On fundamentalism and conservative evangelicalism

By , 23 October 2009 7:34 pm

There were a number of possible topics to write on this week but I am disinclined to touch them. In part it is that I am a bit drained because I have just had flu and also because I have just upgraded my computer to Windows 7. (Very nice, thank you, but it’s really just Vista working as it ought to have done.) Instead I think I will look at one or two of the issues raised in the blog two weeks ago on ‘K’s Argument’. K, very kindly, has come out fighting in defence of fundamentalism as being at least logically consistent. This of course raises the interesting question ‘What is fundamentalism?’ I remember a member of our church coming to me at the end of one service with a worried look and asking me in that quiet ‘I-do-not-wish-to-be-overheard’ tone of voice, ‘Chris, am I a fundamentalist?’

You could of course try and define fundamentalism in terms of specific creedal beliefs; such as believing in a creation in a literal six days, holding to the authorship of Isaiah by a single person, not doubting a single miracle in Scripture, belief in an imminent Rapture, etc. I think however this is very difficult on all sorts of grounds. Let’s say you came up with ten criteria, what you do? Give a ‘Fundamentalism Index? ‘He’s a 10 out of 10 fundamentalist.’ It all seems rather mechanical. Besides how do we know which fundamentals are truly fundamental?

It also seems to overlook the fact that we vaguely know that there is more to fundamentalism than simply holding to a tight creedal confession.  Now please don’t get me wrong, creeds are vitally important but I would hazard a guess that there is something else going on here. In fact I think that Catherine (who I don’t always agree with!) is close to the mark when she describes fundamentalism as easy. There is indeed a simplicity to fundamentalism; it is a religion that shuns questioning. And when you get rid of questions life becomes really quite simple. You are all singing from the same hymn sheet because there is no other hymn sheet (and if there is, those who sing from it are going to hell). Yet I think behind that is something else and I think it is fear.

A nice image I came across a number of years ago and I wish I could remember who coined it said that the difference between fundamentalism and conservative evangelicalism is something like the difference in mediaeval times between a walled city and a market town. Fundamentalism is a religion of barriers, battlements and, just occasionally, burning oil. It is haunted by the fear of the enemy (and isn’t there always an enemy?). The enemy may be Catholics, New-Agers or – most dangerous of all because they are wolves in sheep’s clothing – Liberals. There is no engagement with the enemy, no dialogue. All there is survival and conflict. As the Rev Ian Paisley used to shout with his all too imitable Ulster accent: ‘No Surrender!’

Here Conservative Evangelicalism is very different. (I’m sorry about the clunky term but I think it’s best used here because it’s the faith that on the surface can appear to be most similar to fundamentalism.) At the heart of Conservative Evangelicalism is the relationship with God through Christ and the Holy Spirit. That affects everything, not least how we view others. With them there is (or ought to be) a courteous engagement, an open debating, a confident discussion. But to go back to the imagery; the gates are flung open. Yes it’s risky, but that’s the way it ought to be. You can’t do evangelism from behind the ramparts.

Anyway that’s my take on it. But I’m open for further discussions. Now if you excuse me I’ll go and  take my cough medicine…

7 Responses to “On fundamentalism and conservative evangelicalism”

  1. K says:

    I don’t see how fundamentalism shuns questioning any more than Reformed Christianity or neo-evangelicalism. Again, this is a difference between the U.S. (where Reformed Christianity and neo-evangelicalism have not been particularly helpful to either our national or religious development) and Britian (where both movements have been very helpful). Fundamentalism questions, but it questions different things. Neo-evangelicalism does the easy questioning, the questioning of doctrines like hellfire, women in the ministry, the integration of psychology into contemporary theology – all important issues to be sure (and issues on which I often agree with neo-evangelicals, particularly psychology). But fundamentalists go further, questioning the fundamental material basis on which contemporary industrial civilization is founded. They reject the corporatization of entertainment, the dominance of the arts and sciences over expressions of theology, the corruption of Western music into more and more degraded visions of women, etc. To me, that is at the very least as profound a questioning as any Brian Mclaren tretise or John Stott\Billy Graham paean to the love of God (I might point out that the Reformed church in America questions neither in the neo-evangelical nor fundamentalist style, but relies on the tired certainties of 16th century Geneva). Fundamentalism’s questioning nature is all the more remarkable in that most fundamentalists don’t possess the educational tools neccessary to analyze the social inequities in contemporary material civilization. They merely realize these inequities instinctively, and react to them with an honesty of purpose entirely lacking in the neo-evangelical church. Sure, C.S. Lewis was a nice guy, but how hard is it to be a Christian when you’re smoking your pipe with a bunch of Oxford dons and have your own personal servants? I may not like Bob Jones Sr.’s views on race or J. Vernon Mcgee’s squeeky voice or snakehandling Appalachians, but they are people of my class, of my culture, and to them I owe my loyalty, not to a bunch of neo-evangelicals who only know they’re Christians because fundamentalists shout it at them all day. My only regret is that I have been born in an age where I will see my culture die before my eyes, and myself not able to be a part of it or die with it. Pietistic fundamentalism is the noblest expression of Christianity I have ever seen, yet it must suffer ignonimy for the sins committed with, but not in, it’s name. So, thanks Rousas Rushdoony, Francis Schaeffer, D. James Kennedy, and Jay Adams – and Rick Warren, Joel Olsteen, Rick Hybels. You have turned the last resistance of Western civilization to capitalism into capitalism personified.

  2. Stephanie says:

    I like the analogy; very fitting. I would say, though, that a lot of Christians, whether they consider themselves fundamentalists or not, are guilty of being stuck in a rut when it comes to certain ways of thinking or doing things (some more than others, obviously).

  3. Bill D. says:

    Sadly, I think, the term “fundamentalist,” at least insofar as it relates to Christianity, has suffered from significant definition creep over the years since it was first applied. It seems today to be applied rather loosely to anyone who stands firmly on what they believe, and is usually over-distilled in the media to include those who are extreme Biblical literalists (and their child, the King James only movement), those who take a public stand against the political aspirations of homosexuals, disagree with women in the pulpit, insist on a literal six-day creation, or generally think their expression of the faith has an absolute lock on the truth. It can be applied to everyone from Baptists to the Orthodox, but generally seems to show up as a moniker for conservative Protestants and almost every radio-based preacher there is.

    Historically, the term has its genesis only about 100 years ago, when there was push-back (first in the United States, and later elsewhere in the English-speaking world) against what was seen as creeping liberalism resulting from the various schools of Biblical Higher Criticism. The debate was joined in a series of 90 essays grouped unde the name “The Fundamentals, A Testimony to the Truth,” published over 5 or 6 years by the Bible Institute of Los Angeles (now Biola University).

    I suppose even more generally, today’s fundamentalists are identified far more by their dogma than their doctrine, although they are often loathe to tell the difference. In this, K’s comments are spot on, though very illustrative of the definition creep I mentioned earlier. “Fundamentalist” has become just one more pejorative with which to tar and feather otherwise devout Christians. It’s the schoolyard taunt of the carelessly undereducated. And worse, has become a generalist term for anyone of any belief system who insists that their faith is uniquely intended for mankind. At one time, Christian fundamentalists were pleased with the term as it created the very seperation they sought from “worldly Christianity.” Today, it’s been co-opted from the Christian vocabulary into popular culture and is so entrenched in the latter that Christians are wise not to apply it to themselves in the public square unless they have a bit of the martyr conplex about them.

    Thanks for the brain-stretch, Chris!

  4. Kirsty says:

    K – I think when Chris talks about ‘not questioning’, he means not questioning their own set of beliefs.

  5. K says:

    I agree with Bill for the most part, though I think using “fundamentalist” as a pejorative against evangelicals, JW’s, Mormons, Muslims (and occassionally, Marxists) says much more about the lack of intelligence of those making the accussations than any perceived lack of intelligence or tolerance among fundamentalists. While I agree with Kirsty that fundamentalists in general don’t question their beliefs as much as perhaps they should, I think both the Reformed Church and neo-evangelicals do even less questioning than fundamentalists or dialectical Marxists (as oppossed to Western Marxists) do. There’s no risk in neo-evangelicalism, unless perhaps for those few neo-evangelicals who embrace doctrines that they fear they may lose their salvation over, such as Christian universalism or a rejection of biblical inerrancy. Most neo-evangelicals I know believe whatever theology makes them feel best, whereas Emergents and univeralists pick the doctrines that bring them the most risk and fundamentalists pick the doctrines that require the most sincere devotion. As damaging as I think liberalism will be to contemporary evangelical culture, I think neo-evangelicalism will be even more damagingm because its compromise with the “world” is even more insidious than Brian Mclaren’s silly appropriations of postmodernism. I’m sorry, but I still have to go with the fundamentalists as the most sincere anti-materialist, pro-ethical group in the world, with the exception of certain groups of Marxists.

  6. Kirsty says:

    I wasn’t actually saying that they don’t question their beliefs (I have no knowledge on this – I’m not even sure how to define a fundamentalist!) Just that I thought you had misunderstood what Chris said.

  7. sandy lewis says:

    Not sure if you know, but there was a good programme on bbc one wales tonight talking about religion “week in week out – losing our religion?” I found it fascinating. I’d recommend it to everyone! It opened my eyes to the various ways in which you can celebrate God and the life of Jesus Christ. I’m not sure if it’s available to everyone (area wise, as it was created by bbc wales) but I think it might be on iplayer for anyone interested.

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