Self-help Theology and Unbelief

Traveling last week to East Africa and back to the U.S. was a journey of contrasts. My seat mate to Europe was an affable Dutch psychotherapist.

Normally I’m not a good conversationalist on airplanes. I prefer to keep to myself and avoid interaction. But this was the exception to that practice and it turned out to be an enjoyable respite on the long flight. What intrigues me is the contrast between the therapist’s attitudes about faith and values and attitudes about the same that I heard in Africa and saw on sale in the bookstores and kiosks there.

Specifically, when he learned I work for a religious organization he was quick to say, kindly, that he was not a person of faith. Then he laid out a system of beliefs and values that are in many ways parallel to those of most faith communities I’m familiar with.

I wondered to myself why he did not connect with a faith community. And I was reminded of the challenge of communicating with thoughtful, concerned people who have have tested faith communities and found them lacking or who have never felt the need for faith.

Christian fundamentalists use the term “secular humanism” to describe persons such as my fellow traveler. The term demonizes good people who reject faith. When used like this it’s a misnomer inaccurately applied.

As he spoke my new acquaintance expressed values, compassion and belief in service to others that deserve respect, not derision. But I wonder if my own faith tradition has a word for him and if it is possible to overcome the barriers that have caused people like him to look away rather than toward faith.

In Africa my impression was different. I was impressed by the wide range of mass market self-help books and magazines rooted in evangelical theology and biblical interpretation that permeate bookstalls and kiosks and the television preachers who dominate television screens. These are no longer exclusively U.S.-based televangelists. The tactics and marketing strategies have been learned by others and now it’s possible to observe Brazilian, African, Indian and other nationalities implementing marketing strategies that were perfected in the U.S.

They promise success and define the gospel as a foundation for personal wealth. It’s a far cry from Jesus the servant but it’s a siren song of hope that beckons those on the margins struggling with daily survival needs.

The televangelists are communicating effectively. They know how to use the language of hope and promise with their target audiences in a way that escapes some of us who don’t share their theological perspective. And they are entrepreneurs. Televangelism is less about a community of faith and more about an economic model that markets faith language.

The entrepreneurs reveal at least two visible assets. They demonstrate passion and they communicate in language that speaks to common folks. Apart from strategy, money, and efficient distribution systems, they communicate well with target audiences.

And their target audiences are not those of the mainline denominations. They were once, but are no longer. The mainline began to abandon the poor and working class thirty years ago as their own members moved up the economic and social ladder. In the process of upward mobility, communicating with an emerging middle class took priority over communicating with the poor and working folks.

In accommodating to middle class respectability communication became less assertive and challenging and more balanced and cerebral. Balance and thoughtfulness are not weaknesses to be cast away. But I wonder if passion and vision have been sacrificed.

Urban T. Holmes in Spirituality for Ministry writes of “cold sins” that “violate the mission of the pastor to be a symbol, symbol-bearer, and hermeneut. They arise not from an excess of passion, but from a fear of passion. They are the product of a calculated apathy, sustained only by the dying embers of a dying soul.”
Higher than average rates of depression, diabetes, blood pressure and weight gain among clergy in the mainline denominations point to symptoms that are deeper than physical symptoms of poor health. I fear the toll of accommodating to upward mobility and accommodating has exacted a price greater than we have recognized.

I mused as I read the titles on the evangelical self-help rack at the Entebbe airport what they reveal about the psychic and spiritual struggles people face today. And I wished for at least one title from someone I know in the mainline that addresses these struggles. But there was none, nor was there in Brussels, nor Addis Ababa, nor Chicago.

I think it’s not simply a failure of distribution systems–that mainline writers didn’t get distributed to these points. I think it’s more. I think it could be an indication of the loss of voice, the vexing inability to speak in the language of the culture (or the target audience), distance from our own roots (for many of us grew up in working class and poor families), and our accommodation to a culture that gives us just enough creature comfort that our physic pain is masked by what looks like apathy.

My Dutch seat mate was passionate about many things–some of which also impassion me. And the televangelists exude passion, passion for money and self-improvement, but passion that animates never the less.

I think I see signs of an incipient movement toward a more engaged and visionary proclamation of progressive faith that is neither evangelical nor liberal, right nor left, but an authentic response to the yearnings of people today for enthusiasm, engagement, authenticity and faith that makes a difference in everyday life. I’ll write more about this later.

If this is accurate, we may be at the beginning of a movement that is more transformative than self-serving and more energetic than simply emotional. Only time will tell.

For a comprehensive report on the surging Pentecostal movement in Latin America that includes the gospel of wealth see the Christian Science Monitor’s “New Gospel: Latin America.”

For an intriguing and insightful look at the twentieth-century roots of the evangelical movement in the U.S. and its stultifying influence on social change, but its effectiveness at communicating with working class people see Gary Will’s “Head and Heart: American Christianities.”

I welcome other references.

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