I opened the mail the other day to discover a letter from Answers in Genesis (“A Note from Ken Ham”). This wasn’t unusual. What was unusual was what Ken wanted. A color brochure fell out of the envelope. A new “Statement of Faith” from AiG. What was this about?
Ken had a challenge for me. He asked me to review “our updated statement of faith.” Then, he asked me to compare it to “your church’s/college’s statement of faith.” Ken encouraged me to provoke a discussion with leaders about why the church’s Statement didn’t match AiG’s. To be fair, Ken warned me “this could result in some hostility.” But, he declared, such a sacrifice was necessary to “help uncover compromise.”
My first reaction was purely ecclesiastical. Why does a man who runs two amusement parks believe it’s proper to incite doctrinal strife within local churches? His parachurch organization is not an agent of the Gospel. His organization disciples nobody. It baptizes nobody. It marries nobody. It eulogizes nobody. Ken is not there when a marriage is on the rocks, or when a family has no money and needs a new washing machine. Yet, here his letter sits, inviting Christians to accuse their churches of “compromise.”
My second thought was that I hadn’t realized, until that moment, how fundamentalist AiG really was. The flashpoints are Genesis 1-11, abortion, evolution, and sexual mores. But, especially Genesis. The letter declared, “[t]here are only a few Christian colleges/universities that will stand with Answers in Genesis today.” If you don’t “stand” with Ken on Genesis, you’re a “compromiser.”
AiG’s isn’t “fundamentalist” because it believes what it does about Genesis. It’s fundamentalist because it has no room for generous orthodoxy. It engages in what Michael Bird calls “doctrinal mummification.”1 Its theology is frozen. Set in concrete, just like Reagan’s feet.2 No matter whether you have a different, well-articulated view―there can be no détente. Such would be weakness. These compromisers are “very liberal,” Ken warns. They must be crushed.
Fear sells. Nigh on 22 years ago, Cal Thomas and Ed Dobson wrote a sad book reflecting on their experiences with the Moral Majority. The issue of fund-raising letters came up. Thomas explained these letters always have the same four traits:
First, they identify an enemy: homosexuals, abortionists, Democrats, or ‘liberals’ in general. Second, the enemies are accused of being out to ‘get us’ or impose their morality on the rest of us or destroy the country. Third, the letter assures the read that something will be done: We will oppose these enemies and ensure they do not take over America. Fourth, to get this job done, please send money (and the letter often suggests a specific amount).3
This is precisely what dear Ken does. He suggests a $50 donation and promises a copy of his latest book in return. It’s regrettable to see AiG live up to fundamentalism’s worst impulses of “intellectual rigidity and obscurantism.”4 Scot McKnight laments that people often weaponize “inerrancy,” and “more often than not they are affirming some authority for a specific interpretation that is part of their tribe.”5 Thus, if you disagree with AiG, you’re surely not on God’s side.
Long ago, in 1980, journalist Frances Fitzgerald did a profile of Jerry Falwell and the then-new Liberty College. She observed:
For Thomas Road people, education—in the broad sense of the word—is not a moral and intellectual quest that involves struggle and uncertainty. It is simply the process of learning, or teaching, the right answers. The idea that an individual should collect evidence and decide for himself is anathema.6
That is the approach Ken displays in his letter. It’s also in the new Statement of Faith, which contains this declaration:
The concepts of “social justice,” “intersectionality,” and “critical race theory” are anti-biblical and destructive to human flourishing (Ezekiel 18:1–20; James 2:8–9).7
It provides no definitions for these terms. Ken just says they’re bad. This is troubling, because in his letter Ken assured me the new Statement was carefully worded to “stop people” from using it “to justify compromised positions.” He even declares AiG will “monitor” to see how folks “can get to justify not believing God’s Word.” To disagree with Ken is to disagree with God.
Again, the doctrinal mummification, the feet in concrete, the intellectual rigidity. Of course, one can be against all those things, but what does Ken think they mean?
Emil Brunner wrote about evil as a social phenomenon; an infection that spreads throughout society “and then breeds further evil … the evil which is incorporated in social institutions, and the evil which becomes a mass phenomenon, waxes great and assumes demonic forms.” He declared, “Evil which takes the shape of social wrong, or is incorporated within institutions … is worse than evil in any individual form, in isolation.”8
Surely Brunner has a point? Does not evil lurk in society at large as a force, an impetus, an orientation? Does it not shape-shift depending on context? If, as Carl Henry wrote, every society has its myth, and that myth is the framework in which the society chooses to invest its notions of meaning and value,9 can evil really be an individualized phenomenon?
Wolfhart Pannenberg rejected transmission of sin through a social nexus, but he acknowledged society was a vehicle that produced sin in the individual.10 Surely this is correct?
Donald Bloesch wrote that “sin has social as well as personal dimensions. It can appear in the form of racism, sexism, ethnocentrism, classism, ageism, religious bigotry, ecological pollution and genocide … sin can poison the structures of a society as well as the heart of individuals.”11 Even Millard Erickson has a discussion on “the social dimensions of sin” in the latest edition of his systematic theology.12
Are these men all too woke?
Like many people today, conservative Christians often exist in an information echo-chamber. They’re socialized into it by their particular media, their peers, their schools, their families13 … their churches. Perhaps social justice, intersectionality, and critical trace theory are “anti-biblical” and “destructive.” What the thinking Christian mustn’t do is take Ken’s word for it.
Michael Bird warns about a “naïve biblicism” personified by Wayne Grudem, who doesn’t interact with non-evangelical theologians (like, say, Brunner, Bloesch or Pannenberg) and seemingly has no awareness of the sociocultural factors that have shaped him. The result is a theology that’s “open to being press-ganged to justify political agendas of the far left or far right.”14 The dangers need not be politics masquerading as theology―they can also be an unwitting intellectual and cultural isolation.
This echo-chamber can make a certain kind of Christian smirk when he reads President Obama reflect on the struggle to pass the Affordable Care Act: “I saw no way to sort out people’s motives, especially given that racial attitudes were woven into every aspect of our nation’s history.”15 The assumption is this cannot be true. But … what if it is true?
The legacy of racist and evil Jim Crow laws throughout the South is real. It’s an unfortunate fact that de facto “segregation academies” sprang up across the country, particularly in the South, after the Brown v. Board of Education decision declared “separate but equal” un-Constitutional.16 Bob Jones University didn’t ban interracial dating until 2000, and then only after suffering embarrassing media attention after George W. Bush made a campaign appearance at the school.17
On the very day Brown v. Board of Education was announced, a Senate sub-committee held hearings on yet another proposed “Christian Amendment” to the Constitution.18 The fact that some of the same Christians opposed Brown, whilst simultaneously advocating for a Christian Amendment, and then later supported and established private Christian schools (read “white schools”) to avoid the implications of forced de-segregation … is quite bizarre. It’s almost as if social structures, systems and cultural mores produce individual sin in people’s lives.
Be that as it may. I’m not arguing for the “evils” against which dear Ken is railing. I am arguing against the theological populism and obscurantism that are fundamentalism’s worst impulses. The fear of something new. Something different. Fear of a doctrinal introspection that bursts the bonds of a very narrow orthodoxy. Something that might shake those feet set in concrete or disturb the doctrinal mummy.
One historian has observed that early white fundamentalists spent their time fighting cultural battles, while their black counterparts often focused on racial advancement.19 This mania for the culture wars continues today in Ken Ham’s letter. Fear is the key. Christian historian John Fea observed “it is possible to write an entire history of American evangelicalism as the story of Christians who have failed to overcome fear. Evangelicals have worried about the decline of Christian civilization from the moment they arrived on American shores in the seventeenth century.”20 William Martin has noted the same phenomenon.21 At least one historian has made this “evangelical fear” the subject of an entire book.22 Remember Cal Thomas’ remarks about the prototypical fundraising letter? He recalls one operative admonishing him, “You can’t raise money on a positive!”23 Evangelicalism has always thirsted for the man on horseback to destroy enemies and save society. Therefore, AiG declares “social justice” (whatever that means!) is “destructive.”
People live by stories. “The cultural enterprise rests invariably on a secret or explicit faith.”24 These shared stories are what shape a people and bind a society together. Henry warns us that Christians are foolish to reject other people’s stories “as mere myth-spinning.” They are, all of them, a “quest for a comprehensive overview of reality”25―a reflection of the “I-Thou” relationship we were all made for and want.26
So perhaps, rather than not defining competing “stories” then dismissing them as “destructive, Christians should start telling our own story?27 Is that not what evangelism is about? Shall we be always on the defensive, sniping from the ramparts while calling for our brothers to bar the gates? If so, our message is simply “We hate you! Believe in Jesus or die a compromiser.” Mark Yarhouse rightly criticizes this approach in the context of evangelism to homosexuals.28 He calls for “alternative scripts” that tell a better story, the Christ story.
Clodovis Boff writes about a friend, a bishop, who cried as he recounted seeing a woman dying from hunger, unable to produce milk for her dying infant child.29 It’s experiences like these that gave rise to Latin American liberation theology―the quest to use the Gospel as impetus to change social conditions … social structures. Such a salvation is mediated by liberations “that dignify the children of God and render credible the coming utopia of the kingdom of freedom, justice, love, and peace, the kingdom of God in the midst of humankind.”30
Social structures, social justice―is this “destructive?” An unthinking Christian may reflexively dismiss this as babble from a “liberal.” He will turn to his trusted gatekeeper and receive assurance that, yes indeed, this is “liberalism” and therefore “bad.” He will look no further.
A thinking Christian will engage, push beyond the echo-chamber. Perhaps you’ll end up agreeing with AiG, but surely we must all raise an eyebrow or two when Ken Ham boldly tells us what truth is … without any evidence he himself understands what he maligns. We must do better.
Or I suppose you could just send Ken the $50 he’s asking for. After all, he’ll send you an autographed copy of his latest book.
1 Michael Bird, Evangelical Theology, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2020), p. 41.
2 If you appreciate this reference, 50 bonus points for you …
3 Cal Thomas and Ed Dobson, Blinded by Might: Why the Religious Right Can’t Save America (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1999), p. 58.
4 William Martin, With God on Our Side: The Rise of the Religious Right in America (New York: Broadway, 1996), p. 16.
5 Scot McKnight, “Inerrancy or Inerrancies?” 01 June 2021. Retrieved from https://scotmcknight.substack.com/p/inerrancy-or-inerrancies.
6 Frances Fitzgerald, “A Disciplined Charging Army.” The New Yorker. 18 May 1981. Retrieved from https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/1981/05/18/a-disciplined-charging-army.
8 Emil Brunner, The Christian Doctrine of Creation and Redemption, in Dogmatics, vol. 2, trans. Olive Wyon (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1952), p. 96.
9 Carl F. H. Henry, God Revelation and Authority, vol. 1 (Waco: Word, 1976), p. 156.
10 Wolfhart Pannenberg, Systematic Theology, vol. 2, trans. Geoffrey Bromiley (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1994), p. 255f.
11 Donald Bloesch, Jesus Christ: Savior and Lord (Downers Grove: IVP, 1997), p. 45.
12 Millard Erickson, Christian Theology, 3rd ed. (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2013), pp. 584-599.
13 Two sociologists label these as “agents of socialization” (Kerry Ferris and Jill Stein, The Real World: An Introduction to Sociology, 6th ed. (New York: Norton, 2018), pp. 109ff).
14 Bird, Evangelical Theology, pp. 88-89.
15 Barack Obama, A Promised Land (New York: Crown, 2020), p. 405.
16 “After the Supreme Court handed down its decision in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka in 1954, Southern public schools—sometimes entire school systems—shut down rather than desegregate. Private “segregation academies” sprung up to replace them. In some states, governments provided grants to subsidize tuition. The movement accelerated following passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which prohibited segregation in schools receiving federal assistance and authorized the government to file suit in federal court to enforce Brown,” (Rick Perlstein, Reaganland: America’s Right Turn: 1976-1980 (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2020), p. 346). See also Martin, With God on Our Side, pp. 168ff.
17 “Bob Jones University Drops Interracial Dating Ban.” Christianity Today. 01 March 2000. Retrieved from https://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2000/marchweb-only/53.0.html.
18 Kevin Kruse, One Nation Under God: How Corporate America Invented Christian America (New York: Basic Books, 2015), pp. 95ff.
19 Daniel Bare, “The Unearthed Conscience of Black Fundamentalism,” in Christianity Today. May/June 2021, p. 64.
20 John Fea, Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2018), p. 66.
21 Martin, With God on Our Side, p. 2.
22 Jason Bivins, Religion of Fear: The Politics of Horror in Conservative Evangelicalism (New York: OUP, 2008).
23 Thomas and Dobson, Blinded by Might, p. 58.
24 Henry, God, Revelation and Authority, vol. 1, p. 156.
25 Ibid, p. 155.
26 Brunner, Creation and Redemption, pp. 55-56, and Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, 3.1 (reprint; London: T&T Clark, 2004), pp. 184-185.
27 Joshua Chatraw, Telling a Better Story (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2020).
28 “What the church can help people with—regardless of whether orientation changes—is identity. We can recognize that a gay script is compelling to those who struggle with same-sex attraction, especially when they see few options emerging from their community of faith. Therefore we can help develop alternative scripts that are anchored in biblical truth and centered in the person and work of Christ,” (Mark Yarhouse, Homosexuality and the Christian (Minneapolis: Bethany, 2010), pp. 54-56).
29 Leonardo and Clodovis Boff, Introducing Liberation Theology, trans. Paul Burns (reprint; Maryknoll: Orbis, 2006), pp. 1-2.
30 Ibid, pp. 8-9.