Strange Bedfellows: Fundamentalism and Historical Criticism

Strange Bedfellows: Fundamentalism and Historical Criticism April 17, 2007

Fundamentalist Christianity grew up around the turn of the 20th century, primarily as a reaction to liberal Christianity, critical biblical studies, and scientific challenges to religion. Though it is often characterized as an opposite to these three cultural trends, numerous studies have show how fundamentalism is actually very much rooted to Enlightenment rationality. This same paradigm is also operative in critical biblical studies. A brief comparison shows how both fundamentalism and critical biblical studies actually share a number of assumptions:

1) Both take the Bible literally, that it means what it says
2) Both take the same view of a linear, fixed history which is discoverable
3) Both insist upon coherence and consistency as criteria of truth
4) Both say that the text has one meaning
5) Both identify the “original” meaning as the true meaning

(Of course, there are significant differences as well, including the value of belief and skepticism, the value of harmonization, the issue of inerrancy, etc., but even these show how much both views hold in common. They are not just the mirror image of each other, but also share the same structural logic.)

It seems to me that each of these assumptions is deeply problematic. All of them have been radically critiqued and modified in literary, historiographical, and philosophical discussions. The issue here is where Mormonism does (and should) situate itself with regard to both approaches. In my view, neither is ultimately satisfying intellectually nor does either one really fit with how I was taught to read the scriptures growing up. What, then, are the assumptions and goals of Mormon scripture reading, and what should they be? Where do we find common ground? Perhaps I am incorrect in my assessment and actually Mormonism shares in these same Enlightenment assumptions. Are we all as okay with giving up these assumptions as I am?

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