Fundamentalists themselves are not gone. We certainly haven’t heard the last from them, either. But any remaining sliver of Christian Fundamentalism’s influence was effectively “raptured” in the waning hours of May 21, 2011. This was the day Harold Camping predicted a worldwide judgment day and rapture of a faithful few Christians. The day came and went with barely a fizzle. And now, incredulously enough, Harold Camping has announced yet another prediction… well sort of. You can read all about if you care to.
Now I know that it’s all the rage today– certainly a politically correct must— for Christians like me to distance ourselves as far from Fundamentalism as we can by publicly trashing it when the occasion suits us while using the stupidity of May 21’s failed apocalypse as a chance to say, “See there? What a bunch of simple-minded, radical kooks… Oh, and by the way, for the record, let it be known I am not one of them.” Well, as much as I’d love to jump on the bandwagon, that’s not my goal, especially when the vast majority of Christian Fundamentalists I know were just as adamant, many of them far more vocal than the rest of us, denouncing Camping’s May 21 predictions as a fraud, well before the actual day.
Even then, disturbing behaviors like the the May 21 Doomsday shenanigan, the repugnant Westboro Baptist Church and Pastor Terry Jones jeapordizing our national security with his Koran burning have thoroughly demonstrated that any lasting value of Fundamentalism has been “raptured” away and is no longer any good for the Church, Christianity, or for anyone else. All that’s left behind is a liability. When pastors like me have to spend increasingly more time and effort dispelling the damage done by Fundamentalism in recent decades while not coming off as self-righteous jerks ourselves, then I think it’s safe to say in the memorable words of astronaut Jim Lovell, “Houston, we have a problem.” Fundamentalism as a movement has run its course.
Still, I do believe that in its heyday, Fundamentalism had a degree of value and place within Christianity, even if the majority vehemently disagreed with its teachings. And to be fair, Fundamentalism has been apishly caricatured by those who do not understand what it is and why it came to be. So as a eulogy for Fundamentalism, perhaps a brief, non-partisan description would be helpful.
Fundamentalism began in the early 20th Century as reactionary movement to the rising influence of new science and biblical criticism, i.e. Modernism, that was vastly reshaping the Protestant church. Darwin had famously challenged previously unquestioned assumptions about our origins in a way that radically departed from a face value reading of Genesis 1. Literary and historical criticism began to take a more critical view of the Bible’s authorship, historicity, and divine influence. As a result, Protestant church leaders, especially in the Baptist, Methodist, Lutheran, Presbyterian, and Anglican churches began to question the necessity or relevance of the more supernatural, “mythical” elements of the Bible and Christian doctrine, taking a step back from theology that now seemed to be too primitive and unnecessary in light of new scientific, literary, and historical findings.
Fundamentalists slammed on the breaks and insisted that there are “fundamentals” of the Christian faith that cannot be abandoned. In fact, a pastor/evangelist named A. C. Dixon published a series of essays called The Fundamentals: A Testimony to the Truth that upheld what he considered to be several fundamentals of the Christian faith including:
- the verbal, plenary inerrency of Scripture
- the literalness of the gospel accounts, especially Christ’s miracles and resurrection
- the Virgin Birth of Christ
- his bodily resurrection
- Christ’s physical return
- the substitutionary atonement of Christ on the cross.
These were all essential beliefs that Fundamentalists claimed were being compromised in the wake of modern scholarship. Since those days, I believe that Fundamentalism served as a direct, or most often, an indirect counterweight to the rapid pull of Modernism.
For all their faults and follies, I believe that at a bare minimum Fundamentalists challenged the Protestant Church to not give up on several things, namely three things: 1) the central importance and uniquely divine inspiration of Scripture; 2) a vigorous confidence in Jesus’ miracles and his actual, historic resurrection; and 3) his promised return as a definitive future historic event. I get the sense that at one time much of the mainline Protestant Church was tempted to reshape these three historic doctrines to be mere allegories or even a fanciful fiction.
But somehow, enough of the Protestant Church has been kept from sliding away on these “fundamentals” of our faith. Even though I’ll get slammed by some people for saying this, I believe we have Fundamentalism to thank for part of the conservation effort. And for that reason alone, Fundamentalism has had its place as a vocal counterweight to the more unhealthy sways of Modernism.
The main character flaw of Fundmentalism– and granted it’s a big one– has been their failure to be self-critical and adaptive. That’s the fatal flaw of any movement whose inception is a reaction to circumstances it sees as a threat. They become a self-pronounced and appointed “faithful remnant” whose job it is to zealously guard the faith against unfaithful incursions while ceding no ground doing it. The defensive nature of Fundamentalism has made it nearly impossible for them to self-critically evaluative their assumptions and methodology. While the cultural landscape has continually changed, offering new challenges and opportunities for the Church, Fundamentalists ardently entrench themselves while denouncing what they claim to be further spiritual and cultural backsliding.
Only now they have dug themselves in too deeply to see and understand their own shortcomings and damaging behaviors, and that’s why Christian Fundamentalism in the Protestant Church has met its functional end.
When a Fundamentalist like Harold Camping horse-blinders his understanding of the Bible to mean that every single word of Scripture is the the literal, historically, scientifically (and apparently mathematically!) infallible Word of God and then turns around to rebuff any honest critique of his organization’s teaching, even from other like-minded Christians, the results are the failures of May 21 and the embarrassment he causes the rest of us. Worse still, people got hurt, and Camping has taken no personal responsibility for it. I think of those who believed Camping and threw away their jobs, lifesavings, and reputations to “sound the alarm.” [Brief time-out…. Before you proudly regard yourself as smarter or wiser than they are– for you would never fall for such an idiotic thing as that— think about this: how many times have you found yourself wronged because you honestly believed in something or someone that didn’t live up to their promise?]
Aside from even the far extremism of Harold Camping, the biblical literalism of Fundamentalism flatly ignores and rejects any reasonable way to read and honor the Bible as God’s Word in any other way than strict literalism. That makes it nearly impossible for Fundamentalism to inform and be informed by ongoing scientific, historic, and cultural awareness while still upholding the Scriptures as God’s Holy Word. In effect, that has rendered this movement a dead sect which does not produce enough good and far too much bad to justify its continued existence. Harold Camping and crew proved this beyond any reasonable doubt this past Saturday. Not only that, but Christian Fundamentalism has been implicit in propagating attitudes within the Christian community that are sexist, homophobic, racist, and anti-scientific. Please note: I’m not saying that all my Fundamentalist brethren are themselves all those terrible things. However, Fundamentalism has aided and abetted these attitudes, and that has become a black eye on all of Christianity. I have personally worked with too many victims of these unchristian attitudes espoused by “good, loving Christians.” Therefore, while Fundamentalism may have played a role in Christianity at one time, it does no longer.
So to honor whatever contributions Fundamentalism has made in its storied past, let’s give it some dignity and say, “You’ve been raptured!” The rest of us are still here, trying to build the kingdom of God with as much Christ-like integrity as we can. I only hope my Fundamentalist brothers and sisters will acknowledge this “rapture” and join in on building the kingdom of God’s righteousness here on earth as it is in heaven while joyfully anticipating the return of our Lord in glory and power!