Dangerous Fundamentalism?

Justin over at Politics and Religion has begun a series on Christianity’s Downfall by starting off and highlighting fundamentalism. In hopes of education rather than attacking he points out that fundamentalism (in general and in Christianity particularly) is (1) dangerous (2) intolerant (3) rigid (4) illogical and (5) surface-reading which he equates with literalism. Of course, he doesn’t delineate his points as such and is careful to point out what the fundamentalist is rigidly adhering to (and thus obviously dangerous) are the specific doctrines that make Christians who they are: but he does point out that “in many cases, the fundamentalist Christian believes what he…does because it was told to him” and he adheres to a strict literalism. I’ll deal with both these points below.

Admittedly there is some back and forth on the word “fundamentalism” that will make the hackles on the neck of a fundamentalist rise. He would take the word to mean “one who stands firm on the fundamentals of Christian belief” while the opposing party will likely go with one of the definitions that Justin highlighted (ie: A religious movement/pov. characterized by a return to fundamental principles, by rigid adherence to those principles, and often by intolerance of other views and opposition to secularism.”

Thus, no doubt, why he puts up the specific definition of American Protestantism.

Performing Actions by Rote
Yet in his post he does seem to conflate the two areas quite a bit. For example, he points out that fundamentalism’s problem of performing actions by rote because they’ve been told more than they’ve studied for themselves is not something inherent in the fundamentalist movement. Indeed the fundamentalist movement takes great pride in the Bible Alone and in some corners they score points against each other by memorizing entire chapters of the Bible.

Justin’s mistake here is to think that that sort of thinking is restricted to that segment of the American Protestantism movement. I’ve encountered that sort of thing in Reformed Churches where kids grow up memorizing Westminster Shorter (including proof texts), Presbyterian Churches and in the Catholic Church.

In other words: actions by rote are not restricted to fundamentalism and in fact we can even see it pre-Reformation.

Surface-Level Reading
Secondly, his charge of reading the Scriptures on the surface-level is used interchangeably with reading literally and that just strikes me as unfair and an oversimplification. The fact is most people (in and out of America) do exactly that—without application, full stop: close book. I can say more about that, but I don’t think I have to (since it’s repeating the above comment).

Literal Reading
Now to say that one who reads literally is taking everything that is being said in the text as literal is just an oversimplified charge. Not a single Bible reader who says he takes the word of God in it’s plain, literal meaning up and denies that the Scriptures uses symbols, metaphors, allegories, similes, patterns, hyperbole or even anthropomorphism. And the fact they don’t deny those things does not invalidate their claim: it only underscores the fact that they’re reading the Scriptures with the expectation of a clear message. They (we’ll) say if God was able to orchestrate events in such a way as to preserve the Scriptures, He surely expects something to be understood and that this understanding isn’t something being generated from the individual but being lifted up off the actual written text.

Now at this point he would say (indeed he spends a post on it) that God is very different, very Other, and to come to terms with Him in our own (limited) language borders on the impossible. Since He is on an elevated spiritual plane and we can’t possibly describe Him in those terms we must resort to symbolism. For symbolism (unlike strict terminology or mathematics) allows all types of paradoxes. Scripture, he is saying, is harder than plain “literal” reading: “it’s not like reading Dr. Seuss”.

Now I’m going to deny that outright. Of course Scripture has a deeper meaning than what one reads at the surface level—literal reading fundamentalists acknowledge that! The fact is Just because we can’t get the full scope of God’s greatness or come to terms with the paradoxes does not mean that the other readings of the text are not productive or even the basis for deeper understanding without ever denying the principle understanding.

For example I enter a kitchen and for some reason on the counter there is a container of Sodium and another of Chlorine. A seven year old in the kitchen tells me his mother said to stay away from them that they’re poison.

I think the kid is a fool because he doesn’t know that Sodium Chloride tastes great on food so I up and deny the truth of what the kid is saying and go to open the containers of poison.

See, my point is not that there is a deeper understanding of the workings of Sodium or of Chloride but that the entrance into the deeper understanding starts at a point that is understandable to most and never loses that original meaning.

Don Carson would say that John 3:16 is easily understandable to a seven year old even if the kid doesn’t have an understanding of the Greek word kosmos referring to the sinful, rebellious humanity in Johannine theology. Heck, one billion years into eternity we may have a better understanding of John 3:16 but it still won’t be exhaustive and it won’t be so far removed from the original reading that it makes the original reading meaningless. John 3:16 will always mean what it says even if we understand it at deeper levels.

In other words: the fact that the descriptions of the heavenly things necessitate symbols, metaphors, similes—scratch that—tools of everyday language to communicate a point does not invalidate the fact that those things have to be written in understandable language to appropriate those points or the fact that the original meaning stills stands.

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