Question to All Your Answers: A Journey From Folk Religion to Examined Faith
reviewed by Louis Markos
From Poor Richard’s Almanack to the first five amendments of the Bill of Rights, from the Gettysburg Address to the Four Spiritual Laws, Americans have a genius for reducing complex ideas and principles to practical maxims and memorable phrases.
Unfortunately, our gift for simplifying often leads us into replacing critical thought with emotional impulse and discernment with knee-jerk response. Thus, American Christians counteract the commercialization of Christmas by coming up with a catchy slogan—“Put Christ back in Christmas” or “Jesus is the Reason for the Season”—that any Madison Avenue exec could have invented.
Many who have written on Evangelical Christianity in America have noted, and bemoaned, the Evangelical tendency to promote a bare-bones gospel message lacking in theology, historical context, and biblical nuance. (My Catholic and Orthodox friends bemoan a similar tendency in their own churches.)
In Questions to All Your Answers, Roger E. Olson attributes this to the ubiquity of “folk Christianity,” a term he defines as “a badly distorted version of Christianity that thrives on clichés and slogans and resists reflection and examination.” Olson, a professor of theology at Baylor University’s Truett Seminary, demonstrates how folk Christian slogans come to be believed and hallowed and repeated, even in the face of biblical inconsistencies, logical contradictions, and common sense.
Take, for example, the knee-jerk Christian response to suffering, pain, and tragedy: “God is in control.” When we invoke this mantra of folk Christianity, do we really mean to say that God is the cause of human rights violations or natural disasters or childhood leukemia or highway accidents?
Olson notes that many Calvinists use this phrase in accordance with a carefully thought-out theology, but he argues that most Christians who use it seem oblivious to the fact that it contradicts their otherwise strongly held beliefs that God is a loving Father, that he gave man free will, and that he is not the author of sin and evil.
Would it not be more true to the biblical revelation and to our own experience, he suggests, to say that God is in charge, but not always in control? “God has the power to stop anything from happening; he just doesn’t always exercise that power. God limits the exercise of his power for the sake of real, free relationships with people and for the sake of creatures’ moral responsibility.”
The first folk phrase Olson analyzes is the one that paves the way for all the others: “It’s a mystery, just accept it.” Christians are too quick to play the “mystery card,” the “appeal to paradox” acting as a cover for “anti-intellectualism” and “sheer mental laziness.”
Too often Christians enshrine their embrace of paradox as a “sign of spirituality” while dismissing and denigrating as unspiritual the necessary and ongoing task “of making the Christian message intelligible.” Worse, the refusal to examine and justify the paradoxes of our faith gives “permission to all kinds of non-Christian belief systems to do the same with impunity.”
In contrast, the church fathers devoted intense effort to defining and explaining the Incarnation and Trinity in such a way as to protect them from the charge of inconsistency and incoherence. Their definitions and explanations “point to a mystery beyond full comprehension,” but they appealed to mystery after their best efforts to make these doctrines intelligible.
As an English professor who ministers to Christian students, I noted one phrase that springs almost daily from the lips of my students: “God has a perfect plan for your life.”
Olson challenges his readers to justify the common, firmly held belief that “God has a detailed, blueprint-like plan for every individual Christian’s life”—a belief that, for college students, means that God has a single spouse and a single career for them that they must somehow discern, either biblically or rationally. It rests, he argues, on a kind of “magical religious thinking,” on “the belief that God has a secret will and a power he’s holding back, waiting for us to do something special that will cause him to reveal his will and zap us with his power.”
This view is “too impersonal and objectifying . . . it treats God and our relationship with him as an object.” This type of thinking transforms God into a “machine or a computer program.” (When many of my Christian students give up on waiting for God to send them a mate, they generally turn to eharmony.com.)
Questions to All Your Answers is not without its flaws and problems. Olson, though he tries to situate himself as a sort of Evangelical everyman, too often seems to be promoting his own brand of Arminian theology. His cultural analysis would have been more effective had he directly engaged postmodern, “emergent” Christians who embrace mystery and paradox not because they are folk Christians, but because they believe the church has erred in favoring doctrine over sacred narrative, logic over intuition, the telos over the journey.
Still, Roger Olson’s book provocatively questions Christian orthodoxies that are not really orthodoxies, but folk mantras that obscure the challenges and complexities of the Christian life.
Letters Welcome: One of the reasons Touchstone exists is to encourage conversation among Christians, so we welcome letters responding to articles or raising matters of interest to our readers. However, because the space is limited, please keep your letters under 400 words. All letters may be edited for space and clarity when necessary. firstname.lastname@example.org
An introductory subscription (six copies for one year) is only $29.95.