Footnote 16 – Stephen Prothero, Religious Illiteracy (2)

Footnote 16 – Stephen Prothero, Religious Illiteracy: What Every American Needs to Know – and Doesn’t (New York: HarperCollins, 2008), 132-139.

Stephen Prothero is Chair of the Religion Department at Boston University.

“The rising tide of religious ignorance in public schools and higher education might have been stemmed by the churches … But many of the same trends that led public school teachers and college professors to marginalize and trivialize religion paralyzed the churches too. … Many trends transformed Christian congregations and voluntary associations into aiders and abetters of religious amnesia.  The most important of these shifts were: from the intellect to the emotions, from doctrine to storytelling, from the Bible to Jesus, and from theology to morality. In each case new approach to religion was offered to Americans with all the seduction of the serpent in the Garden of Eden. In each case Americans succumbed to the temptations. This time, however, knowledge was lost rather than gained.”

“…Changes in the American sermon also contributed to the decline of religious literacy…The minister learned to give his parishioners what they wanted, and what they wanted was to be entertained…. Many ministers – on both the theological left and the theological right – had largely surrendered to old-fashioned doctrinal sermon in favor of the sort of thing American churchgoers hear today: colloquial sermons peppered with personal stories about friends dying and giving birth, salted with entertaining anecdotes…and light on both biblical exegesis and Christian doctrine…These ministers served up the theology of everyday life, subordinating biblical teaching to literary flourishes.  Their entertaining sermons ‘employed daring pulpit story-telling, no-holds-barred appeals, overt humor, strident attack, graphic application, and intimate personal experience.’ Ministers embraced story sermons because…they increasingly (and correctly) understood themselves to be in competition not only with peers in nearby pulpits but also with secular entertainments, including newspapers, plays and novels.

“American ministers became storytellers because…some believers have always found it easier to find God in stories than in dogmas.  But the main reason many preachers fled, as historian Ann Douglas put it, ‘from dispute, doctrine, and scholarship’ to sentimentalism, sensationalism, and stories is that the narrative sermon worked. It produced conversions. It filled the churches. It also had something of a pedigree in the parables of Jesus…Once upon a time, the sermon had educated parishioners about such Christian staples as the Trinity and the Ten Commandments, and the stories ministers told from the pulpit were restricted to the grand biblical narratives of Moses, Abraham, Sarah, Jesus, and Mary.

“…This legacy is with us today in the narrative preaching style, which according to one historian of the sermon now aims ‘to achieve a happening rather than an understanding.’  It is with us as well in “seeker-sensitive’ megachurches, many of which have decided to stop preaching the basic teachings of the Christian tradition because marketing research has indicated that ‘seekers’ find that kind of teaching to be a turnoff.”


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