One day my wife sent me to the store to buy peanut butter—specifically, natural peanut butter. In other words, no fake stuff. This seemed simple enough . . . until I arrived in what looked like the peanut butter department of the grocery store. I suppose managing that aisle alone must be a full-time job. The options overwhelmed me—creamy, chunky, extra chunky, honey-flavored, jelly-filled, low fat, organic—and countless sizes, shapes, brands, and prices! My head spun.
There I stood, paralyzed with indecision, wanting nothing more than to snatch the cheapest jar of peanut butter and dash for the checkout. Instead, showing due diligence, I searched for “natural peanut butter” amidst the flashy brand names that virtually called out from the shelves like brochure pushers on the Vegas Strip: “Pick me! Pick me! Don’t you remember all those commercials you saw as a kid? All those smiling faces? Those cool special effects showing golden roasted peanutsmagically spread into smooth, creamy peanut butter?”
Lured by the flashy labels, my eyes landed on one popular brand paired with the keyword “Natural.” How convenient!
I grabbed it from the shelf.
I felt rather victorious until I got home and took a closer look at the back label. I then discovered that “natural” peanut butter isn’t necessarily a literal description. That particular brand of natural peanut butter did include roasted peanuts, of course. But it also contained sugar, palm oil, and salt. So that’s what we mean by natural? Really? All those things naturally grow on a peanut plant? I guess from one perspective these ingredients are natural as opposed to, say, “supernatural.” And at least I couldn’t find any unpronounceable ingredients like monosodiumtriglyceraticidipropylol. And to be fair to that brand, if we were to compare its ingredients to that peanut butter-like substance found in the candy aisle of a grocery store, that jar of peanut butter looked like pure gold.
But is junk food peanut butter really the standard? When I contrast that version of natural with a different, lesser-known brand’s natural peanut butter, I’m a little less forgiving. The ingredients lists for several others simply say, “Peanuts.” No salt, no oil, no emulsifier, no sweetener, no chemicals added to preserve freshness or enhance flavor. Just plain peanuts. Call me naïve, but to me, that’s natural whether we like how it tastes or not. Shouldn’t peanut butter made of just puréed peanuts serve as the standard for what constitutes natural peanut butter?
Over the next couple of weeks, as my mind periodically returned to the out-of-control peanut butter situation, something struck me. The failure of most peanut butters to actually live up to the natural standard reminds me of the out-of-control state of much of what is happening in contemporary evangelicalism. If I were to liken authentic, classic Christianity to the truly natural form of undiluted, unmixed, real peanut butter, then the multiple forms of evangelicalism that diverge more and more from this standard become, well, less and less authentic.
What I’m suggesting is this: over the last several decades, many of us evangelicals have become increasingly accustomed to a less “natural” form of Christianity. While still essentially Christian, many aspects of evangelicalism have become victims of “enrichment” by non-Christian ingredients that are meant to enhance the faith. This “enrichment” has been done to make the gospel more convenient, palatable, or marketable. Yet as these added ingredients take up more and more space, the essentials of the faith are necessarily displaced.
Take a stroll with me through the virtual aisles of our evangelical subculture—gift shops, radio stations, television programs, websites, even many of the new, trendy churches. We find ourselves surrounded by positive thinking, self-help, and behavior modification. We’re lured in by self-esteem best-sellers, do-it-yourself Christianity, and countless authors presenting the spiritual life as an ascending ladder: seven steps to this, three keys to that, the one prayer that will revolutionize your world, expand your influence, fulfill your desire for happiness. Let’s just be honest. Much of the garbage stinking up the shelves of Christian bookstores is passed off as Christian Living, but it’s mostly psychobabble or practical proverbs no better than what we find in the secular self-help or generic spirituality sections of our online bookseller.
Modern evangelical Christians who have become accustomed to this trendy, diluted form of Christianity have all but forgotten what the pure faith actually tastes like! In fact, many who are then exposed to a less adulterated faith—a form without all the unnecessary additives—find themselves actually disgusted by the original pure flavor of authentic Christianity, spitting it out and rejecting it as something foreign and inferior—or at least unpleasant to the palate.
The irony is that this purer form of Christianity is the authentic faith once for all delivered to the saints. The biblical gospel proclaimed, the sacraments rightly administered, discipline properly maintained, evangelism and discipleship emphasized, repentance and renewal preached—there is nothing really fancy about these things. In fact, they are so simple to identify and maintain that churches focusing on these fundamentals and freeing themselves from the frills appear to be washed-out has-beens or incompetent wannabes to most big-production glitz-and-glamour evangelicals.
Let’s return to the peanut butter aisle once again. We have to admit that all those peanut butter products do contain peanuts, and so they can genuinely be called “peanut butter.” Similarly, to varying degrees the marks of authentic Christianity are found in most of the products that fill the shelves of the evangelical church market. And to the degree that they retain those essential marks they are, in fact, Christian. Yet many forms of evangelical Christianity have been so colored with dyes, so mixed with artificial ingredients, or so drenched in candy coating that they are in danger of becoming cheap imitations that serve merely to distract from—not point to—the essential ingredients of the historical faith.
Just like additive-rich peanut butters that appeal to flavor rather than to nutrition, far too many evangelicals shop for me-centered feel-good church experiences rather than Christ-centered worship, discipleship, and authentic community. In fact, like sour-faced kids who reject all natural peanut butter, many evangelicals turn their noses away from authentic expressions of church and spirituality. They would rather keep dabbling in the artificial than adjust their tastes to the real thing.
In my book, RetroChristianity: Reclaiming the Forgotten Faith, I attempt to draw renewed attention to the original fount and purer streams of orthodox, protestant tradition that once fed evangelicalism’s spiritual reservoirs. And I’m not alone. Numerous evangelical leaders who have been submerged in biblical, theological, and historical reflection have sounded similar alarms and called for similar renewal. But most of these attempts at reorienting the evangelical masses—pastors, teachers, lay leaders, and church members—have been either ignored or unheeded by the masses.
It seems we’ve reached a point in the evangelical church market where it’s no longer enough to read just the front label. Now we have to focus on the fine print and see what place is given to the true marks of classic Christianity. The problem is, too few evangelicals are familiar enough with the original and enduring faith to sort the real from the fake. But it’s not too late! Every person who has reached this point in this essay has the opportunity—and the responsibility—to make a trip back to the shelves of competing flavors of Christianity, to return the poor product that has been pushed by ill-informed dealers, and to reclaim the forgotten faith for the future.