Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Fundamentalism and the Cult of Muscular Personalities

First, watch this video, so that you'll know what I'm talk about. The video was apparently shown at the youth conference for First Baptist Church, Hammond, Indiana, currently pastored by Jack Schaap, but served for over forty years by Jack Hyles.

There are a number of things that are so striking about the video--the linkage of key American moments (most relating to war) with the need to be "resolved" to take a stand; the way Hyles was worked into the video, placed on the same level as George Washington, Jack Kennedy, and Douglas MacArthur; and the clear promotion of "martyrdom" in tones that would be indistingishable from an extremist piece from another world religion.

But clearly the most striking part of the video was the ending--splices of Hyles intoning "who's gonna fill that chair" with clips of the current pastor, Jack Schaap, in some of his more fiery preaching moments. It seems to me that the intention is to relay the affection and authority that Hyles had in his own congregation to the current pastor, who has been there for four or so years.

Even more, I was struck by the way that Protestant fundamentalism has always seemed to be attracted to these muscular personalities--real manly men battling against the forces of wickedness and evil in our culture. The result is a cult of personality in which these "gladiators for truth" are set on a pedestal and create independent fifedoms that spin off colleges and publishing ventures, as well as very comfortable lifestyles. (For an academic historian's treatment of some of these issues, see William V. Trollinger, Jr., God's Empire: William Bell Riley and Midwestern Fundamentalism [Wisconsin, 1990].)

The question that I've always wondered is why? Why do these men attract such attention, such adulation, such support? Well, one reason has to be that they provide very simple, black and white, answers to the challenges that face most American families--your teenager is rebelling? Cut his hair short, burn his rock music, involve him in youth group, send him to Bible college. Your marriage is on the rocks? Get involved in church more. Your job not working out? Do Bible studies on your work break; develop a work ethic.

Not only in personal life, but especially in their analysis of the world, these muscular fundamentalists are able to divide the world into heroes and devils in ways that make sense for their adherents: the media, academic elites, bureaucrats (especially Democrats), and pluralists are evil; preachers, missionaries, and evangelists "resolved" to stand for truth, justice, and the American way are good.

Most of all, I believe that these fiery leaders attract others based on their sheer charisma--as men who know what they believe and who know what they are about, they are attractive even when their harshness would otherwise repulse. In that regard, this quality stands true across cultures, religions, or regions--the hypnotic powers of harsh, believable rhetoric can motivate people and create cult-like adherence.

One of the many reasons that I moved away from American fundamentalism (though I continue to be endlessly fascinated by it) was how different this all is from Jesus as presented in the NT. Especially in places such as Mark 10, Jesus presents a different approach to leadership--not lording it over as the Gentiles do, with angry words and strong charisma, but with service that may lead all the way to the death of our reputations, plans, and dreams. Such a humble willingness to serve Christ was missing in my more muscular heroes of my college days; and eventually, while their personalities continue to draw my attention and study, they cannot claim my adherence.


Mike Hess said...

Dr. Lucas,

I'm right with you as one who actually went to FBC of Hammond for nearly five years and went to HAC. I too have drifted away from hysteric/cultural fundamentalism yet still remained fascinated by it. Fascinated with the adoration and loyalty that their followers still have and that I once had and with their allegiance to a faulty theology (mainly soteriology) and obsession with power.

We were always taught at HAC that Hyles was pretty much responsible for fundamentalism as we know it, the KJV, the fall of the Soviet Union, and the revival of personal soul winning (or soul tricking if you please).

I'll have to check out the book that you recommended here. Good post!


David said...


That video is just plain scary.

Having grown up in a "mainline" church, I am struck at the personality split between liberal and fundamentalist churches. While the fundamentalists have gravitated toward "muscular" personalities - the liberal churches have gravitated toward effeminate personalities. Corresondingly, fundamentalists have gravitated toward black and white answers with either separation or conflict with culture while the liberals have tended toward compromisse and surrender toward the culture.

Actually following Jesus turns out to be much more difficult in practice than in theory.


Jay C said...


You said:
One of the many reasons that I moved away from American fundamentalism was how different this all is from Jesus as presented in the NT. Especially in places such as Mark 10, Jesus presents a different approach to leadership--not lording it over as the Gentiles do, with angry words and strong charisma, but with service that may lead all the way to the death of our reputations, plans, and dreams....while the[se] personalities continue to draw my attention and study, they cannot claim my adherence.

That is a great quote, and I really appreciated it.

That being said, I think I should note that there is an attempt within Fundamentalism to wrest control back away from a personality driven movement and back into what it was and is supposed to be - a collection of Believers from all over who gladly affirm the core doctrines of the Faith and who are willing to militantly defend that.

Jack Hyles has done a lot of damage to the name "Fundamentalist"...but a lot of "Fundamentalists" seem to be - no, actually already are [see] - disassociating with him. And so much the better.

Sean Lucas said...

Hi, Jay: I really appreciate the distinction you make here; and I actually saw this video first on SharperIron. As a BJU grad, it was interesting how Hyles' version of fundamentalism was far away from what we had at school. But my church growing up was in the Hyles orbit for a while. Thanks for writing, sml

PT Barnum said...

Great thoughts! I agree with much of your post but also want to echo what Jay said--Hammond and their brand of cultural fundamentalism is a fringe sect of lunatics. I started attending FBC Hammond at the age of 2 and left when I was 24 and have never looked back. I still am a Fundamentalist but reject those fundamental culturalists who operate in an exegetcial vacuum and are proud of it. My father is a BJU grad and I am a HAC grad--go figure!

Schaap and his version of fundamentalism is something I want absolutely nothing to do with--they are irrelevant plain and simple. This video is just more proof as to their mental sickness and overblown idea of their supposed influence.


Neil E. Das said...

This film is an interesting pastische. Many of the examples of people who were resolved to stand that they highlight in the film would have shared few cultural and religious assumptions with the producers of the video. And as far as Christians who were resolved to stand, they make the massive leap from those mentioned in Foxes Book of Martyrs (again whose Christianity likely would have looked much different)and a select set of modern fundamentalist leaders.

Here is another video, even further on the fringe, which is discussed at a Christian film reviewer's site whom I appreciate:

Finally, Dr. Lucas, as you are interested in fundamentalism, have you read Stefan Ulstein's Growing Up Fundamentalist: Journies in Legalism and Grace? After a historical overview considering the document "The Fundamentals," the book proceeds with interviews, exit interviews of sorts, of people who grew up in fundamentalist churches. Some interviewed have moved to different types of churches, some have stayed, and some have given up on the faith. It is a fascinating book, and being somewhat of a "recovering fundamentalist," I found the book both insightful and helpful.

Travis McGowen said...

Dr. Lucas,

Great post! I grew up in a church that was very influenced by Hyles. Just as you said, when people came to the pastor in need of help with their marriage, he normally told them to get involved in church more. I never really understood that way of handling problems but I was taught never to question the "man of God."

Thanks again for sharing your insights.


Al Davis said...

Interesting, thought-provoking post! Although I am a fundamentalist pastor myself I've never identified with the Hyles crowd but have known many who do. One of the difficulties in any church, fundamental or evangelical, is getting people to follow Jesus Christ rather than the Pastor or some other man. Unfortunately, human nature being what it is, it is easier to follow a man that you can see and hear in the flesh (no pun intended) than to follow God in Heaven. It is especially difficult when dealing with someone who is portrayed in a larger than life fasion. Paul commented on this very problelm in 1 Corinthians 1:12 where he said, "Now this I say, that every one of you saith, I am of Paul; and I of Apollos; and I of Cephas; and I of Christ." Too many of us fall prey to the sin of "of" and too many of us preachers love to have it so...

Sarah said...

Wow! I came upon your blog, and when I saw that movie, I was in shock! I grew up in a church, though not nearly as firey as FBC, but still we were always told that you go to HAC or you were out of God's Will. My 6th grade teacher told me a story that she never got married because she went to PCC her first semester of college, which was out of God's Will.. And Pastor Hyles and Pastor Schaap both preached at my church. We went to Youth Conferences and heard all this stuff. And I believed every word they said. After a church split, we went to another fundamentalist Baptist Church, but this church stressed not the legalism I was used to, but grace and love and getting to know God. My pastor, not firey or yelling at us, was still both passionate about what he preached and loving. And he pointedly made sure that we understood that he was an instrument of the God-that God was who we needed to follow-not him. I was also introduced to a myriad of Christian colleges...but I was told to pray and seek God's Will on which one to go to. I ended up now as a freshman at Maranatha Baptist Bible College. Maranatha is a Bible college with a liberal arts focus and I have learned more about how to KNOW my Lord here than I ever did at Youth Conference, although from the movie, I guess that according to the FBC pastors, I am out of God's Will. A recruiter from Hyles, after I told them I was going to Maranatha in the fall, asked me if I talked to my Pastor and then encouraged me to pray more about it. I told them I had done both for some time, and I really sensed God's leading there. Guess they didn't believe me...asked me if I knew it was God's Will and not my own. It took alot of Christian patience not to hang up then, but I calmly told them that I was not interested. I thought you might like to hear my story and that I wholeheartedly agree with you in that FBC and HAC seem cultish to me.

jc said...

The link to the video only brings me to the main site, not to any video. Could you update the link? I'd like to see the video.