25 October 2005

Fundamental Problem

It's not going to be popular, but I've a beef with y'all thinking Fundamentalists and Evangelicals are the same thing, and the arrogrant dismissal of this vibrant and rapidly growing segment of American Christianity. If you think you might have made this mistake, gather 'round for a history lesson and some soapboxin'.

At the time of World War II, we could probably suffice it to say that there existed one mega-group: Fundamentalist-Evangelicals. After World War II, Higher Criticism spread through theological scholarship. The young'ns of the FE tradition (Jim Wallis and friends) wanted to get their hands on it, but the older generation (Charles Fuller and friends) didn't budge from their traditional curriculum. Eventually, an unofficial split occurred - the young generation, sometimes called Progressive Evangelicals, sought their higher degrees from conservative mainline denominations and returned to their tradition forever changed. There are many sources available that shed light on the struggle of the early 1970's between these two groups, mostly convention records and scholarly articles.

One big result of this split was that we got some terms redefined. Whereas for the more traditional lot, "biblical inerrancy" covered historical truth and a lack of attention to cultural constraints upon biblical writers, the new "biblical inerrancy" of the progressive evangelicals, was something different. To them it meant that the bible was still the highest authority, but there were more nuances in what truth it covered. You can guess what these were. They still used the word "inerrancy," but it meant something markedly different than the earlier definition. You can still see this today.

Another result (this one is important for all those weilding the word "fundamentalist") is that people like my husband, raised Evangelical Free, do not respond to or identify with the word "fundamentalist." My theory is that this is a direct result of the leaders of the 1970's who wanted to distinguish themselves from their forbears and did so by relaying a strong distinction between the two terms. Whether you think there is a clear distinction or not, we should acknowledge that the community we're attempting to describe sees one. If you want to talk about someone, make sure to get their name right.

I've been getting irked because around here, "fundamentalist" is a synonym for "conservative and religious." This may be the result of complex circumstances, but I doubt it. I think it is plain old ignorance or belittling of the "other."

I have my own issues with the conservative theologies of my husband's tradition and others I would call "Evangelical," but I know that in order to communicate my problems to them, I have to understand them on their own terms. Ever been called a relativist? a revisionist? a whiny liberal? Didn't really make you want to enter into dialogue, did it? I pick up on a lot of intolerance within the Episcopal Church for those of Evangelical persuasion, and it makes people come off hopelessly arrogant. Anyone ever peruse the Mystery Worshipper on shipoffools.com? Many of these narratives are funny, but I found the Willow Creek review typical of the arrogance I'm describing. The reviewer spends a morning at the Chicago mega-church among 3,000 attendees and reflects: "
These folks came to a show. As I said, we didn't sing, we didn't confess or profess anything, no prayer, no interaction, nada. Before you point out to me that something must be good about Willow Creek since their services are so well attended, I admit I don't understand what the vast numbers are getting out of all this." The reviewer rates the experience as a "1" out of 10 and goes on to lament the coffee for purchase, the lack of liturgy, and the lack of racial diversity.

There were 3,000 people there! Since this review they have moved into an 8,000 person auditorium. I know you may think, I don't care if there were 80,000 people there, it's not for me. Believe me, I understand. But I think there is something ridiculous about walking into this place and not trying to learn something. This is the attitude I get a lot. There are all these complaints: our churches are empty, our churches are too white, our churches are boring, our churches don't have good youth ministry, our churches don't have good singles ministry. Our churches won't grow. But then we walk into huge churches with vibrant life and activities for all ages, and we don't stop and wonder what they have to teach us.

If we keep dismissing things that don't look like us, we're going to keep looking like us and never change. If worship is what we do as Episcopalians, if that is what we offer rather than easy theology or rigid doctrine, than our worship needs to start speaking to the actual population. Until then, it's gonna be you and me who dig Rite II and our grandparents. When they die, then what? I have issues with Willow Creek's position on homosexuality, but there are some things that really peek my interest: their leadership conferences are attended nation-wide by satellite and they include both secular and religious leadership figures in their training. They ordain women and give them full inclusion within Church life. Not to mention their churches are FULL.

I do not wish to advocate jumping on the mega-church bandwagon. I do not wish to advocate conservative theology. But I want people to know Jesus. My life is better because I do, and I think some others out there could really gain some hope for truth, justice, peace, and a way of life. I think we are willfully blind if we refuse to learn from those who believe something differently than we do. Conservatives don't have to be the only ones with full churches of eager Christians. If you believe that, what does that say about your own theology?

*dismounts soapbox, stares into space*


Blogger Bad Alice said...

Great post. My husband is very conservative theologically but the fundamentalist label just infuriates him. I work for a denomination of very conservative presbyterians who are an interesting mix of mega churches and tiny barely there churches. I think until recently they were dogged by some of the same distrust of exuberant worship (not dignified, not quite in the book of church order). But the young church planters are inevitably influenced by McLaren and the Emergents.

7:07 AM  
Blogger Quotidian Grace said...

You're so spot-on in observing that the mainline churches need to learn from the "evangelical" churches like Willow or the Vineyard. They have found a way to connect to people who are unchurched and we tend to connect with those who are already churched.

3:58 PM  
Blogger CJA said...

I agree with you that we need to tease out the differences between fundamentalists (which are not so good, whether Christian, Muslim, or atheist) and evangelicals. We need to hear from more Jim Wallises about progressive evangelicals, in my view. They are out there, and we need them. We also need to figure out what it is that makes evangelical churches so successful at getting members in. Is it the doctrinal certainty? The ability to link the life of the church with prevailing cultural trends? It does raise the question of whether Willow Creek's services would be so full without their views on homosexuality. I do feel the need to say that we must be careful to do so without losing those parts of our tradition that are good and positive contributions to Christianity. I guess that's the importance of things like Anglican Tradition & Life and (even) Fundamentals of Worship; to learn what we can from the Willow Creeks and Mars Hills of the world without dropping the wonderful things that we've got going.

8:00 AM  
Blogger Songbird said...

Well, let me play the "whiny liberal's" advocate and ask this question informed by spending quite a lot of time contemplating the lectionary over the past few weeks: When did popularity become a mark of success in the faith?

8:49 AM  
Blogger Zinnhead said...

i love songbird's question, and have asked it myself. I tend to think Acts is the best place to go. And everywhere, people are coming to believe, and the Lord is adding more to the number of the faithful. Why wouldn't this be a good thing? Still, they met in small groups, in homes, etc. I think my main point is that SOMETHING is working there, maybe not everything, and I just want to see some teachable spirits out there, who, when they see 8,000 people praising God, they ask, I wonder what's up here? and not to roll their eyes, cross themselves, and head for the kneelers.

12:13 PM  
Blogger Augustus Meriwether said...

I have to be honest and say I've become actually afraid of evangelicals. Well, wary is probably more accurate, and the thought of being in the middle of 8000 of them would make me feel very uncomfortable.
I do try to be careful in using the word fundamentalist. I try to reserve it to refer to those things/people that I'm sure deserve the label.
It was interesting to read of the evangelical history.
btw, have you done a proper risk assessment on climbing onto that soapbox? ;op

12:30 AM  
Blogger Augustus Meriwether said...

You should be using some steps with a rail or something.

12:31 AM  
Blogger Zinnhead said...

Oh Augustus, me too. So many Evangelical churches have participated or turned a blind eye to injustice, sometimes committed in the name of Christ. Although they see their position as the righteous one, they have left so many with scars. But I know their methods are not their madness. Their theology and their worship are separable - I have seen it done. And I want to see what we can do with it.

10:01 AM  
Blogger Augustus Meriwether said...

Part of me misses the losing of the self in ecstatic worship in the evangelical services, and the liberation involved in that free, expressive celebration.

But, part of me now distrusts that sensual, experiential worship of God.

I don't know how much of that is of the self and how much is of God.

11:34 PM  

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