I grew up in a Fundamental Baptist world. Fundamental Baptist home. Fundamental Baptist church. Fundamental Baptist school.
I know what you’re thinking.
Okay, actually, I don’t. But I imagine a handful of common responses. Defensiveness is one. Maybe you know some Fundamentalists, and they get your back up. Or maybe you are one, and you are now afraid that I’m going to rip them to shreds. If you’re not defensive, maybe you feel pity? Or curiosity? Incredulity? Empathy? Or disgust?
This label leaves few of us completely indifferent.
Perhaps a little history is in order.
According to Stefan Ulstein (Growing Up Fundamentalist), the term “Fundamentalism” was coined in the early twentieth century. “In 1910 Lyman Stewart, an oil magnate from southern California, commissioned a select group of Bible teachers and evangelists to pen a response to the modernist influence within the evangelical coalition. The result was a series of twelve paperback volumes, known collectively as The Fundamentals” (13). Ninety essays by sixty-four different authors were included. And they covered a wide range of topics—from the Virgin Birth to Socialism to the Second Coming of Christ.
Early Fundamentalism, then, held firm to the beliefs spelled out in these books. It stressed orthodox doctrine, intentional evangelism, personal piety. And followers rose up quickly to the call.
Within just a few years, however, a marginalization of Fundamentalism began. The Scopes Trial of the 1920s pitted Fundamentalists against Modernists in a very public debate around the issue of evolution—and Fundamentalists were painted as “anti-science” and even “anti-intellectual.” Later, when some Southern Fundamentalist voiced support of the Jim Crow laws, the movement as a whole was also labeled “racist.” Then, as American culture experienced the sexual revolution and Fundamentalists clamped down on their progeny with strict dress codes and an uncompromising list of rules, Fundamentalists were often viewed as “reactionary” and “old-fashioned.” The movement became increasingly fraught with fear. “Come out from among them, and be ye separate” became their major refrain.
Rightly or wrongly, this “image problem” has plagued Fundamentalists ever since. And many of us who grew up in the movement have done everything we could to shake this identity loose. We’ve run. We’ve rebelled. We’ve renounced. Much to our parents’ dismay.
On the other hand, though, I have to be fair. For me, the experience of growing up in the Fundamentalist world was certainly not all negative. My Fundamentalist church and school—like many others—faithfully preached the Gospel and taught us to take the Bible seriously. They provided a sense of belonging, security, commitment, and community that is difficult to replicate.
Ulstein wrote his book to give a voice to ex-Fundamentalists. To help those who are still struggling with their Fundamentalist heritage. To encourage communication between Fundamentalist parents and their estranged children. But ultimately, he says, to draw all readers closer to Jesus Christ. According to Ulstein, “our place in the body of Christ is usually guided by the way people around us live their lives and by the ways that they help or hinder us in our own journey” (21).
But this is true—no matter what your religious heritage, right? Whether you grew up Baptist or Catholic or atheist or something else—your understanding of God and your relationship with him was not so much learned as absorbed.
Certainly, I learned much from my family, my church, and my school. But I absorbed even more. Certainly, I was both helped and hindered by my Fundamentalist upbringing. Here, then, is just a bit of how.
When the movie opens, the following verse fills the screen to the sound of an ominous ticking clock.
“Keep a sharp lookout for
you do not know when I will
come, at evening, at midnight,
early dawn or late daybreak.
Don’t let me find you sleeping!”
Then the clock comes into view. It’s 10 a.m. The radio turns on, and the news anchor is already describing a universal state of shock. “The event seems to have taken place at the same time all over the world,” he reports. “Just about twenty-five minutes ago, suddenly, and without warning, thousands, perhaps millions of people just disappeared…millions who were living on this earth just last night are not here this morning.”
In the middle of his account, Patty Jo Myers—young, blond, beautiful—bolts awake. She has been sleeping!
After taking a moment to rub her eyes and listen to the report, she calls out to her husband. “Jim. Jim? Jim!” Hearing no response, she rushes to the bathroom and finds Jim’s electric razor. Plugged in. Buzzing loudly. Lying in the sink. Jim is clearly gone. Patty Jo screams.
She stumbles back down the hallway, into the bedroom, and collapses on the floor as the news anchor reads from Matthew 24. Some church leaders are speculating, he says, that this could be an event called the Rapture, spoken of in some branches of theology. “And I quote. ‘Even if it is something like the Rapture, we need not panic. The very fact that we are here and able to discuss it is sign enough that it is not all inclusive.’ End quote.”
Thus goes the opening sequence for the 1972 movie A Thief in the Night. The first time I watched it, I was eight years old, sitting with my family on the hard pews at Grace Baptist Church. It was probably a special Sunday night evangelistic event. For an already anxious child, a child who kept a tearful vigil by the window every time her parents left the house, this movie wrecked me. For months, every night, I begged Jesus to forgive my sins and come into my heart and take me up to Heaven, too, when he came for my mom and dad.
I believed the movie was true. I was a child. Of course I did. I believed that Jesus will come again in the clouds. That it can happen at any time. And that my salvation depends on my confession of Him.
But this, too, I believed. That God is, above all, terrifying. That He is unpredictable, unapproachable, uncompromising, and even cruel. That He keeps us in fear. And that He would not think twice about tearing my fragile family apart.
This I believed.
When I was in fifth grade, our family left Grace Baptist Church and joined a smaller Baptist congregation closer to our home. We were quickly integrated into the little community, attending every time the doors were open. Sunday School. Morning Church. Sunday Training Time. Evening Church. Thursday Prayer Meeting. Saturday Pre-Teen Club. And Social Events.
This church didn’t have a building of its own. We met in the Richfield Community Center and the pastor’s home. For a couple of years, my parents hosted the Pre-Teen Club in our basement. Using primary-colored tape, our leaders laid down an AWANA-like circle on the concrete floor. And every Saturday morning, with a dozen or so other kids, I ran relays around the course. Played Steal the Bacon. Tug of War. Crab Soccer and more.
Every week we also recited memory verses, completed worksheets, and had a “sword drill” for points. Our leader would ask us to hold our Bibles high in the air, making sure that no one had a finger tucked between the pages. Then he would call out a Bible reference and say, “Draw your swords!” We would all bring our Bibles to our laps and feverishly whip through the pages.
I was good at church. As a kid who always felt she had something big to prove, I was as fiercely competitive at Pre-Teens as I was on the softball field. I did church to win. So quite often, I would be the first one to jump to my feet and start reading the sword drill verse aloud. Quite often, I grabbed the beanbag out from under a smaller child’s nose and ran like the wind. And quite often, I recited the most Bible verses for the most points and the most pats on the back.
This I believed. That the Church and the Bible are important. That I should be committed to this Community. And that I should know the Scriptures inside and out.
But this I also believed. That my performance was important too. That I had to win to be worthy. And it was not a good option to be weak.
From the people at this little church, my parents learned about a Baptist school across town, and they sent me there—much against my will—when I started seventh grade. Once I got past the initial transition—only vomiting once in an assembly because I was too timid to ask for help—I thrived there in many ways. I made life-long friends. Excelled in school. Participated in extra-curricular teams and events.
But success in this setting also meant adhering to a long list of rules.
No walking on the left side of the hall.
No long hair for boys.
No pants for girls.
No popped collars for anyone.
No music with a drum. They said that the beat appealed to our baser side.
And so on.
Every morning during homeroom, in the midst of prayer and announcements, our home economics teacher and the school administrator came by to check on us. The administrator carried a comb. If a boy’s hair touched his collar or his ears, he went with the administrator for a trim. Meanwhile, the girls had to stand up next to our desks while the home economics teacher passed by, looking for visible knees. If a skirt was too short, the offender was whisked out of homeroom and taken to the office, where she had to don one of the “office skirts,” an unflattering polyester A-line.
I made it through junior high and high school with only one mortifying detention. And I never, ever wore an office skirt. That doesn’t mean that I never broke a rule. It just means that I got good at the game.
This I believed. That God’s standard is pure. That sin carries consequence. And that followers of Jesus Christ should live a different sort of life.
But this I also believed. That rules matter to God more than relationship. That sin must be done in secret because the discovery of it brings shame. And that guilt is more powerful and more prevalent than grace.
For my first two years of college, my parents insisted that I attend a small Baptist Bible school not far from home. In addition to my major in English Education, I was required to take many Bible and Theology courses.
During my first semester, my friends and I had a 7:30 a.m. Old Testament Survey class. We put long johns on under our skirts, trudged through the snow drifts across campus, and sat shivering in a drafty old auditorium. Our professor had given us a thick set of notes, complete with an extensive outline, some diagrams, and blank lines for us to fill. Each long class period, then, he displayed countless overhead slides, while we copied down the missing words.
This I believed. That truth can be known, and the Bible is its primary source.
But this I also believed. That the Fundamental Baptist idea of truth is always right. It is not to be questioned or contradicted. And memorizing it is all that is required of me. Not learning. Not changing. Not thinking. Just parroting it all right back.
I talk often about these things with the LOML. Though Peter didn’t attend a Christian school—they are rare in England—he did attend a little Plymouth Brethren Church not unlike my Baptist one. We have that similar background. Similar helps and hindrances.
We talk often about how we want to give our children the same Biblical grounding that we had. We bemoan the fact that some kid and youth programs these days emphasize the Fun. But not much of the Fundamentals. So yes, we teach the Bible at home. But we also try to create opportunities for them to study it with their peers.
We talk often about wanting to invest our lives in a committed community of believers that is pursuing hard after Jesus. We long for deep relationships with fellow followers whose faith is central to their lives. Whose faith changes everything. Demands everything. Costs everything. And we hurt. When we go to church and leave again, not having a significant conversation with one soul. Or when we see fellow Christians settle for a version of faith that is easy and comfortable and cheap.
We also talk often about our own junk. The lies we have believed. Yes, still believe. And we try to work it out. Where were we helped? Where were we hindered? Where do we go from here?
A couple of weeks ago we had a houseful of family and friends staying with us for Christmas. I love that. I love the camaraderie. I love the conversations. I love everything about it, except the inevitable mess.
When we weren’t out doing something fun or I wasn’t busy in the kitchen feeding the many mouths, I was scurrying around the house—tidying toys, piling pillows, wiping windows. But with the population of our house doubled, there was no way I was going to win that war. And it felt like a war. Me against everyone else—my two kiddos with their Christmas booty and my two teenage nephews leading the enemy charge.
Peter could read the stress on my face one afternoon and stopped me in my tracks. “What’s going on?” he asked.
“It’s the mess,” I said. “I have this involuntary physical reaction to it. My chest gets tight. I find it hard to breathe. I panic almost. I know it’s crazy. I’m sure it’s an issue of control. But it feels like it’s me against everyone else. And I’m losing.”
“If Jesus were here, what would he say about the mess?” he asked. (If you’ve read any of my previous posts, you’ll start to see a theme here with him. Drives me crazy sometimes. But I know he’s right to keep bringing me back to Him.)
I slowed down and filled my lungs with air. Released a long, slow sigh as I asked myself. If Jesus were here? What would he say about the yogurt on the walls? The muddy boots by the door? The pine needles piling up on the floor? The dust settling on His own nativity?
I said, “As silly as it sounds, my gut reaction is that I need to apologize.”
I know I don’t, of course. But there they are again. Those old beliefs. The old need to perform. The old shame when I can’t.
But praise God that He keeps bringing me back to Himself. That I don’t have to clean myself up before I come. That He sent His Son to a dusty and messy stable. To love and redeem a messy and lost lot like us.
This I believe.
That’s my two cents. What’s yours?