Posted in book reviews

Square Peg: “Wesleyan” fundamentalists?

Dr Morris Weigelt taught my “Hermeneutics” course at Nazarene Theological Seminary. One day he advised: “When reading anyone’s work, ask yourself this question: What are they reacting to?”

Weigelt’s advice has served me well across the years, and his question is relevant when considering the book edited by Al Truesdale, Square Peg: Why Wesleyans Aren’t Fundamentalists, Amazon Kindle edition (Beacon Hill Press, 2012). Eight writers take up diverse topics including the historic meaning of Fundamentalism, Christian faith and science, unity/diversity in the Church, and the authority of Scripture. In-turn, formal responses give the book the feel of a dialogue. Square Peg responds to what Paul Bassett called the “Fundamentalist leavening of the Holiness Movement” [see Wesleyan Theological Journal 13 (Spring 1978):65-91], which has manifested itself most recently in the activities of groups like the “Concerned Nazarenes.” [See also my essay, “Nazarene or Baptarene? When Traditions Collide,” available here].

In the introduction (p. 8), Al Truesdale lays out the book’s thesis:

“We shall see that differences between fundamentalism and Wesleyan theology are so important that denominations in the Wesleyan tradition cannot adopt fundamentalism without forfeiting essential parts of what it means to be Wesleyan.”

The volume’s strengths are several. Fred Cawthorne’s chapter, “The Harmony of Science and the Christian Faith,” is alone worth the book’s price, as he ably takes the reader through cosmology (including the “Big Bang”) and evolutionary biology from a theistic perspective, making a convincing case for the compatibility of Christian faith and scientific inquiry. I especially appreciated how he validated the role of the Creator God as both “upholding and sustaining,” affirming that God not only began the creative evolutionary process but actively oversees and shepherds the emerging universe. Cawthorne (pp. 104-105) contends:

“If we say that God cannot create through a gradual, progressive process such as evolution, then we limit God’s transcendence and immanence…his full participation in nature and his gracious empowerment of nature…Consideration of evolution should deepen our affirmation that God works above, in, and through creation; it should strengthen, not threaten, our faith.”

Also particularly helpful is Joel Green’s contribution, “A Wesleyan Understanding of Biblical Authority: The Formation of Holy Lives.” It is one thing to mentally assent to God’s Word as “authoritative,” but what does that mean if we rarely crack open a Bible or meditate upon Scripture? Green laments (p. 128): “…there is no necessary path from claims about the trustworthiness of the Bible to living lives oriented toward the Scriptures.” Yet John Wesley taught that the “written word of God” is the “sufficient rule of both Christian faith and practice” [see Wesley’s “The Character of a Methodist,” cited by Green, p. 131). Practically speaking, this means adopting “habits of reading and prayer that lead to the conformity of our thoughts, feelings, beliefs, and behaviors to God’s will revealed in Scripture” (Green, p. 134). In short, it is the life-transforming nature of our engagement with Scripture that validates Holy Writ as inspired by God. In the wording of the old saying : “The proof is in the pudding.”

Square Peg, though valuable, could have been better. The introduction gives no explanation of the “Why it Matters” responses to each chapter nor how they work. Some responders mention the focus group format, even naming the participants. Others write as if they alone are responding, making no mention of having processed the material with others. This is confusing, and makes for a disjointed format. Also, there are no discussion questions included, diminishing the value of the book as a tool for Bible studies, adult Sunday School, or small groups.

Though not perfect, Square Peg opens up a conversation that is long overdue among us. Wesleyan-Holiness pastors would do well to put it in the hands of every new member, particularly those coming from other ecclesiastical backgrounds. To remain true to our Wesleyan theological heritage, we will need to be more intentional than we have been. To that end, Al Truesdale and company have rendered all denominations in the Wesleyan-Holiness orbit a service.


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Posted in missions & evangelism, reflections

On haircuts and fundamentalism

barber-shopLike many words, “fundamentalist” can be a slippery one. At the turn of the 20th century in the United States, the word was made popular by a series of books called The Fundamentals, a 1910 work including 90 essays outlining orthodox Christian teaching. In recent years, however, the term has come to represent more an attitude than a doctrinal stance. Fundamentalists are those who seem focused on why they are “in” and others are “out.” It is a combative approach that emphasizes doctrinal purity over loving God and neighbor.

Nothing crystallized this sour-faced, narrow approach to religion better than our Gospel concert at the Temple. (The name of the church has been changed). My family was a Gaither rip-off, “The Croffords: Musical Messages with Warmth and Love.” Our high water mark was in ’75/’76 when my dad, mom, my five brothers and I recorded albums at Pinebrook in Alexandria, Indiana, the studio owned by Bill and Gloria Gaither. Usually we sang only on weekends, but this was at the time of Jerry Falwell’s “Moral Majority.” A meeting of pastors was being held during the week at the Temple, and – not knowing the political agenda – my dad agreed for us to come and present a mini-concert for those gathered.

We pulled out all the stops. Dad took off work, as did my oldest brother. Very exceptionally, my parents released us from school a few hours early that day so we could perform. Before the concert, we had changed into our outfits in the men’s room and had to step around a barber chair. Yes, they were giving haircuts in the men’s room of the church! That was odd, to say the least.

Now this was the day of polyester leisure suits, extended sideburns, and (for boys of any age) long hair. After the concert, we were packing up the sound equipment when one of the men from the local church came up to talk to my dad. “See those sons of yours?” (He pointed to two of my little brothers, aged 6 and 7 at the time). “You really need to get their hair cut. They look like girls. Don’t you know that the Bible says that ‘It’s a shame to a man to have long hair'”?

My dad is soft-spoken, but this man had captured his attention, and not in a good way. “Really?” he countered. “Where exactly does it say that in the Bible?” The accuser left and huddled with a few others in the back of the sanctuary. In a few minutes, he returned and confidently intoned: “1 Corinthians 11:14 – ‘Does not even nature itself teach you, that, if a man has long hair, it is a shame unto him?” Nonplussed, my dad replied: “And what does ‘long’ mean? I have a friend whose hair is very short. He’d say that your hair is too long!” “Oh, no” he answered. “My hair is just right!”

Seeing that the conversation was going nowhere, my dad concluded: “You know, I took off work today. So did my oldest son. Exceptionally, we even pulled our other sons out of school so we could come today as a family and sing this concert because the Temple asked us to do so and we hoped to be a blessing. And after all that, did you come up to tell me that you appreciated the concert, that you had been blessed? No – instead, all you have told me is that my sons’ hair is too long. I think that’s pretty sad.”

That story happened 37 years ago, yet in some quarters, little has changed. There are still groups of sour-faced fundamentalists in churches whose mission is finding fault with other believers. They criticize professors who try to clothe the gospel in terms that will resonate with the current generation, even though the essence of the timeless Gospel message they present remains unchanged. Rather than penetrating the culture in winsome ways, sending out our young people to change the world, fundamentalism is the “pull up the drawbridge” mentality. It is always “us” vs. “them.” It has forgotten that the most effective evangelism is not hiking up the hems of our holy robes so as not to be sullied by the “world.” Rather, it is finding areas of common humanity with all people, then using these to build relationships with those who so desperately need Jesus. If all we ever read are Christian novels, listen only to Christian music, and limit ourselves to “churchy” things, what springboards for conversation will we have with those who have no interest in all that?

Can’t do the “Harlem Shake” – that’s demonic.

Can’t read (fill in the name of popular fun book) – that’s “worldly.”

Can’t listen to this music, or that.

Can’t, can’t, can’t…

And then we’re surprised when we’re unable to sustain a 5 minute conversation with a non-Christian?

In the Garden of Eden, God told Adam and Eve that they could eat of any of the many trees in the garden, except one (Gen. 2:16-17). So why are we hanging “don’t touch” signs on so many trees, wholesome activities that God has made for our enjoyment?

There was a time when I was ready to do battle over a long list of things. Maybe it’s just that I’m growing older and realize that life is only so long, but my list of “non-negotiables” has gotten a lot shorter. Yes, there are things we should avoid. Some activities are not wholesome and – if persisted in – will begin to cut off our relationship with God. But we should be careful in our world that has lost its sense of moral direction not to over-react, erring in the opposite direction, placing out-of-bounds many of the good things God intended for our benefit.

Paul gives us helpful advice:

“Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable–if anything is excellent or praiseworthy–think about such things”(Phil. 4:8, NIV).

What an amazing world God has gifted to us! Let’s shake off the fault-finding, narrow spirit of fundamentalism. Let’s turn our young people loose; let’s send them out to affirm all that is good in God’s creation, modeling a wholesome life centered around loving an incredible Saviour, a love that can’t help but love others. Now that’s Good News!


Photo credit: Gene Juarez