Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Modern American Idols III: Trendies Vs. Fundies

The title is a tribute to Os Guinness, author of the classic “Gravedigger File,” which points Christians to the ease which we absorb the culture around us into our faith and worship. This series of posts is designed to reflect on how much of what 21st century American Christians think and do has been shaped by the forces of rationalism and modernism that swept all of Western civilization in the 19th and 20th century. Guinness called those whose instincts are to merge constantly with contemporary culture “Trendies.” He called those whose instincts are to resist “Fundies.” But Guinness argues that everyone reacts intuitively from their contemporary culture, and I think he would agree that all of Christianity in America today is shaped, in ways we might not even recognize, by the emergence of Modernism, and by the so-called Modernist vs. Fundamentalist controversy in the 1920s.

What, then, is a “fundamentalist”? Most American today would probably think that the best description was one of Frederick March denouncing evolution in the (historically very inaccurate) movie Inherit the Wind. Or, they might picture a small town preacher railing against alcohol, tobacco, and dancing. Words can change meaning across time, but at the dawn of the 20th century, things were more complicated than that.

There is an old joke that Presbyterians believe in moderation in everything except moderation, and there is good historical truth to that. We are neither a hierarchical nor a congregational denomination (indeed the federal system of the United States was modeled in some ways upon colonial Presbyterianism). And, being descendants of John Calvin, we embrace the tension of both the liberty of an individual Christian’s conscience and the responsibility of the Body of Christ to reveal a true faith to the community and to future generations.

For centuries the ordination of Presbyterian elders (pastors and “ruling” elders of the church) was based upon the Westminster Confession of Faith in Britain from the 1600s (that’s the “true faith” part). However, candidates were allowed to announce a “scruple” if their conscience led then to reject a part of the confession (that’s the “liberty” part). The examining body would then decide whether the scruple was so significant that it posed a barrier to ordination.

What was happening in the early years of the 20th century was that a new wave of Presbyterian ministers, trained in the rationalism and skepticism radiating from German theologians, were announcing scruples on what seemed to many Presbyterians as “essential” (or “fundamental”) elements of the faith. And, as the modernists gained power in the Presbyteries (local governing bodes) their scruples were being upheld. A group within the national denomination attempted to formulate a list of core “essentials” to become a Presbyterian elder: the inerrancy of the Bible, the Virgin Birth, Jesus’ atonement for sins, his bodily resurrection, and the realty of his miracles. These “essentialists” (or “fundamentalists” if you will) prevailed for a few years, but eventually the main governing body of Northern Presbyterians rejected “essentialism” and decided that there could be no required list of essential points of the Christian faith binding on the Presbyteries. Quite literally, a successful candidate for ordination in the Presbyterian Church (and, with similar stories, in many other American Protestant denominations) could --- and many quite undoubtedly did --- believe the following:

The Bible is a flawed set of human documents – as decades of German theologians have proved – which may or may not tell an accurate story of a wonderful teacher named Jesus, whose death was a political fiasco that had nothing to do with atonement for what some people call “sins”. He was killed and died in the normal fashion, which sent his followers into a prolonged funk. However, a few weeks after his death his followers had an emotional, Kumbaya revelation that if they carried on his teachings, they could make the world a better place, just as if this rabbi were still with them. After this, they embellished their oral traditions of his life, as did those unknown people, decades and decades later, who collected and further modified those legends into what we call the New Testament. What this means is that modern, progressive Christians are called to set aside Biblical superstitions and work with other like minded individuals to harness the good that can come from rational, scientific, progressive thought and remake society along our best guess of what Jesus would be fighting for were he with us today: minimum wages; legal prohibitions against gambling, smoking, or drinking alcohol; creating a federal trade commission to promote fair competition among firm; and the alleviation of other “social sins.”

Lest you think I am exaggerating, Richard Niebuhr later summarized modernist, Social Gospel Christianity as “A God without wrath brought men without sin into a Kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a cross.” Or go online and read "Shall the Fundamentalists Win?" or, (on Google Books) Christianity and Progress by Harry Emerson Fosdick, the (Baptist) leader of the forces of “Progressive Christianity” and one of the most famous American pastors of the early 20th century.

Next up, what did the “Fundies” actually believe?

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