Jewish exegesis, the "drash", refers to how to live and apply the text. Here is the sowing for revival.

In this reading is the rebirthNoGod is doing something in our hearts. This is the kind of confiscated revival that offers meaning and purpose to the individual but has little to do with producing practices that prevent us from showing hospitality to strangers.

A rebirth must be more than immediate, individual and narcissistic. Rather, true revival leads to concrete physical bodily practices for the benefit of others.

True revival would include the Hebrew definition of repentance: "to repent" or "to return to the paths of justice and righteousness." The Jewish sense of justice (zedek) exhorts the “resurrected” to be compassionate and considerate. built on the notion ofzedekit is a natural tension between the dictates of justice and mercy. There is a mixture of love and justice, truth and peace. Ultimately, revival produces real, material, and physical changes in the lives of others, especially "lesser" ones. Justice cannot be achieved through the effects of personal revival.

My prayer would be that the Asbury student revival would move beyond the understanding of the old orientation - the imagined idyllic world of a godly and just America - and instead create a reorientation in favor of justice and mercy. If this renaissance moves in this direction, the students can achieve the conversion of their oldest leaders, so tied to secular politics and the MAGA philosophy. If this revival moves in that direction, then we can have a genuine Methodist revival of social concern and "Catholic" faith, and a genuine Baptist insistence on "Jesus as Lord" as opposed to powers and principalities.

So be it.


  1. legal playeron March 28, 2023 at 8:26 am

    Federico Schmidt:
    I always read what Rod says with interest, but I have to say that I think he's way off the mark with his latest article on the Asbury revival. Having been a part of this community for years, I know that he has potential flaws in him. But they are very different from the revival of the Reformed tradition in this country, and I think he completely ignores the search for meaning that dominates the college years of young adult life. As a result, most of Rod's criticism seems to be based on an earlier assumption: revivals are about spreading a certain kind of logic, that logic is not what the gospel is about, therefore the revival of Asbury is, by definition, troublesome. I offered an alternative understanding of what happened there a while ago:


    • rodney kennedyon March 28, 2023 at 10:24

      Frederick is right to make the case for the Asbury renaissance. I indicated my own support and its true nature. I'll also make a plea deal about "sometimes totally off target." It is the price of saying what others may be reluctant to say.

      That being said, I suppose my point was to point out that revivals must manifest enduring practices, that salvation, as Hauerwas said, is grafted on to practices that make us an alternative to the world's misguided politics. Calling for a revival that results in the production of the social gospel and alternative politics and hospitality for outsiders (gays, minorities, women, and immigrants), I only ask that we have enough time to see the final results in Asbury.

      I disagree with the idea that I used the above logic about revivals. I am a child of revivals and not part of the evangelical fandom, but I have great respect for its lasting results. I may be delusional, but I think I agree more with Jonathan Edwards' critique than with the usual liberal denial of revivals.

      I hesitated to write about the revival for over a month because I had my own doubts. But obviously I wrote the play. Like Flannery O'Connor, I think sometimes it's necessary to exaggerate, shout, and draw big, surprising pictures. If this is savagery then this is my only defense
      "What would the world be like without the wet and wild? Leave it, leave it wild and wet; Long live the weeds and the desert." —Gerhard Manley Hopkins*
      Hauerwas, Stanley. Working with words: on learning to speak Christian (p. 173). Cascade Books, an imprint of Wipf and Stock Publishers. Kindle version.

      (Video) My personal thought about the Asbury Awakening


      • rodney kennedyon March 28, 2023 at 10:48

        The Wesleyan emphasis on "holiness" and the "Catholic spirit" and "social principles" makes Methodist revivals a different genre. I am aware of this, but I am also suggesting that Asbury was being drawn more in a conservative evangelical direction. His seminary has been designated as an accredited seminary by the Global Methodist Church.

        I have read and agree with Frederick's post on Patheos. His testimony to the ideals of the Wesleyan spirit is brilliant. Blending Anglican, Orthodox and Catholic theology with American Protestant theology, Methodists are increasingly gifted at facilitating a national revitalization that rejects the current "evangelical church poisoning" in America. Thank you Frederick!


        • Friedrich W Schmidton March 28, 2023 at 2:02 p.m.

          Rod, thanks for the generous response. It's a welcome breath of fresh air in the digital world to be able to differentiate yourself without verbal arguments. I also appreciate any additional insight into your thoughts on the matter.

          Just a few observations about the institution itself: (1) I have no first-hand experience of what college or seminary is like. (2) What I do know is that although they share a common religious background, they are organizationally separate. Therefore, what applies to one does not necessarily apply to the other. (3) I am aware that GMC has selected Asbury as one of their accredited seminaries, but GMC has also accredited United Theological Seminary in Dayton, which is an IMU seminary.

          (Video) Pete Greig | Lessons from Asbury & the Hebridean Awakening

          Having followed the debates that rocked Methodism and how the same debates played out in my own tradition, I am not surprised. But I don't think that the decisions that either the GMC or the WBU make on such matters means that the seminaries they choose will be in step with their respective denominations in the future. To the best of my knowledge, the vast majority of ATS faculty continue to be United Methodists and the seminary will continue to accept applicants to UMC. The opposite is likely to occur as well.

          Historically, Protestant institutions have separated the preparation of ministers from the selection process that leads to their ordination. And, as I'm sure you are aware, they are not as deeply integrated as the Roman Catholic seminaries, where the seminaries still move at a different pace.

          Bottom line: I think it's probably risky to draw conclusions about where the university might go based on this. I speak as someone who was once deeply shaped by this legacy and still appreciates what it offers, and I hope both institutions continue to nurture the wisdom of their distinguished legacy.


  2. rodney kennedyon March 29, 2023 at 9:39 am

    My own institutional bias as a recovering premillennial and pretribulational rave sometimes leads me to make the rhetorical error of making tenuous connections that are more subtle than I realize. Thanks for pointing this out to me. Jumping to conclusions would get me out of the rhetoric course.

    Having taught at United for 7 years, I was not surprised that they were in the GMA circulation. It is the last of the old Evangelical Brothers Seminaries still in existence and is quite conservative. I was surprised when Truett Seminary decided to join the GMA. In my opinion, the economic realities of seminary existence are sometimes precarious.

    After reading your article, I reread Stanley Hauerwa's essay, Methodist Theological Ethics: Why Methodists Can't Distinguish Between Theology and Ethics. It notes Wesley's commitment to "practical godliness." My reaction to the Asbury revival was based on my weak conclusion that Asbury would not bring the "social gospel" on the revival ride. My quote from Edwards was done ironically. Sometimes I try to be too cute because I play with words and ideas and lose precision in the process. My conclusion is that we don't really disagree here. His historical analysis of the revival in the Wesleyan context is important. My constant involvement in speaking out about the failure of evangelicals to be Christians is so deeply a part of my entire existence that I can't stop talking. Thank you for reminding me of the "Catholic Spirit." After all, the Episcopal Church itself is a holiness movement.


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