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I write the biweekly “Beliefs” column for The New York Times and also report for The Atlantic, The Nation, This American Life, and elsewhere. I have four daughters and two dogs.

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Sunday
May112014

Like father, like son, by Jesus

 

My Times column on Saturday was about conservative Christian colleges that pass leadership from father to son (that’s Jerry Falwell Jr., president of Liberty University, above). But what may be of more interest to my dear readers is the interesting exchange I had afterward with a reader who sent a gently chastizing note arguing that I had mistaken fundamentalists for evangelicals. He wanted me to call Falwell, Bob Jones, and Oral Roberts (three men of very different theologies themselves) “fundamentalists,” not “evangelicals.”

My position has always been that “evangelical” is the broader, more inclusive term, referring to any Protestant who believes it is incumbent on him or her to evangelize, spread the good news, do mission work — you get the idea. Thus Southern Baptists, Missouri Synod Lutherans, Pentecostals, some Episcopalians (especially “low-church” Episcopalians), some Methodists but not all, most black Baptists, independent “Bible church” Christians, fundamentalists of a Bob Jones University stripe, etc. — but not, by and large, members of the United Church of Christ, or more liberal Lutherans, or American Baptist Convention members (I am speaking in general, throughout), etc.

By this understanding, all fundamentalists are evangelicals, but not all evangelicals are fundamentalists. This, to me, is just linguistic sanity. Fundamentalists are evangelicals who, historically speaking, happen to subscribe to the precepts laid out in an early-20th-century set of pamphlets (the Wikipedia entry on this looks pretty good) ... but for our purposes, they are more likely to be total biblical inerrantists and literalists, and they have a separatist strain when it comes to the culture at large that many non-fundamentalist evangelicals don’t.

The problem is that many evangelicals want the media to call the far-right fundamentalists evangelicals “fundamentalists,” to separate them from more moderate evangelicals. Yet many of those fundamentalists think the term “fundamentalist” is derogatory. They may just want to be called evangelicals — or just “Christians.” So it’s a very loaded topic.

For a useful analogy: Modern Orthodox Jews would like the more separatist and more hostile-to-modernity Jews to be called “ultra-Orthodox” or haredi (Hebrew for “trembling”), to emphasize the modernists’ relative modernity, hipness, sanity (they might say). But ultra-Orthodox Jews, like many other Jews, would often like to be called just Jews, or maybe Orthodox Jews, or “Torah Jews.”

Anyway, here is my reader’s and my email thread, edited for easier consumption: He began:

Dear Mr. Oppenheimer,
Although you call them "evangelical schools," Liberty University, Oral Roberts University, and Bob Jones University are all fundamentalist rather than evangelical institutions.
Why do you suppose it is that even an informed author such as yourself tends to confuse evangelical and fundamentalist Protestant Christianity so easily?  Perhaps you could write a future column about that.

 

I wrote back:

Fundamentalism is a subset of evangelicalism.

 

He wrote:

I can see why you would think so.  After all, evangelical and fundamentalist Christianity are both theologically conservative.  Still, I believe you are not correct, and that evangelicalism and fundamentalism are separate and distinct.
 
Evangelicalism arose in the 1940s, in reaction to what some conservative Christian theologians believed to be a lack of social action on the part of fundamentalist Christianity (cf. publication of Carl F. H. Henry’s landmark The Uneasy Conscience of Modern Fundamentalism in 1947).
 
Another major difference between evangelicals and fundamentalists is that the former tend to be less literal in their interpretation of Scripture.  For example, fundamentalists believe that God created the world in six literal days, i.e. 24-hour periods.  Evangelicals tend to think of the seven-day creation framework in Genesis as a literary construct that should not be taken strictly as a single calendar week.

 

And I wrote:

[...]

Don't get me wrong: you are absolutely correct that, sociologically speaking, "fundamentalist" is often used to refer to the subset you are talking about, and other "evangelicals" are often seen as a contrast. But "evangelical" is the broader term ... and if one is referring to conservative Christians who take spreading the gospel seriously (as many mainline churches no longer do), "evangelical" is a very safe term for them all. It's true that, say, Wheaton grads must hate being grouped in the same word as Bob Jones grads, but that doesn't mean there isn't a broad word that applies to them both. (Indeed, some of these groups often resent sharing "Christian" with them.)

These terms are fuzzy, claimed by some groups but not by others, or by some groups some of the time, or by observers not in these groups.

But look, we could do an experiment: call some people at Bob Jones or Liberty and ask if they are evangelical Christians! And let me know what they say...

 

I’ll let you know if he takes me up on that. Meanwhile, what do you think?

Friday
May092014

Vegetarian sexual predator?

 

 

Today Salon ran a troubling piece critical of my recent column on vegetarian Iron Man yoga dude Sri Chinmoy. It begins this way:

The guru, Celia Corona-Doran recalls, asked her to strip and perform lesbian sex with another follower while he watched. Corona-Doran, called “Suchatula” while at the Sri Chinmoy Center—which offers free meditation classes and cultural events with the aim of “uplifting the human spirit,” according to its website—spent her entire adult life committed to the cult and felt compelled by guru Sri Chinmoy’s request for “total surrender.” Her conflict was so great that it shattered her faith. After trying to fake it, she refused to participate and instead confronted Guru. She was told to “forgive, as Chinmoy forgave,” in a twisted conflation of their collective sins and victim blaming. She was crushed, but Chinmoy died just a short time later in 2007. After another conflicted year or so, Corona-Doran left the Chinmoy family forever, set adrift at 40.

That doesn’t sound good, does it? And as one who recently devoted many months to writing an ebook about the horrific sexual abuse perpetrated by another bald Asian immigrant who got big in the ’60s and had a fondness for the ladies, I am not one to take this lightly. I hope people will check out the allegations in Edwin Lyngar’s piece.

One question that we should all mull over, though, not in defense of Sri Chinmoy, nor in defense of myself as a reporter, but simply to be intellectually rigorous. Most of the recent coverage of Sri Chinmoy, mine included, has been about his followers and the enduring community of which they are a part. Is there any evidence that any of them are sexually prurient or coercive in the way that some accuse their founder of being?

One critic of Sri Chinmoy says that after my column, "It’s far too late, because someone in Nebraska has read the article and is ‘inspired’ by it.” But too late for what? If that Nebraskan reader goes off to meditate with Sri Chinmoy followers, is she at risk of sexual victimization? Perhaps. But it’s also possible that Sri Chinmoy was abusive in certain ways without creating a culture in which his followers were predators, too. If we learned Abraham was a sexual predator (play along with me here — he was a bigamist), it wouldn’t mean Judaism today is sexually dangerous.

Thursday
May082014

Let that woman go!

 

 

Remember David Wax, rabbi who, with his wife, was arrested for taking $100,000 to kidnap and threaten to bury a live an Orthodox Jewish man who refused to give his wife a religious divorce? Well, he pled guilty.

This case, by the way, was presaged by — in addition to much of Jewish history — an early episode of The Sopranos, in which some of Soprano’s goons give a beat-down to a man who won’t grant a divorce to the daughter of Shlomo, a Sopranos ally:

 


Wednesday
May072014

Get thee to a learnery

 

 

Yesterday, thanks in part to my wife’s activism, the state of Connecticut moved closer to funding pre-Kindergarten slots for all children in the state. Watch the video above, and you can read more here. An excerpt:

Prior to the start of school this past fall, a friend’s second grade daughter told her younger sister, who was about to enter kindergarten, what to expect: “Some kids won’t know the alphabet. You see, not everyone went to a good preschool like we did.”

My friend’s daughter was right. In the 2011-12 school year, more than one-third of all children entering kindergarten in Hartford and Bridgeport reported no prior preschool experience. My friend’s daughter was also right about the implications of preschool attendance. Neurologists tell us that quality early childhood education makes a dramatic difference in healthy child development. Educators report that children who attend high-quality preschools are more likely to enter kindergarten better prepared, less likely to need special education services, less likely to be held back and more likely to graduate. And business leaders tell us that high-quality early childhood education has among the highest returns on investment of any social or educational policy.

Tuesday
May062014

Does one “thound gay”?

 

 

 

I actually do have some thoughts on this topic — is there such thing as a “gay voice”? — but I don’t have the time to write them up just now. So for the time being just enjoy this thread, courtesy of Andrew Sullivan.

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