The Civil War
My fundamental fundamentalist problem.
Maybe some readers of this peculiar church wonder why I have such a beef against fundamentalists. Well, it's a long story. Not that I have a problem with writing long stories. I am currently working on my twenty-first novel. But I do have a problem with asking anyone to read a long blog post, so I mean here to address my distaste of fundamentalism in fairly short and I hope quite understandable parts.
What feels like a good introduction began with my fondness for folk music, which came about during the months after my dad died. I became rather serious for a boy of fifteen.
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One of my favorite performers was Harry Belafonte, although he was more about calypso than folk songs. But a record of his introduced me to Odetta, who would become quite popular during the civil rights era.
Flash forward lots of years. Mr. Obama was running for the Presidency when I came upon Odetta's version of The Battle Hymn of the Republic and commenced listening to it pretty much daily. The whole song is lyrically beautiful and inspiring but the verse that most resonated with me went: “I have read a fiery gospel writ in burning rows of steel: 'As you deal with my conviverous soul, with you my grace shall deal.” In case it's not clear out of context, the creator of the line the Odetta read and quoted is God.
So according to the writer of the song, Julia Ward Howe, an abolitionist from an evangelical family, God has a conviverous soul, which I interpret to mean that God loves us all, not just (say) whites or southerners or landowners. Later I would learn that the original version used the word contemners, which means those who display scorn or contempt for another or others. A good example might be those holding their fellow humans in slavery.
Allow me to briefly digress and interject some history. According to a Wikipedia discussion about the history of the evangelical movement in the U.S. : "The Second Great Awakening of the early 19th century led to . . . a period in which evangelicals dominated U.S. cultural institutions, including schools and universities. Evangelicals of this era in the northern United States were strong advocates of reform. They . . . supported the abolition of slavery in addition to working for education and criminal justice reform.”
But then "Southern evangelicals split from their northern counterparts on the issue of slavery, establishing new denominations that opposed abolition and defended the slavery that the South's expanding cash-crops-for-export agricultural economy was built upon.”
Returning from my digression: When Mr. Obama won the election, I was overjoyed, and celebrated by listening to Odetta's "Battle Hymn" over and over. At the time, I had been attending Journey Community Church for several years. Journey had roots in the Calvary Chapel movement: its founding pastor had been an associate pastor at Horizon Christian Fellowship whose founder was mentored by Chuck Smith, who essentially built one Calvary Chapel into a large denomination. Should you care to get a glimpse of this development, it's in the current film called The Jesus Revolution.
The lead pastor at Journey was a congenial and intelligent fellow with whom I had managed to strike up if not a friendship at least an acquaintance that allowed me to think he might value some of my perspectives. We communicated by email fairly often. So in my elation over the Obama victory, I suggested the worship team might perform The Battle Hymn of the Republic to commemorate that after almost a century and a half we had finally put an end to our Civil War.
The pastor responded "We’ll consider it, but I don't think it's in our range."
For lots of years now, I've tried to understand that comment and its implications. And over that time I have realized that I was terribly mistaken, we have certainly not put the Civil War behind us. Not only is our country still fighting the same crusade that killed a over a half million of us but the evangelical church is still embroiled in the struggle that split the movement in the 1840s.
I’m troubled about having perhaps misjudged churches I have supported and considered them merely evangelical when they were actually what Frank Schaeffer, a book of whose I reviewed here, called evangelical fundamentalist.
And I am deeply worried that the fundamentalist mentality most apparent in the Southern Baptist Convention appears on the rise while most of those who have the wisdom and the platforms to speak against its dangers choose not to, for reasons about which I can only speculate.
And the recollection of our pastor’s pointing out that The Battle Hymn of the Republic wasn't in our church's "range" reminds me of a lesson we all should have learned from the German Christian community of the WW II era: that we can participate in war not only with weapons or with the words we say but also by the words we decline to speak.