I am a product of the 1950s. I came of age in the 1960s, went to college in the 1970s, and never moved back. I like to tell people that Brooklyn is a great place to be from; and it is. You can’t grow up in Brooklyn, or any of the Five Boroughs, without acquiring a raft of stories.
Every New York City kid can recite a list of famous people they went to school with; even though, in most cases, classes were so huge you hardly knew any of them. Every New York City kid has a tale involving pizza or do-wop or stickball or subways or knowing someone whose second cousin once almost saw a Mob hit. You’ll read my tales in the pages to come.
I am also a product of American fundamentalism. These days the word fundamentalism is synonymous with ignorance, hatred, and absolute closed-mindedness. Another synonym is evangelicalism. Let me say at the outset that things were not always so.
There was a time when fundamentalists were known for their academic prowess, although their theology was conservative. Evangelicals, those we now think of as backward, backwoods neo-Nazis, were derided by fundamentalists for being too liberal. And Billy Graham, that poster boy for American conservatism, was considered to be far left of the Christian center.
While the ninety essays by biblical scholars of various Protestant denominations spoke to many nuances of scripture interpretation, they soon were digested down to five foundational beliefs. The scholars and their California benefactors understood these to be the truths on which the Christian religion was established. Although the wording may appear different, based upon whose recollection one reads, I will list them as I remember them from Theology 101 in Bible college. They are 1) the verbal inspiration and inerrancy of the Bible; meaning, the Bible is literally true except where it is obviously metaphorical, such as Jesus’ parables, 2) the virgin birth of Jesus Christ, 3) the substitutionary atonement of Christ (hooboy, I didn’t realize how theologically weird this might sound to the average reader); that is, Jesus died on the cross to pay the penalty for our sins, 4) Jesus’ physical resurrection from the dead; in other words, he didn’t fake it, he arose, and 5) Christ’s bodily return, which means he'll be back someday à la Arnold Schwarzenegger.
Those are five theological statements. They were proposed and believed by men with degrees from schools like Yale and Princeton. They can be used to judge other people’s theology, but they say nothing about the things presently associated with fundamentalism; such as reproductive rights, discrimination against the LGBTQ+ community, trickle-down economics, and the Second Amendment.
Mom and Pop were devout fundamentalists until the day they died. They never smoked or drank alcohol; they told me drinking or smoking was my choice to make. They prayed for my Jewish friends to believe in Jesus as their Messiah, but they never gave those friends an ultimatum; nor did they ever cease to welcome anyone of any religion, race, culture or expression of sexuality into their home. To Mom and Pop, to do such a thing would have meant denial of the very fundamentals on which their faith rested.
They had a lot to say regarding my state of spirituality, however. They wanted me to be “saved” at an early age. To be saved meant that I made a conscious choice to “accept Jesus Christ as my personal Saviour.” (Yes, we used the King James Version spelling in our house.) You will read in the next chapter just what that choice meant to a kid like me. They wanted me to live a “Christ-like” life, but they left the how-to of that life up to me. They were good parents; a little too Leave It to Beaver maybe, but good.
You still find Mom and Pop’s brand of fundamentalism today in the quiet corners of American religion. It’s the kind that says, “I don’t understand why you two gals want to marry each other instead of some nice boys, but I’ll bake you the best darn wedding cake you ever dreamed of.”
Mom hardly ever baked, but if she had, yeah, she’d have said that.
Welcome to my world.
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