The Island of the Voices
The meal would have been pleasanter if it had not been so exceedingly messy, and also if the conversation had not consisted entirely of agreements. The invisible people agreed about everything. Indeed most of their remarks were the sort it would not be easy to disagree with: “What I always say is, when a chap’s hungry, he likes some victuals,” or “Getting dark now; always does at night,” or even “Ah, you’ve come over the water. Powerful wet stuff, ain’t it?”
C.S. Lewis The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, p. 124
With apologies right off the bat for offending my fundamentalist friends by quoting (gasp!) C.S. Lewis, I could not help myself when I first read this passage. First of all, the Dufflepuds were one of Lewis’ most hilarious (and brilliant) inventions. I understand that some of our readers object to C.S. Lewis. I’ll not disagree with some of your objections. But the Chronicles of Narnia are a delightful set of books, and if a father will take the time to guide his children through them, spitting out the bones, he will find a wonderful tool for teaching and discussion. And a remarkable story, to boot.
But the Duffers are my favorite. Besides Shasta. Shasta reminded me of myself. But the Duffers reminded me of my childhood.
You see, I grew up in the part of Fundamentalism that really is an island of voices. You can read some biographical material about my early years over at my other (hardly active) blog. I’ll not bore you with details, other than to say that our church was a full-fledged Hyles church, complete with a pulpit custom designed to match the pulpit at First Baptist Church of Hammond.
In fairness, this month is to be on Fundamentalism, and now that I have left the island, I recognize that most of fundamentalism is not Hylesish. But if I am to write about that with which I am the most familiar, then I will need to start with this sort of fundamentalism.
I do, however, have another purpose for using this as my springboard… although much of fundamentalism has distanced itself from Hyles, his influence on the movement continues to this day. A very large segment of fundamentalism would still loosely associate themselves with him. And, his methodology in particular still dominates the fundamentalist landscape.
Brown or Dark Brown?
A few years ago now, Joel Tetreau attempted a taxonomy of Fundamentalism over at Sharper Iron. At the time, we got a good laugh out of his attempt, and of course, his taxonomy sort of fell apart when placed under the scrutiny of fellow fundamentalists. I have read enough of Joel to say that I don’t find him hard to like, but that his attempt at a classification system disentegrated because he tried to define and classify fundamentalism along lines of demeanor and attitude. The “Type A” fundamentalist turned out to be more like a “Type A” personality. The “Type B” was more phlegmatic, while the “Type C” was downright gregarious.
Since then, others have suggested a taxonomy on the basis of core beliefs or standards of separation. I don’t know that there is a proper way to distinguish between the various flavors of fundamentalism. In some cases, it goes back to my boyhood struggle with the difference between my blue-green crayon and my green-blue crayon. In many cases, we are merely discussing different shades of the same color… almond or burnt almond, brown or dark brown.
The clearest distinctions amongst fundamentalists tend to be between those of the Sword of the Lord variety and the Bob Jones University variety. We could include in the Sword crowd places like West Coast, Crown, Ambassador, Hyles, and the various start-up colleges that have sprung out of Hyles, such as Champion, Commonwealth, and perhaps Shawnee. Oh, and the Jack Hyles School of the Bible down in Florida, where Tom Neal Kneels.
Sticking with the “institutional” identity, we could include in the Bob Jones crowd places like Maranatha, Northland, Central Seminary, Calvary, and so forth. Of course, there are other groups out there that would probably not fit in either one of the above named “camps.” The World Baptist, Baptist Bible, and Southwide Baptist Fellowships tend to be in their own world on this, occasionally overlapping into the two main camps. Branches intertwine, but they are all of the same bush. Obviously, Sharper Iron has flushed out some other fringes to the entire movement.
Is this a way of distinguishing between types of Fundamentalists? Obviously, it is not an airtight classification system. But there are good reasons to make distinctions this way amongst Fundamentalists. Because in the fundamentalist movement, associations are everything. We measure and are measured by the camp we associate with, by the company we keep. The fundamentalist movement has historically tended to be wrapped up in a man or men, and as a result, to be somewhat polarized from the other segments of the larger movement. And, to illustrate, often when people call to learn about our church, they want to know who we associate with. I, by the way, always tell them Kent Brandenburg — though I can’t for the life of me figure out why it is that they immediately hang up on me.
The Good-Ole’-Boy Network
The Fundamentalist Movement as a whole struggles to shake off the charge of being “man-centered.” The movement has historically been driven by strong personalities and (in many cases) Type A leaders. I do not see the leadership issue to be a problem per se. God did give the work of the ministry over to vessels of clay, and since angels will not do the work, and Christ has ascended to heaven, we men must do it. I do not wish to be overly critical of the fact that men have driven the movement. I don’t know how else there could be a movement without the work of men.
Nor do I criticize loyalty as a quality, and in a pragmatic sense, as a necessity for those who would accomplish something in this life. Loyalty is, in most cases, a virtue. Other than in the world of Jack, where it has become a millstone, loyalty is honorable. I can appreciate the kind of loyalty that stems from gratitude. In fact, I would trace my own institutional loyalties back to my own personal gratitude towards those who were so helpful to me in my spiritual life and training. If it is true that the purest form of loyalty comes from gratitude, then I am the most loyal person of all.
But the Sword branch of Fundamentalism has taken “man-centeredness” to all new heights of grandeiur. The Good-ole’ boy network is on display in the pages of the paper, and the annual conference is a regular parade of “Who’s Who” in Sword of the Lord Fundamentalism.
Now, this particular branch of Fundamentalism (which, by the way, I would feel the most affinity with of all of Fundamentalism) does not take self-criticism very well. We at JackHammer have learned this all too well. We have dared to offer up some criticisms of men who, by and large, we are in basic agreement with. Our criticisms have been offered on the basis of what is Scriptural and right. The responses from the supporters of those we criticized have been, shall we say, less than Scriptural.
One particular case-in-point would be Kent’s questioning of Clarence Sexton. Kent’s questions were asked on a Biblical level. We thought that Sexton was King James Only. His materials say that he is. We understood him to hold the standards that those in the Sword crowd typically claim to hold. Kent questioned Sexton’s inclusion on the FBF’s platform, a couple of years ago. The FBF has as one of their stated resolutions that they separate from those who hold a strong KJVO position. The FBF publicly repudiates some of the standards that Sexton publicly holds to. The questions Kent asked were couched on grounds of separation, and Kent asked if anyone had a Scriptural defense for what Sexton was doing.
We at JackHammer learned some interesting things through Kent’s public questioning. Clarence Sexton’s followers must google his name an awful lot. In fact, we found that Kent’s post on Sexton, and some of the posts we did on Jack Hyles and Jack Schaap, were the top posts ever in our history, nearly three years of blogging. The only followers who google their leader’s name more often are those who follow Tom Neal.
And when Sexton’s followers encountered our post, they… you guessed it… didn’t answer. They emoted. They pouted publicly. They chastised us. How dare we question DOCTOR Sexton. He is a MAN-O’-GAWD. He has probably won more souls to Christ in one day than any of us have in our lifetime. We are judgmental. We slandered him. We are critical. We are negative. And HE is a PASTOR. Unlike any of us. How DO you LIKE that (pastor) BRANDENBURG.
Ironically, not one time did a Clarence Sexton follower offer a Scriptural defense.
To be completely honest, I was surprised by this, because I thought better of the good people from Knoxville. I have been in the Hyles camp long enough to know what to expect from them. When we did our month on Hyles, we got the predictable response… lots of spewing, lots of bombast, lots of chest thumping, and about enough content to fill a thimble to the half-full mark. Their responses and their preaching share so much in common. But we expected that. In fact, we predicted it. And as a service to our readers, we offered regular interpretation of the Hylot comments.
But the Crown folks? Wouldn’t have expected the same from them. For some reason, I honestly believed that they would have something substantive to say, that there would be a conversation. How very wrong I was.
Like So Many Dufflepuds
And this is my point. The Sword of the Lord crowd holds The Chief Voice in the highest regard, and refuses to hear any question about him. No challenges, no discussion, no considerations, no probing, no trying the Spirits (I John 4:1). In fact, I would dare say that the Sword crowd will take that as a great compliment. We shouldn’t be questioning preachers. We shouldn’t be challenging assumptions. We should be saying, “Amen!”
Amongst the Sword crowd, there can be no discussion, only agreement. Discussion is divisive. Probing questions destroy unity. And we love unity more than truth. As a result, we really are an island of voices. An island in that we have isolated ourselves from the rest of the theological world in our quest for oneness inside our circle. We have nothing to learn from those outside of our own little island. We read only our own authors. We buy only those books recommended and advertised in the Sword of the Lord. We trust only those Spurgeon sermons that have been safely sanitized by the Sword. We discuss only those things that we all can agree with, like the wetness of water. In short, we are an island to ourselves.
As an island of voices, we cheer, we flatter, we glad-hand, we chatter, we echo, and by and large, we say nothing. We simply repeat our favorite catch-phrases, cliches, and psycho-chatter until we find ourselves to be the wisest of the wise. If conceit is God’s gift to little men, we are the kings of conceit. We are the first generation to get it all right. Questions ended with us. No more considering, just get in line. Hear our voices. We are smart, because we talk alot.
But the collective chatter of our chorus stands in awe and speaks not at the sound of the Chief Voices. For the Chief Voices cannot be questioned. They are unquestionably right. Attend the annual parade of the Chief Voices, also known as The Sword of the Lord Conference, and hear the noises.
Of course these litle one-footed men couldn’t walk or run as we do. They got about by jumping, like fleas or frogs. And what jumps they made! – as if each big foot were a mass of springs. And with what a bounce they came down; that was what made the thumping noise which had so puzzled Lucy yesterday. For now they were jumping in all directions and calling out to one another, “Hey lads! We’re visible again.”
“Visible we are,” said one in a tasselled red cap who was obviously the Chief Monopod. “And what I say is, when chaps are visible, why they can see one another.”
“Ah, there it is, there it is, Chief,” cried all the others. “There’s the point. No one’s got a clearer head than you. You couldn’t have made it plainer.”
“She caught the old man napping, that little girl did,” said the Chief Monopod. “We’ve beaten him this time.”
“Just what we were going to say oursleves,” chimed the chorus. “You’re going stronger than ever to-day, Chief. Keep it up, keep it up.”
“But do they dare to talk about you like that?” said Lucy. “They seemed to be so afraid of you yesterday. Don’t they know you might be listening.”
“That’s one of the funny things about the Duffers,” said the Magician. “One minute they talk as if I ran everything and overheard everything and was extremely dangerous. The next moment they think they can take me in by tricks that a baby would see through – bless them!”
Like the Duffers, the Swordlepuds shout their loud Hosannas at each and every gratuitous statement and cliche, echo one another’s sentiments and as a whole find themselves agreeing with every word. The Chief Voices can hardly preach without quoting the Other Chief Voices, and the Other Voices fill their minds with all the “right” phrases.
How We Became Invisible
The result of this echo chamber also known as the Sword Crowd is that doctrinal content plays second fiddle to the agreed upon talking points, and shallow sermonizing is considered eloquence. We’ve roped off the deep end — that’s where the ‘bad’ guys swim — the guys who never do anything. We’re all havin’ a great time splashing in the kiddie pool, with our inflatable floaty toys and our water shooters. And every once in a while, someone makes a big splash and gets us all wet.
Ironically, the argument has been made that the problem with Fundamentalism is that it is too divisive. That may be a problem to the rest of the evangelical world, with whom Fundamentalists have very reserved (if at all) fellowship. But it is not the case within the circle of the Swordlepuds. Their unity couldn’t be stronger, and simultaneously weaker.
I certainly would not urge an ungodly sort of questioning and probing and challenging spirits, that treat questions as if they are ultimate. But there is a healthy kind of discussion that I’m convinced hasn’t taken place in the last thirty years within the circle. This was evident when Jack Hyles offered up his defense of himself against Robert Sumner. It was evident again when Bob Gray was arrested for French Kissing 1st grade girls (and by some odd twist of fate, simultaneously, and quite magically, disappeared from the upcoming Sword conference, where he was scheduled to speak). It is evident every time the preachers get together for a Pastor’s Fellowship. It is evident every time you read from the current sermon selection.
There is such a thing as healthy discussion that questions, that probes, that seeks the truth. But that kind of thing can only take place when we value the Word above the Voices.