Thursday, September 14, 2006

What's in a Name?

My friend Mark Rose looks at the dictionary definition of "fundamentalism" and decides the moniker is appropriate. However, terms have connotations as well as denotations, and The Oracle would never encourage a thoughtful Christian to accept the appellation.

The term fundamentalist is now a pejorative with little or no underlying meaning. It is simply a term of derision used to describe someone who's religion you don't like. That was not always the case. Fundamentalism emerged in the late 19th century as a distinct form of traditional Christianity. Protestant clergy and their congregants in those days were accustomed to enjoying prominent positions in American society, but new intellectual, social, technological, and demographic trends began conspiring to break up the Protestant hegemony. By the end of the 19th century, fundamentalism was a loose coalition of widely disparate groups held together by a belief in traditional Protestant doctrines related to the authority of Scripture, the nature of the atonement, and so forth. These groups included academically oriented adherents to what became known as the Princeton theology, revivalists such as D.L. Moody, dispensationalists talking incessantly about the end of the age, and "deeper life" pietists.

Beginning in the 1910's, the movement produced a series of volumes called The Fundamentals, many of which are respectable amplifications of Christian belief.

However, the wide diversity of the coalition and the difficult personalities of some of its leaders combined with the pressures of modernity to cause the movement to implode. By the time of the Scopes "Monkey Trial," those who remained self-described fundamentalists had essentially withdrawn from the larger culture and became known for their strict separationism and legalistic mindset.

In 1947, a young theologian named Carl Henry published a book entitled "The Uneasy Conscience of Fundamentalism," in which he chided fundamentalists for their anti-intellectualism, their lack of involvement in humanitarian enterprises, and their lack of participation in the larger culture. Henry's book helped to launch a new movement that became known as "neo-evangelicalism" That movement became associated with what was launched in the 1950's as a journal of thought, Christianity Today (it is now a rag), and the revivalism of Billy Graham. The descendants of that movement are now usually called evangelicals, though that term is now used to describe groups that are sometimes different from what Henry likely envisioned.

For anyone interested in a really good recounting of the movement's beginnings by an excellent writer and historian, I would recommend George Marsden's Fundamentalism and American Culture.

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