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American Folk Religion - Again
© 08.18.19 D. Eric Williams

Every time I turn around I seem to encounter a self professing Christian who has embraced American Folk Religion to one degree or another. Recently I was in conversation with a young man who is very involved in one of the larger churches in our area. It's a contemporary church of over 1000 people with a small group ministry and a reputation for teaching the Bible. In other words, it is like thousands of other churches in the United States of America.

The particular issue that came up in conversation were the tattoos the young man was sporting. Now, I happen to think Christians should not have tattoos and I've written about the subject here, and here. However, in this situation, my concern was not with the presence of tattoos but the type.

Specifically, he had a tattoo of his "spirit animal" juxtaposed by a series of Hebrew letters he said represented his "life verse" or something of that sort. When I asked him how he could justify the spirit animal tattoo (which he called by some Native American name) he said, "well, I don't put too much faith in my spirit animal" as if to say, it held a place of lesser importance in his life than that of Jesus.

I have had several conversations with this young man in the past and it seems to me his faith is more American Folk Religion then biblical Christianity. As I have said elsewhere, "A good definition of American folk religion is provided by Robert Olson, professor of theology at George W. Truett Theological Seminary of Baylor University, who says 'folk religion is unreflective religious belief based largely, if not exclusively, on feelings (e.g., comfort), traditional folk ways (e.g., funeral practices), cliches (e.g., bumper sticker slogans) and devotional literature (including poems, songs, religion fiction, etc.). It thrives on urban myths ('evangelegends') and unverifiable stories passed around among the faithful. It is unreflective and even resists reflection (especially critical reflection).'"

Many people who embrace American Folk Religion regularly attend a Christian church. They call themselves Christians and use Christian terminology but their theology is not based upon the Bible. Instead it is "based largely, if not exclusively, on feelings." If it were up to me (which it is not) I would say the young man with the spirit animal tattoo is an American Folk Religionist rather than a Christian. On the other hand, it was Christians in Corinth who Paul admonished concerning participation in the sacrificial rites of pagan religions. It seems some of them thought they had the freedom to not only to eat meat that had been sacrificed to idols (something Paul acknowledged was a matter of conscience) but were free to attend the pagan ceremony of sacrifice itself. According to Paul, What am I trying to say? Am I saying that food offered to idols has some significance, or that idols are real gods? No, not at all. I am saying that these sacrifices are offered to demons, not to God. And I don't want you to participate with demons (1 Corinthians 10:19-20).

Indeed, I referenced Paul's words when I told the young man his spirit animal tattoo and the theology behind it caused him to "fellowship with demons." Then, in what seemed a natural next step to me, I admonished him to have the tattoo removed. As you may imagine, the young man was shocked - shocked I say - that I would suggest such a thing. Truly, it was clear he was shaken by my rebuke.

After the conclusion of the encounter, I thought about the Christian church environment that would produce people comfortable with a spirit animal tattoo alongside a tattoo representing their "life verse." After all, a spirit animal is a physical representation of the supernatural being one has chosen - or one has been chosen by - as a guide in life. Or, to put it more accurately, a spirit animal is a physical representation of the demon one has chosen as a guide in life. How could a young man attending a Christian church known for teaching the Bible fail to understand the sinfulness of having a demon guide?

These days it's all about tolerance. No one is supposed to speak a word of correction to anyone about anything. No one is supposed to judge the rightness or wrongness of any behavior, belief or practice. Indeed, it's even okay to be a Christian - as long as it's the type of "Christian" who is cool with every other form of "spirituality" under the sun. The only exception is Bible based Christian faith and practice; it's open season on those with a commitment to Jesus the Christ. Such people are to be disdained, ridiculed, shammed and, if possible, punished. And, as strange as it may seem, this same attitude and practice of hate toward Bible believing Christians is common among many people who call themselves Christians. A Christian who rejects the prevailing anything goes spirituality may very well find the attack against them is led by American Folk Religionists who identity as Christian.

Yet, it is the outspoken, Bible believing follower of Jesus who is needed in this day and age. For, we truly live in post-Christian times. We need to understand that engagement with the world in this meta-modern age does not allow for superficial Christianity. The Bible must be taught. The Bible must be obeyed. The Bible must be our standard for all of life. There is no room for the bashful Christian. We must proclaim the truth of God's word at every opportunity, unafraid to call sin by name - especially to those who call themselves follows of Jesus. May God strengthen us in the task.


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