08 September 2010

Where is the "Fun" in Fundamentalism?

"Grace" Christian School
I'm one of those who fall in the "[Christian] fundamentalism breeds atheism" camp. True, it may be better, at least it's more honest, to be an atheist than a functional one (i.e., a person who explicitly denies the existence of deities vs. a confessing Christian living as if God doesn't exist). But, still, my childhood experiences with fundamentalists, while standing in contrast to a few of my adult experiences with them, push me in the direction of using the moniker pejoratively. Put differently, Warfield's fundamentalism (with which I've come into contact in the past decade—the good kind) is not the kind of fundamentalism that arose during/after the modernist controversy of the early twentieth century.

I generally disdain fundamentalism, and I must confess this bias openly. It is a framework and a people with whom I feel little kinship, having experienced it firsthand in the realms of education and church in my formative years (and now only when it's unavoidable). I wasn't raised in a fundamentalist (a.k.a. "indy-fundy") home, but we lived down the street, out in the boondocks, from a private school that had a stellar reputation for teaching its kids the good stuff. Academically, this was true; spiritually, not so much. Although grace was in the name, the place hardly exhibited it. Even less so within its ecclesial life (not unlike Hawthorne's seventeenth-century Boston). After a couple of years of attending church there, my folks, thankfully, had had enough (though we stuck around the school for a year or so longer. Not surprisingly, it was the Lutherans that showed us what providing a decidedly Christian education in a healthy way looked like. I think there's some pretty interesting reasons for this, but that's another post.)

On the other hand, Meic Pearse writes in Why the Rest Hates the West: Understanding the Roots of Global Rage that "by their constant, mindlessly inaccurate resort to the 'f-word'—fundamentalism—to describe the upsurge of religious fervor in much of the non-West, Western secularists are employing a boo-word that long ago lost its original meaning and has come to signify 'more-religious-than-I-happen-to-like'—and thus to say more about the speaker than about the persons, things, or phenomena described" (p. 27). For this reason alone, I've pretty much left off using fundamentalism pejoratively, for fear of accusing myself of disdaining others because they're "
more-religious-than-I-happen-to-like" and thus hold certain views and act certain ways, so I think, because of that super-religiosity. In other words, giving them such sleight of hand fails to take them seriously (and, incidentally, probably betrays a supercilious pattern in one's life). Recognizing the duty to show others dignity means treating them seriously, at least at first (i.e., giving them the benefit of the doubt).

Okay, so, John Piper called his readers some time ago to give fundamentalism the benefit of the doubt, to "feel a good breeze" from the wasteland (actually, he wrote, somewhat more nicely, "from the fevered landscape of controversy"). I don't remember how I came across this post recently, but I'm just now reading Kevin Bauder's article (warning: .pdf file). Piper pulls out the nuggets from the piece: that the best of the fundamentalism that Bauder knows comes from those who "refused to become giants," who were not trying to create or control empires; who revered the Word of God and delighted in expounding the scriptures; who fought the battles of their day, but did so without losing their gentleness and kindness.

Of course, it goes without saying that being popular has nothing to do with the desire to create one's own kingdom, however small. This is exactly the tendency I've seen and experienced during my tenure among the fundamentalists, and none of them were/are popular, being quite content to play God's unquestioned voicebox among their particular community. Bauder himself notes: "I have been watching this version of fundamentalism [the "hyper" type seen today—his word] for forty years or so. It is filled with demagogues and bullies. I want nothing to do with it" (p. 4). This goes for a good many of those raised in it, and, alas, they've chosen atheism as a higher road—and I don't blame them.

Bauder thinks there's a fundamentalism "worth saving" (p. 2–3). I demur; unless there's a wholesale realignment with the old Princetonians, to my mind, there's little hope of salvaging it. Nevertheless, I totally understand his tenacity. The idea of jumping from the fundamentalist ship and sinking into the vast evangelical sea is probably scarier than being associated with people whose demagoguery is at least easy to spot (yes, I'm biting my lip here).


steve said...

Chris, I was raised in a secular home. To everyone’s shock (including my own), I married into the IFCA church at the bottom of the hill we used to pass everyday on our way to the world they railed against and withdrew from to lesser or greater degrees. After a few short, frustrated years I left Fundamentalism (was I ever really a part?) for Reformation but kept the Fundamentalists. I like to think I have learned a few things the last twenty years throughout the whole varied experience.

One of the mistakes I think many make is to think Funda’ism mainly has to do with zealotry without knowledge or just zealotry (or “more-religious-than-I-happen-to-like”) or general nastiness. Sure, there’s that. But there is also such a thing as a pleasant fundamentalism, as it were. Just the other day I was conversing with my fundy-preacher FIL about this. (He thinks the touchstone to Christian orthodoxy is how “fundamental” something or someone is; I use the term “Reformed,” and these terms mark out very different territories.) He’s a very pleasant fellow and embodies a very pleasant fundamentalism. It’s hard to make the caricatures of fund’ism stick to him. Yet, what he basically holds to is opposed to Reformed orthodoxy. I’ve watched the caricatures my secular family have about my fundy family erode over time as they come to understand that these are real people with honest beliefs who aren’t simply the kooks we always thought of them as (and vice versa, for that matter). One result is to begin to accept the Fundamentalist’s religion because it’s embodied by a jovial and winsome personality instead of a crack pot or crank. I think that is dangerous.

I guess my long-winded point is that the mistake made is one that seems driven by our culture’s obsession with the cult of personality: If someone’s attractive then his beliefs are acceptable, and if he’s a meanie-head then not so much. But, nice or mean, Fundamentalism is opposed to Reformed orthodoxy. It’s one thing to begin to distinguish between Fundamentalism and Fundamentalists, but quite another to assess Fundamentalism by way of Fundamentalists.

see said...

Honestly, I didn't even get through the article before I knee-jerked to the example you chose.
James 4:11

Man is fallen, does not seek after God, and has a heart that is so desperately wicked that some (so ungodly) are put to death to protect the rest. I am probably beside your point here, but this is where my mind went. Yes we too, from “Grace,” explored the wickedness of this world―many to a lesser extent of you or I—but we also returned to faith. Sure, some are still out there (Rumspringa), but by their own choosing. And God will deal with them.

So, the whipping boy of your argument seems ill-placed which Steve summed up properly. Because it is not religion for which we are called, yet we seek the shelter that suits us for the day―like fig leaves when we know what is truth. Atheism included.

Chris Donato said...

Steve and see, thanks for the admonishments. I take them seriously, as I'm sure there are many examples to the contrary of my post.

Stereotypifying, which is seldom helpful, and almost never wise, is what I'm admittedly engaged in here. Since I've had a good deal of experiences akin to what I've described in this post, it becomes very difficult for me to disassociate "fundamentalists" from "fundamentalism" (as Steve mentions above).

One begins to wonder, though, if the overwhelming majority of a movement's adherents are known for certain ways of living, does that not reflect back upon the movement? If so, can such a judgment really be deemed "slander" (James 4:11)?

The one specific example I offered in the post is true. That, of course, is not slander. Is it slander to move on from that one example and project it upon the entire phenomena we know as "fundamentalism"? Possibly. If it were not true. But it is.

I'm not talking about meanie-heads here. I'm talking about evil, cultic legalism, which is antithetical to the gospel of grace.

see said...

Sure it is a nasty business; I was there too. So give God some credit for allowing this experience into your life. Knowing what you've learned from it will benefit others and realize that God is sovereign and judges his own first (Isreal).

Ultimately, man is without excuse, so atheism is pure blasphemy, and that's something I'd steer clearer of than you did.

Anonymous said...

It seems that one of the reasons that someone may jump ship from the fundamentalism camp, so-called, to atheism is from a desire of wanting to think for themselves; that "fundamentalism" does not allow. Having experienced this first hand when I was younger, I noticed with myself, when I broke free from that camp, I questioned everything I had been indoctrinated with. The swing, at least for a while, maybe even permanently for some, is pretty dramatic.
One of the reasons I like John Owen is because as learned as he was and even with the authority to legally effect religious law as had been given to him, he was tolerant toward other denominations within orthodoxy. Owen dropped out of school as a student but did not drop out of the faith.
So if someone goes from fundamentalism to atheism, what did they really have faith in anyway?
BTW, I don't think there is any "fun" in fundamentalism, but it is "mental".

Bobby Grow said...

I think an anthropological rationalism defines, both Fundy and Atheism, so there's really not much difference except a change in semantic reference points.

Chris Donato said...

Two sides of the same coin, eh, Bobby? I tend to agree. I also say the same thing about Christian activists from both the left and the right. While their vision of utopia differs, their underlying assumptions (about how Christ relates to culture) and methods often don't.

Bobby Grow said...

Why stop now? ;-) The same can be said for Creationists and neo-Darwinians (like Dawkin's style).

Anonymous said...

As an IFCA member, I have to say that you do bring up certain good points...

The problem with any Org, or movement that is started for the purpose of combating something is getting stuck in the "We are Against..."

You may also be in that phase?

My experience with IFCA is in the NW. We may be a different breed.

I would agree with many members of Fundamentalist churches and some Pastors are as you say.

Nearly all IFCA members that I know are not anywhere near your stereotype.

I definitely am not. While I would be considered by some to be on the outer fringe, I have never met with criticism.

I do not see much of any of thepuritans Don't Think For Yourself... rather the opposite is true. IFCA NW men are reading and gleaning from those of other thoughts.

If we may disagree with the Warrens, Pipers, Driscolls, Sprouls on some points does not mean we are unthinking.

The non-Fundies are just as guilty of "there is NO thought except our thought" as your Stereotypes of us.

I have found just as many Reformed Preterists and such drifting into Atheism.

It happens when we are "saved" into a system rather than being renewed by the Spirit.

It happens when we are sanctified by the works of studying to be approved by a manmade organization or system, rather than being conformed into the image of Christ.

My Fundamentals:
I believe the bible is whole, and completely trustworthy.
I believe that I am to be guided by it's precepts.
I believe that my only path to the Father is through the Son and his death upon a cross for my behalf.
I believe that Christ arose again to give us new life.
I believe that Christ will return for us and we will live in his presence for eternity.

I believe that, you my brother, would say you believe likewise.


Chris Donato said...

I couldn't agree with you more, Douglas. Stereotypifying is almost never wise. And mine is a very experiential account. Many, like yourself, have experiences completely opposite of mine.

Thanks also for taking time to read and comment; it's much appreciated.

[the drift toward atheism] happens when we are "saved" into a system rather than being renewed by the Spirit.


Anonymous said...

Please forgive the utter generality wherewith my bias was exposed in my comment. It was not fair to assume that my experience was a universal.

I think I understand the thought behind the title of your blog now. Still growing too, as slow as it may be. Please forgive the cavalier nature of my comment. No disrespect was intended to you or any of your readers.

God Bless,

Chris Donato said...

Brandon, I appreciate that. I know there are plenty enough individual experiences out there like ours to warrant just a tiny bit of stereotypifying, no?

The swing is pretty dramatic for most, which is why I think it breeds atheism more than other traditions.

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