Book Review: Homespun Gospel, by Todd Brenneman
Todd Brenneman, Homespun Gospel: The Triumph of Sentimentality in Contemporary American Evangelicalism. Oxford University Press, 2013. 208 pps, $27.95.
For a 160-page book focused on the writings of just three popular pastors, Todd Brenneman’s Homespun Gospelis remarkably ambitious. Brenneman wants to redefine how we understand modern American evangelicalism.
To this point, the most influential definitions of evangelicalism—like those of David Bebbington and George Marsden—have zeroed in on the content of evangelical belief or doctrine. And to this point much scholarly attention to evangelicalism has focused on the activity of evangelicals in politics.
But Brenneman believes that at the core of the movement—influencing both evangelical belief and evangelical activism—is an aesthetic marked by what he calls “sentimentality.” Viewed in this light, the evangelical lineage is as easily traced from Peale to Osteen as from Ockenga to Piper. Is Brenneman onto something?
THE ARGUMENT IN A NUTSHELL
First let me explain what the author means by sentimentality, then sketch out how he believes it functions in American evangelicalism.
He uses sentimentality to describe a kind of emotion or way of feeling. Within evangelicalism, it refers to feelings of love inspired by three main images: God as (doting) Father, humans as helpless but adored children, and the nostalgic home of a blissful nuclear family. According to Brenneman, “these three metaphors pervade evangelicalism and form the basis for the sentimental appeal” (6).
Though this sentimentality definitely doesn’t come off well in Brenneman’s account, he insists we shouldn’t take it as a pejorative term. It is an effective style of persuasion in its own right, and a powerful way of engaging with the world. The goal of the book is to reveal the power of this pervasive but overlooked feature in evangelical rhetoric.
To show how the “sentimental appeal” works, Brenneman chose to focus on three best-selling mega-church pastors from three different branches of the evangelical tree. The central figure is Max Lucado, Church of Christ pastor and bestselling author who was the subject of Brenneman’s dissertation. Then there’s church-growth strategist turned spiritual-life guru Rick Warren. And finally, there’s Joel Osteen, America’s big-smiling, stadium-filling, prosperity-promising pastor-at-large.
The first chapter introduces the images at the heart of evangelical sentimentality. Brenneman argues that these pastor-authors appeal to God-as-adoptive-Father to make individual Christians feel better about themselves. God is the type of Father who puts your drawings on his fridge and never misses a ball game. All the resources of his power and knowledge are aimed at meeting the smallest needs and solving the smallest problems of his helpless children. In summary, Brenneman writes, “The biblical symbol of adoption serves as a foundation for emotional exploitation in contemporary evangelicalism” (36).
In his second chapter, Brenneman illustrates how sentimentality replaces careful intellectual engagement with critical issues. That is to say, sustaining the power of sentimentality means avoiding doctrinal discussions that could be divisive. But Brenneman also argues sentimentality insulates evangelicalism from intellectual challenges like those associated with evolution. It cultivates a different way of knowing where,“Purveyors position the emotions as being more reliable than the intellect and as a trustworthier source of truth” (53).
The third and fourth chapters suggest how sentimentality—ostensibly at home in the private world of individual feeling—confers authority and influence in the public world of economics and politics.
Brenneman’s distaste for his subjects and their methods comes through most clearly in these chapters, and his argument would be stronger without so many undeveloped claims as to the “real” motives of these pastors (e.g., 109-11, 126, 129). But underneath it all, the book’s basic claims are sound. Sentimentality sells. That holds true from popular Christian music to evangelical children’s literature to the complex of “Jesus junk”—my words, not his—surrounding the best-selling books of these pastors.
And in the world of politics, Brenneman argues, the power of sentimentality helps explain why evangelicals have rallied to issues surrounding children (abortion) and the home (marriage). The irony, he claims, is that the focus on individuals and their needs may end up undermining any evangelical attempt to transform society, since their leaders are more comfortable appealing to individual emotions than speaking truth to power.
WHAT DO WE DO WITH SENTIMENTALITY?
At the end of the day, though, as an account of modern evangelicalism, this book is unconvincing. Brenneman’s brush is just too broad.
There’s no doubting Lucado, Warren, and Osteen have a wide-ranging influence. But there is a large and growing segment of evangelicalism in which these figures and their marketing empires are more often the butt of bad jokes than taken very seriously. Their books aren’t read. Their methods aren’t followed. Their rhetorical style comes off kitschy and foreign.
Folks in my corner of the evangelical world don’t want to be defined in their light, and there’s room for fair criticism of Brenneman’s book on this front. He does acknowledge a counterculture—in particular the signers of the Evangelical Manifesto (144ff). But I believe he underestimates how large this segment is.
That said, I don’t know any evangelicals for whom the fatherhood of God or promise of adoption aren’t central themes. I don’t know any who aren’t interested in helping people connect with God’s loving, providential care for their individual lives. And I think we’re at our best when we’re trying to get the hearts of our people engaged with the doctrines that fill our heads. By Brenneman’s definition, that makes us sentimental. Should we be okay with that? Is sentimentality a problem?
To answer that question, I think we need a far more nuanced understanding of sentimentality and its role than this book provides. Brenneman’s study is a starting point. We should take it as a call to greater self-awareness and an opportunity to think carefully about what we’re doing when we aim for the heart. In what follows I want to present at least a few qualifications toward a healthy use of sentimentality.
Sentimentality isn’t necessarily new. In Brenneman’s account, any celebration of God’s fatherly care is treated as innovative and merely therapeutic. He believes this sort of sentimental appeal “has integrally changed evangelicalism from the nineteenth century to the present” (159).
I’m not disputing that emotional engagement with the fatherhood of God is central to evangelicalism. I’m not disputing that some of the language used these days can be over the top. But I don’t believe the emphasis itself is uniquely modern. I’d say it’s basic to Christianity.
Granted, the Scriptures don’t promise that God has my birthday circled on his calendar. But there’s certainly an “appeal to tender feelings” (5) in Hosea’s image of God teaching Israel to walk, holding them up by their hands, bending over to feed them (Hos. 11:1-4). And isn’t there a tad of nostalgia when Jesus longs to gather Jerusalem „as a hen gathers her brood under her wings” (Luke 13:34)? Brenneman may be right to suggest Paul’s language of fatherhood was influenced more by the Greco-Roman pater familias than by the romanticism of the 19th century (6). But Paul’s cry of “Abba! Father!” and his talk of the spirit of adoption leads straight into the promise that all things—even the mundane things—work together for the good of his children and that nothing can separate them from his love (Rom. 8:14-15, 28-39).
Sentimentality isn’t necessarily narcissistic. There is certainly a man-centered way to talk about God. And without question, narcissism remains a prominent problem in American evangelicalism. But it seems to me that Brenneman projects Osteen’s prosperity teaching onto anyone who celebrates God’s providential care for individuals (e.g., pp. 30-31). I agree we ought to be careful in how we tell people God loves them, but not more careful than Jesus.
When Jesus told followers they were more important than many sparrows, or that even their hairs were numbered by God (Matt. 10:29-31), he was drawing on the power of sentiment as Brenneman defines it. But he wasn’t fostering narcissism. He was glorifying the grace of God. He was drawing from one of the Bible’s consistent themes: the beauty of God’s love shows up in the particularity of his care for us, not because of how awesome we are but because of how gracious he is.
Sentimentality isn’t necessarily anti-intellectual. I agree with much of what Brenneman claims about the way sentimentality is used to avoid careful theological discourse. But he often assumes a dichotomy between emotional engagement via sentimentality and intellectual engagement (e.g., 31). It’s either constructive, apologetic theology or emotional obfuscation and exploitation. I believe Brenneman’s account misses a nuance at the heart of evangelicalism, one also rooted in the Scriptures. The goal of all Christian intellectual labor is worship. Doctrine and doxology go together. Doctrine is meant to inspire feelings of love, peace, gratitude and joy, and it’s emotional engagement that brings doctrine to life. We’re always aiming to make ideas sensible; this is the way to doxology. And sentimentality has a role to play.
But . . . sentimentality is dangerous. Perhaps the most useful takeaway from this book is its reminder that sentimentality is a rhetorical device of remarkable and often unrecognized power. Its power can be used for good. It can help us taste the sweetness of God’s truth. It can help revealed ideas come to life.
But if our appeal to sentiment is not clearly tied to truth, it will still be powerful and then it becomes dangerous. Brenneman’s book offers critical insight into how emotional experience can become the sole verification of authenticity and truth. If we aren’t careful, as pastors, we can all too easily build our people on a substitute foundation that won’t survive the shifting sands of what feels right.
We also can’t afford to underestimate the power of sentimental appeal in our preaching. It will usually be effective. It isn’t that difficult to move people, and it always feels good. But if not clearly tied to the point of the text, the power of this sort of appeal is a distracting power, an obfuscating and manipulating power. It’s a power that may draw us flattering attention as effective preachers—which is to say its power can be deadly.
God help us check our own hearts every time we aim at someone else’s.