Post-Fundamentalists: thank your parents
My friends are used to hearing me gripe about my PFSD (Post-Fundamentalist Stress Disorder). Apparently the symptoms come in cycles. This summer it was pretty bad, but it’s beginning to let up again, partly due to a tender little book called Born Again and Again: Surprising Gifts of a Fundamentalist Childhood by Jon M. Sweeney (Paraclete Press, 2005). (A good review by Betty Smartt Carver is available at ChristianityToday.com.)
Those of you who know me will note some differences between the author’s childhood and mine: our family lived on an apple orchard in Ohio rather than in a Chicago subdivision; I was homeschooled (before it was popular); our church held to “sovereign grace distinctives” (the 5 points of Calvinism), though we were Baptist like Sweeney’s church. As an adult sifting my convictions from the culture of Fundamentalism, I have not departed as far from my roots as Sweeney has. I never considered a monastic career, for example, and I maintain the existence of an eternal hell.
But there are many more similarities than differences between Sweeney’s story and my own, so many that reading this book felt a bit like going through a box of my old journals (the ones with the flimsy lock and “My Diary” emblazoned on the cover). I, too, “asked Jesus into my heart” at the age of 5 in my living room. My mother had a Scofield Bible (though she never considered his notes infallible) and, most of the time, I obeyed my parents lest Jesus return at the sound of the trump and find me in rebellion. Like Sweeney, I attended Moody Bible Institute, seeking to serve God and struggling with the burden of “saving souls.”
Sweeney takes me back to a world I once thought all Christians inhabited. The recognition that our particular expression of Christianity was only part of a larger story came as a bit of a shock. Sweeney captures it well: “It was as if I had discovered that my childhood home and church and everything that I knew did not actually sit on sturdy land, but on the back of an enormous turtle, and the turtle kept moving underneath me.” The problem wasn’t that my community was disingenuous, but that, growing up in it, I made the mistake of thinking it was the complete picture.
People who were raised in homes more broadly evangelical or not at all religious may find Sweeney’s experience narrow; they may judge his community for the sternness with which they approached relationship with Jesus. (And I hope they will read this book to better understand the angst of their post-Fundie friends.) But for me, struggling to place my early environment in the spectrum of Christian worldviews I have since become acquainted with, his story is liberating, even heartwarming. (I am not alone! My spiritual journey is populated by fellow pilgrims!)
Despite the baggage of that journey, I am, with Sweeney, thankful for the benefits of my Fundamentalist childhood: the reality of my sin before a holy God; the authority of Scripture; the simplicity of faith; the ability to defend what I believe. Those were, after all, the values my spiritual leaders intended to instill in me with the flannelgraphs and the Bible camps and the Thief in the Night movies.
It is not a cliché to say that, for those lessons, I am eternally grateful.