There is a somewhat negative connotation to the word “fundamentalist” (in my opinion, with good reason and a measure of accuracy). But the kind of black-and-white thinking associated with fundamentalism is actually present in the majority of conservative Christianity (“evangelical” or not) to at least some extent. Most churches teach a variation on exactly the same theme. The sad part about it is that this theme isn’t “ancient.” It isn’t a Jewish theme, and it isn’t even present in the oldest forms of Christianity. Not the way it’s taught now, anyway. This excerpt sums it up nicely:
The overarching story of fundamentalism, based on a highly literal and selective interpretation of the story of the Bible itself, goes something like this: God created the world; man was created good; Adam and Eve sinned; man was corrupted, and came under God’s condemnation, specifically the judgment of eternal punishment, i.e. hell; God sent Jesus to take the punishment for us; if we become (properly born-again) Christians, we will go to heaven and be saved from hell. It is a story about good versus evil, God versus Satan. It is a story in which the world is a battleground between the two.
When you become a fundamentalist Christian, typically by being “born again”, you become a part of that story. A distant and alien story about God and a group of people thousands of years ago becomes the story of how you yourself, two millennia after the cross, crossed over onto the right path and became destined for heaven.
You will join a community where the big story will be told over and over again, whether explicitly or implicitly, in the songs you sing, the sermons you hear, the conversations you have, the language you use and the rituals in which you participate. Present-day fundamentalists may well see themselves as part of a story about how society is getting worse and worse as standards decline and the ungodly have their wicked way, a story about how people have overcome by resisting this decline and how you too can overcome. Within the big story are smaller stories, whether hypothetical or attached to actual events, about how accepting this, that and the other is the beginning of the slippery slope into heresy and apostasy.
As in all good stories, there is a cast of characters, of heroes and villains. The world is divided up unambiguously into Believers and Unbelievers, the Saved and the Unsaved. The Believers are faithful, Bible-believing, valiant defenders of eternal truth, heavenbound. Unbelievers are godless, blinded, hellbound. There are the Liberals, pretend Christians, attackers of the truth, rebellious against God. Everyone falls into one category or another. Fundamentalism presents a very black-and-white world. And if all this looks like a caricature of fundamentalism, perhaps that’s because the fundamentalist worldview is a caricature of the world itself? -from Why Leaving Fundamentalism Hurts, by David L. Rattigan
Right now, a lot of people are reading this and thinking, “Exactly. What’s wrong with that?” Let me explain.
The problem with this kind of either/or mentality is that it ignores stark reality and lived experience. Lumping all people into the binary categories of “saved = good” and “unsaved = bad” turns a blind eye to the fact that a lot of people exist outside those labels. The assumption seems to be that the rest of the world is going down, but we real, true Christians aren’t going with it. And if you’re not for us, you’re against us (a faulty paraphrase of Jesus’ actual words). Which might be true.
Except that it isn’t.
This dichotomy ignores the Christians who spend a good chunk of time posting rude, ignorant things on social media sites. It pays no attention to the pastors who spew hate from the pulpit. It allows people to appear to be “good” Christians by attending every Sunday, wearing the correct modest clothing, and avoiding the Big Evil Things that No One Should Ever Do (like swearing, getting drunk, having premarital sex, and being gay) while simultaneously failing to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and visit the sick and imprisoned. You know why? Because they can claim the slogan, “I’m not perfect, just forgiven.”
Meanwhile, the Cops and Robbers theme successfully pretends that there are no decent people outside of Christian faith. It pays no heed to the atheists who have strong moral convictions; the people of other religions who have deep, abiding, personal faith; the thousands of gay people who love Jesus with all their hearts, souls, minds, and wills. It assumes that “the world” is the way it is because of people who aren’t Real True Christians™.
This, right here, is why I’m not a fundamentalist. I don’t really think I consider myself a liberal Christian either. I tend to think that “liberal Christian” is the term for someone who operates on the same basic assumptions as a fundamentalist but has a different set of beliefs regarding what constitutes sinful behaviors. For example, a liberal Christian may still believe that sin is deserving of punishment or consequences, but would not agree that premarital sex falls in the category of sin. I often think it’s just a cover for “I can be a Christian and still largely do what I want, as long as it doesn’t appear to be hurting anyone.” (For the record, I don’t think all liberal Christians act this way, but it describes the majority of what I’ve seen.)
I don’t fit that description.
I don’t know how to categorize myself. Maybe I don’t need a label at all, outside “Christian.” I don’t need to define the kind of Christian I am. Being neither here nor there makes me feel uncomfortable among both conservative and liberal Christians, but perhaps that’s okay. It might even be exactly what Jesus intended. When we become comfortable, we stop following Jesus and begin to coast. We become obedient to humans and ideas rather than God.
Dear Lord, may I never grow complacent. Amen.