The topic that I’m writing about today is a difficult one for me, for a couple of reasons. First, it’s difficult for me to explain a subject like folk religion in one short blog. Second, I have been exposed to folk religion, and folk Christianity to be more exact, for most of my life (pre- and post- conversion), so I’ve experienced it firsthand, and know many who knowingly or unknowingly embrace and practice it.
I am thankful for Roger E. Olson’s blog on folk Christianity which helped me order my thoughts on the issue. Nailing down what is and what is not folk Christianity is no easy task! I will be using Olson’s main points as a guide and explaining them from my perspective, and hopefully a biblical perspective.
What is folk Christianity?
First, we need to ask “What is folk religion?” Folk religion is hard to define, but my definition of folk religion would be: “Ascribing power and authority to phenomena, magic, rituals, paraphernalia, sayings, and traditions which have no representation in the religion’s canon.” In other words, when religious thought and practice develops outside the religion’s “official” doctrine, or teaching.
As for folk Christianity, it can be described as “Christianity defined in cultural terms without reference to theology and history.” In other words, folk Christianity allows culture to define it instead of the Bible. Like general folk religion, this form of Christianity makes the claim that the Bible is its source of faith and practice, but it supplements (and often supplants) the Bible with beliefs and practices not found in the Scriptures. Extra-biblical legends (“evangelegends”), stories, myths, visions, sayings, and other forms of spirituality are held on par with Scripture, and passed around until they become accepted as truth. In some cases, pagan and false religious beliefs and practices are fused with Christianity.
An example would be when I was a young boy I remember someone in my family, who claimed to be an evangelical Christian, telling me that the Bible says the “mark of Cain” (Genesis 4:15) is a curse on black people, symbolized by the color of their skin. I accepted this as fact, partly because I believed and trusted the person who told, and partly because I head the claim repeated by others who were Christians. Later on, I found out belief is actually Mormom doctrine, and has no biblical basis at all, yet it had somehow found its way into the beliefs of a so-called Christians. It had become folk Christianity.
Similarly, I was once invited to go and listen to a well-known denominational evangelist. I was invited because it was claimed that when he preached, as he would walk around, steam (or smoke) would emanate from the place his feet had been. Never mind this had no biblical basis, nor did it advance the gospel, nor did anyone ever explain to me why smoke rising from where a preacher stood would have to do with anything at all! Yet, because of this legend (I personally never saw it verified), people thronged to the evangelist to see God “working in a mighty way.”
It reminds me of Paul’s warning to Timothy:
“Have nothing to do with godless myths and old wives’ tales” (1 Timothy 4:7).
What are some tenets of folk Christianity?
How can we recognize folk Christianity and how does it manifest itself in the modern age?
1. It is emotions or feelings based. Would you allow yourself to be diagnosed by a doctor who told you, “I feel like you have cancer?” Would you entrust your life’s savings to someone who told you “I have a strong urging that you should donate your bank account to this new, yet unsecured, business venture I’m starting?” Worse yet, would you marry someone who said to you, “Last night I had a vivid dream that you are to be my husband/wife?” The answer would be a resounding “No!”
Yet, we often allow ourselves to be led by the feelings and emotions of others, as well as our own. We permit dreams, “revelations,” impressions, and feelings to guide us. How many times have you based your relationship with God, and your understanding and obedience to his will on feelings, or on the feelings of others? How often has someone said something like “I know it was of God because of how it made me feel!”
Understand, we are humans with emotions and feelings. They are God-given. However, there is not even the slightest hint in Scripture which teaches that we define, determine, or obey God’s will based on feelings or emotions.
We often counsel people to follow their heart in spiritual matters. Scripture actually teaches the opposite: “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?” (Jeremiah 17:9). One of the hallmarks of folk Christianity is it’s emphasis on making spiritual decisions and determinations based on feelings and emotions.
Which leads us to the next point…
2. It is unreflective (particularly critically unreflective). When another person approaches us and says, “God told me…,” we rarely give pause to critically process and assess what’s being said. We immediately start searching for something which gives validity to what the other person told us, or worse yet, we blindly accept it. The Bible is very clear that we are to “Test all things. Hold onto what is good. Avoid everything that is evil” (1 Thessalonians 5:21-22). The Bible also exhorts Christians: “Do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God” (1 John 4:1).
Folk Christianity does not critically evaluate beliefs and practices based on Scripture, rather, it tends to take offense to doing so. It needs to be made clear that if you “feel” like God has told you something (either for yourself or for others), fwllow Christians have the right, indeed the responsibility, to critically examine what you’ve communicated.
Unfortunately, we often blindly accept the will of pastors, church leaders, or respected friends without filtering it through Scripture, the Holy Spirit, prayer, and wise counsel. We should take time to reflect on the biblical fidelity, motive(s), and ultimate outcome of all our beliefs and practices.
3. It is clichéd. A cliché is a word or phrase that loses its meaning with overuse. A cliché may or may not be a lie. Clichés can be an outright untruth accepted as truth (“The Bible says all the seasons will be indistinguishable in the Last Days”), a truth misinterpreted and misapplied so often that it becomes accepted as truth (“Jesus is knocking on the door of your heart”), or a truth that is simply overused so as to lose its meaning (“God is in control”).
In folk Christianity, clichés are a very common part of the landscape, as they are in general culture: “Missed you at church,” “You need to get saved,” “How are you doing today?” etc. There is nothing wrong with any of these phrases. None are meant to be hurtful or untruthful. But, because they’re so commonly overused, they lose their meaning. Do people really miss you when you’re not at church, or is it they simply notice you weren’t there? Possibly, it is the only thing we know how to say. What does “get saved” mean these days? It could mean a hundred different things depending on who you ask. Does it mean you repeated a prayer, you had an emotional experience, you signed a card, you got baptized? How am I doing today? Do you really want to know? Do you really want to know about how I got fired, my wife is divorcing me, or that I’m contemplating suicide?
Another way clichés are prevalent in folk Christianity is when the Scriptures, God, Jesus, the Spirit, etc. are plastered all over merchandise such as t-shirts, Facebook “Like” graphics, bumper stickers, and desk plaques. The silver fish on the car. The cross around the neck. The Jesus pictures on the wall. Each of these are intended to let the world know “I’m a Christian!” But with overuse and frivolous use, they most likely scream “I’m cliched!”
There is the tendency among us to make God so common and his mighty deeds so frivilous that we lose sight of his majesty, “otherness,” and glory. Even Satan is reduced to a red horned imp who’s more like a gremlin than the adversary of our soul whose singular goal is to kill us, and use our sin to lessen God’s glory.
I could easily continue to write about all the overused lies and truth we use in folk Christianity, but I’m getting depressed thinking about it!
4. It replaces Scripture. Do you know those Christians who glean everything they know about God from devotionals, television preachers, conferences, and podcasts? I’ve known people who read three different devotionals per day: morning, noon, and night! Their spiritual depth is based on an out-of-context Bible verse, followed by the author’s inspirational and pithy thoughts on said out-of-context verse. Likewise, I’ve known Christians who attend the latest conference more faithfully than their local church. (See Mark Dricoll’s thoughts on this issue here.)
Like most things in this blog, conferences, devotionals, worship Cd’s, etc. are not necessarily harmful in and of themselves. They have their place, but often they replace important things God said about spending considerable time reading/studying/being changed by his Word:
“But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it and how from childhood you have been acquainted with the sacred writings, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be competent, equipped for every good work.
All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be competent, equipped for every good work” (2 Timothy 3:14-17).
I love a good conference that allows me to enjoy fellowship, hear exemplary speakers, and worship with brethren I’d might not otherwise meet, but this is no substitute for getting into the Word with just me and God, serving in my local church, and using excellent and reliable study aids (commentaries, music, etc) to assist me in maturity.
Unfortunately, folk Christians look to “Christian celebrity” teachers, books, devotionals, and blogs exclusively for instruction and doctrine. It troubles me that Christians are building their doctrine on such key issues such as the deity of Christ, the sovereignty of God, and the afterlife on one minute devotionals, 30-minute sermons, and oft-slanted, poorly researched, and opinionated blogs.
Worse yet, they pass this “wisdom” on to their children and other Christians.
The problem with folk Christianity in this area is that it too often replaces the Bible, and the Bible doctrine, with quick and easy substitutes that are light on truth and doctrine.
5. It loves myths, legends, and unverifiable stories. Recently, I was made aware of a book that came out that caused quite a sensation among Christians (and even non-Christians). The book was about a little boy who was declared medically dead. After dying, he purportedly went to heaven and met Jesus. When he came back, he shared what he’d learned from Jesus with his parents. His father in turn wrote a best-selling book based on his young son’s experiences. (Tim Challies wrote an excellent review here.)
This book, and many others like it, illustrates folk Christianity’s seeming obsession with unverifiable stories which should, we’re told, help increase our faith. I did not read the book, but after raising concerns to another Christian who’d asked my opinion, she became angry and chastized me that “Maybe God is using this book to show others what Heaven’s really like!” In the little boy’s story, we are merely expected to take a pre-school child’s word for it. We are cold and inhumane to question him, his situation, his motives (or his father’s), the validity of near-death experiences, or to test the truthfulness of his claims against Scripture.
Surely no one would write a book if it contained made up stories and fantasies, would they?
It doesn’t stop there. Weekly in pulpits across America, pastors preach sermons to their congregations that are filled with legends and myths. Ever heard the one about the camel going through the gate in Jerusalem called the Needle’s Eye? It’s not true. Have you ever been enthralled when the pastor teaches about about how the high priest had a rope tied to his leg when he entered the holy of holies, and if he had unconfessed sin, God would smite him and the rope would be used to drag his dead body through the veil and back into the courtyard? It’s not true.
Yet, these and other “Christian myths” are believed, communicated, and spread from one person to another, one family to another, one church to another. Lies essentially become truth.
Like the story of the evangelist I shared at the outset of this blog, we should be responsible Christians, not folk Christians. We cannot be “infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of men in their deceitful scheming” (Ephesians 4:14), nor can we be “carried away by all kinds of strange teachings” (Hebrews 13:9).
Folk Christianity presents an unholy marriage that has a “form of godliness but denying its power” (2 Timothy 3:5). It is a dangerous doppleganger to authentic Scriptural orthodoxy and orthopraxy. Folk Christianity does not exalt Jesus, does not point others to Christ, and does not accurately communicate God’s truth.
I understand that we will develop certain habits and traditions based on our culture, along with other factors. But, it is imperative that we as Christians hold every thought, every desire, every belief up against the truth and light of Scripture.
Painful yes, but always necessary.
Roger Upton, 2012.