Journalists who covered the 2014 “origins” debate between creationist Ken Ham and evolutionist Bill Nye were able to avail themselves of two ready-made narratives about American evangelicals. One underscored the tensions between traditional evangelical beliefs and those of a modern secular society. The other highlighted evangelicals’ presence and participation in American public life. Of course, the Ham–Nye debate offered fuel for both storylines at once.
Among journalists and scholars, the keys to understanding and interpreting evangelicals have long been their distinct theological beliefs and their values-based activism. Even many self-proclaimed evangelicals use these benchmarks to explain ourselves to ourselves. This is why we elevate figures like Billy Graham, a paragon of evangelical belief, and (take your pick) James Dobson or Jim Wallis, who together represent the spectrum of evangelical social action, to typify our movement.
But historian Todd M. Brenneman wonders if the beating heart of evangelical identity lies elsewhere, perhaps most centrally along the aisles of the local LifeWay Christian Store. In Homespun Gospel: The Triumph of Sentimentality in Contemporary American Evangelicalism (Oxford University Press), Brenneman shifts the conversation away from beliefs and actions toward feelings. He shows how popular forms of evangelical expression traffic in familial and tender imagery: God as father, people as “little children,” and nostalgic longings for home and the traditional middle-class nuclear family.
Brenneman draws compelling links between the worlds of religious consumer goods—from Christian CDs, DVDs, and books to toys, home decor, and devotional art—and the “core evangelical message” of God’s love. These products, he argues, “construct religiosity as a practice of sentimentality instead of one of intellectual discovery.” This is why, in our search for spiritual resources at LifeWay, we’re likelier to encounter the works of tobyMac or Bob the Tomato than Abraham Kuyper or Alister McGrath.
‘Culture of Emotionality’
Homespun Gospel could very well launch a broad reinterpretation of contemporary evangelicalism. By placing sentimentality at its center, Brenneman challenges some long-standing assumptions about the movement’s contours and priorities. He argues that evangelicals’ “culture of emotionality” and “appeal to tender feelings” subtly shape both their beliefs about God and their manner of engaging the modern world. Sentimentalism elevates personal emotional needs—and their satisfaction through divine help—to evangelicalism’s highest priority.
Brenneman invites us to look closely at a popular yet understudied segment of evangelical discourse and commercial life. He focuses on the contributions of three celebrity pastors: Max Lucado, Rick Warren, and Joel Osteen. During the past 25 years, he says, these profitable “evangelical brands” have produced mountains of books and merchandise that reflect both the emotional and therapeutic appeal of evangelical teaching and the abiding popularity of sentimentalism.
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SOURCE: Christianity Today