A very brief Introduction to Christian Fundamentalism

“There are few things more dangerous than inbred religious certainty.” – Bart D. Ehrman

This is a REPOST of a blog I wrote a couple of years ago … most fitting at this time of Australian religious and political discussions!

There is a danger in assuming that every Christian belief and practice that we adhere to today has always been part of the Christian faith throughout the centuries. “Well, Christians have believed this for two thousand years,” is a common phrase we fling around. We can line ourselves up with the ‘saints’ who have gone before, convinced that our Christian enlightenment happens to be the ‘orthodox’ portion, whilst everyone else has, unfortunately, landed with a distorted version. If this is our subconscious paradigm, then the way we engage with the wider world outside our theological framework tends to be from a benevolent, Messiah-like stance, patiently patting a delinquent society on the head. But over time we find this irksome. People who are not as pious and pure as we would like them to be can lead us to ‘righteous’ anger. We find lawmakers and politicians with similar views and hinge our wagon of outrage to their public persona, their dogma, and their power … Welcome to Christian Fundamentalism.

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This blog post will provide a very brief glimpse into the Fundamentalist movement within the North American and British context. Why is this of interest? It is most relevant to the Australian setting as fundamentalism still undergirds the ethos of so many faith communities, often without them being truly aware of the origin. Understanding this history provides a frame of reference of the motivation behind some of their beliefs and behaviour.

Some of the earliest scholars to write on fundamentalism were Stewart G. Cole, History of Fundamentalism (1931), and Norman F. Furniss, The Fundamentalist Controversy, 1918-1931 (1954). Both academics were rather negative as they saw the rise of fundamentalism not driven by religious convictions, but rather by the desire for political denomination power. Fundamentalism was primarily a reaction. It was a reaction to liberal theology, secularism, science, and especially the theory of evolution. According to Timothy Gloege, North American Christian fundamentalism was invented in an advertising campaign. The all-UnknownAmerican brand of ‘old-time religion’ was developed by an early adopter of consumer capitalism, who wanted to sell pure Christianity like he sold breakfast cereal. Enter Henry Parsons Crowell, whose Quaker Oats was one of the pioneers of the branding revolution.

So how do you create a brand of conservative orthodoxy that goes beyond the traditional Presbyterian Orthodoxy, Methodist orthodoxy, etc? You work with the fear of those who felt that the ‘true’ Christian message was being watered down through some of the factors mentioned (liberalism, secularism, etc). Crowell’s idea of orthodoxy was a prescription that came with a set of ‘fundamentals’ that anyone who was conservative within any denomination could ascribe to and set themselves apart from the liberals.

Crowell used a publication called The Fundamentals to further his ideas. This is a twelve volume set of theological treatises written by various scholars writing on the fundamentals of faith, or as the subheading says, a testimony to the truth. Those who actually bother reading the volumes quickly discover that they carry no precise creed and that articles contradict each other, but they did create an impression of orthodoxy.  The volumes brought together conservatives from all different denominations who felt embattled by liberalism. They united under some very specific ideas, particularly biblical literalism and creationism. (A timeline of the rise of fundamentalism and the Scopes Trscopessignial).

This was not the only stream of fundamentalism. There were several in the 19th century of British and American theology. One of these was Dispensationalism. A new interpretation of the Bible developed in the 1830’s in England. In this theory, time was divided into seven stages called ‘dispensations’. Each dispensation was a stage of revelation from God. Today, many who hold to this idea believe that the world is on the verge of the last stage, where a final battle will take place at Armageddon. Then Christ will return and a 1000 year reign will begin. An important sign was the rebirth of national Israel, which is central to this ideology.

Princeton Theology of the mid 19th century provided another stream of fundamentalism. It upheld the doctrine of inerrancy, in response to higher criticism of the Bible. Charles Hodge was influential in insisting that the Bible was inerrant because it had been dictated by God, and that faithfulness to the Bible provided the best defence against liberalism. This is important as in his understanding, liberalism and modernism, just like non-Christian religions, would lead people to hell.

Fundamentalism found oxygen in many “Bible Colleges,” especially those modelled after the Moody Bible Institute in Chicago. Dwight Moody was influential in preaching the imminence of the Kingdom of God thaUnknown-1t was so important to dispensationalism. As Moody’s crusading career came to an end we discover a new strand of fundamentalism through William B. Riley.  In revival meetings around the Midwest and Northwest from 1897 to the 1910s, Riley told crowds to follow the Bible. “God is the one and only author,” he declared, adding that human writers “played the part of becoming mediums of divine communication.”  Riley’s distinctive brand of fundamentalism combined social activism, puritanical moralism, and a literalist premillennialist theology.  In his 1906 book urging Christians to serve the urban poor, Riley defined the mission of the Church as he saw it: “When the Church is regarded as the body of God-fearing, righteous-living men, then, it ought to be in politics, and as a powerful influence.”

Fundamentalism is still with us today and it is still a powerful force. In his book, Superchurch: The Rhetoric and Politics of American FundamentalismJonathan J. Edwards argues that fundamentalism is not going away and will remain strongest at the level of local politics: “Fundamentalists describe themselves as both marginalized and a majority. They speak of national revival and theocratic dominion, but both are always deferred. They celebrate local victories while announcing imminent national destruction. This paradox is rhetorical — meaning that it’s constructed in and through language.”

Today we see a second-stage fundamentalism emerging in the United States and around the world. While established churches are embracing contemplation, silent prayer and non-directed worship, fundamentalist churches are actively pursuing consumption, mobility, image and influence. We see this pursuit played out in Australian politics.  Unlike the USA with its firm separation of church and state, Australian governments had supported and been supported by religious groups since the foundation of the European settlement. However, it was not until the election of the conservative national government in 1996, that government preference for the religious provision of services was enshrined as a policy priority.  The extraordinary rise of fundamentalist churches and right-wing lobby groups through the 1980s and 1990s has had direct effects on government and policies … but that is the topic for another day.

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A Thrill of Hope

A thrill of hope, the weary world rejoices,
For yonder breaks a new and glorious morn.
– Adolphe Adam – 

It’s that time of year again. While some folks claim there is a ‘war on Christmas’, it takes very little research to discover that this apocalyptic, deluded conspiracy theory holds little truth. Christmas, or at least the capitalist, indulgent, endless carol jingles, deck-the-halls-with-boughs-of-holly version is alive and well. The joy can be felt in shopping centre carparks and on the faces of folks standing in long queues as they spend their last dollars on items that will decorate an Op Shop next year. Christmas is going strong.

Christmas as we know it today has a most interesting history. Early Christianity never celebrated the birth of Jesus – only his death and resurrection at Easter. It was in the fourth century that some bright, ecclesiastical persona decided it would be rather jolly to also celebrate his birth – but when? Pope Julius I chose December 25, the same time as the winter solstice festivals, in the hope that this new ‘Feast of the Nativity’ would be popular … and by the amount of tinsel on my balcony several hundred years later, he was absolutely right.

Some religious folks have a real problem with Christmas. So if there’s a ‘war on Christmas’, a lot of it is coming from a counter conspiracy theory that sees Christmas as pagan worship. Oh, and don’t mention a Christmas tree, or Santa, or elves, or tinsel to these fervent, anti-Christmas believers. So the ‘war on Christmas’ is rather awkward as it seems to be a civil Christian war (maybe that’s where the whole silly idea of ‘just’ war came from??). Someone should let dear Peter Dutton know, who is appalled at the resistance to Christmas … I am for democracy and free speech and I totally agree that Mr. Dutton should be allowed to sing about a refugee family desperately looking for shelter. Sing away, Mr. Dutton, sing away!

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Whether we choose to celebrate Christmas or not, is a personal  decision. For me, the fanfare around this time of year is not that convincing or enticing. For many, Christmas is a difficult season as it can highlight a strained relationship, loneliness, as well as grief or loss, amidst the explosion of ‘happiness’ from the media marketing machine. I also reflect on the reason we celebrate Christmas: to remember a child born in poverty and harsh oppression. The real Christmas had no jingle bells or red nosed reindeers. The real Christmas brought hope in the very fact that it was so messy and controversial.

The thrill of hope which marked that holy night so long ago was not because superman had been born. It did not lie in the religious institutions that would lay claim to the little baby and brand their ideas of ‘orthodoxy’ in his name. It is not the act of belief itself, or a belief in sacred text. The thrill of hope is the child: Emmanuel – God Incarnate, God with us. The messy, scandalous and difficult birth, life and death of Christ reminds everyone that God takes on human form, with all the complexities of what it means to be human.

The thrill of hope is not a list of rules. It is not a group of exclusive, privileged people arguing who is more holy or right than the other. The thrill of hope is that the child born to Mary, is the Saviour of the world, who also identifies with our frailty, our sorrow, our disappointments, our questions, our joys and all our longings. His very life served as a signpost to a different tomorrow and a different kingdom. A kingdom not built on power, pride, patriotism, nationalism, racism, exclusivism, religion, sexism or all the other silly human notions we construct to make us feel more safe and stem a little bit of our existential angst. The kingdom that this child ushered in was one of hope, love, joy, serving, kindness, inclusion and equality. It is a counter-cultural, subversive way that the sacred text calls the ‘narrow way’.

We see the whispers of this hope both now and not yet. We see it when love conquers fear, when kindness conquers prejudice, when faith conquers superstition, when hope conquers despair, when generosity conquers the need to consume and protect. So whatever you think of Christmas or the claims of Christ, my wish for you, dear friend, is that the atmosphere and virtues of that subversive kingdom may be yours. To contemplate humanity embracing these ideals truly brings a thrill of hope … it is, after all, still a beautiful world.

Truly He taught us to love one another;
His law is love and His gospel is peace.
– Adolphe Adam –
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