The Expert’s Guide to Foolishness

The consistently excellent Mockingbird blog has picked up on the very strange “Expert’s Guide to Heaven” video that’s been doing the rounds on YouTube for some time now.

What I particularly appreciated about Dusty’s post was her comment after the embedded video (emphasis added):

I LOVE this stuff. Could watch it all day long. It’s part of who we are, embrace it!

Those words – “It’s part of who we are, embrace it!” – really hit home. It’s easy for those of us who like to think of ourselves as “educated” Christians to be embarrassed and ashamed by this sort of “folk Christianity”, and to deal with that shame and embarrassment by mocking and sneering at it (and calling it “folk Christianity”, complete with scare-quotes).

And let’s be honest: there is a lot that’s risible in that video. Reading between the lines, though, you can see the human fears and experiences to which this speaks: a world in which homes are foreclosed (the preacher is keen to point out that this won’t happen to our “heavenly mansions”); in which aging is a terrible process for those lacking the resources (medical or cosmetic) to mitigate its effects; in which people suffer lifetimes of pain, disability and ill-health. A world which is often bypassed by the respectable, nuanced, N.T. Wright-reading Christianity of the educated middle-classes.

Folk Christianity has many benefits, not least of which is reminding us that St Paul not only really meant what he said in 1 Corinthians 1:26-29, but that he said it in a spirit of celebration, not of weary, eye-rolling, de haut en bas toleration:

Consider your own call, brothers and sisters: not many of you were wise by human standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are, so that no one might boast in the presence of God.

Folk Christianity like that of “The Expert’s Guide to Heaven” is undoubtedly foolish, weak, low and despised. That makes those of us who are (we fancy) wise, strong and socially respectable feel uncomfortable: partly for good reasons (the video’s presentation of the Christian message is undoubtedly flawed), but mainly because it exposes our lurking feeling that God really shouldn’t show himself up by choosing people… like that. And if he must do so, couldn’t they at least have the decency to keep quiet about it?

The church historian Gavin White has described the church as “One, Holy, Catholic, Apostolic and Scruffy. “The Expert’s Guide to Heaven” is part of that scruffiness, along with rowdy processions, bad country music, gaudy icons and fistfights between bishops at ecumenical councils. As Dusty says: “It’s part of who we are, embrace it!”

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4 Responses to The Expert’s Guide to Foolishness

  1. JS Bangs says:

    I have to agree, with some reluctance. My inclination is to look down on all forms of folk Christianity, and more than once have I lamented the shallow, uneducated, and superstitious Christianity practiced by the hoi polloi, whether they be Pentecostals in America or Orthodox in Romania. But I’ve gradually come around to the idea that, while folk Christianity may sometimes need to be corrected, it is nonetheless real Christianity, and must be treated with the respect and brotherly love that that implies.

  2. Jesse says:

    This does elicit a rather mixed bag of reactions. I have to admit the first is a roll of the eyes.

    However, I can’t help but be reminded of something Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote somewhere (can’t remember where) about not losing sight of our first hope, that is, relief from concrete worldly distress. At least folks like these have that in view while others of us may have retreated to the comfortability of a more abstract spirituality – even if they’re batting around a flawed version of the Christian message.

    As far as flaws and fellowship go (referring to Bonhoeffer again just because that’s who I’ve been reading lately), “If my sinfulness appears to me to be in any way smaller or less detestable in comparison with the sins of others, I am still not recognizing my sinfulness at all. . . Brotherly love will find any number of extenuations for the sins of others; only for my sin there is no apology whatsoever.” Their desire for relief of concrete distress leading them to skew the message seems like a sensible extenuation so to speak.

    So, if fellowship and community are confession and absolution in the Word, then I suppose there’s definitely room for these as well as correcting their faults.

  3. Theresa K." says:

    It’s easy to dismiss that video by saying,

  4. Theresa K. says:

    Ugh, I have hate for my laptop keyboard!

    It’s easy to dismiss that video as ridiculous and outdated; it is harder to admit that many still see Christians like that and that they are us…or at least part of our ancestors in faith. Part of me feels angry that people do things like this, thinking that they are somehow correct or called to do so. Another part of me really, really, really is embarrassed by all that teasing and hairspray. As if that will be in heaven, but what do I know?

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