Recently, Thomas Bergler, a professor at Huntington University in Indiana, released a book in which he argues that American Christianity has been largely co-opted by youth movements during the latter part of the twentieth century. He has also summarized the main arguments in a piece for Christianity Today.
As a product of the Marsden-Noll “school,” Bergler’s arguments remain largely historical with some analysis in the final chapter of the book. His arguments have also received positive endorsements from other historians of American religion, such as John Turner who blogs at The Anxious Bench.
What Bergler attempts to do is track an important trend in twentieth-century evangelicalism (mostly) and its impact, positive and negative, on worship practices, doctrine, church structure, and other features of evangelical Christianity. The argument is sophisticated and should be taken seriously. I find much to agree with, and yet, there are some nagging suspicions I have and from which I cannot escape. My suspicions cause me to wonder about, in Paul Harvey’s words, the rest of the story. . . .
Let me phrase my suspicions in the form of two questions:
Is describing relationship to Christ in emotional and erotic terms a form of shallow, adolescent Christianity?
As part of his critique, Bergler makes a couple of poignant remarks from the article that identify a central line of criticism.
Evangelical teenagers were coming to describe the Christian life as falling in love with Jesus and experiencing the “thrills” and “happiness” of a romantic relationship with him. Perhaps because they believed so strongly in a personal relationship with Jesus as the center of Christianity, they didn’t question what might be lost when that relationship was equated with an erotic, emotional attraction to a teen idol.
Juvenilization tends to create a self-centered, emotionally driven, and intellectually empty faith.In their landmark National Study of Youth and Religion, Christian Smith and his team of researchers found that the majority of American teenagers, even those who are highly involved in church activities, are inarticulate about religious matters. They seldom used words like faith, salvation, sin, or even Jesus to describe their beliefs. Instead, they return again and again to the language of personal fulfillment to describe why God and Christianity are important to them. The phrase “feel happy” appeared over 2,000 times in 267 interviews.
The book drives home this point more forcefully as when he claims “the faith has been overly identified with emotional comfort” and asks questions like, “is the music we sing fostering a self-centered, romantic spirituality in which following Jesus is compared to ‘falling in love’?”
As a medievalist, I wonder if Bergler is familiar with the fusion of courtly love and Christian love in the high and late Middle Ages. This fusion produced some of the most erotic and emotionally intense literature in Christian tradition. How would he react to Hadewijch’s depiction of an emotional encounter:
It was a Sunday, in the Octave of Pentecost, when our Lord was brought secretly to my bedside, because I felt such an attraction of my spirit inwardly that I could not control myself outwardly in a degree sufficient to go out among persons. . .And that desire which I had inwardly was to be one with God in fruition.
Or, Mechthild’s declaration:
When the exalted Sovereign and the little waif thus embrace and are united as water and wine, she turns to nothing and is transported out of herself. When she has no strength left, he is as lovesick for her as he always was; for he neither increases nor decreases. Then she says, “Lord, you are my lover.
I could go on with quotation after quotation from Bernard of Clairvaux, Hugh of St. Victor, Richard of St. Victor, Bonaventure, Francis of Assisi, and so many others. This “folk” spirituality that makes its way into the lives of some of the greatest theologians Christianity has produced finds its counterpart in the revivalist tradition of American evangelicalism, especially its Wesleyan and Pentecostal flowers. Spurred on by women like Phoebe Palmer and men like Thomas Upham, the late 19th century and early 20th century Wesleyan and Pentecostal folks instinctively turned to the mystical streams of medieval Christianity to give voice to the powerful spiritual encounters they experienced in sanctification and Spirit baptism.
The language of love, with its emotional and erotic tones, has always been with Christianity. Moreover, I would suggest that it is not a mark of adolescence, but of a deepening maturity in the faith that sees God as one’s all in all. Recovering this stream, I would suggest, is the beginnings of a Christian response to the over-sexualized culture in which we now find ourselves after the sexual revolution of the 1970s. This is NOT to say that Christianity of the late twentieth century has wrongly understood how such erotic language can and should function. At its best, it does not promote narcissism, but a surrendering of the self to love for love.
Is therapeutic Christianity something bad and to be avoided?
In the previous quotation of Bergler, he appeals to what is becoming standard works among evangelical critics of evangelicalism, namely, Christian Smith’s Soul Searching and the follow up, Soul’s in Transition. Michael Horton used Smith as a platform to decry what he described as a “Christless Christianity” not too long ago.
In both works, Smith and his co-authors suggest that American teenagers and young adults generally hold to Moralistic Therapeutic Deism (MTD). They distill this “religious creed” from the hundreds of interviews conducted among teenagers of all religious and non-religious persuasions. It is essentially that God creates and orders the world (Deism), God wants people to be good and good to one another (moralistic), the central goal of life is to be happy and thus God is there to provide benefits and produce happiness (therapeutic).
On the basis of Smith’s analysis, Bergler concludes that such a “feel-good faith” is essentially juvenile, “dumbing down Christianity to the lowest common denominator of adolescent cognitive development and religious motivation.”
Of course, what Horton and Bergler either forget or conveniently leave aside is the fact that Wesleyans and Pentecostals place the therapeutic dimension of Christianity front and center with their mutual focus on sanctification and holiness as a therapeutic journey from sin to righteousness. Indeed, this approach to Christianity, with its historic focus on the seven deadly sins (or capital vices), is a prominent feature of the Christian tradition. Sure, it does not square with forensic justification (which, for some, just is the gospel), but it is present nevertheless.
Moreover, such an approach has always gone hand in hand in dealing with important issues like the problem of moral luck that the great Greek tragedies, such as Oedipus the King, attempt to address and that Martha Nussbaum has reinvoked in her book, The Fragility of Goodness. This problem presumes that humans can and should seek to flourish, to become all God had intended them to be. It is unfortunate that under the weight of utilitarianism, hedonistic ideas, which reduce happiness to pursuit of pleasure, have clouded that ancient emphasis on human flourishing with its realistic questioning of how someone born impoverished can do so, and what fate might have to do with it. Into such an arena stepped Christianity, with its emphasis on the workings of divine providence and its re-formulation of human flourishing around Christ. But this did not remove the need for divine therapy, which is why disease and defect were metaphors attached to sin early on. Sin is a disease from which Christ has come to liberate us.
It is this long Christian tradition of therapeutic Christianity that Wesleyanism and Pentecostalism stand in continuity with. It is unfortunate that it has become part of the problem rather than part of the answer to the problem.
Again, this is NOT to contest Bergler’s overall analysis about how a focus on youth can shift Christian practices, but it is to say that some practices were present prior to the twentieth century, and for good theological reasons.
So, let me see: overly emotional Christianity that employs romantic and erotic metaphors plus therapeutic Christianity that centers on happiness and human flourishing equals dumbed-down Christianity with little cognitive content. I wonder whether Bergler does not want all of us just to become good conservative Presbyterians who take our confessions seriously. As a product of the Marsden-Noll “school,” one does have to wonder. . .