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I didn’t think I’d want to write about it, but it has came up in my social media again and again. Was it authentic? Was it theologically sound? Was it good for the church? These questions were quickly followed by those saying, “Leave it alone!” “What’s the harm?” and “Who are you to judge?” I’ve seen articles and substacks from such folks as Lutheran pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber, New Testament professor Craig Keener, commentary and reporting from everyone from to CNN to The Tucker Carlson Show.1 Combined with all the folks in my own circles who wanted to talk about it, it was inescapable.

Even as the President of Asbury University, Kevin Brown, announced that the “Asbury Outpouring” (aka the Asbury Revival) would be moved off-site, this particular moment leaves us with the questions that emerged at the start. Was this a “real revival?” Was it “authentic?” And “who are you/we to judge?”

As an anthropologist, words like “real” and “authentic” always perk me up. These are terms loaded with meaning that beg to be unpacked. Indeed, I would say the whole Asbury event was loaded with meaning to be unpacked. We who viewed it from afar are limited in much of what we can say (at least, we should be saying), but there is a bigger question than just this Asbury event.  What does it mean to judge a spiritual event as “real?”

I recall once leading worship at my small, predominantly white congregation where we had made an explicit commitment to be multiracial and multicultural. It was clear (to me, anyway) that our worship still reflected a largely Euro-American, Reformed-evangelical aesthetic, so one morning I tried to bring in elements from the Black church as best I could. I invited people to speak out during worship. I urged people to clap and shout. At one high point in the music, I called out, “Everybody raise your hands!”

I learned, after the service, this was not appreciated by several of my white brothers and sisters. These folks complained I was causing them to be “inauthentic.”  If the Holy Spirit commanded them to raise their hands, that was one thing. But for the worship leader to be so pushy? Just no.

It was clear to me then, and many times since, that many Christians believe that for something to be “authentic” it must feel supernatural, almost inexplicable, and perhaps look extraordinary. The urge to engage in any particular practice must come from something internal (ideally surprising), preferably not influenced by anything in the external environment, ideally inexplicable from any human standpoint.

This desire to distinguish the so-called real/divine impulse from the human or cultural one has come up for many who commented on the Asbury event. For example, in response to a tweet from Christian writer David French calling the Asbury revival “inspiring and moving,” the first commenter wondered, “I’ve seen collective joy and dancing celebration in many settings, often not religious at all. Is there something theologically unique here?” The second asked, “how can you tell the difference between people overcome with a sensation they falsely attribute to a divine being, and people overcome with a sensation they correctly attribute to a divine being?” I can’t say if these are Christians asking these questions, but the approach seems familiar to what I have encountered in my fellow Christians everywhere: for a spiritual experience to be authentic it must be extraordinary, unfamiliar, and—as far as possible—disconnected from my own emotions or free will. I would argue that this way of thinking stems from a false dichotomy of body and soul, insisting on acts of the Spirit to be wholly foreign to our lives as humans. Instead, we should not be surprised when spiritual phenomena look ordinary, nor should we expect a bright line between our humanity and the work of God. These things are often closely bound up together.

As a Christian anthropologist, I start my thinking not with an anthropological approach, but an explicitly Christian one. That is, I start with the question of how the Bible speaks of those things we call spiritual. The Bible certainly counterposes “the Spirit” to “the flesh” in many instances; there’s no question that when God is called a Spirit (Jn 4:24) we are to understand that God does not (apart from Jesus) have a bodily form. But we know that we’re also not meant to always equate the spiritual with “non-corporeal” or “intangible.” In I Cor. 15:44, Paul writes of the “spiritual body,” but makes the comparison with Jesus’ resurrected body. While Jesus’ post-resurrection body was certainly different than the earthly body, it was critically not immaterial and non-corporeal.

This division of the spiritual/earthly into transcendent/immanent or immaterial/material is a legacy of Platonic dualism and the Enlightenment. In the evangelical tradition, this split has often led to a strong emphasis on the rational mind over all those things considered “of the body,” such as emotion, sensation, and response. Indeed, things of the physical body, and the physical world, have become equated with “the flesh,” or those parts of us that are not to be trusted (i.e., our sinful nature.) This evangelical Gnosticism, as Abigail Favale has called it, may lead us to categorize virtually all of what makes us human—our feelings, sensations, even our words—as unspiritual.2

I see this dichotomy among my students who often classify anything particular, specific, and visible to be unspiritual. Culture, and the products of culture, are clearly human. We know they’re made up. Moreover, culture is specific, dynamic, and often limiting. Therefore, their thinking goes, culture is that which gets in the way of true spirituality and the real Christian life. We should, they often aver, read the Bible seeking to distinguish that which is “merely cultural” from that which is universal.

This thinking is, however, an unbiblical way to consider how culture matters in human life. Culture is spiritual, in the sense that language, categories, relationships, and creativity—all things we would call “cultural”—existed in a perfect way before the fall, and, according to the visions of St. John, will exist in a New Heaven and New Earth. God created humans with the capacity for cultural creation in our pre-fallen state, and we’re meant to have these in a redeemed world (Rev. 7:9). Jesus, in his spiritual body, continued to participate in, reflect, and engage the culture in which he lived. To imagine that “the spiritual” can only refer to things that are not cultural, not embodied, not human, is to mis-categorize the cultural, particular, and material as wholly sinful.

This point brings us back to the question of the revival/outpouring at Asbury. What I saw in that moment was both something of the spirit—of God, reflecting his goodness and peace—and a cultural expression of religious life, a ritual phenomenon that drew on the historical meanings of these actions as we (or more specifically, the students at Asbury) have come to understand them. I see no tension between saying that it was both a cultural phenomenon, driven by desire, longing, and emotion—a “mass hysteria” as it could be classified by Freud, or “collective effervescence” as Durkheim would call it—and a work of the Holy Spirit, a real spiritual event in which God was richly at work. Though the Spirit often does move in ways that are radically surprising and new, just as often God draws on us as encultured beings and works within a familiar historical and cultural context to make himself known.

If the standard of an authentic spiritual event is always a talking ass or a burning bush, or a strong personal compulsion as to be irresistible or inexplicable from a human standpoint, we are drawing our circle too tightly. God has often used familiar settings—a stable, a public sermon given in a familiar style, a traditional religious meal—and familiar, explicable, understandable human desires and actions to reveal truth and grace to the world.

There is no doubt that religious rituals and emotional responses can be manipulated and abused, and there are good reasons to question and discern how events dubbed “works of the Spirit” are affecting those participating, particularly the vulnerable. Asking questions about the good of such events is important because we know God is Good. But separating those things that are “real” from those that are “fake” by imposing criteria of extraordinary spectacle or supernatural phenomena is to impose on God a manner of action that is only a part of how He has worked in human history.

We are called to enjoy God in our humanity, history, culture, and context, not to step outside of it. The rituals and patterns of religious life that we know—that seem familiar and even somewhat expected—are not evidence that something is not spiritual. We should not be surprised when He meets us where we are in the ways that look ordinary, normal, and human. After all, in God’s grandest manifestation of all, the undeniably spiritual event of the incarnation, God could not have come in a more ordinary, normal, and human way.


  1. Nadia Bolz-Weber, “On longing and the Asbury revival,” The Corners by Nadia Bolz-Weber (blog), February 19, 2023,; Craig Keener, “Opinion: What is Revival—and is it Happening at Asbury?” The Roys Report, February, 16, 2023,; Thomas Lyons, “When a Christian Revival Goes Viral,” The Atlantic, February 23, 2023,; AJ Willingham, “A nonstop worship gathering at a Kentucky school echoes an old Christian tradition,” CNN, February 18, 2023,, Tucker Carlson, “What I saw at Asbury, Biden’s $1 trillion handout, and more from Fox News Opinion,” Fox News, February 17, 2023,
  2. Favale, Abigail Rine. “Evangelical Gnosticism.” First Things 283 (May 2018): 13–15.

Brian M. Howell

Wheaton College
Brian Howell is a Professor of Anthropology at Wheaton College where he writes and researches global Christianity, short term missions, and the intersection of theology and anthropology.  


  • Thank you for a thoughtful and biblically grounded analysis, which has meaningful impacts beyond the Asbury event. These reflections inform my analysis of less noticeable events on the other side of the country. I recently went to northern Nevada to examine the conditions for addressing another cultural question, with overlap to Christian communities. My interest was in the at-large community reinforcement of recovery from addiction among diverse Native American Tribes, and secondarily, the perspectives and practices of Christian churches in supporting those in recovery. While the at-large purpose has practical challenges, the role of the Church can stir up emotional and doctrinal questions about culture, as outlined in the essay. My analysis was influenced by “The Recovery-Minded Church” (Benz and Robb-Dover), which outlines practices of churches, given their cultural nuances. I visited two churches. The first, was led by a pastor who was in 30-years of recovery and he concentrated the entire mission of the church on those with similar experiences. Due to the rough drug-culture encounters that are required for such a community, they expressed a religiousness that was firm and deliberate–a cultural norm for their purposes. At the second church I met a volunteer leader who was newly inspired to minister to those in recovery, and she was preparing for the unknown challenges of addiction-affected lives. Both leaders are blessing to their respective communities, and to the Church. What was personally challenging to me was accepting the nuanced expressions of their respective cultural practices and tendencies, as congregations. As I watched the services and spoke with the leaders, I was considering how the congregation may be perceived by the visitor who has a unique cultural perspective–one that may be shaped by a Tribal background, or drug addiction experiences, or a history of challenging church experiences, such as shame, intimidation, or inauthentic attention. Would there be a culture shock, one that is a barrier to God’s love? I was reminded of God’s grace to each person, given that we are unique personalities, in seasons of change, and in various mindsets towards our reference for God and his influence over our thoughts and expressions towards others. During the second church visit, the pastor shared his recent experience visiting the Asbury community and how it inspired him and his wife. Because of his visit at Asbury, he sang the song by Community Music, “Make Room,” which has these inspiring lyrics: “Shake up the ground of all my tradition, break down the walls of all my religion.” These are lyrics about cultural awareness and the invitation to surrender to God’s will, as it is not only his will on earth, but also in congregational practices as they affect others. The authors of the Recovery-Minded Church note that God is always working, among all people, and he is calling us to step out and love our neighbor, who is likely different from ourselves. It is not that we have a benefit to offer others, but that God is gracefully welcoming us to learn from him, by seeing how he is shaping what truly matters most in his creation, his image bearers.

    • Brian Howell says:

      Thank you for sharing this beautiful example of the intersection of humanity and divinity in our lives. This is exactly the sort of thinking I hope becomes more normal in the church at large.

  • Gordon Moulden says:

    I wonder if it is best, spiritually, to judge any revival by the impact it has on the individuals involved, and the Christian community and even the society at large, in the long run. Do we see individuals and their families, churches, and Christian institutions living in obedience to Christ and doing works that are having a lasting kingdom impact? Are relationships being restored and growing stronger in the homes, churches, and Christian institutions to which they belong?Is all this having a salt and light effect on the people around them? If so, then the impact is real, regardless of how we want to label the event itself. If not, then those who do question the authenticity of the revival are justified in their assessment, not simply because of what happened there, but because it has had no lasting effect.

    • Brian Howell says:

      I see your point, but, for Christians, the “long run” really should be an eternal horizon. I would be hesitant, myself, to try to stand in terms of the “works that are having a lasting kingdom impact” that follow in the long term as being the criterion by which we evaluate something as a work of the spirit. It’s clear that many were moved and experienced grace in the context of this event at Asbury. How long must we wait and judge to determine its legitimacy? On how wide a scale? There is no doubt that for many this will be a memory of a sweet time in their college experience, and buoy their faith in God. Is that enough? What about those for whom the effects are more ephemeral? Was it not real for them?

  • Joseph 'Rocky' Wallace says:

    Dr. Howell: Thank you for reminding us to not “overthink” about what we too often assume has to be a certain sign of spiritual genuineness. Blessings to the folks at Asbury, and kudos to how well they handled this impacting event. The stirrings of the Holy Spirit are far too deep and intertwined with personal relationship with Christ for any bystander to interpret with a significant measure of validity.

    Rocky Wallace
    Campbellsville University

  • Jenell Paris says:

    Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote a sermon about having a tough mind and a tender heart, based on Jesus sending out his disciples to be as shrewd as serpents and as innocent as doves. It is important to think critically about religion, wondering what is legitimate and in what ways we might be manipulated or even abused. But we seem so much more eager to question legitimacy – reminds me of how we shop or engage politics — outsmarting those who may be using us for their own gain. Alongside this effort, we need to also cultivate open hearts and hands, and look inward for how we can cultivate a capacity to receive God’s presence in our daily lives, whether through ordinary or extraordinary means. Thank you, Brian, for this reflection.

    • Brian Howell says:

      Thanks, Jenell. Yes, I think MLK’s injunction is always a good one for academics to keep at the forefront.