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What Fundamentalism Gave Me

Roberta Ahmanson

Cornerstone University Grand Rapids, Michigan Commencement

Thank you, Joe. I just have to say that I love Joe Stowell – and Martie. Joe and I both grew up Regular Baptists. His father was a big-wig and one of the better preachers in the group. I didn’t meet Joe until a few years ago. I felt like I’d known him all my life. Why? Because he knew where I came from. So much I just didn’t have to explain. And, unlike many others who shared our background, somehow the two of us held onto our faith in Christ. Amazing. So, thank you, Joe, just for being there and for this opportunity.

Then, to all the parents here. This is your day to quote St. Paul. “I have fought the good fight. I have finished the course.” Indeed. You have sacrificed. You have paid tuition. You have counseled your kids. You have prayed like crazy. And, today your son or daughter is graduating. So, thank you and congratulations!

Last, a huge congratulations to the graduates. College isn’t easy. It often isn’t fun. It’s work. Hard work. Late nights. Papers you don’t know how you’ll ever write. Projects that seem impossible. Choices that you don’t know how to make. Questions that seem to have no answers. And, then, there is the matter of: What next?? Where do I go from here? What does God have in store for my life?? So, congratulations and Godspeed!!

Though the world wasn’t exactly calm and clear in the late 60s and early 70s when I went to college and graduate school, it was a different world from the one you face. For one thing, back then, Christians weren’t evil. People thought you were crazy and probably not very smart. But, you weren’t evil. Today many people in positions of power and authority think religion is what’s wrong with the world, and in particular any religion that claims anything is true.

An example of just how different this world is leaped out at me from the March issue of Vanity Fair Magazine, the 24th Annual Hollywood Issue. The last page is always an interview with a prominent person. This time it was the British star of movies like Paddington 2 and King Lear, Jim Broadbent.

Asked what trait he most deplored in others, he said: Certainty. Next question: What do you most dislike? Answer: The suffering caused by fundamentalists of any stripe.

There you are. Fundamentalists, the name the founders of this institution as the Grand Rapids Baptist Bible Institute in 1941 were proud to own, is now an epithet. The ultimate put down. A dirty word. To be one is now to be a bigot.

So here I am speaking to the 2018 graduates of the heir to that institution about what that now-hated tradition, Fundamentalism, gave me and gave the world. And, as I’ve thought about it, I’ve realized it gave me a lot, most of it good.

Of course, there are the hard things, the fears and gaps that are costly. I’ll talk about those. Before that I need to give you a little background on where the movement came from and what it was about. Then a little about myself. And, last, we’ll get to what was wrong and what was good about it, at least as far as I can see.

First, just how did the term come to be a label for all that is worst in the world? After 9/11 it became very clear very fast that Islamist terrorists had attacked the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Intellectuals then had a choice: Either to vilify the guilty branch of Islam or to vilify all religions that make truth claims.

Andrew Sullivan made the choice clear in an article In The New York Times Magazine on October 7, 2001, not a month after the attacks, Andrew Sullivan made their choice clear. He wrote:

… this surely is a religious war – but not of Islam versus Christianity and Judaism. Rather, it is a war of fundamentalism against faiths of all kinds that are at peace with freedom and modernity.

So, now, exactly where did the term “Fundamentalism” come from and what did it mean when it was first used?

The history I’m about to give comes from George Marsden’s masterful 1980 book Fundamentalism and American Culture. What I get right is due to Marsden. All mistakes are my own.

Fundamentalism has two sources: Pietism and Calvinism. Think of the Great Awakenings of the 18th and 19th Centuries. Revivalism. Keswick Teaching and the Holiness Movement. The Puritans. Scots and English Presbyterians. Dutch Reformed. Jonathan Edwards. Charles Grandison Finney.

And it was never just about theology: The Temperance Movement. Agitation for the rights of women, particularly the right to vote. Think of social action. Missions to the urban poor. Settlement houses for immigrants. Hospitals. Schools. Foreign Missions.

By the early 20th Century conservative Christians were an amalgam of Pietist emphasis on personal salvation, holiness, and the importance of prophecy and Calvinist focus on matters of doctrine. All agreed on certain things: The inerrancy of Scripture, the Virgin Birth of Christ, Christ’s substitutionary atonement, Christ’s bodily resurrection, the reality of miracles, the promise of Christ’s return.

Big Picture. The bloody 17th Century Wars of Religion prompted what became known as the Enlightenment, which looked to reason rather than religion as the source of solutions to conflict. By the 18th Century reason-based Higher Criticism, questioning the authority of Scripture and the possibility of miracles, had taken over the German University.

In the 19th Century, as this thinking spread, Evangelicals turned to prophecy. John Nelson Darby, an Irish Anglican who joined the Plymouth Brethren, introduced Dispensationalism, which read biblical history as covering seven eras. We were living in a gap between six and seven, awaiting the return of Jesus. At the same time others read Scripture to say that seven years before his final return Jesus would rapture the saved to keep them from seven years of terrible tribulation. They called it Pre-millennialism.

WWI added a sense of urgency to the debate. Millions dead on the battlefields of Europe. What did it mean? Modernist faith in progress was shattered. For Dispensationalists and Pre-millennialists the End Times had arrived. For others, liberal theology and Nietzsche’s doctrine of the Superman had led to Germany’s moral collapse and its ghastly militarism.

Though 3 million copies of a 12-volume doctrinal survey called The Fundamentals were distributed between 1910 and 1915, the term “Fundamentalist” wasn’t coined until 1920 when Northern Baptist Editor Curtis Lee Laws used it in the Watchman-Examiner. Laws wrote: “Fundamentalists” are those ready “to do battle royal for the fundamentals.”

What alarmed the leaders of the newly named movement most was the growing realization that they were living in a culture that was openly turning away from God. Journalists like H.L. Mencken of the Baltimore Sun could ridicule Christianity. Preachers like New York City’s Harry Emerson Fosdick could claim from the pulpit that Christ didn’t literally rise from the dead.

Princeton Professor J. Gresham Machen understood that the issue was whether or not God is real or a construct of history. Naturalism versus Supernaturalism. Autonomous man or transcendent authority? One had to choose.

He also thought both Modernist and Evangelical Christian responses were disastrous. Liberals were more dangerous because they let culture define Christianity – creating a counterfeit Christianity. The Evangelical approach, however, seeking to destroy, or at least ignore, culture, was, to his mind, “illogical, unbiblical, and impossible to maintain.”

Unheeding, Fundamentalists continued the fight on two fronts: Theological liberalism in the churches and Darwinian Evolution in the schools. Though it looked like they were winning on the theological front, the evolution front would be their undoing.

The 1925 “Monkey Trial” in Dayton, Tennessee, changed the game forever. Many states had passed laws against teaching Darwinian Evolution in the schools and more were pending. But, the toughest was in Tennessee. John T. Scopes was on trial for violating that law.

It was city versus country. On one side backward yokels, crackpot hawkers of religion, Southerners, and the personification of the agrarian myth – William Jennings Bryan. On the other the city, the clique of New York and Chicago lawyers, intellectuals, journalists, wits, sophisticates, modernists, and the urbane defense attorney – atheist Clarence Darrow.

Scopes lost the case and was fined $100, but the verdict was overturned on a technicality. Fundamentalists lost their credibility forever.

In 1932 the Baptist Bible Union became the General Association of Regular Baptists. In 1941 the new denomination founded the Baptist Bible Institute in the basement of Wealthy Street Baptist Church with David Otis Fuller as president. What I attended in the 1960s as Grand Rapids Baptist Bible College is now Cornerstone University.

Now to explain just where my life fits into this story.

I came to Grand Rapids Baptist Bible College in 1967, just as the many revolutions of the 1960s burst into full bloom. I grew up in a Regular Baptist Church in a small town in Central Iowa.

Just as boundaries were being overrun on almost every other campus in America, old lines held firm at Grand Rapids Baptist College. The social rules that had set me and our church apart in Perry, Iowa, were part of a covenant we all had to sign – no drinking, smoking, dancing, gambling, going to movies, physical contact with the opposite sex outside of marriage. The girls had strict curfews, but the boys did not, one of those inequities the feminists among us were quick to point out. And those in authority kept track.

I had been brought up in such a milieu. But my parents enforced it with a lighter hand. They were what I call “liberal Fundamentalists.” They thought anyone who believed in Jesus was going to heaven. They even had friends who were Catholics. I never had a curfew. And, sometimes we drove two hours to Omaha to see a good movie – we couldn’t cause anyone to stumble there!

The inconsistencies between the upheaval of the 60s, my parents’ more open views, and the harsh legalism of the Bible college made me wonder if Christianity was true.

Was Jesus Christ really the Son of God? Did he die and rise from the dead? What difference did it make? To me? To anyone?? So I took courses to help me figure that out: Philosophy of Christianity; Apologetics – the only girl in the class; Augustine – a pre-seminary course; and Logic – Aristotelian and Symbolic, again the only girl in the class. I soaked it up. And, I wondered. Through it all I read the Bible. Victor Mathews, who taught several of those courses, became my mentor for the next three years.

In my second year, I was far from a model student. I was campused several times – once for staying out past curfew to have pizza with a bunch of kids hosted by John White, pastor of Calvary Baptist Church and a member of the ruling council of the GARBC. After that, I had to report to the assistant dean of students on a monthly basis. Toward the end of the year Victor Mathews suggested I transfer to Calvin College “before I lost what was left of my faith and my sanity,” which I did. There God provided another mentor, an English professor, Kenneth W. Kuiper. He taught me how to be a Christian by embracing God’s good Creation. Those two professors saved my life.

After my first year at Calvin I stopped attending church. I was living alone and often found myself wanting to die. One Saturday afternoon I called Victor Mathews in tears. He said: “Robin, when you decide you want to live, call me back. Until then, there is nothing I can do.” Click.

I was stunned. It was a turning-point. A few weeks later, on Easter Sunday of 1971, I found myself on a hillside in John Ball Park overlooking the city, reading the Bible, and wondering whether I believed or not. It was then and there that I simply admitted that I believed that the Christian Gospel is true, the best description of reality on the market.

Now, I promised to talk about the downside. What was the cost of growing up Fundamentalist?

First, there is what they left out. The Bible has four chapters: Creation, Fall, Redemption, Restoration. The Fundamentalists only preached two of them: Fall and Redemption. Important as those two are, without Creation there is no understanding of what this world was intended to be nor of our role in it. Without Restoration there is no understanding of what we are redeemed for.

Because they skipped those two chapters, Fundamentalists were not equipped to face the modern world. Instead they feared it. And, it was those fears that crippled many of their children.

First, they feared the power of culture. Though they never went so far as the Amish or Mennonites who withdrew and set up their own societies, Fundamentalists taught that true believers should socialize only with other Fundamentalists and spend their free time in church or church-related groups. Many sermons were preached on Paul’s injunction to “come out from among them and be separate.” They didn’t see that such absolute withdrawal left their children with the distinct impression that what we were taught just wasn’t strong enough or sophisticated enough to stand up to the winds of the culture around us. Culture was so strong that if we experienced it, we would probably be lost.

The second fear flowed from the first. It was legalism, the fear of losing control, a fear of the unknown unknowns. That manifested itself in strict rules often strictly kept. The denomination’s colleges required their faculty, staff, and students to sign covenants as I described above. In my time at Grand Rapids Baptist there were people who actually went around with yardsticks measuring skirt lengths – to the middle of the knee. It was crazy. Out of fear, they created a petty tyranny. The result was that many of my contemporaries, unprepared and angry, left the church and never looked back.

For years, I was bitter over the pettiness of it all at a time when I was genuinely torn apart inside over much more serious matters. That bitterness sat like a weight on my shoulders. Finally, one day when I was living in Toronto, Canada, I realized that as long as I held onto my bitterness, they had won. I was simply controlled by the flip side of Legalism. By God’s grace, I was able to let it go. Move forward. And, be free.

Finally, there was the simple fear that they could be wrong. A lack of faith. Maybe the liberals were right, maybe there really was no God. This was an intellectual fear, the suspicion that the claims of the Bible just didn’t add up. That gnawing question created a kind of intellectual inferiority complex for many of us.

I experienced it when I transferred to Calvin. I was certain I couldn’t keep up intellectually. I saw myself as dumb. Once I went to see a prof about a paper I was having trouble writing. Weeping I told him I just wasn’t responsible or smart enough, I just didn’t have what it took to do the work. He asked me what my grade point average was. In tears I said: “I have all As.” He looked at me and said: “So, all those professors are idiots??” Blubbering, I said, “Yes, they must be.”

When I won a fellowship giving me a free ride to the University of Michigan for my master’s degree, I was still wondering. It was there, however, that I lost my sense of inferiority and shame at being a Christian. Along with several hundred others, I took an elective course in Phenomenology. We had to read a lot of Nietzsche and write two-page papers responding to his ideas. We read the papers out loud in small cell groups. Mostly, I thought that if Christianity were what Nietzsche thought it was, he’d be right. But, it wasn’t, so he wasn’t, and I said so.

It was my turn to read at the last cell group meeting of the year. I finished, and there was silence. Like nothing I had experienced ever before. Pin-drop still. I knew I had my fellow students’ respect. Felt it. Afterwards a classmate from New York asked if he could take me home. What?? A date?? No such luck. He was to take the medical SAT test that Saturday. Without a good score he would never get into a good med school. He stopped in front of my apartment house and asked if I would pray for him. I never looked back.

In the early 1980s I was a religion reporter for two Southern California newspapers. In 1983 I won a semester-long fellowship to the University of North Carolina for the Program in Religious Studies for Journalists. At the end of the semester the program director invited us to his home for a farewell evening. One of the other fellows was the religion reporter for the Washington Post at the time. I told my story. She asked if I was still a believer, a Christian believer. I said that, “Yes, surprising as it may seem, I am.” She didn’t miss a beat. “But, you’re intelligent,” she said. Indeed.

Yes, those unexamined, un-faced fears had harmed many, some irreparably, including myself, but, DID Fundamentalism have anything positive to give?? My conclusion is: Yes. There are some profound gifts, and some unintended surprises.

For one, Fundamentalism gave me safety and a good home. Because my parents didn’t drink, smoke, or gamble, money wasn’t wasted and home was a pleasant place to be. No alcoholic scenes. No father hitting me or my mother. No second-hand smoke. And, home was a place to bring people to. My mother loved to cook and set the table and have people over. Such fun! And, there was money to travel. Every summer on my father’s vacation we took off out West to see the world. Priceless. And, there was love. My parents loved each other and they loved me. Never a question about it. And, I had a grandmother, my father’s mother, who became my best friend.

Second, Fundamentalism gave me models for how to live: my parents and my grandmother. Their best friends the Bathels. Victor Mathews. John White. Ken Kuiper. Friends like Donna Squires Harris. She was a cheerleader at Grand Rapids Baptist. I couldn’t imagine a cheerleader liking me. But, she did. We laughed and cried. She died 10 years ago on my birthday. At first that shook me. But then I thought, No, don’t be weirded out. It’s a gift. I share that day with Donna in a special way. Maybe she’s praying for me right now. The Resurrection Window in this chapel is dedicated to Donna and Victor Mathews.

My father was a special model. He was truly humble. A childhood friend said he was unique in his generation of men because he knew how to love. Even when I drove my car into a snowdrift, he never got mad. He just came and dug me out. He read the Bible every morning. And, he ended every day on his knees at his bedside, often for 30 or 40 minutes. In the 1960s and 70s I suspect I kept him there even longer. He knew he was not God, which is the most important lesson anyone can learn.

Next, Fundamentalism gave me the Bible. With it, intentional or not, came an understanding of the world and of history I could have gotten no other way. The Bible also helped me in graduate school in medieval English because I knew all the references!!! There were deeper lessons. One is the consciousness that life has a spiritual dimension. There is more to reality than what we can see and touch. The other is that good and evil are real and often within us. And, it tells us how we can be healed. The Good News.

With the Bible came the Gospel songs that come to me still in times of stress, sorrow, and joy. The Doxology. How Great Thou Art. Amazing Grace. How Firm a Foundation. And, on and on.

Fourth, that Fundamentalist Baptist Church gave me the world. We joked about missionary slides. But, it was fun to have people who had lived all over the world come to our church to talk about it. And, every Wednesday night at prayer meeting we prayed for those people – in Africa, Italy, the Philippines, Australia, what became Bangladesh. We may have lived in a little town in Iowa, but we were connected to the world.

And, that call to serve others wasn’t limited to the world. We were to care for those around us as well. My father, for example, bought food for an alcoholic man who lived in a rooming house near us. He wouldn’t give him money, only food. Our church had societies to care for the poor in our area. At Grand Rapids Baptist we all had Christian service assignments – my first was reading to a woman in the hospital.

Finally, there are two gifts that go together for me. One was intentional and the other was modeled. The intentional one was the fact that Truth with a capital T matters, not that you can ever know it all, but that it does exist. To find it we start with the Bible.

That’s as far as the Fundamentalists went. It took the Calvinists to take me further, to Creation. But, because men like Machen valued truth, they could see the dilemma modernity posed: Either reality is only matter existing eternally somehow or there is a Mind, God, behind it all. And, that IS the issue in our times. Capital letters in Neon.

The companion gift was modeled – an enormous respect and gratitude for religious freedom. Baptists, of course, are justly proud that it was the Baptist John Leland who convinced Thomas Jefferson to put religious freedom in the Virginia Constitution, paving the way for the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. As a reporter, I hovered over the Supreme Court’s First Amendment decisions and wrote many stories about them. In my work with my husband, I have seen the high cost of religious tyranny in Communist and Islamist countries, the most recent being ISIS and its followers killing Christians in Syria, Iraq, Libya, Nigeria, Sudan, Sweden, France, Germany, even our own country. Now, because the social teachings of historic Christianity on sexuality and marriage are counter to the new values that our courts have upheld, the freedom of our churches and schools to uphold those teachings is under threat. Religious freedom is in many ways the freedom to pursue Truth. It is room to think and then to practice. It is the first freedom.

Then there are the unintended surprises. The first of those is understanding what it is to be an outsider. Years ago one of the sons of my parents’ best friends – he had become a psychologist – told me that we had grown up marginalized. Our families were not in the positions of power in our little town nor was our way of life at the center of American culture. Painful, it led to what I call cultural cringe, the longing to be inside at any cost. It’s a huge barrier. By God’s grace, I lost that cringe forever that night in Ann Arbor.

From that follows the gift of learning how to get along with people with whom you disagree profoundly. To this day, one of my best friends is a retired sociology professor who defines herself as a conservative post-Marxist feminist and an agnostic. Brought up Catholic, she rejected the faith in high school. Though we were born three weeks apart in the same hospital in Perry, Iowa, we really bonded over a sixth-grade debate about the 1960 election. I argued for Nixon, she for Kennedy. At the end she looked at me and said: “You’re just against him because he is a Catholic.” POW!! I had to think about that. Our friendship is based on that kind of love and honesty.

The last unintended surprise is vision. When you know that Truth matters and that the world is big, you can’t help but wonder where you fit in that big scheme. You test what is true. You reach limits. And, you find a way to make a difference with the little that you know. For me the big picture came from my understanding that God cares about all of Creation. If God gave me the talents to be a journalist and I tried to be a missionary, I would be disobedient. The Calvinists gave me that, but the Baptists set me on the road.

The Bible is clear that without a vision from God people perish. That seems to be self-evident if you just look around. People without a vision from God are perishing all over the place.

For 25 years my husband and I have traveled across Europe, parts of Africa, Turkey, Israel, Egypt, Jordan, China, South America to find footprints earlier believers have left on the planet. In Europe and the Middle East, I saw how the people who built the first churches had a bigger vision than we do today. Reading Augustine, I knew why. In 410, in the wake of the first sack of Rome in 800 years, Augustine gave the church a new vision in his book The City of God. Christians, he said, have dual citizenship – on earth and in the Kingdom of God, present now and to be completed in the New Heaven and New Earth.

Churches are embassies of that second citizenship. Inside the church you are on Kingdom ground, much as the U.S. embassy in London is American territory. Back in Augustine’s time, seekers could listen in huge outdoor courtyards, but only baptized Christians could enter the church. So baptisteries were built separate from the church. Baptisms were a big deal, usually held at Easter. New Christians wore white robes. They were led into the church in procession. In Florence the space between was called the Paradiso, you were entering Paradise.

Inside the churches looked like heaven – all glittering gold mosaic and glistening marble, richly colored vestments putting Roman pomp to shame, no holds barred. In church you not only worshiped and were refreshed but also you learned the principles of the Kingdom so that when you went out you could put them into practice right here and now. That made you part of God’s plan for restoring this planet.

So, in Roman ruins and medieval cities I have seen beautiful churches and across the way there are hospitals for the sick, alms house for the poor, schools for the young. Concrete expressions of the Kingdom here and now. The church itself is a three-dimensional icon, a tangible witness to God’s promise. Our lives, too.

For me that is a pretty breathtaking vision. Enough to work on for my lifetime. I’m not ashamed of my Fundamentalist forebears, for all their faults. Today it seems that in many ways the world is catching up to some of the things they counseled against.

Smoking is universally banned. The excesses of alcohol are well-known, Mothers Against Drunk Driving leading the way. And, #MeToo might see some value in the respect for women that some of those old college rules upheld. And, community service is now expected of every college applicant. In fact, I’m thankful for what was best in those old Fundamentalists: Their faithfulness to the Truth and their vision for the transforming power of the Gospel. And, graduates, that vision can be yours as well.

You have studied hard. When I finish, you’ll be given your degrees. Tangible proof of your accomplishment. You’ll celebrate. And, when the whoops of joy are ended and the last morsels of graduation dinner are consumed, you’ll move forward to your calling in this world. I challenge you to think of your life in terms of Augustine’s big vision. You have dual citizenship. This world. And the Kingdom of God, fully present and to come. May its truth, its wisdom, its beauty shape your actions here on Planet Earth. May you know the joy of your redemption every day and may the hope of God’s promise to make all things new flow through every task, every project you pursue.

God bless you and fill you with His vision for you, this world, and the next.

Thank you!

Roberta Ahmanson May 5, 2018

Copyright © Roberta Ahmanson

Category: Religion,

Tag: Fundamentalism,


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