“We put the fun into fundamentalism.” – Mark Driscoll. Founding Pastor, Mars Hill Church (defunct)
Is there anything fun about fundamentalism? My answer to this question is an emphatic “No!” And this may be the most basic criticism of fundamentalist Christianity: it is simply not any fun. It makes fun people boring, and it makes boring people aggressive. But I don’t want to get ahead of myself. What exactly do I mean by fundamentalism? Because I genuinely want to help. I constantly come across people who want to find a way out of this restrictive and narrow view of Christianity but don’t know where to turn. Indeed, as a first point, let me say this: leaders and pastors of fundamentalist churches on the whole make little effort to help people who have genuine questions and struggles with points of fundamentalist doctrine. This is often because they have never considered any of these questions themselves and become insecure when other people raise them. One of the main ploys of the fundamentalist movement is to claim total authority for its own interpretation of the Bible and to label anyone who disagrees as ‘liberal’. Now, of course, many of them do not actually know what the word ‘liberal’ means, but for them it becomes a catch-all term for everybody who does not agree with them, and it generally has connotations of faithlessness, apostasy and immorality. As James Barr writes, in his excellent and little-read book ‘Escaping from Fundamentalism’
(This) simple picture is used because of its effectiveness. It is a successful instrument for the maintenance of the fundamentalist position. For fundamentalist leaders well know that the vast majority of people will never read a book or consider a point of view if they have been told that it is liberal. (p.164)
Once the pilgrim believer does start to question the simple black-and-white approach of fundamentalism, however, she, rather than being helped by her pastor, is simply ignored or cast out into the world on her own resources. So,
The transition to a different understanding of the Bible, of faith, and of the church can be a time of deep uncertainty and often of severe personal suffering. Fundamentalist society will do little or nothing to help the pilgrim who becomes convinced that he must leave it and seek a different world of faith. (ibid., p. vii)
Although these are generalisations, they are unfortunately very common experiences for many believers. It has resonances with my own journey. I rarely speak in public about my experience of leaving a movement with fundamentalist tendencies because I am still deeply relationally involved with many believers who approach their faith in this way. I have a huge amount of respect and love for these people, and there is much that is good about their beliefs and their lives. I have no desire whatsoever to discourage them or to cause problems in their churches. However, my experience is real for me. I began to explore the roots of the movement I was involved in and the theological claims it makes for itself and I became deeply concerned that I was committing my whole life to a form of Christianity that was extremely deficient. I also began to read real theology that came from beyond the literature of the movement itself, and I expressed a desire to study theology in a secular university. I was met with almost complete indifference.
I write this not to criticise those people but simply to identify with the tendencies James Barr mentions: firstly, fundamentalist leaders tend to not engage with serious questions about their views and doctrines and, second, they tend not to help people in their journey beyond a strictly proscribed fundamentalist horizon.
In my opinion fundamentalism is dangerous and it isolates and destroys people. To finish this post with another quote from James Barr (on whom I will rely heavily for the rest of the series):
The issues involved in fundamentalism are without doubt among the most serious pastoral problems for the church of today. Very many people are seriously concerned with them…The alienation that it brings about is extreme. Lay people come to regard their minister as ‘unsound’ or worse. Within families it is common for young persons brought up in a Christian home to become fundamentalists and to end up evaluating their devoted upbringing as little better than paganism. Irreconcilable religious tension between husband and wife sometimes leads to the verge of marital breakdown. For thousands of people, the question of fundamentalism is their central personal religious problem. And, on the world-wide scale, when one looks at the social and political implications, few can doubt what many observers have noted: that the continuance of religious fundamentalism, and of the attitutudes associated with it, may have great importance in determining whether or not mankind is to be destroyed through nuclear warfare. (p. x)
(Note that this book was written in 1983, twenty years before George W. Bush told the world that God had told him to invade Iraq.)
So, to conclude, there isn’t anything fun about fundamentalism. The good news is (the great news!) that there are much more fun and joyful and life-giving forms of Christian faith. When I was beginning to explore the wider world outside of fundamentalism, I remember hearing an interview with then Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, who said that he was first attracted to Christianity because it made his world not smaller but larger. And, although the way to that world can be narrow and the road hard, I have found that to follow it brings great joy and makes things come alive again. When once it was black-and-white, now it is filled with all the multivalent colour of God’s beauty. There is great hope.
Thank you for reading.