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The Feel-Good Faith of Evangelicals


Jun 18 2013
Are we really as “biblical” as we think we are?

Think of how evangelicals may describe the Bible: unchanging, inerrant, authoritative, truth.

Well, "in the world we are entering, the concept of the Bible will be completely different," said David Parker, theology professor at the University of Birmingham. Speaking recently at the Hay Festival in England, Parker predicted that technology will prompt personalized digital versions of the Scripture, "like an individual copy" of the Bible.

If Parker is right, we evangelicals might have some major questions. How would this editorial control affect our faith? Could it lead to an eventual erosion of sound doctrine? Would the capacity for changing our sacred texts ultimately diminish their authority?

Biblical has become the evangelical "brand." We read the Bible; we quote the Bible; we live by its truths and teachings. For us, much would be lost if biblical authority eroded and eventually disappeared.

However, according to T.M. Luhrmann's recent book, When God Talks Back: Understanding the American Evangelical Relationship with God, there may be a difference between how evangelicals perceive their commitment to the Bible and to what extent it actually influences how they articulate and live their faith.

Luhrmann, a psychological anthropologist at Stanford University, did years of research within the Vineyard movement and discovered a Christianity that was more therapeutic than theological. She provocatively suggests that American evangelicalism has scripted a new narrative, reformulating both problem and solution. "The [new] problem is human emotional pain and the human's own self-blaming harshness;" the gospel is that "God loves you, just as you are, with all your pounds and pimples."

The biblical brand may not be as accurate as we imagine.

Before we dismiss her findings, we should first consider that Luhrmann observed evangelicals at close-range, not only interviewing hundreds of them, but embedding herself in the life of a church for Sunday worship and weekly small group meetings. She even had a prayer accountability partner and met regularly with a spiritual director.

Sure, we might argue that her sample, while deep, was unfortunately narrow. The Vineyard is hardly representative of evangelicalism. However, I found her conclusions to accurately describe, at least in part, what has been my experience in evangelical churches. In the Baptist, Presbyterian, charismatic Episcopalian, and non-denominational churches I've attended over the past 20 years, I've often found—as Luhrmann did— that "what people want from faith is to feel better than they did without faith."

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