Understanding Folk Religion: A Christian Response to Popular Beliefs and Practices

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Understanding Folk Religion: A Christian Response to Popular Beliefs and Practices. By Paul G. Hiebert, R. Daniel Shaw, and Tite Tienou. Grand Rapids: Baker, 1999, 448 pp., $29.99 paper.

This is an exciting book that is certain to become a standard text for mission courses at evangelical Bible colleges and seminaries. The book is divided into four sections: (1) developing an analytical model; (2) folk religious beliefs; (3) folk religious practices; and (4) Christian responses to folk religion. By introducing evangelicals to folk religions, which are defined as "the religious beliefs and practices of the common people," the book breaks new ground. It contains many good insights and useful suggestions that deserve to be widely discussed. Therefore, instead of simply summarizing the book itself, what follows are some serious criticism that reflect my unease with several aspects of the work. I hope my comments will provoke further debate.

First, the book begins with the now standard evangelical condemnation of the Enlightenment and its works. This ritual invocation mars the entire approach, because it enables the authors to substitute vague worldview analysis for the serious study of specific folk beliefs. Further, their failure to understand the complexity of the actual Enlightenment and the subsequent reaction known as Romanticism leads the authors to disparage nineteenth-century missionaries by claiming that the Enlightenment, colonialism, and the theory of evolution distorted their preaching of the gospel. Could it be that the authors have succumbed to secular ideology that claims missionaries destroyed indigenous cultures and to anti-imperialist rhetoric without examining what nineteenth-century missionaries actually did and how they interacted with various imperial regimes? Perhaps some work in mission archives or grappling with the actual writings of missionaries of an earlier age would provide a different perspective. A good example of this is Ulrich van der Heyden's edited volume Missionsgeschichte, Kirchengeschichte, Weltgeschichte (Stuttgart: Franz Steiner, 1996).

Second, the authors' mistreatment of the Enlightenment is characteristic of a general lack of historical awareness. For example, we are told that "the Catholic mission movement began when Columbus discovered the New World" (p. 88), but this notion is dispelled by Richard Fletcher's excellent The Conversion of Europe 371-1386 (London: Fonana, 1998). On a positive note, the authors wisely recommend that contemporary missionaries encourage an interest in the biographies of their converts, but they apparently overlook the fact that writing Christian history as a chain of biography was the technique of the great German Church historian Johann August Wilhelm Neander (1789-1850) whose method was explicitly taken over in the nineteenth century by the Berlin Mission in a way similar to that advocated here (cf. Karla Poewe and Ulrich van der Heyden, "The Berlin Mission Society and Its Theology," South African Historical Journal 40 [May 1999] 21-50).

Third, despite their constant complaint that Western Christians have adopted a "split-level" form of Christianity causing them to live in a segmented world, the authors' own failure to really engage non-evangelical scholarship displays the very segmentation they deplore (e.g. pp. 15 and 369). …