11 min. to read.
Writing a Twitter bio is an interesting experience. In 160 characters you attempt to summarize yourself. This is the first place that people on Twitter will look to make sense of who you are, and why you’re saying such crazy things.
Some bios are littered with hashtagged bumper stickers of the #affiliations and #viewpoints! of the tweeter. Some are artful attempts to say something meaningful. Some are flavorless trendy-buzzword-smoothies. Twitter strategists (Yes, that is a thing) will tell you that a well-crafted bio can get you more followers.
For me, trying to shoe-horn something meaningful about myself into 160 characters is painfully hard. I want to just throw up my hands and declare to the anonymous internet crowds, ”Go ahead. Read my 200 blog posts. Watch some of the 150 hours of video of me speaking. Then, you’ll just be starting to know who I am and how I am growing and developing.”
But of course, that’s a crazy request. Not even my wife—who loves me most—has read or watched everything (or, honestly, even a fraction) of what I have online.
Despite that, I buckled down and wrote one. It’s my attempt to say something helpful about where I’m coming from. There’s one part of it that repeatedly gets the most questions.
Here’s my full bio: Life at the intersection of grace & growth. Writer, speaker, hobbyist theologian, recovering fundamentalist. Tea drinker & motorcycle rider.
Some folks comment on the “grace & growth” intersection. For many, tired of legalism yet hoping for life change, that sounds hopeful. I get comments on tea and motorcycles. It’s the last phrase that’s earned me questioning eyebrow raises and even a bit of sputtering argument. “What,” they ask me, “is a recovering fundamentalist?”
A few get it right away; some even have taken the phrase on themselves. Most people wonder what I mean. I’ve even gotten a handful of arduous Tweet-interrogations about it. It’s a hard concept to explain in 140 characters, so I thought I’d unpack it a bit more here. At least then, when people ask me in the future, I’ll have a good explanation for them. And who knows… maybe it will be helpful to you too.
First, I must make a confession. I am not using the term fundamentalist in a precisely accurate way, historically speaking. (But then neither do most people.) The word fundamentalist has become so common in popular writing and media, but most people don’t know that the word has a technical definition.
Quick history lesson: At about the turn of the 20th century the Christian Church was going through some growing pains. New revelations in science and widening acceptance of the theory of evolution were putting stress on traditional belief in the Bible. Some European theologians suggested that Christianity could—in fact, needed—to move forward into the future by letting go of the miraculous aspects of the Bible. They called into question things like Jesus’ virgin birth, his miracles, and bodily resurrection. They envisioned a Christianity based on the ethics of the New Testament, but cut away from the more awkward, pre-scientific roots.
Of course, this was profoundly disturbing to theologians, pastors, and Christians who were committed to a traditional reading of the Bible. In the early 1900s, a group of American theologians put forward a response. In a series of papers called “The Fundamentals,” they suggested five beliefs that they saw as essential to being a Christian.
- The inerrancy of the Bible.
- The virgin birth of Jesus
- The historicity of all of Jesus’ miracles.
- The belief that Jesus’ death on the cross atoned for human sin
- The belief that Jesus was literally, historically resurrected from death in a physical body.
As you can see, this was specifically a response to the new interpretations that were being taught. So, technically, a fundamentalist is a protestant Christian who holds to these 5 core beliefs as essential to their faith. That encompasses a majority of Christians around the world!
We are closed for discussion!
This word, however, has come to mean something far different: an extremist version of any belief system, where the believers are unable or unwilling to evaluate their own views, and sometimes, are unwilling to be civil or even in relationship with people who disagree with them.
This mindset creates a profound line between US and THEM. In the worst case, these extreme views become justification to do harm to THEM in some way — silencing them, marginalizing them, excluding them and even in some horrific situations, killing them. Central to this mindset is a profound belief in the rightness of one’s worldview and an unwillingness to consider any revision to one’s interpretation. The core ethos of fundamentalism is this: “WE are RIGHT; They are WRONG. The matter is CLOSED.” Sometimes this is lived out in a more or less compassionate way; often its expression is condescending at best, and at times just plain mean.
The term fundamentalist has come to be applied not only to Christians but to any extremist religious group, even non-religious ideologies. I’ve heard references to fundamentalist environmentalists, constitutionalists, even vegans!
But wait? Isn’t Recovery About Addiction?
Sure is. Hold on to that thought.
I grew up in a faith community that took the Bible very seriously. We believed in inerrancy. We were taught that correct doctrine mattered enormously for our lives and eternity. We were raised not only to seek the conversion of non-Christians but also (and sometimes more importantly) to shed light on the incorrect and unbiblical beliefs of other Christians. Of all Christians, we alone had the full truth.
This obligated us with the moral responsibility to speak up any time someone expressed a belief (or made a life choice) that was incorrect, unbiblical or immoral. To stay silent was to affirm the error.
Practically speaking this created a deep divide. We were implicitly discouraged from learning from people outside the community; they were tainted by bad theology. (Some folks I knew growing up wouldn’t read books that didn’t come from one of the denomination’s own publishing houses.) We were discouraged from joining in ministry or acts of service with Christians who held wrong beliefs because to do so would be to affirm their error. Our separation from them was considered a witness to the truth. We were strongly encouraged to make choices about school and career path that would minimize the need for us to engage in secular culture or the religious views of outsiders.
But the bigger problem with all of this was not these outward, exclusivist behaviors. Here, I can only speak for myself with any authority. Although I suspect this is true for others, I can only tell you for sure about myself.
Living in this environment nurtured in me a deep need to secure my place and value in community by being right.
The more I understood the Bible, the better I could articulate theology, the more affirmation I received. The more I demonstrated an approved moral and religious life, the more people assumed I was in good standing with God.
The powerful hit of being right.
Over years, this kind of affirmation became inextricably linked with my emotional well-being. Being wrong brought grave emotionally consequences for me. Failing discounted my value and place in the community. Being rejected, or condemned is always painful, but when it carries the added weight that the rejection might also be from God? That’s crushing.
This need to be right become an emotional habit, deeply ingrained beyond consciousness. While I prefer to think that my theological choices came as a result of my careful study and searching the scriptures (and I did both of those things), it’s only honest to say that my desperate need to be included influenced the kinds of theological positions that seemed right or Biblical to me.
(Ugh… even typing those words rings alarm bells in my heart as I anticipate hordes of faceless online Christians telling me that my problem was that I wasn’t really following the Bible! More rejection! I’m the outsider! Yet, having pastored for 20 years, I’ve seen this same dynamic over and over, even in the lives of well-known and respected Christian leaders! It’s painful to realize, but the theology that seems right to us is influenced by our own story at least as much, and often more, than by the text of scripture.)
In daily life this manifested in a sort of inflexibility, not just about religious practice and theological orthodoxy, but even more in my opinions about everything else. The consequence, of course, was a lot of relational damage.
The need to be right, the need to be strong, the need to be seen as effective and competent — these things made me visibly effective in my early ministry. But over time, as the damage mounted, they also led me directly over the cliff in a breakdown where I could have easily lost my marriage, my family, my ministry and so much more.
This is where I come to the recovering part.
I learned (and I believe that God was a part of teaching me this, in painful ways over several years) that I am not perfect, not always competent, not always right. I learned that my need to be so wasn’t rooted in good theology, it emerged from brokenness, as I tried desperately to establish my own sense of value in the world around me. Doctrinal rigidness, moral legalism, and a commitment to my own rightness had become a path to self-justification. Even—and this will sound weird—while I considered myself an ardent proponent of Grace!
My fundamental need to be right had pushed me into a corner where I was alone and hurting, and unable to even hear from God.
Inadvertently, and in contradiction to the theology I said I believed, I had made the Bible a god. I had made right interpretation a god. I had made correct moral behavior a god. I had made my own internal sense of emotional security, based on all these things, a god. The gods I built were shabby papier-mâché facsimiles unable to lead me or shape me well, unable to forgive or save.
In my recovery, I learned that I’m fallen. I have limits. I don’t always know and that’s OK. My interpretations are not perfect reflections of God’s heart, because God is bigger than my mind can conceive. The prescriptions I had for other people were not a reflection of God’s heart for them, because I could not see what God was up to in their stories.
I am by no means all fixed up. Being right is a powerful addiction, and when I feel insecurity surfacing (like right now, as I share this) it’s still my first intuitive response. “Power up, take control, be right, be strong.” But I know now that is destructive. It hurts the people around me. It hurts my spiritual growth. It limits my ability to authentically hear from God.
So, I’m in recovery. My theological forebearers would probably call it sanctification. I am not always right. My theology, however carefully studied and expressed, is not a perfect picture of God. God can and often does work outside the boxes I understand. I don’t need to save the world (It already has a savior.) I can be wrong. I can be weak. I can be off track.
Even so, I can still be confident that I am loved by the One who made me, that Jesus is at work in my life, that the Spirit is working all things together for my good. Oh, and I can be confident, even when I’m not confident of these things, for in my weakness, Father, Son, and Spirit show themselves strong.
Normally at the end of my posts, I turn things around so that you can relate. Make some helpful suggestions about how this might apply in your life. But I’m not going to do that today. Maybe my story resonates with yours. Maybe not. If it does, I hope that God uses it to challenge or encourage you, whichever you need.
Either way, now you know why I call myself a “recovering fundamentalist.”