Series Topic : Fundamentalist Myths
This post is the third in a continuing series that examines the origins of commonly held positions promoted within modern evangelical American Christianity.
- The links page for this series of posts can be found here: https://edgeofmindandbeyond.wordpress.com/category/fundamentalist-myths/
Comments, corrections and clarifications are welcomed, as always.
Beliefs vs. Myths
Throughout my lifetime some persistent themes have circulated in the conservative evangelical and fundamentalist Christian groups that have become almost mandatory beliefs of “true believers”. Some of these ideas I now consider to be myths or misunderstandings, since they seem to advocate support for agendas other than advancing the Kingdom of God.
Here are some examples (continuing the list from the previous post)…
7. Obtaining an education at a “secular” university will cause a person to stray from truth and lose their faith. It would be better to learn a trade or start a business than seek “worldly” success through higher education.
This idea might date back to the early protestant reformation and especially the Calvinists, such as the Puritans. This was a rather self-serving position by these groups since they were rebelling against the “establishment” in the formal church leadership structure. There was legitimate concern by these groups that the true message of the gospel was being distorted or suppressed by church leaders to the extent that the power of God was missing from the formal religious institutions and lives of believers. In reacting against the formally educated clergy who used their “inside knowledge” of scripture to control believers, they also tended to reject formal education in general. This was understandable when many of those rejecting the formality of religious practices were merchants, tradesmen and working class laborers.
Oddly enough, those Calvinists who rose to the prosperity of the middle, or even upper classes, often became proponents of the education of their clergy and established a number of seminaries in America to achieve this goal. Once again, there was a split between those who were better off financially, socially and educationally, and the working class believers who insisted that education was not necessary to understand, believe, and live according to the Bible. The religion of the working classes evolved into the evangelical and fundamentalist groups of modern times, who still maintain that the Bible should be interpreted literally, without the “liberal” influence of the highly educated professional clergy who have knowledge of the original languages and historical context of the Bible.
The Pentecostals and Charismatics took this disdain for educated clergy one step further and claimed that “baptism in the Holy Spirit” (with experiential evidence of this event being the gifts of the Spirit) was the ultimate test of true spirituality. These groups believed that the indwelling Spirit of God gave the needed insight into the Bible and that God gave each individual the specific applications of Biblical principles in their own lives. Thus, they believed that lay people could become leaders in their groups (by advancing in the leading of the Holy Spirit) and that seminary educated clergy were not needed (and probably detrimental) to lead the flock. This congealed as opposition not only to educated leaders, but disdain for education in general, which was considered to be “worldly” and based on “the wisdom of men”.
Ironically, many of these groups substituted their own internally concocted beliefs as doctrine since they often had distrust of and contempt for the traditionally held doctrines of older faith traditions. (This contempt ignored that many previously held Church doctrines were based on extensive Biblical scholarship and debate among those who had spent lifetimes in the study of God’s message to mankind.) Pride in their own ignorance of church history and doctrines created very inwardly focused believers who based their understanding of the Bible on individual experiential manifestations and revelations.
Many groups did promote personal holiness, though often as a “merit badge” of personal accomplishment, which became a source of spiritual pride or arrogance. This inward focus and sense of exclusivity toward other Christian groups often created a “bubble” mentality that rejected and resented corrective input from others outside their group. This created an environment that was very susceptible to influence by those who advanced heretical beliefs, but who possessed engaging speaking styles and charismatic (in traditional sense) personalities.
Without the grounding and insights of true Biblical scholarship, these groups (predictably), splintered into many sects, each of which believed in supremacy of their own doctrines and peculiar rules of behavior. As a result, there are now thousands of independent local churches with unique beliefs and practices that are considered by their leaders (and followers) to be the most “correct” interpretation of the Bible. By discouraging their followers from seeking confirmation of truth from other sources, they often evolve into cult-like organizations that are cut off from society and other Christians who hold differing views.
By curtailing the ambitions of members, especially young people, to seek higher education that would lead to greater levels of responsibilities and accomplishments in the “secular” world, many of these groups limited their own influence and financial growth. This led many members to remain in the trades, agriculture, small businesses, and self-employed status of their ancestors and religious predecessors. By limiting the impact of outsiders on their belief groups, they also tended to limit their impact on the rest of the world as well, further isolating themselves from the advances made in the more open secular world.
Another particular side benefit (to these exclusivist organizations) of encouraging members to learn a trade that is widely needed is that these members are well suited to pull up stakes and move to another outreach or church planting location since they are likely to find employment. For the aggressive evangelical groups, who want to rapidly spread their influence as far as possible, this is a definite advantage for their organizational growth.
8. Becoming educated or learning to think critically is detrimental to faith and spiritual growth, and therefore should be avoided. (Anti-intellectualism.)
The anti-intellectual bias is not only a Fundamentalist trait, but is also deeply ingrained in American culture. For American Christians, there are probable reasons for this bias from the Protestant Reformation traditions, the rugged individualism of the pioneers and early settlers, and specific propaganda campaigns by religious, political, business, and financial leaders that appeal to the strong populist sentiment of many Americans.
What is ironic about the apparent resurgence of this perspective in modern American culture is that religious groups were among the strongest proponents of education for all children and adults in the early years of this nation and even by many early settlers. However, much of their educational emphasis was intended to promote greater Biblical literacy which was expected to lead to greater personal piety and a more civil society.
Historically, when the general public became more educated and able to reason critically and think for themselves, they became less reliant on religious leaders to instruct them in their traditions, doctrines, and beliefs. During the Enlightenment, the critical evaluation of tradition-based beliefs began in earnest. Academic interest was increasingly directed toward a scholarly secular/scientific examination of the Bible and the source manuscripts from which the biblical canon was derived. When objective examination of scriptural texts began to call into question some traditional beliefs of the church, those in positions of power in religious institutions went on the defensive against these findings.
A number of groups emerged that took great delight in scoffing at these findings and accused the scholars of being apostate, heretical, unholy, and agents of the devil seeking to shake the faith of true believers. To capitalize on the egalitarian sentiments of many of their less educated and lower socio-economic congregants, these preachers stirred up continuing antagonism toward the “atheist” academics who challenged their assertions about “traditional” doctrine and standards of righteousness. They also portrayed themselves and those who agreed with them as true defenders of the faith, noble martyrs in the service of God, and the standard of holiness in the heathen world. Of course these proclamations by religious leaders, when asserted with bold confidence in a passionate delivery, had the benefit of isolating their flocks from the evils of the world while further strengthening the hold on the minds and hearts of their followers, thus cementing their positions of authority as the only purveyors of ultimate truth.
Thus, the true motives of the religious leaders are often revealed to be no more than a power trip, just like any other petty tyrant in secular institutions, such as government, business, academia, etc. As such, the prudent course for believers would be to specifically and earnestly seek to learn the most powerful skills and techniques for discerning truth among those who would endeavor to control our hearts and minds, whether religious or secular.