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Culture evaders, embracers

Some shared biblical truths may be driving us closer together

Issue: "Global Warming," Nov. 29, 1997

Greenville, S.C., and the campus of Bob Jones University are only 70 miles from my home and are hardly unfamiliar territory. Family and friends live nearby, and I've visited dozens of times. Even so, when I took a day early last week to attend the funeral of Bob Jones Jr., I was startled as I studied row after row of the more than 7,000 faces gathered there. I didn't recognize a single person. Neither did anybody there recognize me. Having spent my childhood and early teenage years happy to be called both a fundamentalist and a separatist, here I was a stranger in the undisputed capital of fundamentalism and separatism. Since the mid-1950s, however, I have instead called myself an evangelical. We evangelicals have tended to be embarrassed by our fundamentalist roots. Some of that is understandable. The popular identification of a great university with a policy of denying admission to black students is hard to forget, even though it ended in 1971. In an interview several years ago, Jesse Jackson told me that his mother never missed listening to Bob Jones Jr. on the radio every morning-"but I couldn't go to school there." That's a trapping of fundamentalism some of us don't want to have to defend, even while our own churches and schools also remain lily white. It's easier to cut ourselves off totally from the fundamentalists-and especially easy when they sometimes seem rather to enjoy being cut off. Yet it doesn't mean it's right in the eyes of God for us to be so totally cut off from each other. It would be unseemly in this context to explain how much of a loss it is for fundamentalists, and how much we evangelicals have to offer them. What struck me at the Jones funeral was how we evangelicals tend to have been impoverished by being cut off from our fundamentalist brothers and sisters. It is convenient to draw caricatures of fundamentalists as people who are radically removed from contemporary culture. Yet, in a brief summary of his own life published as part of the program for the memorial service, Bob Jones Jr. wrote: "I felt it was very important to combat the impression that those who were Fundamental were red-necked, uncultured, and entirely out of touch with what was going on in religious and educational circles outside of their own narrow area." Bob Jones University, of course, is in many ways an enviably cultured place. In some aspects of drama (especially Shakespeare), music, film production, and other fine arts, the school and its graduates have excelled even by the world's standards. The very disciplines some Christians have scorned at BJU have produced in many fields a rigor of excellence even the scoffers sometimes envy. Yet this matter of how we Christians relate to the culture around us is often precisely what divides us. Fundamentalists tend to be current-culture-evaders--sometimes drawing lines in the sand that cut off their witness where it is very much needed. The appreciation of culture at BJU is often an appreciation, for better or for worse, of another era. Evangelicals, on the other hand, tend to be current-culture-embracers--often ignoring lines in the sand which, if kept more distinct, would sharpen our witness. Evangelicals' appreciation of culture tends to ignore the past and leap ignorantly toward the unproven. So almost certainly, we need to renew this debate among us. Movies, music, dress, education, economics, even food and drink-all these and many more issues still tend to send us Christians scurrying down too-separate paths. This is not a call for willy-nilly, let's-all-get-together-under-one-big-umbrella unity. My pastor reminded a Sunday school class I attended last week that three major issues have regularly separated theological liberals from theological conservatives: Is God the creator? Are human beings really fallen-or just a little off the track? Is Christ the only redeemer? Every theological heresy, and even every social error, he said, is ultimately a perversion of one of those key issues. But on those three issues, sound evangelicals and sound fundamentalists already have good agreement. However serious any of the mistakes may be that both sides are guilty of on the cultural front, faithful biblical understanding of the basics should provide a strong foundation for us to talk candidly about what we share and what still divides us. What should concern us as evangelicals is that we've spent a lot more time in the last generation getting chummy with those who disagree with us on these basics than we have with those who hold such truths dear. Last week's column "From the Publisher" was inadvertently garbled during transmission, leaving a number of paragraphs inexplicably and incoherently out of context. The corrected column may be found at WORLD's web site, or you may write Publisher Joel Belz, World, Box 2330, Asheville NC 28802, for a free printed copy. We are sorry.

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Joel Belz
Joel Belz

Joel, WORLD's founder, writes a regular column for the magazine and contributes commentaries for The World and Everything in It. He is also the author of Consider These Things.

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