Jonathan's Blog


ACADEMIC CHRISTIANITY VS. POPULAR CHRISTIANITY

Before we look at specific belief systems and teachings about the Bible, we must consider the difference between the two most prominent subcultures within the larger Christian culture—academic Christianity and popular Christianity.

From an anthropological standpoint, all cultures contain two main divisions—high culture and popular culture. High culture is typically made up of the wealthiest and most educated segment of the population. These people appreciate the finer things in life—things like expensive wine, fine dining, classical music, formal attire, and so forth. The high culture is a minority among the culture, yet it carries a majority of the power and influence. Alongside the high culture exists the popular culture (or pop-culture), which contains a majority of the population and describes in general ways what is popular among the majority. So those who are immersed in pop-culture tend to listen to the music on the radio and pay attention to the biggest new movies. They eat at chain restaurants and shop at chain stores. A third group, called folk culture, often emerges as a reaction to the popular culture. But instead of joining the high culture, they separate from the norm in their own fashion. They pride themselves on making counter-cultural decisions. For example, they may be vegan, birth their babies at home, decide not to vaccinate their children, and follow independent music and movies that rarely show up in the mainstream. The differences between these three groups are significant, yet they are all part of the overarching culture.

The culture inside the Church also contains these three elements. Popular Christianity is the culture of the majority of Christians. In the United States, it includes things like Veggie Tales, WWJD bracelets, and pop-Christian music. The folk element within popular Christianity prefers less mainstream music and makes small attempts to pull away from the Christian pop-culture, but for our purposes here, it is essentially a subcategory of popular Christianity. When it comes to theology and the Bible, popular Christianity takes a very rigid view of truth.

By contrast, Academic Christianity, which is comprised primarily of theologians and intellectuals, has a high value for theological conversation and debate. Some well-known modern theologians like N.T. Wright and Gordon Fee have crossed-over into the pop-culture circle and are being read by non-academics. Hundreds of other theologians in the academic circle are speaking and writing in the language of academia, and their material never crosses over into the pop-culture. Not surprisingly, members of these two groups often have distain toward members of the other group. But it is important for us to understand and value both cultures.

One of the potential downfalls of academic Christianity is described in Paul’s statement in First Corinthians 8:1—“knowledge puffs up.” Knowledge is good, but it must always be tempered with love, which is not necessarily something academia teaches. If we understand all the theology and know all the Greek words, but are terrible Christians in our practical lives with our families and friends, we have a big problem.

However, one of academic Christianity’s strengths is found in the difference between these two words: disagree and disrespect. The popular Christian culture does not handle disagreement well. When leaders disagree, they tend to treat each other with a high level of disrespect, using labels like heretic, false teacher, blasphemer, or even antichrist. Generally such leaders are not willing to calmly and openly discuss their differences but instead make defamatory statements and point fingers. They fear their followers will be captivated by some evil teaching, so they actively try to persuade those under their influence against said evil doctrine. As a result, they influence their followers to also have disrespect toward a given person or movement. In other words, this disrespect has a filter-down system to everyone under a leader’s influence.

By contrast, academic Christianity has a strong appreciation for debate and discussion of ideas without disrespect. This is important for all who want to study theology, because we need to be able to examine the ways other people believe and disagree with some of them while still respecting them as people and fellow Christians. Academics value standing on their own opinion, based on their own study, so they say, “I believe such-and-such for this reason.” This is simply a personal statement and does not have a negative influence. Academic Christianity is okay with disagreement and does not see it as a hindrance to respect. It is okay for people to hold differing views and remain friends.

People in academic Christian culture make personal statements of disagreement that are not intended to influence others. By contrast, leaders in popular Christian culture make defamatory statements against other leaders and movements that are presented as fact and cause an umbrella of disrespect.

The best way to approach theology is with a willingness to disagree and an openness to learning from others. Academic Christianity has modeled this well, and we would be wise to imitate them. Thinking like an academic means believing we need to hear all the different views on an issue in order to rationally decide our own position. In this culture, we are free to hear all the different understandings and arrive at our own conclusions, even if those conclusions are different from those of our friends or leaders. This is why, in academic Christianity, we find many books that present varying views on a particular subject. These books are not written by one author who has an opinion and writes with a slant. Instead, they are a compilation of writings from theologians who are explaining their own personal beliefs.[1] Another type of book common in academic Christianity is a response book, where one theologian writes a book in response to another theologian’s writings.[2]

Part of what it means to disagree respectfully is to quote those you disagree with in a way that accurately presents what they said in context. Academics are very careful to do this, but unfortunately, many leaders in popular Christianity misrepresent those they disagree with. They take their words out of context and make assumptions about what others mean by what they have said. This sort of misrepresenting, misunderstanding, and attacking of others has been happening for a long time, but it is not honoring or helpful to approach disagreement this way. Instead, we need to learn how to disagree without disrespecting and without exaggerating. Throughout this course, our goal will be to understand the beliefs of others clearly and fairly so we can draw our own conclusions.

[1] For example, The Nature of the Atonement: Four Views contains contributions from four leading theologians with differing opinions on the atonement. In similar fashion, Four Views on the Book of Revelation and God and Time: Four Different Views present differing views on these subjects.

[2] A great example of this is Kenneth Gentry’s The Charismatic Gift of Prophecy: A Reformed Response to Wayne Grudem. In it, Gentry strongly but respectfully counters Grudem’s beliefs about the Holy Spirit from an academic standpoint.