Thursday, May 8, 2014

The Author's Corner with Todd Brenneman

Todd Brenneman is an Assistant Professor of Christian History at Faulkner University. This interview is based on his new book Homespun Gospel: The Triumph of Sentimentality in Contemporary American Evangelicalism (Oxford University Press, December 2013).

JF: What led you to write Homespun Gospel?

TB: It started out as the result of a last minute change. I was taking a grad seminar on 20th century American religious thought. I had originally intended on doing a paper on one subject but was having problems getting the sources I wanted. That's when I thought of Max Lucado, a very popular Christian author. Having grown up in the Churches of Christ, I knew about Lucado because that was his background as well. I also knew he was very prolific and knew I could get access to his writings easily and quickly. As I was doing my paper, I realized two things: no one had written about Lucado and his approach to Christianity wasn't what I was seeing in other studies of evangelicalism. So much written on contemporary evangelicalism—and some really excellent scholarship—was on evangelical politics and evangelical beliefs, and this wasn’t what I was seeing in Lucado. I mean it’s there, but that’s not his focus. When I presented my work during the seminar, I knew I was on to something based on the reaction of my colleagues. This was something that they had never heard of. It surprised me. Here is one of the most successful and prolific authors of contemporary evangelicalism, and he is largely ignored. So, I knew I now had my dissertation topic. When I submitted my proposal to a variety of publishers, the almost unanimous response was that it was too focused. So, I knew I needed to broaden my approach. The key for understanding Lucado I argued was seeing him as the pinnacle of a variety of trends in evangelicalism, the prime one being sentimentality. Sentimentality was an important theme in antebellum evangelicalism and liberal nineteenth century evangelicalism (and the scholarship on them), but the traditional narrative took conservative evangelicalism through fundamentalism and neo-evangelicalism, and sentimentality wasn't a major part of that trajectory. But when you look at Dwight Moody, you see this revivalist, sentimental strand that is founded on proto-fundamentalism but is trying to avoid the controversies that are developing. That was my epiphany. Sentimentality had survived through conservative evangelicalism, fundamentalism, and neo-evangelicalism. But I was more interested in the contemporary period, so I basically just sketch out some of these connections. In trying to broaden the project, I knew that I needed some other examples that were as perfect as Lucado. What made Lucado so ideal for this project is that he is so prolific, so formulaic, and so obvious about his approach. I chose to include Rick Warren and Joel Osteen because they were very similar. In approaching it this way, people have asked why them and not others? Sentimentality is so obvious in these writings (and Contemporary Christian Music and children's media and other examples I use in the book) that it brings out in relief some things we can conclude about the function of evangelical emotionality. These were expressions getting lost in a majority of works that were focused on evangelical beliefs and evangelical politics. I wanted to contribute to the excellent work being done to challenge that narrative and also bring Lucado to scholarly attention.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of Homespun Gospel?

TB: The key to making sense of contemporary popular white evangelicalism is found in evangelical emotionology and emotionality--especially sentimentality. Because evangelicals have come to rely so heavily on sentimentality, there have been unintended consequences that may actually contribute to the failure of evangelicals to transform society into their version of the kingdom of God.

JF: Why do we need to read Homespun Gospel?

TB: If someone is a scholar of American religion or American evangelicalism, I hope the book opens up new vistas to explore. I sketch a lot of contours that need to be filled in—like how sentimentality survived fundamentalism. It is there, but it needs to be excavated. The key will be fundamentalist practice, though, not theology. Also, I hope that it encourages scholars to take sentimentality seriously in evangelicalism. Jane Tompkins, Julia Stern, Tracy Fessenden, and others have encouraged us to seriously consider eighteenth and nineteenth century sentimentality as an important cultural product. Lynn Neal, and hopefully me, have tried to do that for contemporary evangelical sentimentality as well. I also think Lucado is such a fascinating individual that needs more attention. If someone is a Christian, particularly an evangelical, I want the book to cause that person to pause and reflect. We Christians in the contemporary United States often accept a variety of views and practices and media just because it has a “Christian” label on it, but we never inquire about what the consequences are to our personal Christian faith or the universal Christian faith. I tried not to impugn the motives or question the sincerity of anyone I discuss in the book, but I do think that Christians have blindly accepted some ideas by default instead of reflecting on what impact these trends will have. Especially concerning for me is how much of the mainstream, heavily marketed, mass produced Christian message is so therapeutic, individualistic, and basically narcissistic in nature. But it often seems like no one pauses and says, “Wait, is this what it is supposed to be all about?”

JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?

TB: In grad school I took my first course on the history of Christianity and fell in love with the people I met in my textbooks—Christians in various situations and places who had tried to make sense of the Christian message in their cultural contexts. I was particularly interested in Christianity in antiquity, but with how competitive that field was, I didn’t get into any Ph.D. programs. I took a couple of years off and did a variety of things including working in full-time ministry for awhile. I continued to read about Christian history off and on, especially histories of my Churches of Christ background. What particularly intrigued me was how much influence I saw between American culture and how we practiced Christianity. That’s when I decided to focus more on American religious history. I was accepted at Florida State University in the Religion Department to work on a second master’s and Ph.D. in American religious history. I’m glad I made the switch.

JF: What is your next project?

TB: I am working on revising an article for publication on Max Lucado and expressions of what I am calling the “cutesy” in American religion. I am trying to argue that statements like “if God had a refrigerator, your picture would be on it” are more complex religious symbols than scholars usually consider them and that to label them as “kitsch” misses the cultural work this kind of language does. After that I am starting a project on what I am calling “the cult of childhood” in American evangelicalism. This will be an exploration of how evangelicals have thought about children and childhood and how these conceptions have affected evangelical theology.

JF: Sounds great, thanks Todd!

Thanks to Megan Piette for organizing and facilitating The Author's Corner