A Guest Review: McKnight on Brenneman

Earlier this year, Scot McKnight kindly invited me to review Theo Hobson's Reinventing Liberal Christianity for his blog.  In return, I asked him to review Todd Brenneman's new book, Homespun Gospel.  Being myself broadly sympathetic to Brenneman's thesis, I knew that Scot would offer a tough-minded counter view that would challenge me to think me about my own position.  He has not disappointed but has provided a most thoughtul and substantial review.

Todd M. Brenneman, Homespun Gospel: The Triumph of Sentimentality in Contemporary American Evangelicalism (New York: Oxford University Press, 2014). X + 196 pages with indices.

Even a light dabbling in the history of Christian spirituality or Christian life depictions and exhortations will lead the dabbler into the zone of emotions and affections. One thinks of the outbursts of Augustine in The Confessions, of the joys of Saint Patrick or Saint Francis in The Little Flowers, which I take to be an idealized portrait of the genuine man, the dark probings of Saint John of the Cross into the dark night of the soul, and one can easily go through many others – Hildegard of Bingen, Teresa of Avila – but need not go much further. But one simply cannot avoid mentioning that one of the most profound Christian spirituality books ever written by a Protestant is by Jonathan Edwards called Religious Affections. One of the finest theological minds in history probed what he called “religious affections” with precision for all the world to see.

Precision is needed for such discussions because there is a fine line between emotion and sentimentality and Todd Brenneman, instead of offering us a fine analytical tool uses a blunt instrument in his blustery attack of Max Lucado, Rick Warren and Joel Osteen, accusing them all of sentimentality. Without clear definitions distinguishing the two, Brenneman assumes everyone will agree with his definitions and proceeds to the attack. Emotions are on a spectrum and he prefers a rationalist faith, coming as he does from one wing of the Stone-Campbell movement or the Restorationists. But Brenneman has not chosen to delineate that fine line that moves from the unavoidable reality – God made us emotional – to the distortion of that reality by over-emotionalizing. He might have done well to read the fine works on emotion by Matthew Elliott (Feel: The Power of Listening to Your Heart and Faithful Feelings: Rethinking Emotion in the New Testament) or by Gerald Peterman (Joy and Tears: The Emotional Life of the Christian). Or he might have paid attention to the powerful emotions in the Psalms or in Paul’s tearful and emotive second letter to the Corinthians. Yes, there is emotion and there is sentimentality; they are not the same, but Brenneman’s accusations only work if we get some diagnostic tool that measures the good from the superficial. One might deconstruct Brenneman’s book by saying it is fired itself by the emotion of resentment.

Be that as it may, Brenneman is from a tradition that simply doesn’t like it that Max Lucado, a Churches of Christ preacher, became an “evangelical” darling whose books have sold in the millions. A dissertation against Lucado, however, isn’t serious enough so Brenneman filled out his target by including Rick Warren, who is far more widely read than Brenneman though he does not wear his learning on his sleeve (ever, except in private conversation, which is my experience), and Joel Osteen, an easy target if there ever was one. Osteen does not belong with Lucado or especially Warren when it comes to theology and neither would many today include him in “evangelicalism,” which is another problem with Brenneman.

Evangelicalism has its faults and that’s where Brenneman has chosen to camp. His contention is that evangelicalism’s emotionality – there’s that broad brush again – has deprived it from, yes, no less than bringing in the kingdom. Here you go:

In deploying the emotional, evangelicals seek to bring about societal change through individual acceptance and conversion, as they consistently have. However, their modern reliance on sentimentality actually promotes a narcissism encouraging a belief that the individual is the center of the world and is the focus of God’s attention. They fail to address the structures of power and inequality that exist in American society, believing societal change will occur through individual conversion and that the inequality that exists in the world will be solved by cultivating certain kinds of emotions in oneself or acting in loving ways (4-5).

Investigating the use of emotion in the practice of evangelicalism, “for example, demonstrates the dynamism sentimentality continues to have in this movement and how it is clandestinely subverting the evangelical desire to transform the United States and the world through its obfuscating power" (6).

Let me not count the oddities in that set of lines and the evangelical leaders who do not fit – including perhaps the most influential evangelical of the 20th Century, John R.W. Stott.  But let’s get in mind what he thinks of when he sees sentimentality:

Sentimental love primarily appears in evangelical popular culture through three key tropes: the fatherhood of God; the infancy of human beings; and the nostalgia of home and the nuclear family. These three metaphors pervade evangelicalism and form the basis for the sentimental appeal (6).

He knows his American history well enough to know that the 18th and 19th Century laid down family and therefore church sentimentality, but the fine line must be observed. But there is a complex history here to tell – from Augustine’s revealing autobiography to Pietism and Romanticism and the happiness movement, each of which created and offered a counter to various trends, not least the Enlightenment, for the modern person.

Jesus, after all, taught the church to call God father and not a few theologians – hardly sentimentalists – like Joachim Jeremias and Norman Perrin made the fatherhood of God central to Jesus’ vision. From an entirely different angle, too, one must begin with this one at Adolf Harnack, a German aristocrat without a sentimental bone in his Teutonic body.  But Brenneman defines this trope more closely:

Evangelical sentimentality in this context, then, refers to emotional Ianguage that depends on the tropes of familial conceptions of God, particularly God as father; impressions of human beings as children, particularly as little children; and evocations of nostalgia for the nuclear family. Although other emotions (like grief) and other appeals (like guilt) could certainly be added to an accounting of how modern evangelicals express emotion, much of the construction of sentimentality is based on love (7).

Modern evangelical literature and practice appear to be outlets to habituate practitioners to a culture of simplicity that reduces the practice of religion to the creation of feeling (13).

Notice the wavering back and forth between sentimentality and emotionality and feeling without drawing any fine line when the former goes too far. Yes, once again, sentimentality exists (and evidently it is by definition bad) and emotion exists and love exists, but what’s wrong here is that I can’t tell how love or emotion cross the line into sentimentality and, to press it harder, when sentimentality is wrong or inferior.

Homespun Gospel details the preaching and writing of Lucado, Warren, Osteen and others (like T.D. Jakes, Tim LaHaye, Joyce Meyer, Rob Bell, and Bruce Wilkinson) along a series of themes: the therapeutic culture, anti-intellectualism, Christian marketing, and political activism.  He does this stuff well – knowledgeable, the appropriate anecdote or quotation, and solid historical and cultural context. I wanted more often, as for instance when he mapped the rhetorical approaches of these folks (from use of “you” to constructing their own image as “everyman”) but I wondered to myself if Paul didn’t do similar things at times. He knew these things were wrong or sentimental at times and I just wasn’t as sure. He goes after the anti-intellectualism of evangelicals when it comes to science (Lucado on p. 63), which unless I’m mistaken is no less true about his own tribe, but he seems unaware of the significant minority, represented by BioLogos and leading figures like Tim Keller, that plays the intellectual game of science quite well. But he’s right: anti-intellectualism fuses itself to kinds of individualism to prepare the way for sentimentality among some. But individualism is a bully club at times. If Jesus can talk about each sparrow as God’s concern, then – lesser to the greater logic – surely God cares about providing for each of his followers… if Jesus can say this (cf pp. 69-70), so can Max Lucado and others in their own way. I don’t find this sentimental; I find this to be a vision of God for more omniscient and omnipotent and loving than what many can handle. Of course it can be syrupy. But one person’s syrup is another person’s daily sweet.

Yes, for many evangelicalism there is a sentimentality at work in ignoring or even denying theological differences, but Max Lucado’s vision of a more unified Christianity in America, based as it is on a blander evangelicalism, was spawned in Restorationist circles, a movement that had the chutzpah to believe the church ought to be one on the basis of more faithful Bible readings. Where I probably agree the most with Brenneman is in his discussion – trenchant and illustrated well – of Christian marketing and Christian music and its appeals to emotions (which is what marketing does, and in some ways what music does). Again, a diagnostic is needed. Is there anything more emotional than the “I” of the Psalms or the powerful emotional appeals of Hosea 1-3? On politics the same applies: Yes, emotions; sometimes sentimentality; what is the difference and how do we know? All politicking is fearmongering and loaded with jeremiads (e.g., Prophecies of Godlessness proves this one).

He has his finger on something important here, though. Namely, evangelicalism’s propensity to individualism and even narcissism, which though hardly unique to evangelicalism is undeniable:

The sentimental appeal of modern evangelicals predominantly relies on narcissism rather than notions of common feeling. While Harriet Beecher Stowe might encourage her readers to “feel right” to get rid of slavery, contemporary evangelicals call their readers to “feel right” about their relationship with God. The center of the focus is on the reader and not the common experience of all human beings (14-15).

At its core therapeutic evangelicalism draws on the long tradition of emotion in evangelicalism. Moreover, this type of religiosity molds the power of those emotions into a narcissistic mold creating the evangelical individual as he center of God's desire (49).

Oh yes, he’s got his finger on something profound among some evangelicals. (Not all.) He also has finger pointed at something that doesn’t strike me as right. Notice these lines:

One of the central concerns of Reformed Protestant Christianity—including evangelicalism—is the transformation of human society into the kingdom of God, but this trajectory of sentimentality does not provide a path for this transformation (15).

As long as evangelicals are consumed with this narcissistic focus on the individual and the individual’s conversion as the primary—or sole—means to transform society, it is unlikely that they will be largely successful in transforming corrupt world governments into the kingdom of God (141-142).

Jonathan Blanchard’s postmillennial vision is hardly characteristic of either Reformed Protestant Christianity or evangelicalism (which transcends Reformed boundaries, by the way). I haven’t heard this in years.

And neither is this right about evangelicalism:

The history of evangelicalism cannot be best understood now solely in the terms of Jonathan Edwards (or even George Whitefield). Instead, evangelicalism has undergone its own conversion. Evangelicals have left Edwards’s angry God for a domestic one who is busy cataloging mementoes of his children. Modern evangelicals no longer carry the burdens of intellectuality or doctrine; instead, they have abandoned them and are traveling light (20).

One. Edwards’s God was pure love and therefore angry in wrath against sin. That’s got to be said. Second, yes, some evangelicals have left Edwards’s God for a domestic one, but most have not. Third, yes, some are “traveling light” and he’s got some splendid examples, but evangelicalism is a robust theological movement whose members have filled academic societies with one scholar and one academic tome after another. His broad brush approach to emotion is found as well in what he says too often about evangelicalism. Evangelicalism evokes the emotion of resentment in Brenneman and it mars his book.

I have been hard on Brenneman because he frustrated me from the opening paragraphs by his lack of a diagnostic tool to distinguish the beautiful from the ugly, but there is one area that I think Brenneman has a golden egg to lay, and it can be found in his defining of evangelicalism. This book deserves to be in the footnotes and discussion of every debate about defining evangelicalism. Evangelicalism is an emotional theological orientation, but he wants to press further: it is an aesthetic faith.

With this aura of emotionalty, it is important to recognize evangelicalism as an aesthetic as much as a set of doctrines or beliefs (14).

The entire book, in fact, ends up defining evangelicalism and I take his opening definition from the Introduction, and here I think he is saying something both important and fresh:

“Evangelical” refers to an aesthetical worldview fashioned by belief in the truthfulness of the Bible, by experience of new birth into the Christian community, by emotional relationship between individuals and God through Christ, by concern to share the message of Christ with others, and by interest in shaping human society into the kingdom of God (16, emphasis added; also at pp. 159-160).

Homespun Gospel could have been a good book, but it is not. The good of this book, its deep concern with how emotions have undone theological robustness and its inability to fulfill the mission of God in this world, is a concern many of us have. But without diagnostics and careful delineations between the importance of emotions and good emotions over against derelict ones, we do not have the kind of study needed to push evangelicalism’s tendencies in new directions.