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.
- (Photo: Johnrlevison.com)
- (Photo: The Christian Post/Nicola Menzie)
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.