Appalachia and the Holy Spirit: A Theopoetics of Pneumatology
The centrality of the dynamic and fluid movement of the Spirit in the context of Appalachian church life cannot be overstated. The Spirit is fundamentally, as Catherine Keller puts it, “about flow.” The Christian exploration of pneumatology, that is, the elaboration of a doctrine of the Spirit, is perhaps best begun, especially in the context of the Appalachian understanding, in the midst of the mysterious event of Pentecost, as narrated in the text of Luke-Acts.
In “a sound like the rush of violent wind,” the Spirit is spread out “on all flesh” in an ecstatic barrage of powerful, elemental metaphor of blowing wind and dancing flame and pouring waters. Language whips from burning tongues and all have understanding in the immanent mysticism of the moment. John Calvin, whose influence cannot be denied as a rooting of theological heritage throughout much of the Appalachian mountains, captures this elemental language well, drawing deeply on Isaiah’s water imagery, the enflaming of our hearts, streams of grace and anointing oils. Baptism here too begins to hold resonant weight. These are tactile moments. They are environmental, they are all-sensory. They are expressive in an embodied and material way. Gregory Nazianzen suggests powerfully a sort of cosmic entrenchment, “the Spirit indeed effects all these things, filling the universe with his being, sustaining the universe. His being ‘fills the world,’ his power is beyond the world’s capacity to contain it.” We are literally and lovingly engulfed; our whole reality overflows with Spirit!
It is of little wonder that such natural force of both grace and beauty translates itself into ecstatic and spontaneous bodily expression of the presence of this incredible and moving flow of divine creativity. Speaking in tongues, glossolalia, is the physical capturing of that rush of violent wind, that beautifully cathartic and healing flow that is mediated and dispersed through the community of faith in an exuberant dance with the frenetic embodiment of the divine love in the broken and beaten bodies of coal miners and factory workers, seamstresses and housewives, all trapped in the tragic midst of a dying economy, a dying environment, and a battered culture struck to the core by hunger and abuse and addiction and disease. The unrestrained tongues, “as of fire,” radiate trauma in collective space, in sacred space, so fear and pain are no longer liminal and hidden, but central and knit into the collective narrative of a suffering people. The ecstatic speech may not have comprehensibility, but it does have emotive power and it does draw the healing, empathetic embrace of community to it in transformative ways.
The Spirit exists in and through relationship, between every human, and between humanity and God. The ecstatic dance in the midst of community provides every occasion with its basic aim; this creative and affective activity is the source of the Spirit’s redeeming, sustaining and healing work. Calvin notes that “Christ came endowed with the Holy Spirit in a special way.” While process thought will interpret this in a different light than Calvin, as well as its end “to gather us into the hope of the eternal inheritance,” the notion plays well that Jesus indeed embodied a special connection with the divine that translates into creative and healing work in human history towards the full potentiality of creation. Eugene F. Rogers elaborates meaningfully, “the Spirit rests on material bodies in the economy because she rests on the Son.” This picks back up at the heart of Calvin, I think, when he writes, “so when we are drawn we are lifted up in mind and heart above understanding. For the soul, illumined by him, taken on a new keenness, as it were to contemplate the heavenly mysteries.”
Appalachians are lured by the Spirit, by God, into the joyous dance, lifted up above understanding, imbued with voice and song that rings without shame or containment, illumined into the keenness of a new moment, if only a fleeting one, in which they are loved, in which there is hope, in which the pains of the world are forgotten and the presence of the divine, both diffuse and penetrating, permeates each and every one with fullness and without ceasing.