By Thomas Williamson
3131 S. Archer Avenue
Chicago, Illinois 60608
Dan Burrell, a well-known Baptist blogger on the "Whirled
Views" website, has commented on the decline of hero worship
in fundamentalist circles:
"The 1900s was a century of icons' in Evangelicalism and Fundamentalism. Larger-than-life individuals often built followings bordering on personality cults. Sunday, Jones, Rice, Criswell, Lee, Roberson, Norris, Hyles, Graham, Rogers, and scores of others had thousands (if not millions) of supporters composed of mere admirers to ardent sycophants.
"They could, with a single sermon or a press release, influence elections, draw 10s of thousands, sell millions of dollars worth of product, or make front-page articles in newspapers.
"Today's generation tends to be far less loyal to individuals and far more cynically minded toward that who would claim to be spokesmen. The frequent scandals of the last quarter along with the rise in Internet conversations' (blogs, discussion boards, forums, and forwarded e-mail newsletters) that question, challenge, and debate endlessly and provide a seeming equal voice' to anyone with a computer and an Internet connection, have diluted, if not muted, the voice of many powerful leaders (and egos).
"Today's generation of believers don't want to be told for whom to vote, what to read, or how to behave. They are more likely to ask why' and says who?' than previous generations were. The children of yesterday's Fundamentalism are better educated, more cynical, more sophisticated, and less likely to follow in their parents' footsteps than previous progeny. They are far more influenced by the culture and far less influenced by dogmatism. This change will demand better generational dialogue, patience, thoughtful discourse, and thorough explanations if historic positions are to be passed on to future descendants."
If these changes in the thought patterns of young fundamentalists are really taking place as Burrell describes, then I see that as a mostly positive thing. It is a healthy departure from the factional spirit of "I am of Paul, I am of Apollos" that elevates certain notable celebrities and televangelists to the status of heroes and demigods who cannot be questioned.
The emphasis on enforced, unquestioned, slavish obedience to Christian "icons" tends toward the destruction of the Baptist principle of soul liberty, the Protestant principle of right of private interpretation, and the New Testament principle of the independence and autonomy of the local church.
It raises the question, just who decides who gets to be on the list of so-called "anointed preachers" whose authority we are not allowed to disobey.
I sincerely hope that Burrell is correct in his analysis, and that we are entering a new era in which Christians are allowed to think for themselves and use the intellect that God gave them, instead of having to stoop and bow before the authority of some pompous, self-appointed pope or poobah.
The death of iconic leadership will mean that we will no longer be shackled to blind obedience to the ecumenical evangelists and stadium rally organizers who demand that we break down the walls that separate us from Charismatics, Roman Catholics and liberal mainline Protestant groups.
It also means that we will no longer have to pay homage to the mountebank "healers" and purveyers of heretical "Health, Wealth and Prosperity" dogma, who are regarded by their duped minions as infallible, because of their ability to build megachurches by preaching what people want to hear.
Another blogger, Charles Wood of "The Woodchuck's Den," adds this comment: "Dan Burrell, in his top 10 news stories of 2007 that relate to evangelicals, makes mention of the long list of outstanding people who are no longer with us.
"He lists some fundamentalists as well as Ruth Graham, Jerry Falwell and D. James Kennedy. When you stop to think of it, John R. Rice, Lee Roberson, Curtis Hutson, Tom Malone, Bob Gray, Jack Hyles, and a host of other one-time leaders of fundamentalism are gone along with more than a few other evangelicals.
"The obvious answer to my lead question is that they have gone to their eternal reward, but it also might be well to note that some of our heroes' were hardly heroic and should never have had the status that was so thoughtlessly granted them (and I was among those who granted such status).
"Although there appear to be several who would aspire to fill the empty spaces in fundamentalism, none seems to be making the grade' in any significant way. Conservative evangelicals have Paige Patterson, Al Mohler, R.C. Sproul, James McDonald, John MacArthur and others, but I am not convinced that they occupy quite the same place and/or carry the same influence as the fundamentalists mentioned did.
"Evangelicals have Rick Warren, Bill Hybels, Leith Anderson, Gordon MacDonald and others, but it seems to me that some of their more radical social positions and pronouncements have seriously compromised their ability to stir the masses. . . .'
"From personal conversations and communications I am convinced that the younger generation of those who have stayed within the movement [of fundamentalism] is not really in a hero-making' mood at present. There have been too many disappointments as more and more feet of clay' have been exposed, and many younger fundamentalists are simply no longer satisfied with because I said so' or some other blow off' to what they consider valid questions. There is probably more rallying around institutions than individuals, but even that is increasingly being conditioned by careful scrutiny. . . .
"It seems we might all be better off if we disabled our hero-producing' machines and focused on the Lord Jesus and on the Biblical characters about whom we know the whole picture. . . . When modern heroes are created, the downside' is usually carefully covered (either by themselves or others). There are some men in various areas of Christianity that I greatly admire, but I won't again - by the grace of God - get caught following a man as I once did!"
I think that Wood's advice is good counsel for all of us. Too much time and effort has been wasted among fundamentalists, by our servile adulation and worship of mere human personalities, and our condemnation of brothers and sisters in the Lord who do not worship the celebrities that we worship. It is time to quit acting like babies - let's grow up and allow ourselves to think for ourselves instead of being zombie-like followers of the latest sensationalist preacher or "church growth" fad.