Cultural Fundamentalism

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Cultural Fundamentalism or Cultural Evangelicalism?

From Theologically Driven. Posted with permission.

Over the past decade it has been popular to distinguish between “cultural fundamentalism” and “historic fundamentalism.” Cultural fundamentalism is regarded by its critics as very, very bad. It consists of folksy/outdated traditionalism that has drifted from its quaint, innocuous origins and has entered a bitter, skeptical stage of life—complete with theological errors of a sort that typically attend aging, countercultural movements. Historic fundamentalism, which focuses more on basic theological issues, fares a little bit better, but only a very little bit. Critics puzzle over those who accept this label, marveling that anyone would risk associative guilt by lingering near those nasty cultural fundamentalists: “Why not get with the program,” they ask, “and become a conservative evangelical?”

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Cultural Conservatism, Styles and Accidental Meaning

A river in China features a warning sign for visitors. Thoughtfully, the authorities included this helpful English translation: “Take the child. Fall into water carefully.”

It is possible to intend one meaning and yet convey a very different one! In other words, a medium (vehicle of meaning) may “contain” meaning we do not realize is there. And use of that medium may also send a message we do not realize is being sent.

This phenomenon has important implications for the debate over cultural conservatism (“styles” or “forms” of music, dress, speech, etc.) and the sub-debate over the fitness of styles of music for worship. Many involved in the debate seem to reason that since they do not intend any meaning by the style they are using, and they are not aware of any meaning, therefore no meaning exists and none is being conveyed. Are they right?

The case of Corinth

Before we turn our attention to the implications of accidental cultural meaning, we should pause and consider another question: does the Bible teach that styles have meaning—intended or otherwise? It does, and 1 Corinthians 11 contains an example. In this passage, not only does a medium convey meaning, but the meaning conveyed is not what some of those involved intended.

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Imposing Preferences

In the conflict over fundamentalism and culture, meta-debate seems to have overshadowed debate. Healthy debate is what occurs when two parties look at the real points of disagreement between them and try to support their own position on those points.

Meta-debate is what happens when we debate about matters surrounding the debate. At its best meta-debate may help clarify and focus the real debate when it happens. It may lead to healthy debate. But it is not the debate itself, because the real points of disagreement are not in focus.

But meta-debate quite often breeds confusion and makes the truly differing claims and supporting arguments less clear rather than more clear. This sort of meta-debate takes many forms from trading insults, to assigning ideas to the other side that they don’t really hold, to framing the debate itself in a way that obscures its true nature.

One example of the latter is the phrase “imposing preferences.”

I’ve been hearing this term for years and still hear it quite often. If you’ve used it in communication with me recently, please don’t think I’m targeting you specifically. It’s an expression that has long lived in my “If I’ve heard it once, I’ve heard it a thousand times” file.

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Fundamentalism and Culture: a Heart for Healthy Debate

I have friends who believe in baptizing infants. We remain friends even though we both believe that (a) getting baptism right is important and that (b) the other guy is just plain wrong. Though we disagree about a matter that is weighty to both of us, we get along just fine.

Of course, there are some things my friends’ churches and my own would not be able to do together. There are also things our churches could do together, if there was much to gain by doing them together. Nonetheless, we get along just fine.

Apparently it’s possible to hold firmly to a set of convictions, live them faithfully, and teach them emphatically, yet simultaneously stay on respectful, friendly terms with Christians who reject those same convictions.

So why can’t the fundamentalism-and-culture disagreements work that way?

Well, they can. It does happen.

Just as I have friends who baptize infants, I also have friends who use music in worship that I could never use in good conscience. They do other culture-oriented things I don’t think are right either. Each of us knows where the other stands and, to some degree, why. We don’t back down, but we get along fine. If we wanted to, I think we could even have a healthy debate about these matters. So why is the interaction on culture questions usually so unlike that?

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Fundamentalism, Culture and Lost Opportunity


I woke up this morning thinking, “Not enough people are mad at me.” Hence, this post.

Actually, my sincere hope is to encourage, not more rage but more reflection on all sides of the fundamentalism-and-culture issue. I’m going to argue that the two perspectives that are most passionate and opposite on this question are both wasting an important opportunity. First, some framing.

Fundamentalism and cultural conservatism

The central question is basically this: how should Christians evaluate heavily culture-entwined matters such as music styles (chiefly in worship), entertainment, clothing, etc.? To nuance the question a little more: how should churches, ministries, and individuals connected with fundamentalism and its heritage view these cultural issues?

Two nearly-opposite sets of answers to this question have become prominent among leaders and ministries of fundamentalist lineage. My guess is that most people are really somewhere between these two attitudes, mixing points from each. But the two near-opposite views seem to have the most passionate and articulate advocates.

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