You Can’t Spell Fundamentalism without Fun

I’m afraid that fundamentalism didn’t come off so well at our “Pietism and Christian Colleges” session this past Saturday at the Conference on Faith and History. Both in Jared Burkholder’s paper on Pietism and scholarly virtues and Kurt Peterson’s on the Evangelical Covenant Church in the 1950s, fundamentalism showed its least attractive face: suspicious, uncharitable, combative, anti-intellectual, unreflective…

Bob Jones University logoMy own paper didn’t address fundamentalism so directly, but frankly, those adjectives tend to come to my mind whenever I think about that movement in the history of American Protestantism. So I’m glad that I also heard a very different take on it this weekend, via Rondall Reynoso’s paper, “Bringing Men to Christ: Cultural Programming at Bob Jones University in the Mid-Twentieth Century.”

Here’s all you need to know to understand the limits of my knowledge of fundamentalism: I saw Reynoso’s paper title on the conference schedule, and it never occurred to me that he would talk about, say, opera (a program Bob Jones has had since 1942) or painting (more below). I think I took “cultural programming” to have sinister connotations. I’ve clearly been spending too much time on the history of totalitarian regimes and their euphemisms…

Bust of Bob Jones, Jr.
Bust of Bob Jones, Jr. (1911-1997) – Wikimedia

But I’m glad that I came to the panel (to hear a paper on secularization and higher education), since Reynoso gave an eye-opening talk on the long, rich history of the arts at a fundamentalist university that I knew best for its troubled history with racism. An artist and art historian now completing his doctorate at Graduate Theological Union, Reynoso explained that BJU’s engagement with the fine arts (the largest of the university’s schools) goes back to its founding under Bob Jones, Sr. But the arts at BJU received their greatest boost from Bob Jones, Jr., a gifted Shakespearean actor who received the offer of a screen test and contract from Warner Brothers in 1937. After succeeding his father as president in 1947, he founded the school’s film department, launched a studio art major (with a short-lived MFA program starting in 1953), and built up a collection of biblically-themed art from the 14th-19th centuries that is still highly regarded. (It includes works by Rubens, Tintoretto, Cranach, Doré, and other masters.)

In his 2006 master’s thesis (“Art and Christian Fundamentalism”), Reynoso quotes from the “Ultimate Purpose” section of the BJU Museum & Gallery (M&G) internal Outline of Philosophy:

Dr. Bob, Jr. began and continued to view, the Museum and Gallery as an extension of Bob Jones University’s educational ministry. He envisioned that the Museum, like the university, would promote the general education of youth in the essentials of culture and in the arts and sciences, giving special emphasis to the Christian religion and the ethics revealed in the Holy Scripture. Although the Museum and Gallery is no longer directly connected with the university, the founder’s vision remains the guiding principle for the gallery’s educational outreach. To date, the educational services we have offered have been limited. We are now seeking to broaden that range. Doing so will, of course, open up new vistas for ministering to people; it may also create new conflicts. From the outset, therefore, we must keep our spiritual goals clearly in mind. As in the past, we view the gallery as a vehicle to draw men to Christ. Our motivation in all that we undertake, therefore, will be to use the Collection…

1. As light—to reveal God and His view of man and beauty.

2. As salt—to provide a contrast for the world’s view of man and beauty. (Quoted on p. 69)

While I was surprised that the country’s leading fundamentalist university would engage so intentionally with the arts, I might have predicted that it sees “biblical” and “post-modern” aesthetics as being irreconcilable, with the collection including no pieces from the 20th century. Reynoso comments in his thesis, “It could be interpreted that the message being sent to the University community is that acceptable culture ended in the nineteenth century. It would seem appropriate for a collection, which examines the history of religious art in western culture, to extend that discussion to current times” (pp. 87-88).

Reni, St. Matthew
One of the Italian Baroque pieces in the BJU collection: Guido Reni, St. Matthew (ca. 1635) – Wikimedia

Nor is it a shock that the M&G mission is not to present art itself, but to engage in a kind of evangelism that questions the faith of the largest group of the world’s Christians:

The biblical content of many of the paintings provides ample opportunity to present the gospel. In addition, the Catholic influence apparent in many of the works provides opportunity to distinguish for visitors and students the difference between biblical Christianity and a religion based on the traditions of man. It further provides occasion for clarifying the fact that the Bible (not art, religious or otherwise) is the only source for discerning doctrine. (Quoted on p. 73)

In the conclusion of his CFH paper (and thesis), Reynoso explored the seeming tension between such a view of Catholicism and the fact that most of the paintings in the M&G were produced by Catholic artists (with 10% of the collection consisting of paintings that only show extrabiblical saints). On the one hand, this has led some fundamentalists to condemn BJU for being too soft on Catholicism, and on the other, philosophers like Noel Carroll and Sarah Worth to criticize the M&G for wrenching Catholic art out of context and reappropriating it for anti-Catholic ends.

But the story of Bob Jones, Jr. and the paintings he collected, the plays he acted in, and the film and art programs he began helpfully complicate my understanding of fundamentalism. In his foreword to its 2003 edition, Richard Mouw located in the pages of Carl F. H. Henry’s landmark Uneasy Conscience of Modern Fundamentalism (published the year Jones, Jr. succeeded his father) most of the key themes of postfundamentalist evangelicalism, including, “a profound desire to engage culture in all of its created complexity” (p. x). For all the limitations and contradictions of Jones’ vision, it does seem he was one fundamentalist leader who saw no need to withdraw from culture and (at least some of) its “created complexity.”

You can read more from Reynoso at his blog, “Faith on View.”


One thought on “You Can’t Spell Fundamentalism without Fun

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