Today’s Evangelicals Are Yesterday’s Fundamentalists

A few years back, my wife was describing me to some new friends. When she used the word evangelical, their faces twisted as if they’d eaten a moldy lemon. She realized immediately that she had meant one thing by the word and her new friends understood another.

They understood evangelical to mean:

♦ Politically Republican and right-wing
♦ Anti-gay
♦ Anti-intellectual
♦ Angry and hateful
♦ Probably racist

My wife meant I was:

♦ Christ- and Bible-centered in my faith
♦ Open to engaging culture constructively
♦ Intellectually curious
♦ Politically independent

The word evangelical has a long history, going back about three hundred years in England to describe a movement intended to revive the token Christianity that was widespread at the time. In the mid-twentieth century, Billy Graham (who welcomed Catholics and African Americans) adopted the label to distinguish himself from fundamentalists. This latter group emerged in the early twentieth century, coming to national attention with the Scopes Monkey Trial of 1925. They believed the Bible was literal and inerrant, were doctrinally conservative, anti-science, and separated themselves from mainstream culture as well as from any believers who didn’t agree with them.

If fundamentalists sound like what my wife’s friends meant by evangelical, it’s not a coincidence. As I’ve written here before, a few decades ago, fundamentalists in the U.S. began dropping that label (partially to avoid confusion with Muslim fundamentalists) and adopted (co-opted?) the term evangelical.

In addition, the former fundamentalists became more politically active and power focused, beginning a series of moves within Christian denominations and organizations to wrest control from “moderates” (most notably among Southern Baptists).

Evangelical social involvement has seen many changes over the centuries. Two hundred years ago evangelicals were at the forefront of ending slavery, reducing alcoholism, fighting poverty, and defending Cherokee rights. A hundred years later, however, fundamentalists had withdrawn from the public sphere.

Now those who formerly called themselves fundamentalists have become much more socially and politically engaged. Today they support pro-life causes, second amendment rights, a strong military, and advocate restricting voting rights, immigration, and affirmative action for minority groups. These last three are often seen as evidence of racist outlooks.

The political emphasis in the U.S. of today’s evangelicals has come to dominate what Americans understand by the term, as it did for my wife’s friends.* This is both because the media views everything through the single lens of politics and because of the movement’s own emphasis on a political program at the expense of a spiritual one.

All this leaves me with a problem. While I’ve considered myself an evangelical for decades, it has become a problematic label to use. It doesn’t seem to communicate the right things to anyone. I don’t think I’ve changed over the years from what my wife meant by calling me evangelical, but the meaning of the term has changed all around me.


*Evangelicalism (in the original sense) is not just a North American or Western phenomenon. It is a worldwide movement estimated to encompass 600 million people. For most of these, it is religious and spiritual in nature and not associated with any political party or philosophy.

Photo credit: InterVarsity Christian Fellowship/USA, Urbana 64.

Remembering J. I. Packer

Over my forty years at InterVarsity Press I crossed paths with J. I. Packer a number of times. This soft-spoken and steady British theologian, who died this past week, became something of an accidental celebrity when his substantive book Knowing God suddenly became a best seller. When, as a newly minted InterVarsity campus staff member in 1973, I learned that IVP sometimes gave free books to staff, I made sure they knew that’s the book I wanted. I drank it in.

Once I recall him talking about his concise writing style. “Packer by name; packer by trade,” he responded. I could tell he enjoyed saying that, and I got the impression he used the line often.

On another occasion Jim reprimanded me and IVP for dropping the dedication to his wife in our latest printing of Knowing God. I assured him that wasn’t possible. He assured me it was. He was right. I checked, and somehow it had been dropped. We fixed it next printing.

I introduced him two times when he was a speaker, and once ran him on an errand for cookies for the group of Regent students he was hosting. I was impressed by how he took personal responsibility to make sure his students were treated with genuine hospitality.

Once several of us took him to lunch, and as we ate IVP publisher Bob Fryling posed the question, “How would you describe IVP among the many Christian publishers that are around?”

Immediately Jim responded, “Some publishers tell you what you should believe. Other publishers tell you what you already believe. But IVP helps you to believe.” We were amazed at the instantaneous response, but he took it as par for the course that he could spout off such aphorisms on demand, and gladly gave us permission to use the line publicly.

Perhaps my most memorable encounter was when I got a glimpse into his humanity. At a conference I was assigned the task of chauffeuring him and another famous author. As these two good friends talked in the back seat, they began sharing intimate updates on their similar experiences of grief and difficulty—all as if I were not there. I never forgot that no matter how elevated we might be, we are not immune to life.

And I never forgot the joy and good humor Jim always exhibited in every circumstance.

Putting Our Faith at Risk

When Harold Camping, a Christian radio broadcaster, predicted that Christ would return on May 21, 2011, he made national news. Many of his followers paid for billboards, took out full-page ads in newspapers, and distributed thousands of tracts about this day of reckoning. One engineer spent most of his retirement savings, well over a half-million dollars. He took out full-page newspaper ads and bought an RV that he had custom-painted with doomsday warnings. When May 21 came and went as normal, Harold Camping revised his prediction to October 21, 2011. Of course, that prediction failed too.

What happened to those who had so fervently believed? They lost their faith. They stopped reading the Bible. They quit Christianity. Of course, it wasn’t the Bible that was wrong—it was Harold Camping who was wrong.

When we firmly, completely, uncompromisingly put our trust in a particular way of viewing the Bible, ironically we put ourselves at risk of disbelief. Why? Because if one brick of the structure we have built crumbles, then the whole edifice falls.

If we believe a perfect Bible written two thousand years ago should follow the rules of 21st-century historiography but then see a discrepancy between two gospel accounts, what should we conclude? If we think the Bible gives unassailable information regarding science, but then find what looks to be compelling evidence for four-billion-year-old planet, what should we think?

Should we think the Bible is wrong or that our particular way of viewing the Bible was wrong?

Should we walk away from faith, or should we reframe our faith?

Augustine put it this way centuries ago:

In matters that are obscure and far beyond our vision, even in such as we may find treated in Holy Scripture, different interpretations are sometimes possible without prejudice to the faith we have received. In such a case, we should not rush in headlong and so firmly take our stand on one side that, if further progress in the search of truth justly undermines this position, we too fall with it. That would be to battle not for the teaching of Holy Scripture but for our own, wishing its teaching to conform to ours, whereas we ought to wish ours to conform to that of Sacred Scripture…We should remember that Scripture, even in its obscure passages, has been written to nourish our souls.*

We need to learn objections to and questions about the Bible early and often. We need to treat such concerns with respect and appreciation. That way, we won’t be surprised and our faith won’t be shaken later if we find value or insight in those concerns.

And yes, we can learn answers to these problems as well. But we should also learn that our preferred answers are not the only possible, valid ways to respond, that there are other ways to affirm the truth of the Bible and the worth of our faith.

So believe. But believe with humility. Believe with openmindedness. Believe knowing there is always more to learn. Believe knowing that we are finite and limited while God is not.


*John Hammond Taylor, S. J., trans, St. Augustine, the Literal Meaning of Genesis, vol. 1, Ancient Christian Writers., vol. 41, (New York: Paulist Press, 1982), 41-43.

photo credit: pixabay, cobain86

As Different As We Think:

Catholics and Protestants (4)

Conversionism is one of the four main characteristics of evangelicals that British historian David Bebbington has identified.* Salvation must be appropriated through personal faith that comes via repentance. This event which takes us to an entirely new level spiritually looms large in the evangelical psyche—so much so that the continuing journey of sanctification often takes a backseat. Not so for Catholics. That journey is what our life in Christ is all about.

The emphasis on conversionism has had another effect. It has made evangelicals more individualistic than Catholics, who are oriented more toward the community of faith as a primary means for drawing closer to God. Certainly American individualism has had a tremendous impact on American Catholicism as well. American Catholics are much more willing, as mentioned earlier, to disagree with and act contrary to the Church’s teachings than Catholics in many other countries. Nonetheless, when it comes to spirituality, it is primarily a matter of the community.

Analogical thinking and the community meet on a journey, for Catholics, in the liturgy and the sacraments, of course. By means of symbols acted out in the midst of the gathered people of God, we understand more than intellectually who we are in Christ. We experience it spiritually. Liturgy itself is a journey—a year-long journey that tells the story of Jesus’ life and ministry as well as that of the newly born church. This journey is punctuated by the Advent journey to Bethlehem and the manger, and the Lenten journey to Golgotha and the empty tomb.

The journey that Phyllis and I began when we became engaged led us down a Protestant path. Thinking more like Protestants than Catholics at the time, we decided we couldn’t in good conscience sign the document. “It is the Church’s wisdom,” Father Pendergast told us, “that these things should be decided before the wedding so they don’t interrupt or trouble the marriage later.” He and the Church were probably right.

Yet in the more than thirty years since we were married, that has not been the end of the journey for the two of us. Another path was also in store. Over the years we have befriended individuals and connected with organizations that would like to bridge understanding between Catholics and Protestants. We continue to have significant theological differences, but we have learned to understand that some (not all) of our differences arise from issues other than theology.

In addition, our daughter Susan attended Boston College, where she sat at the feet of professors like Peter Kreeft (a Catholic who has authored many books for evangelical publishers) as well as a number of Jesuits. After graduating, she spent two years in Peru working with Catholic missions. When she returned she decided to become a Catholic. “It’s my spiritual home,” she told us. “It’s where I feel the closest to Christ.” As parents we have always prayed that all of our children would be drawn to Christ. That prayer has likewise been answered for our other children, but in Protestant contexts.

David Tracy thinks the analogical and dialectical imaginations are complementary, that it is beneficial for both traditions to work together.** Each has something to offer and each saves the other from certain dangers. For Protestants and Catholics, that seems about right.

*David Bebbington, in his seminal study Evangelicalism in Modern Britain: A History from the 1730s to the 1980s (Baker, 1989), defined evangelicalism by identifying its four distinguishing marks: conversionism, activism, biblicism, and crucicentrism.

**David Tracy, The Theological Imagination (Crossroad, 1981), pp. 420-21.

This article was originally published in Books & Culture, March/April 2010, pp. 33-35. I am serializing it here for the first time in four parts.

photo credit: Andrew Le Peau

As Different As We Think:

Catholics and Protestants (3)

I was recently having lunch with a Catholic priest who leads retreats and is a spiritual director. He works out of a nearby conference center with about ten other spiritual directors who meet regularly with over a hundred people. As we were enjoying our meal he said, “Well, maybe you can answer this question. It comes up with the other spiritual directors I work with. About ten percent of the people who come to us are Protestants. When we get together to discuss in general our work, other directors ask, ‘How come after about six months of spiritual direction, the Protestants all say, ‘Are we done yet? When do I get fixed?’ What is that all about?”

I said, “The Road to Emmaus is a paradigm of Catholic spirituality, right? Spiritual growth is a journey that we go on. And Christ travels with us on this journey even though we may not know he is there. But we recognize him in the breaking of the bread, in the Eucharist. And our immediate instinct at such times of significant encounter with Christ is to go to the community, just as the two on the Road to Emmaus did. So we have in this paradigm the key elements of the journey, the presence of Christ, the Eucharist and the community that make up much of Catholic spirituality.”2 He looked completely bored, as if I were telling him the sun rises in the east and sets in the west.

“But,” I said, “the paradigm of spirituality for evangelicals is not the Road to Emmaus but the Road to Damascus, where you have a dramatic, decisive crisis encounter with Christ.”

His eyes at once became huge, and he said, “And you get knocked off your horse!”

“Exactly. Spiritual growth happens in crisis events when we are suddenly thrust to a higher or deeper level of intimacy and commitment to Christ. From that moment we are radically changed. Spirituality proceeds dialectically. There is a radical discontinuity of the past from the future. Sometimes that moment is the crisis of conversion. Sometimes it is hearing a calling or some other new spiritual experience. So I think your Protestant friends may be expecting a Damascus Road experience.”

“Oh,” he said, still wide-eyed, “that is so profound!” My lunch companion, as you see, had a greater gift for the dramatic than I suspect I had for the profound.

Catholics often go through life, somewhat unaware of Christ’s presence at all, and then notice, “Hey! Look at that! He’s been walking with me all this time! Isn’t that great!” They also instinctively know that our spiritual journey is never complete. We are always in process. Our sin and human frailty are always with us, but so is his grace and his company.

A Catholic friend who had had an evangelical-styled conversion experience once told his parish priest that he knew he would go to heaven when he died. “Well, that’s a bit arrogant,” the old pastor responded. And to the Catholic mind it is. While the issue has significant theological dimensions, it’s as much or more a style of thinking that is in question.

The priest’s response is roughly equivalent to the response many evangelicals might give when fellow evangelicals say they have achieved “sinless perfection.” For evangelicals there’s a big difference between having assurance of salvation and achieving sinless perfection. But for Catholics, it’s all the same.

Having begun their spiritual life in a moment of crisis, evangelicals (subconsciously) anticipate that growth will occur in sudden leaps forward, often at a gathering of other Christians. Perhaps we hear a call to be a missionary and take that step in a dramatic commitment. Or it could be a decision to not just trust Jesus for our salvation but to commit our whole lives to him and his will—body, soul and spirit. We may begin speaking in tongues or be slain in the spirit or have a dream in which Christ appears. Not all evangelicals will approve of all these, but the notion of such a sudden, life-changing spiritual event is not foreign, and for many is expected.

This article was originally published in Books & Culture, March/April 2010, pp. 33-35. I am serializing it here for the first time in four parts.

photo credits: pixabay Free-Photos (footprints); Bergadder (horse)

As Different As We Think:

Catholics and Protestants (2)

Catholics and Protestants (especially evangelicals, who have maintained certain historically Protestant distinctives) have certain habits of mind, culture and world view that affect the way each thinks and acts. I generalize here, of course, and not every Catholic or every Protestant will recognize themselves in the descriptions I offer. Yet the differences can often be seen in several key ways.

Perhaps the major mental category to consider is how Catholics and evangelicals handle cognitive dissonance. Evangelicals tend to think in either/or terms. If one thing is right, its opposite is wrong. Either Scripture or the pope is the supreme authority. It can’t be both. There is a yearning for consistency of faith and practice. Knowing that we have flawed natures, evangelicals warn against error and in the prophetic tradition call God’s people back to his truth and purity.

Catholics, by contrast, are very happy to think in terms of both/and. John Paul II was highly revered by Catholics, yet large majorities of Catholics (particularly in North America) felt perfectly at peace disagreeing with him on birth control, priestly celibacy and stem cell research. The inconsistency bothers them little.

Evangelicals have a difficult time understanding how Catholics can perform such mental gymnastics. In the evangelical mind, if one accepts the pope as the final authority in the church, then one must consistently agree with and obey him. If you don’t, you aren’t a real Catholic. Of course, Catholics who do disagree with the pope on many issues would be highly insulted by the suggestion that they are not true Catholics. Evangelicals have problems not just with the fact that Catholics believe different things but that they are somehow able to accommodate themselves to apparently inconsistent or incompatible beliefs.

Some time after Phyllis and I were married, I was introduced to the work of David Tracy, a prominent Roman Catholic theologian at the Uni1versity of Chicago. What I had thought of as both/and thinking Tracy, with much more sophistication and subtlety, termed the analogical imagination (in a book of the same name). Catholics tend to think by analogy. One thing helps us understand another by the similarities in both.

Symbols are therefore very important. In fact, symbols, for Catholics, are generally better than propositions in grasping the truth because there is more room for mystery and wonder. In a proposition, truth is limited to the words on the page and their meaning. So a symbol can better apprehend the truth in its multiple dimensions. We can never completely mine all the gold of truth in a symbol. And that is only as it should be because God (who is Truth) is so much more than could ever be encapsulated in a statement, or even in a whole book of statements. Sacrament and symbol lead us to a fuller, truer experience and knowledge of God.

For evangelicals, the game is thought to be won or lost on statements. If we can’t have fixed truth expressed in words, we are subject to every wind of doctrine. We lack an anchor and may drift into heresy or at least into the shoals of liberalism. While Catholics lean toward analogical thinking, Evangelicals tend to embrace what Tracy calls the dialectical imagination. Since we have a tendency to deceive ourselves, we seek certainty. Symbols are too vague to achieve this. Propositions warn us clearly against error, set limits and call us back to truth.

Have these differences always been so? Another Catholic, Ingrid Shafer of the University of Oklahoma, writes, “Until the Reformation both paradigms were part of the Catholic tradition. After the Reformation, Protestants and Catholics have tended to separate along analogical and dialectical party lines, even though . . . both modes are still found across the Christian spectrum and (ironically) the Catholic hierarchy (in contrast to the majority of the laity) has tended to follow the absolutist and dialectical paradigms. Furthermore, these two modes of seeing do not only hold for religious thought; they inform our total response to existence, our moral and aesthetic values as well as the manner in which we conduct our practical lives.”*

*Ingrid Shafer, “Harnessing the Power of Love,”

This article was originally published in Books & Culture, March/April 2010, pp. 33-35. I am serializing it here for the first time in four parts.

photo credit: pixabay, jerycho1960 (pope); stempow (Bible)

As Different As We Think:

Catholics and Protestants (1)

When Phyllis and I got engaged, I found out just how different Catholics and Protestants were.

I had been raised Catholic, served as an altar boy, ate fish on Friday, said the rosary, memorized the catechism, prayed the Stations of the Cross, sang Gregorian Chant in the choir, and had twelve years of Catholic education that straddled the pre- and post-Vatican II eras.

Phyllis was raised in a congregation that was part of the Independent Fundamental Churches of America. Even her fellow churchgoers joked about the separatistic tendencies of the IFCA by saying it stood for “I Fight Christians Anywhere” or “I Fellowship Completely Alone.” She grew up singing gospel songs, going to Bible camps, and quizzing (which is, near as I can tell, a national network of teams of high school students in a series of competitions who respond to questions requiring contestants to have massive amounts of Scripture memorized).

It could only have been someone with God’s sense of humor who had brought us together. But we both loved Jesus and each other, and assumed that was enough.

I knew well, of course, that Catholics and Protestants disagreed on many issues—the authority of the pope, the nature of the church, the role of the sacraments, the place of tradition and Scripture. So we faced quite a question when it came to choosing a church. At first we thought we’d have plenty of time. We thought we would affirm both traditions in our wedding and sought to have a co-officiated service, led by a Catholic priest and a Presbyterian pastor we knew. Both were happy with the idea. Our friend, Father Pendergast, told us that maybe God was calling us to be “bridge people” between these two worlds. He thought that could be a wonderful role for us on our spiritual journey. All that was left before setting out on this pilgrimage was to sign this little document for the Church that said we would raise our kids Catholic. Then we could be on our way.

As well versed as I was in all things Catholic, this came as a surprise to me. Of course, when two Catholics marry, nothing like that is needed. But in a “mixed” marriage, it was. And here is where I began to find out that Catholics and Protestants were even more different than I thought.

When we sought counsel from a wide variety of friends and mentors, the Protestant evangelicals consistently said, “You can’t sign that. That is a huge promise you are making. To do so is to commit yourself to the Church and everything it teaches. Do you really believe everything it says?”

The Catholics were also generally consistent, saying something like, “Don’t worry about the details. Go ahead and sign it! It just means you will raise your kids as Christians, following your conscience as God leads you. And if he leads you to a different church later, no problem.”

Well, I exaggerate these two reactions a bit (but only a bit) to make a point. For Protestants, the document was a fixed text. And to sign it was to irrevocably align ourselves with that text. What mattered were the propositions, the statements. They defined reality. They were reality.

For Catholics, it was not the document at all that was primary. It was the community, the people of God, the unity of the people of God. If signing the document could help preserve that unity, by all means, sign it—and then do what your conscience requires.

So often the division between Catholics and Protestants is cast in doctrinal or ecclesiastical terms. And those are significant and real. But more than that, here were two very different ways of thinking, two different mental maps, two different ways of understanding the world and living in it.

This experience launched me on a journey of trying to comprehend why Catholics and Protestants not only disagree but very often lack a rudimentary understanding of each other and talk past each other, each seeming to fail to grasp even basic points the other is making. Why else would it have taken Catholics and Lutherans five hundred years to finally figure out that they actually agreed on justification by faith?

This article was originally published in Books & Culture, March/April 2010, pp. 33-35. I am serializing it here for the first time in four parts.

photo credits: pixabay–706341 (Pope Francis); Bouf16 (bread and wine)

The Enemy of Faith

We often consider unbelief and doubt to be enemies of faith. After all, if we perpetually embrace them, we never embrace God. But a very different response can also be the enemy—certainty.

As Tobias Wolf said, “Certainty is one of the greatest spiritual problems of our time.”* When we are absolutely sure of what we believe, we may inadvertently cut God out of the equation. We rest instead on ideas, statements, propositions, logic, argumentation, and viewpoints which we think stand on their own as universal truths.

The Christian faith is full of things we do not know, however. Though we believe in the Trinity we have very little understanding of how Three can be One and One Three. We know Jesus died for our sins but exactly how faith and grace work together in the cross is something we cannot entirely know. The Bible is very sketchy on the character of heaven or hell. And as to how the universe came to be? Well, God did it but a few details seem to be missing.

Mystery is everywhere in Christianity. The Bible is God’s Word but also written by humans. Jesus is fully human and fully divine. The more we try to remove the mystery, put everything in a neat and tidy system, the more we may fight against faith. God wants us to rely on him, not on our convictions.

It’s no coincidence that the certainty of Proverbs is immediately followed by the uncertainty of Ecclesiastes. And not just because so much of both are attributed to Solomon. God gives wisdom, yes, but we don’t have it all. “No one can comprehend what goes on under the sun. Despite all their efforts to search it out, no one can discover its meaning. Even if the wise claim they know, they cannot really comprehend it” (Eccl 8:17).

Certainty can engender pride and arrogance. When we are certain, we have no appreciation for human limitations. It means we have little to learn, maybe nothing even from God.

Lack of certainty is an underappreciated virtue which can make room for faith, humility, and love of others.

*Calvin Festival of Faith and Writing, April 2016.

Bad Religion

Heresy has always been with us, and, as New York Times columnist Ross Douthat tells us in Bad Religion, that has not necessarily been a bad thing. Heresy can stimulate orthodoxy to clarify itself and perhaps help correct an imbalance in the church. What is different now is that heresy is no longer at the margins of an orthodox center. Today the situation is reversed.
Continue reading “Bad Religion”