Book Review of Fresh Air: Some Great Insights, but Misses the Mark

Hello, church. I wanted to post a review of Levison’s book, Fresh Air on the blog. I believe this book is providing us with a wonderful opportunity to glean the good insights about the Holy Spirit from a book that is far from perfect. I thought this book review might provide an example of doing just that. 

As we continue in our groups, Levison is going to make a lot of great points that I’m looking forward to unpacking with you guys. We’ll see you all at the neighborhood groups! Here’s the review:

Review of Fresh Air,by Jack Levison

Jack Levison’s Fresh Air is, in his own words, an invitation to “discover unexpected and rich ways of experiencing the holy spirit” (8). The book looks at several biblical references to God’s Spirit and attempts to glean principles that will lead people to a more dynamic relationship with the Holy Spirit.

 In the introduction, Levison makes promises to challenge the reader’s understanding of the Holy Spirit. There are several beliefs that Levison believes will ‘shake up’ readers including the “the belief that God’s spirit is in every human being and not just Christians… the activity of the spirit in whole societies… the presence of the holy spirit in a community rather than just individuals… (and) the holy spirit is not always friendly.” (8-9). He also warns his readers that they’ll be asked to “embrace alternative experiences of the holy spirit” (9). Levison follows through on each of these promises. All of these topics are covered at length in his book and many of the topics are dealt with in a way that shows great insight.

One of the areas where Levison shows great insight is his discussion of the Holy Spirit being active in communities rather than only active in individuals. He clearly articulates a common misconception in the church about the Holy Spirit when he says, “Growing up, I heard time and again that my body was the temple of the Holy Spirit” (123).  As he aptly points out, it is the community, not the individual that is the temple of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit’s work isn’t to make millions of individual temples, but one temple out of all of us. He also offers a very helpful corrective when he talks about the Spirit not always being friendly. He gives a great description of Mark’s account of the Spirit leading Jesus to the wilderness to be tempted after his baptism linked with the words of Jesus recorded by Mark about the Spirit being a gift that will prepare believers for persecution and martyrdom.

Perhaps the most valuable contribution Levison makes is his challenge for readers to be willing to learn from people who experience the Holy Spirit differently. He is right to see a sharp, unnecessary divide in much of Christianity over “whether we think the spirit appears in the spectacular or in a steady, predictable life” (195). As he points out, these groups have much to learn from each other and this disunity is to our shame.

Even with these contributions, I cannot say that this book offers a fully Christian perspective on the Holy Spirit. Levison argues that the Holy Spirit is present in all people without ever distinguishing how that presence is different in believers and non-believers. Levison never gives a good reason to accept this claim. Instead, he relies solely on the fact that ruach, the Hebrew word for spirit, has a large field of meaning. Throughout chapters one and two, Levison identifies the word ruach with the Holy Spirit that the Church receives at Pentecost. Levison recognizes in his introduction that the Greek and Hebrew words for spirit have a “remarkable range of meanings” (14), but he never explains why I should accept his interpretation and see the Holy Spirit at work in passages when other interpreters, almost without exception, don’t make the same point he does. He never even attempts to do this, unless the fact that a Jewish, Egyptian philosopher thought God breathed the potential for virtue into all people qualifies as an explanation for adopting his field of meaning (45-46).

If that leap from the history of Christian interpretation without a shred of justification weren’t enough, Levison never deals with the texts that make his conclusion—that all people have the Holy Spirit—impossible. Although he does a great job dealing with the Holy Spirit coming upon Peter and the apostles, the Spirit coming upon Cornelius, and the Spirit coming upon the disciples in Acts 19 in the context of speaking in tongues and church unity, he never deals with the tension these texts create for someone who just said the Holy Spirit is in all people. The problem with the believers in Acts 19 was not only that they had not “heard of the holy spirit” ( 193), but that they hadn’t received the Holy Spirit (Acts  19:2). When Cornelius speaks in tongues, the clear purpose was to demonstrate that he had received the Holy Spirit. That is why Peter says, “Can anyone withhold water for baptizing these people, who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?” (Acts 10:47).  Most remarkably, Jesus’ words to his disciples in John 14:17 are completely absent from the book, where he calls the Spirit one whom, “The world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him.”

What does Levison mean when he says all people have the Spirit? How is the Spirit’s presence in believers’ lives different from His presence in unbelievers who cannot receive Him because they don’t know Him? Why would Jesus have instructed his disciples to wait in Jerusalem until they received the Holy Spirit from on high? How is that presence different from the presence that was there before in their lives,”the spirit-breath of God, given at birth as a lifelong source of wisdom” (51), according to Levison? The reader searches in vain for the answers to these important questions.

I was fully expecting Levison to distinguish the presence of the Holy Spirit in the lives of unbelievers from the lives of believers, as every respected Christian theologian has done, and I was left disappointed.  I expected him to say that the work of the Spirit in all people was to animate life, but that he is present in a special way to those who put their faith in him.

As much as I share Levison’s desire for a ‘world without borders’ the Scriptures do leave us with one clear division: Those who trust Jesus and those who reject him.  Although I appreciated some of the wonderful insights God has given Levison and believe that reading the book was valuable because of those insights, his complete neglect of the remarkable difference the Scriptures articulate between the time before Pentecost and after and between believers who have the Holy Spirit, and the people of the world who cannot receive Him cannot be excused.

-Pastor James

Christ's Church