Thinking about fundamentalism
by Robert Fulford

(The National Post, 5 April 2008)

The Creation Museum, which opened last spring near Cincinnati depicts dinosaurs among the animals sharing the Garden of Eden with Adam and Eve. The "young-earth" creationists behind the museum believe God made the world, all of it, about 6,000 years ago. Instructors explain that most dinosaurs were wiped out by the Flood and the two Noah crammed into the Ark later died because the post-Flood environment wasn't dinosaur-friendly.

The museum's theologians differ from "old-earth" believers who speculate that a "day" in Genesis could mean millions of years. And neither faction embraces intelligent design, the idea that creation evolved under detailed divine guidance. For those who think of fundamentalist Christianity as a monolith, the Creation Museum serves as a reminder that evangelical religion contains many disparate opinions even on a question like planetary history.

A relatively young movement, fundamentalism has already raced through three eras. It began as a grubby tent-show sect, kept alive by part-time preachers scratching out a living. The 1950s version of it became popular and affluent when Billy Graham, its grandest human embodiment, appeared on magazine covers and led prayer breakfasts for presidents. But his success was dwarfed by the third period, when American preachers grew rich soliciting money on TV while making deals with Republican politicians.

Most of what I read on fundamentalists (or "evangelicals," the term many prefer) depicts them as a menace to science and free speech. Meanwhile, fundamentalists rage against the devil's havens -- school boards, the U.S. Supreme Court, the liberal press, etc.

Is there a way to approach this subject with sanity and generosity? Brett Grainger, a young Canadian who was reared among stern Plymouth Brethren in Huntsville, Ont., clears a path toward understanding in his remarkable book, In The World But Not Of It (Walker & Company). Among writers on religion he's exceptional, a fundamentalist who left fundamentalism (though not Christianity) but neither despises his background nor ignores it. Deploying history and journalism along with elements of autobiography, he argues for a more nuanced view of the movement.

Unlike many other forms of Christianity, fundamentalism is diverse, decentralized and unpredictable. It has avoided creating the bureaucracy that Catholics and various Protestant denominations find necessary. Except for the King James Bible (studied with an obsessive intensity), it has no authorities. The fundamentalism Grainger knew differed sharply from the prevailing image in the media. Far from trying to control government, the Plymouth Brethren believe Christians shouldn't even vote. Politics is to be avoided, along with movies and musical instruments in church.

The great event in the future life of many fundamentalists is the Rapture. One day in 1988 Grainger's grandparents sat in their parlour, he in his best suit, she in a long skirt and broad-brimmed hat, "waiting for Jesus Christ to return and rapture them to heaven." They were so confident that he had recently bought a car he couldn't afford, certain it wouldn't have to be paid for. An unsuccessful itinerant preacher all his life, he staked his reputation on a reading of Edgar Whisenant's book, 88 Reasons Why the Rapture Could Be in 1988. No Biblical scholar, Whisenant was an engineer who, in a can-do spirit, processed the data in the Bible and cheerfully named the date. When evening arrived and they were still on Earth, Grainger's grandparents were baffled and disappointed. "Afterward," Grainger writes, "the millennial fires burned down to embers."

Grainger slipped away from the Brethren as a teenager but understands today how much it gave him. In memory he returns to it, "for its affirmation of daily life, for the love of literacy and lay study. I come back to be reminded that truth is not a popularity contest, that standing up for what you believe can set you against the powerful current of modern consensus."

Whatever its virtues, the Creation Museum doesn't always exhibit Christian charity. It features a display of villains that includes Charles Templeton (1915-2001), a Canadian well-known two decades ago as a broadcaster, editor and author. In his youth he was a hugely successful preacher; together he and Billy Graham preached to vast congregations. Then Templeton lost his faith, by reading too much. Later he wrote Farewell to God: My Reasons for Rejecting the Christian Faith.

An American journalist reports that the museum has "a cheesy painting" depicting Templeton as a gravedigger with a tombstone marked "God is Dead." As Grainger writes, Templeton has become a cautionary tale. As a fellow who always loved publicity and viewed his early career ruefully, Templeton would probably not be altogether displeased.

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