A bigger problem than heresy: folk religion

A bigger problem than heresy: folk religion August 4, 2011

We’ve been discussing the concept “heresy” here and it is a notoriously difficult one to pin down or find agreement about.  However, I worry that a bigger problem for the American church, especially, is folk religion.  Sure, the two concepts overlap somewhat.  But American folk religion (and I’m sure it has its analogies elsewhere) is rampant within the churches (all denominations) and outside the churches.

So what is “folk religion?”  I’ve described it and responded to in in some detail in one of my books: Answers to All Your Questions: The Journey from Folk Religion to Examined Faith (Zondervan).  I’ll define it briefly here.  Folk religion began as a sociological concept; it hasn’t found its way into theology on any large scale yet.  One of my authorities for describing it is sociologist of religion Robert Ellwood.

According to Ellwood and other sociologists of religion, folk religion is unreflective religious belief based largely, if not exclusively, on feelings (e.g., comfort), traditional folk ways (e.g., funeral practices), cliches (e.g., bumper sticker slogans) and devotional literature (including poems, songs, religion fiction, etc.).  It thrives on urban myths (“evangelegends”) and unverifiable stories passed around among the faithful.  It is unreflective and even resists reflection (especially critical reflection).

An example is beliefs about life after death and the future based primarily on what makes people feel comfortable about death, stories about “near death experiences,” and spiritualism filtered into the fabric of folk culture and from there into the churches.  (Spiritualism was a powerful force in American life throughout much of the 19th century; Mary Todd Lincoln hosted seances in the White House.  Many Protestant churches adopted spiritualism.  In one county in Ohio during the Civil War the majority of Protestant churches were practicing spiritualism.  Certain spiritualist concepts such as the “silver cord” that unites soul and body and breaks at death filtered into popular hymnody and remain there.)

Recently there has been a new flood of books, films and TV documentaries about so-called “near death experiences” (which are really alleged experiences of actual bodily death in which the disembodied soul or spirit has some conscious experiences before returning to the body).  The little book Heaven is for Real: A Little Boy’s Astounding Story of His Trip to Heaven and Back  by Todd Burpo (a Wesleyan minister) and Lynn Vincent (Thomas Nelson Publishers) is selling like hot cakes and making some even secular best-seller lists.  (I see it in all the airport bookstores!)  Last evening, ABC television’s Primetime Live: Beyond Belief show featured stories of death experiences–including that of the show’s journalist host.

What concerns me is that many, perhaps most, contemporary Christians (at least in America) seem to be basing their beliefs about life after death on these shows and books.  I have even met evangelical Christians who seem to base their beliefs about life after death on movies like What Dreams May Come (starring Robin Williams).  One thing seems almost universal among these stories–that death is a friend and, especially if you’re a Christian (or for non-Christians just a good person), where you go immediately after bodily death is the fullness of “heaven” with pearly gates, streets paved with gold, God sitting on a throne, etc., etc.  (Of course the details vary.  My point is not about the details.)

The theological problem here is twofold and the two aspects are closely related.  First, very little sound biblical teaching is being carried out in many Christian churches about death and life after death.  For example, the Bible does NOT portray death as a friend but as the “last enemy.”  People are being allowed, if not encouraged, to base their personal views on stories read or seen on TV or in movies.  Funeral sermons are being adjusted to fit these folk religious visions of life after death.  (For example, “Our dearly departed loved on has flown from this shell in which he lived for seventy years and is now in heaven with all the saints surrounding God’s throne worshiping him forever and ever.”)

Second, these folk religious beliefs about life after death come into conflict with Scripture and Christian tradition (and few seem to care!).  I’ve taught theology to mostly Christian students (raised in Christian churches and homes) for almost 30 years now and I can confidently say there is one biblical and traditional doctrine that has almost disappeared among them and their families.  (I find this to be true when I teach about this subject to adult Sunday School classes as well.)  That doctrine is called “the intermediate state.”

In my next post here I will lay out the biblical bases for this doctrine.

I am finding that most American Christians think that when a person dies he or she goes immediately to “heaven” in a conscious, disembodied state to remain there forever with the Lord.  People equate “paradise” with “heaven” (as the “new heaven and new earth”) and conflate the two.  There is little or no understanding of the future resurrection, judgment, new creation, etc.  These biblical images and concepts are simply drawn forward into life after death so that all the “dead in Christ” are believed to be already experiencing the fullness of heavenly redeemed existence.

I propose the reason for this is that people do not generally like to think of their deceased loved ones as in some vague intermediate state called “paradise” awaiting the fullness of heaven.  They want immediate gratification for their deceased loved ones; they want them to be enjoying all that heaven offers and Jesus promised right away.  The result is that the New Testament blessed hope of resurrection of both the individual’s body and of creation itself (Romans 8) has dwindled away.  What has replaced it is a gnostic-like belief in the body as a prison of the spirit and of salvation as release from bodily existence.

To be continued…

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