Understanding Folk Religion | Book Review

Many people who convert to Christianity nevertheless continue to believe and practice elements of the religions from which they have deconverted. The authors of Understanding Folk Religion describe the result as “two-tier” or “split-level” Christianity (15). Their book explains why the split persists despite the teaching of missionaries and church leaders, and how to move split-level Christians toward a more integral faith and practice.

The argument of Understanding Folk Religion unfolds in four sections. In the first section, the authors outline a four-step process called “critical contextualization” (21), which helps missionaries and church leaders understand why converts continue to practice their old religious ways and how to minister effectively to them given those reasons. The four steps are (1) “phenomenological analysis,” (2) “ontological critique,” (3) “critical evaluation,” and (4) “missiological transformation” or “transformative ministries” (21–29). 

The authors also develop a model for understanding religion that incorporates organic and mechanical “root metaphors” (45–47) and a three-tiered “scale of transcendence” (47–48) to help readers “compare and contrast different types of belief systems” (45). The three tiers are “this world—seen,” “this world—unseen,” and “other worlds—unseen” (47–48). Folk religion pertains to the unseen—i.e., non-empirical—aspects of this world, the tier where supernatural beings (organic root metaphor) and forces (mechanical root metaphor) impact peoples’ lives in the present.

The reason why Christian converts continue to practice old religious ways alongside their new faith is because missionaries and church leaders have not demonstrated the applicability of the new faith to the existential concerns the old ways address. Section two describes four concerns in particular: “the meaning of life and death” (chapter 5), “human well-being and misfortune” (chapter 6), “guidance and the unknown” (chapter 7), and “right and wrong.” Section three describes how folk-religious practices and organizational structures both express and reinforce folk-religious beliefs.

Sections two and three constitute a phenomenological analysis of folk religion, the first step in the authors’ four-step process, and the one that missionaries and church leaders typically spend little time performing. Section four runs quickly through the remaining steps in the process, which usually garner missionaries’ and church leaders’ greatest attention. Throughout, the authors’ intention has been practical. Their central argument is that “understanding the religious manifestations of the folk (common people in any socioreligious context) can itself be a means to lead appropriate ministry meeting people’s felt needs and issues” (392).

Several points of both affirmation and critique are worth making. 

First, affirmation: Though the authors draw most of their examples from folk religions outside the U.S.—which reflects their ministry experience as foreign missionaries and academic training as anthropologists and missiologists—both their critical contextualization process and three-tiered model of religion have direct application to the mission of the church within the U.S. too. Though Christianity has long been the dominant formal religion in the U.S., its practitioners still turn to folk-religious beliefs and practices to manage their everyday lives. One thinks here not merely of New Age and Eastern meditation practices increasingly utilized by even Christians, but especially of the prosperity gospel, which though it cites Scripture, is basically a mechanical approach to good fortune involving the use of magical words such as “I confess,” “I claim,” and the like.

This raises a point of critique, however. The authors understand folk religion in distinction from the transcendent spiritual and the immanent empirical. The former points to the beliefs and practices of formal religions such as Christianity, Islam, and Buddhism; while the latter describes, at least in a Western context, the beliefs and practices of modern science.

The problem with this understanding is twofold: First, at least for Christianity, the “formal” religion explicitly addresses the concerns of “folk” religion. This suggests that the distinction between the two is not hard and fast. This suggestion is confirmed by the authors’ insistence that missionaries and church leaders address in Christian terms the legitimate existential concerns that folk-religious beliefs and practices raise. If Christianity can do this, however, what difference is there between the formal and the folk dimensions within Christianity?

If the difference can be elided, the obvious question is why Christian missionaries and church leaders have so often missed the “excluded middle” (89) of folk religion in their missional efforts. The answer, which the authors themselves point to, is found in the post-Enlightenment division between a totally transcendent supernaturalism and a totally immanent naturalism. Ironically, then, as Western missionaries have critiqued the syncretism of non-Western Christian converts, they have unwittingly practiced an Enlightenment-tinged syncretism of their own.

This Enlightenment-tinged Christianity points to a second critique. As Christian influence continues to fade in Western European and North American countries, the nature of folk religion may very well shift. Already, many people in those societies pick and choose from a smorgasbord of Eastern religious practices—Buddhist mindfulness, Hindu yoga, Confucian Qi. This includes people who identify as Christians. But once formal religious affiliation disappears, what does folk religion become? If secularism erases the unseen transcendent world from people’s spiritual and moral imagination, but it cannot erase the existential issues that traditional folk-religious beliefs and practices address, what form will folk religion take? In an increasingly secularizing world, it may be necessary to secularize the very concept of religion itself in order to understand, from a Christian point of view, the religionless religion that people now practice. One attempt in that direction is David Zahl’s excellent, Seculosity: How Career, Parenting, Technology, Food, Politics, and Romance Became Our New Religion and What to Do about It.

Despite these criticisms, Understanding Folk Religions is an insightful book that should be read by missionaries and church leaders, as well as missiologists and theologians. It is an academic book, so it is intellectually demanding of readers at many points. Nevertheless, it illuminates both why Christians continue to practice their old religions despite repeated discipleship otherwise, and how to move them toward a more integral Christian faith and practice.

Book Reviewed
Hiebert, Paul G., R. Daniel Shaw, and Tite Tiénou. Understanding Folk Religion: A Christian Response to Popular Beliefs and Practices. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1999.

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