Is Evangelicalism fundamentalist?

What is fundamentalism?

Martin Marty, in his book “Fundamentalisms Observed”, defined fundamentalism as a selective recovery of a religious tradition in order to fight against a modernist worldview; Karen Brown called it an “extreme response to the failed promise of Enlightenment rationalism”; Castells called it a way of creating identity on the basis of communal resistance. Bosch, prescient as ever, said that

it would be strange if the present period of uncertainty did not also throw up candidates which propagate either a convulsive clinging to the past or an even more extreme “conservative” backlash (such as some current manifesta­tions of fundamentalism)

In other words, fundamentalism is a last-ditch attempt, by restating your argument harder and louder than anyone else, to rebel against an overwhelming change in society. We saw it (in Marty’s and Brown’s terms) as an attempt to safeguard pre-modern faith against the rising tide of modernism; now, as Bosch points out, we see it as an attempt to safeguard modern faith against the rising tide of postmodernism.

Events of the past week have made me realise that, according to these definitions, it is no exaggeration to describe the mainstream of current Evangelicalism as fundamentalist.

I’m talking, of course, about John Piper and Rob Bell, but I’m also talking about Evangelicalism versus Brian Maclaren, Evangelicalism versus Steve Chalke, Evangelicalism versus the Emerging Church; Evangelicalism versus, essentially, any expression of Christianity which seeks to engage with the postmodern world, and therefore, in the eyes of the fundamentalists, corrupts the pure Gospel by legitimising and syncretizing with an anti-Christian worldview.

(I always find it amusing, when you think about fundamentalism as a reaction against the slipping-away of modernity, to consider that John Piper and Richard Dawkins and Osama bin Laden are all on the same side.)

This week I read an excellent blog post (or possibly it was a comment; annoyingly, I cannot now find it either way. I have obviously read too many blog posts about this topic in the past two weeks.) which pointed out the whole issue was far more about identity than about theology. This is why Justin Taylor answers with bluster rather than discussion of the Scriptures, the Fathers, the shifting orthodoxy through the centuries. All of this nuance is lost on him, overwhelmed by one thing: Christian identity. As Rachel Held Evans puts it, “the message was clear: Ask questions about heaven and hell and you will be cast out.”

So the hyper-Calvinists are using Hell is not used so much as a theological category but as a marker of orthodoxy and identity. Rooted and Radical has some choice Moltmann quotes, the first of which is this:

The more theology and the church attempt to become relevant to the problems of the present day, the more deeply they are drawn into the crisis of their own identity. The more they attempt to assert their identity in traditional dogmas, rights and moral notions, the more irrelevant and unbelieveable they become.

Reasserting a constructed traditional identity in the face of present day problems - that’s precisely the definition of fundamentalism that we started off with.

I think the Right’s real problem with Rob Bell, with Brian Maclaren, with Steve Chalke and others is not to do with any kind of critical reflection on their thought but more an instinctive, visceral reaction to a threat to their understanding of Christian identity.

That’s why you don’t even need to read their books to know that they must be wrong.

The problem I have with this, of course, is that Christian identity must change with the times. Any missionary who’s been trained in the past thirty years, plus Saint Paul, knows that you must communicate the Gospel in terms that are relevant and understandable to the receiving culture. It’s called “contextualization” - and, of course, the John Pipers of this world, who see themselves as safeguarding the Gospel against change, hate it.

But every single letter of Saint Paul is at root about forging a new post-Judaic Christian identity in the light of the new social reality that Gentiles are allowed to play as well. The mould of the old Jewish Christian identity had to be broken for this new identity to arise.

And every single sermon in the book of Acts is (gasp) different. Why? Because the Gospel is different? Because the missionary is different? No, because the audience is different. To the Jews, Paul talked about Jewish things. (Acts 13:16-23 and so on) To pagans - real, actual pagans, you know, people who live in the countryside - he talked about pagan things, rains and harvest. (Acts 14:16-17)

In polytheistic Athens, he boldly proclaimed Yahweh as the missing piece of the Greek pantheon. (Acts 17:23) No worries about syncretism, no worries about compromise, no demand for them to destroy their altars - I like that altar over there, here’s another god for you to worship at it. And I like your poets too; I like what they’re saying.

Amazing. Total identity with the culture in order to bring the Gospel to it. That’s the power of knowing your audience.

The audience of the post-Christian West right now is postmodern. It is asking postmodern questions. The mould of modernist Christianity needs to be broken for a new Christian identity to arise. As a missionary, (and Japan has always been postmodern; it kinda skipped modernity) then, I have much more sympathy with Rob Bell and Brian Maclaren and others who are trying to do this, who are trying to find a way to talk to postmodern people about postmodern concerns, than with those whose approach to postmodernity is to stick their fingers in their ears and hope it goes away. Because it won’t.

Restating a modernist version of Christianity and absolutising it as though it were the only Gospel does a disservice to the Gospel, because it is much wider and richer and fuller than that, and a disservice to the society, because it fails to treat their concerns and questions and worldview as important.

I’m not saying that Bell and Maclaren and others have got everything right. But I’m seriously glad they’re trying. It’s the missionary thing to do.

Because not doing that - deliberately not relating to your audience, condemning and fighting against anyone who would try to relate to your audience, and hunkering down to “defend the truth” in the face of massive societal change - is, as we’ve seen above, pretty much the definition of fundamentalism. And I’m not sure that’s a way that I want to go.