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April 14, 2009

On Fundamentalism

Why We Need to Know History

One of the defining moments in my personal journey was a class I took in seminary from Dr. John Woodbridge on the history of fundamentalism and evangelicalism in America. As someone frustrated with and running from my own pseudo-fundamentalist heritage, the class helped me place my own limited experiences, as well as pace my grumpiness with it.

The class both clarified my complaints and chastened them, as I realized where I had come from in a larger ecclesiological sense. With a childhood in a church and school which followed the lead of Jerry Falwell (first as an independent fundamental Baptist church then as a more mainstream Baptist church), college years in first a liberal Mennonite college and then at a school named after the greatest enigma in fundamentalism (William Jennings Bryan), seminary at Reformed Theological and eventually Trinity Evangelical, my church makeup was plenty diverse but my understanding of where these various streams of evangelicalism had come from was thoroughly anemic.

I learned from Dr. Woodbridge how many silly assumptions I had because I was operating from my limited experience without any understanding of real history. In my view, this is epidemic in the American evangelical church - we have what my friend Debbie Brezina calls evangelical Alzheimer's. Personally, I went through a Christian school, Christian college, and nearly halfway through seminary without having to learn church history. The little I did get was truncated or strangely juxtaposed together.

I tend to think this overall lack of church history is one reason why what has come to be known as emergent thought is so attractive. In so many ways, it is merely a rehashed liberalism, but so many don't realize it because they have no clue about the modernist/fundamentalist battles of the early 1900's. They literally think that Shane Claiborne, Brian McLaren and Tony Jones are on to something new. Further, it is not uncommon for those in this crowd to toss around the "fundamentalist" label as the emergent equivalent of the scarlet letter while offering really bad definitions of it because, again, they don't know the history of the term.

Without a basic knowledge of recent church history, emergents seem "cutting edge." When understood within this history, they seem presumptuous, naive and arrogant. (I recently saw a "conversation" between one of these emergent leaders and a well-known evangelical leader. The emergent leader was waxing eloquent about the lack of compassion in evangelicalism, forgetting that his older counterpart had spent the last 50 years taking care of prisoners and their families. For what it's worth, I also think that the reactionary response of too many conservatives resembles the mistakes the second wave of fundamentalism made in the mid 20th century, but that's another blog topic.)

I bring up all of this because a friend and former professor from Bryan College has written a nice little history of fundamentalism in America while also dealing with some of the bad definitions of fundamentalism that are thrown around. Dennis Ingolfsland is a terrific scholar, especially in Jesus studies, whose blog is worth following. And, his entry from a few days ago on fundamentalism is especially terrific.

For more on the history of evangelicalism and fundamentalism, see George Marsden's Fundamentalism and American Culture, or see the summary chapter in James Davidson Hunter's Culture Wars.

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