16 March 2012

A Strange Encounter Part 12

As I looked through the literature I realized he was a member of a local congregation I was well aware of. Faith Baptist Church is part of the Independent Fundamental Baptist tradition. They also run a college and programme for aspiring pastors. These folks proudly fly their flags and believe that they represent the real and genuine America. We see them all the time at the shopping mall. These groups are permeated with legalism rooted in a cultural narrative. (See The Good Old Days)

They almost have a uniform, certainly a look you're supposed to emulate. We have a lot of these groups around here. We have the Wesleyan and Holiness groups which are trying to emulate the pre-1920's look, we have the Amish, and we have the Baptists that seem to view the 1950's culture...America on top of the world...as the golden age.

My ex-brother in law was attending classes at this school for a time. He used to shave his head, this was back before the Telly Savalas look was in as it is now. They actually told him that he needed to grow some hair, but not too much, and no facial hair. These groups are often against beards...you might look worldly, like a sixties radical or something. What you're really supposed to look like is John Wayne or Jimmy Stewart. That's the ideal for Christian manhood. My wouldn't they be surprised to meet the Apostles or most of the people from Church history?

Not long after my conversion I was in Italy and attended an Independent Fundamental KJV-only congregation. The pastor would yell and scream and call out judgment on sins from the pulpit....like not tucking your shirt in, not shaving properly. This was a 'church' off base in a nearby Italian community. The military requires certain grooming standards when in uniform. It was nice when you had a few days off to not have to shave, or if you were on leave for a couple of weeks, to not have to worry about your haircut and all that. No, that was unchristian. And this wasn't just because it was a military setting. For these folks the military code and standards are basically compatible with their understanding of Christian appearance and piety. They feel very much at home in a military community.

The thing was on a military base, a bunch of clean cut guys don't really stand out. But in rural Pennsylvania you can spot these folks with ease. They tend to have a bit of a swagger. I'm sorry to say it but it comes across as pride. They're often unfriendly and can't hide the disdain and judgment on their faces. It's funny watching the various groups size each other up. 

The Baptist women usually but not always have long hair and wear things like denim jumpers (for Anglo readers, that's an American bib-style dress, not what we call a sweater) and the men might wear jeans. But some of the Holiness groups insist the women wear their hair up in buns or some other style. The Holiness men often don't wear jeans, only slacks or khaki-type pants. The Baptists go about sneering at everyone who isn't right and oh, how it vexes them when they are outdone and another group looks down on them and gives a click of the tongue. We have encountered this on many occasions. Who's the most hostile to the Holiness look and dress code? Often the equally legalistic but less vigorous Baptists. They rail against those who don't maintain the right look, but are angered when another group goes even further and judges them.

My wife finds it all very frustrating. She has long hair and most of the time she wears skirts. It's not a piety issue. My wife is just...feminine. She likes what some call 'hippie' skirts, kind of exotic type stuff. She's 100% northern European in ancestry but she looks different. She's often mistaken for being foreign. When she was in Europe no one thought she was an American. As for me, the only places I could go and get mistaken for a local were Germany and Scotland, mostly the latter.

My wife doesn't want to get pegged as being part of these groups. She's noticed that if she wears a denim skirt she'll receive friendly smiles and nods from Baptists. Of course if one of our girls happens to be wearing pants that day it raises an eyebrow. They're still young so among some groups they're exempt. But if my wife wears pants...cold stares. Of course I often ruin the model because I don't look like one of the Baptist type guys. By 1950's standards my hair is long and yes, I must admit it... I always have some kind of facial hair. Of course among the Amish you have to wear facial hair. I had an Amish guy ask me one time if my beard (which was fuller then) was because of my Church's ordnung, or rules. I tried not to laugh at him.

How sad that if you dress 'right' you're pegged as a Christian brother or sister and if not...latent hostility. My wife has always joked that she wants to put on a nice denim dress, put her hair into a French braid, get the right shoes and go into the mall. Except she would also add a fake nose jewel and maybe a fake eyebrow ring. The looks on their faces would be priceless as they nodded in approval with warm smiles and then recoil when they get a closer look. It would completely disorient them. Just thinking about it gets us belly laughing.

Do we look this way out of pietistic concerns? No. I'm self-employed and I don't have to look 'neat and tidy' for my job, so I don't worry about it.

The Baptist pastor in Italy used to thunder that 'You need to look like you're saved!"...meaning John Wayne looked saved in a way Dustin Hoffman didn't.

The Bible has much to say about masculinity and femininity, it also has much to say regarding modesty and humility. So many of these folks have completely missed the point. Their defining appearance in terms of cultural narrative and confusing it with what the Bible says. If they'd go back and re-read the passages they would see it doesn't always say what they think it says. And for all their concerns in this regard they've missed the larger point and fallen into the pride trap. That's what they convey when they're out in public...Pharisaical pride. That's the message they communicate. It's not salt and light in the least. They turn people away and on one level I can say that thankfully these types of churches seem to be waning. In fact I don't they'll exist in another generation or so. You can see it with the young people. They're pushing the envelope. They don't quite buy it. We used to see this when we lived in Greenville South Carolina. That's the home of infamous and certainly cultic Bob Jones University. We'd see the students around town and often they were straining, trying to push the dress code to the limit. We've known several people who went there or were affiliated with it. It's like a prison, a tyrannical prison camp.

I used to visit the campus. I had access to their rather impressive library. My hair was real short then...but yes, I had a beard. I used to get looked at like I was a space alien, and no one was friendly in the least.

So is this Church (the one the man on the bench attends) with its American narrative, its warmongering politics, and legalistic pride helping the gospel mission?

But it gets worse. There's this strange little secret at work in many of these 'conservative' schools. Since they're social conservatives, they stand for 'traditional' values right? In the 1970’s they looked to people like Phyllis Schlafly who led the charge against the Equal Rights Amendment (though she herself is a career woman)...clearly they're anti-feminist right? That was part of the argument back then. Feminism put women in the workplace and destroyed the single income family model, it put secondary income earners (women) in the marketplace competing with primary breadwinners and harmed the traditional family.

A big part of post 1970's conservative Evangelical identity has been rooted in traditional roles for men and women and for the most conservative this has meant that women eschew professional 'outside the home' careers. Women are to be in the home, helping their husbands, caring for the children, cooking and cleaning.

As I've written elsewhere I have strong sympathies with these views, though not with the political promotion. I can even be (in part) lumped in with Patriarchal understandings of the family. Yet, for me since I reject Dominionism it casts all these things in a very different light and my wife and I often have little in common with people who outwardly speaking are structuring their families in the same way. Phyllis Schlafly and the man on the bench would love my family and the things we stand for, but would recoil in horror when they realized we’re absolutely opposed to their political agenda and aspirations.

That said, most Christians in America are actually not standing with Schlafly and certainly not these ultra-conservative Baptists. Most have followed the cultural trends. By hanging back a little they may seem and perhaps feel conservative, but most have embraced many of the values of feminism…not via Gloria Steinem, but through a backdoor, attaining or maintaining economic status.

While it's easy to understand the Feminist movement from a social perspective, meaning I can see why unbelievers said 'hey, wait a minute, this man dominated system is a racket' and started trying to dismantle it. What I don't understand or rather do but don't agree with is the Church has largely gone along with all of it. Rather than give up Middle Class status, most people have just bought into the model. Of course if you've confused Christian identity with your culture it's harder to navigate these issues. Naturally conservative you resist change but when there's a new norm other cultural impulses kick in (like staying Middle Class)...and in the end the house and 2nd car is far more important than keeping your family in proper order. So I understand why Sacralism led the Church to largely give on in this issue, I reject it.

And on that point I am in agreement (in some sense) with some of these hyper-Conservative groups like the Independent Fundamental Baptists and some of the Reformed.

Why then would it be okay to send your wife out to work so that you can go to seminary or Bible school? That's what so many of these folks do. 

I've seen it in Reformed Seminaries and when my ex-brother in law was looking to become a pastor the people at this very school, the one associated with the Church the guy on the mall bench attends, told him this was the way to do it. Go to school full time and send your wife out to work full time and support the family while you do it. Does anyone else find this incongruous and strange? Here a big part of their identity is to magnify the male/female roles and claim a social narrative on this point but then when it comes to completing a pastoral education (whatever that is)...the end justifies the means, send your wife out like Gloria Steinem while you go to school for the Kingdom???

This same thing happens at some Reformed seminaries. I not only have a personal problem with it, I find it just doesn't make any sense.


Cal said...

I'm gonna give some push on the 'feminist' charge. I think some of what you say is very good, well and true about men being men and women being women (as Paul would argue and how the Gospel is presented).

But how does this play out?

I'm not so sure this necessarily means the woman stays home and raises the family (though this is certainly, and essentially a part of it). I think of the end of Proverbs (ch. 31) exalting characteristics of an 'ideal wife', of which included planting, trading and maintaining business. Now this isn't going out into the 'work world' as the home was a part of the economy in those days. Less so now.

Like the hippies, the feminists asked good questions and gave bad answers. I think wives have a certain character of them and husbands too, but not so strict and law oriented. Everything ought to be done, by both agents, in total humility and in total grace.

Or maybe I'm just a compromised American :) .


Anonymous said...

I used to have a paperback - by Sproul or Ryle...don't remember which. But he said something to the effect - what makes straight pins more holy than buttons? He was referring to the Amish. The same could be said of any of that. What makes (fill in the blank) more holy than ......?

The other day a fellow homeschooler commented that as the church compromises more and more on the truth of God's word, so goes everything else in society - including the loss of work ethic. I wanted to say - do you listen to Christian radio?

I decided later that if given the chance - I would challenge anyone spouting "Christian Right" beliefs to a Christian radio fast of a couple of months. Maybe 40 days would be enough. I would challenge them to not listen to or read the words of man for that time and read their Bibles only and let the Lord speak to them thru His word without the influence of the ideas and prejudices of men. It's hard not to read it without the mind-set of a pre-trib, dispensationalist, pre-mil and whatever other label I can think of - when that's what's ingrained - but the power of the word of the Lord is greater than that.

Anyway - I relate to what you're saying. I'm feeling less and less in common with the people who are supposed to be my brothers and sisters and more with the lost - though I love Jesus and try to live by His word and love as He loves...
I just don't fit in with the worlds of either of them, really.

Jim C. said...

Hey John,

It's ironic but unsurprising (when you think about it) that most of those who have apostatized from any semblance of the Christian faith over the last twenty years (especially those who have their own websites) come from the kinds of churches you've described in this post. It's interesting to see them exhibit the same dogmatic zeal and either condesension or outright hatred toward those with whom they disagree just as they did when they were Christians, the chief exception of course being that they're now atheists.

In spite of the formal differences you described in the groups you mentioned, they all share the following in common: they're all self-contained societies, to a greater or lesser extent they're all authoritarian (and there are many in positions of power within these movements who abuse it), they generally discourage any meaningful discussion or debate even if they claim otherwise (knee-jerk reactions are more common) and they all view those outside their groups with either fear or distrust from whom those in authority believe they must "protect" those under them. One could say these groups are "cultic" - and certainly some among them are - but I wouldn't necessarily put them in that category because they generally do not resort to some of the more extreme measures cults use to control their members.

As you've also intimated, these groups do not survive in their existing forms indefinitely. Some completely implode whereas most split into different factions, one becoming more open and tolerant and the other even more radical than before. The split between the OPC and the Bible Presbyterians is a good example of this. There are a variety of reasons as to why this happens. I'm tempted to posit a correlation between the intellectual atrophy these groups engender and their decline but at present this is nothing more than a cerebral excretion. I'd have to develop it further.

Jim C.