The Coming Identity-Crisis

Younger evangelicals have worked hard to distance themselves from the fundamentalist baggage of their forefathers. We’ve rejected the “us” against “them” culture war language. We’ve moved beyond the anti-intellectual ethos of earlier movements.

We don’t want to be lumped in with names like Jack Hyles or J. Frank Norris. We don’t preach against drum sets. We don’t get bogged down in all of the externals. We don’t believe the key to urban renewal is an expanding bus ministry. And many of us don’t even know what “secondary separation” is.

We have a swath of Apple products at our finger tips, we sip cappuccinos, and sport reformation-era facial hair. We’re post-fundamentalists. And, for good or ill, we will lead the church into the coming decades.

But an identity crisis is coming.

What this generation of hipster — we’re serious about the gospel types — might not recognize is that we have only temporarily abandoned the fundamentalist label. In an ironic turn of fate, the culture seems to have redefined fundamentalism and returned it, albeit unintentionally, to its historical meaning.

The term finds its origin in the early twentieth-century from the twelve volume set of essays including contributions from leading theologians like R.A. Torrey and E.Y. Mullins by the title of The Fundamentals: A Testimony to the Truth. Anyone who believed the fundamentals of the faith were, by default, considered “fundamentalists.”

But this isn’t the fundamentalism that younger evangelicals take issue with — though the title still sends shivers of legalistic paranoia down our spines. The fundamentalism we’ve rejected is a “cultural fundamentalism” with all of its cultural isolation, weird rules, culottes (if you don’t know, don’t ask), bad preaching, brow-beating, and claims of a divinely inspired seventeenth-century English translation of the Bible.

What’s hard for twenty-something and thirty-something hipster theologians, church planters, and “missional” missionaries to imagine is that with all of our swag, and our soul patches, with our Macs and our organically grown, fair-traded coffee, that we — WE — could really in the end turn out to be, what we’ve always tried to evade.

The coming identity crisis for younger evangelicals (which I still consider myself to be one though I’m now climbing the northern slope of my fourth decade of life) is that we will have to come face to face with a label we’ve spent much of our ministry trying to avoid. For some time, however short of a time it might have been, we’ve relished the illusion that the term fundamentalist was meant for someone other than us.

And though we will not return to cultural fundamentalism with all of its legalism and social idiosyncrasies, we cannot avoid this historical title. We believe in the fundamentals of the faith and the more clearly we make this known, the more unavoidable the dreaded label will become. Though the use of the term may be skewed and confused by the media, its continued use for those who believe the Bible seems inescapable.

We will earn the title, so it appears, on the basis of our theological commitments.

I’m reminded of a prophetic speech delivered by Dorothy Sayers in 1940 in which she said, “The thing that is in danger is the whole structure of society, and it is necessary to persuade thinking men and women of the vital and intimate connection between the structure of society and the theological doctrines of Christianity.”

Sayers could not be any more spot on. But we must recognize that pressing thinking men and women to understand “the connection between the structure of society” and the “doctrines of Christianity” is the new textbook definition of fundamentalism. To be honest, it’s actually the old text book definition, it’s just back en vogue (you can call it a retro-fundamentalism).

The luxury of nominal Christianity has passed, and we are wise to bid it farewell. We will either be known for our theology or we will betray what we believe by our silence.

On the one hand, some may relapse into the former cultural fundamentalism by alienating themselves from the broader cultural dialogue altogether. Others will retread their convictions to avoid the cultural condemnation. Both ways are to be avoided, but they illustrate the truth we’ve known all along, in the end, we cannot please both God and man.

We must choose. We must boldly face the task of pointing a watching world to the gospel as the exclusive basis for human flourishing.

If this makes us fundamentalists, let it be. Let it be for our clearly defined biblical beliefs and not our personal preferences. Let it be on the grounds of our theological convictions and not our social oddities.  Let it be for the glory of God and the good of humanity.