Marsha G. Witten’s All Is Forgiven

This morning while driving in my car, I turned on the radio as the program of a popular Baptist preacher, Charles Stanley, started. The title of his sermon today was “The Positive Power of Love.” He based his sermon on the Parable of the Prodigal Son found in Luke 15:11-32, which he used to “demonstrate the awesome power of love.” “Look and see the ways love empowers us to respond and act toward other people,” he said. And he went on to discuss love from the perspective of the Father in the story, using the son as a sort of antagonist, an example of difficult people and situations in which we must love. According to Stanley: Love is patient. Love is sacrificial. It energizes those who receive it. It forgives, restores and seeks to complete others emotionally. The ultimate love is to love God. Love is Unconditional.

This is a good example of the kinds of sermons studied in Marsha G Witten’s book, All is Forgiven: The Secular Message in American Protestantism. In it she takes forty-seven sermons from Presbyterian and Southern Baptist ministers and analyzes the language to uncover the effects of secularization in American Protestantism. Each sermon studied is based on the same biblical text, the Parable of the Prodigal Son. Witten tackles the secularization of religion issue by characterizing three major ways pastors reflect or respond to it in their sermons: accommodation, resistance, and reframing. In this essay, I will explain these concepts, cite examples from the sermons and Witten’s analysis of those sermons, as well as offer some observations and conclusions of my own.

Accommodation

Accommodation, the first response discussed in the book, Witten defines as “the adjustments that religion makes in its practices, pronouncements, and creeds to bring them in conformity with the values and behavior of secularity.” There are three elements that she says lend to this phenomenon. The first element is privatization, which “refers to the shrinking sphere of plausibility of religion in the modern world, as religious explanations are rendered increasingly irrelevant.” In other words, in the public arena, religion is no longer looked to as an authority on many major and important issues. Instead, more confidence is put in institutions such as science, medicine and governmental entities. Religion has been relegated to being a matter that affects people privately and should remain in the personal sphere.

Since religion is limited to the realm or personal experience and inner thoughts and feelings, much talk of God Himself has become concerned with how He is like human beings in His role and His feelings. He is portrayed by one Presbyterian (P) pastor as a “Dad” who “makes a pal of you and becomes your friend, and yet is too wise for you to pull the wool over his loving eyes.” According to a Southern Baptist (SB) preacher, “His love is unconditional and uncalculating.”

Also in step with the idea of privatization is the shift in how we now see ourselves in religion. It’s amazing how transcendent truths can become so literally self-centered. For example, instead of escaping the fires of hell, “the impetus to convert [to Christianity is] . . . the satisfaction of discovering one’s true, authentic self; and the fulfillment that comes through realization of a ‘meaningful, intimate relationship’ with another.” Witten also points out that, “as human beings are portrayed in this speech, they innately long to reach out for a relationship with another that is intimate, fulfilling, and interdependent.”

As I read through some of these sermons that Witten calls secularized, I found myself recognizing a lot of the ideas. Many of them I grew up hearing. Some I still hold to today. Who would disagree that God is a perfect Father, infinite in love? What Christian would not argue that a benefit of being born-again is finding one’s true identity in Christ? And who would deny the inner longing to connect in an intimate relationship? I believe the problem lies, not in what’s being said, but in what’s not being said. God is loving, merciful and gracious. But can we truly appreciate his love without acknowledging our sin? What good is His mercy without His justice? The power of His grace is found in His Truth. Furthermore, there is nothing wrong with desiring personal fulfillment as long as one realizes that fulfillment only comes as a result of sin being removed by the power of Christ’s blood, and can only be found in serving Him.

The biggest danger of privatization to the Christian cause is its tendency to cause Christians to keep to themselves. The Christian life itself is supposed to be lived within a community of believers. And those communities are commanded to be salt and light to the surrounding culture and to preach the gospel to the society in which it finds itself. So, indeed, an inward-focused church is a secularized church.

The second element of accommodation, pluralization, “refers to the proliferations of socially legitimated ideologies in the West.” Witten explains by saying, “religion is demonopolized and loses it ability to compel participation; the field is thus open to multiple ideologies competing for the allegiance of potential adherents.” The myriad of religious choices in America today, even (especially) within Christianity, has led to a felt need in churches to be competitive. Their message has become less about truth and more about how they can manipulate that truth to make it more appealing, which usually means watering it down. What’s more is that pluralization has made tolerance the prevailing societal value in America. Since every ideology is now valid, none can be discounted. So, many Protestant churches have done away with certain doctrines altogether in order to be as inclusive and non-judgmental as possible.

There is nothing more unappealing and downright inconvenient about Christianity than its knack for pointing out the fact that we are all sinners. But, as is discovered through Witten’s study, many pastors today are addressing that issue by downplaying sin and concentrating more on God’s unconditional love. One pastor (P) was quoted as saying, “There is nothing we can do to make God love us less. God loves us when no one else does. God loves us when we are unlovable. God loves us when we cannot stand ourselves.” Another pastor (P) muses that “perhaps all of us can cease to see ourselves as sinners in the hands of an angry God and know we are children held in the arms of a loving Father.” Witten observes: “The complete denial of God’s aspect as a wrathful judge makes sense within the context of the need for religion to ‘market’ itself, placing emphasis on the positive rewards, as opposed to the challenges and responsibilities, of faith.”

Several of the sermons studied in All is Forgiven deal with the many happy benefits associated with being a Christian. One pastor warned of the danger of “losing ourselves in our work” because, as Witten points out, that keeps us from “taking full advantage of the personal benefits of Christian living, such as feelings of joy and love.” In fact, since work can be so demanding, comfort is offered. Witten notes that, “in the context of a modern world that presupposes one’s need for intimacy yet whose busyness and mobility make it difficult to attain, God is promised as a perfect interpersonal partner.” Wow! What a sales pitch! The message is totally positive! If anything negative is said, it is said about sin. But even then participating in worldly activities is only mentioned as an innocent veering off the path, a learning experience, not an act of sin or disobedience.

Indeed, there is nothing more embedded into America’s identity than pluralism. For Christianity to remain authentic it must deal with this monstrous philosophy without being affected by it. With so many competing views many churches water down their message in order to attract and keep sheep in their fold. The sad thing is that in watering down their message their efforts have proven injurious to their cause. It is precisely Christianity’s distinctiveness and unique claims that have given it such an enduring attraction. Christianity answers questions like no one else answers about life and reality. It offers hope, purpose and meaning. When pastors downplay or neglect essential aspects of the Christian faith in order to be tolerant and affirming they do a disservice to Christ and to those to whom they minister. The role of a church is to be a church, not a social service center. The trick is to take the grace and peace that the Church does offer through Jesus Christ and show how it is relevant to the current culture. In other words, adjust the marketing strategy but don’t change the product.

According to Witten, rationalization is the third element of accommodation in secularization. It “entails the growth of practices in various areas of life that calculate the efficiency or effectiveness of alternative means to a given end.” Here religious ideas are simplified, summarized and systemized, then packaged neatly into easily understood clusters of information that are just as easily followed. Witten put it this way: “Generalization and systemization turn doctrines into mass-market commodities easily comprehended and adopted by broad constituencies.” Basically, rationalization turns church services into self-help seminars.

The prime example of rationalization is the call to conversion. “Here, the tone of the speech radically changes [into] . . . a technical appendix, into which preachers insert talk about the procedures of getting saved. The procedures are laid out like instructions in a recipe; they are prosaic, methodical and direct . . . Follow the formula, these sermons argue, and you are assured of reaching the goal.” In effect, the language of a “sinners prayer” is broken down to the most general, simple language possible so that anyone can recite it and thus receive salvation.

In my own ministry, I have employed this technique again and again. One example is how I broke down the goal of our youth ministry into “Know Jesus, Grow in Him, Show His love.” Another example is “seek before you serve” as a simplification of the lesson we learn from Mary and Martha when Jesus visited them. My personal examples of rationalization are really too numerous to count. Does that mean my ministry is secularized and tainted?

Resistance

Another component of secularization in religion is resistance characterized by Witten as “discursive techniques . . . [used] . . . to buffer religion from the pressures of modernity.” Resistance is essentially a Fundamentalist response to secular claims based on the authority of the Bible as God’s Word and therefore a completely reliable source of truth and manual for life. The Southern Baptists were the most adamant about speaking against the world and it ways. One pastor remarked: “Sin will always leave a scar.” Witten summarized their message, saying, “The world makes victims of those foolish enough to trust its ways.” Even then, the language is not bold enough to put the blame on the sinner, but on the temptation in the world. Another example of resistance is the assertion in many of the sermons that “human nature is universal, essentially immutable, ultimately coherent, and the controlling core of the self,” which Witten says, “is a direct rebuttal to modernity’s notion of the fragmented self.”

Although the discussion of accommodation may be alarming, there is hope. There are pastors who believe in truth and who will stand up for it to boot, some with the fiery boldness and others with gentle finesse. The need, however, is not simply for spiritual leaders who believe in biblical truth, but for those who can integrate that truth with other knowledge. One of Christianity’s greatest strengths is its compatibility with science and modern knowledge. We need pastors who will not only address fallacies in mainstream thought, but affirm good and valid ideas as well.

Reframing

Another strategy of response to secularity is reframing which “arises from a broad movement in which language is viewed not primarily as a vehicle for reflecting reality as a means for creating it.” In short, reframing takes an already established truth or symbol and projects onto it meaning other than, or in addition to, what it originally represented. As Witten says herself, “the evidence of reframing within these sermons is slim.” However, I believe Charles Stanley’s sermon on “The Positive Power of Love” is a good example of reframing. He took the Parable of the Prodigal Son and did not talk about sin, the world, God, repentance or forgiveness. He made it a sermon on how to love. After listening to Stanley’s message, the story of the prodigal takes on a whole other meaning. One would no longer think to put oneself in the prodigal’s shoes and be encouraged to do what is right. One would now think of others as prodigals in need of love and feel obliged to love even those difficult to love, those who cause grief and pain.

In a sense, Stanley’s sermon is not only an example of reframing, but the ultimate secularized sermon. There is no condemnation here. The hardest thing asked of us is to love sinners, which is easy when we consider that implicit in that admonition is the idea that we ourselves are okay. In fact, Stanley even mentions our state of forgiveness as a basis for forgiving. He glosses over the possibility that some of his listeners may–if not now, then at some point–need to be on the receiving end of the love he describes. He puts us in a superiority role akin to God Himself. He wants us to feel what the father feels for the prodigal son, not so that we would catch a glimpse of how we make God feel being prodigals ourselves, but in order to transcend any direct association we might have with the prodigal. In effect, we disassociate with our problems so that we can help others with their problems.

All Is Forgiven is a fascinating study within the sociology of religion, specifically concerning the secularization of American Protestantism. Particularly interesting is the study of language and rhetoric from which many insightful observations were made. Marsha Witten claims to have a non-Christian faith, yet she has an excellent understanding of the Christian message. It is intriguing to see the sermons from her perspective. Reading the book has been an eye-opening experience for me in that I realized the need for the Church to rethink its response to the American culture, secularized as it is. In that realization, I have seen how much of what I believe is secularized as well. I don’t think that’s an altogether bad thing. Christianity must always be redefining its approach to adapt to the needs of the culture. Yet, the essential substance and power of the message must never be diluted or defiled regardless of any outside pressure or good intentions.

*written for Sociology of Religion at APU

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