Monday, January 30, 2012

Conceding the Field to Fundamentalism

One of Facebook's least endearing behavioral features is how it kicks up "Bullhorns for Everyone!" to a new level. There are numerous "friends" whom I've eventually silenced in my Facebook feed because of their constant stream of political cheap shots and other announcements of their fealty to True Causes. One would think that politics and religion are, to the Anglican upper class, not seen as fit subjects for the internet parlor.

And yet we have this making the Facebook rounds: another entry in the annals of "worshipping the Lord with a slight air of superiority," and not an especially innocent one at that. Whatever truth there is to Mark Noll's notorious opening observation in The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind, namely that "there is not much of an evangelical mind", for Episcopalians the scandal is our infatuation with our own supposedly superior theological sophistication. The sad truth, unfortunately, is that for some decades now the church has been dominated by two parties, each of which has largely taken its cues from secular sources. So on the establishment side, we have the continued drive to make the church safe for upper middle class liberals, and most especially their sexual appetites; the church rebels, on the other hand, seem as responsive to the words of the economic prophet von Mises as they are to the gospel. In the meantime, a somewhat beleaguered band of Anglicans resists, often futilely, with the sophomoric attempts at theology which appear to drive changes to the liturgy, not to mention yet another semi-official rebellion against the idea of even having a standard liturgy.

Perhaps the only church more prone to theological snobbery than us is the Church of Rome, or at least its more traditionalist partisans. We are bad enough: "fundamentalist" might as well mean "theological redneck", the way it appears in so much rhetoric, such as in this one-liner. Real fundamentalism, as Tony Clavier reminds us and as any student of theological history should be aware, came out of the Presbyterians, as a response to the, well, theological snobbery of the textual criticism faction. It has little to do with us, even if one of our episcopal heretics felt moved to try to rescue us from it. Instead, as everyone knows, "fundamentalist" means "narrow-minded, stupid, backward, mean-spirited literalist", or "someone who tells me I shouldn't have an abortion", or even "someone who takes their religion seriously enough to blow up themselves up for it." As Bryan Owen points out, it signifies the social class distinction between us and the Southern Baptists, whom we are prone to treat as nasty and brutish if not short. On top of all this is the presumption that we are in imitatio Christi through our resistance, as though there isn't something pharisaic in the fastidiousness with which we emasculate the liturgy and vote meaninglessly at church conventions to affirm this or that other secular cause over which the church has no influence, having spent it all decades ago. Indeed, if there is any favorable linkage to be made between us and the Pharisees, it is that we perhaps most resemble that exalted pair, Nicodemus and Joseph, who saw to the burial of Our Lord.

It is inevitable that we serve as a refuge for those fleeing what they perceive as the theological tyrannies and idiocies of other churches. If it is our only virtue, however, then we are lacking in virtue at all. Half a century ago we could point to a distinctly Anglican tradition of doing theology, in the academy, the sanctuary, and in the world; but of late we are increasingly reduced to that wretched "inclusion" and an increasingly limp and pale costume drama of a liturgy. And obviously we cannot include any fundamentalists; indeed, the campaign to drive them away is perhaps only beginning to fade a bit due to its manifest success.

The thing we need to resist isn't fundamentalism. It's the unbelief, the irreligion, the "spirituality" that is becoming the default religion of the social classes we so disproportionately represent. For all their faults, the fundamentalists now do a better job of calling the apostasy of Christendom to account. We can hardly be bothered; indeed, we seem more inclined to cater to the irreligious, for challenging them to real membership in the body would be, well, a failure of inclusion. And that's reflected in our own theological congress, where the only criterion that seems to matter is whether it would offend someone of vague or no spirituality who is committed to staying in that state. Can anything be more fatal to evangelism? We seemingly cannot call to the unchurched, but only to those who are on their way out the church door.

It is time for us to repent. We need to cease this stupid war against our fellow Christians and return to doing what we ought to be able to do best: harvesting those outside the church whom these other churches fail to collect. We need to appeal to the unchurched and apostate, and give them a reason to join us, not just to be comfortable visitors. And we need to look inward at our snobbery, and root it out mercilessly. Then we can consider again whether what we do is the work Christ set us to do.

5 comments:

The Archer of the Forest said...

Amen to that, Brother. I saw this picture on Facebook a few days ago and it really angered me in its extreme snottiness. I am glad you tackled it.

Bill Dilworth said...

I'm not sure what the photo of the woman priest has to do with resisting "fundamentalism" - the Salvation Army started ordaining women in the 19th century, and the Assemblies of God in 1914.

C. Wingate said...

Bill, I'm pretty sure that in that particular case "fundamentalists" means (a) Roman Catholics, and (b) the (quondam) Bishop of Fort Worth and all his works.

Dick Mitchell said...

Several of us have had a running discussion on FB that the poster was meant as parody of self-satisfied Episcopalians. Otherwise, I agree completely with yr analysis of "fundamentalism" -- the straw opponent for all purposes.

C. Wingate said...

I'm also coming to the conclusion that it was put together as a parody. Sadly, it is a parody that cuts too close.