Like many southern Americans, I’ve grown up surrounded by evangelical, fundamentalist Christianity. Every day, every event, and every moment of my life was filtered through the great cheesecloth of my life that was fundamentalism. No word was spoken, and no action was ever taken without being bombarded in my mind by a myriad of rules, laws, and condemnations that shaped my very existence.
It is with great joy that I leave every bit of that behind. I’ve since discovered something new, something wonderful, something refreshing. It’s a concept that’s completely and radically transformed my life, my worldview, my imagination, and my relationships. The liberty that I’ve found in this new way of life is staggering in its simplicity; stunning in its complexity. What is this new, amazing thing I’ve discovered?
In a word, it’s Christianity.
Fundamentalism has unfortunately become the most common expression of modern American Christianity. I differentiate it from evangelical Christianity only in that fundamentalism is a brand of “faith” that’s driven by a sense of rigidity that’s only found otherwise in marble statues. It is driven by certain core tenets, “laws” that aren’t merely a fence to contain its sheep. They erect a mile-high doctrinal wall that blocks any and all outside influence or possibility — whether it be science, education, history, or even reality.
The point of fundamentalism is that it is a belief system that is built around security. It all starts with the “Sinner’s Prayer,” during which the new believer will confess his or her sins, ask for forgiveness, and give their lives to Christ. Some will pay particular emphasis on asking the Holy Spirit to live in them, and others will immediately pray for the baptism of the Holy Spirit, which will lead to the “speaking of tongues.” (I put quotes there, not to question the practice, but so that those who aren’t Pentecostal or Charismatic may understand that this is a doctrinal belief that is not necessarily identical throughout fundamentalist circles.)
Once that initial prayer is given, or the tongues have been spoken, the new believer has that “experience” that is the basis of their lives from that moment on. Immediately, they are encouraged to “read their Bible every day” and “Get into a good (equally fundamentalist) church.”
Not only is fundamentalism built on “security” (even if they reject the Calvinist doctrine of the eternal security of the believer), it’s a place of safety. Since the wall of fundamentalism is built to “protect” believers from outside “worldly” influence, it creates a spiritual safe place where they can nurture their belief system without having to listen to or read anything that might question those beliefs.
Anyone who does question those beliefs are immediately called into question. They are not really Christian. They are wolves in sheep’s clothing. They are false prophets. False teachers. False this, false that.
In short, fundamentalists are taught to trust only their own leaders and their own doctrines. They alone have the truth. They alone will give you what you need. Don’t become soiled by any outside influence. Interestingly, this is the same tactic that is employed by talk radio hosts and by a certain right-wing “news” channel.
Science is questioned at every level. History is rewritten to support their beliefs. Anything that counters their belief is immediately thrown into scrutiny, and often rejected for the sake of the belief — despite mounting evidence otherwise. Quite simply, there can be no cracks in the wall of fundamentalism — because if cracks were to form, the wind of truth would begin to break through, tossing aside the house of fundamentalist cards into a cluttered pile.
It is safe. It must be kept safe. No outside influence is allowed. Anything and everything that runs afoul of fundamentalist doctrine is immediately blasted away with every weapon in their arsenal. Science. Evolution. History. Women’s Rights. Civil Rights. Homosexuality. Harry Potter.
And no, that last one isn’t a joke. It should be, though. Alas, whole volumes have been written to damn anyone who reads the popular boy wizard novels, and certainly the author that wrote them.
This post is the beginning of a brand new series that will explore some of these tenets — what I truly believe, and those which I no longer hold as true. It’s as much an exploration of my own faith as it will be an exercise in questioning everything.
Paul said it well when he wrote to the Corinthians:
Love never fails. But where there are prophecies, they will cease; where there are tongues, they will be stilled; where there is knowledge, it will pass away. For we know in part and we prophesy in part, but when completeness comes, what is in part disappears. (1 Corinthians 13:8-10, NIV)
To Paul, there would be a time where prophecies would cease, tongues are silenced, and knowledge will pass away. No matter what their beliefs or doctrines were, they would eventually fade away into nothingness. We all have only a piece of the whole truth. No matter what it is, there is no complete truth.
Interestingly, fundamentalists who reject the gifts of the spirit and the “speaking of tongues” will interpret verse 10 (when the completeness comes, what is in part disappears) as this: When the Bible is completed, all gifts of the spirit will pass away. There’s only one problem with this. Verse 8 says, “where there is knowledge, it will pass away.” So, now that the Bible is here — are we to become stupid? Are we to reject education, knowledge, and training? To some, the answer is clearly in the affirmative.
This is but one passage that left a gaping crack in my own fundamentalist beliefs, driving me to begin that genuine questioning of everything I held to be true, leading me to finding the great Truth Himself.
I invite you to spend the next few days with me as I go down this journey of faith. You might not agree with me on any of it, but perhaps you’ll see a little glimpse into what Paul might have been talking about in the next few verses of 1 Corinthians 13:
When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put the ways of childhood behind me. For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.
And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love. (1 Corinthians 13:11-13, NIV)
Plenty of people believe that he’s talking about when he (and the rest of us) are in eternity, but I think verse 11 is clear. We must leave our childish ways. I heard one theologian say succinctly: “It’s perfectly fine to have a fifth grade understanding of the Bible… if you’re in the fifth grade.”
When we can look at our faith, and our lives a little more honestly and openly, then there’s a really good chance that we can truly begin to grow as people, and as Christians.
I cannot promise that my readers will agree with everything I write, or even anything at all. I can promise this: You’ll see my own journey, and it might help to identify the cracks in your own wall. Whether you peek through those cracks or seal them entirely, that is left to you. Your journey and mine will always be different. But maybe — just maybe — you’ll begin to see the ever-present majesty of the glory of the living God that isn’t confined by the walls we try to build around us — and Him.
Next up: The Bible is the inspired Word of God. What does “inspired” mean?