Wednesday, August 08, 2012

How to Create a Fundamentalist

I was reflecting this morning that the formula for creating a fundamentalist Christian is actually quite simple and predictable.  I've tried to think of a picture for what I'm thinking here--I know one will come to me.  I've thought of vampire bites or movies where if you get scratched by the alien you will eventually turn into one.  The best I've come up with, though, is rather arcane.

The formula for creating a fundamentalist is like a chemical process where, if certain catalysts are introduced into the system, the process goes a different direction.  Alternatively, it's like replacing one gene in the sequence that results in a mutated product.  Basically, a fundamentalist is a pre-modern interpreter of the Bible who has been confronted by history and biblical scholarship in a certain way that creates an adverse reaction.

Christian fundamentalism is largely a twentieth century phenomenon.  It is a defensive reaction to Enlightenment challenges to a pre-modern view of Scripture. A pre-modern view of Scripture is one that largely reads the Bible out of context.  It reads it as a single book with a single author (God) to a single audience (me, understood as all humanity). It organizes the whole text into a single story with a single message, a fairly unified theology and ethic.

A Christian can do just fine with this hermeneutic.  In fact, most have throughout history.  And living in the bubble of IWU for so many years, I was content for most Wesleyans to be in this category.  They believe things that are true.  They live the way they're supposed to.  Just, from my perspective, they didn't realize that what they were believing and living was largely a theological overlay on the real Bible.

But I am increasingly realizing that this state is easily morphed into a fundamentalist hermeneutic.  All you have to do is bring history and context into the chemical process in a confrontative or combative way.  Or, you present modernist views as hostile to God, the Bible, and Christian faith.

Pre-modern + historical/contextual challenge of God, the Bible, and faith =
fundamentalism or faith crisis

My increasing feeling is that this chemical reaction is catalyzed so easily and unthinkingly that it is no longer safe for me to just to let the pre-modern view stand.  The proper reaction is:

pre-modern + clarification of true structure underlying understanding of God, the Bible, and faith 
continued faith with clarified underpinnings

For this reason, I hope to blog through Wayne Grudem's Systematic Theology on weekends for the next year.  The goal is to clarify where he "fundamentally" goes wrong, as well as to give an Arminian response.


John Mark said...

Some questions:
Is it true, in your opinion, that there has been in many minds a direct correlation between theological liberalism and the social unraveling that we have experienced in the last nearly 50 years? Your post seems to imply this. If so has this made fundamentalism more attractive to many people including Arminians?

Does this hypothesis explain the attraction of many other people to churches that (seem to me) to be oriented towards a pre-modern approach to the Bible—of course I’m thinking of the Eastern Orthodox churches.

Is also seems to me that the process of reeducating or reorienting people to a postmodern approach to scripture (sorry if I misapply the term here) would be difficult in the very polarized atmosphere of the contemporary American church. Would you agree or not?

I look forward to another enlightening (no pun intended) series….

Brian said...

I'm wondering how "clarification of true structure underlying understanding" is different from Gnosticism?

Angie Van De Merwe said...

When we were at the conference this past week, on "interdisciplinary studies and Genetic Engineering", it seemed to me that there was an attempt by some to affirm an ontological basis for theological reflection. Isn't this the "grounds" upon which fundamentalism resides? Creation?

Phillip Hefner's "re-interpretation" of theology via scientific language is the antithesis of such "theological" emphasis, as science is "god" (ontological foundation).

What is, and what is to be is a matter for political debate, discussion and decision as to policy in given contexts (government, organizations, etc.). So what is the point of theology?

Our country has been enflamed by the recent debates on America as a "Christian Nation". "Christian" has had a nominalist definition as to "faith in America", such a "non-definition" allows for liberty of conscience. And until the Religious Right (Moral Majority) in the 70s began, I believe our country was more "constructed" by economic, rather than religious identificatons. Now, we have both sides undermining American principles/ideals. One side undermines on religious claims, and the other on economic ones. Both misunderstand the historical conditioning of America's ideals or individual liberty (at least IMHO!)

Angie Van De Merwe said...

I might add that the Catholic Church's view of naturalism versus, the supernaturalism (historicizing the text) accepted by the fundamentalists, is also a "thorn" in the side of peace.

"Faith" is a symbolization and understanding of life. Therefore, does it matter whether we do our jobs within different contexts? These contexts are choices of value, aren't they? And in our society shouldn't each be of value?

David Riggs said...

Fundamentalists of the evangelical Christian variety are anything but "pre-modern." They are thoroughly modernist in orientation. American Christian fundamentalists' defensiveness toward the reductionist methodologies of higher criticism is reflective of an intra-modernist debate.

Ken Schenck said...

David, in my mind this is another way of saying what I am saying. For me, the wakening of historical consciousness and the quest for objectivity are the mechanism that leads out of a pre-modern view on a particular topic. Fundamentalism is a mutant, taking on only as much historical awareness as it has to while trying to retain as much of its pre-modern conclusions as possible.

Phil W said...

I'd sure like a formula for guiding someone who is already a fundamentalist toward your "continued faith with clarified underpinnings" position:

Fundamentalist + ??? = continued faith with clarified underpinnings.

Right now, I think we're closer to this:

Fundamentalist + clarification of true structure underlying God, the Bible, and faith = Pastor is fired.

As you say, a Christian can do just fine with this hermeneutic (and I agree), but the rub comes when the pastor has gone to seminary and no longer has this hermeneutic :).

Ken Schenck said...

JM, I wouldn't want to make sweeping claims on how theological liberalism might relate to social unraveling. I'm talking about a much more limited process.

Brian, I'm not suggesting hidden knowledge, if that what you mean but that there is often a difference between what we think is going on and what is really going on.

Phil W, I think it is powerful when a group of people can see someone is spiritually minded and Christ-like yet differs in thinking. But the best way to change a person's mind on these sorts of things, I think, is to show them that a different approach can solve problems. I tried to do this in an earlier post, for example, by showing that differences between the resurrection accounts can be explained if, for example, Luke felt free to be creative in the way he told the story (e.g., omitting the trip to Galilee by the disciples after the resurrection).

Angie Van De Merwe said...

I don't think that you or anyone else is to blame for fundamentalists resistance to "enlightenment". They have a lot to defend, as fundamentalism is their identity. I know some have told me to not talk to them about certain things that might challenge their faith, because they just don't want to know. They aren't about to change their views, and are quite comfortable where they are. They have found "their group"! And it is always easy to theologize any difficulties away...

Christopher C. Schrock said...

Dr. Schenck,
Clarification regarding your reply to Dr. Riggs, So you believe that pre-modern man was not historically aware/conscious and was not concerned with objectivity? Is that right? Or am I missing some qualification or nuance.

Angie Van De Merwe said...

Is "pre-modern" being used as one who does not understand or know about "science" or the academic disciplines, because their society had no ability to pursue such interests? Believers were poor for the most part.
"Pre-modern" is a form of illiteracy, while fundamentalism isn't unaware of science, but just afraid of it, as it misplaces "God" with "Nature" or "the human".
Is the Arminian position that "God is in nature", or nature is graced. Grace does not replace nature, but infuses nature. That means that life is not bifucated, like in fundamentalists thinking. Life and "all that is" is "God's Domain"....

Ken Schenck said...

I am speaking very generally. My fuller sense of "pre-modern" is more accurately captured in the sense that we are all, to varying degrees and in various areas, unreflective about our assumptions. A person may be unreflective in one paradigm, partially reflective in another, significantly reflective in another. We can never be fully reflective.

I do not believe, however, that we have any evidence of any writer before the twentieth century being as contextually reflective historically as would now be standard for a cultural anthropologist. From our standpoint, for example, all the church fathers manifest a consistent inability to read the biblical texts in their full historical, socio-cultural contexts.

Angie Van De Merwe said...

Isn't the Wesleyan position more interested in practical matters of "service" and not the theorhetical understandings of theological reflection? Isn't it because of the belief that the body (what one does "in the flesh") is what "saves you"? Lifestyle becomes the "end" of this approach to "faith". And the "biblical lifestyle" is what the elders judge to be a "covenant member" that the way fundamentalism is pre-modern? Such social problems are predicated upon the issue of "sex", it seems to me. Marriage being the appropriate place for sexual expression.
Marriage, then, becomes the all important factor to define so that a "Christian lifestyle" can be a gauge for Church discipline(judgment). Divorce, and homosexuality are challenges to maintaining a "Biblical lifestyle" in the pre-modern sense.

Alex said...

Angie, that description the Wesleyan position kind of proves Phil's formula: Fundamentalist + clarification of true structure underlying God, the Bible, and faith = Pastor is fired.

I graduated from IWU in 2010. What's frustrated me the most since college is that concepts like historical context, theological reflection, and scientific study are not celebrated or embraced in a Wesleyan church like they are in a university classroom, even at IWU. Why can't these ideas be translated better to the church populations? Why do we allow ignorance to thrive?