Friday, June 10, 2005

The centuries-long influence of who?

Daniel Sullivan writes about how pervasively and persistently seventeenth-century minister Philip Jakob Spener has influenced North American Protestantism and life in general (HT: Christianity Today Weblog).

Spener articulated the central ideas that shape not only American religion, but the American personality. For Spener and the generation of evangelists he inspired, three principal concerns seemed to crowd out most others. The first was that the people of the church--the laity--should have a voice with the appointed caretakers--the priests--in its direction. The second . . . was the importance of the emotional experience of the faith--in particular, of a conversion as the pivotal experience of a Christian's life. Finally, the practice of Christianity superseded knowledge of its dogma. These seem typical of American attitudes: a resistance to a hierarchy that claims moral authority, a sentimental religiosity that tests convictions primarily by personal experience, and an emphasis on living a Christian (or perhaps merely virtuous) life according to how one feels rather than what one thinks.

American Christianity is famously inventive and free-wheeling. And while it might seem self-evident to do so, commentators seldom explain the state of American religion as a product of religious history.

Sullivan's article is valuable in helping Christians immersed in the particular values of North American Protestantism (like I am) to see how views of discipleship change through the centuries. And that knowledge helps break the tyranny of believing that our pet way of envisioning the faith is the only way.


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