Shedding the Fundamentalist Skin

In a recent Religion News Service article, David Gibson reports that the great bastion of fundamentalism Bob Jones University has started to avoid the description “fundamentalist.”  The article describes a “sea change” at the university as it consciously tries to shed the negative connotations which are associated with the term in the twenty-first century. It is not as though the school is going to reject inerrancy or the virgin birth.  Nor is the University going to start promoting ecumenical unity or adding Chris Tomlin to their chapel schedule.  They are still über-conservative, although there is at least wi-fi on campus now.  Fundamentalists are the bomb-wielding Muslims, not good Christians from the south.

This is a remarkable development and brings two things to my mind. I was raised in a conservative Bible Church and went to a conservative Bible College.  I was taught that there were some key fundamentals of the faith which could not be compromised, and that there was nothing wrong with the term fundamentalist.  I heard quite a few pastors firmly declare their loyalty to being a fundamentalist (usually accompanied by a pulpit smack or a Bible-waggle).

But some time when I was in college I began to realize that there was something wrong with calling myself a fundamentalist.  The doctrine was fine, but the cultural image of the crazy fundamentalist Christian was too much baggage to carry.  Like most people my age who were more-or-less conservative and sensible, I started calling myself an “evangelical.”  Bob Jones has simply caught up to the late 1970’s and shed a title which has confused people for 50 years.

But here is my second thought about this shift of thinking in Greenville, South Carolina.  If Bob Jones has given up the title fundamentalist in favor of “evangelical,” then it is high time I moved on as well.  I actually started thinking about this over the summer when the media persistently called Harold Camping an “evangelical.”  If Camping is an evangelical, I need to find a new word to describe myself, since my way of thinking about the Bible and biblical faith are in no way related to his wild-eyed prophetic utterances.

So if Bob Jones is the new evangelical, then what is the old “evangelical”?  Is it time to dispense with the term as an overused and meaningless distinction?  Is the media-sullied term “evangelical” helpful anymore?

15 thoughts on “Shedding the Fundamentalist Skin

  1. I’m thinking that it depends upon whether or not Scot McKnight’s definition of evangelical replaces the current traditional trend…

    • I don’t think that will help.

      I know what you are saying Phil, but are you really that concerned about Bob Jones and the media? I mean, I know the majority of the ETS is southern baptist but should you be quick to drop a term because of bad press?

      You could turn to your roots and call yourself a dispensationalist. Or call yourself a follower of the Way like the early church did.

    • Note us Brit’s and Anglicans have the term “Free Evangelical”, which even NT Wright uses…yikes its hard to define ourselves sometimes, for I am not in the “Wright” club, strictly.

      • Btw, I wonder how Giesler defines himself… Evangelical Fundamentalist? If so, I am certainly not so close! How about an Anglican, evangelical, biblicist – yet historical, creedal, confessional, and oh yeah dogmatic? I am kidding somewhat of course, but we do need theological label’s, certainly!

        Btw too Philip, I would love to hear your take on Matt. 27: 52-53 sometime, perhaps on e-mail? I have put my views out there on this, so I am labeled! 😉

      • Allow me share this from off my on blog…

        [Language] once created also enables man to reason to himself, both because words provide the means for remembering abstract thoughts and because of the usefulness of symbols and blind thoughts in reasoning, since it would take too long to lay everything out and always replace terms by definitions. (New Essays.. Leibniz)

        We must always accord some cognitive role to language as an “instrument of reason”. And words themselves are part of that modern doctrine that language and conceptual thought are necessarily coextensive, to think and reason. It is here we are brought back to the logic of the word & text. The Hebrew and Greek reality of thought thru “word” itself.

        For Leibniz, it is to Augustine for the Cogito, to Anselm for the ontological argument, and to Plato for his scepticism about the senses, alone. Man, needs language and word, especially written. To think, to reason.. and find logic. The Greek Philosophers.

    • I think that labels (like metaphors) grow old and need to die. But I cannot imagine a world without labels for what we believe. Even if you decide to dispense with all labels and call yourself a Christ-Follower, or a Red-Letter Christian (as someone on FB suggested), that is still a label. The moment you describe your beliefs , you label yourself.

      My point here is that the label “fundamentalist” was overused and abused, so that when the media uses the word, we all think “crazy terrorist” or whacked-out cult leader. Now “evangelical” has come to mean a “conservative Christian” as opposed to any who is sane. I think that maybe it is equivalent to “hypocrite” to a lot of people!

      I like Robert’s reminder that in England “evangelical” has a different cultural feel than in America.

      (And Funvagelcial sounds like someone who prays to mushrooms).

      • @Philip: Amen as a conservative Anglican and something culturally Anglo-Irish, I am always in need of label’s, and now that I am here in the US for the time being, I am sometimes like a duck out-of-water! I am one that is always thinking/tweaking my theology, as both “catholic” and “reformed”. There’s a few labels! 😉 I hope we can all renew the great term “Evangelical”! 🙂

    • I think that it is impossible to avoid a label. I can think of several labels for you, I am sure you can fine a few for me. Humans categorize things so that they can understand them better. I think that it is natural to want to pigeon-hole ideas (conservative? liberal? Emergent? Christian? Secular? Post-Modern? Contemporary?)

      The problem for this blog is that the this handy shorthand way of describing an ideology gets skewed by overuse and no longer means what we think it does. When Bob Jones University wants to be known as Evangelical, not Fundamentalist, it is not because them have move “left” toward a more broad theological and social position, but that the label “fundamentalist” change through overuse to mean something bad. (Or worse, I suppose!)

  2. I still struggle with the Label idea… I have had a few people try and “label” me by asking me questions and the such and I never fit into any of them… and why would not having a label cause us to swim in circles? I get the feeling I am just missing something here lol

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