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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An Introduction to the Theology of Religions | Book Review


The world into which Christianity was born was a religiously plural one, and the world in which Christians now live continues to be so. Although various religions exhibit similarities to one degree or another, they also embody deep differences about the authoritative sources of knowledge and the nature and means of salvation. How should Christian theologians make sense of these similarities and differences?

Answering that question is the task of the theology of religions, which Veli-Matti Kärkkäinen defines in this way:

Theology of religions is that discipline of theological studies which attempts to account theologically for the meaning and value of other religions. Christian theology of religions attempts to think theologically about what it means for Christians to live with people of other faiths and about the relationship of Christianity to other religions (20).

While Kärkkäinen notes that “in principle,” non-Christian religions could develop a theology of religions specific to their own beliefs and practices, as of 2003, little work had been done in this field by those religions. Instead, he writes, “Christian theology of religions is by far the most developed type of theology of religions” (21).

An Introduction to the Theology of Religions thus surveys Christian assessments of other religions in the Bible and across two millennia of church history. It focuses its attention most on the assessments of churches and individual theologians in the twentieth century. Kärkkäinen’s survey unfolds in four parts: (1) biblical perspectives, (2) historical developments, (3) current ecclesiastical approaches, and (4) current interpretations by individual theologians.

The book has three virtues: scope, depth, and typology.

Scope: The book sketches how Christian churches and individual theologians have evaluated the plurality of religions from the biblical period to the present day. This results in a typology, discussed below, that shows how theological arguments and themes recur throughout the centuries.

Depth: The bulk of the book focuses on ecclesiastical statements and individual theologians in the twentieth century, especially the latter. Part Three goes into detail about official documents from the Roman Catholic Church, the worldwide Anglican communion, mainline Protestantism, the Free Churches and the evangelical movement (between which there is a large degree of overlap), and the ecumenical movement, devoting a chapter to each. Part Four considers the writings of 21 individual theologians, again devoting a chapter to each. All the theologians are male, and most are white and Western.

Typology: Kärkkäinen develops a fourfold typology that he hopes to replace the conventional one. The conventional typology characterizes theologies of religions as exclusivist, inclusivist, or pluralist. It was developed by an advocate of pluralism, and advocates of exclusivism especially feel that it is tendentious and denigratory of their position. In its place, Kärkkäinen typifies theologies of religions as ecclesiocentric, Christocentric, theocentric, and realitycentric. He then correlates this fourfold typology with the conventional one, defining each type:

  1. Ecclesiocentrism. This is the exclusive attitude, according to which religions are not salvific or even necessarily conducive to the search for God, and salvation can be found only in the Christian church, the locus of faith in Christ.
  2. Christocentrism. This is the inclusive approach, according to which Christ is the Savior but the benefits of his saving work may be found outside the Christian church and Christian religion. However, whoever is saved is only saved through the work of Christ.
  3. Theocentrism. This is the pluralistic paradigm, according to which Christ is one savior among other savior figures and not an exclusive one. In this view, God alone stands at the center. The various religions, Christianity included, represent many ways leading to God.
  4. Realitycentrism. This is yet another step from theocentrism, the route taken recently by [John] Hick, among others, according to which the center of religions is not a God or gods but an ultimate reality (however that is named). Some extreme pluralists seem to shift to this orientation, but at this moment the shape and content of this option are still quite vague and undefined (25).

Following the survey of historical developments in Part Two, Kärkkäinen concludes that exclusivism and inclusivism best typify Christian responses throughout history. He writes:

To set the record straight: there have not been (at least to my knowledge) any self-pronounced “pluralists” among Christian theologians before the time of the Enlightenment—even universalists such as Origen attributed the salvation of all to the purposes of the Christian God, the only God. But neither is it the case that a more inclusivist attitude has not existed all through the history (107).

Later, he notes that these positions are prevalent among very different audiences:

Interestingly, numerically there are two giants among ecclesiastical opinions: the Roman Catholic Church’s inclusivism and the quite exclusivistic stance held by evangelical, Pentecostal/Charismatic and (other) independent churches. Pluralism governs the academy, but in the pews these two other views predominate (160).

Notice in these quotations that Kärkkäinen reverts to the conventional typology. This happens throughout the book. Although his fourfold “-centrism” typology has many strengths, it seems that that the conventional typology remains the standard way of describing the various theological positions, both at the time of the book’s publication and today, 17 years later.

Nevertheless, An Introduction to the Theology of Religions is to my knowledge the best overall introduction to this topic, so I recommend it to interested readers.

Book Reviewed
Veli-Matti Kärkkäinen, An Introduction to the Theology of Religions: Biblical, Historical and Contemporary Perspectives(Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2003).

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Encountering Religious Pluralism | Book Review


Christianity was borne into a religiously plural cultural environment. It emerged from the womb of Judaism (that itself had multiple forms) into the world of polytheism, imperial cults, and mystery religions. This required Christians to make sense of their faith vis-à-vis these others faiths. This obligation still rests on Christians, for globalization has put us in constant contact with religious (and nonreligious) “others,” whose beliefs, behaviors, and forms of belonging often differ significantly from our own.

Over the last few decades, three basic theologies of religion have emerged among Christians. Exclusivism is roughly the position that Jesus Christ is ultimate in terms of both revelation and salvation. One must have faith in him to be saved. Outside of him, no one is saved. Inclusivism agrees on Christ’s ultimacy, but it also affirms that truth can be found in other religions and that some who have not heard the gospel through no fault of their own may experience salvation because of their positive response to what natural revelation they had. On this view, no one is saved apart from Christ, but some may be saved apart from explicit faith in Christ.

Pluralism is roughly the idea that all religions are revelatory and salvific to basically the same degree. Just as all roads lead to Rome, so all religions lead to Heaven. Today, pluralism is the ethos of globalized societies as well as an ideology that relativizes the exclusive (and inclusive) claims of any particular religion. Among self-identified Christian theologians, the most comprehensive presentation of pluralism is John Hick’s An Interpretation of Religion of Religion, whose subtitle, “human responses to the transcendent,” epitomizes his argument.

Encountering Religious Pluralism by Harold Netland is a critique of religious pluralism generally, and Hick’s version specifically, as well as an explanation of why pluralism has become so widespread, not merely in the academy but also in popular culture. Part One offers the explanation, while Part Two outlines the critique. The book is well worth reading. If not the definitive refutation of Hick’s pluralism, it certainly constitutes one of the most thorough rebuttals.

Netland summarizes Hick this way:

At the heart of his model are three claims: (1) that there is an ultimate reality to which the different religions are legitimate responses, (2) that the various religions are historically and culturally conditioned interpretations of this reality, and (3) that soteriological transformation is occurring roughly to the same extent within the major religions. Therefore, the various religions are to be affirmed as equally legitimate religious alternatives, with preferences among them largely being functions of individual characteristics and social and cultural factors (221).

Netland later summarizes his critique of Hick this way:

Given that his proposal is a second-order theory intended to account for the first-order data from the religions, the adequacy of his theory depends largely upon two factors: (1) the accuracy with which his theory reflects, and the ease with which it can accommodate, the data from various religious traditions, and (2) the internal consistency of the theory itself. I will argue that Hick’s model is fatally flawed on both accounts (232).

The central problem with Hick’s model is that it is, ironically, insufficiently pluralistic. It is reductionist and reinterpretive. As Netland states the matter, “although it purports to be an explanatory model that accounts for the data from the various religious traditions, it does so by reinterpreting the actual beliefs and practices of the religions in ways unacceptable to orthodox practitioners of the religions themselves” (232).

Sumner Twiss has defended Hick against the charge of reductionism by distinguishing “descriptive” and “explanatory” reductionism. He argues that Hick has not engaged in the former kind of reductionism—i.e., Hick does not incorrectly describe others’ religious beliefs and practices. According to Twiss, Hick does engage in explanatory reductionism, but this is not particularly controversial, since all explanations are reductive to one degree or another.

Netland identifies the flaw in this defense, however, by comparing pluralism with “religion-specific explanations” (RSEs, 233). All religions attempt to explain the existence of other religions, and then critique them. Netland summarizes the problem with Hick’s explanatory reductionism this way:

… the adequacy of an RSE as a general explanation of other religions will depend upon the justification one has for accepting the religious worldview from which the RSE emerges. This must be established on other, independent grounds apart from the RSE itself. But we do not have an analogous case with Hick’s model. One does not first establish the justification for his proposal and then from within the theory provide an explanation for other religions—Hick’s proposal is that explanation. As such, the adequacy of his model is in large measure a function of its internal consistency as a theory and its capacity to account for the first-order data of the major religions without distorting them in the process (234–235).

Seen in this light, Hick’s model only works because it radically reinterprets basic tenets of other religions in order to fit the model, rather than changing the model to fit the basic tenets of other religions. So, for example, Netland argues that “each tradition ascribes ultimacy to its own particular conception of the religious ultimate,” but Hick’s model reduces each claim to ultimacy to “merely a penultimate manifestation of what is truly ultimate—the Real” (235). For example, the Christian claim that the Holy Trinity is ultimate must be reduced to a human response to the divine on an equal footing with other religious claims to ultimacy, even though practitioners of the religion due not agree with Hick’s reinterpretation of their ultimacy claim.

The other basic shortcoming of Hick’s model of religious pluralism is its internal consistency. Two issues arise here, specifically. First, Hick correctly notes that some religions have a personal ultimate (e.g., Christianity) and others an impersonal ultimate (e.g., certain strains of Hinduism and Buddhism). According to Hick, both what he calls “personae” and “impersonae” characterize the Real. This creates a problem of consistency, according to Netland, “due to the undeniable differences among such images of the religious ultimate” (238–239). Netland asks: “Can one seriously maintain that the ontological implications of the Judeo-Christian understanding of the divine as Yahweh, the ontologically independent personal Creator and righteous Judge are compatible with the monistic implications of the Hindu notion of nirguna Brahman or with the ontologically ultimate image of sunyata (emptiness) in Zen?” (239). Not without setting logic to the side, it seems.

No wonder, then, that over the course of his writings, Hick placed “increasingly greater emphasis on the theme of ineffability, so that the Real is said to be utterly beyond the range of human conceptual and linguistic categories,” writes Netland (243). There are at least two problems with Hick’s version of ineffability: First, it is self-referentially absurd. “If this were the case, Netland writes, “then at the very least ‘the property of being totally beyond conceptual and linguistic categories would apply to the Real, thereby refuting the original claim” (243).

Second, and worse, the final basic claim of Hick’s model, about “soteriological transformation,” runs afoul of ineffability too: “If indeed the Real in itself is beyond moral categories, so that it is neither good nor evil, how can Hick use a moralcriterion in this manner?”—that is, in evaluating why Muhammad is a genuine prophet but, say, Jim Jones is not (245). In other words, Hick has to take sides, which means that pluralism doesn’t adequately and consistently explain diverse religious phenomenon.

After reading Netland, it seems to me that we can know “the Real” to a significant enough degree or we can’t. If we can, then we must find the religion that most closely aligns with it. But this involves judgment, choosing both for and against religious claims. Hick’s model claims to avoid this problem, but in the end, it’s just one model among many religion specific explanations, thus failing to oblige any religious believer to choose it rather than his or her own faith.

Encountering Religious Pluralism is a much broader book than I have portrayed in this long review, which is essentially a recapitulation of Chapter 7, “The Problems of Pluralism.” I have done this because Netland’s critique of Hick cuts to the heart of problems both with Hick’s model of religious pluralism, and others’. But the entire book is worth reading, and the final chapter sketches the outline of a Christian theology of religions.

Book Reviewed
Harold Netland, Encountering Religious Pluralism: The Challenge to Christian Faith and Mission (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2000).

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The Uniqueness of Christ | Book Review


Chris Wright opens The Uniqueness of Christ by noting that “the supermarket mentality dominates popular thinking about religion” (12). This reduces religion to a “commodity” and a religionist to a “consumer” (13). Under this mentality, then, religion becomes a consumer product, and as the Latin aphorism puts it, De gustibus non disputandum est.

This mentality creates problems for those religions, such as Christianity, that makes absolute truth claims or require exclusive loyalty. With that in mind, Wright states the guiding question of the book: “So how then can we think clearly about the uniqueness of Jesus Christ in the midst of the religious supermarket in which we live?” (13).

Chapter 1 outlines different aspects of the meaning of religious pluralism, among other things drawing a distinction between “plurality,” the undeniable sociological fact of diverse religions, and “pluralism,” a controversial interpretation of this fact that relativizes all religions.

Chapters 2–4 survey “three main positions that have been adopted by Christian theologians toward other religions” (35). The first is exclusivism, the view that “if Jesus Christ be uniquely the truth, and the only way of salvation for mankind, then that excludes the possibility of other faiths being true in the same way, or being ways of salvation” (38). The second is inclusivism, the view that “ultimately all truth is God’s truth, wherever it is found. So Christ, who is the Truth, must therefore include all that is true in other faiths” (58). As different as these two positions are, Wright notes, “The one, central, and all-important point that exclusivism and inclusivism have in common is their commitment to the centrality of Jesus Christ” (57).

This commonality sets them apart from pluralism, the third position, which holds that “all religions, including Christianity, are related in some way to this ‘God at the centre’, but none of those religions and none of the ‘gods’ they name and claim, is actually the central place” (73). Wright goes on, “It is the basic assumption of pluralism that no single religious tradition can claim to have or to be ‘the truth’. In fact, there is no absolute truth available to us through any religion. There are only partial understandings which are historically and culturally relative. So a theology of religious pluralism goes along with a philosophy of relativism — i.e., the denial of any absolute truth” (74).

Wright believes that pluralism is contrary to orthodox Christianity. “The shift to pluralism … requires either a complete surrender of the uniqueness of Christ, or such a radical redefinition of it that it loses all value” (72). He ends the chapter on pluralism (chapter 4) with this warning: “At best, ‘Christ’ becomes so universal as to be of no real value except as a symbol. At worst, he is exposed as an idol for those who worship him, and as dispensable for those who don’t” (85).

Chapters 5–6 turn to the Bible to help readers “think more clearly about the question of the uniqueness of Jesus” (87). (Wright is a British evangelical, and The Uniqueness of Christ was written with evangelical readers in mind.)

Chapter 5 explores what the Bible in toto says about the Jesus. It argues “first, that the Bible presents us with a radical and comprehensive understanding of the sinful predicament of the human race. It thus prepares us to appreciate what salvation has to be and that only God can save us. In the face of such depth, to talk of Jesus as merely one among any number of ‘saving points of contact with God’ seems an altogether trivial account of his significance” (104). Wright goes on to summarize the biblical data this way: “In Jesus, then, the uniqueness of Israel and the uniqueness of Yahweh flow together for he embodied the one and he incarnated the other. So he shares and fulfils the identity and the mission of both” (105). On this reading of the Bible, pluralism is a nonstarter.

Chapter 6 surveys the biblical narrative to determine what the Bible says about human religions. Wright concludes: “Religion like all things human, has good and bad dimensions, but is never portrayed in the Bible as the means of salvation. The Bible is concerned about people and God, and about the need for the nations to recognise who the true and saving God really is — revealed as Yahweh in the Old Testament and in Jesus Christ in the New Testament. It shows us that God can and does speak to people within the framework of religious understanding that they already have. But this is not in order to endorse that prior religion, but to lead beyond it to the fullness of revelation and salvation in Christ” (139).

Wright concludes The Uniqueness of Christ by exhorting evangelical Christians to do three things: “to clarify our thinkingabout the truth … . We need to strengthen our contending for the truth. And we need to renew our living of the truth” (143). If religion is a matter of truth rather than merely of consumer choice, something like Wright’s position is the only available option for evangelical Christians.

If Christ is “the way and the truth and the life” (John 14:6), then Christians should be able to demonstrate and defend this, with this caveat: “There is little point proclaiming how the gospel is true if people cannot see that it works. The fact of our contemporary western world is that for many people Christianity is not so much regarded as untrue (in the sense that they have considered its claims and rejected them for rational reasons), as simply implausible” (149). For that reason, “the church should be the ‘plausibility structure’ for the truth of the gospel” (idem).

If contemporary Westerners reject the truth of Christianity, in other words, it may because too few Christians live out the truth in their own lives.

Book Reviewed
Chris Wright, The Uniqueness of Christ (London: Monarch Books, 2001).

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Resilient Faith | Book Review


Christianity in the United States is a mile wide but an inch deep.

The faith, especially its Protestant variety, has exerted considerable influence on the nation’s history and culture. A supermajority of citizens continue to identify themselves as believers. On the whole, evangelical churches — where evangelical serves as a theological descriptor, not a political one — are holding steady even as liberal Protestant congregations and Roman Catholic parishes shed adherents.

Despite these things, many Christians feel that their influence on the broader culture is slipping away. A partial explanation comes from the last two decades’ rapid rise of the “Nones,” that share of the populace that picks “None of the above” when asked by pollsters to select their religious affiliation. Radical shifts in public opinion about moral issues such as same-sex marriage, drug use, and voluntary euthanasia constitute an additional explanation. And the once unheard-of criticism of Christian charities, such as the Salvation Army, for continuing to uphold biblical standards of sexual morality offers still another explanation.

None of these explanations, it should be noted, entail that America has entered a post-Christian phase. They do indicate that the nation is trending that way, however. If that trend worries you, I encourage you to read Gerald L. Sittser’s Resilient Faith: How the Early Christian “Third Way” Changed the World.

Sittser is professor of theology at Whitworth University in Spokane, Washington, where he also serves as a senior fellow and researcher in the Office of Church Engagement. In Resilient Faith, he offers an account of how the Early Church forged a “Third Way” between accommodation to the surrounding idolatrous culture and isolation from it. He states his thesis at the outset of the book:

[T]he early Christian movement became known as the Third Way because Jesus himself was a new way, which in turn spawned a new movement — new in theology, in story, in authority, in community, in worship, and in behavior. Christian belief was so new, in fact, that it required Christians to develop a process of formation in the Third Way to move new believers from conversion to discipleship. … Rejecting both accommodation and isolation, early Christians immersed themselves in the culture as followers of Jesus and servants of the kingdom of God.

Over time, this third-way approach gained followers, and with increased followership, increasing influence. By the time Constantine converted to Christianity in A.D. 312, Christians already constituted a significant, though occasionally persecuted, minority within the Roman empire. Over the next century, they became the only legal imperial religion. The once powerless Church became powerful.

Ironically and tragically, this power began to deform the Church. The Third Way became the First Way, integrity giving way to accommodation. Whereas the early Christian movement assumed that idolaters needed a rigorous form of discipleship, the so-called catechumenate, to mold converts into the faith and life of Jesus Christ, the post-Constantinian Church began to assume that everyone under the sway of a Christian emperor was Christian by default. The real faith of early Christians became the nominal faith of Christendom.

And that tension between the real and the nominal brings us back to the feeling so many American Christians have that our cultural influence is slipping away. If it is — and I believe that it is — how should we respond?

One response is simply for American Christians to engage in cultural and political warfare. While I am a proponent of informed Christian engagement in politics and culture, I worry that this response, however effective it may be in the short term, is ineffective in the long term. Sittser captures the gist of the dilemma when he writes:

If anything, the harder Christians fight, the more precipitous the decline will be, for cultural power and privilege will come at an increasingly high price. Christians will either accommodate until the faith becomes almost unrecognizable, or they will isolate until their faith becomes virtually invisible.

The better response — the one called for by Jesus Christ himself — is the way of discipleship, “baptizing [the nations] in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you” (Matthew 28:19–20). According to that way, success is not defined in terms of the accrual of political power or cultural influence, though they may come, but by fidelity to the Lord Jesus Christ regardless of whether they come. He is the Way, so His way must become our way too.

Until American Christians decide that fidelity is more important than power and privilege, their Christianity will continue to be a mile wide and an inch deep, though getting narrower and shallower every day.

Book Reviewed
Gerald L. Sittser, Resilient Faith: How the Early Christian “Third Way” Changed the World (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2019).

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P.P.S. This review is cross-posted from InfluenceMagazine.com with permission.

America’s Religious History | Book Review


American Christians, generally speaking, are ignorant of the history of their own religion in this country, let alone of other religions here. This is not due to a lack of excellent scholarly resources. If anything, there is a surfeit of excellent studies of American religion. The problem is that most Americans won’t read them because they are either too academic or too specific. (Or too long.)

Thomas S. Kidd is distinguished professor of history at Baylor University. His faith perspective is evangelical Christian generally and Southern Baptist specifically. His scholarly expertise is colonial and early U.S. history. Earlier this year, he published a two-volume survey, American History, for college students. Now, he’s published America’s Religious History, a single-volume introduction to that topic, also intended for college students—it’s published by Zondervan Academic—but readily accessible to a broad readership.

America’s religious history did not start with Christianity, of course, which was only introduced to the Western hemisphere beginning with Christopher Columbus in 1492. Kidd touches briefly on aspects of indigenous religious before colonization, but the main line of his story starts with first Catholic and then Protestant colonization efforts. While Catholicism always played an important role in the history of those lands that eventually became the United States, Kidd’s main focus throughout the book is on “the fate of Protestantism in America,” which is the nation’s “most powerful religious strain.” He does mention developments in other religions too, as well as in nonreligious, skeptical points of view.

As a Pentecostal Christian and ordained minister in the Assemblies of God, I was delighted by Kidd’s treatment of Pentecostalism in the last few chapters of the book. While I acknowledge that our tribe has problems—televangelist scandals, prosperity gospel preachers, etc.—our history also demonstrates a spiritual vitality and ethnic diversity that bode well for our future.

Kidd begins the book with three sentences that identify a thread running throughout America’s Religious History: “The story of American religion is a study in contrasts. Secular clashes with the sacred; demagoguery with devotion. Perhaps most conspicuously, religious vitality has existed alongside religious violence.” Readers looking for a chirpily cheery national history of Christianity specifically or religion generally will be disappointed by Kidd’s work. There’s much in America’s “lived religion,” its daily practice of faith, that is heartening, of course, but disheartening episodes abound too, especially when it comes to evangelicals and politics.

Kidd closes each chapter with a list of “Works Cited and Further Reading.” This list makes an excellent next step for readers who want go deeper on the historical developments surveyed in that chapter. While the publisher probably intends this book for use in a college classroom setting, I think it can also be used profitably by Sunday school classes, small groups, and book clubs. Or, of course, for the solitary reader seeking a better understanding of this nation’s religious history.

Book Reviewed
Thomas S. Kidd, America’s Religious History: Faith, Politics, and the Shaping of a Nation (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Academic, 2019).

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The Battle over Religions Liberty in America | Influence Podcast


“We’ve long lived in a country where religious freedom was secure, and we didn’t need to give it much thought,” writes Luke Goodrich. “Now we’re realizing the country is changing and we might not enjoy the same degree of religious freedom forever. If we don’t start thinking about it now, we’ll be unprepared.”

I’m George P. Wood, executive editor of Influence magazine, coordinator of Religious Freedom Initiatives for the Assemblies of God (USA), and your host. In this episode of the Influence Podcast, I’m talking to Luke Goodrich about the contemporary state of American religious freedom.

Luke Goodrich is vice president and senior counsel at Becket Law, a leading non-profit, public-interest legal and educational institute with a mission to protect the free expression of all faiths. He was part of the Becket legal team that won four major Supreme Court cases in four years: Little Sisters of the Poor v. BurwellHolt v. Hobbs, Burwell v. Hobby Lobby, and Hosanna-Tabor v. EEOC. He is the author of Free to Believe: The Battle over Religious Liberty in America, published this past Tuesday by Multnomah.

This episode of the Influence Podcast is brought to you by My Healthy Church, distributors of Help! I’m in Charge:

No matter what kind of leader you are, the pressure to get everything right can plague you with worry. That’s why in Help! I’m in Charge, Rod Loy offers the candid advice you need to face the fears and challenges of leadership. Straightforward, light-hearted, but never sugar-coated, Help! I’m in Charge will guide you to develop the kind of practical, Scripture-based leadership skills that can fortify your confidence for years to come.

For more information about Help! I’m in Charge, visit RodLoyBooks.com.

The Booming Marketplace of Replacement Religions | Influence Podcast


Stories about the rise of the “Nones,” that share of the American populace which identifies with no religion, give the impression that religion in America is in steep decline. “What they fail to report,” writes David Zahl, “is that the marketplace in replacement religion is booming.”

In this episode of the Influence Podcast, I’m talking to David Zahl about the contours of this new secular religiosity. I’m George P. Wood, executive editor of Influencemagazine, and your host.

David Zahl is the founder and director of Mockingbird Ministries, whose mission is “to connect the Christian faith with the realities of everyday life in fresh and down-to-earth ways.” He’s also editor-in-chief of the popular Mockingbird website and cohost of the Mockingcast. Most recently, he’s author of Seculosity: How Career, Parenting, Technology, Food, Politics, and Romance Became Our New Religion and What to Do About It, published by Fortress Press.

The Myth of the Dying Church | Influence Podcast


Read the headlines, and you just might come to the conclusion that Christianity in America is dying. “Christianity Faces Sharp Decline as Americans Are Becoming Even Less Affiliated with Religion,” according to a Washington Postheadline. A BeliefNet story was titled, “Declining Christianity: The Exodus of the Young and the Rise of Atheists.” According to National Public Radio, “Christians in the U.S. on Decline as Number of ‘Nones’ Grows, Survey Finds.”

So is American Christianity really declining? That’s the question I ask Glenn Stanton in this episode of the Influence Podcast. I’m George P. Wood, executive editor of Influencemagazine and your host. Glenn Stanton is the director of Global Family Formation Studies at Focus on the Family in Colorado Springs, Colorado, and author of The Myth of the Dying Church, just out from Worthy Publishing.

P.S. Check out my review of The Myth of the Dying Church here.

Seculosity | Book Review


American organized religion is declining. According to Gallup data, only one percent of U.S. adults claimed no religious affiliation in 1955. By 2017, that percentage had grown to 20. The younger the adult, the likelier the lack of religious affiliation. For adults ages 30–39, the percentage is 28. For those ages 21–29, it’s 33. If you’re looking for evidence of secularization in America, this rise of the Nones is Exhibit A.

And yet, David Zahl claims inhis new book that “the marketplace in replacement religion is booming.” Those replacements don’t look or feel religious, however — at least not in the capital-R sense of the term, which Zahl describes as “robes and kneeling and the Man Upstairs.” They don’t necessarily look like “folkloric beliefs” or “occult belief systems” either: things like charms, telepathy, or astrology.

Instead, replacement religions center around everyday concerns such as — to list the topics of the book’s chapters — busyness, romance, parenting, technology, work, leisure, food, and politics. Zahl calls each of these replacements “seculosity,” a portmanteau of “secular” and “religiosity.” Seculosity is a religious impulse “directed horizontally rather than vertically, at earthly rather than heavenly objects.”

Why does Zahl considers these secular concerns religious? And why should we do so too? Those are fair questions, good ones even, because they go straight to the heart of what our culture thinks religion is.

We typically think of religion in of capital-R Religion terms, that is, organized religion with its concerns for doctrine, ritual, community, and institutions. Those are the outward manifestations of an inward impulse, which Zahl calls “the justifying story of our life.” According to him, religion is “what we lean on to tell us we’re okay, that our lives matter.” It is “our preferred guilt-management system.” In other words, religion is what “we rely on not just for meaning or hope but enoughness.” This search for enoughness characterizes religious Nones just as much as it does the traditionally religious. It is a universal longing.

Take the everyday concern about busyness, for example. Ask people how they’re doing, and they’ll probably reply, “Busy.” I certainly would. Between work, marriage, parenting, and life in general, it feels like every moment of every day is accounted for…and then some. I tell myself to rest, but the moment I start to do so, the nagging suspicion takes hold that a book needs to be read, an article needs to be written, a chore needs to be accomplished, my kids need to be helicoptered over, my wife needs to be date-nighted, the latest blockbuster movie needs to be watched, etc. (Notice, by the way, that even our leisure activities such as dating and movie-watching become have become to-do items.)

These nagging suspicions arise from what Zahl calls “performancism.” He writes: “Performancism turns life into a competition to be won (#winning) or a problem to be solved, as opposed to, say, a series of moments to be experienced or an adventure to relish. Performancism invests daily tasks with existential significance and turns even menial activities into measures of enoughness.”

And woe betide those who fail at these tasks, because “if you are not doing enough, or doing enough well, you are not enough.” Zahl doesn’t quote Blaise Pascal at this point, but there’s a lot of wisdom in the latter’s statement, “All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.” (Now that I’ve quoted Pascal, however, I’m feeling guilty that I’m not checking off that to-do item either.)

Performancism is “one of the hallmarks of all forms of seculosity,” their underlying assumption, affecting how we approach everyday life. It cripples seculosity’s practitioners with anxiety (Am I enough?), shame (Do they think I’m enough?), and guilt (Have I done enough?). “The common denominator [in all forms of seculosity] is the human heart, yours and mine,” Zahl explains, referring to what motivates our behavior. “Which is to say, the problem is sin.”

In theological terms, you see, seculosity is just the latest example of a “religion of law.” It is a form of self-justification or works-righteousness. And like all such schemes, it is doomed to failure because “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). We are not enough. We have not done enough. We cannot do enough.

The antidote to seculosity is a “religion of grace,” Zahl concludes. “Sin is not something you can be talked out of (‘stop controlling everything!’) or coached through with the right wisdom. It is something from which you need to be saved.” And that salvation depends on the sacrificial love of the One doing the saving. He is enough, and only in Him can you be too.

Book Reviewed
David Zahl, Seculosity: How Career, Parenting, Technology, Food, Politics, and Romance Became Our New Religion and What To Do About It (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2019).

P.S. If you liked my review, please click “Helpful” on my Amazon review page.

P.P.S. This review is from the July-August 2019 print issue of Influence magazine and is cross-posted here with permission.

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