All fundamentalists are typically evangelical but not all evangelicals are fundamentalists.
Did you catch that? Not everyone who call themselves Evangelical or Born Again are angry fundies.
It is true that in American Church History there was often an unholy alliance between church and power. Those who might have rose to defend orthodox Christianity (those who affirm the Nicene Creed) became compromised in a lot of respects through the political process. Through implementing fear tactics, support of morally questionable actions in American foreign policy misadventures, and high profile leadership failings, the modern Evangelical believer is in a tight spot. Evangelical Christians in political life can be justly or unjustly framed as someone implementing theocracy. Even those who might claim to be theologically conservative are lumped together with the abusive powerholders of years past. Sadly, in many minds, to be Evangelical means to be a hateful, nationalistic hypocrite.
But there has to be a different way to follow Jesus. One that does not discount his claim of equality with God, and one that does not find itself in the camp of charlatans and snakes. There has to be something more, a prophetic witness that is not a Fundamentalist nuthouse.
Fortunately, self help books of Joel Osteen and sentimental “Christian crap” (it’s in the Greek) are not the only things available to Christ followers. While another time might have offered prolific authors and thinkers to help the discouraged, there are still a few strong public theologians that can help. Turning away from the self-help/do-it-yourself spirituality books, people like Tim Keller and NT Wright can help those who be struggling in the sea of doubt. But sadly, those are few and far between.
To wrap the series up, I want to share with you why I am not a fundamentalist (just in case you were concerned or wondering). Even in my pessimism, I know that God is still on the throne. He will preserve his people, even when bad teaching creeps into the Church. One day Christ will return in glory and things will be put to rights, and the garbage will be removed. I simply cannot wait for that day.
I am not a fundie because I believe God is gracious and loving. I am not a fundie because I am open to doubts and for a faith that seeks understanding, even when things get shaky. I am not a fundie because not everyone needs to be hit over the head with a Bible-hammer in Jesus’ name. I am not a fundie because I want to be joyful in my faith and welcome others into a new story, one that is culminating in the world being put to rights.
I hope you too would share in being Evangelical without becoming a cranky Fundamentalist.
Lord, come quickly.
The early 20th Century had a lot of controversy. The Evolutionary Theory seemed to knock people off guard and the reliability of Scripture was called into question. Controversies, however, are nothing new.
Christianity has always had to confront challenges. Whether it was from the early days of the Church, where Roman scholars vociferously argued against Christianity, or in the era of the Scope Monkey Trial, Biblical scholarship has had to answer big questions. In the case of this current post, emergence of conflicting gospel accounts seem to make the Four Gospels merely four opinions selected out of dozens of other narratives of Jesus. Isn’t it possible that Dan Brown is right and that Christianity squelched the truth of the gospels of Thomas or Judas?
In short, no.
The other gospels like Thomas and Judas were written much later than the Four Gospels found in the New Testament (and many of the key texts used to showcase the positive aspect of Judas were hastily made with bad translations). According to the earliest dated documents written concerning Jesus of Nazareth, the Apostle Paul seemed to have a very high view of Jesus. The Four Gospels found in the New Testament were more than likely written in the First Century and captured the early Church’s perspective on Jesus.
Quite frankly, those who might hold up contradictory new gospels like Thomas or Judas do so because they don’t like what the New Testament figure has to say about a variety of things. A Jesus of nice moral platitudes that our Founding American Fathers liked so much is easier to follow than a messianic figure who equated himself with God. As the earliest NT writer would say two decades after the crucifixion, the gospel is for our justification and promises restoration of the world one day. Having a fortune cookie version of Jesus is much safer than the Jesus found in the New Testament.
There will be a time where a follower of Christ will be confronted with questions about the Bible. Defending the reliability of Scripture can be important in certain contexts. However, sometimes defending the faith can be used in an abusive manner (see The Good, Bad, And The Ugly Of Apologetics), which is not good (just in case you didn’t know). Apologetics should never be used as a hammer. But for those occasions when an individual has a legitimate question, we truly do need to be able to give a reason for the hope that lies within us. We need to be able to answer legitimate questions.
Where fundamentalism gets it wrong is that they defend the faith at all times without smiling. Have you ever noticed that? Those people on the street corners holding those big signs, the ones that stand there shouting at you entering into a baseball game or walking down the pier. I agree that this is serious stuff, but to stand there angry is not good. Defending the Bible as God’s Word is a good thing, but using it as a hammer at all times is not always the best thing. Sometimes it needs to be a precise scalpel, a warm cloth, or a piercing sword.
Christianity is a religion that is filled with tension. Creation is essentially good (see Genesis 1 and 2), yet existentially strained (see Genesis 3). Jesus is fully God, yet fully man at the same time. The Kingdom of God is here, but not yet.
Ross Douthat brings out a lot of this tension in a brilliant paragraph in his book Bad Religion: How We Became A Nation Of Heretics (see page 153). He then rightly conveyed that the most important thing is to rest in that tension. Douthat raised these questions concerning Jesus:
“Was he God or man? Is the kingdom something to be lived out here or something to be expected to arrive? Are we given a blueprint to moral conduct or a call to spiritual enlightenment? Did he aim to fulfill Judaism among the Jews or convert the Gentile world? Was he the bloodied man of sorrows of Mel Gibson’s movie, the hippie/lilies-of-the-field Jesus of Godspell, or a wise moralist?”
Were you able to see which one was right or wrong? Well, it was a trick question, because Jesus is all of those things, and more!
Christian belief, as set forth in the councils and creeds of old (see my Beliefs page), sought to be faithful to the teachings of Christ and to the unpacking of those teachings in the rest of the New Testament. It tried to hold onto the tension and seeming contradictions in the gospel narratives, instead of harmonizing or glossing over them. There’s a suffering Jesus of Mark, and a superhero Jesus of John. Do these two portraits differ? At points. Does that mean they nullify the others? Not at all! At least four people have written biographies of Abraham Lincoln. Of those four books, are they all identical? No, they have different feels to them, perhaps one might emphasis Lincoln’s melancholy side, another might emphasis his political genius. Seeming contradictions aren’t really contradictions at all, they’re different perspectives on a remarkable life.
Same thing with the gospels. Jesus will never be fully understand, this side of the River Jordan. We won’t understand him completely, since he is (*spoiler alert*) God. And we need to be OK with this– we need to live with the tension. Where a lot of people get into trouble is when that tension is replaced with glossing over tough passages and forming Jesus in our own image. Joseph Smith did that, so did/does a lot of pseudo-Christian prosperity gospel preachers.
Fundamentalists might voraciously defend tensions by stamping out any potential controversy or refuse to answer any difficult question. Shut up and just believe it is not the best answer to an honest question. Sometimes, I think we need to live with the tension instead of trying to make sense of it all. Some things will just be too much for us to comprehend, and we need to be comfortable sitting with paradoxes*. Paradoxes are all around us, maybe we should start embracing tension in our faith as well.
*A common paradox in our lives deals with light. It is both a wave and a particle, how can this paradox be resolved?
When we last left our heroes, it seemed like the American Church was in complete disarray. Hopefully you weren’t give to despair though, for out of the chaos emerged tremendous figures and institutions that would play a big part in the postwar world.
While fundamentalism veered off the track and became increasingly hostile, anti-intellectual, and defensive, another group arose in America. This group was called the the neo-evangelicals. Those Evangelicals reemerged from the fundamentalist ghettos, choosing to become a part of society again. A broad group of people from different denominations unified to return to American culture. Institutions like Christianity Today, Fuller Seminary (woot!), Campus Crusade for Christ, and the National Association of Evangelicals all were founded to unify and reject anti-intellectualism. Carl F.W. Henry, Billy Graham, and many others carried Evangelical Christianity from the margins back into the mainstream. During the boom years of Post-WWII, Evangelical Christianity was respectable, devout, and also relevant (for better or worse).
These “good old days” would not last. Churches would enter into a period of decline, as older non-Evangelical churches and denominations began to wither. The conservative churches that grew were not like the neo-evangelicalism that arose with Graham or CS Lewis however. Instead this Evangelicalism would soon be filled with Left Behind novels and Joel Osteen theology. The post-Eisenhower years witnessed the shift of institutional Christianity rooted in robust orthodoxy towards a do-it-yourself, consumer driven spirituality.
Correction begat overcorrection, and this new American spirituality would soon transform into something other than historic orthodox Catholic/Protestant Christianity. Christianity has always had bright spots of robust faith giving way to less bright times. Whether it was in times of corruption, murderous violence, or snake-oil salesmen, Church History has had it’s up and down times.
In our contemporary time, there appears to be a shift away from historic Christian faith. Of course there is the prosperity gospel, that is not new. But there is a new set of beliefs that has emerged within the American Church called Moralistic Therapeutic Deism. Based upon the research of Christian Smith, MTD is defined as:
A god exists who created and ordered the world and watches over human life on earth.
God wants people to be good, nice, and fair to each other, as taught in the Bible and by most world religions.
The central goal of life is to be happy and to feel good about oneself.
God does not need to be particularly involved in one’s life except when God is needed to resolve a problem.
Good people go to heaven when they die.
How we view God is going to impact our faith. As mentioned in the post “Gandalf in the Sky,” if we view God as an abusive father, a sugardaddy, or mystical wizard, those ideas will shape us. We need to be formed in our understanding of who God is through Scripture, since he has chosen to communicate us through his Word. Even more definitively, he has revealed himself to us through his Son who is the “radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature” (Hebrews 1).
I hope and pray that you would be formed in Christ and in his Word this day.
This month, Wisdom Wednesdays will veer into the rise of Fundamentalism. There will be some historical exploration in addition to a closing “so what” moment at the end tying things together. Stay with the series though for the epic conclusion: Why I’m Not A Fundamentalist.
The early parts of the Twentieth Century was very chaotic for religion in America. There was a rise in the hope of a scientific modern world, where the spiritual aspects of the Western world could be swept away in favor of a more logical, cerebral world. Reason was about to replace religion.
These deistic understandings brought about an enlightened world, and this enlightened world came into conflict with a traditional understanding of Christianity. The resurrection of Jesus, atonement for sins, miracles, and a high view of Scripture were either dismissed outright or softened as feel good tales. Religion was sterilized in many lives and congregations. Good moral lessons were kept while the need for a crucified and risen Christ was discarded.
However, this sterile view of the world was soon shattered by two world wars, concentration camps, gulags, and communist horrors. Modernist ideas caused the death and suffering of hundred of millions. Such carnage was never seen prior to the Twentieth Century, large statist governments caused the deaths of hundreds of millions in the name of progress.
While America was thankfully spared a lot of the horrors of the modern age and the past century, America was a place of cultural conflict. A battle of ideas proved to be enormous for our culture. While there was scientific and historic criticism leveled at the Bible, a large bloc of the church in America defensively fortified themselves with a “radical literalism,” as Ross Douthat pointed out in his book Bad Religion: How We Became A Nation Of Heretics. This is where many Christians adopted the “six 24-hour days” in Genesis 1 as scientific explanation. This uncertain world also produced a new trend within Protestant Christianity, where the best defense of the faith was fueled with either withdrawal or reaction. It is also in this era that many took up the banners of “dispensationalism,” a new trend in Christianity. These End Times schemes were popularized in the 1910s through the use of the Scofield Reference Bible and can still be seen in the Left Behind series. As you can see, there was a lot going on in this era!
These overcorrections are fascinating to me because they are pretty new. Certainly, there were views on premillennialism (not of the dispensationalist stripe, though), but this was not a litmus test for being a faithful follower of Christ. While some might have been in favor of a “6 Day creation” view, even on of the main sources of Protestant thought would caution against basing all astronomical and scientific thought on the book that was meant to reveal God, not the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics (John Calvin wrote on Genesis 1 that “he who would learn astronomy, let him go elsewhere.”). Nevertheless, a defensive fundamentalism took hold in American consciousness and this group either went to the margins of mainline Protestant churches or jumped out of these denominations to form their own (see Bad Religion, p34).
Don’t despair, chaos will soon lead to some good. To be continued!
Have you ever noticed that it seems like sometimes Christians might have the tendency to be overly defensive? How do you respond to attacks, real or imagined?