I Interrupt This Series with a Sidebar about “Folk Religion”

Roger E. Olson | 1/24/2020 | Staff
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I Interrupt This Series with a Sidebar about “Folk Religion”

Actually, it’s not so much an interruption as a long footnote to my ongoing series about theology. Many have asked what I mean by “folk religion.”

Concept - Sociologist - Historian - Religion - Robert

I first learned the concept from sociologist and historian of religion Robert Ellwood, author of many books especially about American religions. I expand on his definition and description.

Some years ago I wrote a book entitled Answers to All Your Questions: The Journey from Folk Religion to Examined Faith (Zondervan). There I explain and illustrate folk religion especially as it manifests among American Christians.


So what do I mean by “folk religion” and why do I consider it bad?

Folk religion is religion that thrives on an anti-intellectual preference for comforting clichés such as “God always has a plan” without examining them for their truth content. Most such clichés have some truth and I explain that in my book. The problem is that they are in and of themselves insufficient to deliver the whole truth (that can be delivered and needs to be delivered).

Folk - Religion - Bumper - Stickers - Walls

Folk religion may be “found” on bumper stickers, walls (e.g., wood “plaques” with cute sayings on them), in songs, stories, “evangelegends,” sermons, conversations. Folk religion resists any critical examination of such clichés or the beliefs they express.

When I was growing up in church we sometimes heard a song sung: “If I Am Dreaming, Let Me Dream On” by evangelist Gypsy Smith. The gist of the song is that if Christianity is just a “dream” (as Smith was told by a skeptic), it’s a good one and the person enjoying the song would rather “dream” than know truth.

Thing - Resistance - Examination - Exegesis - Hermeneutics

The key thing is resistance to critical examination even from sound biblical exegesis and hermeneutics. Even concepts like “biblical exegesis” and “hermeneutics” are despised by folk religionists.

Folk religion thrives on...
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