Saturday, June 28, 2008

The Fear of "Fundamentalist-ism"

In my corner of the world, being called a "fundamentalist" is a bad thing. Most of my friends are, by any reasonable world-view, very conservative Christians. (My college pastor, certainly no fundamentalist politically, used to say that his personal theology was so conservative that he squeaked when he walked.) But within our Baptist wing of the world, most of my friends are on the "moderate to liberal" side of things.

That surprises my non-Baptist friends. They cannot see how any of us can be anything other than a reactionary conservative. After all, we believe the Bible is true, we try to do what it says, and we believe that Jesus was really God and really man.

In the last few weeks, I have heard two of my good friends reminisce with regret about how they remember themselves when we were in the same youth group in the late 70s and early 80s. They both apologetically described themselves as "teenaged fundamentalists" or "former fundamentalists" or something like that. I think what happens is that now, knowing what they know as forty-somethings and looking back on what they knew and believed then, they cringe. We all do that, of course - we all cringe when we think what we were like when we were 17.

I think, in fairness though, it is one thing to hold those views when you are 17 and still learning about the world and scriptures. That is not fundamentalism in the sense we mean it now. That is learning the fundamentals.

And that brings me to my point. I fear that, in desperately avoiding the tag of "fundamentalist," we are avoiding the fundamentals. The problem with fundamentalists is not that they hold basic "fundamental" beliefs about scripture and Christ and salvation - the problem is that they never grow from a basis of those beliefs, choosing instead to formulate a rules-based world that holds only to the fundamentals. I think that we have to grow and learn the exceptions to the rules and explore the gray areas, but in doing that, we must not decide that the fundamentals are no longer important.

There is no doubt that the extremism of fundamentalist thought is dangerous. We get pharisaical rules, authority centered in the loudest and best-dressed preachers, and intolerance of differing views. In my particular denomination, we have seen good people's faith challenged as false because they decline to use certain political buzzwords to describe their position. We have seen the focus on the basic need of salvation and call to evangelism eclipse virtually every other command on us as Christians, from discipleship to social ministry. We have seen the privilege and right to question interpretation and authority virtually eliminated. We have seen, paradoxically, many of the fundamental tenets of what it means to be a Baptist abandoned as creedalism and even Calvinism creep in, displacing local church autonomy, soul competency, and the priesthood of believers.

But we cannot, I believe, decide not to teach the fundamentals just because we don't want to be labeled a "fundamentalist". Focusing exclusively on discipleship or social ministry is just as bad as the Fundamentalists' approach. The church that chooses not to focus on redemption is missing the greatest, most "fundamental" if you will, aspect of grace. The congregation that does not spend time confessing sin and understanding that the wages of sin is death soon forgets the need for the cross. And that congregation, of course, may well not want to discuss the cross, since all that talk of "blood" and "sacrifice" sounds oh-so-fundamentalist. It does not seem progressive to discuss miracles and sanctification and resurrection.

And looking back on ourselves at 17, when we were first really understanding the truth of scripture and trying hard to apply it to our lives, we can make our immature teenaged selves easy targets. We can look back and conclude that we were judgmental, when in fact we were really just serious about doing what the Bible said, and we had not yet learned how to smooth out the rough edges. We can look at our 17-year-old concerns for those around us who needed the Lord and decide that we were finger-pointers; in truth, we were loving Christians who were trying, in the best way we knew how, to "go into all the world".

Did we mess up? Were we childish? Did we think we knew everything? Did we have a lot of maturing to do? Was our faith made up of little more than the basic fundamentals and a few rules?

Of course.

But were we "fundamentalists" in the sense of that term today? I don't think so.

And if, in our "moderate" Baptist churches, we spend a service talking about the spilled blood of Christ, are we suddenly channeling Jerry Falwell? If we actually call a sin a sin and call Christians to responsibility for their actions, are we in danger of succumbing to the dreaded "right wing conspiracy"? If we use words like "redemption" and if we teach that Jesus really rose from the dead and that Jonah might actually (but maybe not) have been swallowed by a big fish, have we become that from which we are striving so hard to stay separate?

I don't think so.

I think that there is a ditch on both sides of the road, and in avoiding the dreaded extemism of one edge, we can teeter dangerously close to the other.


Bill said...

Ditches are funny. If one's ditch is deep enough, it's walls appear to be the whole world.

Nicely done. Thanks.

Anonymous said...

well said of the things I recall my Dad saying to me as a child, was to try and find a balance in's not always an easy thing to do is it? ...but a worthy goal nonetheless......your observations here strike a good balance in my opinion....thanks, Jamie

Chris said...

I do not disagree with what you have said, Lyn. When I use the "fundamentalist" label I mean in in the derogatory manner that lumps judgemental, shallow-thinking, Christians with the term that rightfully means "One who empahsizes the fundamentals." For me the "fundamentals" have shifted over time. They are still rooted in scripture and the life of Jesus, but they are more about the love of God now than the wrath of God. God is Holy and worthy of worship, but not fright. I think your reflections are nice and on target. Iti is the reflections of a 43 year-old with some years under him looking at the insecure 17 year-old who only thinks he has done some living. The nice thing is that you have been my friend for 30 years. Thank God for you.

Charlie Johnson said...

Here is where the reflection about language enters the theological picture again, Lyn. You have interestingly challenged the way we have often discarded the fundamentals of the faith, and of course you are correct. It is curious to me that we moderns think we can rewrite the Christian story that has fueled believers' imagination for 2000 years. I look at those wondrous events so magnificently recorded in Scripture as the substance or our narrative, written by people of faith for the purpose of nurturing faith. Why would I want to rewrite such a wonderful thing?