Christian Fundamentalism Part 4: What is the Harm Cont.

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This post is the last in a four part series based off of my very real interactions with Christian fundamentalists.  You can read posts one, two and three here and here and here.

Yesterday I wrote about the Fundamentalists’ view of Scripture and why I disagree with their claim that “Scripture is God.”  Today I want to talk more practically about the ways the fundamentalists I know read Scripture.   Truth is, I can get over their view of Scripture, as long as they read it, which many do.  But as I conversed with the most ardent of Fundamentalists, I discovered they don’t just believe Scripture is inerrant, they also believe that 1950s, “traditional” America was the best expression of the Kingdom of God.  So their reading of Scripture tends to read 1950’s American culture into the text, rather than hearing the text speak to the new things God is doing in the 21st century.

This wouldn’t be so bad if fundamentalists understood the 1950s.  They paint pictures of “traditional American values” with white picket fences and families getting along and the husband as the head and spiritual leader of the family that watches wholesome television and follows the laws of a just government that legislated Christianity by mandating prayer in schools.  Then they proof text this picture with shady exegesis and angry homiletics that insist we need to return to God and God’s white picket fences.

To be sure, some of that picture is desirable but if you study the 1950s or the 1940s, 1930s, or even the 1800s or way back to the founding of America you will find “traditional America” only ever existed on a billboard selling Coca-Cola.  The truth is that the 1950’s were an incredibly evil time in the United States.  It is true that fathers were the heads of the family but all that meant was the government and church fully supported spouse and child abuse.  In that decade thousands of black people were killed by sheer prejudice (source).  People who were not crazy could be locked up in a mental institution without trial and the government taxed 87% of the top earners’ incomes (source).  The teen pregnancy rate was higher that it has ever been (source).  The average age of death was still hovering right around 60 (source).  In sum, the 1950s were only a glorious decade for white, middle class men between the ages of 20-50.  And if you go further back in time from there the picture just gets worse.

To be sure, I do long for a day of white picket fences and happy families living in peaceful homes but that day is likely to be in the future because you won’t find it in the past, especially in the United States.

This brings me to the greatest harm perpetuated by fundamentalists.  They are overwhelmingly pessimistic.  By painting such a beautiful picture, then placing that picture in the past, they argue that God will only destroy us as we move into the future.  This cynicism has led to deep obsession on the doom and gloom in Revelation, which has furthered the bitterness and pessimism that refuses to see God doing anything good in the world.

In contrast, when I read all 1,189 chapters of Scripture I am overwhelmed with optimism.  In our Great Book God has a way of bringing about peace and love and good for, through and in all the good and all the bad.  I cling to the claims in Job where God says, “I make it rain in the desert” (Job 38:26).  Jesus picks up on this in the Sermon on the Mount where he says, “God makes it rain on the just and the unjust” (Matthew 5:45).  A God like that fills me with hope for the world to come because we serve a God who pours out blessings for anybody and everybody to pick them up.

So I reject the fundamentalist claim that every step away from 1959 is a step towards the horrid end times.  Instead I long for the day that is coming when Jesus will return and establish his reign on earth as it is in heaven.  On that day I will probably join hands with my crazy fundamentalist cousins and sing the songs of praise, knowing that despite their inquisitions, cynical pessimism and misplaced dogma God still used them to feed hungry people, clothe the naked and house the homeless.  That is a crazy powerful and crazy loving God.  Come, Lord Jesus.

Christian Fundamentalism Part 2: Why It Isn’t So Bad

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This post is the second in a four part series based off of my very real interactions with Christian fundamentalists.  You can read post one here.

Yesterday I gave some biographical information about my experience with Christian fundamentalists and ended with a working definition of 21st century fundamentalism.  I believe its two defining characteristics are the belief in the absolute inerrancy of Scripture and the clinging to 1950s American culture as the standard for Christian society and living.

I want to begin today by repeating what I tried to say yesterday.  Often when dealing with fundamentalists I am guilty of committing the straw man fallacy where I meet a conservative Christian and immediately picture them as an angry, closed minded, sinner who thinks they are better than everyone else.   I am repenting of that sin in these posts and instead trying to engage with the fundamentalist Christians I know and explain them in a way that is more honest.

When I put aside my hasty stereotypes and engaged with Fundamentalists I found that they are nowhere near as bad at being Christians as I assumed they were.

First off they really do want to see people join the church and become Christian.  They fear becoming irrelevant and are grasping at anything (politics, movies, music, etc) that will get people to hear them out.  Although I felt panicked and awkward when they announced their latest propaganda movie, I still advertised it to some non-church youth I knew because I legitimately thought the movie would get the kids interested in God.  And so I do share and celebrate the evangelical thrust of the movement, even if that thrust turns more into a rhino charge at times (well, most of the time).

Second, the fundamentalists I know will listen to a reasoned argument from Scripture.  What they will not respond to are exaggerations and generalizations.  For example, when I make the statement, “Obviously God wants us to care about poor people” they shrug me off.  But when I open my Bible to the verses in Deuteronomy 15 about open handed care and concern for the poor, they listen.  When I blandly state, “well your sin is as bad as theirs” they roll their eyes at me.  But when I read Romans 1 and show them that gossip is next to adultery and how Paul’s argument about “their” sin suddenly turns to the claim that “you are without excuse” they seriously rethink their legalistic attitudes.  If you open Scripture with them they will pay attention and I find that admirable.  However, if you keep Scripture close and substitute it for generalizations they will turn on you.

Third, they are a very generous bunch, at least the ones I know.  They give a lot of money to a lot of non-profit organizations who specialize in social justice.  Ironically fundamentalists hate the phrase “social justice” but when I bring up sex trafficking they are the first to write a check or ask me what to do.  They donate to homeless shelters, teen pregnancy clinics, missionaries and third world farmers.  And they certainly give well above 10 percent to the church.  Their belief in the generous God in Scripture certainly encourages generosity on their part.  Unfortunately a lot of their money goes to conservative politicians, 6 day creation curriculum and Bible museums but that is not the limit to their generosity.

This brings me to a story about the most fundamentalist family in our town.  This is the family that goes to the “Fundamentalist Baptist Church,” think Obama is the anti-christ and that Jesus is coming back tomorrow because Israel fired a rocket yesterday.  They readily try to test me in conversation to see if my Christianity is strong or weak.  They turn every conversation about the weather to a heated debate about abortion or homosexuality or Obamacare.  Simply put, they have a tendency to annoy me.

However, a year ago a girl in the high school got into a brutal argument with her mom and was thrown out of her house.  She had nowhere to stay, so the fundamentalists took her into their all ready crowded home.  She went with them on family vacations.  Though they were financially strapped, they still bought her clothes and school supplies.  All this was incredible in and of itself but then they did something I did not expect.  They scheduled meetings between the girl and her mother and worked with them on reconciliation.  Their purpose was clearly stated to me: “Our goal is to see them forgive each other, get along better and have a more peaceful home.”  In the end they accomplished their goal and the girl moved back in with her mother.

The non Christians in town, and some Christians too, took sides.  They gossiped about the girl or her mother using not so friendly terminology.  They stood on the sidelines and cheered or booed their team but the fundamentalist Baptists did the messy work of peacemaking.

A few months before that another wealthy fundamentalist-leaning family in town discovered a family of six who was homeless.  THey invited them into their mansion to live for a month.  It was a very gracious act.  Another family drove an orphaned girl halfway across the country so she could get to the public university that had accepted her.  Ironically this is the same family that bad mouths all public universities.

It was these stories and others like them that convinced me to rethink my blind hatred and vicious anger against them.  It is these stories I try to remember when I meet the fundamentalists on the road and they insist I advertise their new 6 day creation seminar or side with their hatred at the Obama administration.  I will not do either but I will at least smile and nod and welcome them as the eccentric Christian cousins they are and celebrate God’s work through them.

I hope you keep that last post in mind when you read my post for tomorrow.  .  .see you then.

Christian Fundamentalism Part 1: What is It?

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I graduated from an evangelical, fundamentalist high school where I was taught about an evil dragon named “Atheistic Humanism.”  It breathed in the oxygen of scientific evolution and breathed out the fires of progressive culture.  It flew on the wings of mainstream media and public universities, all while burninating God’s timeless truths contained in Scripture.  He had even infiltrated our Christian universities where evil professors who pretended to love Jesus actually taught old earth evolution.

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I owe my dragon metaphor to this wonderful book by Alister McGrath.

I rushed into college ready to slay the evil dragon only to realize that secular humanism was not a dragon at all but a feeble, old man who had fallen on his own sword.  After realizing the dragon was dead, I threw off my fundamentalism and embraced traditional Christianity, a faith founded by Jesus, articulated in the ancient creeds, testified to in the lives of the saints and preserved in the sacraments of the church.  After digging deep into historic Christianity, I naturally came to reject the actual dragon who had raised me, Christian Fundamentalism.

What I thought Fundamentalism Was. . .

I learned why the fundamentalists were wrong, why they were harmful and why my denomination firmly rejected their teachings for 100 years and counting.  I left seminary ready to rush out in the world and slay this evil dragon only to dash into the cave and find another feeble old man who had fallen on his own sword.

Yet, like the famous Black Knight from Monty Python and the Holy Grail fundamentalism was claiming it only had a flesh wound.  Even with all their limbs cut off they still tend to be rather obnoxious.

What it actually is.

In my small town we only have a few fundamentalist families left but every time I talk to them or they insist I promote one of their creation seminars or attend one of their propaganda movie nights, I walk away feeling anything but edified.  Instead I am filled with an odd mix of frustration, panic, anger and even a little hatred.  I pray about those experiences often and these prayers have led to deep questions.

How do you define Christian fundamentalists?  Are they really as harmful as I was led to believe?  If not, then why do I catch myself blindly hating them?  Why had the mere mention of a “young earth” seminar and a fundamentalist propaganda movie scared me half to death?  And, of course, are they the problem or am I?

This post is the first in four posts that seek to answer these questions through my real life encounters with fundamentalism.  Somehow in college I began judging an abstract stereotype instead of engaging with the real people who have fundamentalist views.  So I want to revisit my assumptions about this passionate but dying group of evangelical Christians in light of my conversations with them.  Tomorrow’s post will be about the good I have experienced from fundamentalists because they are not an all together evil lot.  The third and fourth will be about why I still am not a fundamentalist either theologically (post 3) or in practice (post 4).

Before I get there, I have put together a working definition of Christian fundamentalists based off the people in my community.  Calling every Christian who votes Republican a fundamentalist is a bit harsh although every fundamentalist I know votes Republican.  Neither is the term to be equated with Pharisaic legalism.  I know plenty of legalistic Christians who are not fundamentalist.

Instead, fundamentalists in the 21st century have two defining characteristics.  The first is that they believe in the absolute inerrancy of the English translations of Scripture.  The second is that they believe that “traditional America,” which they relate to 1950s suburban America was the best expression of the Kingdom of God and any move away from 1950’s gender roles, marriage definitions, United States politics, moral etiquette, church and family structures etc. is a move away from God.

I hope this post and the next few will begin an honest and down to earth discussion about this segment of American Christianity and that it engages further conversation.  Click on back tomorrow!