Progressive and fundamentalist Christians read the Bible differently. Here's how.

Chattanooga Times Free Press/October 4, 2019

By Wyatt Massey

Question: What is the difference in Progressive Christianity and Fundamental Christianity?

This question, and both strands of Christianity, seek to define the religion in the modern era, said Rebekka King, assistant professor of religious studies at Middle Tennessee State University.

However, today's faithful tend to not think about how Christianity has changed over time, she said.

"There's this misconception often, particularly in North America, that the Christianity we see in front of us is the Christianity that has been for a long time," King said. "The idea that Christianity is rooted in reading the Bible and understanding the story of God and what Christians ought to believe based on the Biblical text comes out this more modern era."

Progressive Christianity and Christian Fundamentalism try to respond to the contemporary need for factual truth. This was not necessary in previous centuries. Before major advancements in science in the 18th century, Christians got meaning from the holy text through its allegories and metaphors, said Jim Burklo, senior associate dean in the Office of Religious and Spiritual Life at the University of Southern California.

Christians were not concerned whether the Bible was factually true because books and stories up until that period made no distinction between fiction and non-fiction, Burklo said.

"There were no boundaries in the modern meaningful sense between the two," he said. "Meaning was what mattered more than facts. Myth and fact were mushed together freely to get across a meaning, to express a spiritual or moral significance. This concern about factuality is modern."

When scientific understanding sought verifiable facts and presented evidence contradictory to religion, such as human evolution as opposed to creationism, Christianity was forced to confront the growing human desire for understanding.

The movement of Christian Fundamentalism began in the 19th and 20th centuries among white and mostly northern Protestants. It is often characterized by a denial of secular culture, particularly abortion, while at the same time deeply patriotic, said Margaret Bendroth, executive director of the Congregational Library & Archives.

The fundamentalist belief interprets the Bible literally, rather than figuratively. Every word in the book is seen as perfect, as argued in the 1925 Scopes Monkey Trial in Dayton, Tennessee, that pitted contemporary science against the believed truth of Biblical teaching.

Christian fundamentalists often focus on creating and maintaining a personal relationship with Jesus to be saved. They are less likely to engage in interfaith events than other Christian traditions, said Susan Rose, professor of sociology at Dickinson College. Fundamentalists have historically seen themselves as separate from the secular world, leaning into the idea of being in but not of the world, Rose said.

However, in opposition to social changes such as the Civil Rights movement, the feminist movement and the push for LGBTQ rights, fundamentalists became more engaged in society and politics, Rose said. In the 1970s and 80s, guided by Jerry Falwell and the Moral Majority, conservative Christians became more aligned with conservative politics. Today, the fundamentalist view is largely held among evangelicals.

Fundamentalists no longer see themselves as just living in the world. They are taking steps to create and maintain the United States as a Christian nation, Rose said.

"Rather than separation of church and state, many of them would want to see this as a Christian country that they want to preserve, and therefore would act towards that," Rose said.

Progressive Christianity emerged out of the liberal strands of Protestantism. The view emphasizes social justice and acceptance by questioning religious traditions and interpreting them in light of changing social attitudes. For example, if modern understandings of science and passages of the Bible contradict one another, Progressive Christians approach the situation analytically so they are not forced to believe something that is not true.

The progressive movement began to emerge around the same time as fundamentalism, but has become more prominent in the last 30 years. During this time, progressive Christians have become more unified in publicly pushing back against the public efforts of fundamentalists, King said.

"There is a sense for them that Christianity has been taken over by a very conservative wing that is espousing a lot of language and that they would see as hateful," she said. "They are actively trying to win Christianity back."

In short, Burklo said, progressive Christians get meaning from the Bible from its metaphors, while fundamentalists see the Bible as written fact.

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