web analytics

A Touchstone: Defining Fundamentalism in the 21st Century

Recently Touchstone Magazine asked the following questions about Evangelicalism with the intention of asking other “pundits” from other denoms the same. How would you answer them for your slice of the world? Here’s mine:

  • How do you define “Fundamentalist” in a way that distinguishes Fundamentalists from other believing Christians? And has this definition changed over the last several years?

I know the textbook answer. I know that a Fundamentalist believes in the fundamentals of the Faith. Over the years, as I’ve shown Christians in other denominations my fundamentalist creed, I’ve been a little stunned, peeved, and over time tickled at how many of them say, “Oh! Well, I believe that too!” Uh . . . no! You can’t. Those are MINE! . . . As if Statements of Faith are proprietary marbles I bring to the religious playground.

More specifically, I know that a Fundamentalist is a person who believes in the fundamentals of the Faith, but especially privileges separation as the distinguishing doctrine.

I learned all that intuitively in my first 30 years in fundamentalism. And I learned it academically at Indiana University. Since then, I’ve learned a little more.

I now know that a Fundamentalist is a person who believes in the fundamentals of the Faith, but especially privileges separation as the most distinguishing doctrine, and who elevates certain unwritten notions to the level of the fundamentals themselves. These things don’t appear in any creed, but Fundamentalism passionately defends them as Gospel Truth: a pre-trib dispensationalism, an authority fetish, a Keswick/Chaferian soteriology, and a punitive, behavioristic childrearing ethic.

I do believe it’s changed in the last 50 years, but many disagree with me. I sense that fundyism has grown more people-pleasing, and because people can be fickle, it has become more calcified, less able to do the right thing. It’s not independent anymore. I covered this in the expunged chapter of my book. BJU Fundamentalism was always articulated as a beautiful thing that woos the unsaved to Christ. That’s a good thing! But after the Campaign 2000 debacle, things changed. They talked less to those to the outside and more just to themselves.

  • Has Fundamentalism matured since the 1950s, and if so in what ways?

No.

I have a friend of a friend who graduated from BJU in the 1950s. He always teases my friend and me that “He went to BJU when it was more liberal than Wheaton!” 😉 I have since figured out what he meant by that. Wheaton, especially then, was a haven for pietism — for Keswick theology. Bob Jones Sr. founded BJC to be different from the so-Heavenly-minded-they-are-no-earthly-good “higher life” Christianity expressed in Keswick camps. In Standing Without Apology Dr. Stenholm is quoted as describing the Moody grads similarly — “dowdy,” I think was her term. Within early 20th-century evangelicalism and because of the liberal arts curriculum, BJC was unusual. Jones, Sr. had a common-sense trust in the study of the humanities since the best of humanity reflects the image of God we’re all created in.

Now? The oldest fundamentalist school with the most humane roots talks most like the Keswick/Chaferian theology its founder opposed. It’s not totally a surprise. The Keswick/Chaferianism sells very well because it imitates capitalism’s story. And it’s hard to not bring that sort of commodification into the Christian faith.

The metaphor I used to describe this change is that BJU went from actively wooing their secular Other to continually recasting themselves. Their talk turned narcissistic. It was a kind of Extreme Makeover.

When you talk with the old timers at BJU, you get a clear sense that there were many more personalities back in the day. More quirks and idioscincracies. More conflicts too! But now, for that iteration of Fundamentalism at Bob Jones University, at least, it’s very homogenous. Very artificial and manufactured. In other words, 1958 Fundamentalism is to 2008 Fundamentalism what Jessica Tandy to the Olsen Twins — the older version might have a few more age spots, but she’s the one going to the Oscars (not the eye candy)!

  • Has Fundamentalism lost anything in the process of maturing (if it did)?

Since the 1950s, BJU turned into a corporation. Losing the tax exemption is just one piece of that. It is bigger and more corporate than its post-war self.

  • Are there any fundamental differences within the Fundamentalist movement today, and do you think they will deepen into permanent divisions, or even have already? How might they be healed?

Usually Fundamentalism is criticized as being unable to “think outside the box” or live “outside the bubble.” Most often people say that it’s obsessed with control. Some accuse the movement of a Pharisaical, works-based righteousness. All of those descriptions are accurate. But I think something more comprehensive is going on that includes all of those criticisms, and I describe it in an earlier series of posts. In sum, Fundamentalism is no different from its less separated sister Evangelicalism. Both have unwittingly and uncritically reified the capitalist story and knitted it to their reading of Scripture. Their bickering between themselves has become nothing more than a cola war — each scrambling for their share of the market.

There’s lots of talk about the “Young Fundamentalists.” And I have nothing but admiration for these (now) under-38 set (I am barely one year their senior). They were my students and I now am honored to call them my friends. They tend to be more optimistic about political involvement, more skeptical of authority, and are trying to articulate a more Reformed soteriology. I wish them the best.

The “Old Fundamentalists” consider their heirs to be lazy upstarts and obnoxious rebels. There’s no surprise there. The biggest insult lobbed at their “sons” and younger sibs is “You’re just an evangelical.” Many younger fundamentalists leave in frustration or, as I know first-hand, are pushed out against their wills. Some stay to try to reform while others still stay to keep it the same. This last group is more cunning than their fathers with their Fundamentalist tropes. While repeatedly insisting that they are “loosening up,” they are actually increasing penalties for noncompliance. Their luster can only stay shiney so long. The optimism will wear off soon, I’m afraid.

One thing that Fundamentalists must learn to do, if they hope to keep the movement from atrophy, is read. I know that sounds simple enough, but for too long I’ve seen too many of the brightest and best just glaze over when presented with any text — Scriptural, Fundamentalist, or otherwise. Their habit is to passively accept the words and the worlds they make. Most don’t even read the best-selling books from their own presses. But to read authors just outside their denominational lines — still believing and orthodox and within their conservative hermeneutic — would be a healthy start to broaden and deepen their thinking.

When we talked about these sorts of transitions, my professor at Indiana always quoted his professor — “All you have to do is outlive the bastards.” I’m not sure that’s the solution. I am watching these Young Fundamentalists carefully. If they will win the day and honestly change the movement, they must find a better way to deal with difference. A long life span is not the solution that will edify the Saints. I find too many well-intentioned young men, who have bristled for too long under their father’s charismatic but oppressive personalities, only resort to the same tactics when confronted. I fear that their rearing has permanently crippled them, and it will take an extra resilient and perceptive group to persevere inside the movement and foreground the Gospel. I don’t see it happening. But I do pray I’m wrong.

  • What does your movement, speaking generally, fail to see that it ought to see?

That it’s not the movement that is god. God is God. The Body of Christ is more important than creeds, alliances, and organizations.

  • What would you say to a Fundamentalist tempted to become Catholic or Orthodox?

I know that Fundamentalism has driven away scores of its followers into a more mystical, more liturgical, more exotic, more Old World religion. Fundies are still assuming that those who leave go so they can consume seeker-sensitive services. Nothing can be further from the truth. People are leaving for something much, much older.

I responded to that exodus in another blog post. The gentlemen that responded to this question at Touchstone are much more informed and gentle than I. I’m still a little exasperated at the whole thing. Probably because I find myself at a crossroads.

  • What has Fundamentalist to offer the wider world that it will find nowhere else?

I had a professor at Indiana University in my American religious history class who, when the question was asked about the Parable of the Ten Virgins, looked to me for the facts. He knew that I knew. Even though he was a seminary-trained, Missouri synod Lutheran, he knew that I’d know the Scripture because I was a fundy. That’s a good thing. Fundies will always win the Bible categories at Jeopardy!

I joke that Fundamentalists are the ISTJs of Christendom — earnest, hard-working, duty-bound, a little clueless about politics, oblivious to cultural shifts and nuances, uncomfortable in large groups, and somewhat anti-social. They are the Hank Hills of the neighborhood. The Jack Bauers in the Faith. Sure — they are hard-nosed and difficult to cuddle, but when you need someone reliable to rescue you from your latest mishap or to destroy the terrorists, you call the ISTJs!

John Piper says as much when he calls them the “backbone” of the Body. I couldn’t agree more.

  • What else would you like to say?

I may no longer be inside, but I know that God’s people are inside the movement and that He will continue to take care of them as He has with me and mine.

[tags]Fundamentalism, Touchstone Magazine, Bob Jones University, Young Fundamentalists[/tags]

7 thoughts on “A Touchstone: Defining Fundamentalism in the 21st Century

  1. “More specifically, I know that a Fundamentalist is a person who believes in the fundamentals of the Faith, but especially privileges separation as the distinguishing doctrine.”

    In his book about the Bob Joneses, Mark Taylor Dalhouse traces the separation issue to when Jr. separated himself from the Methodist church they were members of in Cleveland, TN. I believe that separation, especially the form of “secondary” separation practiced at BJU will eventually collapse. It’s hard to define and hard to measure and, eventually, people grow tired of the arbitrary nature of these kind of things.

    “This last group is more cunning than their fathers with their Fundamentalist tropes. While repeatedly insisting that they are “loosening up,” they are actually increasing penalties for noncompliance. Their luster can only stay shiney so long. The optimism will wear off soon, I’m afraid.”

    Everytime BJU doles out a demerit or increases penalties, they strip their student (or their student body) of a little bit of grace. I am hoping that the new generation at BJU will be less willing to spew nasty and vitriolic comments from their chapel platform.

    “I know that Fundamentalism has driven away scores of its followers into a more mystical, more liturgical, more exotic, more Old World religion. Fundies are still assuming that those who leave go so they can consume seeker-sensitive services. Nothing can be further from the truth. People are leaving for something much, much older.”

    My first full-time church position was in an Episcopalian church. The ritual is beyond comforting – it is poetic Scripture that envelops all human emotion and reasoning. “Seeker” services produce many Sunday morning worshipers and not much else. Unfortunately, most churches and para-church organizations have no real understanding of the great commission. There’s a world of difference between “believer” and “disciple” and few churches of the “Willow Creek” variety as well as organizations like BJU understand the difference. The call from Christ was clear. Is the fruit of an apple tree an apple or another apple tree? We can talk about converting souls all we want, but if our impact on these people is only a moment in time, what good is it?

    “I may no longer be inside, but I know that God’s people are inside the movement and that He will continue to take care of them as He has with me and mine.”

    This is the best part of living in God’s Kingdom. God says, “Encounter me, make a difference.” Disagreements among human beings are going to happen – read the Bible. My experience of God in Christ will never be the same as anyone else’s experience of God in Christ. God is into individualism – look at DNA – not clones.

  2. I know that you (and I) have a lot of frustrations with fundamentalism. Maybe you have addressed my question elsewhere, but I have to ask. If you could wave a magic wand and change Fundamentalism, what would it look like? It is easy to deconstruct, but what would replace it?

  3. First of all, Tim, I think you mean you title to be “your favorite former student.” 😉

    I’m hardly a mere deconstructivist! I spent 20 years at BJU, and the last 11 of those was actively trying to reconstruct something.

    Quite honestly, if they just learned the single skill of conflict management, I think they’d be in a better place. I think their theology leads them down a bad path, but even still — going back a few steps before that — if their first response to disagreement was not “Off With Her Head,” I think it’d be progress.

  4. Yep! Know what you mean. They cut my head off too, and I’m still trying to find it and get it put back on right. It was over a conflict that shouldn’t have required a lot of skill to resolve. I think ANY secular organization could have navigated it with a happy resolution. But instantaneously it was spun as an authority/pride/heart/spiritual issue of which it was none of. It was unbelievable what happened, and my whole family was hurt. I hurt for you too. I have prayed for you and your family as I occasionally stop by.
    I almost have enough courage to blog about it……I probably will soon. It might just help the healing process. May God continue to keep you in his tender care.
    Your anonymous friend. 😉

  5. I have read several of your blogs today. I went to Bob Jones University for a little over a year and and felt total freedom compared to other fundamental circles I ran with, people who said Bob Jones had “thrown out the word of God,” because they were KJV preferred instead of KJV only. My main contention with BJU is Frank Garlock. I didn’t mind that they made me have weekly meetings with my dorm counselor over a poster I hung up that read “He died for Me, I’ll Live for Him” They didn’t like the groups affiliated with that poster, but my dorm counselor was a nice guy. I also didn’t get upset that my voice teacher thought I was too country and didn’t even bother trying to teach me anything. I guess my parents may have been concerned if I had told them. I went to see the dean of men many times because of long hair. Obviously Jesus and Sampson would have to have their hair cut to attend BJU, but long hair was never really my thing. It was kind of fun when my friends and I snuck out to see Steven Curtis Chapman and I have never once felt any guilt over things like that, but honestly Garlock makes me mad and I would love to have a one on one debate with him. He knows nothing about music and less about scripture. The way he twist scriptures is terrible. I would love to hear if you had any words to say about the christian music debate or Frank Garlock.

    1. Nice to meet you, Andrew. And yes, Garlock is particularly obnoxious. I agree. I would contend that “music” is just a cover for what they are really trying to protect: power. It’s never been about music. Not really. . . .

Comments are closed.