“F Word” Needs Clearer Definition

Originally published in The Tennessee Journalist May 27, 2009

..no, not THAT “f-word.” Rather, the f-word I refer to sometimes draws an even more negative reaction. That word is “Fundamentalism.”

“Fundamentalism” is a specifically Christian term. Consequentially, much modern usage in the media (i.e. attributing the 9-11 attacks to “Islamic Fundamentalists”) is a severe misrepresentation of both faiths. In its purist form, Fundamentalism does not directly refer to any specific church, sect or political organization. Rather, it simply describes an inner-denominational movement tracing back to the early 20th century in which Christians responded to the challenges of modernity by codifying their most foundational beliefs.

Eventually, these were cataloged in a four-volume set known as The Fundamentals: A Testimony of the Truth . Published in 1917, The Fundamentals provide a fascinating, if not somewhat paradoxical, look at the fledgling movement. While some aspects (such as the rather strident anti-Catholic overtones) may be offensive to some, other parts are quite enlightening.

For example, in James Orr’s essay “Science and the Christian Faith,” he acknowledges that “there is no violence done to the (creation) narrative in substituting…vast cosmic periods — for “days” on our narrower, sun-measured scale.” These sentiments hardly fit the stereotypes of Fundamentalists in today’s world.

The first known use of the term “Fundamentalist” was by religious journalist Curtis Lee Laws, who referred to “those who still cling to the great fundamentals and who mean to do battle royal” in their defense. Unfortunately, since Fundamentalism did begin as a defensive movement, the resulting “Fightin’ Fundie” caricatures have often been very much deserved. On occasion, this has led to forays into anti-intellectualism (the Scopes “Monkey Trial” debacle) and in some cases, to outright bigotry (the shameful tactics of the “Reverend” Fred Phelps).

This characterization is unfortunate. While it is true that the Fundamentalist label is relatively new, the ideals it represents are as old as the Christian faith itself. As theologian J.I. Packer observes: “Our critics suppose that that what they call ‘Fundamentalism’ is something as new as its name. But it is not. Nor was sixteenth-century Protestantism, nor seventeenth-century Puritanism, nor eighteenth-century Methodism. These names denote simply particular aspects and episodes of the continuing history of evangelical Christianity.”

At the core of Fundamentalism is a staunch belief in the message of the Scriptures. Fundamentalists believe in a God who has not only spoken, but has done so in a way that is reliable, understandable and practical. Is this simple faith? Yes, but it has been the historic position of the Christian church from its very beginning. In the words of Dallas Theological Seminary professor P.D. Feinberg: “Biblical inerrancy has been the view of the church throughout its history…(I)n each period of the church’s history clear affirmations of the doctrine can be found.”

With this premise established, the other elements of the Fundamentalist world view are easier to understand. For example, to believe in the authority of the Bible is also to embrace the absolute truth it presents us with. This can be seen in what is perhaps the most visible picture of Fundamentalism, the arena of politics. But before we are too hasty in rejecting these concerns, we must note that in many issues, the Fundamentalists are actually proving to be ahead of their time.

For example, given the advances of prenatal medical technology, it has become increasingly difficult to deny that an unborn child is truly a person. Why then is it considered so “extreme” to say that the child deserves legal protection? When we look at the horrendous impact of AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases, is the Christian sexual ethic (abstinence until marriage) really that unreasonable? Is it wise to cast science and faith as enemies when some of the greatest scientists in history (including Galileo, Copernicus, Keplar and many others) were Bible believers?

These issues are not going away, and if our goal is to be a tolerant, understanding people, we must look past our stereotypes and see the real substance that is all too often overlooked. Failure to do so is a “fundamental” mistake.

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