The Religious Education of Charlie Johnson: Raised Fundamentalist

“A fundamentalist is an evangelical who is angry about something.” ~ George Marsden, historian of fundamentalism

I was born Christian, but raised fundamentalist.  This installment in my story is more background than autobiography. I hope to give readers some perspective on Christian fundamentalism: to remove some misleading notions, to place it in historical context, and to offer a summary from my own experience. I will endeavor to reassert the personal and reflective tone in following installments, but since I am an academic, you must forgive me my pedantic digressions.

Now, “fundamentalism” is a tricky word. To some people, the word conjures the image of a person so extreme, and perhaps even violent, that he in no way resembles a normal person. In reality, most fundamentalist Christians share many features in common with the average American. Fundamentalists can be accountants and police officers, life insurance and Mary Kay salespeople, doctors and scientists, even politicians. They don’t live in compounds out in the woods, but are sprinkled throughout America’s rural and suburban neighborhoods, and maintain a presence in every major metropolitan area. They might dress a bit differently at times, particularly the women, but rarely to the extent that they would be easily identifiable, and certainly not to the extent that a Hasidic Jew’s or a Amish person’s dress marks him as a member of a particular religious community. Thus, it is entirely possible to know a fundamentalist Christian without knowing that he is one. The fundamentalist will likely be eager to inform you of his Christian faith, but even so, you may not realize how distinct a sort of Christian he is.

Fundamentalist Christianity is a subset of evangelical Christianity, which is in turn a subset of Protestant Christianity. The relevant history can be sketched in three phases. First, in the 18th and 19th centuries, the old Protestant orthodoxies were shaken by a more democratic, more emotional, more activist form of Christianity – evangelicalism (or pietism for Lutherans). A series of “awakenings” or “revivals” swept across many countries (but most significantly English-speaking ones), leaving behind many new, zealous Christians or newly recommitted Christians who often had only loose ties to institutional churches. Most important to these evangelicals was not the institutional church with its sacraments and subtle theological systems but rather the personal experience of conversion and the immediate zeal for a pure life. Evangelicals formed mission societies, rescue missions, children’s homes, publishing houses, and a host of other Christian organizations; yet they often skirted established denominational channels to do so. Evangelicals were not opposed to established churches, but were confident in their abilities to act independently of them, either alone or in voluntary societies established for specific purposes.

The second stage in this history is known as the modernist controversy. Around the beginning of the 20th century, various scientific, philosophical, and theological currents from Europe gravely disturbed the evangelical status quo. Many of these threatened the way evangelicals read the Bible. Trends in geology and biology (Darwinism) cast doubt upon the creation narratives and other cosmological descriptions in the Bible. New literary and historical approaches to biblical criticism raised questions of diversity and inaccuracy in the Bible. Continental philosophy tended to be more guarded about one’s ability to perceive true reality directly than was the reigning Scottish common sense realism. Some theologians, particularly from German-speaking territories, were suggesting reinterpretations (or abandonment) of doctrines tightly held by evangelicals: the virgin birth, miracles, the cross as substitutionary punishment, Jesus’ bodily resurrection. Many evangelicals reacted with an uncompromising condemnation of modernism; these were known as fundamentalists. Interdenominational coalitions were formed to promote and defend traditional ways of thought and life. However, in the end, modernism won control of the five largest Protestant denominations, including their seminaries and publishing houses. Fundamentalists were still numerous, but were banished to the periphery of cultural influence. Here they began to distrust traditional denominations. Believers, they said, must separate themselves from apostate institutions.

The third epoch occurs in the middle of the twentieth century. A split arose within fundamentalism. A group of bright, ambitious, well-educated individuals became dissatisfied with fundamentalism. They found it intellectually stifling, culturally backward, and socially disengaged. They did not want to be liberals, as the modernists came to be called, but wanted to regain cultural standing. (Carl Henry’s The Uneasy Conscience of Modern Fundamentalism might be considered a manifesto.) They called themselves the new evangelicals (or neo-evangelicals). Perhaps most visible in this group was the rising evangelist, Billy Graham. The neo-evangelicals’ attempt to reform fundamentalism met with stiff resistance. They were labeled compromisers, willing to sacrifice truth on the altar of prestige and respectability. They were eventually squeezed out of the fundamentalist network. In reality, the new evangelicals were not always terribly sad to go. Various judgments have been made about the effectiveness of neo-evangelicalism, but its influence on fundamentalism is critical. Fundamentalists became even more retrenched. They learned that attacks could come not only from openly apostate liberals, but even from seemingly orthodox brothers! The neo-evangelical split fixed fundamentalism, culturally and intellectually, firmly in the 1950s. Fundamentalists formed a doctrine of “secondary separation,” stating that it is necessary for believers to cut institutional ties not only with liberals, but with those who would compromise with liberals. Thus, one’s associations became as important as one’s doctrines for determining one’s standing in the fundamentalist community.

In the present day, many of these labels are passé. Much of mainline Protestantism has moved on from the type of liberalism featured in the early 20th century. Huge swaths of evangelicalism exist that have no particular orientation toward the issues that divided fundamentalists and neo-evangelicals. But, for true fundamentalists, the battle lines drawn in the 1950s are eternally valid archetypes. When I arrived at a fundamentalist Bible college in 2004, within my first week of classes, I was handed a sheet of paper that displayed a breakdown of Protestant Christianity into 4 groups: liberals, neo-orthodox (a reform movement arising within liberalism), neo-evangelicals, and fundamentalists. I learned quickly that a key fundamentalist skill was taking any person or writing and placing it in the correct box, so that one would know how to deal with it.

As a child, I did not know about the distinctive qualities of fundamentalism. To me, fundamentalism was simply Christianity. The next four articles will treat four aspects of my experience of fundamentalism: authoritarianism, biblicism, separatism, and revivalism. None of these four characteristics is unique to fundamentalism; one can easily find other Christians who manifest one or several of these traits. It is rather the combination of all four into a single seamless, organic religious experience that constitutes the fundamentalism of my youth. In fundamentalism, all four factors influence each other, so that one might say that fundamentalists are not just biblicists, but they practice biblicism in an authoritarian-separatist-revivalist way. Then, repeat the process for the other three.

Series home

Published in: on September 10, 2012 at 10:21 am  Leave a Comment  
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Brief Thoughts on our Contemporary Theological Task

Western culture is losing faith in the gospel of modernity. Modernity promised a democratic, rational, pluralistic culture. We have since realized that democracy can be used not only to empower but also to subjugate minority interests, that reason can be the tool of totalitarian oppression or the plaything of relativists, and that true plurality comes at the price of radical decentering. Scientific positivism and religious fundamentalism tear desperately at opposite edges of the cultural fabric, as if they know they cannot maintain their grip.

Technology and late capitalism erode the boundaries between high art and commodification. From this union is born the celebrity and virtual culture, a media matrix that displaces religion and education as the prime inculcator of social values and sensibilities. In the celebrity culture, we neither pray nor reason; we watch and imitate. Fictional characters in hyper-real settings shape our responses to real situations. In the virtual culture, “likes” and “pokes” replace conversation. Shared links stand in lieu of shared experiences. The concept of “friend,” so prized in antiquity, has reached its nadir, often indistinguishable from acquaintance, peer, or mark.

Yet, we are learning from our situation: the West is not the world. Modernity, anti-modernity, postmodernity— “All these modern Western namings of the present remain too self-centered and narrow. They name only the dilemmas of the Western center” (David Tracy, On Naming the Present, 20). If we Westerners are insecure about our cultural future, we may look to the resources of the modernizing world. No law of historical necessity dictates that they follow the same course, despite Bryan Turner’s unconvincing appeal to a Calvinist pattern of modernity. In charity, we wish that they learn from our failings. In hope, we ask what they may teach us.

The task of theology in a decentered age is not easy, but theology never was. The crusader who nostalgically quests for the golden age of Christendom is in fact a deserter from the present conflict. One challenge is the loss of a universal philosophy through which to mediate Christian ideals. Rahner recognized this reality but could not foresee that his own transcendentalism would become one more parochial ism. Charles Taylor sets before us the image of the immanent frame, our contemporary reality in which we do not feel the need to refer our lives to a transcendental referent. Leszek Kolakowski bemoans the blurring of the sacred and the profane.

Perhaps all the challenges to contemporary theology derive, in part, from the anthropocentric turn. That turn has led to a dead end, the decentering and dissolution of the subject. Man was not created to be the center; he cannot like Atlas bear the weight of the world, nor can he fully convince himself that the world is not heavy. The way forward is, at the beginning, the way back. A radical return to theocentrism, a retrieval of our creedal heritage, and an emphasis on the community of saints concretely localized in the proclamation of Scripture and the sacraments may open a new global future for us.

Published in: on August 29, 2011 at 11:30 am  Leave a Comment  
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Review – The Victory of Reason by Rodney Stark

In The Victory of Reason, Rodney Stark attempts to show that Christianity caused the rise and dominance of Western civilization. In particular, Christianity provided the basis for rational(scientific) thinking, political freedom, and capitalism—the trifecta of Western progress.

Stark asserts that Christianity, in contrast to polytheism and pantheism, understands the world as the creation of a personal Creator, and thus obeying discoverable, rational laws. Christianity differs from other monotheistic religions by its belief in progress. I suspect Stark is guilty of equivocation here. Christian theologians did expect theological and moral progress to be made as God’s kingdom advanced, but I doubt seriously that they entertained a “faith in progress” pertaining to secular matters. Augustine, to whom Stark appeals, acknowledged technological progress but viewed it as vanity. Stark’s presentation of Christianity accurately describes 19th-century liberalism more than the early Fathers.

The rest of the book traces progress. The Middle Ages were not Dark Ages, but rather a time of technological advance and political experimentation. For the most part, learning and progress occurred in the Church and with its approval. Contradicting Max Weber’s thesis concerning the link between Protestantism and capitalism, Stark shows that capitalism was born in Catholic monasteries and flourished in Catholic Italy.

The key factor determining the spread of capitalism was political freedom. A despotic state naturally gravitates toward a command economy, whereas relatively independent communities allow individual economic initiative. In this section, religion plays a small role, as Stark details how and when each city became an economic force. As capitalism spread north into Protestant countries, it was smothered by new despotic regimes in the Catholic countries. Tyranny, not religion, is Stark’s answer to the Weber thesis.

For a book seeking to demonstrate the religious foundations of Western culture, it has a strikingly secular tone. Throughout the book are hints that Christianity is laudable precisely because it allowed this cultural flourishing, not because of its own religious values. Even the title intimates that Stark is interested not so much in the content of Christian belief as in its rational theological method. This raises the question whether Stark takes Christianity seriously as a religion, as a faith that announces the significance of eternal and otherworldy values. He tips his hand in one shockingly transparent passage:

Soon after the conversion of the Roman Emperor Constantine in 312, there came to be essentially two Catholic churches. Prior to Constantine, the church was led by a dedicated, poorly paid, and rather ascetic clergy, who sometimes knowingly risked martyrdom. This group, and its heirs, constituted the church of piety. But when Constantine began to shower the church with privileges and subsidies, he “precipitated a stampede into the priesthood” by the sons of the upper classes, since church offices now produced high incomes and had substantial political influence. Soon, church positions, even lowly parish pastorships, were bought and sold as investments—higher offices often carrying enormous price tags. This new church hierarchy formed the church of power…. A clergy of “investors” was unlikely to be hostile to commerce, and during the formation and rise of capitalism, the church of power led the way to accommodate traditional ascetic religious predilections to economic realities. Put another way, had the church of piety prevailed, Christianity probably would have continued to denounce usury and to oppose profit and materialism in general, just as Islam still does….  In recovering the lost virtues of the church, the leaders of the Counter-Reformation also restored a faith best suited for a far earlier time, a faith compatible with command economies but completely out of touch with democracy, let alone capitalism. (202-3)

Ironically, a book that asserts the theological foundations of commerce and culture chides theology for not accommodating itself to commerce and culture. Stark undercuts his own thesis. If pre-Constantinian Christianity (and its repristination in Puritanism, Trentian Catholicism, and liberation theology) was a hindrance to progress, then Christianity itself cannot be the cause of Western success. It seems rather that the Christianity that created modern culture was itself the creation of late Roman culture.

If Christianity had to be alloyed with elite Roman culture, surrendering some of its distinctive values in the process, how can it be the impetus for change? If theology is to be judged by its fitness with the culture, how can it compel the culture? In the conclusion, Stark faces the question whether Christianity, having produced modern culture, can now be discarded. It is telling that he is unable to give a rational rebuttal, but merely settles for noting the continued progress of Christianity and the absence of a secular world power.  Although I enjoyed reading The Victory of Reason and benefited from individual portions, I am not convinced that it presents a coherent thesis. Even so, both the history and the contemporary statistical data may be interesting to many readers.

To Reading and Reviews

Published in: on May 25, 2011 at 9:16 am  Leave a Comment  
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On Complementarianism and Modernism

Pre-script: This post is a bit unusual for this blog, which I intend to focus for the most part on particular works rather than broad issues. However, this post is an impromptu and tentative articulation of a lot of things I’ve been reading about and thinking about lately. Relevant works include Passage to Modernity by Louis Dupre, The One, The Three, and the Many by Colin Gunton, Personal Knowledge by Michael Polanyi, After Virtue by Alasdair MacIntyre, and several works by bioethicist Gilbert Meilaender.

There are several reasons why the complementarian/egalitarian controversy cannot be settled simply by pointing to a few Bible verses. Of course, the Bible is the beginning of a Christian approach to life, but our understanding and application of the Bible does not stop with the final period of our proof text. Popular complementarians seem to me to be fixated on a few specific issues – women pastors, women in the army, etc. These issues are often discussed in isolation without an appreciation for the broader social and intellectual context, which would be substantially changed if the logical consequences of complementarianism were embraced.

Complementarians hold that men and women are “equal in essence but different in function.” However, since the Enlightenment (and a wee bit before), ontological categories have been suppressed in favor of functional ones. You are what you do. You are defined by your function. You are valued by your performance. We know longer look at things, people or inanimate objects, and inquire into the essence that lies mysteriously “beneath” the matter. Rather, reality consists almost exclusively (or for some, entirely exclusively) of atomic data, matter in motion. This is the legacy of the scientific revolution’s massive shift from privileging teleological causality to enthroning efficient causality. So, a thoroughgoing complementarianism repudiates this equation of being with function, and will consequently repudiate the modern view of self.

Furthermore, the very notion of personhood, since the Enlightenment, carries the ideas of autonomy and self-creativity. In the ancient world, biblical and non-biblical, human nature was a given. Humans were placed in the universe by God or by gods and their roles, spheres of control, and ultimate purpose were thereby circumscribed. In the Renaissance we see the first glimmers of an alternate conception of the self. Man views himself as not only a created, but a creative creature. Art is not only an imitation of nature, but a recreation, a going beyond, a perfecting. Astrology wanes not because it is perceived to be irrational, but because man now thinks of himself as a being in control of his own destiny. He will impose his will on the cosmos, not vice versa. The concept of freedom, the right to make the choices that will determine one’s place in the world, even one’s identity, becomes central to the definition of a human.

The convergence of these forces can be seen in two contemporary arguments for abortion. The “personhood” argument holds that personhood consists in a number of static qualities, such as self-awareness, conciousness, and productivity. Notice how this defines persons in terms of their function – there can be humans (that is, lifeforms with identifiably human DNA) who do not qualify as persons due to a lack of certain abilities, not only in the womb but in other stages of life as well. Ontology is sacrificed to functional characteristics. The second argument, often reinforcing or reinforced by the first, is the viability argument. Briefly put, this argument recognizes the inability of the fetus to survive on its own and announces that the mother does not have an ethical responsibility provide the care that the fetus requires, especially since that care is often burdensome and dangerous. As Gilbert Meilaender has pointed out, “[The viability argument] accepts and is based upon an individualism so thoroughgoing as to suppose that we have obligations to others only if we consent to them.” Although this paragraph is simplistic and certainly not intended to be a critique of abortion, it points to how the modern conceptions of the self as functional rather than ontological and as self-creating rather than teleologically directed underlay much contemporary moral controversy.

So, to tell a modern woman that she cannot be a pastor may at first appear to be a simple statement from a Scripture text. On observation, it is much more. It is an assault upon her personhood, at least as conceived in the modern era. It is likely to be perceived a power tactic, an expression of a values system that was designed precisely to propagate the subjection of those without power. To be fair to these critics, such systems have existed and do today exist in the world. It is also an inversion of modern values. It declares that the freedom to be whoever you want to be is not, in fact, an unqualified good. There is a clash between Augustine’s definition of freedom as willing what is right and the modern naked will. The ideas that complementarianism undermines are so woven into the woof and the warp of our culture that it is difficult to imagine the consequences if Christians were to follow complementarian logic to a complete overthrow of modernism. Our legal and political systems are founded on modernist ideas of personhood and autonomy. Most likely, even our relations with spouses, parents, children, churches, and communities drink heavily from the modern well. What do we currently value as good would we lose, and what new goods would replace them?

There is another realm which would be heavily affected, and that is reason. The Biblical arguments for complementarianism may have resonated strongly with mythopoeic cultures, but they largely leave moderns puzzled. Ancient cultures, both biblical and non-biblical, believed in an underlying reason that connected all kinds of truths, mechanical and moral. So one could discern guidelines for human life and behavior from observing the order of nature or meditating on intellectual realities, such as number proportions. One of the last examples of this among self-professing moderns that I recall is Thomas Paine’s argument that the American colonies should not remain under the authority of Britain because it is unnatural for a large mass to orbit a small one.

Consider 1 Timothy 2:12-14, ESV: ” I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man; rather, she is to remain quiet. 13 For Adam was formed first, then Eve; 14 and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor.” Paul evidently thinks that the prior creation of Adam to Eve forms a basis for his prohibition, but this is a strange argument to modern ears even in the abstract. The idea that a particular historical event could establish a perpetual relationship between two classes, irrespective of their present consent, is emphatically denied by modern political theory, such as Thomas Paine’s response to Edmund Burke.

Another example is 1 Corinthians 11. After a very complementarian-friendly statement that the man is the head of the woman as God is the head of Christ, Paul delves into some unusual (to modern ears) argumentation. 1 Corinthians 11:7-10: “For a man ought not to cover his head, since he is the image and glory of God, but woman is the glory of man. 8 For man was not made from woman, but woman from man. 9 Neither was man created for woman, but woman for man. 10 That is why a wife ought to have a symbol of authority on her head, because of the angels.” There is an assertion that man is the glory of God, but woman is the glory of man. How do we know that? Because woman was made from man. Furthermore, because of that, women should cover their heads. And don’t forget about the angels.

Now, I believe in Scripture. I hold to a traditional evangelical view of inspiration. But to take these statements as simply a string of divinely inspired assertions is to miss the point. Paul was reasoning with the Corinthians. He understood this argument and expected that they would as well. He was not teaching them something new but explaining the importance of an already existing tradition. It was reasonable to him that because man is the spiritual head covering of the woman that women would acknowledge this with a physical head covering. Invisible spiritual truths and visible moral obligations go hand in hand. To do otherwise would scandalize the angels. The other argument in this chapter bears the same character. “Nature” teaches that women should have long hair, and the perception of this natural covering is supposed to lead women to recognize they need a further covering, a symbol of authority. I suspect that most moderns, including myself, are somewhat perplexed both as to how exactly nature teaches this and how women were supposed to draw that particular conclusion. All this is to illustrate that the conclusions of complementarianism cannot be divorced from the biblical argumentation which supports those conclusions and that these biblical arguments sound irrelevant, even absurd, to the modern ear.

As a life-long complementarian, then, I am beginning to grasp the immensity of the social and intellectual consequences of embracing complementarianism thoroughly. The very society that I inhabit is declared, in many ways, groundless. Foundational concepts such as the self, the meaning of freedom, and the interrelation of knowledge and reality in the cosmos are greatly modified. Until Christianity is able to articulate a holistic way through and beyond the modern era, complementarian theology will be isolated and inconsistent, detached from the broader context which can truly receive it. Complementarians will live as moderns in most ways, fighting only those battles which are seen to directly contradict explicit prohibitions in Scripture. I do not know the solution to this problem, but I am sure that it will be more comprehensive and theologically integrated than selective appeals to the Trinity and convenient proof-texts.

Post-script: I am aware that some Christians have tried to settle this issue by suggesting a return to pre-modernism. Certainly there are elements of pre-modernism that are attractive, but it does not seem possible to me simply to roll back the clock. There are elements of modern society that I very much value and would not want to give up. So, I refer to a way through the modern era, not a passage back or an escape out of it.

Published in: on January 17, 2010 at 11:42 pm  Comments (2)  
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