Category: fundamentalism

Why evangelicals listen to Ken Ham, James Dobson and Tim LaHaye: a review of The Anointed

the-anointed-evangelical-truth-in-a-secular-age

The Anointed: Evangelical Truth in a Secular Age
Randall J. Stephens and Karl W. Giberson (Harvard University Press, 2011)

It would be easy to be misled by this book’s title. It could well be the latest combative tome by a conservative evangelical. Yet it’s published by Harvard University Press; the ‘anointed’ and the ‘evangelical truth’ have invisible scare quotes around them. It is a book which explores how evangelicals will follow the teachings of populist extremists like Ken Ham, David Barton, James Dobson and Tim LaHaye while paying less attention to more balanced, moderate and better-credentialed voices within evangelicalism like Francis Collins, Mark Noll, David Myers and Tom Wright in their respective fields.

As befits a book published by Harvard and aimed at a scholarly or educated general audience, the authors write as neutral, secular observers of the movement. Yet the back flap reveals that Stephens teaches history at the (evangelical) Eastern Nazarene College and Giberson used to teach physics there. (Stephens has since moved to Northumbria University.) They are actually insiders to the evangelical culture, writing as if outsiders. Perhaps the nature of the book required this pretense, but I think it would have been valuable to have an acknowledgement in the text itself of their own relationship to evangelicalism.

This criticism aside, their analysis is very good, offering a historical account of the rise of young earth creationism, the myth of Christian Founding Fathers of the USA, Focus on the Family and populist premillennial eschatology. In each case, ‘anointed’ men have popularised a fundamentalist message, claiming to have derived it straight from the Bible, unlike the liberal ‘experts’ whose education and research can be dismissed. A historical treatment is particularly valuable, placing these ideas within the context of the Scopes Monkey Trial, the cultural and sexual revolution of the 1960s and the rise of the Religious Right in the 1980s.

Having been brought up to believe young earth creationism in Australia, I found it particularly fascinating to read about the key role Queenslander Ken Ham played in making young earth creationism far more popular than it had been in the USA since he moved there in the 1980s:

Before his arrival in 1987, ICR [Institute for Creation Research] representatives – with the exception of the superstars, Morris and Gish – spoke to crowds that sometimes measure only in the dozens, making dry technical presentations about problems with radioactive dating, transitional fossils… and so on. (42)

Ham’s genius was to have a ‘bottom up’ approach:

He would convince millions of ordinary people to reject evolution in the hopes that the grassroots groundswell would change society and work its way up, or at least marginalize the eggheads at the top. (43)

He achieved this with the glossy Creation magazine, books aimed at children and, more recently, the famous Creation Museum. In this account, he and the others have been brilliant populisers, speaking to the evangelical masses in ways they can understand and with personas they can trust.

The analysis of the four areas of Christian thought is entirely US-centred, and to a significant extent, this is a US phenomenon, with the final chapter offering an explanation in terms of US egalitarianism. Yet the anointed fundamentalists have a death grip on Australian evangelicalism too. The revisionist history is the least widespread phenomenon in Australia, but even this has its Australian equivalent, with popular writer Col Stringer insisting Australia is actually a Christian country, despite Tom Frame’s persuasive case otherwise. In the other three areas, Ham, Dobson and LaHaye are extremely influential. Why should this be? A lot of Australians dislike the Americanisation of their culture – yet in both Christian and secular culture, they are always taking it on. Australia has a similar disdain for experts; this is surely one factor.

The weakest chapter for me was the penultimate one, “A Carnival of Christians”, which tries to explain the phenomenon through the eyes of one particular subject, a young evangelical named Paul Miller in his twenties who has lived most of his life cloistered in this ‘parallel universe’ of evangelicalism, explaining how he could embrace it growing up and how it came into question when he was exposed to the wider world. It is an interesting attempt to humanize their argument, yet in this case the details of the particular dragged for me, rather than illuminating the whole.

Overall, I found the book compulsively readable and fair-minded in its attempts to understand the appeal of the anointed. I think there should be a unit in evangelicalism at theological colleges, and that this should be required reading, in the hope that the fish might come to recognise the water they are swimming in – and perhaps prospective pastors could find ways to steer their congregation toward the best thinking Christianity has to offer in each area of thought, rather than to the bestsellers.

Advertisements

Fundamentalist tendencies in evangelical churches

Over at a Theology of Love, John Arthur recently quoted a blog post which seems to have disappeared in which the author, Bruce, writes that:

As much as Evangelicalism might seem and deny it, Evangelicalism is a Fundamentalist religion. Some Evangelicals eschew social Fundamentalism but ALL Evangelicals embrace theological Fundamentalism.

Bruce is somewhat right in as far as it is true that most evangelicals would affirm many of the same core beliefs as fundamentalists. Indeed, it is the attitude toward people who disagree which has always been a key distinction between evangelicalism and fundamentalism. There are other differences, though, and a wide spectrum on the issue of biblical authority that Bruce mentions later in the quote on John’s post.

I see fundamentalism as a thread which runs through almost every evangelical church – at least in Perth. The two movements can be separated and distinguished in their pure form, but in any church they exist in blended form. There will be at least some members of the congregation who are fundamentalist to a lesser or greater degree. (To a lesser extent, this could be said about liberalism in a number of evangelical churches too – the person sitting in a Baptist church who quite likes Spong, but this is less common.)

Roger Olson is a theologian I like a lot, and one of his talents is astute classification and unpacking of labels and movements; he wrote a great post on the difference between fundamentalism and evangelicalism back in April. He comes at the issue as a postconservative evangelical who a lot of conservative evangelicals would like to place outside the fold, but he provides a strong argument for why his brand of evangelicalism is a legitimate heir to the original neo-evangelicals.

In brief, I consider some of the fundamentalist tendencies typically found in evangelical churches to be:

  • Young earth creation (because of its anti-science obscurantism and its suspicion of biblical scholarship.)
  • Some forms of inerrancy – certainly not all of them – which make an idol of a certain uninformed reading of the Bible and reject even evangelical scholarship about historical and cultural background.
  • An attitude of separatism from people who disagree – this is the most important one; a young-earth-creationist who can respectfully disagree with others and not make it a test of orthodoxy is not so fundamentalist.
  • An obsession with predictive prophecy, Israel and/or the Book of Revelation. This is the one on the rise, probably even more so than young-earth creation.

The challenge is that even if a pastor is not fundamentalist at all, the members of the church are influenced by so many books, conferences, websites and friends that inevitably some of them will have picked up these ideas. Fundamentalist ideas will sit in the soup of people’s worldview alongside lots of other flavours. So it would be wrong to dismiss anyone as a ‘complete’ fundamentalist on the basis of one extreme opinion or reaction.

I’ll be interested in your thoughts and experiences, though I may not be back online for a couple of days.

Things I’ve learned from Fundamentalism and American Culture

book cover

George Marsden Fundamentalism and American Culture New ed. (Oxford: OUP, 2006).

This book’s been a page turner for me, partly because of my morbid fascination with fundamentalism and partly because it is well researched and smoothly written.

It’s a historical study of the origins of fundamentalism in late 19th and early 20th century USA. I’ll share some things which have stood out for me so far:

  • The significance of revivalism as the mindset out of which fundamentalism emerged. Yet Marsden paints revivalists favourably, as a group with a positive agenda for individual piety and lacking the strong emnity toward the academy, liberalism and modernism which was to escalate in the 1920s.
  • The significance of ‘Scottish Common Sense Realism’ as the philosophical mindset of fundamentalism. I encountered this a lot growing up – the idea that the Bible (and the world) made ‘plain sense’ to any common person with the willingness to read it correctly. It was easy to hold this kind of approach in the early 19th century when there was what Marsden calls a ‘broad evangelical consensus’; everyone a believer knew probably did read the Bible and the world in the same way. But the increasing splintering of Protestant Christianity and non-Protestant immigrants made the consensus harder to hold up. You could walk into many churches in Perth today and find this mindset, though. No need for an understanding of culture, genre and context – just believe what it says.
  • The phrase ‘let go and let God’, which was surely on my fridge as a child at some stage, has been kicking around for over 100 years. One of the revivalists Marsden discusses may have coined it.
  • In the USA during WWI, within Christian circles the loudest opposition to the war came from premillennialists; while the loudest support came from liberal postmillennialists who felt that victory could move the world one step closer to lasting peace. Those premillennialists may not have embraced the Left Behind series.

Authority in science and religion, with short reflections on climate change, creation science and house church

The popular challenge to climate change science raises interesting questions about authority, expertise and the gap between popular opinion and the ‘experts’.

For many scientists, academics and politicians, there isn’t a debate about the science – or there shouldn’t be. In The Australian a few months ago, at the time Ian Plimer’s climate change scepticism book came out, an opinion piece (a rare voice from the left) said that the public needs to just believe the experts when it comes to climate change science. We aren’t scientists, we can’t just step in with our own opinions and trample over years of careful research.

But everyone likes to have an opinion, and the prominent public voices expressing scepticism about climate change give people the sense that there is a real debate, and they’ll be in good company remaining sceptical.

It reminds me of the creation-evolution ‘debate’. (Interestingly, Ian Plimer wrote an angry and thorough refutation of the creation scientists in Telling Lies For God; now he’s on the other side of consensus.) For most biological scientists there is no debate between an 8000 year old world and a much older one. But for fundamentalist Christians, a well produced DVD/book/magazine from Answers in Genesis convinces them that not only is there a debate, but that debate is over whether the Bible is true or not and the creation scientists have reason on their side over against the conspiracy of the atheistic evolutionists.

(I was brought up a creation scientist, and I have no wish to revisit arguments for special creation and young Earth. I am interested in hearing from people who have a well thought out theistic evolution they have managed to integrate with their faith.)

Just as we’ve always had folk religion, maybe we have folk science these days. Everything is just a matter of opinion. You show me your scientific consensus on climate change, I’ll show you my sceptics with PhDs in geology or whatever who mount a contrary argument and get as much air time in the media.

I’m not convinced that scepticism toward the experts and a conviction that one can hold one’s own opinion on any subject is a peculiarly postmodern phenomenon. Look at the superstitions which dominate nineteenth century village life in Thomas Hardy novels. Look through the Bible how the general public is always prepared to go off in a different direction than the mandated one. People have always insisted on their right to have a contrary, illogical, irrational view of reality and manage to live by it. Perhaps more individualistically so these days.

(Am I saying I want strict controls? No. I’m just observing. I don’t think there’s easy answers to these questions.)

This all gets me thinking of the phenomenon of house church. I have been quite turned off house church the last few years. Not the ecclesial concept of a gathering of Christians meeting in a household context, but more the house church movement, which is full of people with their own opinions on everything, and not always very well thought out ones. There are crazy people in every church, I suspect, but in a house church their opinion becomes as valid as everyone else’s. Should we go on with the status quo, then, and deny most of the congregation a voice? No, I don’t think that’s good either. I think it’s a dilemma that needs much attention by any church.

I have real problems with the amount of authority invested in the priest/pastor/minister of traditional churches.  I don’t think it’s what Jesus or Paul envisage in the New Testament, not at all. I agree with Yoder that the Bible has a trajectory moving away from religious specialisation.

But simply rejecting the authority of the (trained and accredited) pastor is not the answer.  We shouldn’t pretend that church is really very simple and it’s just a matter of clearing away the complexities those power-hungry establishments have created.

No answers, just some dilemmas, some frustrations with our ‘I reckon’ world.

For The Bible Tells Me So: A Review

I watched the documentary For The Bible Tells Me So a couple of weeks ago. It had me crying in one point, as a woman describes how her lesbian daughter committed suicide. The woman had followed the advice of Dr James Dobson and wrote to her daughter telling her that she would never accept her homosexuality. (This approach presumably reassures one’s gay child that they are making it up, or at least making a choice that their parents are never going to endorse, lest they think they can ‘get away with it’.)

The documentary intersperses three very different approaches to the topic of homosexuality and Christianity – interviews with gay Christians and their parents, interviews with scholars (and non-scholars) about the interpretation of biblical passages about homosexuality and the history of homosexual oppression by the church in America. It is helpful and unhelpful to combine these three things.

The fault of the documentary in my opinion is its failure to adequately represent the middle position – what might be called ‘welcoming but not affirming’ (from the book by Stanley Grenz). Most of the people interviewed are either Christians who think homosexual practice is fully compatible with their faith, or fundamentalists who think homosexuals should be hated, or if not quite hated then at least aggressively resisted. The middle ground is only represented by a few brief comments from Richard Mouw – a good choice, but not enough of him, and none of the many other moderate voices from within evangelicalism (Tom Wright, Richard Hays et al). The documentary only deals with the Bible in a verse by verse fashion – the same as fundamentalists use – without attempting to understand the issue in broader terms of discipleship or the kingdom. It unfairly paints the issue as a choice between James Dobson and Gene Robinson.

I think all evangelical, fundamentalist and pentecostal Christians should see the documentary before they go on in their unthinking reactions to the ‘gay question’. If nothing else, it will startle them out of their easy answers. But in terms of the discussion of the biblical theology of homosexuality, this documentary is inadequate. Alas, it’s much more complicated than the documentary makes out.

‘Sponsored by Elusive Brethren and Right Wing American Fundamentalist Groups’

christiannewsconz

Increasingly I just can’t tell whether fundamentalists are joking or not. Or whether their site has been hacked. At http://christiannews.co.nz/, the subheading is ‘Sponsored by the Elusive [sic] Brethren and Right Wing American Fundamentalists’ and they have a barcode to the right, the mark of the beast for many fundamentalists. So I assumed they were taking the piss, that it was a satirical site. My view was reinforced when I read a slightly too frenzied defence of smacking children from the Old Testament. (It seemed to be aware of how ludicrous it sounded: stating that Jesus as Second Person of the Trinity wrote the Old Testament personally, so you have to obey every word to the letter.) But checking the About page and all the links, I’m convinced it’s not satirical, but a genuine conservative Christian site. Which leads me to the conclusion that someone hacked it!

Basics #1: a guide to labels and why they matter – fundamentalist, evangelical and pentecostal

(Here’s a post written for nvc.org.au that you might want to read. I realise I don’t ever write about any of the basics; this might be the first in a series. If you’ve studied theology, all of this will be superfluous and potentially erroneous!)

Last night I was watching a secular documentary called Jesus Camp. It’s an interesting and rather disturbing look at a ‘Bible boot camp’ run by a Pentecostal children’s pastor in the USA. (The disturbing part was the black and white view of the world these kids were getting, and the pro-George Bush, anti-climate change, anti-the rest of the world attitude. But that’s all a different story.)

What struck me was that on the back cover blurb, the terms ‘Pentecostal’ ‘Evangelical’ and ‘Fundamentalist’ are used interchangeably, as if they all mean the same thing. They don’t mean the same thing, and mixing them up causes a lot of confusion. I get the feeling that most Christians wouldn’t be able to distinguish them clearly either, so I thought I’d give a quick guide. I’ve simplified things a lot here, and I’m just going off the top of my head, so please take this as a starting point, rather than a definitive guide.

‘Fundamentalism’ started early in the 20th century as a reaction against a group of theologians called ‘Modernists’ (or liberals). The Modernists were very taken with the findings of science and rationalism and were interepreting the Bible and theological doctrines in the light of science. (That’s not altogether wrong; but they were certainly taking things too far.) In reaction to this, a group who became known as the ‘Fundamentalists’ issued a series of booklets on the ‘fundamentals’ of faith – doctrines they saw as absolute foundations which were non-negotiable.

The movement – or the label at least – became more and more conservative and reactionary. Fundamentalists became those who shut themselves off from the findings of scholarship and theology; who read the Bible in rigid, literal, unnatural ways and who had a real fortress mentality – ‘them and us’. Today, fundamentalism is also associated with political conservatism and religious fanaticism.

‘Evangelicalism’ in its twentieth century form started as a reaction against fundamentalism. They were Christians who believed the Bible and traditional doctrines of faith but felt that they could still engage with scholarship in science and theology. The movement that grew out of this would tend to be seen as emphasising the trustworthiness of the Bible, the need for a personal commitment to following Jesus, and the importance of evangelism.

Confusingly, fundamentalists would believe these three things too, and the line can be hard to draw. It’s often in the mode of engagement with the world – Evangelicals are willing to dialogue with cultural trends in the world, to make their faith culturally relevant without compromising it, and to politely debate liberals and fundamentalists.

My concern is that if ‘evangelical’ and ‘fundamentalist’ are used interchangeably, the word ‘evangelical’ will be tainted beyond usefulness or redemption – if it hasn’t happened already.

‘Pentecostalism’ grew out of the Azusa Street Revival in the USA in 1904, when the Holy Spirit came upon a congregation and there were manifestations of spiritual gifts. The movement came to generally emphasise the need for a ’second blessing’ or baptism of the Spirit, evidenced by speaking in tongues. Besides the emphasis on the Spirit, the movement was often quite similar to the fundamentalists in tone.

If this was the ‘first wave’ of the Holy Spirit, the second wave came in the 1960s through the mainline (Catholic, Anglican, Lutheran) churches and people affected by this were called ‘Charismatic’. Many of these people stayed in their traditional churches, so you can see why there was a big difference between ‘pentecostal’ and ‘charismatic’.

The ‘third wave’ of the Holy Spirit is where Vineyard fits in. It’s associated with John Wimber and the Vineyard movement starting in the 1980s, and emphasising a basically evangelical outlook with Holy Spirit empowerment, most often shown not in tongues but healing.

The danger with labels is that they can be used to judge too quickly and shortcut really understanding people. But the benefit of them is that they give us an understanding of what tradition, what strand of Christianity a person comes from.