Who’s afraid of the big bad fundamentalists?

The short answer is: I am. Very.

Of course, there are lots of perfectly rational reasons to be frightened of fundamentalism, as all we good moderates and liberals know. Fundamentalism as we (or as I) like to perceive it is only one step away from fanaticism, from blind brain-washed bigotry leading to bloodthirsty brutality. It’s anti-rational, anti-science, anti-liberal, anti-progress, anti-modern. It seems to have no sense of perspective or of common humanity; it recognises no authority or constraint outside its own infallible, unquestionable and often shockingly primitive Holy Text. It is dangerous and deadly, and in addition it brings reasonable moderate believers like ourselves into disrepute, putting swathes of normal decent people off religion entirely.

However, this is not actually the kind of fundamentalism that most worries me nor the real reason why I’m scared of fundamentalists.

The ones I’m scared of are generally quite pleasant, decent, thoughtful people. They may see homosexual practice as an abomination, but they aren’t going to bomb, mutilate or imprison anyone for it. They may see other religions as false, even demonically-inspired, but they aren’t about to start any Holy Wars. They may reject the theory of evolution or the idea of female ordination but they aren’t going to lynch you for disagreeing; they just may refuse to fellowship with you. For it is the super-reformed Calvinists, neo-puritans and ultra-conservative evangelicals who I confess frighten me most.

And the reason they frighten me is not because of what they do or the threat they pose to the church or the barrier they present to potential believers. The reason they frighten me is because, very very deep down, I worry that they might actually be right.

This terrifies me because I find their version of Christianity and of God so utterly repellant, yet in some ways so apparently biblical. Their God seems harsh, cold, judgemental, authoritarian; so glorious and righteous as to be unapproachable. He is the divine Judge and score-keeper, punishing all transgressions from a strict list of moral rules; and if he is a Father at all it is the stern and disciplinarian kind not the sort who plays delightedly with their kids. Before birth he predestines some to heaven and some to hell based on nothing but his own divine right to choose, and it’s a hell that makes a Nazi concentration camp look like Centerparcs. He sends earthquakes and floods to wipe out the wicked and stops his ears to the miserable cries of lost and sinful humanity.

I may be overstating the case here but it’s this kind of vision that secretly terrifies me. For what if it they were right and it were true? And sometimes when I read the Bible (even some of the words of Jesus), I can see where they get these ideas from and the worry increases; parts of the Bible which I prefer to avoid – which is quite a few – do seem to lend them credence.

Yet everything I have (however dimly) experienced of God, everything my reason tells me, rebels against this conclusion. I find that I cannot help having faith in the reality, goodness, kindness, mercy and love of God, though sometimes this is despite the Bible itself and despite a host of good, sound Christian teachers and books.

So for good or ill I’m embarked on this journey out of the chrysalis, however much safer and more correct it sometimes seems back inside. I just pray that it turns out to be a journey of redemption and liberation not a highway to the Calvinists’ hell.

About TheEvangelicalLiberal

Aka Harvey Edser. I'm a web editor, worship leader, wannabe writer, very amateur composer and highly unqualified armchair theologian. My heroes include C.S. Lewis and Homer Simpson.
This entry was posted in Bible, Calvinism, Emerging, Evangelicalism, Fundamentalism and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

12 Responses to Who’s afraid of the big bad fundamentalists?

  1. Terry says:

    This book may interest you, Harvey: http://www.amazon.co.uk/Ten-Myths-about-Calvinism-Recovering/dp/0830838988/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1295448856&sr=8-1

    I had the honour of preparing the index for this book. The book itself attempts to show that a Reformed understanding of the Christian faith isn’t as narrow or dogmatic as people such as John Piper, Mark Driscoll et al. perhaps imply. It’s worth checking out if you do want continued affiliation with the Reformed tradition (as good Anglicans do, I suppose).


  2. harveyedser says:

    I’ll add it to my book list – I don’t suppose you’ve got a copy I could borrow?

    At the moment I have no great desire to continue affiliation with the Reformed tradition, but maybe this book (and its wonderfully-prepared index) is just what I need to get me back on track.


  3. Terry says:

    The book’s not out yet – it comes out around March. I dare say that Wright and Williams, as Anglicans, would see themselves as products of the English Reformation. The Church of England was shaped by Calvinist thought, so this shouldn’t be surprising. Of course, the C of E is a broad church (ha ha), and there have been other influences.


  4. Julian Staniforth says:

    I can’t help thinking that this is where being an Anglican can be a positive thing! For this takes authority from different sources – scripture, tradition, reason and experience. I think the tricky thing for an evangelical position in making an appeal to the Bible, when it is seen in terms of the documents that are bound as a single volume. However this canon (plumb line if you like) was only defined by the end of the fourth century (I think) as theologians saw the need to define orthodox Christian belief and scripture in the fact of heterodox ideas, which did not reflect the church’s experience of Christ. Of course the Reformers tweeked it further later. What then was the Bible for the early churches in that early period? mmm…..

    I noted the comment that you made somewhere in your notes about the Bible. I think of the Bible as witnessing to the Word of God, who is Jesus Christ. By the Spirit it may become the Word of God to a particular time, or place or person. Yet in so doing it needs to be taken as a whole and not cherry-picked as can often be the case from all kinds of theological directions. And it can be mis-used and passages were even from the earliest points of Christian history, that suggests that scripture alone can be tricky.

    I’m thinking here of when the early church was confronted with arguments around the nature of Christ with scripture being used to argue both a Christian and Gnostic perspective. In the end Iraneaus insisted that there was an inherited interpretation of scripture in the Christian community that came through the historic succession of bishops that went back to the apostles, which the Gnostics could not point too. So the argument was won not on the basis of ‘sola scriptura’ but with the support of the historic tradition of Christian teaching, (see ‘The Christian Theology Reader’ by A McGrath pp79-80) so pointing to the continuing validity of the four sources of authority held by Anglicans. Of course then the question becomes, are they of equal weight? At that point an Anglican evangelical position may be to allow a pre-eminence to be accorded to scripture because it is that primary witness to the Word of God. So I think the key is to focus on the Word of God as the person of Christ, whose life displayed the fullness of God. In respect of this question of judgement, I can’t help thinking of the story of the woman about to be stoned; the reality of her sin and that of others was not overlooked or denied but instead they were pointed to the possibility of new life, which Jesus knew was found in himself. And what about those words of the psalms “the Lord is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and rich in love’ (Ps 86: 15 amongst others) and the story of the Lost son in Luke 15……


  5. harveyedser says:

    Good thoughts Julian. I find the fourfold authority more helpful than ‘sola scriptura’, especially as I don’t take the reformers’ view that scripture interprets itself. Must go to bed now but will ponder your ideas more!


  6. dsholland says:

    Ouch! Since my limited education leads me to consider myself pretty much a fundamentalist your first paragraph stung. Next I laughed out loud at “they might actually be right”.

    I would like to expand on Julian’s delightful comment a bit and refine my definition of fundamentalist because I may not be what passes as a Fundamentalist these days.

    I am an engineer by education and profession. When we engineers are confronted with a problem to solve we try to deconstruct the problem into its fundamental (i.e. basic) components and then solve the smaller tractable problems in ways that can be re-integrated to develop a complete solution. Human nature being what it is we often find ourselves trying to bypass the analysis and just apply existing solutions to new problems they may not really address. This is especially true when we have invested a lot of ourselves into that earlier solution. The saying goes, if all you have is a hammer everything looks like a nail. I can see this fundamental human truth applying to the Church as well. We need to do the work of faith to be sure we don’t just apply our preconceptions, but the fundamental solutions must be consistent to integrate.

    As an engineer I need standards to ensure my solutions are interoperable. If I go off and develop a solution without conforming to those standards I am likely to reinvent the wheel and forget about the axle. Once again I can see a parallel with Christianity. There is a mystical component to a vital walk with God but church history is littered with the wreckage of non-standard solutions. The Bible must be the trellis of our spiritual growth, the other path leads to confusion.

    It is the combination of the trellis, our work and God’s increase that makes the rose beautiful.


    • harveyedser says:

      Thanks David, and I apologise if I’ve insulted your faith position or tradition. I confess myself to be somewhat biased against fundamentalism from my own experience, but I really don’t wish to disrespect others who are walking in sincere faith.

      I do acknowledge that there are many different kinds of fundamentalists, ranging from the fanatical/bigoted end of the spectrum through to the much more friendly, accepting and humble kind, which it sounds to me that you are. I think what worries me about fundamentalism is that is can so easily lead to an overly literal, dogmatic, simplistic and black-and-white view of issues that are highly complex (such as divorce, abortion and homosexuality; hell, salvation and the Bible; creation/evolution; female leadership in church, etc). I appreciate though that not all who see themselves as fundamentalists do in fact fall into this way of thinking.

      I’m interested that you’re an engineer, and I can see that an engineering-oriented mind probably does fit more naturally with a ‘fundamentalist’ way of dealing with faith than an arts/humanities-oriented mind. I straddle both sides – my family are all half-scientists, half-artists, and I did two years of a Mechanical engineering degree before switching to English. So I can appreciate both sides, and believe they need to be held together, but these days I veer towards a more mystical view of faith.


      • dsholland says:

        Hmmm, yet another thing we share. My degree is Mechanical Engineering (but I have been doing software for the last 20 years). I was not offended ’cause I understood what you meant and I also understand the conflicts. For example I can’t get past the moral implication of abortion, but have the luxury of not having to deal with the choice on a personal level. I would like to think I would make a morally consistent choice if I did have to face it but I’ve learned enough to realize I just don’t know what I would do.

        I would be interested in a post where you expand on your mystical view some. I see a distinction between a rational relationship with God and a mystical one, somewhat like the Zen tradition where the follower is forced to expand their view beyond the limits of their rational understanding or the Sufi practice that confounds traditional Muslims. The trick in all cases is to maintain consistency with first principals (since one without the other is neither). It sounds like this is where you are, mystical Christianity rather than simple mysticism. I would love to read your views.


        • harveyedser says:

          Thanks David – I’ll try and write one! Sometimes it can be hard to put these things into words, because you’re moving beyond the things which human language can really express. Peter Rollins has written an excellent book ‘How (not) to speak of God’ which describes well this mystical tension of needing to speak of (and to) God yet knowing that our speech always falls short. Similarly, that our theology is always inherently partly heretical and idolatrous, so we need to hold it lightly, allowing God to renew and transform it.


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