August 27, 2007
by Pastor George Van Alstine
When I was growing up, the word âfundamentalistâ? had a simple, focused meaning. My home church was a member of the Independent Fundamental Churches of America, a loose affiliation of churches committed to the inerrancy of the Bible and to the core beliefs of historic Christianity. During the early part of the 20th century, concern about the erosion of Christian doctrine was crystallized into a classic list of âfive fundamentals of the faith.â? My earliest memories were that fundamentalism meant right belief on those key doctrines taught in the Bible.
In the 1950s and 1960s there was a change in thinking. Many Christian leaders and teachers who were biblically conservatives, began to distance themselves from the word âfundamentalist.â? In fighting for the faith, they felt, fundamentalists had gone too far.
Their cause had added to the list of fundamental beliefs rules about all aspects of behavior and attitude. Fundamentalism had become a cultural purity movement, rather than a religious reform movement. Many people who noticed this trend no longer identify themselves as fundamentalists, but as âevangelicals.â? This further narrowed the fundamentalist movement to the extreme right wing.
I thought I had my thinking straight on all of this. Then a couple of decades ago, I began hearing the word âfundamentalistâ? used to describe extremist Muslim teachers. Today, we hear the phrase âIslamic fundamentalistâ? used in just about every newscast. The term has also been applied to the most conservative groups among the Israelis, who are often labeled âJewish fundamentalists.â? Iâve recently heard of âHindu fundamentalistsâ? as well. (Weâll probably never hear about âBuddhist fundamentalists,â? because theyâre all at a retreat center high in the Himalayas contemplating their total identity with the universe.)
Many of my thoughts about this came together as I watched last weekâs six-hour CNN special âGodâs Warriors.â? The three two-our segments covered Jewish, Muslim and Christian fundamentalist movements. It was not easy to watch as well-meaning, spiritually-driven people turned into hate-filled assassins and terrorists.
This series was very well researched and carefully presented by the film editors and journalist Christiane Amanpour. Since the perspective was from the outside of all three movements, persons who are actively involved (like myself) could see their particular faith as others see it, in the context of the variety of world religions.
Here are three observations I made while watching the programs:
(1) The commentators were right in identifying as a primary cause for concern among all three kinds of fundamentalists the permissiveness and lack of respect for tradition in modern society. Younger generations, whether Jewish, Muslim or Christian, seem to be growing up in a rule-free atmosphere that leads only to moral chaos and personal lostness. The answer presented by fundamentalists is a return to old rules, whether Islamic Sharia laws, Jewish traditional rituals and taboos, or the dos and donâts of fundamentalist Christianity.
One striking feature in all three movements is an attempt to return to a traditional role for womenâan obvious reaction to the results of the feminist movement and affirmation of womenâs full participation in all areas of modern life. This is most striking in the emphasis on veiling and wearing the burkha in Islamic societies, but it is also seen in Judaism and Christianity in a reaffirmation of male headship and a limitation on womenâs participation in leadership positions.
This gives me a clue to the basic weakness in all three fundamentalist expressions: They are flying in the face of social changes that are inevitable and irreversible. Nostalgia for the old ways will never resolve the challenges of modern life.
I can see this in the irony of two Muslim women freely talking on the street of a Middle East city, the one carefully robed and veiled, the other wearing jeans and having hair colored and styled in the most modern way. But I can see it even more clearly in my own society, where young people are enticed to attend a Christian concert by the fact that it will feature rock and hip-hop music just as loud as in any night club. The Christian counter-culture mimics the culture it pretends to counter.
A while ago, I worshiped at a church in a beach community, where the sermon was on spiritual warfare. The pastor challenged the congregation to see spiritual enemies around every corner, in every situation where they encounter the unbelieving world. After church, I was introduced to one of the more active members of the congregation. He talked about his business, which was selling and repairing jet skies for the tourist trade. I wondered how the spiritual warfare teaching related to his everyday life, and decided he must not take any of that too seriously.
You see, the modern world is real. The future has arrived. We canât challenge parts of it we donât like with a half-hearted call to arms or an appeal to nostalgia for the past.
Fortunately, the gospel Jesus preached was relevant to the realities of his first-century world, and it is just as relevant to the different realities of the twenty-first century.
(Iâve run out of space. For points (2) and (3), tune in to next weekâs Messenger.)