Saturday, August 26, 2006

the rise of neo-fundalmentalism

Scott McKnight @ Jesus Creed has started an interesting discussion on the rise of neo-fundalmentalism. Here's an excerpt...
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it will become socially withdrawn,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.
Here's an informal definition of fundamentalism [from the comment section - but still by Scott]
Fundamentalism, according to Tim Weber, is a movement organized to defend orthodoxy against challengers who somehow or in some way who deny or corrupt orthodoxy. It is concerned with ideas that will corrupt orthodoxy.

In so defending, fundamentalism constructs boundary lines or reframes orthodoxy in a new age in such a way that clears out the rubble and sets down firm theological ideas.

What we have then are two things: threat and defense. The combative and defensive posture are inherent to fundamentalism.

Neo-fundamentalism is the rise today of conservative evangelicals who think the evangelical world is corrupt or getting corrupt and it is posture is one of tightening the lines, making theological doctrines utterly clear, and forcing decision on whether you are with it or against it. So, it sees a threat in the evangelical world — and its two targets are seeker models and emerging, not to forget also its longstanding battle with “liberalism — and it postures itself over against those threats by accusing them of not being orthodox and by stating its doctrines with utter clarity.
Fundamentalism was ugly and arrogant. I don't think neo-fundamentalism will be any different. Jesus came "full of grace and truth". Fundamentalism focuses on "truth" and offers little, if any grace. Fundamemtalism, christian and otherwise, arises because there's a security in being right, in being sure against a big bad world. Fundamentalism, neo or otherwise, is a "coping mechanism" so that one does not have to think deeply about how to live authentically and graciously in a world that often stands in opposition to God's Kingdom. Fundamentalism is about marking the boundaries, drawing a fence around who is in, so that others are excluded. What happens is that the focus is now on the fence rather than on the living - God living in us who is at the centre.


Kevin Flatt said...

This was making sense until I got down to the definition of "fundamentalism". By that definition, the apostles were fundamentalists.

Did they attempt "to defend orthodoxy against challengers who somehow or in some way deny or corrupt orthodoxy"? Yes (Titus 1:9-11).

Were they "concerned with ideas that will corrupt orthodoxy"? Yes (Gal 1:6-9, 2 Peter 2:1-2).

Did they "construct boundary lines"? Yes (1 Cor. 5:11).

Did they "set down firm theological ideas"? Of course.

Not only were they themselves concerned about "threat and defense", they also warned Christians to be concerned about these, as can be seen from the above examples. When confronting heresy, they could get pretty "combative and defensive".

The second-last paragraph ("Neo-fundamentalism...") paints with a pretty broad brush and I won't address it directly except to ask, providing the doctrines are biblical and orthodox, what is wrong with stating doctrines "with utter clarity"? Should we aim for partial confusion instead?

In this light, Mike, your paragraph at the end, which paints "fundamentalism" as a kind of spiritual or intellectual cowardice, seems pretty far off the mark. Along with Scott's comments, it belittles those who have a legitimate desire to defend something eminently worth defending.

pastor mike said...

There are some good comments here Kevin. But I thnk a large part of the issue around fundamentalism / neo-fundamentalism is the definition of theological doctrines.
My experience and my reading is that we are not talking about the "essentials"... what historically were called the "fundamentals" or the what was outlined in The Lausanne Covenant, but about getting increasing broad in what is included in the definition of essential doctrines.
Fundamentalism (of all sorts: christian, hindu, islamic) speaks with a "this is right", "this is the line in the sand" voice... "you will toe the party line"
Yes, I we need to speak with clarity, with increasingly clarity in this age, but, at the same time we need to recognize that our wisdom is not the wisdom of God. We need to be careful not to set boudaries that are not biblical... and that's what [at least some streams of] fundamentalism / neo-fundamentalism does.

An addition at Scott McKnight's blog is this: the core driving force of Neo-Fundamentalism (like the old) is a remnant mentality. That is, it believes the following:
1. That it alone remains true to the fullness of the gospel and the orthodox faith.
2. That the Church worldwide is hanging on a precipice and will soon, if it doesn’t wake up, fall from the faith.
3. That the solution to this nearly-apocalyptic church situation is to tighten up theological stands and clarify what is most central and most important for the Church today.
4. That the major problems are theological drift, church laxity, and evangelical compromise with either modernity and/or postmodernity.
5. That it is “Neo” because it arises within Evangelicalism today and will either break from it or seek its widespread reform — and therefore its particular characteristics are determined by contemporary Evangelicalism. E.g., it isn’t really concerned about dancing and movies and “mixed bathing.”

One of the unfortunate traits about fundamentalism of any sort, seems to be a mindset immune to transformation, growth, or correction. i.e. when there is questioning, reasoned discussion, or if is disagrement taken to some stand that is staked out, this is taken as “persecution,” which excuses the person from having to reconsider their position, and this further serves to prove that they are on God’s side in the matter.

Kevin Flatt said...

OK, thanks for responding; that is more reasonable than the original post. The problem you see with "(neo-)fundamentalism" isn't defending orthodoxy, but rather a) failing to distinguish between essential and nonessential beliefs and practices, and b) harmful attitudes that stem from this.

Again, though, I need to note that Scott's post doesn't say this. Instead, his use of the term "neo-fundamentalist" appears to encourage three harmful attitudes of its own (this can be seen in some of the comments people have posted on his blog):

1) If somebody questions the orthodoxy of some movement in the church (like seeker-sensitive churches, the emerging church, or "liberalism"), we can label them a "neo-fundamentalist" and then ignore them.

2) We can be complacent about orthodoxy. Don't get too worked up about heretical teaching in the church. Be much more worried about looking intolerant.

3) The list of "essentials" shrinks down to hardly anything: personal conversion is optional, biblical inerrancy is optional, justification by faith is optional. Maybe we can even blur the edges of things like the Virgin Birth and the Trinity a little bit. This allows us to embrace any expression of "Christianity" and to assert that all branches of "Christianity" through time and space are equally valid (except of course, (neo-)fundamentalism, which is clearly beyond the pale).

By now, I've probably convinced everybody that I'm a closet neo-fundamentalist. But I may as well stick my neck out some more...

Scott's list of 5 "remnant mentality" beliefs were mostly a reality when the original fundamentalism emerged in an increasingly liberal/modernist Protestantism in the late 19th and early 20th century. Had that fundamentalism or something like it never occurred, we might all be with today's "liberal Protestants" who believe in a Jesus who was the biological son of Joseph, never claimed to be God, and only "metaphorically" rose from the dead -- a steep price for avoiding the legalism and arrogance that sometimes developed in fundamentalism.

Can we rule out the possibility of something like that happening today? I don't think we're there now, but my own experiences as well as my reading suggest that A FEW intelligent and popular evangelical or "emerging" leaders and authors are in fact blurring the edges and colouring outside the lines of "essential" orthodoxy. This is a long post already but I will provide examples if requested.