Whither Fundamentalism?

First, I have to define what I mean by ‘fundamentalism’. The word today has taken on a huge and grotesque meaning. What it meant originally was Protestants who held to the inerrancy of the Bible and the reality of miracles. The term came about when a group of these Christians authored a four volume set titled The Fundamentals which were published from 1910 to 1915. These books were written as an answer to the rising theological liberalism that was spreading across the (primarily Northern) American Protestant church.

Last night, I was tired and bored so I pulled a book off my shelf that I bought but never cracked. It is Ralph C. Wood’s dissertation Flannery O’Connor and the Christ-Haunted South. Flannery was a Roman Catholic author in the South in the 1950s. And, in case you didn’t catch it, she was a woman. That gave her a pretty distinct outsider’s view of just about everything around her. Anyway, I’m digressing. At the beginning of the book, Wood talks about how this Roman Catholic would often side with the Fundamentalists around her rather than the Liberals. He goes on to lance the misunderstanding of what fundamentalism is:

 George Marsden has shown that American fundamentalism is, in fact, an urban rather than a rural phenomenon, that its conflict with modernism arose in the North rather than the South, and that it was birthed by legitimate concerns over scientific and historical challenges to the main claims of Christian faith. This is not to deny that most revivalistic Methodists and Baptists and Pentecostals living in the South during the publishing years of O’Connor’s life (1948-1964) were also fundamentalists. They, too, held that the Bible is God’s verbally inspired, inerrant, infallible book–not only in matters of faith and morals but of history and science as well. Yet their biblical literalism was taken for granted rather than pitted against an alleged enemy. Marsden wittily notes, therefore, that to speak of most Southern Christians as fundamentalists was to indulge in redundancy. There was no need to give them the name, since the South remained largely immune to the angry battles that racked the Northern churches.

Once the warfare ended with an overwhelming modernist triumph, fundamentalism came to be regarded as the worst of abominations. In high academic and ecclesial places, whether [Roman] Catholic or Protestant, its adherents have been dismissed as rigid and narrow, as mean-spirited and closed-minded folks who bludgeon their enemies with their Bible. Most scholars and critics see themselves, by contrast, as enlightened and compassionate, as inclusive and diversity-desiring people. We thus give thanks that we are not like the fundamentalists, the one group whom everyone can despise without guilt. Many liberal Protestants, by contrast, regard the Bible as a classic work of religious literature, one sacred text among other kindred books, the Western equivalent of the Muslim’s Koran or the Hindu’s Gita. (Wood,14-15)

The drum  most often beaten to show the “ugly face” of fundamentalism is the Scopes Monkey Trial of 1925. For the fundamentalists it was a public defeat. For the liberals, it was thought to show how backward fundamentalism really was. That has been the paradigm that has hung around fundamentalism’s neck ever since.

Further down the road, American fundamentalism began to change. There grew within the movement an increasing emphasis on separation from the world and on personal holiness. “I don’t drink, smoke or play cards and I don’t go with girls who do” became a popular motto. The list of taboos included hair length for both men and women, prohibition of cards and dice, rejection of dancing and rock and roll, and on. But beyond that, it also entailed for many a required break with those who did such things. But in the 1950s, Carl F. H. Henry and Billy Graham and Kenneth Kantzer and some others formed Christianity Today and began a movement that, at the time, was called “new evangelicalism” but today we just call it evangelicalism. If you read Henry’s book The Uneasy Conscience of Modern Fundamentalism, you can watch the transition. The book is a series of essays he wrote for Christianity Today. Early in the book, ‘fundamentalism’ and ‘evangelical’ are used interchangeably even in the same paragraph. By the end of the book ‘fundamentalism’ is gone. The evangelicals kept the fundamentalist doctrine but embraced cultural engagement. Digressing again.

Today our media has distored the term ‘fundamentalis’ to mean ‘fanatic’ typically of a religious sort. In the 1930s the term ‘Islamic Fundamentalist’ wouldn’t have made sense. And the shaded glasses of the Scopes Monkey Trial didn’t fit fundamentalism early on. Fundamentalism started amongst the educated and included two men who believed in evolution but rejected the scientific naturalism that excluded God from the process. The caricature of fundamentalism that is common today

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