And I mean the Christian, particularly Baptist variety. That’s my arena of experience and familiarity, though the critique I aim to give here should generally apply to all kinds of fundamentalism.
Now follow me. I have to give you my thesis sentence with the complexity it requires. The main problem (and characteristic) of fundamentalism is an attempt to freeze the natural course of inquiry and education by applying the pressures of a cultural taboo against it, redirecting inquiry to arrive at predetermined answers. Of course most fundamentalists disguise this taboo by rhetorical misdirection, which is my nice way of saying intellectual dishonesty.
Put differently, fundamentalism is marked by an ongoing refusal to face honestly the complexity and variety of questions that arise in response to such a difficult and multivalent text as the Bible.
My Time in the Fundamentalist Camp
In 2005 I joined a fundamentalist church here in Rochester, NY because I was tired of the wishy-washy, life-change drivel I had encountered in the majority of evangelical churches. The Independent Fundamentalist Baptist denomination is marked by a strict adherence to the King James Bible as the sole valid form of the Scriptures, even over against the original Hebrew and Greek testaments. They would not call themselves a denomination, nor would they claim to be a part of the Reformation. They believe themselves to be truly independent, that is, separate and free of traditions. They truly see themselves as “Bible-only,” unfettered by the cultural accretions plaguing all other churches.
I stuck around for about two years, mostly because the church held Scripture in such high regard, and they spoke so unequivocally about truth and falsehood, light and dark, good and evil. At that point in my young Christian life, I was blessed and fed by the Scriptures even though the delivery was seriously flawed.
The Fundamentalist DNA
But to my point… the IFB churches have a litany of tradition and cultural baggage, but they are less able to examine these forms because of their vehement denial to holding them. Try telling an IFB guy that he is beholden to unbiblical, historically recent traditions if you are unclear on what I mean by “vehement.”
One of the traditions of the IFB is the primary authority of The Pastor. In whatever IFB church you may enter, The Pastor is a unitary figure of authority and charisma. If he lacks natural charisma and/or authority, he more than makes up for it with bluster and political savvy.
If a young man wishes to learn the doctrines of the Christian faith, The Pastor need only point to the pulpit, behind which he himself is standing. “You want doctrine? Come to church Sunday morning, night, Wednesday night, and for all special services. You’ll get Bible, you’ll get preaching, you’ll get doctrine!”
If that young man wishes to ask a more nuanced question than can’t be answered during one of the revivalistic performances The Pastor puts on during preaching time, he may be invited up the mountain to Pastor’s office for a little mentorship. I got a few of these sessions (and my pastor was a genuinely good man, as misled as he is in his perspectives). At one lunch we were having, I told him that I had bought a Hebrew-Greek Interlinear Bible to teach myself the original languages. I’ll never forget how he leaned forward over his plate, fork in hand, eyes squinted a bit, and asked me “now why would you do that?”
“Well,” I stammered, “because I’d like access to the original writings of the Scriptures.”
This was no hurdle for Pastor – he reminded me I had the King James Bible, which is superior to the Hebrew and Greek. Yes, he said that to my face with no hint of humor. And believe me, I was waiting for him to crack a smile.
But this was a manifestation of the Fundamentalist DNA. It doesn’t matter that the claim was completely laughable, (never mind that the King James translators said explicitly in the original preface to their work that their translation would be subject to corrections and revisions as scholarship improved). It doesn’t matter if 99% of the Christian world of learning and scholarship disagrees rather forcefully, the Fundamentalist knows what he knows because to question it would be to open the door to all sorts of doubt.
And that, friends, is the issue. Fundamentalism seeks to eliminate any and all doubt from the religious life, but not through legitimate, fearless inquiry into the sources and teachings of the faith, no, he seeks to elide questioning by steering questions into a bucket of pre-made answers.
And what kind of Christian does this church produce? A spiritual infant who mistakes himself for an adult. He’s been told he’s been eating at the big-boy table, chowing on the heartiest of Christian meats and vegetables, but try to feed him on the real stuff and you best be ready to perform the Heimlich: he has no teeth to chew with, and he might get hurt trying to get it down.
Fundamentalists lose their children who grow into physical maturity, and who begin to experience life among a hostile world. I’ve seen them in many places, always sarcastically angry and just as vehement as their parents, just now from the opposite direction.
The antidote to Bible Baptist fundamentalism is the Reformation. Study of Luther, Calvin, and the development of the historical creeds and confessions of our churches is medicine more than strong enough to break the spell, to heal, and to give the true ability to read the Bible for what it really says.
And that, my friends, should be the goal for every one of us, fundie or not.
Blessings in Christ,