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).