Jack Levison, author and noted theologian, recently spoke with The Christian Post about his new book, Fresh Air: The Holy Spirit for an Inspired Life, sharing what he has gleaned in his 20 years of studying Scripture, and how he believes Christians can rediscover the true meaning and purpose of the Holy Spirit for their lives.
Fresh Air, published this month by Paraclete Press, comes alongside Levison’s more academic-oriented titles Filled with the Spirit (2009) and The Spirit in First-Century Judaism (1997). Levison’s newest title is aimed at a wider audience and has been lauded by scholars N.T. Wright, Eugene Peterson and Scot McKnight for its “spot on” and “accurate and unpretentious” presentation of the Holy Spirit and how he works in individuals and entire communities.
A transcript of Levison’s interview with The Christian Post is below.
CP: Comment briefly on the title, Fresh Air.
Levison: First of all, we had a great deal of difficulty coming up with a title. The “freshness” is based upon the reality that there is a lot in the book that is iconoclastic. There’s a lot in the book that’s groundbreaking. Even though it’s a popular book with a lot of personal stories. By now, I’ve spent 20 years studying the topic. I began in 1992 at a National Endowment for the Humanities seminar in New York at Yeshiva University. Although the book is popular and I hope winsome and welcoming to people, there’s a lot that’s fresh and new that you just won’t find in other books.
CP: How would you describe Fresh Air, and what’s the audience you have in mind?
Levison: The audience I have in mind is a reader who knows something about the Holy Spirit but who wants more, who wants more spiritual vitality, who wants more daily vibrancy. This is not a book about how to go to a church service and speak in tongues. This is a book about how to live a vital, active spirituality everyday. I think I wrote at one point: ‘I wanted to take the Holy Spirit from the mountain top to the grit of everyday life.’ When I asked my students this kind of question about the Holy Spirit, every one of them said ‘I always think of the Holy Spirit as something that happens to you when you’re in an exceptional circumstance’ – a Friday night at a camp meeting, a worship service. None of them thought about this so much on a daily level, so this book is my effort to give people a vital, daily, active spiritual life.
CP: You’re careful in the beginning of the book to explain how you’re using the term “spirit” as opposed to “Holy Spirit” – can you explain the distinctions between “spirit,” “Spirit of God” and “Holy Spirit”?
Levison: There’s no single phrase for referring to “spirit” in the Bible. In the Book of Judges, you’ll have the “Spirit of God” or the “Spirit of the Lord.” “Holy Spirit” tends to get used more in the New Testament. The word “Holy Spirit” occurs only two times in the Hebrew Bible, or Old Testament – in Psalm 51 and in Isaiah 63, and they get used in very different ways. In Psalm 51 it’s a spirit that’s in a human being; in Isaiah 63 it’s the Spirit that leads Israel in the wilderness into the promised lands, so two very different conceptions both refer to the Holy Spirit.
So in the Bible, there’s no single way of referring to the spirit. There could be Spirit of God as in Gen. 1; Spirit of the Lord as in the Book of Judges; Holy Spirit as in Psalm 51 and Isaiah 63, but understood very differently. So on and so forth, into the New Testament where you have the “Spirit of Jesus,” the “Holy Spirit,” the “spirit of holiness,” and then often just the “Spirit,” and in John’s Gospel the “Spirit of Truth” or the Paraclete.
So there’s no single way to refer to the spirit, so I tend to use “holy spirit” without capital letters to speak more generally.
The other question is this sort of general spirit, life force, versus holy spirit and that really comes out of my scholarship. I wrote a 500-page book called Filled With the Spirit and this was one of the major emphases of it that scholars have picked up on. Generally, because in English let’s say, we talk about the breath or the human spirit, we distinguish that from the Holy Spirit. And one of the things I’m really keen to do in this book is to say the spirit that God gives us at birth, is just as miraculous as the spirit God gives when we come to believe in Jesus or when we speak in tongues or when we’re baptized. I want to say that those are not separate spirits or disconnected. They are very much a part of the continuum of God’s inspiration. So for me, the human spirit in stories such as the story of Bezalel and the building of the tabernacle, or the story of Joseph or the story of Daniel – the spirit there is as miraculous as the spirit given at Pentecost. The spirit at birth is connected to the spirit given with faith.
This is part of the iconoclasm of the book. Though I try to do this winsomely with stories about my children and things, it’s really fairly – this was revolutionary for New Testament and Biblical scholarship when I published the first book. The Pentecostals have really engaged this especially. So it is iconoclastic and I understand that it pushes against biases or presuppositions. I get it, I want it to. That’s why it’s fresh.
CP: How do you help people get over that gap when you say the spirit-breath that’s in everyone is no different than the Holy Spirit that came at Pentecost?
Levison: I am saying that all people have God’s Spirit … but Christians can receive various forms of inspiration that supplement, enhance, move that spirit that’s in us, but also we’re given the Spirit – let’s say if you’re a Pentecostal, you believe you have another influx of the Spirit to speak in tongues. So, there is that. The chapter on Joel’s vision, Moses, Joel and then the Church in Acts, there the Holy Spirit is poured out on all flesh. That’s a separate inspiration from birth but it’s not a different spirit – that’s what I want to make clear: same spirit, different forms of inspiration. Just as the Spirit may give you insight at one point, the Spirit might give you energy at another; the spirit may calm you down at another. These are different inspirations, but one wouldn’t say they’re different spirits.
I’m really trying to connect to the everyday life that God gives to people in the presence of God’s miraculous live-giving spirit with the spirit of Pentecost or at baptism or speaking in tongues or something like that. I want people to see them on the same spectrum, not different.
I also believe that just because people have the spirit-breath in them, doesn’t mean they pay attention to the spirit-breath. So people with the spirit-breath are not necessarily virtuous, that requires discipline. That’s why the chapter on Daniel is so important. There are disciplines we put in place in order to attend to the miracle of the spirit-breath that’s in each and every human being. Many Christians don’t pay attention to that, and many people who aren’t Christians don’t pay attention – you don’t need to look far to see that if even if we all have the spirit-breath, some pay attention to it, some discipline themselves, some live with a focus on that spirit-breath, others choose not to. I need to make that clear, too, this is not just a blatant carte-blanche universalism. This is really an appeal to virtue and discipline, carefulness in our spirituality.
CP: That touches on the three “routines” that you mention: routine awakening, routine listening and routine maintenance. Can you speak on that a little bit?
Levison: First off all, I am actor, I am a doer, I am a producer. I work, I love to work. … But what this does is it suggests that you get up and you immediately listen. You immediately quiet yourself to hear God prompting you. I was teaching my first introduction to Bible class just yesterday and I began with what’s called lectio divina, where I read the same biblical text three times. The first time, I have a candle on, I put music on, and the students walk into a quiet classroom. Yesterday I read Proverbs 9:1-6. The first time they listen for a word that strikes them. The second time for an emotion they feel. And the third time for an invitation they feel God may be extending to them. Trying to practice, not producing, but listening. So the first thing you do is let God awaken you, and then you listen and then you listen especially – I do think many Christians with the Holy Spirit love to give advice. They think they have an insight that someone needs to hear. But we listen for a word of encouragement. So we let God wake us up, then we listen, rather than doing and writing and saying and thinking and emailing and texting. We listen and then, what do we listen for? Something that will encourage people around us that day. I think we’d be a really great Church if we followed those three steps a better world, if we followed those three steps: being awakened, listening, listening for a word of encouragement, not advice.
CP: That leads to chapter six, where you discuss the Antioch community. You suggest that this is the model Christian communities today need to follow.
Levison: Eugene Peterson has written against this idea of the powerful pastor – we need to get a pastor who will draw people in, who’s a great speaker. One of the first things I think that’s so important in Antioch is this multicultural leadership team. We all want to be in mission, but very often we have a white male pastor. We all want to be in mission. Antioch was ready for mission because of a multicultural leadership. Antioch was ready for mission, ready for a revelation of the word of God, because they were generous. They’d already given money before they even knew what the famine would entail, they had given money to the church in Jerusalem. Antioch was learned. They spent a year at the feet of Paul and Barnabas. So everyone was in place for a revelation of the word of God. This is what I think: I think there are no shortcuts to spirituality. There are no shortcuts to a vibrant church. This church was generous, learned and so responsive – responsive to the word of a prophet. And then what were they doing when they received that word? They were praying, worshiping and fasting.
Rather than all of these quick-fix ways of making the church grow, building our outreach – five steps to a vibrant church, I think there are long-term disciplines we put in place: learning, generosity, worship, fasting, prayer, with a diverse leadership team. I think this is the model for our diverse world. In Manhattan, you ride a subway car and it’s ethnically diverse. So often you go to the church and it’s more monolithic. I think these characteristics are the model. If you ask me, I would say these are the characteristics of the 21st century Church, of how we become salt and light in our world. No shortcuts, these are long-term endeavors. You’re not hiring someone to do mission. You’re not hiring a great preacher. You’re building in disciplines and diversity from the ground up. I do think this is exactly the model we need for the 21st century Church.
CP: In chapter 7 and also earlier in the book, you use Jesus’ baptism and immediate wilderness experience to comment on the Spirit’s behavior or function. You write on page 174: “The gentleness of a dove following Jesus’ baptism has been left in the dust by the violent force of the spirit.” How can Christians today grasp this reality, this kind of dual nature to the spirit experience?
Levison: Yesterday, I start class in my intro with the Book of Jonah where everybody thinks it’s about the whale or the fish. Then we read children’s Bibles and all of them end with chapter 3, with everything fixed up: Jonah went to Nineveh and everything worked. None of the children’s Bibles used chapter 4 where he’s sitting under the tree moaning and groaning that he’s hot, and really really bothered at God that Nineveh is going to get saved. Politically and personally in chapter 4, we see, I think, a mirror of ourselves. Sort of we want more of a Disney theology that ends very positively on a high note. We want things wrapped up nicely, and we want personal comfort and political security. Now, I don’t know in North America how to change that. I mean if you look at books on the Holy Spirit, they’re all about being fulfilled and being uplifted and being joyful and living in a victorious life. But, is it not possible that the victorious life comes when we’re in hostile arenas? It may not be that worship service, it may not be that great sermon. It may be being in the trenches, being uncomfortable, hungry, alone, but very much doing God’s bidding.
How we do this, I don’t know. The first thing we do is we read our Bibles. And when we read our Bibles, in the earliest Gospel, the Gospel of Mark, in the earliest chapter of the earliest Gospel, the Gospel of Mark, it’s very clear that the verb, after the Spirit descends, the verb used for pushing Jesus away is the same verb used for exorcisms and kicking the money changers out of the temple. So it will probably not be a comfortable transition to this second side of the Holy Spirit. When the Spirit comes down Jesus is uplifted, he does regain intimacy with God. But then after he has that intimacy and uplift, he’s expelled, exorcised into the wilderness. And I think that has to be the work of the Holy Spirit and our ability to respond to the Holy Spirit as the Spirit pushes us into hostile arenas. So again, I think if we’re listening, and learning and quieter and disciplined, it may be possible that we’ll hear the Holy Spirit moving us into hostile arenas. I think as long as we’re distracted and active and productive, we may not have the capacity to hear the Spirit move us, expel us into hostile arenas. I have no quick-fix answer to that. I’m very much apart of American culture in that respect.
CP: You close out the book by commenting on two polar ideas of the Holy Spirits’ activity or presence using a dead example of a church meeting versus a very lively example. You express the concern that there are two Christianities and that you would like the Church to go forward as one. You spoke about the issue of survival – express your concerns on that.
Levison: Maybe why I’m so careful to connect the spirit of God within us that we cultivate with the Spirit that comes upon us, because I think there may be a tendency in our world to want the Spirit to come upon us and change things in the blink of an eye, sort of the quick-fix transformation. The Spirit is the one that makes me love people – yes, that’s true because God has given all of us a spirit, which when we cultivate it, leads us to love people. So I think [with the] spontaneity one can often exclude the daily disciplines and the hard work of being spiritual. On the one hand, I worry that this emphasis on spontaneity de-emphasizes discipline. On the other hand, I also worry that there are going to be two churches. I mean how many years now, in what 10 years, there’ll be a billion Pentecostals worldwide? I’m a United Methodist, my church is dwindling. So what’s going to happen?
When I studied, and this again came out of my scholarly study of the New Testament, I noticed especially in the Book of Acts, the Spirit was very present when people were studying and then speaking out of Scripture. The Holy Spirit comes upon Peter in chapter 4 of the Book of Acts, he’s filled with the spirit and what does he do? He quotes from Psalm 118 verse 22. When he’s filled with the Spirit, he’s filled with Scripture. The same thing is in John’s Gospel, where the work of the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of Truth, is to lead people to understand Jesus by leading them back into the Old Testament. It happens twice in the Gospel of John, where the disciples who didn’t understand things during Jesus’ life, looked back at the event or the saying in light of the Old Testament and come to an understanding. That’s the work of the Spirit. I think the Spirit principally takes us to Jesus in light of the Jewish Bible, or the Old Testament. So I’d like to see a Church much more serious about learning who Jesus is through the New Testament, in light of the Old Testament’s illumination on the New.
I really believe that if we study together and earnestly desire not to learn about predestination, not to learn about speaking in tongues, not to learn so much about the right baptism, but to learn about Jesus Christ as he lived on the earth, with the illumination of the Holy Spirit and study of the Old Testament, that perhaps we can get underneath all of these divides, all of these tensions toward schism, and live an inspired life and be an inspired Church.
At the end of the interview, Levison was invited to share any parting thoughts, to which he responded:
“I think if we live simply and live for the long haul, attend to the spirit God already has given us and continue to desire more of that spirit, more fullness, more vitality in that spirit, we can be individuals and a Church that are inspired. Then we don’t have to tell people we have the Holy Spirit. Like in the Book of Daniel, or the story of Joseph, they’ll us. They’ll say, ‘These people have something. These people live an inspired life. That’s an inspired church.’ And won’t it be great when we don’t have to tell the world so much what we have, but when the world can tell us what we as Christians have? That will be a good day.”
The author, also known as John R. Levison, is a Professor of New Testament at Seattle Pacific University and has studied at Wheaton College, Cambridge University, and Duke University. He lives with his wife near Seattle. Fresh Air: The Holy Spirit for an Inspired Life is available online and in stores.
To read the article from within ‘The Christian Post’ click here.