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The following essay was written by Michael Clawson, Department of Religion, Baylor University. It was posted on a blog moderated by Roger Olson on January 19, 2012.

Young, Restless, and Fundamentalist: Neo-fundamentalism among American Evangelicals

A New Fundamentalist Reaction

In his 2007 book The Truth War: Fighting for Certainty in an Age of Deception, influential evangelical pastor and author, John MacArthur wrote the following:

“The evangelical movement as we speak of it today is already doomed. It stands roughly where the mainstream denominations were in the early part of the twentieth century when those denominations began formally excommunicating conservative voices of dissent from their midst – and sounder evangelicals began actively separating from those denominations en masse. . . . It is time for the faithful remnant to redraw clear lines and step up our energies in the Truth War – contending earnestly for the faith. In light of all the biblical commands to fight a good warfare, it is both naïve and disobedient for Christians in this postmodern generation to shirk that duty.”1

I contend that this growing concern expressed by MacArthur and many other evangelicals represents a new movement within evangelicalism toward what I have termed neo-fundamentalism. This is not simply a return to the original Protestant fundamentalism of the early-twentieth century, though it is analogous to it. Instead, I argue that some conservative evangelicals are reacting to the contemporary influences of postmodernity in much the same way that the original fundamentalists did towards the influences of modernity a century ago – namely through hostility towards the broader culture, retrenchment around certain theological doctrines, and conflict with, or separatism from others within a more broadly defined evangelicalism.2 Because of these similarities, I want to suggest that fundamentalism as a scholarly category (as opposed to its more derogatory uses in the popular media) is a useful framework within which to understand this contemporary phenomenon.

The driving force behind neo-fundamentalism, as with historic fundamentalism, is a “remnant mentality.” Neo-fundamentalists believe they alone are remaining true to the fullness of the Gospel and orthodox faith while the rest of the evangelical church is in grave, near-apocalyptic danger of theological drift, moral laxity, and compromise with a postmodern culture – a culture which they see as being characterized by a skepticism towards Enlightenment conceptions of “absolute truth,” a pluralistic blending of diverse beliefs, values, and cultures, and a suspicion of hierarchies and traditional sources of authority.3 Because of this hostility toward postmodern ways of thinking, neo-fundamentalists have little tolerance for diversity of opinions among evangelicals on any issues they perceive as essential doctrines – which are most of them – as opposed to the broader evangelical movement which historically has allowed for a much wider range of disagreement on disputable matters.4 Neo-fundamentalists thus respond to the challenges of a postmodern culture by narrowing the boundaries of what they consider genuinely evangelical and orthodox Christianity, and rejecting those who maintain a more open stance.

While similar, this new movement’s primary concerns are typically not the same as those of more traditional fundamentalists. In regards to behavioral standards, for instance, neo-fundamentalists are less concerned about the sort of moral restrictions that animated conservatives of a century ago: drinking, dancing, card playing and the like.5 Instead they typically focus on contemporary social issues like (more…)

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When the Revised Standard Version was completed in 1952, a call to arms resounded throughout Fundamentalism. A new test of orthodoxy was forthwith introduced: continued use of the King James Bible.

Copies of the new translation were burned in pulpits. Granted, such instances were few and far between. But even fewer were the critics within Fundamentalism of such blasphemy.

Serious arguments ranged from the “lost majesty of the King James English” to the liberal bias of the translators.

Doubtless the objectors had their grounds. Hebrew and Greek scholars are not generally best qualified to communicate in modern written English. (Prime example: the Berkeley Version.) A case could be made for the inclusion of skilled writers, of the same professional caliber as the Greek and Hebrew scholars, on every translation team. Surely writers, as well as translators, are God’s gift to the Church.

But on the other hand, a skilled writer is not a translator. Many people received enlightenment from the freshness of J. B. Phillips’ paraphrases (especially Letters to Young Churches, his first and best). But why do author and publisher now call this a “translation”?

For a few years after the Revised Standard Version was shot down in flames, no Bible in modern English existed to satisfy any desire these people might have for something fresh. And so demand built up behind the dam erected by Fundamentalism’s leaders. Some Christians did not want the Kings James replaced in the pulpit, but personal Bible reading was another matter.

And so, when new translations and paraphrases appeared, demand rushed through the dam’s floodgates. Williams (republished), Verkuyl—Berkeley, Phillips, Amplified, New English Bible: each appeared in turn and was either accepted acritically by Fundamentalism’s arbiters, or was subjected to criticism mild by Revised Standard Criteria.

The Revised Standard Version may be (more…)

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Words are flexible. They may express more than their original content of meaning. Spoken words may be subtly altered by an inflection. Written words are more stable.

Words may also express less than their original content of meaning. In fact it seems that words—like all things human—become corrupt with the passage of time. There is a deterioration of words that we are powerless to halt, although we may temporarily interrupt the process.

Goethe expressed this view of language thus: “No word stands still, but it tends instead to move downward rather than upward from its original place, to change for the worse rather than the better, to become narrower rather than broader, and from the variability of the word we can detect the variability of the concepts.” (Wert und Ehre deutscher Sprache).

Such a deteriorated, down-graded word is “fundamentalism.” As a word it had a decent origin in the early part of the present century. It arose out of a group of writings called The Fundamentals, which defended historical Christian doctrines against those who denied them.

Many evangelical Christians who would have gladly accepted the name “fundamentalist” 30 or 40 years ago refuse to be thus described today. It’s not that they no longer believe the biblical fundamentals; it’s that the word means something more, or less, than that today.

“Pejorative” is a good adjective to describe such a word. A pejorative word is one whose basic meaning has been changed for the worse.

*          *          *

There’s another way in which words lose their original content of meaning. Take the word “fact.” Once upon a time it was enough to say that something was a fact. Then people began to speak of “true facts.” And the next step is “really true facts.”

One word spoken by an honest man is like a single, heavy pile, driven into the ground and resting upon the rock. Many words, instead of strengthening, weaken—they are like shallow footings. “Let your yea be yea, and your nay, nay.”

Sometimes it’s hard to tell whether our language is weakening, or our honesty.

Joseph Bayly, “Out of My Mind,” Eternity, August 1962, 35, eleventh  installment of a series that ran from October 1961 to October 1986.

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Ground up?

It’s almost time for the Fall term, so I’m brushing up on some of my standard teacher-to-student aphorisms. Here’s one of my favorites: “Your opponent is your best friend.” After the appropriately-long dramatic pause, I seek to soothe the souls before me, recently unsettled by my provocative statement, with something like the following explanation:

“Why do you choose to read texts that confirm what you already know or believe? In order to feel good? Superior? Certainly it is not for the purpose of learning.

“If you want to learn and arrive at a place closer to knowing the truth, you must recognize that your opponent is not your enemy; he or she is your best friend. Your opponent is anyone whose position opposes your own. Your opponent may present arguments and evidence which your position does not answer adequately or against which your position cannot stand. In the course of grappling with these arguments and evidence, you will find yourself getting closer to the truth. Therefore, you should not avoid works written by authors with whose positions you disagree. Instead you need to seek out these friends, and read widely and sympathetically from their works.”

Burned to a crisp?

Peter Berger is someone who writes things—for example, The Social Construction of Reality—with which many good folk of faith disagree. However, he should be viewed not as an enemy, but as an opponent, one whose ideas need to be taken seriously.

For example, Berger has recently co-authored a book and edited another in which he explores the possibility of holding convictions without being a fanatic, something with which all of us should be interested. Berger summarizes the argument of these books in “Between Relativism and Fundamentalism,” The American Interest: A Review of Policy, Politics, and Culture Vol II, No 1, September/October 2006.

Eight years earlier Berger wrote an essay for The Christian Century that anticipated the themes of these recent books. In some ways, this article from 1998 is a clearer and more thought-provoking summary of his recent books.

Since you want to learn and arrive at a place closer to knowing the truth, I have reproduced Berger’s 1998 essay below.

Don’t forget to thank your opponent, er . . ., friend. (more…)

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