Kenton Sparks on Fundamentalism

October 23, 2011

“At its heart, each of these [fundamentalist] movements views modernism as a threat to the stability of culture and to the predictability of life. Fundamentalists yearn for a world in which all is fixed and certain. For this reason they militantly eschew anything and anyone that introduces doubt, uncertainty, or ambiguity into their worldview. This ideology puts fundamentalism into direct conflict with modernism because modernity is the product of a world gone international and intercultural. But modernity is not the creator of pluralism, as fundamentalists often suppose. Modernity’s pluralism is instead the inevitable consequence of human diversity — and it is contact with this diversity, and its ‘pollution,’ that fundamentalism fears.

“Fundamentalism’s response to modernism is a kind of ideological paranoia that features two interrelated defensive strategies. First, every fundamentalism secures the uniqueness of its worldview by claiming access to an inerrant text or authority that provides perfect knowledge. This assertion not only secures the validity of the community’s beliefs but also ensures that the beliefs of outsiders are in error. Nothing is more important to a fundamentalist than being right and being sure of it. Fundamentalism’s second defensive strategy erects a thick cultural wall between the community and those outside it. The primary purpose of this wall is to prevent contact with opposing views that might challenge or raise too much doubt about the community’s worldview. As a rule, this barrier is constructed by forbidding or greatly discouraging the study of materials that come from those outside the fundamentalist guild. For instance, while Christian fundamentalists are quite likely to read descriptions of modern evolutionary theory that have been written by other fundamentalists, they would rarely study a book that was written by an evolutionist, or study evolutionary biology in a university setting. For most fundamentalists, such pursuits would be a waste of time at best, and downright dangerous at worst.

“… [T]he difficulty in circular reasoning is that it includes far fewer pieces of reality than it should. It juggles a few balls successfully when there are many other balls that should be juggled. Fundamentalists attempt to perpetuate this illusion of hermeneutical success by denying the existence of the extra balls. But so long as Christian fundamentalists live in the real world, they will face an almost constant barrage of evidence that does not fit their view of things — evidence that the universe is very old, that evolution is true, that languages were not created at the tower of Babel, that there was no worldwide flood, and so forth. This is a list that could be easily extended. It is pitiful and even painful to watch as naive fundamentalist students nervously and fearfully traverse their first year university Bible classes, flailing desperately to keep their heads above the water in a sea of evidence that neither they, nor their parents and pastors, suspected could exist. At the same time, it is truly exciting to see thoughtful and healthy Christian students, fully committed to the theological orthodoxies of the Christian tradition, who are able to traverse those same seas with a spirit of enthusiasm for discovery. Fundamentalism fears the evidence that challenges its views; healthy Christian orthodoxy revels in the evidence, since it believes that all evidence, properly understood, will lead to a healthier view of life and faith.”

-Kenton L. Sparks, God’s Word in Human Words, pp. 307-08




  1. Really enjoyed this book – was a bit disappointed in the chapter where he actually puts his ideas in to practice though. Would like to see more work done in that area – any suggestions as to where to look?

    • I’m just getting to that section of the book now. I’ll have to get back to you 🙂

  2. Just finished this book. I think it was a great book — better than Inspiration and Incarnation by Pete Enns. Although I & I was intended to be more introductory I think.

    We definitely need more books like these, IMO. It’s a very challenging task to integrate biblical criticism into “Evangelical” faith systems, even those of a more progressive nature.

    • Yes, I & I was probably the first book I ever read on the issue of critical biblical studies. I still stand by it as a great introduction to the topic. Sparks goes much, much deeper into the issues, with all sorts of extras (like the chapter on epistemology). I have really enjoyed Sparks’ book. It steers something of a middle course between the gentle Enns and the bull-in-the-china-shop style of Thom Stark. I enjoyed all three books, each for different reasons.

      • Conservative Evangelicals might be completely scared away by a book like GWHW; however, I agree that I & I is an awesome (and less scary) introduction. It was the first book I read on biblical criticism.

        I haven’t read Stark’s book yet. To be honest I’m somewhat afraid of where that book will leave my faith…

    • GWHW is much deeper and aimed at a different audience that I&I – just the vocab alone was at times a stretch for me! But I learned so much and was so challenged and encouraged by GWHW, it’s tops on my list of must-reads for people interested in these topics.

      • Yup, I agree. It’s an incredible resource. One thing I really liked was his detailed explanation of current thinking about the documentary hypothesis. However, if someone has had no exposure to critical biblical scholarship, I would probably recommend I&I first, just because Enns has a really gentle way about him and these topics can be threatening the first time you encounter them.

  3. I more or less “lost my faith” by the end of Spark’s book – but it was okay because it was faith in the wrong things, not God. Sometimes, it’s okay to lose your faith.

    • I know the feeling. You either have to overhaul your belief system or stick your fingers in your ears and live with the dissonance. I can’t do the latter, so I’m in the process of doing the former.

      • Do you have a contact email for this blog? I’d like to invite you to view my blog (it is still in private-mode right now because I’m too terrified of what would happen if all my conservative friends/family stumbled upon it!) – I think you share a very similar journey to my husband and I in all this. As an aside question, is your wife in to theology too? I checked out her photography page, she is so gifted! Wow!

      • Yes, you can reach me at merchantofpearls@gmail.com. Send me an e-mail and I’ll answer some of your questions in reply. I’ll pass on the compliments to Katrina! 🙂

  4. “Fundamentalists yearn for a world in which all is fixed and certain. For this reason they militantly eschew anything and anyone that introduces doubt, uncertainty, or ambiguity into their worldview.”

    Uncertainty and ambuguity are the hallmarks of the postmodern era. No wonder fundamentalism is experiencing a resurgence.

    “Fundamentalism’s second defensive strategy erects a thick cultural wall between the community and those outside it.”

    We see examples of this in Christian homeschooling, private Christian schools, and distinct Christian subcultures (i.e., Quiverfull). The problem is, it’s a futile endeavor. Fundamentalists can’t keep outside influences at bay forever, especially in a world of television and the internet. Fundamentalists who raise their children behind cultural walls are setting them up for unpleasant surprises once the they encounter the outside world — which they inevitably will.

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