Friday, January 04, 2008

More Evidence for the Quiet Metamorphosis of Fundamentalism

Yesterday Andy Naselli made the case rather poignantly for a trend I've been trying to highlight for some time: Fundamentalism, particularly that of the BJU circle, is slowly, subtly, reinventing and redefining itself. Whether what is going to emerge from this redefinition is something we should like or hope for remains to be seen.

Naselli's post quotes a letter written by Bob Jones, Jr. in 1994 when he served as chancellor of the school. In this letter, Jones suggests that a young man preparing for pastoral ministry "refrain from reading the books written by New Evangelicals."

By that time Jones was in his 80s, and some might suggest that his judgment was less well-honed than it had been in his younger days. I was a student at the school in 1994. I heard Jones preach regularly in chapel and the required Sunday morning campus services. I've listened to a number of his sermons from that era since then. Though he occasionally made statements that bordered on the outlandish, even at that age he was an outstanding crafter of words and ideas. And I have every confidence that it wouldn't be at all difficult to track down similarly outlandish statements from his younger days. So senility is no explanation.

The interesting question is how Jones could make this statement at a time when many courses required textbooks written by authors who unquestionably fell in to the category Jones derided. Perhaps there was a time when the BJU curriculum consisted entirely of Reformers, Anabaptists, Puritans, and 19th century historic evangelicals. But I'm guessing it didn't.

No, my guess is that Jones tolerated the use of these texts in the classrooms on campus, where they could be faithfully interpreted and augmented by BJU professors. I could be wrong, and I'd be interested to hear other plausible interpretations. I don't think blatant hypocrisy is at all likely.

In any case, the attitude he articulated is seldom echoed today—not never, though even the statement in this PDF download is more nuanced than Jones's. As a fundamentalist pastor friend told me last year, the internet changed everything. Fundamentalists can't continue to hammer on MacArthur and Dever and Mohler indiscriminately because their congregations are reading their books [I took this as great news!] and seeing that they're saying true, helpful, laudable things. He didn't say this explicitly, but I took him clearly to mean that maintaining the traditional line undermines one's credibility.

This is all just one more piece of evidence in a pretty panoramic puzzle of fundamental (pun intended) attitudinal shifts. It's another marker of the generation gap that people who interact with fundamentalist pastors often describe. The future will not be like the present. Will it be better? I think that depends on who the diverging generations ultimately decide to hear, and how honest they are willing to be about it.

11 comments:

tjp said...

Ben,

I'm not sure what you cite proves much. But there's one thing I find telling about modern day fundyism, and it's this: Their complete absence from the blogsphere.

Where are the champions of fundamentalism when the movement so desperately needs to hear from them? Where are the fundy pastors, scholars, and institutional heads in the day when the battle breaks poorly?

Sure, there're a few bloggers here and there lifting up separatist fundamentalism, but for the most part they're non existent. It seems to me even the leaders have abandoned the movement's defense.

I find it stunning that recognized separatist institutions and representatives haven't launched a forum to take on the critics of their movement. Could it be they want it to die? Could it be they no longer find anything in fundamentalism worth defending? Could it be they're so hopelessly divided among themselves that even common-cause separatism is a now a bone of contention?

I, for one, stand stricken at the fundamentalism's silence.

Michael C. said...

The simplest explanation I see is that men and institutions are never perfectly consistent. If I had to guess, I would say that when Jones Jr wrote that letter he had just heard of a BJ grad who abandoned fundamentalism. The subject was on his mind, so it showed up in his advice to a ministerial student. That's speculation, of course.

Wasn't it Heraclitus who said you can never step in the same river twice? Fundamentalism today looks much different that the fundamentalism of the 1970s, or even 1994. Evangelicalism has changed as well. You have to interpret fundamentalists' statements in light of the evangelical movement in their day as well as the conflicts that they had weathered personally.

Take, for instance, the SBC. Obviously people at BJU still aren't crazy about the SBC. Do you think, though, that they are working on a sequel to SBC: House on the Sand (1985)? It seems unlikely. Some of this could be because of shifts at BJU, but the situation in the SBC is also much different than it was then. You can't look at one side without looking at the other. (I'm not the SBC buff you are, so maybe this is a bad illustration?)

Another factor you have to consider is personalities. The MacArthur-Jones blowup, for instance, had more to do with personalities than fundamentalist-evangelical issues.

Also, BJ Jr and BJ III were both outspoken leaders who thrived on polemics. They were not necessarily gifted as systematic thinkers, so it can be frustrating to try to distill a coherent body of thought from their opinions.

Jason said...

Ben,

There are lots of Fundamentalists on the blogosphere. Try Pensees, Sharper Iron, Current Christian, Bauder (now via SI), and a host of pastors.

I would, however, agree with you that old-school Fundamentalism is poorly represented in the blogosphere.

Don Johnson said...

my guess is that Jones tolerated the use of these texts in the classrooms on campus, where they could be faithfully interpreted and augmented by BJU professors

I think you are right on that guess, Ben.

But later, when you talk about Dever, MacArthur, and so on, I thought the line was that these guys aren't neo-evangelicals. Right?

Although definitions are fluid, I would tend to think these two men in particular are not neo-evangelicals. They are not fundamentalists, but not neo-evangelicals either. It is possible to make the case that Mohler is neo-evangelical because of the BG issues, but some would argue that point.

I think that Andy's shock at the comment and perhaps the reaction of others comes from a less than full appreciation of what Dr. Bob meant by New Evangelicals. There are many in that group who are clearly identifiable as such. I wouldn't recommend a lot of reading of them either (Ockenga, Henry, Carnell, from the earlier era, Swindoll in the 80s, etc).

Dever and MacArthur and Mohler present a different challenge to fundamentalism. But Dr Bob may well have warned against them also.

FWIW

Regards,
Don Johnson
Jer 33.3

Ben said...

Michael,

Good thoughts. Although, your point about the river changing reminds me of a point I intended to make but only talked around. When I talk about a "quiet metamorphosis," I'm referring to my sense that fundamentalists are changing, but a) don't want anyone to notice it, or b) don't even realize it themselves.

On the BJ-JM personality issues, I'd be interested to hear your summary of why it was personality rather than theology. But in any case, I think there's little question that the vast majority of pastors who have problems with JM think of it as a theological issue, regardless of what was going on in the minds of the original parties. Aren't you suggesting BJ was guilty of some duplicity, though, for suggesting it was theology when it wasn't?

Ben said...

Jason,

TJP made the point about the absence of fundamentalists, not me.

Ben said...

Don,

I certainly don't think they're NEs. People who are even more rigid in their separatism than I am would agree with me.

But we're not talking about my definition. We're talking about Bob Jones Jr.'s. Maybe he wouldn't have considered them NE's, but if not I'd be surprised. Fundamentalists were even less likely to recognize a middle group back then, and Jones was never much given to gray areas, as I remember him.

If anyone can prove or disprove with a quote, I'd love to hear it.

Ben said...

Hey, just found this quote from Phil Johnson's "Dead Right" presentation a couple years ago:

"Almost twenty years ago, Bob
Jones Jr. ran an article in a Bob Jones University-sponsored magazine accusing John MacArthur of teaching heresy."

Wouldn't being a heretic make him a New Evangelical?

Anonymous said...

"There are lots of Fundamentalists on the blogosphere. Try Pensees, Sharper Iron, Current Christian, Bauder (now via SI), and a host of pastors."

I found this site after I stumbled upon the aformentioned SI. If anything, I feel like I want to run from you guys because you truly scare me with your weird beliefs. Is fundamentalism turning into one of those Family Of God or whatever that cult was believed in truly sick, sick, sick beliefs like "flirty fishing." i.e. - women seducing men to bring them into "Christianity", inter-familial relations, etc. Truly sick stuff. Over at SI I've seen a recent thread that is just obsessed with the sexual proclivities of married people and how we all need to be concerned about the sex lives of our fellow Christians to make sure they are "doing it" correctly. There was even talk of a "family bed." Has fundamentalism been taken over by rabid homeschooling, ultra-Gothard, weird-sex-obsessed types? I feel like I need to wash my hands just being at your site since you are linked to SI. Someone please tell me there's hope???

Ryan Martin said...

I think what BJ2's quote shows is that if you think of BJ as the example or hub of fundamentalism, you could make some very bad conclusions about the rest of fundamentalism, which has for several decades been reading and even profiting from the ministry of broader evangelicalism.

Jason said...

Sorry Ben. I meant TJP. :P