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?