Interviews Thinking in Public

Are We All Syncretists Now? – A Conversation About Evangelical Christianity And Alternative Medicine With Historian Candy Gunther Brown


Thinking in Public with Candy Gunther Brown

May 05, 2014

Mohler:  This is Thinking in Public, a program dedicated to intelligent conversation about frontline theological and cultural issues with the people who are shaping them.  I’m Albert Mohler, your host and President of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky.

Candy Gunther Brown is Associate Professor of Religious Studies at Indiana University.  There she teaches and writes on the topics of religion, health, and healthcare management.  She also has an academic specialization in evangelical and Pentecostal Christianity.  She has published and edited numerous books and more than fifty journal articles, book chapters, and essays.  She earned her Baccalaureate, Master’s, and Ph.D. degrees at Harvard University.  Her latest work is The Healing Gods: Complementary and Alternative Medicine in Christian America.  It’s published by Oxford University Press.

In her book, she writes on what she calls “the intriguing and sometimes astonishing story of the mainstreaming of complementary and alternative medicine in America.”  She writes with specificity of Christian America.  I’m really looking forward to this conversation with Professor Candy Gunther Brown.

Professor Brown, I think there will be many people who actually aren’t familiar with the term “complementary and alternative medicine.”  That’s been the focus of one of your concerns, and you came to it from an interesting route.  How did you come, as a historian, to look at the intersection of Christianity in America and what you identify as “CAM” – complementary and alternative medicine?

Brown:  My research started off by looking at the growth of Christianity worldwide over the course of the twentieth and the twenty-first centuries.  What I found in that set of research was that one of the primary reasons why Christianity is growing on a global scale is because of divine healing practices.  People pray for healing from a Christian God, and they perceive that they’re healed through prayer.  As I was interviewing Christians who believed that they were healed by God through prayer, I was surprised to find many of the same individuals also were involved in what can be termed as complementary and alternative medicine.  These are practices such as chiropractics, homeopathy, meditation, martial arts, yoga, and therapeutic touch.  These are practices that are actually much more closely tied to other religious traditions such as Hinduism or Buddhism as compared with Christianity.

Mohler:  In your book, you describe what you call “The intriguing and sometimes astonishing story of the mainstreaming of this CAM in America,” but you’re really writing particularly about the mainstreaming of this movement in American Christianity.  Of course, the thing that makes your book so interesting is that, as you say, “it’s intriguing and astonishing” because in many ways, this is the absolutely last subgroup in America one might expect would mainstream and accept this kind of import with association to very different religions.  To you, as an American historian, this must have been an interesting discovery.

Brown:  It was very surprising because the more closely I looked at the CAM practices, the clearer it became that they are not only historically, but currently, tied with religious and spiritual traditions.  The more closely I looked the clearer the contrasts became between the assumptions and worldviews that underlie many of these CAM practices, as compared with a Christian worldview.  Part of what’s interesting here is that there are certain overlaps and assumptions.  Both the CAM and the Christian worldview assume that there is something spiritual.  You might describe them as holistic, as opposed to materialistic or the idea that there’s just science and the study of material things.

Yet, they are also very different in the sense of relationship between the world around, creation, and where that came from.  For a CAM worldview, everything is really of the same substance.  It might be described as monistic.  There’s not really a rigid separation between the Creator and creation or divine consciousness and nature; whereas in historic Christian theology, there is a very clear separation.  It might be described as dualism.  There is an outside Creator God who is transcending and separate from the creation.  Therefore, when there are problems in the world, the remedy for those problems are also very different.  In the CAM worldview, it’s really a matter of rebalancing the flow of impersonal energy; whereas, in a Christian worldview, the Holy Spirit is actually a person, a member of the Trinity, and not just an impersonal energy.  The remedy for the problems of the world, the separation of humans and God, is repentance and faith, not just physically unblocking personal energy.

Mohler:  You used the word “astonishing.”  I think I would even amplify that to say “astounding.”  This is just one of those stories that has to be told.  By the way, I think your book is the definitive book thus far on this issue on the intersection between American evangelical Christianity and these movements in alternative medicine.  Yet, you also do something beyond that, which so far as I know, no one else has done.  You actually deal head on with the question of efficacy and of evidence-based medicine.  We’ll talk about this in just a moment.  When you’re talking about American evangelicals, you’re talking about a subgroup that came fairly late to accept this alternative medicine movement.  In other words, if you were to go back in history, I can remember when evangelicals would have talked about chiropractors and many other forms of alternative medicine as something they would have avoided at all costs.  Now, you’ve got some form of yoga being taught in evangelical megachurches.  How in the world did this happen?

Brown:  Absolutely.  It’s only the 1960s that this can be traced back to.  This is where you see immigration law changes, and it becomes a much more global world.  There are a lot more influences in the U.S.  There are also cultural changes that take place between the 1960s and the present.  Christians generally rejected practices like yoga or chiropractic, if they were aware of them at all, as idolatry or as being connected with false religions.  For that matter, medical practitioners generally regarded these activities as medical quackery.  There’s really been a radical transformation in the cultural position and acceptance of these practices in a very short period of time.

Mohler:  In an incredibly short period of time.  In that period of time, it appears there was a major theological modification within evangelicalism as well.  I want to talk about that a bit.  Before I get to that in particular, you actually do some very careful theological analysis of what evangelicals are up to in terms of this very significant and astonishing shift.  One thing you point out is that evangelicals began to define religion, as we understand it in terms of our own faith and worldview, a word-directed, doctrinally structured faith.  You point out that that left evangelicals in a position in which they told themselves that other belief systems are religious because they’re not based on the same kind of cognitive structure.

Brown:  Yes, I think that’s exactly right.  This is truer of Protestants than it is of Catholics, where there is a sense of sacraments and the sacred being conveyed through actions and symbols.  Evangelicals are very focused on belief and very focused on proclamation of the Gospel.  That basically leads to a lack of recognition that practices can be religious if they don’t involve talking about faith.

Mohler:  In your book, you say, “The argument that CAM is spiritual but not religious when used to reassure Christians and other monotheists that they can practices these things without committing apostasy makes opaque a basic disjuncture between certain of these alternative worldview and historical Christian traditions.”  That’s very well stated.  It’s very interesting that evangelicals, at least in one sense, talked themselves into accepting these things, didn’t we?

Brown:  There’s a desire to accept them because evangelicals can be just as frustrated with the limits of modern medicine and even the limits of what churches are offering compared to everyone else.  If Christians perceive healthcare practices as being effective, they want to benefit from those practices.  They want to feel reassured that in making use of those practices, they won’t be violating their faith.  They won’t be themselves doing something they don’t feel good about.  They also won’t be looked down upon by other Christians as straying from orthodoxy.

Mohler:  Let’s deal with the very first question you take head on in your book.  If you’re looking at contemporary and alternative medicine, are these various forms of therapy and treatment basically religious?  You answer that unquestionably they are.

Brown:  That’s correct.  I wouldn’t want to make this as a completely generalized, blanket statement.  Even the phrase “complementary and alternative medicine” embraces a great deal.  It basically includes anything that’s not accepted by the medical mainstream as having been validated by scientific studies.  If you start to look at the most popular of these CAM therapies, many of them share the same basic worldview.  There is a universal life force energy that flows through the universe and into the human body.  The basic problem of sickness is a lack of harmony or balance between humans and that cosmic energy.  The basic solution is to redirect or rebalance that energy flow.  That’s really a religious set of assumptions.  A lot of what’s appealing about these CAM practices is that they do give people a sense of meaning, purpose, and their place in the universe.  A lot of the functions that these practices fulfill could very easily be described as religious functions.  Beyond that, there are very specific historical and cultural ties to religious traditions including Hinduism, Buddhism, Daoism, and Western metaphysical spirituality.

Mohler:  I want to be very honest here and say that one of the reasons I really appreciated your book is that you validated two arguments that I’ve been making for a very long time.  As I was thinking that one page, I found myself in your book on the next page.  I got into a huge controversy some years back.  It wasn’t something new that I was talking about, but it was actually occasioned by a conversation in this program, Thinking in Public.  I responded to a book on yoga written by Stephanie Simon.  It was her book, The Subtle Body: The Story of Yoga in America.  It traced the story of yoga.  She verified in a very good and substantial way what we have been saying for a long time, and you come back and give even more background on this.  Let’s just look at yoga for a moment.  In other words, many people now claim that yoga can now be without regard to religion.  There could be a secular yoga.  This gets right down to a controversy, in which you were called as an expert witness in a California school district.  If you’re asked the question straightforwardly, as you were asked by a judge, can yoga be secular?  How do you respond to that?

Brown:  I think that it’s important, first of all, to recognize that yoga means a lot of different things to a lot of different people.  It’s developed historically over a very long period of time and in diverse cultural contexts.  I do think that context matters.  There are multiple facets to this question of separating yoga from religion.  One of the key things to do is to look at the actual yoga program, rather than to just try and generalize.  I actually want to back away from the question of “Is yoga inherently religious?” to look at how yoga is understood in specific contemporary contexts, which include the California school district.  If you look at that as a case study of this, we find that yoga is being described by the organization that funded the program, the K.P. Jois Foundation, as a practice which has as its goal “becoming one with God” whether people want it or not.  Jois’ understand of what yoga did was, even through just the physical postures and the special breathing exercises apart from Hinduism or any other religious beliefs, enough to achieve Samadhi, which he defined as “becoming one with God.”

These beliefs were taught and still are in the Encinitas School District.  Children were taught to chant the mantra, which was described as the sacred sound of the universe, which is equivalent to Brahman or the divine.  Children were taught to sit in the lotus position, which is symbolic of enlightenment.  They were taught to place their hands in special mudras or positions meant to channel sacred energy.  For instance, a praying hands position, which is meant to instill feelings of reverence, or a position with the first finger and the thumb circled around each other to symbolize the subordination of individual consciousness to universal consciousness; these are all done in a P.E. class.  Those are religious beliefs.  Jois also taught the sun salutations, a sequence of poses that starts off yoga classes.  Jois defined that as worship of the sun god, a way to pray to the sun god.  Those are direct quotations from the person who was behind this yoga program.  If you’re to look at that yoga program, in particular, there are elements which are very directly linked to Hinduism.  Despite the judge’s claim that the lotus was renamed “Criss-cross Applesauce,” which is not a claim substantiated anywhere in the record.  If you look at even the revised curriculum that was developed during the trial, the term “Criss-cross Applesauce” doesn’t appear a single time.  The term “Lotus” appears one hundred and ninety-four times.  This example of the Encinitas yoga program can actually be multiplied many times over.

Mohler:  As you make clear, that’s true in many evangelical megachurches as well.  In your book, you state “Efforts to secularize or Christianize yoga often result in superficial relabeling rather than a creation of fundamentally distinctive practices.”  In an article you wrote in Psychology Today on this situation in California, you wrote “Psychology research on extinction and relearning shows that once a person learns an association, such as a religious association of a yoga pose, the memory of that association doesn’t go away regardless of whether one tries to replace it with new associations.”  I find those two statements to be incredibly informative for thinking about how evangelicals are now embracing the practice of yoga.

Brown:  I think that’s fine.  I think partly that this is the evangelical assumption that a person’s intentions determine whether a person’s practices are religious or what kind of religion that is.  Many Christians will reason, “For me, this means worship of Jesus.”  It’s not impersonal energy.  They just call this energy the Holy Spirit.  What a lot of evangelicals don’t recognize is that intentions can actually change through religious practices.  Intentions are not stable, but practices can change beliefs.  Simply relabeling “Brahman” as “Holy Spirit,” or relabeling “becoming one with God” as “coming into closer relationship with God” doesn’t necessarily change the effect of engaging in that practice.

Mohler:  One of the key insights first gained by reading this book by Professor Candy Gunther Brown is that one the American medical landscape, there is now an entire world of these complementary and alternative medical therapies and modalities that Americans think of just in terms of increasing comfortably with the brand names they see.  The reality, and this is where Professor Brown helps us tremendously, is that there is a history to every single one of these.  There’s a worldview that is essential to every single one of these.  The worldview and the history stay with these therapies and these alternative medical approaches even when the language is taken away and the history isn’t discussed.  The really important thing about this from a Christian worldview perspective is that the worldview continues even when the language ends.

            I think my favorite chapter in your book is the one on chiropractic, because you told me a great deal that I didn’t know about the background of that movement.  My first assumption is that most people in America have no clue about this.  I’ll tell you a personal anecdote.  My mother is an RN so I grew up in the house of a registered nurse.  When the term “Chiropractic” came up in our house, it was always met with absolute alarm because she was trained in traditional biomedicine, as you called it.  Now, I’ve got relatives who will go to the chiropractor as soon as they get a back ache.  How do we get from this point to the other so quickly?  Fill in the background to where chiropractor came from?

Brown:  The practice is actually relatively recent.  It was developed at the end of the nineteenth century by someone who was actually a practicing mesmerist and spiritualist.  His name was Daniel David Palmer.  He actually claimed that he got the idea for chiropractics by talking to a physician who had died thirty years before.  It was spiritual communication, which he was engaged in.  Palmer thought about declaring chiropractic a religion, but he decided not to because he saw it as a middle ground between medicine and Christian Science.  He believed that all religions were the same and all gods were the same.  There was a universal life force known as innate intelligence that was actually the creator of everything and the one who sustains life.  That’s where D.D. Palmer started things.  His son, J.D. Palmer, is known as the developer of the profession.  He trained something like seventy-five percent of chiropractors over the course of the twentieth century.  He actually took an even stronger anti-Christian stance than his father did.  He wrote a pamphlet called “Do Chiropractors Pray?”  His answer was, “No, no chiropractor would pray to any deity outside of the self.”  The innate intelligence inside of the person is the only real God, the only divine source.  Chiropractics from its origin was explicitly anti-medical and anti-Christian.  As late as the 1960s, there was an American Medical Association committee on quackery, the purpose of which was to eliminate chiropractic.  It really was through court cases that the AMA was forced to stop discriminating against chiropractors.  This was the finding of the Supreme Court.  There trying to eliminate the profession was discriminatory.  The AMA basically backed away from their anti-chiropractic positions, and they started to promote chiropractic.  This is how we get from this being completely outside of the medical profession to medical doctors and chiropractors working in the same offices.  There’s really been a quick forgetting over the last several decades of how outside of the medical and Christian mainstream chiropractic was.  Of all the practices that I’ve studied, Christians are the most enthusiastic about chiropractic.  Sometimes in very defensive ways because there is such a perception of “I’m getting something from chiropractors that I’m not getting from my doctor and I’m not getting from my church.”

Mohler:  One of the things you point out is the change in vocabulary in chiropractic that can lead people to believe that the worldview has fundamentally shifted when there is just a shift in language.  For instance, you point out, that even as recently as 1996, in a position paper by the Association of Chiropractic Colleges “Chiropractic is defined as healthcare discipline that emphasizes the inherent recuperative power of the body to heal itself without the use of drugs or surgery.”  You point out that the words “inherent” and “innate” are directly drawn from that worldview, but without the associations that would alarm people and help them to know the kind of monistic religious worldview that’s reflected there.

Brown:  That’s right.  What’s even more notable than the shift in vocabulary, which is very strategic and oriented toward getting acceptance in mainstream medicine, is that if you look at the same chiropractors who are using medical language in talking to one audience, they use this very spiritual language when talking to insiders within their professions and patients sympathetic to their spiritual worldviews.  There’s this use of multiple vocabularies to appeal to different audiences, some of which want chiropractic to be religious and some of whom don’t.

Mohler:  You know, the most interesting part of your argument there is very subtle.  That is when chiropractic is discussed in a medical context, they want to say it’s not religious.  They want to insist that it’s just another form of medical practice.  Yet, when someone asks “Then what’s the distinction?”  Their response is pretty religious.

Brown:  That’s right.  It’s all about a figuring out of what the audiences want to hear and presenting this practice in a way that will not offend people but that will really appeal to these diverse audiences.  There’s a very strategic use of language, even sometimes a camouflaging that takes place through this self-censoring that many practitioners employ.

Mohler:  I want to ask a blunt question, and this can hurt American evangelicals.  Yet, we need to ask the question.  Whose worldview shifted: the worldview of chiropractic or the worldview of the evangelicals who began to use it and believe it was complementary?

Brown:  I don’t see any shift in the worldview of chiropractors, and there was a profession-wide survey that was done just a few years ago by a chiropractor, someone who is within the profession and sympathetic to all of the concerns of other chiropractors.  Basically, what this large-scale survey found was that the vast majority of current chiropractors affirm ideas that are very similar to the Palmers who founded the profession at the beginning of the twentieth century.  Partly, what’s interesting and confusing for many Christians is that most chiropractors will say that they are Christians.  At the same time, most chiropractors will confirm these very metaphysical religious ideas.  That’s where there’s this idea among evangelicals that if someone says they’re a Christian, they must be a Christian.  It’s like you affirm with your mouth, you confess that Jesus is Lord.  That becomes enough of a validation to assume that everything else that goes with a practice must be Christian.

Mohler:  That’s the hardest question.

Brown:  The fact that chiropractors claim a Christian identity actually makes them less rather than more responsible for demonstrating that their beliefs would fall into what patients would consider orthodox Christian doctrine.

Mohler:  Now, you make some really serious points about how this would impact the ethics of medicine and even constitutional question.  Before getting to that, I want to press this just a bit to ask when you think about Christians who are looking to these various, and you’re careful in the book to say that they’re not all the same, some are just explicitly meta-physical even now so there’s no disguising of it.  The main part of your narrative is how, quite honestly, these different methodologies are their proponents, the proponents main arguments that this is perfectly scientific.  You make the point that they’ve convinced Americans that these things work.  As you point out, there’s really very little scientific evidence that they work.  It appears that Americans in general and American evangelicals specifically were hungry for this kind of thing and have been trying to work their way into accepting them by virtually any kind of argument that they can accept.

Brown:  I think that’s right.  There’s an esteem in American culture generally, that includes evangelical culture.  People like things to be scientific, but they want it to be more than scientific.  They want it to be natural; they want it to be spiritual.  It’s a very effective marketing strategy to claim something works.  There are scientific studies to back it.  To simply use scientific sounding language can be very persuasive to a public that generally has relatively little specific scientific knowledge or experience in terms of evaluating what scientific evidence demonstrates and does not demonstrate.

Mohler:  On most of these movements, if I read your book correctly, there’s actually very little evidence to actually look at objectively.

Brown:  That’s true.  I mean, this is why these practices are classified as complementary and alternative medicine.  The term really at its most basic level refers to practices that have not been accepted by conventional medical science because there’s been a lack of scientific validation that these practices are effective.  Most Americans simply ask the question about CAM, “Does it work?”  They don’t really press very hard on the question, “What exactly is the evidence that this works?”  They’re satisfied generally if there are some studies published somewhere in scientific journals, but there’s a wide range in terms of the quality of studies that get published and the quality of journals.  The gold standards, in terms of medical research, are what are known as Cochrane Systematic Reviews.  It’s a database of very rigorous studies that are regularly updated that look at double-blinded randomized controlled trials, and not just one or a few.  They really look at the quality of the methods.  They look at the collective evidence that’s out there.  If you look at these Cochrane Reviews for CAM practices, over and over again the conclusion reached by the reviewer is that there is insufficient evidence to recommend this practice medically.  There’s just not a demonstration that the practice works.  If you look at something like Reiki, for example, which is an interesting case.  There’s a whole organize which is devoted to getting Reiki into hospitals.  They’ve been very effective actually.  Hundreds and hundreds of hospitals have Reiki programs now, but if you look at this organization’s website on scientific research, their own claim is that the best scientific evidence for Reiki comes from two particular studies.  They’re studies of rats.  Between the two studies, they have a grand total of seven rats that did better in Reiki studies.  Nothing about human subjects and no indication of how studies were done before they were able to find two studies in which there were seven rats that did betters.  That’s the kind of level of research that we’re talking about for a number of these popular practices.

Mohler:  You make the point, and this is a very serious point, that there are ethical issues involved here because there are people, evangelical Christians in particular, who are sometimes almost coerced into participating in a medical context in some of these practices.   In other ways, they are enticed without any understanding of the religious elements that are actually being imported by these practices.  That’s a very serious issue.  You’re suggesting that there’s a huge ethical problem in modern medicine.

Brown:  Yes, I think there is an ethical issue here.  In terms of medical ethics and the law, it’s phrased as “informed consent.”  The HIPAA forms that everyone has to sign whenever you go into a doctor would be an example of this.  The principal of informed consent theory is that someone needs to know what they’re consenting towards and not only medical risks and benefits are relevant, but also long term goals and values, which would include religious commitments.  If people are being asked to participate in a practice without being informed that this practice may violate their religious beliefs, then that’s an ethical issue.  Particularly this is the case if the practitioner has a reason to suspect that there might actually be a religious objection, and they’re intentionally choosing to describe their practice in a way that would overcome that objection, not by persuasion but by omission of relevant information.

Mohler:  I think that’s a very interesting point.  That gets to a second very serious issue you raise in terms of public policy.  For that we could simply point to the school district in California again.  To what extent do we have an unconstitutional establishment of religion when you have federal funding or government support for this kind of practice?

Brown:  I think this is a very germane question because public schools, according to the Supreme Court’s finding, are not allowed to aid one religion, to aid all religions, or to provide any kind of endorsement of religion over non-religion even if these programs are voluntary, even if there is some kind of secular program involved, and even if they’re non-sectarian.  It’s for those reasons that school prayer and school Bible reading are not allowed.  If you have programs, such as meditation or yoga, in public schools that are promoting in some sense religions other than Christianity, it seems that this may raise very parallel issues as prayer and Bible reading.  The other aspect of this would be if there’s federal funding that is involved.  In fact, there have been some very large federal grants that have been given to different CAM programs.  Again, the courts have found that the government cannot sponsor or support religion, whether financially or whether through the endorsement through the public school systems.  There’s been this focus on Christianity as what’s religious, whereas no one has really asked the question, “Are these programs that come out of religious traditions still religious?”  Rather, what’s happened is policy makers generally tend to just assume that the promoters of the program say they secularized it so it’s secular and outside the category of religion.   We don’t need to worry about these same kinds of establishment clause issues that we would be concerned about if the practice at stake were Christianity.

Mohler:  You make that point very clear in a serious of article you wrote for Psychology Today.  By the way, just to elaborate on that, you point out that the judge in this case basically shift the criterion established in law.  He said that the children wouldn’t know the religious associations and might not recognize them so it wouldn’t be important.  Yet, as you point out, there’s the reasonable person test.  In other words, would a reasonable person looking at this see the religious associations?  As you say, they would be impossible not to see.

Brown:  It was a really fascinating finding by the judge actually because he concluded that yoga is religious, the particular kind of program, the Ashtanga yoga program in the schools, was specifically religious, and it was Ashtanga yoga practice that were being taught in the schools.  He found all of those points, but he used an ignorant child observer standard to make his decision rather than a reasonable observer standard or even an informed child observer standard.  Even more interesting than that is that if you actually look at what the kids in the school district thought about the yoga program, there was actually quite a bit of evidence that the kids recognized this as religious.  That was true both of the children opted out of yoga and told their teachers, “I’m not going to do this pose, putting my hands into a praying position, because that feels religious to me.”  “I’m not going to color this mandala because you’re telling me that this is a sacred circle that I’m drawing; that feels religious to me.”  This is also true of the children who still participated in the yoga program.  They started going to field trips and spontaneously getting into the Lotus position, meditating, and chanting.  They were making an association between what was being done in the yoga classes, the supposedly secularized version of yoga, and these very explicitly religious kinds of practices.  Even by the judge’s own standard, the children were recognizing that there was something religious taking place in these classes.

Mohler:  As I read your book, I immediately thought of headlines in the news these days having to do with the Affordable Care Act and issues of religious liberty, of course the contraception mandate, which has gone all the way now to the United States Supreme Court.  I just immediately had the question, “What in the world are the involvements of this alternative medicine world?”  How many of these CAM practices are going to be covered by the Affordable Care Act?  Have you thought about some of those issues?

Brown:  That’s a fascinating question because the Affordable Care Act actually has very specific language in it that there can’t be discrimination against healthcare providers.  There is specific language to include CAM providers.  Even more than the contraception question, I think it’s a very live question as to whether there are establishment clause issues involved in Affordable Care Act coverage of alternative medicine.

Mohler:  In your book, you describe American evangelicals, and I think you’re citing historian Mark Noll, as “Culturally adaptive biblical experientialists.”  When I read your book against everything that I might hope about evangelicalism, it seems that every one of those words is pretty much affirmed, in terms of your research.  As an outsider looking as an academic at American evangelicalism, what would say about us based upon this particular research project?

Brown:  I think that evangelicals in America demonstrate a desire to make the Bible relevant to American culture.  They want to set boundaries and say, “We’re not going to do this kind of set of practices that seem to us inherently corrupting.”  Yet, they also want to have a relevance to American culture.  They want to effectively evangelize the culture, but they also want to be able to benefit from trends in culture that seem appealing or efficacious.  There is a real pragmatism in terms of what evangelicals do.  This is the culturally adaptive part of evangelicalism.  That pragmatism can sometimes lead towards theologically innovative positions of accepting practices that hadn’t formally been accepted in the past. And I mean here partly what’s so interesting is that there’s been a mistrust of religions other than Christianity by Christians and even the worry about finding too much about these other religions; and this actually can make it more likely that evangelicals will adopt practices burrowed from the very religious traditions that they mistrust because they’re worried about learning too much about them. This has a double impact because not only are evangelicals practicing activities taken from other religions, but then because practices can change beliefs they sometimes actually find themselves adopting the religious assumptions of these other worldviews and shifting their own theological positions and really shifting their fundamental worldview assumptions.

Mohler: With tremendous insight you write on page 159 of your book, “In today’s religious market churches that want to attract large memberships can ill afford to offend those who find CAM appealing.” And I think that really hits—You know, to be honest, I’ve had the thought as we’re having this conversation and as I anticipating having, yet there could be people I know and love and people with whom I worship and people I greatly respect who might be deeply involved in these things without having thought about many of the ramifications. So this kind of does hit close to home. But I think that sentence in your book who whether they subscribe to pragmatism or just a missiological concern gives right at the point which I think American evangelicals aren’t sure how big an issue this is.

Brown: Well, I think that’s right and there are many evangelicals who if they knew more about, not only its history but the current cultural and religious association of CAM practices, they wouldn’t want to be involved in them. There are other evangelicals who are so personally invested in the perceived benefits that they’re getting from CAM practices that they’re probably more inclined to rationalize rather than change their participation. And this can lead to, as you suggest, a real defensiveness about practices and can lead to real offense to anyone who is perceived as criticizing practices they feel like they work and feel like they’re beneficial.

Mohler: Well, one of the things we must always keep in mind is that we should never be afraid to know more because in this case faithfulness requires knowledge. I hope this conversation contributes to that, and I know your book has, and I just want to thank you again for your book The Healing Gods: Complementary and Alternative Medicine in Christian America. And I just want to ask you, Professor Brown, what’s next on your agenda? I look at your bibliography and I’ve ordered the books, by the way, and I want to read every single one of them. What’s coming up next?

Brown: Yeah, actually, I’m very excited about this next project and maybe some of your readers will want to help me with this—or listeners, rather. I’m writing a book about meditation and yoga in public schools. And I’m interested in private and as well as public schools and I’m interested in college as well as K-12. But I really want to look nationally as the kinds of meditation and yoga programs that are being presented as secular and to look at specific components of those programs and might classified as religious.

Mohler: How can we tell people to get in touch with you about that project?

Brown: I can be emailed through the university at and I can simply be googled Candy Gunter Brown at Indiana University and I would be happy to talk with any of your listeners.

Mohler: Professor Brown, thank you so much for this conversation. It’s been a pleasure to have you for Thinking in Public.

Brown: It was a great pleasure to speak with you, as well.

Mohler: So it was about 4 years ago that I found myself in a major controversy over the issue of yoga and Christianity. It was not something I had anticipated or predicted and it came about largely though the catalyst of a conversation on this program, a conversation with another academic dealing with the issue of yoga, its history, and its worldview. The reality is that I discovered in that controversy and that’s this: there are many people who don’t to talk about this. There are people who certainly don’t want to know more about this. I actually was confronted by some Christians with some very informed discussion points, but by in large I was confronted by people who said I don’t want to know anything about the background of yoga because it has nothing to do with yoga as I now experience it and thus I don’t want to have the conversation and I don’t want you talking about it either. That’s why this new book by Professor Candy Gunter Brown is so important because quite honestly it is the most extensive academic credible largely irrefutable background study to these new forms of medicine or at least what is called medicine, these complementary and alternative medical approaches. She writes with incredible perception about how these issues, these new approaches, became mainstreamed in Christian America. I think we can see how they would become mainstreamed in America at large, an America that has continued the pattern of separating theology and spirituality, or religion and spirituality, an America that is increasingly secular, and syncretistic. In other words, we kind of expect now that our neighbors are going to put together worldviews with a little bit from biblical Christianity and a little bit from various secular philosophies and a little bit from this and that, adding a little new age here and little Hinduism or Buddhism there. The reality is that we expect that from our neighbors, but we think we are opposed to it ourselves. Sometimes we even think we are immune to it ourselves because we’re the kind of people who simply or couldn’t do that. But the warning to every single one of us as evangelical Christians in this book is that it is very possible that we are doing that which we oppose. We are doing that which we know faithfulness in terms of our Christianity would forbid. We’re doing things in terms of how we fail to think through so many of these approaches that would alarm us if we actually took the time to think about it, which is what I hope we do based upon not only this conversation but this important new book. Quite frankly, the issue is truth and that’s where Christians are supposed to know at the advance and be committed from the very beginning to knowing that where the truth leads will take us to Christ and to the Scriptures and to consistency with everything that is revealed in the Bible. And the truth will take us to a place where we understand that when we measure all things by the Scripture we simply have to let the Scripture judge everything, every idea, every worldview, every hypothesis, every theory, or every medical modality for that matter as well, every medical approach. So when we look at this I think it is a test of our Christian faithfulness. So my encouragement to all of us is simply the encouragement of the Apostle Paul to the Bereans: test it by Scripture, but test it knowledgably. We have to know what these things we really do represent. Of course, we are inherently pragmatic. That might be the besetting sin of American evangelicalism, but we also have to understand that if we’re dealing with someone who was in pain and isn’t in pain now, they’re glad to relieved of that pain, and it doesn’t actually help to tell them that they aren’t relieved of that pain, but the consistency with a Christian worldview, with all that is revealed in Scripture, is our responsibility. Thus, we have to pastorally and very carefully think through these issues theologically. Then we also have to understand that not all things that come with a good result are actually good. As a matter of fact, if we just use that fruits argument without looking at the roots, and by the way Professor Brown gets at that evangelical logic, then we can actually go in very many wrong directions because they’re all kinds of false realities, there are all kinds of false religions that lead to some good results, but Christians are supposed to be the people who know that those good results don’t vindicate the truth claims that are false. As I mentioned in my conversation with Professor Brown, she cites Mark Noll, prominent evangelical historian, as defining American evangelicals as “culturally adaptive biblical experientialists.” Let’s just look at those four words for a moment. Culturally and adaptive. Those two words put together mean that we are experts at adapting to the culture. Now that’s been in one sense the secret of evangelical success because we do understand the necessity of adapting to the culture. We have buildings with air conditioning. We have credentialed ministers. We have nurseries that are safe for children. In other words, we understand how to adapt to the culture. We use language. We use advertizing. We use all kinds of messaging. We understand that. Younger evangelicals have learned to adapt by adoption of things like social media. We understand how these things work. But when you put that together with the next couplet of words “biblical experientialists” you can see the problem. When you put that together with her second coupling, those two words “biblical experientialists” you understand why those first two added to the second two can be so deadly dangerous because if indeed our Biblicism is merely that we’re biblical experientialists then we’re in big trouble. Because even as we know that genuine Christian experience is essential to authentic Christianity, it is the truth that precedes the experience, not the experience that precedes the truth. Our experience has to be judged by the truth, the truth isn’t to be judged by our experience. That’s exactly what we are taught in Scripture and that is exactly the command that we are to obey. It’s the pattern of Christian thinking that alone will maintain evangelical Christianity as both evangelical and Christian. The truly hard issues raised by this book have to do with not only public policy with issues such as what will take place in the schools and what the Affordable Care Act will fund and how you will have the potential of a genuine establishment of religion and a funding of religion through a national health insurance and through school districts and other forms. The biggest issue for Christian readers is going to have to be what it says about American Christianity. And the warning that she offers as an outside academic looking at American evangelicalism saying to American evangelicals you’re not thinking in very evangelical terms here. You’re not really being consistent to your theology. When you get a warning like that from someone from without, you better pay particular attention. I think the conversation with Professor Candy Gunther Brown has made that abundantly clear, but it’s a conversation that needs to begin. And the way to continue this conversation is by reading her book and wanting to know not only all that she talks about and documents in her book, but even more. That’s where this needs to lead, to a deeper conversation and a deeper consideration of these issues testing everything by the Scripture.

Thanks again to my guest Professor Candy Gunther Brown for thinking with me today.