Sifting through my personal memories of various religious controversies, I see some distinct mile markers, break points where things changed forever after in my soul. I’m trying to match them with wider events recorded in American Church History.
One of the things that still bothers me to this day in my time at Oklahoma Baptist University was the complete failure of the professors to grasp the allure of fundamentalism. They came across as arrogant because they engaged in the smart-aleck rhetoric of attacking instead of offering any measure of sympathy for how that intellectual certitude felt so safe against the storm of uncertainty. Those professors lost the debate because they took the debate seriously, instead of shepherding and mentoring the students who felt pulled in both directions.
The fundamentalist influence in my time there at OBU was a groundswell among students drawing on outside influences. It offered a strong personal interaction, a sense of camaraderie that won over many of us. The whole scene was strange enough with a serious and sometimes secretive difference between the folks inside the college and all those people out there in Oklahoma supporting “their Baptist university.” Students who bought into the liberalism of the faculty were warned to be very careful what they said out among the churches. Those of us who tried to expose what we saw as a betrayal, of taking big money under false pretenses, were often silenced by very real threats against our academic standing. We students experienced it as a very elitist snobbery.
So the whole thing remained a matter of politics, and no one seemed to understand the real personal dynamic behind it all. There was nothing redemptive in the whole mess, with but a few exceptions. In later years, it was those few exceptions that made all the difference in the world to me.
One was the oddest thing of all: A proto-fundamentalist who was anti-Zionist, an elderly lady who had been there and established well before anyone else in the Religion-Philosophy Department of the school (Dr. Rowena Strickland). They couldn’t get rid of her, but did keep her at the bottom of the totem pole. Gaining her degree during the 1930s, she had watched the Zionist takeover of American evangelicals unfold, and recounted enough of it for me to remember later. The other was a genuinely pastoral man who was caught in a bind, forced to associate with the neo-orthodox without actually being one of them, but also clearly not a fundamentalist (Dr. Robert Clarke). He was awfully busy, but a heart-led man and it unlocked a door in my soul I would later walk through.
In retrospect, it’s a wonder the system didn’t crush the both of them. Meanwhile, the neo-orthodox theology of that day faded away, dying from a thousand cuts. The real debate is the one that slipped in the back door when fundamentalists arose early in the previous century. Almost the whole thing rested on the Scofield Bible, the primary means of transmitting Zionism to American Christians. Scofield was financially sponsored by an early Zionist agent, Untermeyer, whose influence and money bought the soul of America. Thus, there is a sense in which fundamentalist Protestant Christianity was pretty much created as the front for insinuating Zionism into American politics. By the time I attended OBU, the die had been cast and everything was tainted by this ugly conspiracy. The debate itself between neo-orthodoxy versus fundamentalism was conjured as a means to manipulate and grab everyone’s attention away from what really mattered.
Neo-orthodoxy is a term that describes a relatively liberal position. It’s as liberal as one can get and still be allowed to stay in an essentially fundamentalist denomination. It’s an attempt to create a “new orthodoxy” (neo-orthodox), alleged to come from more accurate research into the Bible and how it was formed. When you trace it out, the position is simply agnosticism with a pretense of not wanting to throw out the baby with the bathwater of primitive religion. It’s plain old communist social theory with a less threatening aura, the modern day Sadducees.
Fundamentalism is just another branch of Pharisaism.
While the underlying dispute is still there, recent generations of American Christians hardly pay much attention to the debates the ruled my world. The manifestations of the old battle have different faces and different topics, but they are still the same false debate designed to keep folks focused on the wrong questions.