A Sentimental Journey

Shane Rosenthal
Thursday, August 9th 2007
Sep/Oct 1996

A few years ago, contemporary Christian music artist, Leslie Phillips, left evangelical Christianity and became a secular singer/songwriter (now Sam Phillips). In her 1994 CD, Martinis and Bikinis, Phillips included a song entitled "I Need Love," in which she exclaims, "I need love, not some sentimental prison." That's an interesting line-a line which probably had something to do with her uneasiness in the evangelical subculture. In a report for National Public Radio, Lynn Neary spoke of those "sugary sweet ballads," referring to contemporary Christian music. Perhaps this is the sort of thing that Phillips grew tired of.

But is contemporary Christian music the only aspect of the evangelical subculture which could be described as overly sentimental or "sugary sweet?" Hardly. Just take a trip to the average Christian bookstore. One is more likely to find Precious Moments figurines and bumper stickers with the words "I (heart) Jesus" rather than books on important theological topics or debates. And yet, why is it that you don't find a good selection of theological books (that is to say, books about God) at these stores? One Christian bookstore chain in my area may have given us a hint. They used to be known as (let's call them "X") "X Christian Book Stores"; but now they are called "X Christian Stores." They simply took the word "book" out of their name! It is possible that they did this merely to be honest (it is most likely the case that they are selling more Christian products–shirts, greeting cards, paintings, figurines, CD's, tapes, pencils, games, etc.–than they are books). My personal theory, however, is that they perceived the word "book" to be a turn off.

How Did We Get Here?

This is nothing new. There has been a long standing impulse in this country to do away with the intellectual in favor of the emotional, the theological in favor of the experiential–an impetus which has sought to soften the hardedges of religion. Ralph Waldo Emerson was an early proponent of this approach: "We say, the old forms of religion decay…I don't think it can be cured or stayed by any modification of theological creeds, much less by theological discipline. The cure of false theology is mother-wit. "Thus," Emerson concluded, "Forget your books and traditions, and obey your moral perceptions at this hour. That which is signified by the words 'moral' and 'spiritual,' is a lasting essence…." (1) It is interesting to read men such as Emerson given our own cultural context. You begin to realize that the contemporary evangelical church is heading in an Emersonian–which is to say, a Unitarian–direction. The evangelical bookstore I referred to above, for example, seemed to be following Emerson's advice about forgetting "books and traditions," while emphasizing the moral and spiritual side of religion (albeit, a commercialized one).

Ann Douglas has done some important work tracing the demise of what she calls our Puritan forefathers' "rigorous Calvinist theology" in her book The Feminization of American Culture. Quoting religious thinker Henry James, Douglas reminds us that by the nineteenth century, "religion in the old virile sense had disappeared, and been replaced by a feeble Unitarian sentimentality." "Moreover," she continues, "he Suggests that Unitarianism is not itself a religion, but rather a kind of cultural substitute for religion…he is saying that religion has been emasculated." (2) It is not hard to see how this has played itself out in the liberal denominations, however, the same tendency has gone largely unchecked in evangelical circles. Consider, for example, the following observations made by Douglas:

The everyday Protestant of 1800 subscribed to a rather complicated and rigidly defined body of dogma; attendance at a certain church had a markedly theological function. By 1875, American Protestants were much more likely to define their faith in terms of family morals, civic responsibility, and above all, in terms of the social function of churchgoing. Their actual creed was usually a liberal, even a sentimental one for which Edwards and his contemporaries would have felt scorn and horror. In an analogous way, Protestant churches over the same period shifted their emphasis from a primary concern with the doctrinal beliefs of their members to a preoccupation with numbers. In ecclesiastical and religious circles, attendance came to count for more than genuine adherence. Nothing could show better the late nineteenth-century Protestant Church's altered identity as an eager participant in the emerging consumer society than its obsession with popularity and its increasing disregard of intellectual issues. (3)

Could a paragraph better describe what is going on in evangelicalism today? For example, we certainly don't go to church for theological reasons but, more often than not, pick and choose our places of worship based upon individual "felt needs." We are preoccupied with numbers to the extent that we have created a church growth movement which has figured everything out about organizing a church for the maximum number of attendants (one consultant even refers to them as consumers) down to the layout of the parking lot. Of course, the church growth gurus do not go into much detail about discipleship, choosing to focus primarily on the issue of church attendance for the simple reason that "genuine adherence" is hard to quantify.

Those spoken of who began to "define their faith in terms of family morals [and] civic responsibility" seem to be alive and well in this country championing a "return to traditional family values"-this in an age when the average Christian can't even name the Ten Commandments(as our own surveys have shown). And what could be a better example of religious consumerism and the "obsession with popularity and its increasing disregard of intellectual issues" than the average Christian bookstore? While singer Don Henley seems to lament the fact that "There are no facts, there is no truth…just people selling T-shirts," (4) we seem content with the fact that Christian bookstores have reduced space for books in favor of a Christian apparel section featuring "Witness Wear." Rather than training our youth to "always be prepared to give an answer" (1 Pet. 3:15)–which implies the study of truth and facts-we are peddling Christian T-shirts mimicking popular TV commercials (the most banal shirt I've seen lately is a take-off of the Bud-Light ad campaign: "He Loves You Man").

Some of you might think I'm being too hard on the average Christian bookstore–thinking to yourselves that they still have a number of good Christian books. While it is true that there are still a good number of books available at many of these stores, I do want to raise the question about the kind or quality of these books. Referring to the nineteenth century, Douglas tells us that the average person "was likely to show a love of fiction and poetry and a distaste for polemical theology; he preferred 'light' to 'heavy' reading." (5) Unfortunately, many Christian bookstore owners know this to be a reality in our own day, and they stock their shelves accordingly. Just think for a moment about the number of Christian biographies, books of Christian fiction, books by Christian celebrities, and other books that could best be described as "light," that outnumber the "heavy" books of the kind to which Douglas refers. In my search for these types of books, I am usually forced to visit second-hand book shops, looking for authors who, by and large, were not alive this century.

Sweet Jesus

It is interesting to consider what this softening process has done to the average person's perception of Jesus. Before I became a Christian I remember thinking that Jesus was a pious and rather effeminate man, drawing this conclusion largely from the portraits of Jesus you typically see. I also remember hearing one of my cousins complain about how much he hated church because it was so boring. (6) But what a contrast this is to the personality of the one that is presented in the pages of the New Testament. As Dorothy Sayers masterfully argues,

The people who hanged Christ never, to do them justice, accused him of being a bore-on the contrary, they thought him too dynamic to be safe. It has been left for later generations to muffle up that shattering personality and surround him with an atmosphere of tedium. We have very efficiently pared the claws of the Lion of Judah, certified him "meek and mild," and recommended him as a fitting household pet for pale curates and pious old ladies. (7)

Sayers, who was a popular fiction writer and a committed Anglican, wrote those words in 1949, referring to the increasing liberalism of the Church of England. Her conviction was that the church had been perceived as dull, not because of too much theology, but because of its absence. "It is the dogma that is the drama" Sayers writes, "–not beautiful phrases, nor comforting sentiments, nor vague aspirations to loving kindness and uplift, nor the promise of something nice after death–but the terrifying assertion that the same God who made the world, lived in the world and passed through the grave and gate of death." (8)

We too have pared the claws of the Lion of Judah. The Jesus we proclaim loves everybody, and wouldn't offend a fly. But the Jesus described on the pages of the New Testament is an entirely different person. On one occasion this radical teacher happened to offend some religious leaders by disagreeing with them over the nature of sin. "Listen and understand. What goes into a man's mouth does not make him unclean, but what comes out of his mouth, that is what makes him 'unclean'" (Matt. 5:10-11). In other words, we sin, not because of outside influences, but because of the corruption already within our hearts-we sin because we're sinners. But of course his disciples heard the grumbling, as is so often the case, and came to him saying, "Do you know that the Pharisees were offended when they heard this?" He replied, "Every plant that my heavenly Father has not planted will be pulled up by the roots. Leave them; they are blind guides"(5:12-14). On another occasion Jesus was "aware that his disciples were grumbling" and said to them, "Does this offend you?"(John 6:61), and proceeded to continue discoursing on difficult theological issues such as total inability and the radical nature of grace. And, as the text clearly shows, from that time "many of his disciples turned back and no longer followed him.' You do not want to leave too, do you? 'Jesus asked the Twelve. Simon Peter answered him, 'Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. We believe and know that you are the Holy One of God'" (6:67-69).

In our day the last thing one is supposed to do is "offend" someone over theology. But Jesus showed that he wasn't all that concerned with the offense taken by the Pharisees, because, as he says, "they are blind guides." Now, if we were to adjust one of these scenes from the Scriptures for a contemporary audience, it would read something like this: "'Jesus, did you know that the Pharisees were offended when they heard this?' He replied, 'Gee, I sure didn't mean to do that. Hey guys! I love you! Won't you invite me into your heart and make me Lord of your life?'" It sounds pretty silly, but that is the impression many people have of Jesus because of our preaching. They think that religion is fit, as Sayers so eloquently put it, merely for "pious old ladies." The Jesus we preach is so kind, gentle and loving, it is a wonder that he was ever crucified.

The other thing Sayers points out that is essential for us to consider is the fact that we have forgotten that the "dogma is the drama." In her day, as well as ours, it was thought that true spiritual life flowed from experience divorced from theology. "'Take away theology and give us some nice religion' has been a popular slogan for so long that we are likely to accept it, without inquiring whether religion without theology has any meaning." (9) Any religion can have beautiful phrases, uplifting messages, and comforting sentiment. But Christianity is a religion based not on religious aspirations, but upon "good news." To say that a religion is based upon good news is to say that it is based upon facts, history, and truth-all of which require understanding. As Sayers writes, "When Christ told the Samaritan woman, 'Ye worship what ye know not' he was apparently under the impression that it might be desirable, on the whole, to know what one was worshipping." (10) Our day suffers from this plague as well. Not only do we not emphasize theology and doctrine, but we want happy "worship experiences" and that "tingling sensation" to run down our spines–as if that is what Christianity is all about. Again Sayers is helpful:

[Jesus] showed himself sadly out of touch with the twentieth–century mind, for the cry today is: "Away with the tedious complexities of dogma–let us have the simple spirit of worship; just worship, no matter of what!" The only drawback to this demand for a generalized and undirected worship is the practical difficulty of arousing any sort of enthusiasm for the worship of nothing in particular. (11)

Whereas Paul admonished the Colossians to "Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly…as you sing psalms, hymns and spiritual songs"(Col. 3:16), today we sing light and airy tunes such as, "In moments like these, I lift up my hands, I sing out a love song to Jesus." I went to one of these non-denominational churches for a couple of years and didn't know, or learn, much theology (i.e., who Christ was or what he had done on my behalf); but as awkward as it may seem, I was certainly encouraged to sing "love songs" to Jesus. That was sentimentalism.

The liberal churches in this country have found out the hard way where this road leads. It is hard to get people "enthusiastic about nothing in particular." Some may come for the music, others for the feeling of community, and still others for the various programs offered; but after a while, people will slowly stop coming on Sunday mornings. In our evangelical community, it might even be easier to stop coming to church. For one thing, our "mega-churches" make it really easy to slip in and out without anyone ever noticing. Secondly, we have hundreds of worship tapes and CD's for people to purchase so they can enjoy the music in the comfort of their own homes. Why come to church for a buzz when you can have a worship experience while doing the dishes?

Christianity And Liberalism

J. Gresham Machen's magnum opus, Christianity and Liberalism, is a book that everyone concerned about the present crisis should read. At first one might not find the title of his book all that striking, but in its day it had a little more punch. You see, Machen was trying to show that Christianity and liberalism were two separate plans of salvation, two separate faiths-in short, two entirely different religious systems. In his day, it was thought that liberalism was a fresh new approach to Christianity, a way of practicing the faith in the modern context. In Machen's thinking, however, when referring to Christianity, one was "certainly not [referring to] the religion of the modern liberal Church." This he believed because liberalism had "relinquished everything distinctive of Christianity, so that what remains is in essentials only that same indefinite type of religious aspiration which was in the world before Christianity came upon the scene." (12) Machen set out therefore to bring all the issues out into the open and make clear-cut distinctions between the two faiths: "What that message is can be made clear, as is the case with all definition, only by way of exclusion, by way of contrast." (13) But this approach wasn't always well received:

Presenting an issue sharply is indeed by no means a popular business at the present time….Clear-cut definition of terms in religious matters, bold facing of the logical implications of religious views, is by many persons regarded as an impious proceeding…But with such persons we cannot possibly bring ourselves to agree. Light may seem at times to be an impertinent intruder, but it is always beneficial in the end. The type of religion which rejoices in the pious sound of traditional phrases, regardless of their meanings, or shrinks from "controversial" matters, will never stand amid the shocks of life. In the sphere of religion, as in other spheres, the things about which men are agreed are apt to be the things that are least worth holding; the really important things are the things about which men will fight. (14)

In our day too, we hear Christians talk about avoiding controversy and doctrinal debates in order to simply "serve the Lord in unity." But doesn't that beg the question? Don't we first have to demonstrate what it means to "serve the Lord" before we can do it in unity? Liberalism, for example, had shown itself to be an enemy of the Cross by rejecting the entire theological substance of the New Testament in favor of an experiential religion. "Many men," Machen warns, "…are telling us that we should not seek to know [God] at all; theology, we are told, is the death of religion. We do not know God, then-such seems to be the logical implication of this view-but simply feel Him. In its consistent form such a view is mysticism." (15) His argument was that liberalism had not simply rejected theology outright, but rather had traded one theology for another: the theology of the Cross for mysticism. Developing this point further he writes,

We ought never, therefore, to set present communion with Christ, as so many are doing, in opposition to the gospel; we ought never to say that we are interested in what Christ does for us now, but are not so much interested in what He did long ago. Do you know what soon happens when men talk in that way? The answer is only too plain. They soon lose all contact with the real Christ; what they call "Christ" in the soul soon comes to have little to do with the actual person, Jesus of Nazareth; their religion would really remain essentially the same if scientific history should prove that such a person as Jesus never lived. In other words, they soon came to substitute the imaginings of their own hearts for what God has revealed; they substitute mysticism for Christianity as the religion of their souls. (16)

But this is not unfamiliar to us in our present context. Even U. S. News & World Report felt compelled to report that many of the growing churches in this country are "going light on theology and offering worshipers a steady diet of sermons and support groups that emphasize personal fulfillment." (17) In other words, they are giving up the worship of God for the worship of themselves.

Christianity And History

Machen's comments above also show us the extent to which the modern liberal church was anti-historical. It was much more important to have "Jesus in your heart" than to focus on his death, burial and resurrection. Liberalism certainly had it reasons for this. For one thing, it had rejected the theology underlying these creedal affirmations. Secondly, it no longer held the opinion that such events were historical, but rather belonged to the realm of "faith." The important thing to focus on was not a "literal resurrection" but rather one's own "Easter experience." Machen's response is surprising, "A Jewish teacher of the first century can never satisfy the longing of our souls." In other words, if Jesus did not really rise from the dead, he was simply a mere man, and therefore not worthy of our worship. He continues, "Clothe him with all the art of modern research, throw upon him the warm, deceptive calcium-light of modern sentimentality; and despite it all, common sense will come to its rights again, and for our brief hour of self-deception-as though we had been with Jesus-will wreak upon us the revenge of hopeless disillusionment." (18) Regardless of liberalism's zeal, devotion, and attention to the details of Christian life, Machen saw directly through to the corrupt theology at the heart of the issue. One simply cannot have wonderful experiences with a dead Rabbi if he is still dead:

It is the connection of the present experience of the believer with an actual historic appearance of Jesus in the world which prevents our religion from being mysticism and causes it to be Christianity. It must certainly be admitted, then, that Christianity does depend upon something that happened; our religion must be abandoned altogether unless at a definite point in history Jesus died as a propitiation for the sins of men. Christianity is certainly dependent upon history. (19)

A salvation dependent upon history? If this is so, one might ask the question Machen himself anticipates: "Must we really wait until historians have finished disputing about the value of sources and the like before we can have peace with God?" But with regard to this objection it must be acknowledged that a Christianity independent of history is a contradiction in terms. "The Christian gospel means, not a presentation of what always has been true, but a report of something new-something that imparts a totally different aspect to the situation of mankind." (20) In other words, Christianity is indeed intricately linked to the debate over the "musty records" of history. Even the apostle Paul admits, "If Christ is not risen, your faith is in vain" (1 Cor. 15:17).

Christianity and Evangelicalism

Anyone involved with the problems of evangelical Christianity cannot read Machen's work in a detached manner, for the parallels are all too evident. Though there are certainly notable differences between liberalism and evangelicalism, the same emphasis on the Christian life apart from Christian theology is there (although for somewhat different reasons). Take a look for example at some of the catch phrases Machen uses to describe liberalism: a) "Are not our own efforts to put into operation the 'principles of Jesus,' or to 'make Christ Master' by our own efforts in our lives, better than this strange message of the Cross?," (21) b) "Some of us may desire to ask whether Jesus of Nazareth really made 'the more abundant life' the ultimate end of existence," (22) c) "The [apostle's] testimony was primarily not to 'inner spiritual facts' but to what Jesus had done once for all in his death and resurrection," (23) d) "One of the very greatest evils of present-day religious life, it seems to me, is the reception into the Church of persons who merely repeat a form of words such as 'I accept Christ as my personal Savior,' without giving the slightest evidence to show that they know what such words mean." (24) One may rightly conclude that Machen would not feel at home in many of today's evangelical churches, where Christianity is a "relationship" rather than a religion, where Jesus is offered as a cure for "loneliness" rather than for sin and guilt, where Christian life and experience are more important than theology and doctrine, and where personal testimonies are valued over historical facts.

If it is true that these and other parallels can be drawn between Machen's liberalism and contemporary evangelicalism, should we not point this out? As I mentioned earlier in this article, the title of Machen's book Christianity & Liberalism was quite shocking in its day, about as shocking as if one were to claim that Christianity and evangelicalism were two totally separate religions. But is that a possibility? Is it possible that evangelical religion has "relinquished everything distinctive of Christianity," so that which remains is merely a vague "religious aspiration which was in the world before Christianity came upon the scene"? (25) If it has, then avoiding the present controversy is nothing but sheer unfaithfulness.

When Wine Turns to Vinegar

Essentially what I have been arguing is that the wine of God's kingdom has repeatedly turned into vinegar. The tendency in this country to reduce Christianity into sentimentalism has been long standing, and what we have in evangelicalism is an inoffensive, uninteresting, and sentimental gospel. By not understanding the cultural forces which slowly begin to change the taste of our wine, we have failed to place effective seals on the wine caskets. We have failed to heed Paul's instruction to "guard the good deposit that was entrusted to you" (2 Tim. 1:13), and to "watch your life and doctrine closely" (1 Tim. 4:16).

What we desperately need to do at the present time is to throw out the vinegar and press some new wine. If we are to call ourselves Christians, we must go back to the Scriptures and rediscover who God is and what he has done for us in Christ. And we must certainly not be afraid of controversy. As Machen suggests, we should "encourage those who are engaging in the intellectual and spiritual struggle," and "more time, "not less, "should be devoted to the defense of the gospel." (26) Contending for the faith in the midst of theological controversy is simply an opportunity to reassert the historic Christian message in the face of opposition. By dealing with objections head on, and by facing the issues squarely, we are given an open invitation to evangelize the lost and to show the trustworthiness of the Christian claim. If the history of the church teaches us anything, it teaches us that Christianity is best served, not by theological pacifism, but by men and women of courage and conviction.

In an interview on radio station KSCA in Los Angeles, Sam Phillips admitted, "I get suspicious of those really happy records, you know, those really happy words because there's something underneath it all that's not so happy; I'm certain of it." This former contemporary Christian singer apparently got tired of the vinegar. She went on to say, "I think the more depressing lyrics are more comforting because at least you feel like they're a little more in touch with reality." That's the heart of the matter. People are ignoring our faith for the wrong reasons; Christ isn't the offense, we are. They think that Christianity is a crutch for sentimental people who aren't all that "in touch with reality." We must take a U-turn on this sentimental journey, and show the world a Christianity with edges, a Christianity with chutzpah, a rigorous Christianity that does not flinch or hide in the face of tough questions. It might be hard to swallow, and it might not be accepted by everyone, but at least it would be worth listening to–at least it would be worth believing. (27) In the words of Dorothy Sayers,

Let us, in heaven's name, drag out the divine drama from under the dreadful accumulation of slipshod thinking and trashy sentiment heaped upon it, and set it on an open stage to startle the world into some sort of vigorous reaction. If the pious are the first to be shocked, so much worse for the pious–others will pass into the kingdom of heaven before them. (28)

1 [ Back ] Ralph Waldo Emerson, Essays and English Traits, "Worship," (New York: P. F. Collier & Son, 1909), p. 280-281.
2 [ Back ] Ann Douglas, The Feminization of American Culture, (New York: Doubleday, 1977), p. 17.
3 [ Back ] Ibid, p. 7.
4 [ Back ] Don Henley, Actual Miles: Henley's Greatest Hits, "The Garden of Allah," (Geffen Records, 1995).
5 [ Back ] Douglas, p. 9-10.
6 [ Back ] Herman Melville has a similar observation in his classic book, Moby Dick, "...whatever they may reveal of the divine love in the Son, the soft, curled hermaphroditical Italian destitute as they are of all brawniness, hint nothing of any power, but the mere negative, feminine one of submission and endurance..." (New York: Bantam Books, 1967 edition; originally written 1851, p. 348 (look for the chapter heading "The Tail").
7 [ Back ] Dorothy Sayers, The Whimsical Christian, "The Greatest Drama Ever Staged," (New York: Collier Books, 1978), p. 14.
8 [ Back ] Sayers, The Whimsical Christian, "The Dogma Is The Drama," p. 27-28.
9 [ Back ] Sayers, The Whimsical Christian, "Creed or Chaos," p. 36.
10 [ Back ] Sayers, The Whimsical Christian, "The Dogma Is The Drama," p. 23.
11 [ Back ] Ibid., p. 23.
12 [ Back ] J. Gresham Machen, Christianity & Liberalism, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1923), p. 7.
13 [ Back ] Ibid., p. 15-16.
14 [ Back ] Ibid., p. 1-2.
15 [ Back ] J. Gresham Machen, What Is Faith?, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1946), p. 74-75.
16 [ Back ] Ibid., p. 152.
17 [ Back ] Jeffery L. Sheler, U.S. News & World Report, "Spiritual America," April 4, 1994, p. 53.
18 [ Back ] Christianity & Liberalism, p. 41.
19 [ Back ] Ibid., p. 120-121.
20 [ Back ] Ibid.
21 [ Back ] What Is Faith?, p. 152.
22 [ Back ] Ibid., p. 39.
23 [ Back ] Christianity & Liberalism, p. 53.
24 [ Back ] What Is Faith?, p. 156.
25 [ Back ] Christianity and Liberalism, p. 7.
26 [ Back ] Ibid., p. 173-174.
27 [ Back ] A good example of this is a comment by Harold Bloom in his book The American Religion (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1992, p. 228) regarding Machen's book Christianity & Liberalism: "I have just read my way through this, with distaste and discomfort but with reluctant and growing admiration for Machen's mind. I have never seen a stronger case made for the argument that institutional Christianity must regard cultural liberalism as an enemy to faith."
28 [ Back ] Sayers, p. 27.
Thursday, August 9th 2007

“Modern Reformation has championed confessional Reformation theology in an anti-confessional and anti-theological age.”

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