Friday, July 13, 2012

The Culture Club (part 1)

“Be patient till the last.  Romans, countrymen, and lovers! hear me for my cause, and be silent, that you may hear: believe me for mine honor, and have respect to mine honor, that you may believe: censure me in your wisdom, and awake your senses, that you may the better judge. If there be any in this  assembly, any dear friend of Caesar's, to him I say, that Brutus' love to Caesar was no less than his. If then that friend demand why Brutus rose against Caesar, this is my answer: --Not that I loved Caesar less, but that I loved Rome more. Had you rather Caesar were living and die all slaves, than that Caesar were dead, to live all free men? As Caesar loved me, I weep for him; as he was fortunate, I rejoice at it; as he was valiant, I honor him: but, as he was ambitious, I slew him. There is tears for his love; joy for his fortune; honor for his valor; and death for his ambition. Who is here so base that would be a bondman? If any, speak; for him have I offended. Who is here so rude that would not be a Roman? If any, speak; for him have I offended. Who is here so vile that will not love his country? If any, speak; for him have I offended. I pause for a reply.” ~ William Shakespeare (Julius Caesar Act 3 Scene 2)

Right out of the gate I want to give previous visitors to my blog a heads up that the next two posts are not necessarily going to be devotional in nature.  I am deviating from the norm to discuss a topic that I have previous made fleeting comments about and that is the phenomenon I call cultural fundamentalism.  Recently I was asked to read “Four Views on The Spectrum of Evangelicalism” edited by Andrew Naselli and Collin Hansen which as title suggest defines and critiques four movements or labels within evangelical circles.  Admittedly I am not a fan of labels or categorization because I believe it serves to divide like minded believers more than unite, so I will state at the onset that my enthusiasm for discussing this is tempered by the fact that battle lines are quickly drawn when people think their camp is under attack.  It seems too much emotional capital is invested in the movement rather than the Gospel itself, and that gives me pause to even venture into these deep waters.   From my youth my parents and spiritual mentors never placed an emphasis on anything more than biblical truth and our adherence and obedience to it as the ultimate line of demarcation.   So I have never felt the need to carry the colors of a movement since I believe the Bible clearly teaches that my ultimate allegiance is to the Gospel of Jesus Christ.  But since reading this book was going to require a small group discussion I felt the need to explain myself when pressed for an answer on where I stand on what I believe is a man-made spectrum, (the cultural aspect) that seems to really do more harm than good for the cause of Christ.

 It is difficult to approach any life experience without a jaded perspective, and we have to be careful about remembering only the good or bad.  It is our human nature to indefinitely hold a grudge or conveniently overlook the shortcoming of things we either despise or love.  So let me first start by saying I am not here to bury Caesar but to praise him.  If I am truly honest I have to admit I have personally benefited from my interaction and exposure to the best of fundamentalism.  But out of the gate the very term “fundamentalist” conjures up a different connotation for every one and there is no universal agreement on who is or isn’t one.  Because there is no universal agreement on what actually defines a fundamentalist, (e.g. in the Four Views book there are sixteen qualifiers), I have to limit this to only a sliver of the movement and also acknowledge this is based on the small cross section I have personally experienced while living in the southeast.    And I also want to clearly and unequivocally state that my personal experiences and observations do not define EVERY fundamentalist individually.

While living in the de factor ground zero of the movement and attending a local church, I did come to recognize my deplorable state and my need to accept Christ as my Lord and Savior.  I can praise theological fundamentalism for the value it places on God honoring worship and godly living, as well as its desire to teach future generations to zealously hold to biblical truth.  And after living in the subculture for over two decades I can freely admit that it has been a positive influence in my life and that of my family.  It has served as a restraint in areas where I might otherwise have taken license and possibly become shipwrecked.  I respect and uphold its core doctrines and early roots as a necessary means to combat doctrinal error at a time when it was unfashionable to stand for anything.  The fundamentals are non-negotiable and because of the movement’s tireless and unyielding allegiance to those truths I will forever love, rejoice and honor it for its valor.  So let me reiterate that I hold theological fundamentalism in high esteem, but cultural fundamentalism is primarily what I want to address.  The truth of the matter is that it is not that I love fundamentalism less, but that I love the Gospel MORE!  And with that in mind I hope you will indulge me on why I do not find myself able to rally around the label or the movement.

Growing up in a first generation Christian home my family had a limited Christian heritage, and the traditions and preferences that we established were not passed down from a long line of saints in our family tree.  My grandparents and parents first heard the Gospel in an Independent Baptist church and my entire Christian life has been spent worshiping in Baptist churches.  Based on this background both the preferences and practical applications associated with fundamentalism were not totally foreign to me.  I never heard the word “Fundamentalism” or actually knew what it was until I attended college.  Growing up in the northeast I was only casually aware of it in the form of the General Association of Regular Baptist Churches (GARBC), but none of the churches I attended were paying members of the organization.  The churches I attended would share the GARBC literature and periodicals with their membership, but because we were not affiliated with the GARBC we did not “fellowship” with any of their constituency.  No one ever really explained to me why they would not play church softball in our league, attend our youth rallies or join us in county-wide soul-winning crusades.  I only vaguely remember comments about “separation” over issues of dress for women, but it was never really a hot topic of discussion.  We ignored them and they ignored us, and as a youth I was blissfully ignorant as to why.

My parents and my spiritual mentors were all true to the fundamentals.  We were taught biblical modesty and purity, and there was an emphasis on living a life that was honoring and pleasing to God.  We loved and sang the great hymns of the faith and our worship services were orderly and traditional in every sense of the word.  Bible study and memorization was encouraged and emphasized, and the churches supported the Christian school and camp movement.  I was the only main-line Protestant in my neighborhood and there was never any question that our family was unique or “set apart” among those in our community.  But we were not necessarily unique in the area of morality and family values since these types of issues were also very important to my Catholic, Methodist and Greek Orthodox friends and neighbors.  I knew the difference between our faiths and was taught that the Gospel was the only way of salvation, but these people were still our friends whom we loved and respected.  Many of these families still remain as life-long friends to both my parents and I.  We went to the movies together, had sleepovers, went camping and picnicked together.  There was never any call or demand to separate from them, but simply the encouragement to be respectful and to be salt and light.

My Christian upbringing was not saddled with what I would term excessive baggage, and for that I owe my parents a huge debt.  We went to the movies (G, PG, and PG-13), played sports on Sunday afternoons between church services,  our youth group activities included girls and guys swimming together, we played with face cards (Pinochle, Hearts, Canasta, etc.), listened to pop/rock on the radio and we went on un-chaperoned dates with fellow Christians.  The hair length of men or facial hair was not a major bone of contention to the vast majority, coats and ties in church were at your discretion and pants on women was not the norm, but also not taboo.  As a matter of fact, other than issues of modesty, I cannot ever once remember my parents or spiritual mentors complaining about how someone was dressed.  They were just happy they were in God’s house to worship with them.

 The Contemporary Christian Music or Jesus music started during my youth and it was viewed with raised eyebrows but with very little angst of being the ruination of Christendom.  After all country music, southern gospel and light pop was the norm so the vast majority looked at CCM as a take-it-or leave-it genre.  If you liked that style of music the general feeling was; good for you.  If not, it was no big deal.    All of this was normal for our Christian subculture but no one ever questioned if this was not in-line with conservative biblical standards.  Some people held to stronger convictions or even more conservative personal standards, but it was pretty much a live and let live type of mindset.  Typically no one ever questioned your spiritual cachet in any of these preferences and your standing with the community at large did not rise or fall on these applications or preferences.  People were not shunned or ostracized if they didn’t agree with you in any or all of these preferences, and these were not reasons people typically left a church to worship elsewhere.

 I share all this just as a backdrop to foreshadow my eventual surprise and confusion that many of these things became a matter of orthodoxy once I came under the sphere of influence of the fundamentalist subculture.  It is a culture that has the tendency to take “being my brother’s keeper” to an unhealthy, and at times, unbiblical extreme.    A culture that promotes the mindset that if you did not agree that these cultural applications were salient to determining ones wisdom and discernment then your spiritual birth certificate must be a forgery.  I wish I could say that in my experience this was the exception, but sadly it tended to be the rule.  Even worse yet, if your pastors, parents or spiritual mentors were soft on these areas then they were derelict in their duty and the inference was they couldn’t be trusted.  Imagine how perplexing it would be to a young adult to think that for their entire life they had been led astray by these trusted elders.  Imagine the difficulty that would arise when you went back home and alienated those who were once your friends and fellow parishioners because you were now “enlightened” about holy living and the proper means of sanctification.

You may be thinking that I am pointing to a discomfort with hyper-fundamentalism, and in some cases that is true.  However, the subculture as a whole seems to blur the Gospel and even at times consciously or unconsciously attempt to add to it.  But these things alone don’t fully capture my uneasiness with the movement.  I want to be fair so again, I want to reiterate that I am recounting my personal experience just as a point of reference.  I think it is also important to note that some of the things I mention are not unique to cultural fundamentalism or fundamentalist, and the movement has not cornered the market on these challenges.  But it is very telling when I discuss these things with fellow believers in other regions of the country they also express both surprise and sadness about what cultural fundamentalism deems so important that they devote precious time, energy and money “contending” for or worse yet, break fellowship with fellow Christians over.

Growing up my parents drilled into my head biblical truth combined with respect for my fellow image bearers (Imago Dei).  Racial slurs were not used in my home and ethnic stereo-types were not tolerated.  People were not denigrated based on their economic, social, religious, political or educational heritage.  I was reminded frequently of the advice given by Thumper’s mother in the movie Bambi; “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say nothin’ at all.”  So people where not belittled if they smoked, drank or had tattoos.  We were simply told that as followers of the Gospel of Jesus Christ we did not do these things because we felt it was our way to honor the temple of the Holy Spirit.  No morality or lack of spirituality was tied to these choices, they were simply that; a personal choice by each individual.  If we didn’t agree with a Christian leader in faith or practice it was discussed in private and they were not vilified from the pulpit or in the court of public opinion.  When someone in our church or family got out of line, it didn’t matter what their leadership position or standing, they got called on the carpet for it.

I have not found this to be the case when I entered the fundamentalist subculture.  It has been my experience that the leaders said or did what they wanted with impunity and no one confronted them.  What sticks out the most is the tendency to hold everyone outside the camp accountable, but no policing those within the camp for egregious statements or positions.  People have been bullied, cajoled and shamed into silence and are either too scared or too disinterested in tackling the problem, hence the flight of good brothers and sisters from the subculture.  The fruits of the Spirit seem to be shelved when fundamentalist pastors and leaders want to vent their spleen about people or groups that don’t match up with the subculture morally or politically.  If you do try to point out that a fundamentalist individual or organization is not acting in a Spirit-filled or Spirit-controlled manner than you are accused of being bitter, disrespectful, contentious, backslidden, or you have unconfessed sin in your life.  No doubt the problem is with you.  This dismissive attitude has its roots in pride and it is both callous and unloving.  It displays an unwillingness to accept any culpability, and is in fact not a biblical response.  I am willing to readily admit that some of the movements harshest and most strident critics can be saddled with some of these labels and in some cases it is true, but when this becomes the talking points for any and all who ask questions you quickly lose any spiritual or moral high ground.  They tell people who have been hurt or wronged that they just need to show some grace and forgive.  Rub some dirt on it…walk it off.  The movement conveniently forgets that that humanly speaking that is only half of the equation.  Trust has been lost and cannot be restored by simply forgiving and forgetting.  It needs to be earned and not demanded, and this process takes time.

Tomorrow I will continue to flesh out what led me to no longer identify with the cultural fundamentalist movement or embrace the label.

"Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.  For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith." ~ Philippians 3:8-9

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