Two words that conjure up the worst in human nature is Fundamentalist and Puritan. Tar your opponent with either word and your victory is secured. But it wasn’t always this way. These two words, like all words, have evolved into something far different from what they originally meant (when is the last time you saw “gay” used as simply meaning “cheerful”?).
One of the reasons these two words turned in a certain direction was because there were some people, often the most vocal, who represented what later became the stereotype. There are some fundamentalists that shame Fundamentalism and puritans who discredit Puritanism.
One of C. S. Lewis’s best friends, Arthur Greeves, was the youngest of five children born to Joseph and Mary Greeves. The family had been members of the Society of Friends but later converted to the Plymouth Brethren church. Lewis would later describe him as “the youngest son of a doting mother and a harsh father, two evils whereof each increased the other. The mother soothed him the more, to compensate for the father’s harshness, and the father became harsher to counteract the ill effects of the mother’s indulgence.”1
It seems safe to say that in today’s vernacular, Greeves was raised in a strict home.
In a letter dated December 6, 1931, Lewis reflects on Arthur’s upbringing, explains how it can attract, and he issues some cautions for Arthur to consider as he interacts with those outside of his circle,
“I begin to see how much Puritanism counts in your makeup — that both the revulsion from it and the attraction back to it are strong elements. I hardly feel either myself and perhaps am apt to forget in talking to you how different your experience and therefore your feeling is. All I feel that I can say with absolute certainty is this: that if you ever feel that the whole spirit and system in which you were brought up was, after all, right and good, then you may be quite sure that that feeling is a mistake (tho’ of course it might, at a given moment — say, of temptation, be present as the alternative to some far bigger mistake).
“My reasons for this are 1. That the system denied pleasures to others as well as to the votaries themselves: whatever the merits of self-denial, this is unpardonable interference. 2. It inconsistently kept some worldly pleasures, and always selected the worst ones – gluttony, avarice, etc. 3. It was ignorant. It could give no ‘reason for the faith that was in it’. Your relations have been found very ill grounded in the Bible itself and as ignorant as savages of the historical and theological reading needed to make the Bible more than a superstition. 4. ‘By their fruits ye shall know them.’ Have they the marks of peace, love, wisdom and humility on their faces or in their conversation? Really, you need not bother about that kind of Puritanism. It is simply the form which the memory of Christianity takes just before it finally dies away altogether, in a commercial community: just as extreme emotional ritualism is the form it takes on just before it dies in a fashionable community.”2
It is possible, even desirable, to be a godly Fundamentalist or a godly Puritan. And it is good to be a godly Liberal. Just make sure godly is preeminent over whatever follows.
“Having the appearance of godliness, but denying its power. Avoid such people.” – 2 Timothy 3:5.
- Walter Hooper, ed., The Collected Letters of C. S. Lewis: Family Letters 1905-1931, Vol. I (New York: HarperSanFrancisco, 2004), 993.
- Walter Hooper, ed., The Collected Letters of C. S. Lewis: Books, Broadcasts, and the War 1931-1949, Vol. II (New York: HarperSanFrancisco, 2004), 23. Italics in original.