Apology: The Fundamentals of Fundamentalism

If there’s a catchword for religious extremists, it’s probably the term “fundamentalist.”  Which is sad, really, considering the origins of the term.  What it’s supposed to mean to be a fundamentalist is that you believe that the Bible is actually true, and therefore is the primary (and perhaps only) source for theology – i.e. that it’s fundamental to Christianity and Christian theology.  The term arose to prominence in Christian circles just over a hundred years ago (correct me if I’m wrong), quickly associated with the term “evangelical”, with several protestant Christian denominations claiming it as a distinctive belief (i.e. central, setting them apart from other denominations who may disagree).  It came out at a time when “liberal” theology was a growing trend, when people were claiming that none of the stories in the Bible were true, the so-called “quest for the historical Jesus”, etc.  If this sense of the word continued, every Christian denomination in the moderate and conservative camps would wholeheartedly claim the title “fundamentalist”, with only the denominations with the most liberal theology claiming that Jesus wasn’t actually a real person.

Since then, however, we’ve become bogged down in the question of exactly how the Bible is true.  The fundamentalists who get all of the press strictly adhere to a “literal” reading of scripture, and in so doing have bastardized both the term “fundamentalist” and the term “literal.”  When they say “literal”, they really mean “at face value.”  This is what Tim LaHaye said about it in the foreword to The Truth Behind Left Behind: A Biblical View of the End Times by Mark Hitchcock and Thomas Ice (Multnomah Publishers, 2004):

“People are reading the Bible as never before.  They are reading it and believing what they read.  Just as it is written.  And why shouldn’t they?  After all, it comes from the hand of God himself.  These readers take scripture literally whenever possible – unless some false teacher has clouded their thinking, rendering prophecy virtually impossible to understand by trying to interpret it through symbols or confusing allegories.”

LaHaye goes on to support this by pointing out that his bestselling Left Behind series portrayed events just as they appear in the pages of scripture, and people agree once they’ve read his books.  Oddly enough, that’s a pretty convincing argument if you never actually look into scripture, or learn anything about interpretation, or interpret the Bible as you would any other writing or even human conversation.  The line that really slays me is “after all, it came from the hand of God himself.”  That argument is not only unscriptural, but it’s illogical – but it fools anyone who doesn’t think too hard about it.  It paints an image of the Bible floating down from the heavens, into the hands of the apostles, and eventually to the publishing houses of today.

This so-called “literal” reading is very often anything but.  It basically means that anyone should be able to pick up the Bible, look at the words, and immediately know exactly what they mean.  Of course, that doesn’t take into account the fact that everyone has a slightly different take on what the Bible means, and extreme fundamentalists will always claim that there is only one correct interpretation.  While I agree on the last point (one interpretation), the point is simply that you can’t expect to get a good reading of ANYTHING at face value; there’s a few little things, like context and literary techniques, to take into account.

In season one of the TV show “Heroes”, the invincible cheerleader Claire confesses to her mother “I walked through fire, and didn’t get burned.”  She meant it literally, but of course her mother didn’t take it that way; she thought Claire was saying something deep and profound, to be using such an analogy.  That’s because people often use analogies, metaphors, similies, hyperbole, and other literary techniques to say something deep and profound by using ordinary language.  In fact, this is so common that most people would say that their face-value reading of something would allow for metaphors and analogies – it’s hard to hear “I walked through fire and didn’t get burned” any other way – but this is not the case with “literal” hermeneutics.  So when Tim LaHaye sees the phrase “army of locusts”, he sees real locusts, or perhaps combining the terms, he gets an army that looks like locusts, which of course MUST mean apache helicopters.

For a recent paper I read a book called Four Views on Hell.  John Walvoord, representing the literal view, was extremely arrogant in his assumption that the literal view is the “biblical view”, maintained that things must be read at face value, and then completely butchered texts that had obviously analogous or metaphorical meanings in order to fit them into his hellfire view – claiming that wherever the word fire appears it must refer to real fire, and thus it must be special magical fire because fire and darkness are seen together in several texts.  Because if the Bible says that there are both fire and utter darkness in Hell, and we must take that literally, then it must be special fire that does not emit any light.  Absolutely absurd, but it illustrates the point that the literal view, rather than preserving the integrity of the text, often does it great violence by trying to force it into a wooden frame that doesn’t fit.

It also illustrates one of the main reasons that “fundamentalism” goes together with extremism: because a preacher can interpret scripture however he likes so long as it conforms to someone’s idea of what the words say “at face value”, and people won’t question it because “that’s what it clearly says, and after all, it comes from the hand of God himself!”  Incredible presuppositions can be read into the text very easily, allowing the Bible to be used to justify everything from slavery to racial profiling to sexism to war – and say what you like about liberal theology, but they’ve never produced such abominations of “Christian culture” as the fundamentalists have.

Which of course leads us back to how extremism leads to polarization.  Because the voice of evangelicals and fundamentalists are so hard-core into “literal” interpretation, it appears that the only other option is to not take scripture seriously (which is what fundamentalists usually claim is the only other option).  You’re left with the options presented in the following SMBC comic:


Finally, a quick look at a moderate view: Jesus is a real guy.  Lots of the events of the Bible actually happened, but the Bible is not to be read as a modern history book, but rather as a theological revelation of God.  It should be read in light of its genre, semantics, and most especially contexts, and allowing for non-‘literal’ interpretations wherever the text indicates.  Basically, if we read it the same way we’d read other literature of similar types, we’ll probably do okay.


6 thoughts on “Apology: The Fundamentals of Fundamentalism

  1. [So when Tim LaHaye sees the phrase “army of locusts”, he sees real locusts, or perhaps combining the terms, he gets an army that looks like locusts, which of course MUST mean apache helicopters.]

    Love it!! Great post Jeff!

    • I think my mom read that book; I didn’t know he had a TED talk. As soon as we get internet back at our apartment, I’d love to watch it.

      Tolerance is another issue I’ll have to write a post about, because it’s another word/concept that has been bastardized – but this time, by the “left”, or “liberals”, with the faulty definition of course picked up defensively by the “right” or “conservatives” (gosh, we need better terms than these to describe a rough position…which is actually my next post).

  2. Terrific article Jeff! I think most of the key terms (liberal, fundamentalist, literal) have all been bastardized as their respective camps do not really follow their true meaning. Now liberal simply means permissive (or dismissive) which is not really its meaning; fundamentalist is now rigid and willfully ignorant; and literal now means not looking into context (imo, looking at something literally would have to take context into account).

    I often think literalists (in the cultural sense) often demonstrate a lack of faith rather than more as there isn’t room in their beliefs for things they just don’t understand – especially in terms of biblical interpretation. You highlighted one passage (fire vs. darkness) which makes little literal sense; but what about historical passages like Acts 2 which says “every” nations of the earth were present in Jerusalem? That’s even more of a stretch and you’d have to have some Mormon-esque beliefs to read that one completely literal.

    All that being said, I think Evangelicals are too often generalized – even by their own kind. There is and has always been a large segment of Evanglicals who’ve done their dilligence in doing the best they can at reading the Bible in context. Every movement has different voices and I personally won’t shrink from the label simply because there are others within the fold who have a different perspective. Furthermore, the more I distance myself from different opinions, the more narrow mine become and in turn fall into the same trap of thinking that I have every aspect of a Christian worldview figured out. I may not think the Bible is communicating 6 – 24 hour days of creation, but I’m not too concerned about worshiping with the same people and even being open to the possibility that I’m wrong about it myself.

    P.S. The last paragraph is not directed towards what you’ve said, only that I’ve seen too many knee-jerk movements in my church experience the last few years.

    • Thanks for the comment Jonathan!

      Good point on the issue of historical accuracy in Acts, it really points out the selective nature of a “literal” reading. If we are to accept scripture at face value as literally as possible, then we’re stuck with things like historical inaccuracy, mathematical impossibility, etc., which proponents of a “literal” view will explain away on a case-by-case basis – purposely limiting their hermeneutic to “taking scripture literally WHENEVER POSSIBLE”, with the exceptions being those passages that point out the fallacies of their hermeneutic.

      As for worshipping with those I disagree with, to be quite honest I’d even be up for worshipping with those of different faiths, so long as it’s clear who I’m worshipping and why. There’s definitely a point at which you must make the differences between two positions clear, but the ferocity with which some people denounce differing opinions simply reeks of insecurity. The way extremist fundamentalists blast so-called “liberals”, demonizing them in every sense of the word, gives absolutely no glory to God and no chance for unity or reconciliation or even discussion. If it’s not out of insecurity, then I don’t know what it is, but it’s the same thing that makes some unable to admit that they might be wrong about something. If one is not open to being wrong, one cannot criticize their own belief or position; and if one cannot be wrong, then nobody else can be right and must be denounced as being wrong; together they form a direct path to extremism.

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