Speaking in Tongues

Michael Metzger

Guess who speaks in tongues?

In his soon to be released book, You Lost Me, Barrna Group president David Kinnman describes a growing percentage of Christians who have checked out of church. He calls them exiles, calculating there are between eight to twenty million of them. Exiles think culture, then Christianity. When you approach faith from this direction, the modern church sounds as if it is speaking in tongues—which explains why exiles are leaving.

Western Christianity approaches culture differently than exiles do. It thinks Christianity, then culture. It starts with scripture and attempts to apply biblical principles to culture. Exiles start with NPR and work their way back to the New Testament. By starting with the Bible, Western Christianity assumes its take on scripture and society is unsullied. Exiles don’t see it this way, so they feel exiled from the Western church.

It turns out that exiles might be closer to the truth. According to Philip Rieff and Jackson Lears, contemporary evangelicalism speaks a cluttered and confusing confluence of three languages influenced by three cultures.1 The Western church is a tangled trilingual faith, first speaking the premodern language that sounds like Thus saith the Lord.

The premodern world believed knowledge was based on authoritative tradition. In Fiddler on The Roof, Tevye, the father, speaks the language of the premodern world: “Tradition!” In this world, the social order conforms to the sacred canopy. Thus, Tevye’s first daughter is married under a canopy. Contemporary evangelicalism is fluent in this premodern language, relying on the Bible as authoritative in all matters.

This isn’t a problem in a world relying on a sacred canopy. It is a big problem if the canopy has collapsed, as happened in the 19th century. Evangelicals next learned the language of revivalism, mimicking modernism that rejected the premodern world and elevated individual self as the final authority. Like modernism, it made appeals to individual choice. One of the most important voices was the Congregationalist Charles Finney (1792-1875). Finney taught that “religion is the work of man” and that revival “is not a miracle” but “the result of the right use of the appropriate means.”2 He introduced “new measures” to help people “make decisions for Jesus” that included mass advertising, protracted revival meetings (i.e., meetings that lasted as long as the Spirit led), and, most controversial of all, the “anxious bench” that coaxed even more decisions.

William James (1842-1910) later noted that this evangelical form of individual religious experience was free from—in fact, opposed—any “institutional form” that religious experience might take.3 As a result, contemporary evangelicalism focuses more on saving individuals than shaping public institutions. But when public references to God collapsed in the late 1800s, evangelical faith was left with only appeals to individual pietism.

Contemporary evangelicalism also learned a third language—the 20th century therapeutic and managerial world. “Religious man was born to be saved; therapeutic man is born to be pleased,” wrote Philip Rieff in The Triumph of the Therapeutic: Uses of Faith After Freud.4 Rieff showed how Freud created a world where virtue gave way to “values,” “finding myself” was more important than conforming to reality, and confession gave way to comfort. Religion was reframed as therapy and feeling “safe.”

The tragedy of tangled trilingual language is a tin ear. Contemporary evangelicalism doesn’t hear its therapeutic and managerial language. Prior to the 1800s, the church never imagined itself as “safe.” C.S. Lewis captured modernism’s confused idea of God in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. “Safe?” said Mr. Beaver… “Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. but he’s good.”5

It might be the case that Rieff and Lears overlooked a fourth language—an Enlightenment take on human nature. The Enlightenment was an early 17th century movement whose principle project was “the construction of a state and a body of law that brackets the church from direct influence,” according to John Witte, Jr., the director of the Center for the Study of Law and Religion at Emory University.6 It reframed human nature as rational, describing human beings as cognitive creatures requiring no creator or sacred order. Protestantism evangelicalism was birthed at the time of the Enlightenment, so it shares some of the same language, appealing to reason and rationality.

Exiles sense this confusing cultural confluence since they think culture, then Christianity. Western Christianity doesn’t, so it overlooks the fact that scripture never speaks of “applying” biblical principles. A “principle” is an Enlightenment term for knowledge acquired through the head without aid of the heart and hands. It’s purely cognitive. Scripture describes knowledge as hands-on, as in “Adam knew Eve.”

It might be closer to the truth to say contemporary evangelicalism speaks in tongues. In the Corinthian church, believers who spoke in other languages were confusing. Others couldn’t make sense of it. It was a confusing cacophony unknowingly mimicking the idol worship that took place in the temple of Diana, right in the city of Corinth.

If the modern church thinks culture, then Christianity, it might begin to hear how it speaks in tongues. At this point however it doesn’t hear the confusing cultural confluence. Exiles do. That’s why they’re checking out of church.

1 C.f., Philip Reiff, The Triumph of the Therapeutic: Uses of Faith After Freud (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987) and Jackson Lears, No Place of Grace: Antimodernism and the Transformation of American Culture, 1880-1920 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1981)
2 Douglas A. Sweeney, The American Evangelical Story: A History of the Movement (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, Baker Publishing Group, 2005), p. 68.
3 William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience, in Writings, 1902-1910 (New Haven, CT: The Library of America, 1987), p. 34.
4 Philip Rieff, The Triumph of the Therapeutic: Uses of Faith After Freud (Wilmington, DE: ISI Books, Second Edition, 2007), p. 19.
5 C.S. Lewis, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (New York, NY: First Collier Edition, 1970), pp. 75-76.
6 Mars Hill Audio Journal, Charlottesville, VA, Volume 91 (June/July 2008).


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  1. Once you apply biblical principles to your life, is that not hands-on? Don’t we, as Christians, have to put what we understand in action?
    So it seems the language we need to speak is solely the premodern language? If so, how are exiles and non-Christians (for lack of a better term) going to understand that language, since they don’t believe in a sacred canopy?
    When you say exiles think culture, then Christianity, do you mean they prefer to look at ‘top’ institutions (in America and probably elsewhere) to define reality instead of Christianity/the church?
    Thanks for taking the time to answer these questions and direct conversations.

  2. Interesting. My observation is not that the exiles are exiles because of a confusion of languages. Rather, it is a confusion born of non-congruence between professed belief and action.

  3. Hi Tommy:

    Good questions. And so many! Let’s start at the top. The Bible never speaks of “principles.” That’s an Enlightenment idea. The Bible never speaks of “applying” knowledge. That’s an Enlightenment idea. Knowledge, as scripture defines it, is hands on. It starts by applying yourself to a problem and learning as you go.

    As for language, the church would benefit from becoming bilingual. We ought to have our peculiar language, drawn from scripture, that rightly defines reality. As you can see from the paragraph above, that’s not a given in contemporary evangelicalism. Second, we need to speak the language of the street. Not ape it. Becoming bilingual doesn’t mean going native.

    As for your third question, yes, exiles think culture, then Christianity. This doesn’t mean culture gets it right all the time, but exiles sense their colleagues at work (or something they hear on NPR) is often closer to seeing reality than the modern, Western church. it causes them to grieve, since they trust scripture is right and reliable. They are left with wondering whether their particular faith tradition rightly understands the way reality actually works (again, look at the first paragraph and how you defined “apply”).

    Bob: Yes. Exiles sense an incongruence between how their faith community defines reality and the way much of reality actually works. Then they feel the same angst when they go to work – that their workplace doesn’t understand reality very well either. As James Hunter says in his book “To Change the World”: reality in the late modern world is a problem.

  4. Wow, you are right on about the different languages being spoken. I feel like some of your conclusions seem to be the least likely conclusion you could possibly draw from the exile situation.

    For example – these exiles – you seem to be saying that they are “above” the church in the sense that they listen to NPR and so they “know” reality better than the church does — so that’s why they leave? All of them do that? I would think that out of all the people who have left the church, maybe 10% have done so for this reason. Most people leave *a* church and go to another for the reason you cite. The ones who leave *the* church and don’t come back are more likely leaving because the call of the culture is stronger than the call of the church from their perspective. It might be the church’s problem or it might be theirs, but they are responding to the call of the world. I recall Jesus talking about this in the parable of the sower, and elsewhere. Oh yeah, and didn’t Paul talk about “conforming to this world” in Rom 12:2?

    Finally, I completely agree that God wants hands-on knowledge, but isn’t the quote you reference with the word “knew” completely out of context? I mean, this is the KJV translation of the phrase “had sex with.” (Gen 4:1)

  5. As an ‘exile’ I can say that I have left consistent active participation in local churches because when I talk about the intersection between what I read in Scripture, hear in prayer, and observe in the world, the church usually doesn’t see what I’m seeing or just doesn’t have room for it.

    I’ve simply had to move around outside of church in order to fill my role in the Church- a concept that I have found doesn’t translate well.

  6. Mike,
    I’d like to hear your thoughts on the viral video “Why I Hate Religion, but Love Jesus” by Jefferson Bethke. I think he is voicing the frustration of the Exile, but has a strange way of resolving the tension.

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