26.6.08

Simon Burrow on Christian Fundamentalism

I have found this article by Simon Barrow. If you want to read it in it entirety, click here Facing up to fundamentalism

If fundamentalism is rendered coherent and is characterised by any one thing, it is its refusal to recognise that its reading of scripture is, like all textual reading, interpretative. Rather, it sees the authoritative text as being unmediated.

Giles Fraser (‘Why legalism misrepresents the Bible’, Ekklesia, 27/01/07) observes a further twist: “When someone put in those nasty verse numbers, the lawyers started to feel it was their book — a set of regulations. Chapter and verse started sounding like paragraph 1, subsection 3 of a legal contract. That was the point at which some Christians began to reject the idea that the Bible could be read in various ways, and, worse still, that it might contain contradictions or poetry. Such things would undermine its status as the ultimate legal document.”

It is the belief that revealed truth is to be apprehended directly and in an unmediated (often legalistic) form by a privileged group which distinguishes the ‘fundamentalist mindset’ – and which makes it possible...to use the term more generally. But its pejorative and abusive connotations often disable such descriptive usefulness with emotivism.

‘Infallibility’ and ‘inerrancy’ are human constructs which stress the inviolability of something within human control. The Christian message, by contrast, is that God has chosen the ‘weak vessels’ of flesh, textuality, history, reason and tradition through which to address us. In this respect, as David E. Jenkins has observed, “fundamentalism is fatally flawed” from the perspective of a mainstream Christian orientation. The biblical language is of “inspiration”, divine wisdom working with, in and through the mind and the heart, rather than over and against these things.

Fundamentalism as a mindset is a refusal of conversation. In most cases it cannot be out-argued or ‘reasoned with’, because its narrow premises are constructed in such a way as to eliminate critique and encourage self-affirmation. But this should not lead us to the dangerous conclusion that encounter with fundamentalists is unnecessary or unfruitful.

On the contrary, many Christians pass through a ‘fundamentalist phase’, especially when they are young or new to the faith. Security and relationship are precisely what enable people to move beyond this stage, and to discover a rootedness which is about grace rather than self-assertion. Writing people off and labelling them reinforces the exclusive culture which nurtures the fundamentalist mindset. Encouraging Christians to mix and talk widely, both inside and outside the church, opens windows to closed minds if it is done in the right spirit.

James Barr and others – including highly-regarded evangelical scholars such as James D. G. Dunn and I. Howard Marshall - are right to stress that ‘evangelical commitment’ and the mindset of fundamentalism are not the same thing – indeed they are opposites, since the former is a disposition of faith (reasonable trust) rather than certainty.

Finally, Christians and others would do well to seek to re-evaluate and disarm a form of discourse which simplistically pits religious ‘conservatives’ against ‘liberals’, seeing fundamentalism as the purest form of the former and non-belief as the purest form of the latter – as if the choice was between Jerry Falwell and Richard Dawkins. It patently is not. The processes of conservation and liberality are much more interesting than that, and indeed need one another. Responsible generosity towards the past, present and future go together with an attitude that we are not controllers, but recipients of the sheer gift that is God in Christ. A very different kind of theological and cross-community conversation is needed at the tail end of Christendom and in the continuing uncertainty that is post-modernity. One which questions our answers rather than reinforcing our stereotypes.


This speaks certainly into the current church dynamics as we approach Lambeth and certain GAFCON members seek the resignation of Rowan Williams whom they suppose sits at one particular end of the spectrum.

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