Why I Can’t Be a Fundamentalist (Although I Miss Some of It)
Recently, here, a very articulate interlocutor has engaged in conversation with me about this question: Is it possible to throw out the “bathwater” of fundamentalism and keep the “baby” of passionate, Jesus-centered, vital, joy-filled, exciting, transforming, fulfilling Christianity that also resists constant and quick accommodation to the whims and fancies of American culture?
What started this conversation was my sentimental reminiscing about the Christianity of my childhood and youth and how far most of evangelical Christianity has moved from that today. I cited as one example how we (American evangelical Christians who are not fundamentalists) have accommodated to contemporary styles of dress (extremely immodest) and entertainment. (Maybe that’s two examples.)
My fundamentalist interlocutor argues that once one moves away from fundamentalism, throwing out the “bathwater” of that particular type of American Christianity that appears to outsiders to be legalistic and authoritarian, the “baby” I miss automatically goes with the bathwater. I want to resist that argument but, at the same time, feel the “pull” of it.
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So why did I leave fundamentalism behind and join the post-fundamentalist evangelical world?
My more than passing acquaintance with American fundamentalism convinced me (and still convinces me) that many of its features are extra-biblical and inimical to spiritual maturity.
I will offer only a few examples.
The fundamentalism I grew up in (and I know it still exists in a variety of expressions) tended to make all Christian beliefs equally important. For example, anyone who doubted the “pretribulation rapture” was automatically suspect of departing from true biblical faith. The fundamentalism I grew up in…tended to import into Christianity things like hair styles. Facial hair on a man (other than perhaps a mustache) was perceived evidence of rebelliousness. The fundamentalism I grew up in thrived on literal interpretations of Genesis and Revelation but these turned out (under scrutiny) to be highly dubious. Anyone who questioned “young earth creationism” or “dispensationalism” was considered “on a liberal trajectory” and shunned (in the sense of not allowed to teach or lead within the church if not literally forced out). The fundamentalism I grew up in…made the King James Version (Authorized Version) of the Bible sacrosanct and tended to consider the study notes of the best-regarded study Bible (when I was a kid it was the Scofield Reference Bible) equal in authority to the words of the Bible. Anyone who used any “modern translation” was immediately suspected of accommodating to secular culture and liberal theology.
I could go on and on and on describing the fundamentalism I grew up in. And I know it still exists. I have made a point of visiting churches that advertise themselves as “King James only” and “Independent, Unaffiliated Baptist” and etc. I know a fundamentalist church when I see one (e.g., examining its web site or visiting it). The fundamentalism of my childhood and youth is variegated in certain respects (e.g., with regard to the supernatural gifts of the Holy Spirit) but still swims in the bathwater of separatism, legalism, harsh vindictiveness, anti-intellectualism and authoritarianism.
However, since leaving fundamentalism behind, I have found it difficult to find in non-fundamentalist, evangelical churches the same intensity of fellowship, joy, passion for Jesus, concern for the lost (the unsaved), desire to be counter-cultural (not going with the flow of culture ten or twenty years behind it), conviction of sin, preaching of repentance, etc. And I have experienced in “moderate evangelicalism” a distinct loosening of morals, a lack of concern for modesty in clothes, an openness to secular entertainment that is clearly hedonistic and a tendency to demote doctrine and teaching of the Bible to relative unimportance.
Am I tempted to go back to fundamentalism? No. In my opinion and based on my experience (and talking with many victims of fundamentalism), American fundamentalism, real fundamentalism, is harmful (mainly to its members) in many ways. For example, while attending a fundamentalist college I was shamed for asking questions that should not be asked. The ethos was (borrowing a German saying) “Eat up, little birdies, or die.” When I raised my hand to ask an honest and good question the teachers winced and tried not to call on me and fellow students often reached over and pulled my arm down. I was told to drop out of the college unless I got a haircut. My hair was touching my collar and came down to the middle of my ear—both evidences of a “rebellious spirit.” Science was the enemy as was philosophy. And yet when President Richard Nixon rode by the college (during the Watergate scandal that led to his resignation) we all went out to stand by the street and cheer him as he went by.
I kept all the college’s written rules (unlike many more “in-class compliant” students) but the college board of trustees seriously considered not allowing me to graduate because I “harassed” my teachers—only by asking questions and challenging them when they were obviously wrong (which was all too often the case).
No, I could never go back to fundamentalism…except to sing hymns and gospel songs and soak in the passion for Jesus that evidenced itself in people talking about “What Jesus was doing in their lives” over covered dish church suppers and even in their homes as they gathered for informal fellowship. They didn’t talk about movies or television shows or sports; they talked (often) about the reality of God in their lives, answered prayers, heaven, the return of Christ in glory, missions, and witnessing to their friends, neighbors and colleagues. I don’t think I have experienced that even once since leaving fundamentalism except…in a church we attended on Sunday evenings during my doctoral studies, a church that eventually became a Vineyard church and the pastor became national director of the Vineyard Fellowship. That church was not fundamentalist but the passion I miss was there anyway. They threw the bathwater out and kept the baby, so I know it’s possible. Why is it so rare?
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