Is there anything fun about fundamentalism?

“We put the fun into fundamentalism.” – Mark Driscoll. Founding Pastor, Mars Hill Church (defunct)

Is there anything fun about fundamentalism? My answer to this question is an emphatic “No!” And this may be the most basic criticism of fundamentalist Christianity: it is simply not any fun. It makes fun people boring, and it makes boring people aggressive. But I don’t want to get ahead of myself. What exactly do I mean by fundamentalism? Because I genuinely want to help. I constantly come across people who want to find a way out of this restrictive and narrow view of Christianity but don’t know where to turn. Indeed, as a first point, let me say this: leaders and pastors of fundamentalist churches on the whole make little effort to help people who have genuine questions and struggles with points of fundamentalist doctrine. This is often because they have never considered any of these questions themselves and become insecure when other people raise them. One of the main ploys of the fundamentalist movement is to claim total authority for its own interpretation of the Bible and to label anyone who disagrees as ‘liberal’. Now, of course, many of them do not actually know what the word ‘liberal’ means, but for them it becomes a catch-all term for everybody who does not agree with them, and it generally has connotations of faithlessness, apostasy and immorality. As James Barr writes, in his excellent and little-read book ‘Escaping from Fundamentalism’

(This) simple picture is used because of its effectiveness. It is a successful instrument for the maintenance of the fundamentalist position. For fundamentalist leaders well know that the vast majority of people will never read a book or consider a point of view if they have been told that it is liberal. (p.164)

Once the pilgrim believer does start to question the simple black-and-white approach of fundamentalism, however, she, rather than being helped by her pastor, is simply ignored or cast out into the world on her own resources. So,

The transition to a different understanding of the Bible, of faith, and of the church can be a time of deep uncertainty and often of severe personal suffering. Fundamentalist society will do little or nothing to help the pilgrim who becomes convinced that he must leave it and seek a different world of faith. (ibid., p. vii)

Although these are generalisations, they are unfortunately very common experiences for many believers. It has resonances with my own journey. I rarely speak in public about my experience of leaving a movement with fundamentalist tendencies because I am still deeply relationally involved with many believers who approach their faith in this way. I have a huge amount of respect and love for these people, and there is much that is good about their beliefs and their lives. I have no desire whatsoever to discourage them or to cause problems in their churches. However, my experience is real for me. I began to explore the roots of the movement I was involved in and the theological claims it makes for itself and I became deeply concerned that I was committing my whole life to a form of Christianity that was extremely deficient. I also began to read real theology that came from beyond the literature of the movement itself, and I expressed a desire to study theology in a secular university. I was met with almost complete indifference.

I write this not to criticise those people but simply to identify with the tendencies James Barr mentions: firstly, fundamentalist leaders tend to not engage with serious questions about their views and doctrines and, second, they tend not to help people in their journey beyond a strictly proscribed fundamentalist horizon. 

In my opinion fundamentalism is dangerous and it isolates and destroys people. To finish this post with another quote from James Barr (on whom I will rely heavily for the rest of the series):

The issues involved in fundamentalism are without doubt among the most serious pastoral problems for the church of today. Very many people are seriously concerned with them…The alienation that it brings about is extreme. Lay people come to regard their minister as ‘unsound’ or worse. Within families it is common for young persons brought up in a Christian home to become fundamentalists and to end up evaluating their devoted upbringing as little better than paganism. Irreconcilable religious tension between husband and wife sometimes leads to the verge of marital breakdown. For thousands of people, the question of fundamentalism is their central personal religious problem. And, on the world-wide scale, when one looks at the social and political implications, few can doubt what many observers have noted: that the continuance of religious fundamentalism, and of the attitutudes associated with it, may have great importance in determining whether or not mankind is to be destroyed through nuclear warfare. (p. x)

(Note that this book was written in 1983, twenty years before George W. Bush told the world that God had told him to invade Iraq.)

So, to conclude, there isn’t anything fun about fundamentalism. The good news is (the great news!) that there are much more fun and joyful and life-giving forms of Christian faith. When I was beginning to explore the wider world outside of fundamentalism, I remember hearing an interview with then Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, who said that he was first attracted to Christianity because it made his world not smaller but larger. And, although the way to that world can be narrow and the road hard, I have found that to follow it brings great joy and makes things come alive again. When once it was black-and-white, now it is filled with all the multivalent colour of God’s beauty. There is great hope.

Thank you for reading.

Further Investigation…

Julian of Norwich on God’s Meaning

Julian of Norwich’s fourteenth-century works are the first recorded by a woman in the English language. Her two surviving texts recount her extrordinary series of religious visions that she had as a young woman whilst she lay ill apparently on her deathbed. They mostly concern the figure of Christ as he hangs on the cross, his wounds and his blood and what these things represent about God’s love for humanity. But they also constitute a myterious parable of a Lord and his servant, which she later realises is a picture of the fall of man and of the incarnation, viewed both at once from God’s perspective.

The visions and their interpretation are incredibly beautiful and to me have the ring of authenticity. I think that the spiritual insight she gained from them is quite incredible, especially considering her social standing.

Julian is perhaps still so popular today because of the hopefulness and the sanguinity of her writing. There is a constant tension that runs through Julian between what she has seen of God and what she knows the Church teaches. She is most famous for saying that everything will be well and all manner of things will be well. In the end, according to Julian, we will see everything that is currently wrong put right. But at one point she wonders about the way that the Church teaches that many will be punished by God in hell for their wickedness. It is at this point that she has a further insight about the future: God will do a great deed at the end of time that will put all things right. And so all things will be well, but we just do not know how, because we do not know what the nature of this great deed will be. And in this way she avoids saying anything that explicitly contradicts the teaching of the Church, whilst maintaining the coherence of her vision.

When one reads Julian, one is in the presence of a God who is not angry and demanding of mankind, but who is full of love and grace, who is not harsh but tender and merciful and, interestingly, one who is repeatedly referred to as ‘courteous’ – as in polite and chivalrous. Julian even goes so far as to say that God never needs to forgive us because he is never angry with us. She is at pains to stress that, although we should hate sin in us more than the fires of hell itself, when we do sin we should be cheered by the love of God and by the recollection that God judges us more leniently than we judge ourselves, and we should most certainly not look upon the sins of others in anything but compassion.

The most moving section of the book for me is the final chapter, in which Julian, having thought about her visions for many years, wonders finally what was their overall meaning. What was God trying to say to her? The final paragraph of the book gives us the answer: his meaning was love.

And from the time that this was shown, I often longed to know what our Lord meant. And fifteen years and more later my spiritual understanding received an answer, which was this: “Do you want to know what your Lord meant? Know well that love was what he meant. Who showed you this? Love. What did he show? Love. Why did he show it to you? For love. Hold fast to this and you will know and understand more of the same; but you will never understand or know from it anything else for all eternity.” This is how I was taught that our Lord’s meaning was love. And I saw quite certainly in this and in everything that God loved us before he made us; and his love has never diminished and never shall. And all his works were done in this love; and in this love he has made everything for our profit; and in this love our life is everlasting. We had our beginning when we were made but the love in which he made us was in him since before time began; and in this love we have our beginning. And all this shall be seen in God without end, which may Jesus grant us. Amen.

A Book Every Protestant Really Should Read

As I have grown older, I have realised more and more that what we as individuals believe about history is largely a bricolage of expedient half-truths (or outright falsehoods) that we have chosen in order to justify our own positions and practices in the world. This observation has made me question my own views about history in various ways, in particular that of the Reformation.

My view of the Reformation used to be basically the same as John Piper’s: post tenebras, lux. That is, after the darkness of Catholic Rome, with its superstition and idolatry and priestcraft and Latin, came the light of the Protestant Reformation, with the glorious revelations of justification by faith through grace alone apart from works, and all of this mediated through the glorious vernacular of an English Bible, having its roots in the fearless genius William Tyndale’s early translation, completed by the King James scholars in 1611. Who were these Catholics? Well, they were either evil priests, drunk on their own power, or they were misled layfolk, waiting to be liberated by having the Scriptues in their own language.

Well, Eamon Duffy has a rather different story to tell. And I have to say that reading The Stripping of the Altars from cover-to-cover is certainly a tonic to a naive and simplistic view of the Reformation. If I am honest I think that the observation made above about history and the Reformation applies to Protestants a lot of the time, because it is most expedient to Protestants to believe something like the John Piper view. It couldn’t possibly be the case that the Catholic Church wasn’t really that bad, that it didn’t teach a gospel of justification by works, that people did have portions of Scripture in the vernacular, that the Christian message was powerfully communicated to layfolk through an affective multi-sensory artistic liturgical tradition, that these layfolk, far from being misled simpletons, were actually deeply religious, well-informed and sincere Christians, that the vernacular translation of the Bible is actually responsible for the hyper-fragmentation of the Protestant Church that we find in our contemporary world, that the Protestant rulers were equally as bloodthirsty and capable of murder as ‘Bloody’ Mary – especially during the Edwardian and Elizabethan reigns – could it?

Eamon Duffy thinks so. And he too is using history for his own ends. The difference is though that he is a seminal and deeply scholarly historian whose work has argued this point so effectively that Reformation studies have been changed as a result. Whatever one makes of his elegy to a lost world of beauty and splendour, it behooves Protestants to take seriously the fact that there is another way of looking at the Reformation: not as a glorious liberation for the church, but as a total disaster for the whole of Western civilisation.

How do I respond to such a book? I have thought long and hard about it and I summarise my desired reaction in one word: contemplation. The fact is that this book enables those who do not find themselves in the Roman Catholic Church to try and understand something of the culture and feeling of those who do. To try and understand the grief that issues still from the desecration of Catholic monasteries in the sixteenth-century, the destruction and plundering of shrines, statues and relics, the theft of churches and cathedrals. If we can understand this historical legacy a bit better then this can help us to become more ecumenical towards Catholics and to hold out the olive branch of peace towards them. Maybe even repent and seek reconciliation and forgiveness for what has happened in the past.

The book was informed by a conviction that the Reformation as actually experienced by ordinary people was not an uncomplicated imaginative liberation, the restoration of true Christianity after a period of degeneration and corruption, but, for good or ill, a great cultural hiatus, which had dug a ditch, deep and dividing between the English people and their past. Over the course of three generations a millenium of splendour – the worlds of Gregory and Bede and Anselm and Francis and Dominic and Bernard and Dante – became alien territory, the dark ages of “popery”. Sixteenth-century Protestantism was built on a series of noble affirmations – the sovereignty of the grace of God in salvation, the free availability of that grace to all that sought it, the self-revelation of God in his holy word. But it quickly clenched itself round a series of negations and rejections. As its proponents smashed the statues, whitewashed the churches and denounced the Pope and the Mass, Protestantism came to be constituted in large part by its NO to medieval religion.

The Stripping of the Altars, then, was at one level an elegy for a world we had lost, a world of great beauty and power which it seemed to me the reformers – and many historians ever since – had misunderstood, traduced and destroyed.

Eamon Duffy, from the preface to the second edition of The Stripping of the Altars