Sunday, September 25, 2011

What Fundamentalism Taught Me

I used to be a fundamentalist, or at least I belonged to a fundamentalist group.  I really don't know how much I was one.  In some ways I still am one, but I eschew such labels.  I am not fond of evangelical either, as it means something different here than it does in Europe, etc. 

And there are different types of fundamentalists, and I am not talking about Muslim or Hindu fundamentalists.  "Fundamentalists" was coined when two Los Angeles businessmen at the turn of the 19th century (or 20th, depending on one's perspective, I guess) financed the writing and production of tracts called "The Fundamentals" to battle the German-based liberalism floating into mainline churches.  The Fundamentals at that time were doctrinal, and nothing that any conservative Protestant would have trouble with:  inerrancy of Scripture, original sin, atonement by Christ on the cross, second coming, and a few others.  Then it all got mixed up with the dispensationalists and then with the prohibitionists, and then with certain preachers and their followers, etc.  Then fundamentalism began to mean any radical group that claimed to be more faithful to the original teachings of a faith, as they saw it.  It is sad that the origins of fundamentalism were lost in all kinds of nondoctrinal and nonessential elements. 

By the 1960s and '70s, fundamentalists were a group, not all Baptists but largely, who were known for not liking other people; for prizing separatism; for fighting innovations, rock music, certain forms of dress, evolution, changes in the culture's sexual norms, and the Democratic party.   I'll blame Jerry Falwell for that last one.  There are Black fundamentalists, too, but you wouldn't have known it from the media, who pretty much looked for ways to make fundamentalists look bad even when they were doing the right thing, feeding the poor, helping the homeless, etc.  In fact, while we had our quirks, we were pretty normal people on a daily basis.  We paid our bills, went to jobs, had children, paid taxes, etc. 

But our quirks could become worse.  Some of the leaders were cultic, horribly so.  Furthermore, being against a cultural trend is not so bad, unless you don't have a truly cultivated and complete world view to know why you should be against a cultural trend.  And legalism was rampant.  Not only was legalism extensive, not knowing what legalism is was extensive, and that's even worse.  So when some people left fundamentalism they thought they had left legalism, forgetting that "the problem lies not with our stars, but in ourselves."  Legalism is not in a system.  Legalism is within us.  There's a reason we fall for legalism and have to be rescued from it--we like it!  Even when we know we can't live that way, we hold on to it.  It's very hard to give up, because legalism puts us on a level with God.  We can bargain with Him.  We can control Him, or think we can.  We can feel good about ourselves and dog gone it, we can feel superior to other people.  The same fundamentalism that taught us what rotten sinners we are for some reason also taught us how superior we were for living a certain way. 

I did not step out of fundamentalism like going through a door, because it took me years to shake off some of it (the bad parts), to discern what the good parts are (the adherence to good doctrine and exegetical Bible teaching), and, what I'll be doing the rest of my life, to come closer to Christ so that inherent, insipid legalism diminishes day by day, year by year.  So what did fundamentalism teach me?

That Christian discipline is not legalism.  But as Scot McKnight writes, the disciplines do not exist for themselves.  They have a kingdom, not a self-centered, purpose.  I don't practice the disciplines of the Christian life to feel good about myself or for any personal reason, but to participate in the larger kingdom (and body) of Christ.

That you should always be leery of demagogic leaders or those who rise to prominence due to public speaking or preaching abilities.  I am a cynic about anyone who is a glib speaker; part of that comes from being a rhetorical scholar and knowing what speakers are doing.  So many people were wowed by Barack Obama simply because he is a good orator.    For some reason, we prize "fast talkers."  Been there, done that.

That I am not swayed when someone says, "You must do ..... for your Christian life."  When the movie The Passion came out, people who should have known better told me, "You've got to see this, it will make you understand the cross."  No thank you.  I don't need anything Hollywood offers, or even some Christian publishers, for that matter, to make my life better.  I don't fall for that stuff any more.

It's made me broaden my horizons.  I read more liberal writers (or those I was told were liberal) and Catholics.  I once met Timothy George of Beeson Divinity School and thanked him for working for Christianity Today, because it changed my life.  It left me see that there were thinking people who trusted Christ the way I did.  He laughed and said that usually he got criticized more than thanked.  But I was sincere.  CT is not liberal, but I've gone way beyond that.

That there is more than one way to think about the second coming, as long as you believe in it (bodily, end of the world, etc.)

That people who you might think are legalistic love the Lord, that a choice not to go to movies does not mean the person is bound by legalism and may just have good reasons not to waste their money and time in entertainment. 

And most of all, that obedience to Christ is the one thing that really matters.

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