Visit a Christian bookstore in America today, and you won’t have to search hard to find sentimental language. This reality is partly what led Todd Brenneman, Assistant Professor of Christian History at Faulkner University, to write his book, Homespun Gospel: The Triumph of Sentimentality in Contemporary American Evangelicalism (Oxford University Press, 2014). In Homespun Gospel Brenneman seeks to plot the influence of nineteenth-century sentimentality on American evangelicalism today.
Much of Brenneman’s study is driven by the sense that “most evangelicals have abandoned the life of the mind in favor of a religious life of emotion” (4) and thus that scholars have overemphasized categories of belief in their discussion of evangelicals. That is, Brenneman suggests that definitions of evangelicals (e.g., the Bebbington quadrilateral) rely too heavily on trying to identify shared doctrinal commitments and instead should look at practice and emotion.
To tackle this concern, Brenneman focuses his study on the writings and sermons of three prominent evangelicals: Max Lucado, Joel Osteen, and Rick Warren. He supplements his exploration of their works with selective reference to other writers such as Bruce Wilkinson (of The Prayer of Jabez fame), Joyce Meyer, and T. D. Jakes; to contemporary Christian music lyrics; to political figures such as Mike Huckabee; and to institutions such as Chick-fil-A.
He probes this question of sentimentality from four angles. First, he explores what he calls the “therapeutic culture” of evangelicalism, a culture that reinforces narcissistic tendencies in the individual, boiling down Christianity to dealing with personal problems and blinding evangelicals to broader societal concerns. This narcissism is supported by three common motifs in popular evangelicalism: God as father, human beings as God’s children, and the home and family as a seat of nostalgia. Lucado, Osteen, and Warren loom large in this discussion as Brenneman shows from their writings how they use “syrupy” language to appeal to the individual’s emotions. The emphasis falls on having “a personal relationship with God,” painting a picture of an emotional connection with the deity and downplaying the intricacies of theology (49).
That leads to a second angle: anti-intellectualism. Brenneman argues that evangelical anti-intellectualism emerges from a reliance on an outdated model of science driven by a Baconian–Common-Sense view of facts and a sentimentality that brushes aside detailed engagement in intellectual difficulties. Pastors like Lucado and Warren minimize doctrinal differences—and even their own denominational affiliations—in an attempt to appeal to larger numbers of people, and they use sentimentality to discuss a unity that hides differences. Brenneman describes the result of this tactic: “[c]entering emotion as the core of people’s religious identity lessens their need to be bound to specific doctrines” and “discourages the intellectual exploration of their faith” (81).
In the third angle, Brenneman examines how evangelicals use sentimentality in media and marketing to spread their message and, more importantly in Brenneman’s view, establish their brand or authority. Again, sentimentality allows them to downplay doctrinal differences and appeal to larger audiences through a smattering of products centered around a known quantity. Thus, for example, the Purpose-Driven Life brand has spawned Purpose-Driven journals, CDs, devotionals, pocket planners, and a line of greeting cards. From a media standpoint, contemporary Christian music and praise songs often glide over theological intricacies and even Christian particularities to appeal to broader audiences, so much that their simplified theology and emotional language were instrumental in the rise of megachurches and the expansion of Christianity in the late twentieth century. Sentimentality has also allowed for a focus on providing products for children such as VeggieTales movies, products that focus on broad messages like “God loves you” without exploring the details of biblical narrative.
The fourth angle, somewhat unexpectedly, explores evangelical involvement in politics. Brenneman argues that sentimentality defines the political concerns of evangelicals—specifically, their focus on family issues such as abortion and same-sex marriage. At the same time, sentimentality blinds evangelicals to the deeper problems in political issues found in social structures and corrupt powers. Rather, Brenneman argues, relying on sentimentality causes evangelicals to come up only with “simplistic solutions,” and thus “they face difficult challenges in shaping this world into the kingdom of God” (143).
In the end, Brenneman’s study leads him to suggest a new definition of evangelicalism: “‘Evangelical’ refers to an aesthetical worldview fashioned by belief in the truthfulness of the Bible, by experience of new birth into the Christian community, by emotional relationship between individuals and God through Christ, by concern to share the message of Christ with others, and by interest in shaping human society into the kingdom of God” (16–17). For Brenneman, sentimentality is the “core” of evangelicalism (87), and it helps explain both the success of evangelicalism today and its inherent weaknesses and failures.
Evaluating Homespun Gospel
Brenneman makes several important observations in his book, observations that historians and evangelicals do well to consider. He illuminates aspects of evangelicalism that evangelicals have trouble seeing because they are in the culture. His volume is especially helpful in thinking about popular forms of evangelicalism, forms that minimize the role of theology in the church, that elevate the individual to narcissistic levels, and that tap into the power of marketing in ways that create personality cults rather than cultivating faithful devotion to Christ.
For example, he notes that the three popular evangelical ministers he studied have often fallen into the mode of basically saying that “the universe revolves around the practical problems of day-to-day life,” leading to “an individualistic gospel that encourages readers of works like these to consider that God has nothing better to do than make sure he fills his children’s lives with blessings” (48–49). Surely, the gospel is larger than this.
Again, Brenneman notes, “[w]hether it is asserting that one should be God’s best friend or should try Jesus instead of the church, many evangelicals are moving away from the doctrinal aspects of Christianity” (74). Certainly, if evangelicals are going to stay connected to historic Christianity in any real sense of the term, I would argue that they must gravitate toward, not away from, Christianity’s doctrinal distinctives.
Brenneman’s discussion of contemporary Christian music is particularly revealing. He shows how evangelicals have at times replaced names for the divine with generic pronouns and then set their songs in romantic settings that sound much like love songs played on secular radio. These are the songs that evangelicals play over and over and drill into their minds, songs with a simple message that he (Jesus) loves you without necessarily exploring a full-orbed theology for life.
Observations like these about sentimentality and its prevalence in popular evangelicalism are instructive not only for understanding the nature of popular evangelicalism, but also for evangelicals to consider constructive ways forward. Though many of the ideas Brenneman presents in his book make for a hard pill to swallow, evangelicals can benefit from thinking carefully about how sentimentality has affected popular evangelicalism in significant ways.
Bearing these important challenges in mind, I nonetheless had a few concerns about the book’s arguments. First, Brenneman’s methodology leaves me wondering about some of his broader conclusions. He does a good job of identifying themes of sentimentality in the pastors he examines, but does not offer a full assessment of the individual pastors. For example, while he points out the sentimental stream in Rick Warren’s writings and preaching, he does not offer a complex understanding of Warren’s theology or ministry as a whole. That leads to a potential misperception of Warren’s (and others’) thought.
In addition, Brenneman also draws selectively on other writers and elements of contemporary evangelicalism, such as lyrics from Christian praise songs, to highlight his themes. While this allows him again to identify sentimental language in various forms of the broader movement, it also means that his study misses other elements in evangelicalism that might qualify his thesis. For example, simply showing that a handful of praise songs has romantic language in them does not explain how that language is nuanced by other themes in those songs. Nor does it show how prevalent—or not—such sentimentality is in praise music.
Relatedly, while Brenneman rightly pinpoints a heavy emotionality in much of popular evangelicalism today, he does not explore how the many evangelicals who are devoted to intellectual endeavors might temper his argument. As one example, Tim Keller’s broad appeal as an intellectually engaged evangelical pastor speaks against Brenneman’s claim that “[t]he ordinary, the sentimental, and the anti-intellectual are combined to remove authority away from a life of the mind to the emotions evoked by everyday life” (65).
Again, I think this book is helpful in pointing out how contemporary popular evangelicalism is significantly influenced by sentimentality. But while Brenneman concludes that in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries there have been “relatively few preferring the rational [strand]” of evangelicalism, I think he downplays the presence of intellectually engaged evangelicals, even if they don’t sell as many books as Joel Osteen. Said another way, Brenneman’s methodological approach to the topic allows him to identify the theme of sentimentality in popular forms of evangelicalism, but fails to show that sentimentality is essential to evangelicalism as a whole.
Second, in some ways he overplays the discontinuity between contemporary American evangelicalism and historic Christianity. One must be careful here. I am not suggesting that no discontinuity exists. It most certainly does, and Brenneman brings out that discontinuity well by focusing on the influence of Victorian sentimentality on contemporary evangelicalism.
But in seeking to argue his thesis, I think he may overemphasize the sentimental theme. Christians have used some of the very language he identifies as sentimental long before the Victorian era. Language of God as father and Christians as children of God stems back to the Bible itself. While he makes a convincing argument that modern psychology has affected the way Christians talk about God as father, I’m concerned that he overstates the discontinuity of this theme between the twentieth and twenty-first centuries and earlier eras when theologians also spoke of God as a loving Father. It would have been helpful to see more of the continuity between sentimental themes in the Christian tradition and in the contemporary evangelical scene.
Third—and this is a minor point, but still relevant—Brenneman selectively uses Jonathan Edwards to display an eighteenth-century theologian whose God is “angry” and who will burn unrepentant sinners in hell (20, 76). As Edwards scholars know, though, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” does not represent the quintessential Edwards. Using Edwards as a hellfire-preaching foil to sentimental Lucado minimizes important nuances—especially since Edwards had so much to say about human affections.
Finally, we must consider Brenneman’s suggestion for a new definition of evangelicalism. He rightly encourages us to think about practice in our definition of evangelicals, but I wonder whether the specific emotional elements he incorporates into his definition really identify something distinctive about evangelicals.
First, he says evangelicals’ worldview is fashioned “by emotional relationship between individuals and God through Christ.” But wouldn’t liberal Protestants, Roman Catholics, and Orthodox Christians all recognize that they are shaped by emotional relationship in these ways? If you remove God from this statement, even atheists would have to agree that they are shaped by emotional relationship between individuals. That is to say, I don’t see that this phrase is distinctive of evangelicals.
Second, Brenneman argues that we should define evangelicals as having an “aesthetical worldview.” Here he seeks to highlight “the fluidity between belief and practice that exists in evangelicalism” (160). Underscoring the relationship between belief and practice certainly has merit, and yet again, I’m unsure how this is distinctive of evangelicals.
As an alternative, I find that Doug Sweeney’s definition offers an understanding of evangelicalism that incorporates an element of practice and emotion in a way that shows the distinctive heritage of evangelicalism in historical perspective: “Evangelicals comprise a movement that is rooted in classical Christian orthodoxy, shaped by a largely Protestant understanding of the gospel, and distinguished from other such movements by an eighteenth-century twist” (The American Evangelical Story, 23–24). He goes on to define key terms in this definition, connecting “classical Christian orthodoxy” with the ancient Christian creeds and “Protestant understanding of the gospel” with the solas of the Reformation (sola gratia, sola fide, solus Christus, sola Scriptura). Most importantly, the eighteenth-century twist is a “renewal movement” that emerged out of the Great Awakening in the eighteenth century, and this movement shaped the practice of evangelicals in service and missions and the emotion of evangelicals in the emphasis on heart religion and Christian renewal. This definition allows us to make good on linking practice with belief while still speaking in terms that are distinctive to evangelicals.
Ultimately, I find in Brenneman’s book many beneficial observations about contemporary evangelicalism. He rightly identifies a number of sentimental themes in popular forms of the movement that help us understand it better.
My sense, however, is that he pushes his thesis farther than the historical evidence can bear by identifying evangelicals’ “dependence on emotion—especially sentimentality—as the sine qua non of religion” (19). He defines “the core of the evangelical message” as “the sentimental connection between the human being and God” (87), declares that “the core of evangelicalism” is “sentimental emotion” (90), and argues that “[f]rom the middle of the nineteenth century, sentimentality became a core part of evangelical practice” (111). In Brenneman’s analysis, sentimentality is essential to evangelicalism, and this core sentimentality in evangelicals “renders them unable to answer the intellectual challenges that evangelicalism faces in the contemporary period” (19).
To say that sentimentality is “the core” of “the evangelical message” is a stretch. Few evangelicals today would articulate the “core” of their faith as a sentimental emotion. Brenneman justifies this approach by reading “against the grain,” but even with the influence of sentimentality on evangelicals in the modern era, such emotional appeals do not fully distinguish them from the broader Western culture which also relies heavily on emotional appeals in its popular forms. And evangelicals clearly form a distinct group from the broader culture.
So what differentiates them? At the very least, they are distinguished by their belief in and commitment to the gospel, the euangelion (Greek for “gospel”) from which they derive their name. Brenneman has done evangelicals and historians a favor by showing us how sentimentality has influenced evangelicals in their popular religious expressions, but has failed to convince this reader that sentimentality forms the “core” of the evangelical movement.