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The Rise of Neo-fundamentalism12 min read

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On, one of my favorite evangelical sites, I have recently been defending Rick Warren, it seems that many of the readers think his approach unbiblical, echoing the sentiments often shared on neofundie site Slice. A few people bristle at my slinging use of the term neo-fundie, and want to know exactly what I mean by it. However, Jesus Creed recently ran a nice two-part series called The Rise of Neo-fundamentalism (Part II), which I want to quote, since Scot did a good job of it.

1. What characteristics may be found in the older “Fundamentalist” Christianity?

We were strident, largely uneducated (even dismissive of education), theologically censorious, separatistic, intolerant, and accusatory of every smidgeon of slight alteration. There were no questions; there were answers – and we had them. We saw our abrasiveness as a sign that the rest of the world couldn’t count the cost; rejection proved we were right. I’m embarrassed today mostly about what we were like as humans, we were ungracious if not unchristian.

2. What neo-fundamentalism will look like (or does look like)

There is a conviction among Neo-Fundamentalists that one can’t err if one gets too conservative, but that is the sin of what I called ‘zealotry.’ It will…

  1. become insular and separatistic,
  2. become divisive and accusatory from within,
  3. lack grace,
  4. create Christians who are not free in the Spirit but who will be rigid and intolerant,
  5. become socially withdrawn,
  6. lose a prophetic voice because it will lose contact with culture,
  7. attract angry, defensive, and mean-spirited individuals

3. The “Remnant” mentality of neo fundamentalism

Here’s my thesis: the core driving force of Neo-Fundamentalism (like the old) is a remnant mentality. That is, it believes the following:

  1. That it alone remains true to the fullness of the gospel and the orthodox faith.
  2. That the Church worldwide is hanging on a precipice and will soon, if it doesn’t wake up, fall from the faith.
  3. That the solution to this nearly-apocalyptic church situation is to tighten up theological stands and clarify what is most central and most important for the Church today.
  4. That the major problems are theological drift, church laxity, and evangelical compromise with either modernity and/or postmodernity.
  5. That it is ‘Neo’ because it arises within Evangelicalism today and will either break from it or seek its widespread reform – and therefore its particular characteristics are determined by contemporary Evangelicalism. E.g., it isn’t really concerned about dancing and movies and ‘mixed bathing.’

4. My definition of neo-fundie

I believe that neo-fundies are similar to the original Christians Fundamentalists in that they are trying to defend orthodoxy against the threats of modern culture and changes in the church. In some ways, they are right to do so. However, like the original CFs, the NFs make some of the same errors:

  1. they reject modern culture and its vehicles of communication
  2. they are biblicists and reject valid disciplines of truth outside of scripture, because “everything we need to know is in the bible.”
  3. they reject cultural reformation because trying to transform culture is really just “polishing brass on a sinking ship,” especially since Jesus is coming soon
  4. they develop a “remnant” identity, thinking themselves the last of the faithful, the few devoted to “the whole truth” before the “great falling away”
  5. they often cling to only one translation of the Bible as the authoritative one

5. What specific activities are neo-fundies involved in today? (again, my opinion)

  1. Attacking the seeker-sensitive movement
  2. Attacking Pentecostalism and Charismatic Christianity
  3. Attacking Rick Warren’s Purpose Driven approach
  4. Attacking contemporary worship and “rock and roll”
  5. Attacking mega churches
  6. Attacking contemplative spirituality
  7. Attacking the “emergent church”

6. What “watchdog” activities do I think are not necessarily neo-fundie?

  1. Criticizing some of the newer, sloppy translations of the bible, including many of the gender neutral ones (TNIV, TNLB, the Message)
  2. Drawing a firm line regarding the sinfulness of homosexuality (though our approach to gays could be much more compassionate)
  3. Criticizing obvious Christless positivism (like Schuller and Osteen). I don’t think that Warren falls into this same category, though he leans that way, his church’s web site still holds to the fundamentals of the faith.
  4. Criticizing some aspects of the emergent church (though, they are asking some very good questions and coming up with some very good alternatives to stale fundamentalism)
  5. Questioning whether women should be in leadership in churches

Now, I know that some will ask “what’s the difference between attacking and criticizing? Aren’t you saying that in some cases it is wrong, while in others, it is good? Aren’t you just picking and choosing? What principles do you apply to make these decisions?”

Mostly, it is the tone of the criticisms, and whether or not the criticizers recognize *anything* good in the movements they criticize, or whether they show a complete lack of self-examination, and are busy globally condemning their opponents.

7. Selected comments from the two articles

Jesus came ‘full of grace and truth’ and these folks delete the grace(fullness) and bore down on ‘truth.’ With log-filled eyes they become masters at saw-dust detection in everyone else’s eyes, and, as you noted, in our past they slandered Billy Graham, demonized Martin Luther King, Jr., and everybody was ‘liberal’ but them.1

There seems to be a resurgence of fundamentalisms globally, conservative Christian, liberal Christian, Islamist, Buddhist, Hindu, and even secularist. Samuel P Huntingtion alerted me to nascent neo-fundamentalisms2, and sadly it seems an integral part of negative and populist reactions against disenchanted modernism. Those who derive their security and power from the prevailing but declining paradigm can only be expected to do increasingly desperate and dangerous things.

I intentionally carry a copy of the TNIV into church, openly displaying it in Sunday School and as I sit in the worship service just to see what the reaction may be. It’s a little way to gauge the fundy in the people around me.

Fundamentalism, according to Tim Weber (paraphrased by Scot McKnight) is

A movement organized to defend orthodoxy against challengers who somehow or in some way who deny or corrupt orthodoxy. It is concerned with ideas that will corrupt orthodoxy. What we have then are two things: threat and defense. The combative and defensive posture are inherent to fundamentalism.3

But when we respond by trying to gauge the ‘errors’ and opinions of our neighbors, and by using derogatory terms in public forums or even amongst ourselves it doesn’t help matters.
I agree that fundamentalism sees itself as defending orthodoxy against corruption, but one thing I see is that fundamentalism always seems to have an extremely narrow definition of orthodoxy.

The Narrow Orthodoxy of Fundamentalism

When I think of orthodoxy, I think of the ancient Christian creeds. These affirm certain truths as nonnegotiable, but also leave a lot of room for diverse views and practices in many areas. It seems to me that most people who self identify as Christians and seek to live as disciples of Jesus will affirm and defend orthodoxy in the broad creedal sense, but most Christians will also allow that there are areas of legitimate disagreement.

Fundamentalism, to me, usually sees orthodoxy in the narrowest possible terms both theologically and morally/culturally, so that anyone who disagrees with me on any significant theological matter or who engages in cultural or moral practices that I consider sinful is therefore, automatically excluded from the faith (or is at least pretty suspect). It’s extreme black and white thinking, with no room for nuance or anything in between.

I guess the danger is that you get so used to throwing punches you start landing them on friends and family as well.

Fundamentalism is as much about fear as faith

Knowing why people engage in fundamentalism or neo-fundamentalism is probably of more value than deconstructing it and finding its faults. They are afraid. And they are so easily manipulated through their fear that it is actually somewhat frightening.

I hope that you don’t fall into the trap of calling all theological opinion to the right of yours ‘fundamentalist.’ The term becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Since it’s a tag nobody wants, when you call someone a ‘fundamentalist’ you automatically put them in a defensive posture, thus making it easier to point to them and say ‘see, I told you there were reactionary, defensive types.

Fundamentalism in this usage, refers to a discernible pattern of religious militancy by which self-styled ‘true believers’ attempt to arrest the erosion of religious identity, fortify the borders of the religious community, and create viable alternatives to secular institutions and behaviors.

Things like music, cultural engagement/participation, eschatology, and a number of other peripheral issues are often treated like fundamentals of the faith.

Its difficult when you are coming out of a movement and have no connections to the larger body of Christ and credentials that are less than desirable for engagement in the larger evangelical world. Our tradition has or soon will disown us, and most of us don’t know anyone outside of our own circles. Nevertheless, when you’re persuaded what youre doing is right, you count the cost and go forward trusting Jesus.

Where does the transformation from fidelity to fundamentalism occur for post-modern Christians?

If these folks are ever questioned or if there is reasoned argument at all, or if exception is taken to some stand that is staked out, this is taken as ‘persecution,’ which excuses the person from having to shape or modify their position, and which, oddly, further serves to prove that they are on Gods side in the matter.

Some of the characteristics of this legalism are:

  1. One-upping (my behavior can be more holy than yours if I do X)
  2. Scrutinizing (I examine your behavior for lack of commitment and decide if you are a good or bad influence on me and mine)
  3. Proof-texting (using Scripture to support current practices, even if those are not mentioned in the Bible, applying perceived meanings)
  4. Withdrawing and bonding (withdrawing from larger culture, forming your own community of like-minded people)
  5. Hiding (protecting failures and weaknesses from on-lookers and compensating for failures with greater commitments, more holy behavior, more proof texting, more Christian ritual practices and so on)
  6. The need for certainty, reductionism, and a division between us and them is a sign of immaturity. Breaking off of relationships because you don’t agree with is not a sign of maturing discipleship. [] Fundamentalism, neo or otherwise has a need to define the enemy, and more often than not this enemy is found within their ranks, those who will not agree with them. There is an anger and a fear that you just do not see in the gospels. Having seen the statements of faith of some of the fundamentalist organizations (neo or otherwise)it is the detail that grabs your attention. They cover every point, far beyond the classic creeds of the church.

The vast array of ex-fundamentalist websites, books, support groups and discussion groups reveal commonalities of mistreatment that these now-adults find unconscionable.

The biggest danger it poses is that it hides the eschatological relevance of the presence of God’s Kingdom from the rest of the world. Neo-fundamentalism continues this perpetual apocalyptic and rapturist mentality and creates a vicious religious circle in which one is required to reject an unwanted reality in order to be accepted by it. [] Scare tactics (hell-bound preaching), perpetual near-apocalypse living, and escapism are key characteristics of fundamentalism. If this is not causing believers to become irrelevant socially and culturally, then what positive things can we find in it?

  1. The Rise of Neo-Fundamentalism ([]
  2. The Clash of Civilizations? (Foreign Affairs)[]
  3. The Bible in America: Proof-Texting and the Cultural Divide[]