Evangelegends…..Theology Run Amok in Social Media

From time to time I have posted a challenge in a comment to some trite, easy happy-thought poster-board saying that purports to offer a Christian view of life on the internet.   This article by Roger Olson is a good rebuttal to the kind of “evangelegend” folk religion theology that is so ubiquitous in social media and entertainment and elsewhere in our culture.  Get real, folks.  Study your Bible.  Know what you believe.  Don’t let the modern version of “bumper sticker” theology drive your beliefs…..or lead you into false beliefs or simplistic religiosity.   (Cathy Byrd)
Evangelegends:  The Propagation of Folk Religion Through Social Media
 What is your favorite internet Christian story?     Why?

How many times have you forwarded it on to others? 

“Questions to All Your Answers: A Journey from Folk Religion to Examined Faith”    by Roger Olson

             We , as Christians must move beyond simplistic and clichéd answers to life to a real biblical examined faith.   The stories we tell reveal what we think about God, how we interpret our faith, and how we communicate our faith to others.   “Folk Christianity”- a badly distorted version that thrives on clichés and slogans.

Internet stories, and other cultural evangelegends often have a “moral” like:

                Don’t question God.
                God is in control.
                Judge not least you be judged.
                God helps those who help themselves.
                If it feels good, it must be right.
                My God can do anything. (We’ll come back to this one in a minute)

Thessalonians 5:21- Test ALL spiritual messages.   Examine prophets’ claims to speak for or about God.
Every religion has its folk religion manifestations.  Some religions exist only as folk religions, with no scholarly or intellectual tradition, like astrology.   Folk religionists avoid “theology” or “doctrine”.  “It lives by word of mouth and internet circulation, cares only about feelings and experiences, and hardly at all about doctrine or critical reflection,” says Olson.   Its stock in trade is cute or comforting sayings and sweet aphorisms in songs and books.   Folk religion allows any obtuse practice in the name of what works for an individual or specific group. 

            They’re often heard to say, “If it’s not in the Bible, it should be!”    One who has made Christianity a folk religion will say, upon hearing of such personal faith practices, “that’s different”, not “that’s wrong”.

Others:   religious racism- Black Liberation Theology

                spiritualism- communication with the dead
                belief in reincarnation
Early apostolic writings were aimed at correcting growing popular folk beliefs in the early church that arose among largely illiterate followers.   Such practices lead people to be gullible.
                -buying “prayer cloths” from TV preachers
                -kissing relics of saints
                -pilgrimages to see images of Christ in wooden doors or potatoes or cheese sandwiches.

Modern origins:

          The 1960’s Jesus People hippie movement phenomenon made popular extreme informality, anti-traditionalism, and anti- intellectualism.  Jesus Freaks delighted in turning over religious beliefs and habits and “democratizing” faith.   Out of such movements arose in our culture what are quintessentially folk practices that promote passion, ecstatic experiences, and rejection of critical thinking.

It is an extremely subjective approach, discouraging the questioning of anyone else’s experience.

It denigrates denominations and theology.  And underscores feelings, avoiding intelligible, articulate expression.
It is heretical.
It condones and encourages deviance and even spiritual abuse.

When reduced to a folk religion, Christianity ghettoizes itself and removes itself from legitimacy in the public square, losing any power to influence the culture.  It becomes a private belief system with no prophetic voice in the larger culture….

            To reclaim objective status as a great tradition with culture-influencing spiritual and theological power, Christianity must not reject spirituality or pietism.  These are legitimate correctives to dead formalism and excessive orthodoxy.    Paul urged the Thessalonians to exercise critical thinking as a weapon of spiritual warfare.
           Reflective Christianity is the opposite of folk religion.  It values the life of the mind and critical thought.  It encourages spiritual people to add their heads to their hearts, and develop critical discernment skills.
          Learn not only the Bible, but the great tradition of Christian thought through the ages.  Study philosophy and doctrine, value tough questions about stories that sound like legends and clichés and that try to put the gospel in a nutshell.  Reflective Christianity views reason as a resource.  It has the courage to say, “I don’t know.”  It’s mature Christianity.  It’s being “wise like a serpent and gentle like a dove.”   It encounters the world and offers the Christian worldview as a viable alternative.  It rejects “spirituality lite” and pleasing teachings that “tickle the ears.”   It doesn’t make idols of traditional beliefs or personal feelings or favorite styles of worship, but subjects them to the test of the truth.   Truth is the goal and we believe that God is truth and gives us Jesus as the personification of truth.  We believe Christianity is the path to truth, not an escape from reality or truth.
             Life in Christ is not about pat answers or simplistic answers.
 “God can do anything”.  Really?   Can God change the past?  Undo something terrible already past?  There are some qualifications to what God can do.  Can God sin?  Can God coerce us against our free will?  Can God break promises?

             This is not about chronic skepticism or showing off intellect, but the ability to take people gently to a deeper level of understanding about God and faith while respecting their hearts.
 Reflective Christianity- “Questioning what you believe while continuing to believe what you are questioning.” 
“It’s a mystery.  Just accept it.”     Really?    We are called to consider the possibilities and use our God-given minds to think long and hard.