When I was writing my study of Christian abuse, Ungodly Fear, I became aware very early on of the dangers of using the word ‘fundamentalism’. I took two steps to avoid these dangers. One was only to use the word as an adjective – to describe not an –ism but a tendency for an individual or an institution to think in a particular way. Secondly I familiarised myself with the up to date literature on the subject, particularly the weighty tome of Harriet Harris, Fundamentalism and Evangelicals. Her work was extremely careful not to use words loosely but I followed her in seeing that historically and theologically fundamentalism and evangelicalism were close bedfellows.
In the end my own definition of the word fundamentalism chose not to include any reference to this past (and present) association with evangelicalism. I had glimpsed that the kind of behaviours that I was glimpsing in people of a fundamentalist disposition were not confined only to evangelicals but to anybody who had a strong system of belief which was militant and even sometimes aggressive towards others not sharing that belief system. My definition of the F word was that of an individual who holds on to a system of belief that cannot and will not listen to or dialogue with others who do not share in this belief. Fundamentalists can be political and as far as the church is concerned they can be liberal or traditional but they still sometimes qualify for the F word.
My book and many other studies will normally locate fundamentalist Christians among evangelicals, particularly those in the independent churches. This is partly because this is the place where the modern phenomenon began in America in the 1920s. It is also because the temperament associated with fundamentalism ties neatly into the sometime aggressive claims made for the Bible by many conservative Christians. The Bible is a large complex book and if Christian leaders, particularly those in independent churches, claim to have discovered simple direct answers to life’s problems amid all the complexity, they will always gain a following. These Christian leaders themselves will not normally have spent very long studying the Bible and the simple answers will have been the ones that they have picked up in their year or two at Bible college. It might sound elitist to suggest than some understanding of the original languages in which the Bible was written help in the task of deeper understanding. A little Greek and Hebrew do wonders for stopping any preacher being able to claim that he or she has fully mastered the meaning of a text. As Socrates famously said ‘The more you know, the more you discover you don’t know’. For myself the task of understanding Scripture is something that has developed over many years and still continues. For me preaching is about sharing insights from exposing myself to scripture, not delivering a predictable ‘party’ response to a complex moral issue.
One of the things that puzzles me is the way that conservative Christians seem to come up with an identical answer to a problem right across the world. It is as though someone somewhere has decided on the correct answer and everyone in that network has blindly followed the leader. It is as though freedom of thought has been surrendered to an invisible belonging to a ‘correct’ position. Freedom is something that I would always want to fight for. The freedom to think for myself and continue to explore the mysteries of faith. In this, the passage from Revelation comes to mind when the risen Christ says ‘Behold I make all things new.’ Is not this newness something we should always be searching for? We cannot find newness in following a strict predictable party line as practised by fundamentalist Christians.
To follow – The F word, some psychological insights.