Doctor of Leadership in Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World

Folk theology from a recovering Pentecostal

Written by: on October 16, 2014

Folk theology from a recovering Pentecostal.Screen Shot 2014-10-15 at 11.40.23 PM

If Grenz and Olson can lean on Peanuts metaphors in their book, Who Needs Theology?  An Invitation to the Study of God, then I suppose I can pull out the big guns: Calvin and Hobbes.  Calvin and his stuffed tiger/imaginary friend, Hobbes, are serenely lying under a tree, contemplating life.  Hobbes asks, “Do you believe in God?”  After a ponderous moment, Calvin replies emphatically, “Well, SOMEBODY’s out to get me!”  This sentiment sums up much of how modern Christians view God. itisexam
He is essentially a human, with human qualities, only bigger and (of course) better.  When we consider that this book was written 20 years ago, Grenz and Olson’s words ring prophetic: “We fear that Christianity may be in danger of becoming a mere “folk religion” (unreflective believing based on blind faith in a tradition of some kind), relegated to the realms of sheer subjectivity and emptied of public credibility.”1  Is this not an apt description of the world in which we presently live?

A wholesale, societal departure from sound theology has created an environment in which a theological free-for-all can easily develop.  In many Evangelical circles, the church has assigned the duty of theologizing to the Academy, finding very little use for it in the “real world”  We remain content to hold onto emotionalism and oral traditions passed down through successive generations as a hollow substitute for thoughtful reflection about God.  At least this is the case in my particular brand of Evangelicalism.  Have you ever heard (or uttered) these pithy little catch-phrases?  “Let go and let God!”  “Too blessed to be stressed!”  Or how about this one, “God is good, all the time! And all the time, God is good.”  Most folks who proudly display these bumper-stickers would be hard-pressed to articulate a sound theological underpinning for these sentiments.  Then, when a genetic heart condition is diagnosed and the question of bad things happening to good people is raised… well there’s no room for that conversation.  Or worse, the one with the illness must be harboring some kind of hidden sin that is “blocking the flow of Jesus’ healing virtues.”2  We need sound theology.  We need it bad.

In truth, everyone engages in theology at some time or another in his life.  Whether or not it is sound theology really is the question.  Like Calvin (the one with the stuffed tiger) and Charlie (NOT the one whose name ends in “Spurgeon”), we all reflect on the existence and nature of God and his interactions with mankind even if we do so accidentally.  When we do, we are engaging in theology.  I wish I could say that all of my theological musings are firScreen Shot 2014-10-15 at 11.40.36 PMmly anchored in a deep desire to know more about my Creator.  But the reality is, I am not much different than my fellow humans.  I instinctively explain his behavior in terms that are couched in my traditional folk theology.  He makes sense to me inside of that very narrow frame.  And so long as I am disease-free, have money in the bank and my children are all squeaky-clean I can comfortably remain there.  But when the harsh realities of life force my head out of the sand, I hope I have a firm theological underpinning that will not crumble.

Who needs theology?  I suppose I do…



1. Stanley J. Grenz and Roger E. Olson, Who Needs Theology? An Invitation to the Study of God. Downer’s Grove: IVP, 1996). 10, 27.

2. Exact words spoken to me by an over-zealous Pentecostal seeking to explain how his prayers were not effectual in curing my Hypertrophic Cardiomyopathy.C_TFIN52_64

About the Author

Jon Spellman

Jon is a husband, father, coach, author, missional-thinker, and most of all, a follower of Jesus.

11 responses to “Folk theology from a recovering Pentecostal”

  1. Great reflection Jon 🙂 Of course with calvin & hobbes, you get extra “points” – heh! (Have you seen the Waterson documentary? Probably on netflix by now.) In the twitterverse, we should expect that theology now has to be concise enough (read: reductionist) to fit in 140 characters. Our conversation partners (too often merely listeners) probably have shorter and shorter attention spans, unless they are raised as readers. Listen up parents!

  2. Nick Martineau says:

    Great thoughts Jon…I really enjoyed reading this.

    Olson was one of my professors in seminary. He’s hilarious. Very dry sense of humor and he loved bringing Peanuts comics to class. I’ll try to point out to him that he is narrowing his view and branching out to Calvin and Hobbs might give him a deeper framework for his theology. (-:

    From reading your post I started thinking that theology is most necessary when we go through suffering. It rarely surfaces our thoughts when things are going well. This is why having a global perspective is so important. There is always mass suffering going on in our world and how we respond to it represents how we view our Heavenly Father.

  3. Brian Yost says:

    Your post struck close to home. I have had the privilege of working in areas where miracles are prayed for, expected, and seen. I have seen great faith demonstrated that sometimes puts my faith to shame. The difficulty is that many people have unwittingly embraced a folk theology of miracles. Their theology serves them well when they see miracles. The tragedy comes when the expected miracle doesn’t happen. When someone dies or is not healed, blame is often laid on the victim or family and accusations of sin and lack of faith get thrown around. Those who raise theological questions before a tragedy strikes are usually better prepared to walk through the hard times where visible miracles may not be seen.

  4. Travis Biglow says:

    God bless you Jon,

    We all are subjects of folk theology in some way. I thank God that the future is always brighter when we can think theologically without feeling like we have to rely on our upbringing. I feel that I have moved considerably away from a lot of my folk history in the knowledge of God. My faith has become more dominate in the word of God instead of old wive tales and old idioms people have forced down my religious system. You seem to have a great grip on reality and a theology that has been groomed to definitely impact society and the future! Blessings

  5. Dave Young says:


    You’re not only a great thinker but I appreciate how you can put pen to paper, so to speak. I agree with your statement: “A wholesale, societal departure from sound theology has created an environment in which a theological free-for-all can easily develop.” Part of a push to pluralism in our society is an easy pick and choose of what I like and don’t particularly care for. We can do it in our consumerism and more and more we’re seeing it in our religious environment. So sure with theology in a weakened state it’s easier for people to go from church to church or podcast to podcast indiscriminately – I imagine folks are going to wind up with a theology that’s so personalized that its really no theology at all.

  6. Jon Spellman says:

    Dave, that last statement is profound. We are living in a world NOW that Grenz and Olson warned about 20 years ago, and not just within the larger society. In the church there is a pervasive sort of syncretism present that renders sound theology which leads to sound doctrine essentially powerless. “You take your path, I’ll take mine…”


  7. Mary says:

    Love it that your degree is in Practical Theology…that’s what I saw again and again while we were in Cape Town. You asked the hard questions, yet you then humbly set about the work of reflecting on your own perceptions as it might be relate to you as well as those you shepherd.
    In your acknowledgment of your folk theology background, you demonstrate what Grenz/Olson share about how difficult it is to delineate out the false and mis-understandings of who God is and how He works in our world. It’s like the fish in the water who asks “what water?” You’ve done a remarkable work at listening, thinking critically, and articulating your theology, even as a closet people pleaser 🙂

  8. Phillip Struckmeyer says:

    Hilarious Jon! Sad, but hilarious in a sense. The bumper sticker theology is out there and it is thick. It made me think of all the church signs across North America and the possibility that those signs probably, sadly, and accurately reflect the trending “Christian” theological foundation our faith is being built on. Talk about your sandy foundations. Dawnel’s post got me thinking a bit about my discipleship relationships and I am reflecting a bit on how much “theology” or “theological conversation” really takes place. I fear that my emphasis of bible study and ministry become self improvement tasks that somehow stop being about God, His nature, our relationship with Him and what he is up to in the world. Any way . . . good thoughts bro!

    • Jon Spellman says:

      Phil, as trainers and developers of church planters, how important is it that our conversations become patently theological, not just “become your best you…” Unfortunately, I’m as guilty as the next guy when it comes to “training” planters to maximize themselves. If ANYONE should be becoming real practical theologians it’s our planters.


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