A few of the things that fundamentalist preachers tried to teach me in my youth keep coming back to me. I wonder what it is about our current historical moment that is doing that. Hmm – what could it be?
Like many earnest young Christians growing up within range of American Evangelical culture, I nearly embraced fundamentalism as a teenager by happenstance. Wanting to make friends in a new place, I found a youth group. There I made a personal commitment to Jesus Christ. That led to a Charismatic “baptism in the Holy Spirit” a few months later, and that led to water baptism in a nondenominational church rather than in the Mennonite church of my parents. There I picked up on enough suspicion of intellectualism that I chose to rebel against my professor father by staying out of college.
But that decision only lasted a year. A liberal arts education eventually broadened my worldview. Midway through college, after six years in that nondenominational church, I left it not because I questioned the “Spirit-filled” realities of the Charismatic movement, but because I could no longer buy into the fundamentalism that often, though not necessarily, comes with it.
I have no regrets about these youthful explorations; they have served me well. In addition to basic building-block disciplines for a Christian life like “quiet time” or daily Bible study (which I’ve now carried over into the liturgy of hours, contemplative prayer, and lectio divina), I am glad I learned the languages and thought patterns of these brothers and sisters in Christ. Amid war-torn Central America of the 1980s, I needed to work respectfully among all kinds of theologically conservative Christians. And it always helps a theologian to know his or her way around the Bible, sometimes down to chapter and verse, even if fundamentalist preachers were one’s first tour guides. Even today, what I affectionately call my checkered past allows me to teach Global Christianity and help students appreciate people like Pentecostals, however foreign their practices might seem.
What is surprising me today is how relevant some of the things that biblical fundamentalists taught me are proving to be – though maybe not in the way they expected. Here are five:
1. We face stark choices.
Some scholars have identified what they call “the Deuteronomic worldview” from the 30th chapter of Deuteronomy. Although I am not sure that label is fair to the rich wisdom of the fifth book of the Bible, Moses’ warnings there are indeed stark. You face a choice between life and death, blessing and curse, he tells the Israelites who are about to cross into the Promised Land. Obey God and live. Disobey and die. I should hasten to add that Biblical fundamentalists also know something about the grace and mercy of Jesus Christ, so death and cursedness need not supply the last word. But I am puzzled why the deadly side of the Deuteronomic choice must apply to gays, lesbians, and their allies, while mercy goes to those who order ICE agents to create more “fatherless and widows” by deporting “strangers” (Deut.10:18-19). But okay, I concede that we do face stark choices.
2. God judges the nations.
The choices before us are not simply matters of personal morality, although in fundamentalist readings of Biblical texts, God’s judgment did often seem to track with the piety and integrity of individual kings or leaders. Biblical fundamentalists love to draw direct one-to-one lessons for today from the dramatic ups-and-downs of ancient Israel and the prophets’ warnings to surrounding nations. In Old Testament chronicles, Israel thrives as a political entity when kings listen to God’s Law and lead the people accordingly, but plummet when they refuse and go whoring after other gods.
The same holds true today. I agree that moral political leadership, or the lack of it, matters, and has consequences for nations. But, while fundamentalists seem undisturbed by luxury, glamour, celebrity, military might, racial superiority and the like, these things sure seem like idols to me. The America in “America First” itself sure looks like a rival religion to Christianity. But I’m a Catholic now, so maybe I’ve lost the secret code for drawing those one-to-one lessons. I suppose I need an inspired prophet. Let’s see…
3. False prophets arise, and numbers don’t authenticate them.
Israel seemed to like prophets. They were colorful characters. They confidently proclaimed the word of the Lord. They sometimes became celebrities. They got to start their own television networks. Oops, wrong millennium. What I meant to say is, they got employed by kings themselves and played big-league roles in their courts. Of course there were nagging exceptions. Prophets like Amos, Elijah, Elisha, and Jeremiah said uncomfortable things and got hounded out of court for bringing “fake news.” But they were in the minority. So obviously they were wrong – until they weren’t.
4. The anti-Christ will be a great deceiver.
Indeed, warned Jesus, “many false prophets will arise and deceive many” (Matthew 24:11). The big kahuna will be the anti-Christ, a slick politician of mysterious origins who arises in the last times with the promise to cut a great deal for world peace. He thus will trick many, even devout Christian believers, into following him. This sinister résumé is a composite that is easier to find in apocalyptic fundamentalist fiction than in any one passage of the New Testament. But it does make sense, in a way. Deceivers deceive. And self-deception is by definition impossible to recognize in oneself.
5. Proof-texts are supposed to settle matters.
Preachers with prophetic decoder rings and Scofield Reference Bibles have over many years proposed candidate after candidate for the office of anti-Christ. So that’s not settled. Indeed, it would be a fool’s errand for me to try to identify this figure yet again.
What then is left to learn? Namely, the lesson that self-deception is a tricky thing. Those who are sure they can identify who is either the great deceiver or is willfully self-deceived are as likely as anyone else to be deceived themselves. So is it surprising (or quite unsurprising) that those who warn the loudest against a great era of easy self-interested religion may be as blind to self-delusion as the rest of us? Maybe there is one proof-text (Mark 4:9) that applies to everyone, by calling all of us to thorough and ongoing self-examination: “Let anyone with ears to hear, hear.”