Tuesday, September 04, 2007

Imagination's Demise: Fundamentalism

There is a current trend in post-evangelical Christianity to blame fundamentalism for everything. This is at least an overstatement, and tends to ignore the many important contributions of our Fundamentalist forebears to the faith. That being said, however, in their rejections of the liberalism of the mainstream American churches the Fundamentalists did indeed go too far in the opposite direction. They not only abandoned the liberal hermeneutic and their social gospel but along with that an almost complete abandonment of the larger culture in which these new philosophies took place (or so they thought). This abandonment included, by in-large, the imagination.

With the rise of modernism the Church found itself in a place they had not been in centuries: outside of the mainstream. Their reaction was to recoil from the world and shelter themselves from its encroaching atheism. Of course this is not true of all evangelicals during the 19th century, but it is true of a large number of Fundamentalists, so much so that the label “Fundamentalist” has come to refer to something quite different then it was originally intended to. With the “invasion” of modern atheism and naturalism on society Christian values were being displaced and, at least, questioned. So, for example, in the 19th century it is estimated that almost 70 percent of Americans thought that the theatre was sinful, because of it was “worldly entertainment.” There was an aversion among Protestants to relaxation, play, idleness, and simple amusements, and along with card playing, horse-racing, dancing, and novel reading, imagination was given over to the world, so to speak.

Their reaction isn’t entirely flawed. For when God was taken out of the picture something needed to be supplemented in the larger culture to fill the hole. Idle pleasure seemed a good fit and American society thrust itself into the entertainment driven culture that we often hear it accused of being today. But the Fundamentalists ended up throwing the baby out with the bath water, and everything good about pop-culture was handed over to the world, not least of all imagination.

The Fundamentalists were pulling from the tradition of their Puritan forebears by upholding a strong work ethic, otherwise known as the Puritan Work Ethic, which honored hard work and shunned frivolity and idleness. They also pulled from the Puritan tradition of associating, wrongly I believe, the moral looseness of their opponents with the entertainment in which they took part.

As pleasures and entertainment itself was winnowed from the Protestant worldview, so imagination was looked down upon as “worldly” too. This was a major loss to Christians, and one that still affects us today (see Donald Williams article in Touchstone Magazine). But thankfully this problem would not go un-noticed.

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