One of the hallmarks of fundamentalism is its black and white extremism. We knew how to get into heaven, and therefore, exactly who was going to hell. We knew that there were true “sheep” Christians (who believed in a literal 6-day creation) and there were “Christians” (voted Democratic, flirted with evolution, drank wine, etc.) who would probably be shocked to find out they were “goats” and would end up in hell! This rampant reductionism is a distortion of the concept of absolute truth, which of course, as a follower of the biblical Christ, we are compelled to embrace. After all, we’re following a man who absolutely claimed to be the Way, Truth, and Life…
Why did we do this? Why were we so extreme, so hard-line in our approach to life and faith? One of the most helpful insights I’ve come across on this subject is Eugene Peterson’s description of the Pharisees in his book, The Jesus Way. It’s ironic to me that a closer look at the Pharisees would in fact soften my heart towards “religion,” especially when the word “Pharisee” has become the ultimate criticism of a person who is too religious! Consider Peterson’s take:
“The Pharisees were incredibly courageous and fiercely devout. Pharisees were Jews at their passionate and loyal best. They were a party of the people, a grassroots movement, thousands of ordinary Jews who refused to respond to the Greek evangelistic altar call to turn from an oppressive life under Moses and instead embrace freedom and beauty and intelligence – to be really human for the first time in their history.” (The Jesus Way, p. 210)
I find a great deal of commonality between the Jews of 150 B.C. and the Pentecostals of mid-20th Century America. Like the Greeks, America’s military and intellectual prowess had made it the dominant culture in the world…and it has been a relentless proselytizer for decades! The “rules” of pentecostalism were the wrong approach, but they were the response to an accurate perception: the culture was calling for conformity to its values and the church is all too ready and willing to comply. Again, look at Peterson’s analysis of the Pharisees:
“This accumulation of rules and customs had become a rigid exterior armor among many of the Pharisees. Jewish identity had been preserved, but after a couple hundred years the identity had become more external than internal. They had become religious crustaceans: all their bone structure was on the outside.” (The Jesus Way, p. 210)
Maybe we need more balance and less fundamentalist extremism in our assessment of our own religious past. Before we rush to the shame that so many of us are all too quick to wear like a scarlet letter of spiritual self-loathing, maybe we should be thoughtful. Maybe we should consider that it’s easy to repeat the dismal failure of responding poorly to an accurate perception!