Wednesday, May 28, 2008

The Main Points of Fundamentalism

Recently, I was asked to present a lecture on fundamentalism at a local church. This really got me thinking. First, I despise long lectures. Second, I wanted to provide my listeners one or two main points on which to "hang their hats" when it comes to fundamentalism. Could I distill the main points of fundamentalism down to a couple of simple points? Where could I go to find them? I went to my book. The book makes this statement (with a bit of commentary):


None of what I propose in this book aims to detract from the radical nature of the gospel or authentic Christian devotion. As Donald Kraybill (2003) so eloquently points out, the Kingdom of God, which was certainly the burden of Jesus’ message, is quite revolutionary. Throughout this book, I repeatedly attempt to demonstrate that the absolutist subculture is a dangerous and indoctrinating one, demanding conformity. This does not imply there is no radical counter-culture proposed in the gospels. Jesus is a radical figure making a call for disciples to forsake the ways of the status quo and follow his way of radical peacemaking, justice, acceptance, and love. So what, then, is the difference between radical discipleship and absolutism? If the absolutist and the non-absolutist both proclaim a call to fully surrendered discipleship, is there any substantive difference?


A review of the sources Krabill (2003) cites to make his case is instructive in answering this question. Kraybill, while painting Jesus’ call as a call to a radical community of justice and liberation (quite upside-down, as Kraybill describes it) does not shy away from the best in critical research. By not absolutizing the text and by realizing the tentative nature of our understandings, we become committed and yet free to admit our mistakes. We search for a clearer understanding of Jesus and his message—since that is what is normative to authentic Christian community.


Kraybill (2003, 26) discusses the symbolic nature of the gospel texts and points out that the “Kingdom of God” is a general symbol. It is quite elastic in meaning and open to multiple interpretations that are guided by scholarship, reason, and the Spirit. He goes on to state that the gospels do not provide a detailed blueprint for all of our ethics or behavior. Absolutism is about a specific subculture with an attitude, or outlook proclaiming that it is always right. This is the distinguishing mark—fanaticism much more than devotion, fear not faith.


So it is not devotion that is an issue, then. I kept reading. Two main points emerged that define fundamentalism. The first is an absolutely un-entreatable certainty. You know, "God said it! I believe it! That settles it!. It is a court from which there is no appeal. Fundamentalists are certain that they are certain, that they are certain. End of story. So, the first pillar is absolute certainty.


The second "pillar" of fundamentalism is the subculture. There exists an entire subculture involving music, books, clothes, and entertainment in general. There is also a subculture involving code words and phrases and key idea. Commonplace words and ideas are endued with new meanings. It is unique and self contained. Others cannot break in and are only really indoctrinated after the fact.


This, then, are the two main emphases of fundamentalism.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

The Nature of Faith

Faith is not the same as knowing. At least, in one important way it is not the same. When we know something to be true in the empirical sense, we can observe it, handle it, study it. It is tangible. If we study something enough, we become comfortable saying it is true. We have taken enough baths that we can say, water is wet. But, with few exceptions, even things researched and studied lead us to truth in a tentative way. For years, medical scientist thought that most stomach ulcers were due to nervousness or things we consumed. Then, new research led to the idea that ulcers are due to bacteria. Now, ulcers are often treated with antibiotics. Still, what we can handle, see, measure, and observe lead us to our most sure, though often tentative, definitions of truth.


There is, let us say, a second degree of knowing. This comes from experience with things that are non-tangible. Things like love, and loyalty. I would stake my life on the notion that my wife loves me. At this level, we have evidence. The evidence of my wife's love is apparent in her kindness toward me. She is kind even when I'm not being so kind. She cares for me when I'm sick or depressed. We have had a happy marriage for over 30 years. I would bank on the fact that we share a real, enduring love.


Yet, I know of several folks, many friends, who appeared to have a great marriage for 20 or more years, yet their marriage ended in divorce. Often, one member of the couple will tell me that the divorce caught them totally by surprise. They had no indication it was coming. They thought they were in a loving, enduring marriage. They could be fooled, it seems. You see, you can't weigh and measure affection the same way you can make measurements in a controlled scientific experiment. This level of "knowledge" is not as secure as the first level, yet we often stake a great deal on it.


The third level of "knowing," if we might call it that, is faith. Here we are talking about religious concepts based in myth. There is no way to investigate the truth of these ideas. We cannot even experience them as something outside of ourselves as we can experience a friend or lover in "level two knowing." If we wish to refer to faith as a way of knowing, we must admit it is a completely different way of knowing. It is knowing without empirical evidence. It is knowing with out a direct experience of the other. Even for the mystics, this knowing is mediated by thought forms and belief, as we see when we consider the variety of mystical experiences. They hardly point to the same reality.


Still, it is this third "level of knowing" that is of primary importance to very many people. Religion is the most important aspect of their lives. I would not detract from its importance. I merely point out that it is of a completely different variety than knowledge as we commonly think of it.


I am a firm believer in the resurrection of Jesus. However, what I have is faith, not knowledge. Faith can be wrong because it is not amendable to empirical investigation. There is always a certain risk involved in faith. We often hear of faith spoken of as a leap ("a leap of faith"). Whatever knowledge that comes to us comes by faith in the act of making the leap daily. In refusing to admit that faith and knowledge (at least in the conventional sense) differ, our fundamentalist friends get into all kinds of problems-- some that affect others. In seeing the Bible as empirically true, they adopt its biases, fears, moral foibles, and culture-bound directives as true for times and eternity. In so doing, they make life in a diverse society and world a difficult and dangerous affair.



For more about fundamentalism, check out my new book, Stories of a Recovering Fundamentalist.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Election Day-- or Why Fundamentalists Can't Take No for an Answer

Today is Election Day in my home state, Kentucky. I have very many fundamentalist and self-described evangelical friends who are part of that true and righteous fold, the Republican Party-- you know, God's party. Me? Well, I must confess, I am a low-down, unrepentant Democrat. Still, even though I get to go (actually, I all ready went at 7 AM) and exercise my right to speak my peace at the voting booth, I'm a bit down. Hillary is heavily favored to win the Democratic primary ( by an estimated 27-30 percentage points, but we'll see about that), but she's not my choice. To much sleaze factor with the Clintons, just too much. Nope, I cast my vote for Barak. This is the first time in a good long while I haven't be voting for the lesser of two evils. I really like Barak and think he is an honest politician. There aren't many of those around

.

Wait a minute now, you say, this whole deal here is supposed to be devoted to fundamentalism. Okay, okay! Enough political commercials. On to THE MAIN POINT. Today the main point deals with the fundamentalist/evangelical conundrum. They are stuck, and they can't help it. One of the main tenets of their faith is that they must convert the world. Yet, in their efforts, they just turn folks off. Usually they aren't satisfied with just converting the world to Christianity. For them, conversion implies turning to fundamentalist/evangelical Christianity. That's because, from their perspective, other varieties are not real Christianity. They wouldn't (and couldn't) settle for making Episcopalians or liberal Presbyterians. For them, that is just not the real McCoy. One must believe every word of the Bible and walk the "sawdust trail" to really get right with God.


They are concerned about morality, about (their version of) bringing folks to Christ and getting our country back to God. "Dub-U" was their candidate after all. Never mind that he has practically destroyed the public schools, the economy, and the constitution. He has deceptively led us down a path that has lead to war, a war that the new "Dub-U" wants to last for 100 years. He has cost the US thousands of young lives, over a hundred thousand seriously wounded, and killed, and at a low-ball estimate, at least 100,000 Iraqi civilian casualties (upper estimates place the number at 3 times that, but them the army has stated that they don't count such things). Still, he is the darling of the Religious Right. Never mind the killing, the suffering, and the poverty he has led the US and the rest of the world into. Never mind that it will take 50 years to undo the damage he has done to America's image around the world. Never mind that he has changed our policy to one of preemptive war. The important thing is that he is against gay marriage and abortion rights.


I won't argue those points because I use them by way of illustration. We suffer, the world suffers, under the reign of a rogue president so that the fundamentalists can make sure that the are making all of the rest of us moral. They are deceptive about it all too. A right-wing Christian in my son's car pool was part of a campaign in Indiana to get conservative Republicans to vote Democratic in the primary and to cast a vote for Hillary because they thought she'd be easier for "Bush II" to beat. Many fundamentalist leaders, such as Pat Robertson, have connections, past and presents, to groups that support Christian Reconstructionism.


Christian Reconstructionism is the brainchild of the late R. Rushdooney. The idea is to replace our current laws with the Biblical laws found in the Torah, and other parts of the Bible. In their view, homosexuality won't be debated. We'll solve that problem by just killing homosexuals. Disobedient children will be killed. Abortion doctors will be killed. Those engaging in premarital or extramarital sexual relations will be killed. (Does it seem to you that a lot of killing is going on here?) Still, with the recent moral failings of leaders of the fundamentalist/evangelical world that have come to light (Ted Haggard, president of the NAE, for example), there may have to be a few exclusionary clauses in the law.


You see, fundamentalist leaders stir up the rank and file adherents to a devotion many of them lack themselves. Then, the rank and file can't take no for an answer. They really believe that they are being loving and caring. They really are trying to save our souls. They really are trying to save our nation. The sad part is that they just can't take "not interested" for an answer. Sadly they feel they must obtain by coercion what they cannot obtain by attraction. As to the Christian Right politicians and politics, I think the world and our nation have had about all of that that we can take.


For more about fundamentalism, its history, goals, and subculture, visit www.therecoveringfundamentalist.com . Read about my new book and read an excerpt from the Introduction.

Saturday, May 17, 2008

Fundamentalism and Education (aka: Even Phonics?)

Sometimes, the fundamentalist world appears downright silly. Certainly, the political arm of fundamentalism, the Christian Right and its many manifestations offers us a study in silliness. One place this is clearly seen is in the arena of education reform. It seems as if the Christian Right likes to join forces with the "Plain Old Right" (mostly religious as well) and pontificate on many things. One of these objects of pontification is that old reliable political button pusher, education.


The Christian Right would like us to believe that public schools are attempting to lead our children down the primrose path to hell through the avenue of secular humanism. What the hell is secular humanism, you might ask? Basically, it is anything that is not: 1. Christian; 2. right wing, 3. in support of traditional values. Of course, this begs another question: What are traditional values? Ah... now that is a bugaboo now isn't it?


Whatever it is that the Plain Old Right and/or their bedfellows the Religious Right are after, it definitely involves education. Strangely (and I am a literacy education professor at a college), it is all quite concerned about phonics. One thing that you can count on in curriculum prepared by the Christian Right-winger publishers for use in Christian schools is that they will teach reading by phonics. It seems that phonics represents traditional family values (whatever the hell that means).


It was with great surprise a few years ago that I noted the Southern Baptist Convention (fundamentalist) was presented with a resolution that all Southern Baptist parents get their kids out of the evil and godless public schools (or something along those lines) post haste. The resolution didn't make it out of committee, but it was reported in our local newspaper. It would have been a devastating blow had the suggestion been implemented. The county where I reside has about 100,000 residents. About 60% (or more) are Southern Baptist. Southern Baptist make up a good portion of the teaching force. The churches might had a hard financial "row to hoe" with all of those deserters from Babylon. Most of the Baptist teachers I knew thought the whole idea to be silly.


Then there is that pesky old reading problem and the secular humanism represented by other methods. Fundamentalist crusaders are xenophobically pressing to bring our nations back to God. A good place to start is with the kid's ABC's!


For a look at the fundamantalist subculture, see my new book (Read an excerpt, too!) at www.therecoveringfundamentalist.com.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Fundamentalism and the Bible--Conclusion

How do I answer the question:  Is the Bible the infallible Word of God?  Depends.  You see one must define terms.  It is easier for me to say that the Bible is the rule of faith and practice for Christians.  It tells the stories (however arrived at or modified) of God's friends and their attempts to faithfully live out the life they believed God called them to live.  One thing in favor of the truth of the Bible is the way that it tells on God's friends with a type of "brutal honesty," and they come out looking none too good so very often.  It fits right in with the stories of these fallible people to see the Bible as written by fallible writers.

I sometimes am reminded about another type of document written by those striving to be God's friends:  a confession of faith.  I am a minister in the Reformed tradition which has produced numerous confessions since the 16th century.  None of these confessions ever made a claim at being the last word.  Also, to understand newer confessions, you have to read earlier ones (Reformed Christians have written plenty).  Even if some of our earlier confessions seem silly or embarrassing, we still hang onto them.  There is something about some of those silly articles in the old confessions that help define who we are.

Why do we change them so much?  Do we believe that God changes God's mind on a regular basis?  No, I don't think that is the idea.  We have been hesitant to say that we have the one, eternal, right answer.  Times change, people change, and our understandings change.  To be Reformed refers to, well, always being reformed as our experience grows.

It is like that with the Biblical documents.  The Bible is hardly "flat," and all things are hardly equal.  Knowledge of spiritual truth is progressive.  The highest pinnacle for Christians are the words, doing, and dying of Jesus.  That is mountaintop for Christians.

If that be so, then we want, not less, but, more scholarship.  We desire research into the times in which Jesus lived.  We want research that brings us closer to the historical Jesus so that we can better understand the Christ of faith.  If we truly seek Jesus, we will not be afraid of new evidence.  It doesn't mean that we will jump on every nutty bandwagon that comes along, after all, we aren't seeking doubt.  We are attempting to seek truth with a questioning mind.  We desire neither scholarship beginning from the basis that all the gospels contain are stories with no basis in fact, or a scholarship proclaiming that some beliefs are so sacred they are above question.  Truth is not afraid of knowledge.  It can also afford to be generous.  Therefore, it does not fear differing perspectives.

What then can we say concerning our absolutist friends?  They make two main mistakes.  They turn the mythic into "factual" truth.  Second, they see the Bible as "flat," with no difference in message, purpose, or morality.  In these two mistakes, they suffer (and cause) much grief.

This series includes the following parts:
  1. Fundamentalism and the Bible
  2. Fundamentalism and the Bible--part 1
  3. Fundamentalism and the Bible--part 2
  4. Fundamentalism and the Bible--part 3
  5. Fundamentalism and the Bible--part 4
  6. Fundamentalism and the Bible--part 5
  7. Fundamentalism and Bible-- Conclusion
All parts may be found in the Fundamentalism e-zine on Zimbio or on my blogsite, The Repentant Fundamentalist.  

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Fundamentalism and the Bible-- part 5

In Part Four of this series, we began looking at some problem with the "Flat Bible" approach taken by fundamentalist when it comes to the Bible.  It has been stated in earlier posts that fundamentalists believe in a verbal, plenary inspiration.  Plenary basically means absolute or total.  There is no part of the Biblical text that is not inspired.  Verbal refers to the fundamentalist's belief that the inspiration extend to the vary words of the text-- God picked the words God wanted.  The idea of the "Flat Bible" is that all parts of the Bible are equally inspired, or as the epistle has it, "All scripture is inspired and profitable for teaching."  In the last posting, we pointed out several texts from the Hebrew Bible where the text seems to exhibit a moral deficiency-- where it appears less than outstanding in its moral outlook.

Today, we want to look at some New Testament texts and ask if the Bible speaks with one voice from a moral perspective.  A good place to begin is with the text from John 8 where a woman caught in adultery is brought by the Pharisees to Jesus.  They remind him (correctly) of the Torah's command to stone those caught in adultery.  They tell Jesus that she was caught in the very act (one might ask where her partner in crime is in the account...).  They say, here is what Moses said to do (stone her to death), what do you say?

In a very familiar text, Jesus approves of the stoning with one stipulation:  The one without sin among the crowd must be the one to throw the first stone.  Slowly but surely, the crowd slips away.  The story ends with Jesus forgiveness and refusal to condemn.  The amazing thing about this passage is that Jesus faced the Law head on, and appears to find it morally repugnant.  It seems that he values a higher law-- the law of love-- above the literal application of the moral solutions of the Judaic law.  In this case, surely, the Bible does not appear "flat."

Now, consider a passage such as the following from the Sermon on the Mount: 

Matt 5:38-39 (NRSV)-- "You have heard that it was said, 'An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.'  But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer.  But is anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also...." 

Had they heard it said?  You bet they had!  It is straight from the Torah.  There are two things to notice about this.  First, "an eye for an eye" is a vast improvement from unbridled revenge.  It deals out justice with proportionality.  Second, Jesus takes on this "improved view of morality" and "ups the ante" by calling for suffering love and mercy.  It seems once again, that in comparing the two notions, one can hardly call the ideas "flat." They differ significantly.  The best one might say is that inspiration is progressive.  It is not static, and earlier ideas can be improved upon.

Jesus follows this pattern, "you have heard it said, but I say...," throughout the Sermon.  He takes the outer conduct described in the Law of Moses and reframes it in ways that reflect inner motivation.  But, make no mistake about it; throughout he sets aside the Law and replaces it with a different style of morality.  It is one much more demanding and one much more merciful and love-based.  He deals with motive, the very heart of morality.  It seems that when it comes to morality, the Bible is hardly flat!

Still, in that same Sermon, Jesus begins by saying that he didn't come to abolish the Law, but to fulfill it.  How are we to understand this?  It seems to me that throughout the Sermon, Jesus is attempting to get at something much deeper than the Old Law.  He takes the Law, stands it on its head, and identifies a kernel of something generally believed to be right from which he can find a jumping-off point.  He seems to follow an idea something along this line, "You know the moral teaching of the law.  Let's extend it a bit.  Let's re-examine it.  Let's explain it.  Let's get at the real morality God intended."  He does not abolish the Law, that is his starting point from which he derives all kinds of new moral truths.  But the point remains:  The morality Jesus taught is very different from the morality most of his co-religionist accepted.  Their thinking was legalistic.  His was much more along the lines of asking "what does love demand?"  How are love's demands fulfilled.  In this, he had more in common  with Second Isaiah, and many of the minor prophets.  His law was love.  The setting of the Sermon, on a mountaintop, expounding the Torah, makes the connection plain. He is the New Moses giving a New Law-- a Law of Love.

You can see the problem.  If the Bible is a "flat book" with all parts equal to each other, we are in some real trouble.  How can it be reconciled?  And I am not only talking about the difference between the Old Testament and the gospels.  There are similar moral discrepancies within the Testaments.  They do not "hang together" morally.

Is there a way out?  I believe there is, at least for Christians.  On the Mount of Transfiguration, Jesus appears with Moses and Elijah.  The story is not without purpose.  Is it real?  Did it happen?  I am quite willing to say that the disciples had some encounter, told and retold that ended in the story we have recorded.  It is the point rather than the actual events that matter. In the story, the apostles suggest building three "churches," one for Moses, one for Elijah, and one for Jesus.  Each of these three great prophets would have their own little church from which to preach.

Then something amazing happens.  The sky darkens.  The other two vanish, and Jesus is alone. The voice of God comes, "This is my son hear him."  A similar though occurs in Hebrews Chapter 1 where the writer points out that throughout history, God spoke in many times and in many ways.  Now, however, God has given the final word, the supreme example:  Jesus.  The point is, whatever sense you make of any other moral teacher, Jesus must be the final arbiter of the message of God.  The Bible is not flat.  Christ and his teaching stand on a higher moral plain.

This doesn't mean that we no longer need to seek out the historical Jesus, the one who existed in a certain context, a certain time and place.  It doesn't mean that the gospels do not reflect the theological reflections of the community of faith.  If anything, it means we need more research, more thought, more reflection if we really are to ask the popular question, What would Jesus do?

So, the Bible is hardly flat.  To be a Christian means that the moral outlook of Jesus must take pre-eminence.  All things being equal, all things are not equal.  For me, Jesus is the supreme moral teacher and everything else must be understood from the framework of Christ's doing, teaching, and dying.  As I reflect on the moral stance that a Christian should take, I am compelled to say that I need to take the view of progressive revelation and a Christocentric ethic.

So what can we say then?  There are many differences in the moralities offered in the Bible. They are not all of equal value.  We need critical research.  We need commonsense. Fundamentalists support many positions, such as capital punishment, the support of the current war in Iraq, the subjugation of women, and the like, because they believe the Bible is flat.  The plenary, verbal view of an inerrant Bible results in some bad theology.  As I have heard it said, Bad theology is a cruel taskmaster!

Be certain and visit again in a few days for the conclusion of this series.

For more about fundamentalism, visit my storefront and take a look at my new book, Stories of a Recovering Fundamentalist:  Understanding and Responding to Christian Absolutism at www.recoveringfundie.com.







 



Saturday, May 10, 2008

Fundamentalism and the Bible-- part 4

In this post, we return to the discussion of the way that fundamentalists view and use the Bible. I have pointed out that the Bible is a quite mythic book. By that, I do not mean to imply untrue. It is not "a pack of lies." It is a collection of ancient literature, some quite literal and didactic, other parts stories passed down repeatedly and interpreted with a unique "twist" (that's nature of theologized history), some borrowed from Israel's neighbors and reshaped for use in the continuing saga of salvation history-- which is the main purpose of the Biblical documents. Many of the stories may well have a basis in fact. Some may be parables or legends. No matter what the case, the Bible writers were informed by myths (ancient stories and legendary sagas, etc) in arriving at and conveying points they found important.

The myths of the Bible usually embody a novel twist-- targeted to the writer's point. How can the sea part? How can the "sun stand still?" How do the angels "hold down the four corners of the earth?" In the mythic stories, the curtain draws back and we see that God did it all. Where is the evidence that these are more that a stories with a point (as if that wasn't enough)? Where is the evidence of the literal truth of these events? For the absolutists the evidence is right there: God said it! I believe it! That settles it! End of story. Never mind that this is circular thinking (It's true because it says it's true!). No questions are allowed. This Bible, the all sufficient, self contained truth system, is the Bible to which they cling-- and I would argue, the one that gets them into trouble when it comes to facing the realities of life.

Along with, and incorporated into, the fundamentalists view of inerrancy, is the notion that all of the Bible is equally true (and for many of equal value). I call this view absolutists hold "The Flat Bible." I want to explore that notion a bit, the idea that it all hangs together. Forget the miracle stories and differing Biblical accounts (contradictions). Right now, I want to suggest that there is a more basic way it all fails to hang together: ethically. So, let's take a bit of time and explore the ethics in the Bible. Is it all ethically perfect and of equal value?

In Leviticus 20, the killing of children who "curse" their father or mother is enjoined upon the reader. Now, I don't know about you, but I can remember when my sons were adolescents. Teenagers can get pretty mouthy. They can get pretty disrespectful. Is it good and moral to kill them for that type of behavior? I can tell you this: I was blessed with pretty darn good kids. They were not "holy terrors" like some are. So... maybe we can let mine off the hook. But, I'm concerned about yours! Maybe if we just made an example of a few kids...

Then, there's Numbers 15. In this chapter, a guy was collecting sticks on the Sabbath. likely to make a fire. He was brought to Moses. Moses wasn't quite sure what to do, but God came through with an answer-- kill him. Let all the people get together and stone him to death. Maybe this might be a good plan in our day. After all, God commanded it, so it must be moral, right? It might increase church attendance. You know, if your neighbor, Bob, is fixing his car as you leave for church, well, then stop and shoot him! That'll teach him! (Of course, he won't profit much from the lesson!) You might say, it doesn't count, Bob isn't a believer. Maybe the guy in Numbers wasn't much of a believer either.

There's a good one in Numbers 31 as well. Here, a Canaanite town is put under the ban. The Israelites are told to go into the town and kill ever last inhabitant, even the the baby boys. However, the instructions say "keep alive all of the girls, who haven't slept with a man."

There is a name for this, is there not? Isn't it "rape and pillage?" Wouldn't this be sound moral advise in the current fight against terror? What better way to deal with the enemy then to kill them and then kill their kids so that they won't grow-up and become enemies soldiers? Wouldn't it be good advice for a "godly nation," such as touted by the religious right, to fight a holy war in God's own way?

"Foolishness!" you say. Nothing but foolishness. There's plenty more. The Bible is filled with all kinds of little goodies. It ranges from a man not touching a woman during her period (not even touch, mind you) to a man not wearing anything pertaining to a woman (and vice versa). What about all the pants wearing women and earring adorned men? Where do we stop? Is it okay to marry your sister (Abraham)? Did God really tell Joshua to go into "the land" and kill absolutely everybody? Moreover, try getting into the sexual ethics of the Old Testament, where a woman is a man's property. (Or check out the New Testament. In many passages the situation isn't much better.) No thanks! I think I'll pass!

Yet more to come...


Thursday, May 8, 2008

Fundamentalism and the Bible-- part 3

It is the absolutist's view of the Bible that causes them to focus on things like male authority.  It explains why so many fundamentalist churches (not all) veto women pastors.  Some of the passages regarding male authority seem to be written in quite a literal fashion.  Still, if one were to take a careful look at the larger picture presented in the Bible, one might well view passages supporting the subordination of women as culture-bound and of no abiding significance. For fundamentalist, though, that won't work.  You cannot rob Peter to pay Paul. You cannot say the Genesis account might be viewed differently from the perspective of myth, other scriptures, and reason.  The fundamentalist is adamant that all parts of the Bible are of equal abiding value.

Many religionists find their very deepest meaning in religion.  It gives their entire lives purpose. Fundamentalist base this quest for meaning on the absolute, infallible nature of the text.  They don't see the Bible as an aspect of Christian religion-- informing our commonsense and reasoning.  Many claim the Bible is the whole of the Christian religion.  Why is such authority ascribed to the Book?  Because, for fundamentalists it is self-authenticating.

Absolutists believe the Bible contains the absolute truth.  Outside sources and resources such as critical scholarship and commonsense are not needed.  The prevailing view is that the Bible is a self-contained truth system, requiring no outside interpreter.  The Bible contains the undeniably plain truth.  Plain as the nose on your face.  For absolutists, the text itself becomes a self apparent system of truth-- a circle of truth.  This is how the Bible becomes self authenticating.  It is true because it says it is true and is self-directive in specifying how to read the text.

Not long ago, someone emailed me about an article I had written concerning non-violence, and the call of Christians to peacemaking.  He sincerely tried to show me the error of my ways by proving that the Biblical text did approve of violence.  He cited many passages in support of his position-- not a hard thing to do because there are so many.  He thought I had been misled and demanded a reply.

To tackle his objections one-by-one was going to require I write a small book just for him.  So what did I do?  I referred him to some good books dealing with the topics of violence in the Bible and Christ and violence.  I told him that these resources dealt with his objections at length.  He sent me a blistering reply.  He asked, how could I send him off to read books written by men?  He went on to write, "I gave you the Bible.  You give me the words of men."

He simply couldn't grab the notion that he, in like manner, gave me the words of men.  Were they inspired men (and women!)?  I would say yes--at least in some measure and way.  Still, the writers were humans and, as humans, they were bound by culture, lived in a particular time and context, and shared a (mythic) story of salvation history.  They were storytellers, and they were not above mistakes.  They told stories that were told and retold, augmented in the telling, and twisted to serve a purpose.

What we are talking about here is the Bible as theologized history.  Theologized history is history with all of the curtains pulled back.  Bible stories share many of the characteristics of the stories of Israel's neighbors.  Many were borrowed and modified.  Whether the stories were original with Israel or borrowed from their neighbors and changed in some ways they share the same purpose: to reveal.  In myths we see behind the scenes and discover God operates every aspect of the universe.

In fact, in the Biblical record, we discover that God even uses evil for good.  Consider Joseph, sold into slavery, falsely accused of rape and incarcerated, driven away from his family and home by the bitterness of his own brothers.  Yet, through the story, the myth, we discovery that God was working behind the scenes.  We discover that God had a plan all along to save both the Egyptians and the Israelites.  How do we know?  We know because the story, the myth (which may contain many factual elements), draws aside the curtain and makes the hidden apparent. We know because of the myth.  By focusing on their insistence of the literal nature of Biblical stories and ignoring the story told via myth, fundamentalists often miss the deepest most valuable lessons the Bible has to teach.

More to follow....

For an in depth study of fundamentalism and why I eventually parted company from that point of view, see my new book Stories of a Recovering Fundamentalist.  On the storefront site you can read about the book and read an excerpt.  I invite you to take a look!

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Fundamentalism and the Bible-- part 2

Actually, the idea, even the term, "inerrancy," played a role in the choices I made respecting my theological education.  I began seminary in Kansas City at an American Baptist seminary. American Baptist are Southern Baptists more "liberal kin."  This was quite to my liking.  I would have been satisfied to continue there until I graduated, except we (well, Irene, but I did help) got pregnant, and I knew I had to go to work.  I took a pastorate in the high plains of eastern Colorado.  I finished seminary at a Roman Catholic seminary, which has long since closed its doors due to flagging enrollment, in Denver, Colorado.

How I ended up with the Catholics is a bit of a surprising story.  When I got to Denver, I intended to enroll in a Protestant seminary.  However, at least the one I visited was quite fundamentalist.  When it came down to it, they wanted me to sign a fundamentalist statement of faith to be allowed to attend.  This I could not do-- at least not if I was going to maintain my integrity.  I told the professor ( a well-known church historian and author) I couldn't do it.  He said, a bit on the QT, "Have you tried the Catholics?"  

I told him I couldn't go to a Catholic seminary because I was not Catholic.  His response was that I was not the first to have this problem and that the Catholics would help me and work with me to fulfill my ordination requirements. So off I went to visit the Catholics, where, I did indeed, finish my last year of seminary, satisfying my denominational prerequisites for ordination.

Anderson (1990) states that inerrantists are rebelling against the choices and complexities of daily living and are "in hot pursuit of a civilization with no uncertainties."  The logic runs like this:  if there is even one error in the Bible, you might as well throw the whole thing out the window.  It is all or nothing.  That's why they fight so hard to uphold ideas like a literal six (seven) day creation (seven days because even God gets tired).  The notion of a mythic text frightens them.  It diminishes even the most overtly literal statements from the New Testament epistles.  All or nothing.  Everything is true or nothing is true.

We might talk of an overriding Christian myth.  This is not to say that there is only mythic content in the Bible (and by mythic I refer to to legends and legendary sagas as well).  It is just that in the formation of a truly Christian theology, mythic and non-mythic intertwine to arrive at a didactic purpose-- to teach us lessons about God and the spiritual realm.  A good example of the mythic influencing the plain teaching of the Bible deals with Paul's injunction for women to be submissive in his Epistle to the Romans.  It is clear teaching, but note that it is based on the creation myth-- a story that most people see as more symbolic than literal.  But the fundamentalist cannot separate the two in their mind and so can't see the low position afforded women in much of the New Testament as being cultural and certainty not of lasting consequence.  In fact, in other New Testament texts, the equality of women is upheld.

But, our fundamentalist friends cannot accept that.  You cannot rob Peter to pay Paul.  Instead of recognizing conflicting traditions in the Biblical text, they say all parts are equally true.  This "flat Bible" approach leaves them frequently conflicted and unreasonable.

This series will continue....

Saturday, May 3, 2008

Fundamentalism and the Bible

(Beginning with this post, I plan to begin a series of post dealing with the Bible.  Since that is the source from which adherents claim fundamentalism derives, it seems only fitting to begin early-on with a discussion of the Bible.)

At its heart, absolutism is a product of the confusion of concrete and measurable knowledge with mythic knowledge.  From where are these factual absolutes obtained?  From where does the mythic knowledge, so trusted, come from?    Is there some aspect of the Christian tradition onto which the absolutists have grasped above all else and from which they refuse to loosen their grip no matter what the evidence?  Yes!  They are a product of mythos/logos described by Karen Armstrong (2000) postulates.  Their point of confusion relates to how they understand the Bible. 
 

Traditionally, absolutists/fundamentalists have maintained a belief in verbal, plenary inspiration.  The term “plenary” refers to being total, complete, or absolute.  The term “verbal” implies inspiration to extends to the actual words of the text.  We might summarize their view thusly:  Each and every word in the original texts, or autographs of the Bible is completely without error and of divine choosing, exactly the word God intended.

The Bible is unique because it stands at the very center of Christian tradition.  The real question is in what manner is the Bible read? It is not just that the Bible stands at the center of Christian tradition.  The Bible stands at the center of mythic Christian tradition.  This must be so since really there is no other kind of tradition to consider regarding the Bible. It is the notion that the Bible stands at the center of a Christianity that is mythic in nature evokes the ire of the absolutists.

Absolutists have confused the mythic content from the Bible with the literal facts of the world.  Remember mythic is not at all the same as being untrue.  In fact, myth is a kind of super truth.  We need to understand fundamentalism in an historical context.  Fundamentalism is associated with the Charismatic (as in neo-Pentecostal) Movement, Pentecostalism, evangelicalism, and conservatism.  Yet, in many ways, fundamentalism is distinct from all of these movements.  The rallying cry of fundamentalism has always been the inerrancy of the Bible.

Scholars did not discuss the concept of inerrancy in much detail until the publication of The Fundamentals in 1909.  Until then the truth of the Bible was taken for granted by most people. With the rise of fundamentalism, the idea of a carefully delineated doctrine of inerrancy emerged.  Today the term frequently appears in the college catalogs of fundamentalist and evangelical colleges.  You see the idea expressed in many denominational statements of faith, on church web sites, and in association with such organizations as the National Association of Evangelical and (especially) in the faith statement of the Evangelical Theological Society.  Quite literally, “inerrancy” means completely without error.  In the case of Biblical inerrancy, it refers to a literalness extending far beyond religious matters to history and cosmology.  

More coming soon...

Thursday, May 1, 2008

The Heart of it All...

At the heart of fundamentalism is the notion that there is absolute truth and that fundamentalists can know it absolutely. Where will they get this truth? The Bible, of course! Or so they say. However, I wonder if that's really right. Two observations seem to be called for in examining the notion that fundamentalists use the Bible to get at absolute truth.

First, I question the notion because fundamentalists really don't want to know what research into ancient history and archeology has to offer in the quest to understand the Bible. Even though the Bible is an ancient document, composed largely in the Middle East, any research into the time and the place of composition that contradicts preconceived beliefs is rejected out of hand. If the facts, as near as they can be determined, called the literalness of the stories in the Bible into question, fundamentalist want nothing to do with such research. That seems disrespectful of such an important Book.

This is circular thinking. Once, when I was in seminary, a fellow student told me that all he needed was the Bible. It was absolutely true. How could that be known, I wondered. He replied it was true because it said it was true, and you could trust what it said because it was true. Damn the evidence! It is a self contained truth system. So, although archeology might produce evidence contrary to the Book, it doesn't count because the Bible says it's true and you know that's right because whatever it says is true. (And so on... and on, round and round in circles)

The second point is that the Bible might well contain much useful truth. But it is truth found in story and myth. This isn't to say there is no literal truth in the Book. It is to say that, by failing to recognize the truth of myth, a truth that, in many ways, transcends conventional truth in eternal value, they miss the point. As my Old Testament professor used to say, The Bible is a book about how to go to heaven, not how the heavens go. In making (or demanding) scientific accuracy of the Book, our fundamentalists friends miss its true richness and value. Sad :-(.