I Was a Teenage Fundamentalist  (from Chapter Two)

It is telling that so many people today regard inerrancy as the litmus test of authentic Christian faith. Among other things, it demonstrates how thoroughly the debate over science, especially evolution, has shaped modern American religion. We now find ourselves in the absurd position in which Christians may judge one another based on their opinion of Cretaceous lifeforms. After a recent speech, someone pulled me aside and explained that fossils had been planted by Satan to trick humans into questioning the Bible. Personally, I would prefer a world with Velociraptors to one in which the devil has the power to mess about with geology. I certainly would favor a world in which Christians did not divide over an issue that has so little to do with the truthfulness of their faith or the quality of their character.

Is belief in the Bible an all-or-nothing-at-all proposition? Our answer to that question is foundational to our understanding of all biblical teaching, not least on the vital subject of the future. It is a matter that requires our serious attention at the outset of this study.

I Was a Teenage Fundamentalist

During my freshman year of high school, the evangelist Leighton Ford conducted a crusade at our local armory, one result of which was the founding of a Christian coffee house called The Lighter Side of Darkness. "Lighter Side" was a perfect late-60s-early-70s period piece, complete with purple walls, cushions for seats, and empty wire spools for tables. (The common practice of referring to the coffee house by its initials, LSD, did little to endear it to already suspicious parents.) A number of my friends began to attend Lighter Side, and eventually I went along as well. It was like nothing that I had ever experienced. The confident faith, the joyous worship, and the sheer drama of the place (one of the leaders was a former drug dealer with reputed mob ties) easily overshadowed anything I had witnessed at my United Methodist Youth Fellowship. I attended Lighter Side throughout the remainder of my high school years.

The principal activity at Lighter Side was Bible study. Every Tuesday, Friday, and Saturday evening one of the coffee-house "elders," a fellow in his early twenties, would lead us through a passage or a series of verses related to some topic. The unstated assumption was that Christians believed everything the Bible taught without question or equivocation. It was easy.

I vividly recall the day that it got difficult. I was reading a portion of Matthew’s Gospel as part of my daily devotions. Noting the cross reference in my Thompson’s Chain Bible, I turned to the parallel account in Luke. I was surprised to find significant differences between the two versions of the same story. No interpretive contortion, and by then I possessed an extensive repertoire, seemed capable of reconciling the details of the two accounts. Unsettled, I phoned one of the elders for guidance. I explained the conundrum, but he too was unable to fashion a satisfactory solution. "So, what do you do when you encounter this sort of problem?," I asked. His answer: "I just try not to think about it." That was advice that I could not take. Too much was at stake.

More than twenty-five years and three theological degrees later, I am still a Christian. The core of my faith has not changed all that substantially, but my understanding of the Bible has.  In the short space of this chapter, I want to outline what I think is a reasonable and faithful alternative to both inerrancy, on the one hand, and skepticism, on the other.