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Sunday, September 11, 2011

Unreliable definitions of fundamentalism

I know it's only my third post, but I'm already handing out a pop quiz.  Don't worry, it should be fairly easy.  Simply try to find the common theme in the following definitions for "fundamentalism":

Vocabulary.com:  "the interpretation of every word in the sacred texts as literal truth"  (although Vocabulary.com is far from being alone in offering this faulty definition)
The Collaborative International Dictionary of English v.0.48: "A system of beliefs based on the interpretation of every word in the Bible, both old and new testaments, as literal truth"
Hutchinson's Dictionary of Difficult Words: "belief in the literal truth of all Biblical statements, miracles, etc."
Webster's New World College Dictionary, 4th Ed.: "religious beliefs based on a literal interpretation of the Bible, regarded as fundamental to Christian faith and morals"
Merriam-Webster's Online Dictionary, 11th Edition: "a movement in 20th century Protestantism emphasizing the literally interpreted Bible as fundamental to Christian life and teaching".

Ok, put down your pencils, time's up.  If you answered something like "fundamentalism = literalism", you get a gold star (only a figurative one, sorry), with bonus points if you also recognized how easy it would be to show that only the fourth (depending on how broadly one interpreted "based on") and fifth examples are the only two that come anywhere close to being correct.  How easy?  Well, that brings me to my second pop quiz: read Genesis 2:24 and then calculate your chances of finding even a single fundamentalist that believes that a man and his wife literally become one flesh.
I suppose one could attempt a defense of their definition by pointing out that many fundamentalists identify themselves as literalists.   Even that is somewhat misleading, though, since many (if not most) fundamentalists don't use the word, well, literally.  For example, Article XV of the Chicago Statement on Biblical Hermeneutics states that "WE AFFIRM  the necessity of interpreting the Bible according to its literal, or normal, sense. The literal sense is the grammatical-historical sense, that is, the meaning which the writer expressed. Interpretation according to the literal sense will take account of all figures of speech and literary forms found in the text",   Thus, not all "fundamentalists" would call themselves "literalist", and even fewer who would call themselves "strict literalists", i.e., those who interpret every word of the bible as literal truth.
Maybe it would be better to let fundamentalists define themselves?

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