Tuesday morning, in a short conversation with a colleague, we had a moment where we agreed on something we had never spoken to each other about. We have both observed the rise of a neo-fundamentalism. What struck both of us was this: We’ve been there and can’t understand why anyone would want to return to Fundamentalism.
Are you seeing this? Where are you seeing it? What are you observing about it?
I was reared in a Fundamentalist church, and we were incredibly proud of it. We were strident, largely uneducated (even dismissive of education), theologically censorious, separatistic, intolerant, and accusatory of every smidgeon of slight alteration. There were no questions; there were answers — and we had them. We saw our abrasiveness as a sign that the rest of the world couldn’t count the cost; rejection proved we were right. I’m embarrassed today mostly about what we were like as humans – we were ungracious if not unchristian.
What this colleague and I both experienced in our college and seminary days (in the 70s) was the freedom that was given us with the rise of neo-evangelicalism — and our favorite magazine was Christianity Today, our favorite publisher was Eerdmans, we were pro-Billy Graham because of his big heart, we thought going to movies and drinking beer or wine were fine, we were unified around the essentials of evangelicalism but entirely accepting of variant views on non-essentials, we loved CS Lewis and John Stott and Ray Stedman, we thought the charismatic movement was a breath of fresh air even though it wasn’t for us, … I could go on.
Out of this wide swath of American Christianity called Evangelicalism (originally it was often dubbed “neo-evangelicalism” by the Fundamentalists) has arisen now a group of evangelicals who seem to be headed back into Fundamentalism (what I’m calling Neo-Fundamentalism).
There is a conviction among Neo-Fundamentalists that one can’t err if one gets too conservative, but that is the sin of what I called “zealotry.”
What I can’t understand is why people want to go there: its history is predictable. Though I’m no prophet, this is what I think might occur:
It will become insular and separatistic,
it will become divisive and accusatory from within,
it will lack grace,
it will create Christians who are not free in the Spirit but who will be rigid and intolerant,
it will become socially withdrawn,
it will lose a prophetic voice because it will lose contact with culture,
it will attract angry, defensive, and mean-spirited individuals… I could go on.
And in about 15 years some of its core leaders will have the courage to become neo-evangelicals again, and they will be treated the way Carl Henry and Billy Graham and John Stott were when they explored paths not recently traveled. Initially those with some pluck will follow them, and then within ten years they’ll have the lion’s share and they’ll be angry about their Neo-Fundamentalist past but quite clear about their new-found freedoms.
Do what you think is right, but let me say this: Those of us who are 50 and more have seen what Fundamentalism was like; it wasn’t pretty.