Roger Olson Is Feeling Some Nostalgia for Fundamentalism

“watching the film nevertheless ‘picked me up and transported me’ back in time to a time in my life when everything about life was simple, clear, uncomplicated, warm, meaningful, even exciting. God was real to us.” - Olson


Could I ever go back into that religious context? No. Actually, I was expelled from it for asking the wrong questions and in the wrong ways. The motto was “Doubt your doubts and believe your beliefs!” Whenever I asked a question that could possibly be interpreted as doubting something the church or the denomination believed and taught, I was shamed, just for asking it.

Interesting piece by Olson, but this quotation gets to a pet peeve of mine:

Does the above actually ever happen? I've heard it so often as a narrative, but I grew up in an IFB church myself (my dad is a pastor, after all) and I've heard a lot. But I've never heard of this happening personally. When people asked questions, they got answers. Granted, if they asked like they already knew the answer and just wanted to stir up trouble maybe the reception was less generous. But that's a different matter.

It is certainly the sort of narrative people like to build about themselves though: "Others just accepted everything they were told, but from and early age, I had a keen intellect and perceptive insights. My sincere questions and intellectual acumen was met with hostility and fear, however, by those well-meaning but unenlightened rubes."

Maybe it really was how Olson describes it, don't get me wrong. But "I asked questions they couldn't handle" has become such a stock anecdote for those who have become more progressive, heretical, or left the faith entirely--and also smacks of a bit of self-aggrandizement--that I can't help but be a bit suspicious.

Well, I can’t say I’ve ever seen anyone thrown out of fundamentalism for inconvenient questions either, but I definitely experienced being viewed with suspicion for asking certain questions, and being told that if I was spiritually where I needed to be I wouldn’t be asking them (or have to ask them).

Just a couple examples:

  • “Why is this music wrong? Can you show me what the Bible says about it?”
  • “What does ‘Praise the Lord with timbrel and dance’ mean for us?”
  • “Where does the Bible support not dating/marrying those of other races? What about Ruth and Rahab?”

I would never claim that those were questions that those I asked “couldn’t handle,” but they were certainly ones they either couldn’t or didn’t want to answer, as well as ones I thought completely reasonable for a young student of the scriptures to be asking. Unlike many, the response to these questions didn’t turn me off of fundamentalism, but they certain did make me ponder what truths in the faith being proclaimed were really biblical, and which were just preference/tradition. In other words I didn’t blame the faith for the failings of some of its adherents.

Dave Barnhart

He is talking about his background, Pentecostalism, which in the 50s and 60s (the years of his youth) was quite strict in personal standards. Maybe more strict than even what we would think of the fundamentalists we are familiar with.

We tend to read our own experience into words like "fundamentalism" - there isn't just one "fundamentalism", and I know Olson well enough to understand where he is coming from. He isn't happy with everything that has happened in evangelicalism, but he isn't willing to embrace any form of fundamentalism either. He does have some nostalgia for the simpler times of his youth. I guess we all have some of that.

He's also written about his sometimes just as off-putting experiences in the colleges he's taught in and in the evangelical churches he's been a part of. He isn't one for just accepting the status quo.

Don Johnson
Jer 33.3

I used to live near a church--KJVO, Trail of Blood--that rather routinely expelled members and forced them to humiliate themselves as a condition of retaining membership. Often, it was for sins committed before they'd come to Christ, and then they'd generally be expelled anyways. I visited it once, and the "pastor" babbled for two and a half hours without saying anything.

OK, is that what Olson saw? I certainly don't know, but I don't think that what he's talking about is utterly foreign to at least the fringe of pentacostal and fundamental churches.

Aspiring to be a stick in the mud.

From what I know, I don't think Olson is talking about that kind of extremism. One never knows, there are all kinds of nutbars out there, but I think he was in a strict Pentecostal denomination. This was before the Charismatic movement. I say that because when I say "Pentecostal" some think "Charismatic" as in something they've experienced in the current era.

It's similar to when people use "fundamentalist" -- many who comment here will understand the term in light of their own experience.

So I think, from what I've gleaned from Olson, that he is describing the very conservative "old-line" Pentecostals. I also think pastors/leaders in that era (post-war, 50s and 60s) had a kind of military mindset. You don't ask questions, and any questions are seen as insubordination. So... it is also true that there were men like that who would be more in denominations/groups we would recognize as fundamentalists.

However, I think Olson mostly means just fairly strict on behaviour when he uses "fundamentalist." He isn't talking about the fundamentalist-modernist controversy or the issue of separation. Just a strict form of evangelical religion.

Despite some problems, and the authoritarian approach, that approach to church wasn't all bad.

Don Johnson
Jer 33.3