This June is a month of changes for SharperIron. Several design changes are planned by month’s end. A restructuring of the Forums is in the works. Today we’re officially making a change that we’ve been describing for a while as “the identity tweak.” (See “Seven Years and Counting” and the ensuing discussion.) The key phrase in this adjustment is “hosted by fundamentalists.”
For some years—probably since ‘05—SharperIron has characterized itself as “a fundamentalist place” existing “for fundamentalists.” Though the language predates my involvement at SI, the intent was that those who register and participate in discussions should be people who consider themselves to be, in some sense, fundamentalists. Since we didn’t precisely define what a fundamentalist is, or put much effort into policing members’ fundamentalist status, we’ve always had some participants who were not fundamentalists in the estimation of some other members. As everyone knows, opinions expressed here have not always been “fundamentalistically correct” either.
Occasionally, we’ve found ourselves having to defend that reality, partly because some readers approached the site with the idea that our purpose was to embody a fundamentalist ideal. But there is no single fundamentalist ideal, and even if one existed, a site formed to encourage interaction couldn’t possibly fulfill it.
A good thing
At times, some of us who “run the place” have felt like the presence of not-always-clearly-fundamentalist participants and comments was something of a failing, but it’s time to get past that. The separatism promoted in authentic, biblical fundamentalism has never meant that there should be no conversations between fundamentalists and non-fundamentalists. Nor has it ever been in fundamentalists’ best interests to ghettoize themselves in such a way that they are never asked hard questions. Rather, the principles behind the movement have always needed articulate and winsome defenders, and the future of both the principles and the movement has always depended in part on persuading at least some non-fundamentalists of the rightness of the cause.
The notion that the fundamentalist movement, or even the idea of fundamentalism, could thrive and grow indefinitely just by bringing up kids in fundamentalist institutions has clearly not worked out. I’m sure many never thought it would.
No, historic fundamentalism needs today what it needed when it was getting off the ground in the early 20th century: lots of well-equipped, well-informed, and well-expressed interaction with those who have not embraced its beliefs and practices but have similar sensibilities. In other words, as always, good ideas spread through conversations with unconvinced, but somewhat open and attentive, listeners.
To many of us, that kind of conversation between fundamentalists and (to some) non-fundamentalists is one of the things that has made SI interesting, as well as challenging (sometimes to both sides of the conversation). Rather than fight interaction between fundamentalists and non-fundamentalists, or somewhat awkwardly apologize for the perception of that interaction, fundamentalists—and SharperIron—ought to welcome it.
By the same token, conservative evangelicals should welcome challenges from fundamentalists (as indeed several prominent conservative evangelicals have) even as they have welcomed opportunities to draw attention to deficiencies in the faith and practice of their fundamentalist brothers. Not all of this has to be done grenades-lobbed-over-the-wall style. SI ought to be a place where these kinds of conversations can occur pretty much directly and on purpose.
Conversation vs. convergence and cooperation
Most of what follows is probably obvious, but some clarifying remarks are probably in order, just in case.
First, the aim of this change is not to promote a convergence between conservative evangelicals and fundamentalists or an “emerging middle,” or the like. That phenomenon is pretty much inevitable (for lots of reasons) and doesn’t happen at websites anyway. Rather, the aim is to allow people who differ, know they differ, and intend to keep on differing, to interact about their similarities as well as their differences. It isn’t convergence; it’s conversation.
Second, by allowing interaction from people who don’t claim to be fundamentalists, SharperIron is not “cooperating” with “disobedient brethren,” nor is anyone who posts here cooperating with (as in joining in ministry with) anyone else who posts here. Perhaps the simplest way to sum up the situation is to point out that open apostasy and famous cases of obvious disobedience by professing Christian brethren are fairly easy to exclude from a website like ours. And it’s in our best interests to do that for practical reasons, if not as an attempt to implement ecclesiastical separation. But quiet apostasy (i.e., no posts that are incompatible with the Doctrinal Statement) and local-church-level or denomination-level discipline of unrepentant professing believers are usually not going to be known to us. Since interaction here is not a stamp of approval on anyone anyway, it isn’t obvious what practicing separation would look like even if we did know.
Nuts and bolts
For those getting all excited—either negatively or positively—let’s be clear about what the identity tweak really means in concrete terms. It basically means we’ll replace a few phrases in our About pages. Language suggesting that the site is exclusively for fundamentalists will be replaced with language that identifies us as being hosted by fundamentalists and for Christians, especially fundamentalists and those interested in fundamentalism. We’ll avoid suggesting that to sign up and interact, you have to claim the fundamentalist moniker or even necessarily the fundamentalist “idea.”
No changes to the Doctrinal Statement are planned, and people who register will still be asked to verify their agreement with it.
One more thing is not changing. Though the focus of this post has been on fundamentalism, and interaction between those who claim it and those who don’t, we don’t mean to give the impression that SI is going to be all about fundamentalism all the time. Right now, the future content mix looks about the same as it’s been for the last couple of years.
A final word (actually three) to those inclined to meet change with anxiety (just about everyone?): wait and see. None of us can really predict what sort of results this shift will have, if any noticeable ones at all. If problems develop, we’ll adjust.
Aaron Blumer, SharperIron’s second publisher, is a native Michigan and a graduate of Bob Jones University (Greenville, SC) and Central Baptist Theological Seminary (Plymouth, MN). He and his family live in a small town in western Wisconsin, where he pastored Grace Baptist Church for thirteen years. He also teaches high school logic and rhetoric at Baldwin Christian School.