“Did you hear? Dr. Olson has been reinstated as President!” a friend of mine texted me on Friday morning, May 10th, while I was taking a break during a business meeting six states away. I had already suspected as much. I had just talked with Matt Olson earlier that week and with Daniel Patz a couple days before. Daniel, the grandson of the founder of the school, would, within the next few hours, become the newly minted Chairman of the Board of the small fundamental Baptist Bible College-slash-University in the Northwoods of Wisconsin called Northland International University.
Within the span of two short weeks, those final days leading up to graduation on May 11, 2013, Northland’s Board of Directors endured a power struggle so intense that its President, Dr. Matt Olson, was fired then rehired by the Board that was so discombobulated by the confusion that it ended up seeing a majority of its directors tendering their resignation.
The students, the faculty, the alumni, and the friends of this small university of no more than 500 enrollees felt as though they were on a roller-coaster ride. “It’s surreal,” proclaimed one fifteen-year member of the faculty. The overwhelming majority of the faculty and staff supported Dr. Olson. A few were lobbying for his dismissal. Even the fundamentalist blog sites like sharperiron.org and indefenseofthegospel.blogspot.com were equally lit up by the controversy—some praising the action of the Board, some outright shocked and disgusted.
But, what caused the ruckus? Was it about a serious ethics violation or a misappropriation of funds? Was it another sex scandal? Nothing even close to that. Yes, the university was in a difficult financial pinch and enrollment was declining, and, yes, there were some concerns over a highly Orthodox, but non-fundamentalist-approved speaker in chapel, but those weren’t the primary provokers of action…
Primarily, the controversy was over music.
The administration of Northland International University had recently chosen to no longer demonize the use of contemporary styles of music within its community and on its campus. In fact, Northland’s student recruitment team had been present for, and even assisted with, a couple of Christian music concerts in its area, one of which featured Big Daddy Weave—a rather conventional Christian music group with a not-so-conventional-sounding name. This was enough to raise the ire of many fundamentalists. For many, it was enough to write Northland International University off their “approved list” of colleges and declare that Northland could no longer be considered a “fundamentalist institution.” Northland had crossed its Rubicon. It was time to shun and shame the school.
Is music that big of a deal to warrant shaking the foundation of a university noted for producing great Christian pastors, educators and missionaries who take the Gospel of Jesus Christ across the globe? If so, why? If not, how did Fundamentalism get to this point?
The Rise of Fundamentalism: Fighting the Good Fight
Born out of reaction to the emergence of modernism and German higher criticism in the late nineteenth century, Christian Fundamentalism is essentially a twentieth century, North American phenomenon. To many in the movement today, Fundamentalism feels as if it is the last remnant of true biblical Christianity practiced originally by Jesus Christ and his disciples. The truth is this: the fundamentalist movement is only a few generations into its history. The name “fundamentalist” wasn’t even coined until the 1920’s. But, the fundamentals of the faith it claimed to defend have been enduring tenants of the Orthodox Christian faith throughout church history: the person and work of Jesus Christ, Christ’s substitutionary atonement, Christ’s bodily resurrection, Christ’s second coming, the inerrancy of scripture, among others.
Christian Fundamentalism went mainstream when the 1925 Scopes Monkey Trial (the court case “The State of Tennessee v. John Thomas Scopes”) took center stage in the U.S. as the three-time presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan, the great populist and spokesperson for fundamentalist Christianity, represented Fundamentalism against the modernist-evolutionist attorney Clarence Darrow. From this highly publicized (and obviously staged) event the movement took on the spirit of defending an “old-time religion” against all progressive thought and action. (It’s easy to hear the echoes of the militancy of the movement through its military metaphors in its hymnbooks and common pulpit rhetoric.)
For the next forty years, the movement began to spread rapidly, thriving particularly in rural and far-flung communities sufficiently protected from the influence of intellectuals and modernists clustered in urban centers. It was during these years when Fundamentalism began to focus its reactive energy against not only modernists, but also against other Orthodox Christians who appeared to become too cozy with people outside fundamentalist ranks. The most notable example is when Bob Jones, Sr., founder of Bob Jones University, took a strong stand against Billy Graham, a former student of the school, in 1957 for Graham’s attempt to secure broader ecumenical support for his upcoming New York crusade.
In the late 1960’s and following, Fundamentalism mobilized its arsenal to a new battle front: sheltering the Christian faith from the worldly influences of an American culture run amok. Drugs, sex, and rock-and-roll were the targets. The Bible became the movement’s preferred weapon of choice to lead the attack. Bible colleges, Bible studies, Bible camps, Bible clubs, Bible conferences, and all other forms of Bible-centered activities became the rage. The Bible was used to clearly distinguish the movement’s “standards” from all other forms of thought and expression outside the community. Fundamentalists began using terms like biblicists, Bible-believing, and Bible-centered to support the adherents and teachings of the movement, and used “un-biblical” as the label for any form of idea or activity that countermanded the commonly held tenets of the movement. This tactic led to a lot of confusion very quickly. The term “biblical” began to be stamped on all kinds of ideas within the community that could not be directly traced back to chapter and verse in the Bible.
As it relates to practical Christian living, for many fundamentalists the mantra became, “It’s better to be safe than sorry.” So, many preachers began to wage campaigns against certain “worldly” behaviors and drew bold lines between the world and the fundamentalist norm. Women’s dress (skirts only, and must cover the knee) must be modest, “mixed” bathing (allowing girls and boys to swim together at the beach or pool) should not be allowed in order to protect each other from youthful lusts, men’s hair length (shouldn’t be over the ear), listening to rock music, smoking, holding hands for unmarried couples, and a host more, became not only expected behaviors within Fundamentalism, but was also touted as clear biblical mandates.
Death Spasms of a Dying Community?
By the end of the 1980’s, the fight against modernism and German higher criticism appeared to be over, but the fighting spirit of the movement continued. As George Marsden once quipped, “A fundamentalist is an evangelical who is angry about something.” Attacking perceived threats to the community of faith became the distinction of Fundamentalism. Militancy became “badge value” for any preacher who wanted to be perceived as a leader in the movement. But the fight had shifted. The battle lines were no longer being fought over the core doctrines of the faith (as was true in the early years) but rather over acceptable behaviors for a fundamentalist. The battles were no longer waged over theology, but over practical Christian living.
Today, there’s a new generation rising up within Fundamentalism which has little to no connection to the historical roots of the movement. These young millennials see a community led by perpetually angry leaders obsessed and divided over issues that have little to do with the more important expressions of Christian doctrine. What they perceive instead is a movement that is more about arbitrary command and control tactics to subdue behavior than about Christ’s core intentions for mankind. It’s a battle that appears to them as having shifted away from morals to mores. Many younger members of fundamentalist communities are no longer seeing “the Fundamentalist Cause” as worth fighting for and are choosing to leave the community for less rancorous pastures. What Fundamentalism is currently experiencing is, with a few exceptions, a decline in church attendance, a drop in fundamentalist school enrollment, and even a sharp reduction in the number of fundamentalist pastors and missionaries being sent out.
Fundamentalism is shrinking quickly and losing its next generation. As Fundamentalism shrinks, the remaining voices in the movement are becoming more shrill. In their sermons and blogposts you can sense the desperation.
Just a few years ago, the University of Chicago concluded a multi-year, multi-faith, and multi-cultural study of Fundamentalism. The research team at Chicago studied not only Christian Fundamentalism, but also Islamic, Jewish, Sikh, and Hindu fundamentalisms as well, among others. In one of last of the seven complete books summarizing the findings of this research Strong Religion, the researchers explain many of the characteristics of a fundamentalist society. One of the most telling is the concept of “the enclave” that is present not only in Christian fundamentalism but in all other forms of fundamentalisms in other religious traditions.
The enclave is the community of believers that are culturally and theologically distinct and withdrawn from all others. The teachings of the enclave center on drawing sharp distinctions between the enclave and everything outside of itself by vilifying everything outside while unifying all within. The leaders of the enclave use select religious texts that support these distinctions and are noted for cherry-picking even religious histories to validate their worldviews. Leaders of the enclave will frequently depict outsiders as malevolent destroyers of truth that must be kept outside for fear their ideas will bring impurity into the community. All is perpetually at risk. In M. Night Shayamalan’s 2004 film The Village we see a fictional, albeit instantly recognizable, enclave in action.
The intent of the the enclave mindset is to preserve the future of the movement. Since most religious movements cannot hold its followers physically hostage, the leaders must use more psychological forms of control: using promises of moral rewards and/or threats of eternal peril/separation as motivators to get people to remain loyal to the enclave. That’s why many hard-core Christian fundamentalists today hold tightly to their being separatists. The use of the label “separation” is often couched as a biblical doctrine, but its most common mis-use (and, arguably, its true value to the enclave) is to maintain fealty by dangling moral rewards/perils in front of the community.
As the enclave begins to weaken, the hold on distinctive attributes of the community become even more important and the leaders become more unbending. And anything outside the fundamentalist community must be viewed as more sinister and suspect—a force of devolution of all that is good and right—including minor issues such as modern-style music, which takes us full circle…
Is There Hope? Or Is It a Fool’s Errand?
The future is always hard to predict. And I will not try my hand at it here. But I will suggest that Fundamentalism is in trouble. It’s in trouble not because it was a failed concept to begin with, but because somewhere along the way it lost sight of what it was fighting for—yet the movement continues to fight on. For most Christians, the fundamentals of the faith are still worth fighting for. The new mores of a separatist, fundamentalist culture that has little to no connection to the original fundamentals of the faith are lacking the moral power to sustain the community and stoke the passions and commitments of its adherents.
In the beginning, the issues Fundamentalism chose to rally around united a community. They united because: (1) the issues were authentic fundamentals and (2) unity was still valued as a vital doctrine of the faith. By today’s use of slash-and-burn rhetoric against anyone with a different take on a point of Christian liberty, unity has been devalued. In order to protect the enclave, Christ’s call for unity has been stripped of all its moral weight. Currently, the issues most “surviving fundamentalists” are now opting to rally around divide rather than unite. And as long as their current fields of battle remain the same, I cannot see the end of the shrinking anytime soon.
In the original sense of the term, Dr. Matt Olson and all of Northland International University’s leadership and faculty are still Fundamentalists in the same way St. Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, Martin Luther, John Calvin, John Wesley, Charles Spurgeon, Charles Hodge, B.B. Warfield, and R.A. Torrey are Fundamentalists.
I fear there are cultural fundamentalists (this newest manifestation of Fundamentalism) who are rooting for the demise of Northland International University. Why? Because, according to the spirit of their discussions in the blogosphere, its failure serves the enclave better as a powerful case study: a cautionary tale of what happens to anyone who deviates from the community’s cultural norms, even if it is an issue as pin-pointed as musical preference.
But for Christianity as a whole and, more importantly, for Christ’s name’s sake, I pray that Northland survives this rough patch—but not so to prove a point as to who is right or who’s wrong as in a debate—but, rather, to continue to raise up this “next generation of servant-leaders for Great Commission living.”
We need more of them. And we need it to be part of our generation’s legacy. And I pray Northland International University remains fundamentally committed to that mission—a mission that unites rather than divides—for a very long time.