Trading Spaces: Reflections on My Journey from Fundamentalism to Evangelicalism

January 23, 2019
I grew up in a small, Southern Baptist church in a small town in Arkansas. I didn’t know it then, but my church was a fundamentalist church. I use a lowercase “f” because I don’t think any of us knew that we were fundamentalists. We sincerely thought that everyone who took the authority of the Bible seriously and who walked with Jesus consistently saw God and the world the way that we did.

Unlike many former fundamentalists, I am not angry about the context in which I was introduced to the Christian faith. Some of the most earnest and faithful followers of Jesus that I know are fundamentalists. Nevertheless, I do consider myself a “former” fundamentalist. Indeed, I haven’t been a fundamentalist for a long time. Rather, I see myself now as an evangelical.

This blog is the fruit of my reflections on my journey from fundamentalism to evangelicalism. Becoming an evangelical was a slow process, and it has had significant consequences for how I think about and relate to God. Nevertheless, one does not easily shake off the residue of an old identity, and there are still ways in which I bear the marks of my upbringing. My hope is that, by sharing my story, I can help others who have embarked upon this same journey to come to terms with who they were and who they are now. I hope that I can also help my evangelical brothers and sisters better understand why people embrace a fundamentalist way of thinking and living. Perhaps there are even things that evangelicals can learn from their fundamentalism.

Defining Our Terms

Definitions are boring. Almost no one considers reading the dictionary their idea of a good time. Moreover, differentiating between terms like “fundamentalist” and “evangelical” can be somewhat difficult. Both groups are, at best, loosely organized, and the boundaries that separate them are, in the words of social psychology, permeable (meaning that people often float between the two identity categories without being fully aware that they have made an important change in their identity). Still, we need to help those uninitiated into the jargon of theology to understand what we are talking about.

Fundamentalism is a term used by historians and sociologists of religion to describe any group or sect within a larger religious tradition that considers itself to be the ones who most faithfully represent what that religious tradition has always taught. In North America, capital “F” Fundamentalism arose as a movement in the second half of the nineteenth century. It arose as a response to “modernist” (what we might call “liberal” today) trends in American denominations and educational institutions. It called American Christians back to the “fundamentals” of the Christian faith, which included things like the inerrancy of the Bible and a substitutionary view of atonement.

But to really understand fundamentalism, we need to see it as a socio-religious phenomenon. This phenomenon had at least two defining characteristics. The first one has already been alluded to above. Fundamentalists asserted that the Bible was the repository of all truth. This went beyond merely affirming the inerrancy of Scripture. It meant setting the Bible over against all other supposed sources of truth. The Bible was full of truth, whereas anything else was full of lies.

Practically speaking, this meant that fundamentalists tended to reject the insights of science and the humanities. It is not that fundamentalists were, at the bottom, out of step with the epistemology of their age. Quite to the contrary, many fundamentalists think like scientists. They look for absolute truth and are suspicious of any claim that there can be shades of truthfulness. Rather, it is simply that they saw in science and the humanities an attack on what they thought was foundational to the Christian faith—the Word of God.

And this leads us to a second socio-religious observation. Fundamentalists tend to be suspicious of outsiders. They tend not to work well with people from other denominations, and they tend to be skeptical of the goodwill of non-Christians. This suspicion is not, as some might claim, a result of a generally malevolent spirit (although such a spirit can be found among fundamentalist Christians just as it can be found in other areas of American society). It was the natural, logical outcome of their deep-seated suspicion of human nature and their experience of marginalization at the hands of mainstream American culture.

The current iteration of evangelical Protestantism arose in the 1940s as a response to the marginalization and ineffectiveness of fundamentalism. Like fundamentalism (and certain mainline Protestants), evangelicalism takes a high view of Scripture. It presents the Bible as God’s Word, and many (though not all) evangelicals see it as inerrant. Moreover, evangelicals share the fundamentalist concern that people be converted, that they actually make a choice to follow Jesus and follow through with that choice.

Nevertheless, evangelicals tend to have a more flexible view of what biblical inerrancy looks like. Moreover, they tend to be more willing to embrace insights drawn from non-biblical sources of authority, having recovered the church’s historic emphasis on God’s self-revelation in nature and God’s illuminating work through His Spirit. This means that evangelicals are, generally speaking, more hospitable to Christians who do not belong to the evangelical Protestant tradition and are more willing to engage in productive self-criticism.

How My Fundamentalist Upbringing Affected My Spirituality and Character

Now that we have a clearer idea of what we are talking about, we are ready to explore some of the issues that I want to talk about. I want to begin our discussion by enumerating the effects that my fundamentalist upbringing had on my perception and practice of the Christian faith. The environment in which we are indoctrinated into the faith has a lot to do with how we think about our faith and how we live our faith in the real world. This is especially true when the community that helps us form our faith sees itself as divorced from the society in which it resides, as many fundamentalist churches do.

Obviously, we need to talk about some of the good things that I picked up from the church where I was reared. These certainly include a passion for truth and a love of Scripture, but they also include the realization that following Jesus requires us to pay a price. Sometimes fundamentalists are criticized for not having a fully developed understanding of the gospel, and such criticisms have their merit. But because fundamentalists typically see themselves as being at odds with the culture in which they reside, they also typically understand that one must make some sacrifices in order to follow Jesus.

Unfortunately, there were also some problematic ways of thinking and being that I picked up from the environment in which I learned to be a follower of Jesus. Two of these deserve special mention. First, although people in my community of faith talked a lot about the love of God, I am not sure how many of them had ever really experienced it. Rather, they were captured by the absolute rightness of God and by God’s role as the universal and impartial judge. Whether they meant to do it or not, the people in my church communicated to me and to the people that I grew up with that God was a tough customer who was not to be trifled with.

Now, we need to put the perspective on God that I absorbed into some perspective, or else we will fall into the same trap (judgmentalism) that afflicts many devotees and critics of fundamentalism alike. These were people who read the Old Testament and the Book of Revelation. In other words, they didn’t just read the parts of the Bible that talk about grace and mercy; they read the parts that talked about judgment and wrath. And they did so as aliens in a society that had, from their point of view, gone insane.

The problem is that it left me with the distinct impression that pleasing God was completely up to me. I drank deeply of the optimism that saturated the years of Ronald Reagan’s presidency, and that optimism pushed me to invest heavily in hard work and to aim at achievement. But pleasing God turned out to be a lot harder than I could have ever imagined, especially once I hit puberty. Indeed, it turned out to be quite impossible. And if I could not turn to God for help or comfort when I failed, then I could not turn to God for help and comfort in any area of my life. After all, the failures were always there. They could not be avoided. And like many of the people in my context, I was afraid that grace given to a sinner, even if that grace was given by God, would only enable further sin and compromise the truth.

This leads me to my second point. A humble recognition of one’s brokenness and limitations was not rewarded in the environment where I learned to follow Jesus. True enough, my little church was dedicated to the truth, but they did not always fully grasp that they were not in full possession of the truth. As such, theological humility was often in short supply.

This tendency towards absolute certainty produced bitter fruit in me. I was already bent towards being a bit of a know-it-all, and there were precious few voices in my spiritual community that tried to correct this flaw. (Happily, my mother was one of those who recognized my affinity towards metaphysical certitude, but she was fighting an uphill battle!) I hurt a lot of people because I was absolutely certain of my own rightness and was determined to make everyone conform to my view of the world.

I also want to talk about one problem that a lot of fundamentalists have that I generally did not experience. Many fundamentalist congregations suffer from an inordinate suspicion of and unwillingness to cooperate with those from outside of their denomination or even their church. One reason that I was able to avoid this kind of hyper-tribalism is that my father and mother were from different denominational backgrounds. Another, I think, is because my church was Southern Baptist, not independent or landmark Baptist. Granted, Southern Baptists have not always been known for “playing nicely with others” (to borrow a line from an administrator at the ecumenical divinity school where I did my doctorate), but at least the denomination’s identity was not founded upon the idea that they, and only they, have the gospel for all ages.

How My Transition to Evangelicalism Has Transformed and Deepened My Faith

I think that it was this more ecumenical outlook that helped me transition from fundamentalism to evangelicalism. There were, of course, other factors, and the transition took some time. But I think that, as I interacted with followers of Jesus from other traditions and saw the sincerity of their faith, the walls around my heart and mind began to crumble and I came to understand my faith in a new way.

It is important to note that this transition was more organic than institutional. It wasn’t associated with a change in church membership or in denominational affiliation. It is also important to note that it did not happen overnight. It took time for me to recognize and come to terms with the changes that God was bringing about in my mind and heart.

My transition to evangelicalism has deepened my faith in a number of ways. The first (chronologically if not in terms of importance) of these was that I found a vital intellectual tradition that I never knew existed. As I worked to find my place in this tradition of scholarship and reflection, I learned that the Christian faith is a far more rigorous and rewarding endeavor than I had ever imagined. Moreover, I learned that there was a community that stretches across wide expanses of time and geography, a community that asks hard questions and that demands honest answers.

It was hard for me to find my place in this community of authentic faith and humble learning (notice that I do not describe it as a community of knowledge). Indeed, I still struggle at times to understand how I am supposed to fit into this brave new world that I have discovered. There are all kinds of people that inhabit it, and many of them have ideas that I find unintelligible or even repugnant.

Nevertheless, I now understand that I need this community of faith and learning. I need it to keep me humble. I need it to keep me grounded. I need it to uncover the brokenness and biases that distort my thinking and to point me in better, more genuinely Christian, directions.

A second way in which my sojourn in evangelicalism has deepened my faith is that it has challenged me to consider how every aspect of my person can be devoted to God. Fundamentalism does a marvelous job of inculcating the need to be radically committed to Christ, but the particular strain of fundamentalism in which I was embedded sometimes falls into an arid, over-rationalized rigidity about the form and nature of that commitment. (More charismatic forms of fundamentalism tend to have the opposite limitation; they tend to emphasize the emotionality of the Christian faith at the expense of its rational expressions.) Evangelicalism gave me the freedom to explore how I can be truly devoted to Jesus not just as a proclaimer of gospel truth but as a thinking, feeling, acting person. Even when I was being a poet or a musician, a historian or a philosopher, I could still be about the Father’s business.

A third way that evangelicalism deepened my faith is that it dispelled, once and for all, my illusion that metaphysical certainty can ever be achieved this side of the return of Christ. Obviously, it did this by bringing me into contact with intelligent, thoughtful, sincere people who had very different views than I did, but it also did it by forcing upon me a level of theological discipline that I had not known before. If, in fact, I actually believe that humans are finite creatures, and if I am, in fact, a human, then it only stands to reason that I am finite. And if I am finite, then I cannot know all that there is to know, Indeed, I am almost certainly wrong about some of the things that I claim to know.

Of course, this is all much easier to say in theory than it is to apply to a specific belief or practice. Indeed, sometimes we are not permitted to plead theological humility when we are confronted with a difficult question or issue. We simply have to answer the challenge the best way we know how. Nevertheless, I desperately needed—and still need—the corrective provided by a disciplined application of evangelical theology to my life.

The ironic thing is that theological humility (to say nothing of humility about other issues of intellectual, emotional, and/or ethical importance) is a freeing experience. The burden of being the world’s expert on everything of any importance is greater than anyone can bear. It is a burden that only God can carry, and it is a burden—and a blessing—that God gives to the church as a whole (within certain limitations, of course). So all I have to do is play my part.

There are probably many other ways in which making the transition to evangelicalism deepened my faith, but I only want to talk about one more. I think that it is the most important. Evangelicalism challenges my perspective on God.

Evangelicals don’t have God figured out. Neither do Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, mainline Protestants, or anyone else. But like those other groups, evangelicals work very hard to do justice to God’s loving, gracious, compassionate nature. I readily admit that I think some evangelicals are led astray by their emphasis on these aspects of God’s character, but I can tell you from personal experience that serving God without a passionate conviction that He loves you is a joyless and impossible task.

The Ongoing Tension Between My Fundamentalist Heritage and My Evangelical Identity

I am convinced that my journey into evangelicalism has been a blessing from God. Nevertheless, I live each day with a certain tension between my fundamentalist upbringing and my evangelical identity. Perhaps the most acute manifestation of this tension has to do with my perception of and relationship with God. I am haunted by doubts about whether God could, or even should, love me. After all, if one were to judge my life from God’s omniscient perspective, one would have to conclude that I am a miserable failure. My wife tries to remind me that I have been more successful than many at living out the moral requirements of God, but this is precious little comfort to me.

Why is this such a persistent part of my spirituality? Part of it is because I do not buy the modern psychological distinction between who we are and what we do. I know that it is a distinction that we need to make, especially in an American culture where people are valued only for what they can achieve as individuals or what they can provide to a particular group of which they are a member. Still, I am not convinced—at least not yet—that being and doing can be so neatly separated from one another. What this means for my relationship with God is that I often interpret the bad things that happen to me as evidence that God has rejected me. And even though my theology tells me that this rejection is entirely deserved, my heart cannot help but be wounded by it. I cry out in rage, “Nothing I do is ever good enough for You, God. No matter how many sacrifices I make, no matter how many pleasures I deny myself, it is never good enough!”

A second manifestation of the tension between my fundamentalist upbringing and my evangelical identity is far more cerebral in nature. I am grateful for the care that evangelicals have taken in addressing issues of racial and (less often) gender equality, and I appreciate how these concerns have motivated evangelicals to reconsider some of their ideological commitments. I find myself drawn to evangelical thinkers who, like me, are reluctant to identify themselves with a particular political party.

Nevertheless, I am also somewhat unnerved by the ways in which leftist ideology has crept into many evangelical communities and corrupted many evangelical institutions (especially academic and journalistic institutions). Like many fundamentalists, I fear that evangelicals are too enamored with the theories and policies that have captured the mainstream of America’s elite classes. More to the point, I am far more interested in being right than I am in being inclusive or tolerant, and I do not necessarily buy the argument that tolerance and inclusion (that is, hear the voices of people who are not like us with an open mind and an appreciative heart) is the way to right living.

There are other tensions between my upbringing and my identity. Indeed, there are probably some of which I am mostly unaware. But these will suffice to illustrate the intellectual and emotional turmoil that my transition from fundamentalism to evangelicalism has caused. It is a fruitful turmoil, for it places before me questions of the deepest meaning and highest importance. As I bring this questions before God in prayer, He directs my heart as it reflects on the grand story of His work in the world, and He directs my mind to ideas and perspectives which I have not heretofore considered. Nevertheless, this tension still exists, and I must constantly seek God’s grace and peace in order to live with it.

Your Story Matters

I hope that, by telling my story, I can help others who have made the same journey that I have made or who are just now embarking on that journey. That having been said, it is important to say explicitly and emphatically that my journey (and especially not my perception of that journey) is not the normative expression of what a journey of this type looks like. Your journey makes look very different from mine. This is especially true if you are a woman, an African-American, or someone who does not live in the southern United States.

I want you to know that, if you are one of these people, your story matters, too. You may not have even thought about how you have made the transition I have described. I hope that you will do so. I hope that you will walk with Jesus through the story of your life and let him point out to you things that you have never noticed before. And I hope that you will share your story in an appropriate venue. It does not have to be here, although we would be delighted to listen if you think that God is leading you to share. But it needs to be somewhere. You need an opportunity to process your experiences with people who will love you and appreciate your experiences. Yes, you need to share your story with people who will tell you when they think you have misinterpreted something, but they also need to be people who will still have affection for you when the telling is done.

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