Medievalism and Fundamentalist America

Are Fundamentalists medieval?  Only kinda sorta, says Carl Pyrdum at Got Medieval.  On the one hand, as Pyrdum points out, American Protestant fundamentalism would not be recognizable to European medieval church folks.  But on the other hand, both medieval chroniclers and some American fundamentalists take lessons from lake monsters.

Here’s the story:  As we’ve reported here recently, Accelerated Christian Education–a very conservative fundamentalist school curriculum publisher popular with Christian schools and fundamentalist homeschoolers–has been accused of teaching children that the Loch Ness Monster helps disprove evolution.  Pyrdum describes a story from a seventh-century life of St. Columba as Columba traveled in today’s Scotland.    When Columba came to Loch Ness, he encountered the terrifying monster within.  Instead of quaking in fear, Columba dispelled the monster with a holy wave.

St. Columba and Nessie

Pyrdum is being lighthearted in his discussion, but I think there are some lessons to be learned from this comparison across the centuries.  First of all, we must lament Pyrdum’s lumping together of the Westboro Baptist Church with Answers in Genesis as all fundamentalist together.  As we’ve written here before, the WBC often serves as a sort of menacing but misleading symbol of all of Fundamentalist America.  This is simply unfair.  I’m no fundamentalist, but the differences between a tiny cultish group like the WBC and Answers in Genesis still seem worthy of respecting.

Those quibbles aside, Pyrdum’s description of Columba’s encounter with Nessie shows the very different world of early medieval European Christianity.  As Pyrdum extracts, Columba’s trouncing of the monster won the admiration of all his fellows:

Then the brethren seeing that the monster had gone back, and their comrade Lugne returned to them in the boat safe and sound, were struck with admiration, and gave glory to God in the blessed man. And even the barbarous heathens, who were present, were forced by the greatness of this miracle, which they themselves had seen, to magnify the God of the Christians.

Columba’s world is one inhabited by both Christians and heathens; it is one in which Christians expected to be able to demonstrate significantly more power than the heathen; it was one in which God intervened directly, powerfully, and often.  Prydum does not make this point, but to our minds this world view is one that would resonate powerfully with many twentieth-century American fundamentalists.  In tone and substance, it feels very similar to the world inhabited by those Left Behind in Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins’ best-selling series about the fundamentalist apocalypse.

The first connection might be a fascination with lake monsters, but I think the more powerful link is the similarity across the centuries.  Pyrdum may be correct that medieval Europeans would not understand the world of postmodern fundamentalism. However, those fundamentalists would have an easy time relating to the struggles of St. Columba, a stranger in a strange land, demonstrating the power of God’s love among the heathen multitudes.

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