Thursday, October 19, 2006

The curse of Folk Theology

I almost entitled this post "Surviving the Church", but that wouldn't have been entirely accurate. I also thought about entitling it "Christianity for Grown-ups", but that's a title I want to save for another time.

Over the past 6 years, and especially over the past year, I've felt more and more strongly about getting people to actually think about their Christian lives. To actually think through what they believe and why. To be honest with themselves about how silly sounding some of our sayings as Christians are. To be more thoughtful and reflective about things like Love, and Forgiveness, and Grace. When things get confusing or tough I want people to not throw up their hands and say "The Bible says it, so it must be true", and instead say "What exactly is the Bible saying here? Somehow, this has to make sense."

So, over the past year I've been trying things in my church to get people started. To put it mildly, it hasn't gone too well. And, quite frankly, I feel pretty beat up about it.

The problem is something I (and others) call Folk Theology. Folk theology is the kind of theology practiced by people who think that 'real' theology is anti-spiritual, that theology muddies the clear water of Christian truth, that it is a purely philosophical pusuit that has nothing to do with reality. Folk theology is what happens when people reject loving God with their minds, and instead blindly believe because they think that's what faith is. Folk theology is what happens when people love their stories about Christianity more than they love God.

Here's an example. Last week, I was talking to a group of Christians about some stuff, and as part of this conversation, I gave an example of something that Christians frequently believe, but that isn't in the Bible. They didn't believe me, so we looked at scripture, and I walked them through the issue. At the end, of of them said, "Yeah, yeah, but my old way of thinking about it COULD be true, right? Well, there you go."

This is the curse of Folk Theology. Instead of having scripture form how we should think about a certain thing, those who practice Folk Theology let how they think about things form scripture. And when that happens, people can find justification for everything. They can find justification for slavery, for domestic abuse, for the lower status of women, for hate and anger under the guise of "justice". If people chose their own stories and THEN go to Christian scripture, they can find anything they want. The Bible COULD be saying anything. (But it isn't.)

The curse of Folk Theology goes deeper, though. It's one thing to be caught in the curse of Folk Theology and not know it. That's the fault of the teachers, pastors, and leaders within the church. It's quite another thing to have the error of your Folk Theology pointed out to you, and to choose it anyway. When that happens, people are choosing to believe whatever they want. They're not choosing to follow the story of God's activity through human history, they're instead choosing a story of their own and calling it Christianity. And when they cling to these so-called "Christian" stories, even though they're wrong, they're showing that they love their stories about Christianity more than they love God's story about humanity.

Whatever happened to the scriptural encouragement to love God with all of your mind?
Whatever happened to the proverb, "As iron sharpens iron, so one man sharpens another"?
Whatever happend to "Come, let us reason together"?
Whatever happened to the Christian intuition that we should do everything for the glory of God?
Where are the people who pant for God the same way the deer pants for water?

My fear, week after week, is that there is no one like this in our churches anymore - that they've all drown under the sea of Folk Theology.


lorri said...

i like what you are saying here, you always make me think. i know that i have said that this is the way some things are because it is what i grew up hearing. but, sometimes it is just a "good" thing to do, but it isn't biblical fact.

Chris Hill said...

I linked to your blog from Brett's. What was the issue you walked them through? I'm curious.

Amy said...

You know how to put into words the stuff that goes on in my head, Ben.

eo said...

Because a significant premise of Christianity is belittleing the self: you are nothing, all you do is bad, only God is good. From there, you can take someone pretty much anywhere. For instance, you can say, "this is truth, but you need this..." or "I can see you better than you can." These are the same ideas we discuss in my architectureal design class, believe it or not, and the same concept I spent studying in Anthropology for 4 years. If I could conclude it all in a few sentences, it would be this: There is truth in each id, each emic perpsective that the etic will always try to undermine (slavery, colonialism, religion..); change must always come from within. I do not substribe to post-modern relativity but cannot denies Einstein's relativity, right? And, the bible meant to start with the verse, "For there is nothing better for man than to eat, drink, and be happy..." Genesis got put out of order..

Benjamin said...

Good comments. It it better blogging practice to break my reply to each person into it's own comment, or is it kosher to lump them together? I'm not sure.

I agree that some things are just a good idea even though they're not Biblical fact. It seems to me, though, that most of those things have to do with HOW to do church, not WHAT you do in church. Do you agree? When you get to the 'what' is where I start to have problems.

What I brought up the conversation is that the Bible never calls Satan a fallen angel. People think it is scriptural, but in fact we don't (biblically) know what Satan is. This issue has become my poster child for Christians loving their stories more than they should.

Seems like we're in the same place. I just read your most recent post, and I'll probably put up a comment over there.

I think you've said something like this to me before. I'm not convinced. (And, respecfully, your last two sentences didn't make any sense.) I think the problem starts with the etic function evangelical Christianity has assumed. I don't believe Christianity considers itself anthropologically depraved. (They might say it, but they don't think it.) Rather, they find themselves so emically and epistemically superior to contemporary anthropology that they are beyond reflective thought. Hence the resistence to the abiguous and "depraved" relfection of theology. And, if I understood your last sentence correctly, Genesis only got it out of order if one considers themselves etically (and epistemicially, and ontologically!) superior to Hebrew thought - which is a bit of a stretch. Epistemic integration is why contemporary theology has worked so hard at introducing "the return to relationality" into Christian anthropology. (See "Reforming Theological Anthropology: After the Philosophical Turn to Relationality") I believe they're doing a good job of integration at an epistemic/ontological level. Ulitmately, I hope the work done in this area will drag evangelicals into a more proper emic balance.

Amy said...

wow, okay eo and your comment back are SOOOO over my head.

Benjamin said...

You're right, I should clarify that conversation.

We're just using philosophical jargon to discuss whether or not Christians don't want to think because they have been opressed into believing their thoughts are wrong and dangerous(EO's position), or if Christians don't want to think because they arrogantly believe they already know all that is needed (my position).

Both positions are a bit of an overstatement, but I find that most Christians believe they already have the truth, rather than they need the truth. Why should Christians continue thinking about stuff if they already have all the truth they need?

Amy said...

AHA! That's exactly it. People think they learned all they need to know "growing up" in church, and now there is no need to THINK anymore. Therein lies the problem, laziness and arrogance.

Amy said...

Ben, no one gets what I'm saying. Should I just shut up?

Benjamin said...

Wow, Amy! I felt like that comment came out of nowhere.

I certainly feel like I get what you're saying. (Have a led you to believe otherwise?)

Are you talking about the stuff on my blog, or on yours?

Amy said...

Sorry, mine. I just didn't know how to tell you that other than comment on your blog. I feel you like you get it, and Jessica, but other than that I think they all think I'm a heretic. Oh well!

Benjamin said...

We really should write a book called "Late Nights at the Holiday Inn Express: Three Heretic's guide to Christian Spirituality"

With the volumes it would sell, we'd never have to work again.


(Oh, I sent you an email. Is your email address still For some reason, I think it's changed. I'll check with Alethia.)

Jessica said...

maybe we could get someone to sponsor us as we traveled around to visit churches all over the u.s. and stayed at holiday inn expresses every night. then, we wouldn't have to work, we could converse and solve all the world's church problems, and then write a book about it.

oh publishing house would like the results of our book, so that wouldn't work. maybe there's some heretical publishing company that would. we should check into this.

Cara (Hanchey) Von Tress said...

Benjamin! I am not here to comment on this post (though it is certainly worthy), but just to say hi! I have been too busy bringing children into the world and taking care of them over the last 5 years to be aware of this blog phenomenon. E-mail me at when you get a chance!

Stacy said...

are you still coming to town for thanksgiving? or was it christmas?

Aubvious said...

I assume you've studied the following verses in response to the whole Satan/Angel thing. I'd love to hear your take on what these verses mean? Most commentaries project the king of Tyre as the king of the Earth, Satan.

Ezekiel 28
11 The word of the Lord came to me: 12 "Son of man, take up a lament concerning the king of Tyre and say to him: 'This is what the Sovereign Lord says: "'You were the model of perfection, full of wisdom and perfect in beauty. 13 You were in Eden, the garden of God; every precious stone adorned you: ruby, topaz and emerald, chrysolite, onyx and jasper, sapphire, turquoise and beryl. Your settings and mountings were made of gold; on the day you were created they were prepared. 14 You were anointed as a guardian cherub, for so I ordained you. You were on the holy mount of God; you walked among the fiery stones. 15 You were blameless in your ways from the day you were created till wickedness was found in you. 16 Through your widespread trade you were filled with violence, and you sinned. So I drove you in disgrace from the mount of God, and I expelled you, O guardian cherub, from among the fiery stones.

1) Is this Satan/Lucifer?
2) Is a cherub not an angel?

I do get you're point about people believing stories (people's favorite verse being "God helps those who help themselves.") But I actually think this one is scriptural. I will leave the option of being wrong open, though.

Aubvious said...

actually, I've hit more commentaries since I posted that. Alot of them actually attribute the verses to the king of Tyre as speaking to mankind as a whole. The guardian thing being our governance over the earth. Intresting.

Benjamin said...

Good job on hitting more commentaries. Through some work in Seminary, I actually did the translation and research on my own, reached the conclusion that the passage is talking about the King of Tyre, and THEN went to the commentaries. I was pleased when they agreed with me.:-)

On another note, here are some other passages to keep in view. I'm not going to claim to be an expert on this topic, but I've done a little homework on it.

Revelation 12:7-13
Isaiah 14:12-17 (If I recall, this passage is the only place in the Bible where the word "lucifier" is used - and only in the KJV.)
Ezekiel 28:11-19
Luke 10:17-24
Job 1

People often think I'm saying that Satan doesn't exist, which isn't what I'm trying to sell at all, since the Bible seems to indicate Satan is a real force at work in creation. It is the nature of that force I'm trying to get people to think about.

Well, that, among other things.