Recapitulation on the Question of Religious Fundamentalism

When people will not weed their own minds, they are apt to be overrun by nettles.
– Horace Walpole

My intellect would wish for a clear-cut universe with no dim corners, but there are all these cobwebs in the cosmos.
– Carl Jung

Often times I rush in “where angels fear to tread,” or speak (or write) before I’ve properly though through the subject upon which I’m commenting, and I’ve ended up unintentionally hurting people’s feelings or making them angry. While I don’t believe this is (or should be) the case with my latest post, “Sloughheart, My Self, and Silly Fundamentalism”, I would still like to recapitulate and make certain I’m being as clear and understandable as possible on this topic. Having said this, then, I’d like to proceed point-by-point, but I will also broaden the scope of fundamentalism to (hopefully) aid in the clarification of my thoughts.

First, using the Oxford English Dictionary, I defined “fundamentalism” in my most recent blog as:

Fundamentalism – 1 a form of religion, which upholds belief in the strictly literal interpretation and application, sometimes selective, of sacred scriptures and/or inherited customs and religious traditions; 2 the elevation of particular doctrines and practices as being fundamentally important to the religious faith-community, the observation and practice of which are obligatory, with the failure to adhere to this standard being punished, sometime severely.

Since I have lately dived into the dark morass of epistemology, skirting the coastlines of the philosophy of language in the process, I’ve become far more sensitive to definitions and the proper use of language, so… Is this a good definition? I’d probably benefit from having an encyclopedist and/or linguist critique it, but I don’t personally know any such persons; we’ll simply proceed to “pick apart” this definition and thereby (hopefully) bring greater lucidity to both what I mean and what I don’t mean. There are two parts to my definition; let’s begin with the first:

  • A form of religion, which upholds belief in the strictly literal interpretation and application, sometimes selective, of sacred scriptures and/or inherited customs and religious traditions

Upon further reflection, I believe I’d add “unreflectingly” before “upholds.” Fundamentalism is “a form of religion, which unreflectingly upholds belief in … etc.” There are people I know, and have known, who, for example, believe in a literal interpretation of the Genesis (chapter one) account of creation. However, they are willing to say, while they hold the position of scientific creationism, that belief in intelligent design or theistic evolution does not damn one’s soul to hell. Point in fact, they have friends and family members who hold such views, and some of these people I know are willing to admit they may be wrong in their viewpoint. They’ve also spent some time openly and honestly exploring the subject; therefore, I would not label them as fundamentalist. After all, if we’re not careful here, we could end up labelling the vast majority of humanity as fundamentalists, which would then render the term almost vacuous, an otherwise empty word bereft of any substantive meaning … except, perhaps, that it would be indicative merely of someone who believes something more or less definitely.

No, the fundamentalist, by the above definition (first part) would be someone who unreflectingly holds to scientific creationism. In this sense, it’s worth mentioning that not a few atheistic evolutionists fit this description as well, and make no mistake, there are fundamentalist atheists. The man who unreflectingly subscribes to atheistic evolution may be just as guilty of anti-intellectualism, at this point at least, as the proponent of scientific creationism … no matter how good and valid the evidence for biological evolution is (or seems to be.) Along these same lines, let me mention a point C. S. Lewis made in one of his essays concerning the interpretation of scripture: While he admitted he was not, properly speaking, a Bible scholar, he was well-versed in literature and the proper methods of reading, understanding, and interpreting literature (particularly that of Medieval Europe.) He contended that one first has to know the type of literature one is reading before she can hope to properly interpret that literature, and he applies this to Scripture.[1] The fundamentalist would (and does) balk at this, saying in effect that “God says what he means and means what he says, and it’s all clear enough, unless you simply don’t want to believe it. Then you twist it and turn it until it suits you better.” This is the anti-intellectual, narrow-mindedness of fundamentalism. It is not an anomaly, either; one finds this present in Islam, Hinduism, atheism, communism, etc.

Concerning “inherited customs and/or religious traditions,” we might look at the restrictive face-covering niqāb worn by Muslim women in Islamist societies as a strictly enforced adherence to an otherwise outdated custom. The less-restrictive hijab has been worn by women for generations upon generations as a way of showing, or preserving, modesty.[2] One wonders, though, just to what extent the Muslim woman ought to show modesty, even by Quranic standards. Should it be, as Islamists evidently believe, as far as wearing the niqāb? (I’m not an expert of Islam, but I believe the question is valid nonetheless.) Also, one might ask why it is the woman is forced to show such an extent of modesty, but not the man, which all seems a bit misogynistic by contemporary Western standards, at least. However, is the wearing of a hijab wrong, in and of itself? It would be difficult to make such a case; after all, there may be plenty of Muslim women who want to wear the hijab while knowing full-well that it’s not absolutely necessary to modesty and decency.

What about these women? One could hardly contend they’re fundamentalist, at least without (again) broadening the definition of “fundamentalism” to the point that it no longer serves any practical purpose in communication. There are, we should remember, plenty of customs and traditions, religious and otherwise, to which people faithfully adhere. Are they all fundamentalists? Are the people who put on traditional Fourth of July parades in the United States, as well as those who faithfully attend, socio-political fundamentalists? Perhaps some of them are – and they would more properly be called “nationalists,” I believe – but traditional Fourth of July parades do not make them fundamentalists … and I say this as one who’s never really cared much for this type of celebration, not because I consider myself unpatriotic, but simply because I really don’t like parades very much at all. But if we label someone who’s faithful to the tradition, the custom, of such parades a fundamentalist, then it’s only fair to ask whether or not I’m an anti-patriotic fundamentalist for rather decidedly refusing to attend and join such celebrations. I trust the reader will see how, if we’re not careful, use of the term “fundamentalist” or “fundamentalism” can quickly devolve into noxious absurdity.

Let’s now move on to the second part of my above definition:

  • The elevation of particular doctrines and practices as being fundamentally important to the religious faith-community, the observation and practice of which are obligatory, with the failure to adhere to this standard being punished, sometimes severely

And I would like to divide this up into portions (a) and (b) so that we’ll talk about “the elevation of particular doctrines and practices … etc.” first, then “the observation and … failure to adhere to this (or these) standard(s) being punished, sometimes severely.” So, as an example of (a) we might look at a favorite among fundamentalist Protestants, an eschatological doctrine: Dispensational premillennialism. This is the belief that “the second coming of Christ, and subsequent establishment of the millennial kingdom,” one thousand years of peaceful, paradisiacal life on earth, “is to be preceded by a seven-year … period known as” the Great Tribulation, “the earthly activity of the Antichrist, as well as the outpouring of God’s wrath on” sinful humanity. (Many, if not most, dispensationalists believe true Christians will be raptured off the earth before the Great Tribulation.) Dispensational premillennialism also “holds that the nation of Israel will be saved and restored to a place of preeminence” during the millennial reign of Christ on earth. “Thus, Israel will have a special function of service (during) the millennium that is different from that of the Church or saved Gentiles.”[3]

For some independent, fundamentalist churches, this is the linchpin of their theology; it is, by analogy, the hub of the wheel, and one cannot be a member of their church without subscribing to the doctrine of dispensational premillennialism (as well as other doctrines.) Examples of proponents of this doctrine are: Timothy LaHaye, John Hagee, Harold (Hal) L. Lindsey, Charles C. Ryrie, Robert (Bob) R. Jones III, Arlin and Beka Horton, and others known quite well within American Protestant circles – ones that agree with dispensationalism and one that vehemently disagree. If you’re unfamiliar with these names, or seem to be, then let me share a bit of information about them. Arlin and Beka Horton were the co-founders of Pensacola Christian College (PCC) in Pensacola, Florida. PCC is, perhaps, most notable for creating a curriculum, named after Beka Horton, widely used among Protestant Christian schools. PCC is also decidedly legalistic in its rules and regulations. Bob Jones III’s grandfather founded Bob Jones University in 1927 in Bay County, Florida. (The university is now located in Greenville, South Carolina.)

Timothy LaHaye, along with Jerry Jenkins, authored the infamous Left Behind series, which centers upon the apocalyptic end of the world after, of course, Christians have been raptured up to heaven. The series included 16 installments, all best sellers, and led to the production of several movies, video games, paraphernalia and whatnot – an abominable billion-dollar industry unto itself. Hal Lindsey authored the mega-best seller, The Late Great Planet Earth, back in the early 1970s; it had sold approximately 28 million copies by 1990.[4] He went on to write such books as Satan is Alive and Well on Planet Earth and There’s A New World Coming.[5]

On the obligation to adhere to certain practices – rigid rules, unyielding standards – with the failure to do so resulting in sometimes (oftentimes?) harsh punishment, there is no shortage of examples. The fundamentalist mentality is arrogant, concretized narrow-mindedness that demands conformity of its subordinates; thus, the legalistic fundamentalist (private Christian) school teacher beats a boy’s naked bottom for letting a “darn” slip through his lips, and his father (or mother) might very well reinforce this discipline at home by exacting the same punishment. This is certainly not unheard of; in fact, it might be all-too-common. Husbands demand silence and complete, abject obedience from their wives and children.

Pastors verbally pound their congregations two or three times each week for being wicked sinners in need of repentance, which is, frighteningly enough, one of the expected practices within typical independent, fundamentalist churches. Boys and men must have their hair cut short, above the ears and tapered in the back. Women must not cut their hair, beyond slightly trimming, perhaps; they must also avoid hair coloring and make-up. Jewelry is not allowed for males, of course, and often not allowed for women, either. Everyone is barred from listening to any contemporary music; sometimes everyone is discouraged from even listening to classical sacred music, i.e. they are limited to songs from the old hymn book and Gospel music. The list goes on and on, but the result is the same: There is some price to pay for failure to comply.

This is even more noticeable in Islamism; individuals can lose fingers and hands for stealing, or their very lives for what might be considered blasphemy, even if it is not so according to Qur’anic standards. The news around the world is packed full of horrendous stories of the extremities to which Islamists are going in order to enforce compliance to their exceedingly stringent, narrow version of Islam. People are being murdered, children are being ripped away from their parents, homes burned, sometimes entire villages destroyed. Adherents of other faith-religions are in constant danger… All of this militates against the mainstream history and heritage of Islam, which many in the West no longer know, as well as the basic attitude and perspective of Muslims round the world.[6] This is the ugly face of fundamentalism. It crops up, too, in Hinduism,[7] which seeks to recover “an original Hindu empire.”[8]

In Christianity, much of the problem with fundamentalism stems from an inappropriate interpretation and application of the scriptures, historical ignorance, and a gross under-appreciation for catholic (universal) growth and maturation. As stated before in previous blogs, I am no Bible scholar, but in the study of Scripture it seems to me an excellent approach would be as follows:

  1. Learn as much as possible the historical context of the passage, i.e. the social customs of ancient Israel, the Ancient Near East in general, Hellenization, the political situation, the early Roman Empire, concurrent religions, etc.
  2. Utilize basic study aids, such as: Dictionaries, Bible encyclopedias,[9] lexicons, concordances, etc. as well as at least three reputable translations[10]
  3. Consult commentaries, ancient and contemporary,[11] varied in theological perspective.[12]
  4. Take notes, discuss with others (intelligent and serious), meditate (prayerfully), etc.
  5. Consider what contemporary application – via (perhaps) appropriate re-contextualization[13] – the passage might offer, beneficially of course.

Fundamentalist rarely do this, or if they do, then it’s quite narrow. They might, for example, use the Scofield Study Bible, extremely popular among dispensationalists, or the Ryrie Study Bible; maybe Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance of the King James Version translation, and the New Unger’s Bible Dictionary published by Moody Press. They’ll rarely venture out in Bible study beyond the narrow confines of dispensational, fundamentalist theology, though, and so while they learn, they really never mature intellectually. Their vision remains tunneled, their understanding very myopic. And this is why, in my previous article, I said:

Fundamentalism wallows in shallow, anemic over-simplification, and when challenged, IBFs will (in the greater part of such instances) either try to out shout their opponent(s) with Bible verses and trite remarks, or withdraw into their fundamentalist fortress where they can privately deride their opponent(s) and relish the fantastical feeling of victory.

Now, again, for what and whom I do not mean to indict in all this: I do not mean by “fundamentalist” merely someone who is theologically conservative, or more traditional – after all, I consider myself to be for the most part a consensually orthodox-catholic Christian – and I do not mean someone who stands confidently upon what she believes. None of this is, properly speaking, fundamentalism. Hopefully, my above comments will clarify any misunderstanding arising from my last article, or the one before: “Masculinity According to an Evangelical Woman.” Although I really should have entitled that article, “Masculinity According to a Fundamentalist Woman,” but alas, I did not, so I will simply have to proffer an apology here for that mistake.

Any other points that may need clarification will have to wait for someone eager enough to ask, which is certainly welcome, of course. Otherwise, we venture forth into other subject matter!



[1] I believe the essay is entitled, “Historicism,” and is found in Christian Reflections, 124-140. An interesting, and perhaps informative, essay on the topic of C. S. Lewis and proper interpretation of Scripture is offered by David Williams in “C. S. Lewis on Scripture: God’s Word in Human Words,” as accessed on May 20, 2015

[2]Women and Veiling: What is the Hijab and Why Do Women Wear It?” accessed on May 20, 2015; cf. Qur’an 24. 30-31; 33. 58-59

[3] “What is Dispensational Premillennialism/Premillennial Dispensationalism?” on GotQuestions?org, as accessed on May 20, 2015

[4] Bart D. Ehrman, MDiv, PhD. Historical Jesus. ‘Prophet of the New Millennium.’ The Teaching Company, 2000, Lecture 24.

[5] As an interesting aside, Lindsey evidently required help writing his first two books, Late Great Planet Earth and Satan is Alive and Well on Planet Earth. What makes this so interesting is the fact that at least the first was actually ghost-written by Carole C. Carlson, a woman! David Jeremiah has also used her talents in writing a good many books. Cf. “Carole C. Carlson, The Mother of Modern Prophecy,” accessed on May 20, 2015; also, the Wikipedia article for “The Late Great Planet Earth.”

[6] Some will disagree with me on this point; however, I am not proselytizing for Islam, nor am I making outlandish claims for Muslim faith and practice. Cf. Professor Huseyin Algul, faculty member specializing in Islamic History in the Department of Theology at Uludag University, Bursa, Turkey, “Islam is a Religion of Love and Peace,” accessed on May 20, 2015; also, perhaps,the Islam Is Peace (British) web site.

[7] An interesting article to read on the topic of Hindu fundamentalism, and how it ties in with Indian nationalism, is “Outlines of Hindu Fundamentalism” found on the University of Idaho web site by an anonymous author, accessed May 20, 2015

[8] See above reference

[9] The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia published by Eerdmans and edited by Goeffrey Bromiley is an excellent choice.

[10] Fundamentalists are notorious for the practical veneration of the King James (Authorized) Version; however, although this is one of the most beautiful classics of the English language – certainly appropriate on one’s bookshelf – it is based upon the Textus Receptus, the Received Text, which is outdated now. Better English translations include, but are not limited to, the Revised Standard Version, New Revised Standard Version, New American Bible (Revised Edition), English Standard Version, and (from what I’ve been told by those who should know) perhaps the New International Version.

[11] The Church’s Bible series published by Eerdmans offers an excellent source of Patristic understanding of Scripture, both Old and New Testaments.

[12] Background commentaries are also very useful, and several publishing companies, such as IVP (mainline conservative), offer such.

[13] An example of re-contextualization can be found on the Defeating the Dragons blog, specifically the article, “The Prophecy of Amos, Revised.”



2 thoughts on “Recapitulation on the Question of Religious Fundamentalism

  1. I still remember this Lithuanian priest who yelled at the congregation during the sermon that if he sees a girl wearing pants, he will throw them out of the church! 🙂 I was maybe 7 years old and was seriously scared. 😦

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