Sloughheart, My Self, and Silly Fundamentalism

My own background was socio-politically conservative; economically capitalistic; and broadly evangelical, Protestant-Christian. To make some necessary distinction, though, it was not libertarian or hyper-capitalistic, nor was my background religiously fundamentalist. Growing up, I was encouraged to read (and listen) widely, including of course other, differing perspectives. For example, my father handed me The Communist Manifesto to read when I was about 14-years-old (or so), and at some point gave me an interesting introduction to Catholicism entitled, Mr. Jackson Talks to Father Smith,[1] which was written (and presumably published) in Jackson, Mississippi to be distributed there to anyone interested in the Roman Catholic Church. He also introduced me to his friend, the Catholic priest in our town, back in the early 80s, allowed me to visit other churches (and he was a pastor), introduced me to foreign films, notably those of Federico Fellini, an Italian filmmaker “known for his distinct style that blends fantasy and baroque images with earthiness.”

No, not in any sense did I grow up in a legalistic, fundamentalist background. Of course, I was appropriately catechized in the Reformed tradition, even though we attended an independent Methodist church my father pastored, the rationale being that George Whitefield was also Methodist and he was Calvinistic. We were not exactly Calvinistic, but leaned heavily in that direction, so the Westminster Shorter Catechism did nicely for my doctrinal training. However, I was also exposed to the sermons of John Wesley; we did have a traditional, Methodist-type service at our little church; professors from Wesley Biblical Seminary in Jackson, Mississippi were invited to preach and/or teach, etc. I remember, too, my parents purchasing for me (at my request) a collection of essays by Marx and Friedrich Engels on religion. (It turned out to be a rather boring read, but…) My father wanted me to understand libertarianism, socialism, the New Deal, and the Great Society. My mother particularly encouraged me to read especially C. S. Lewis, but also Jane Austin, Charles Dickens, Shakespeare, etc. My father steered me in the direction of Leo Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Gogol, Victor Hugo and others.

The last of five children, with my closest sibling being eight years my senior, to a certain extent I felt like an only child; however, my (by then older than usual) parents and I had an awful lot of fun. We went camping, hiking, fishing; we loved to grill out and play games, indoors and out; we had pets (always at least one); we loved singing and laughing and watching television (and later movies) together. My parents were by no means fuddle-duds; they were serious when they needed to be serious, but otherwise … fun … and very lovable. Consequently, I don’t know that I have the background necessary to critique fundamentalism – as I did in my last essay, Masculinity According to an Evangelical Woman – yet I don’t know that I can quite apologize for going ahead and doing so, either. Thankfully, my background also included some exposure to fundamentalism early on, and my father was the one who began explaining to me the pitfalls of moral legalism, theological dispensationalism,[2] and the anti-intellectualism that seems to attend both.

I also attended two Independent Bible Fundamentalist (IBF) high-schools – where, let me be quick to say, I met some of the best folk in the world despite the environment – and so I tasted enough firsthand to legitimately say that, despite my upbringing, I do have some experiential knowledge of legalistic fundamentalism. This is the topic I’d like to address now. So far as other socio-political and economic perspectives are concerned, well … perhaps another time. (Suffice it to say here, I have moved to just “left of center” politically, and I also see some redeeming value in socialistic ideology. Hyper-capitalism is no better for people in general, or society in toto, than Marxist-Communism … in my humble opinion.) Why this seems to be such a burning issue for me, I may never know, but it is and it has been for years upon years. One can readily see (I believe) from what I’ve shared that I didn’t get clobbered with legalistic fundamentalism growing up; just the opposite, in fact. Let me go one step further and say with certainty that I would never have read as much and as widely, nor travelled as much, nor frequented art museums, etc. had it not been for my parents. Yes, I have grown up into my “own man,” so to speak, and I know full well they would disagree with me at several points … but I also know they anticipated this with me, as they did with all of their children.

My encounters with fundamentalism and what knowledge I do have of this peculiar life-perspective has significantly factored into what “my own man” is today, that is, the still-maturing individual I am now. For example, I never understood the passionate zeal for altar calls and divinely gratuitous salvation displayed in so many IBF churches on the one hand, and extreme moral legalism on the other. What is the necessity, according to this way of thinking (if I may use the term loosely) for moral legalism if salvation is completely an unearned gift? Gratitude, perhaps? I can’t help but say, though, from my observation, IBFs don’t ordinarily strike me as being very grateful; point in fact, to look at their lives, salvation seems quite burdensome rather than something for which to be thankful. Nevertheless, gratitude may very well be a reasonable answer to my query; however, this only seems to include moral legalism, not charity. Where charity – feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, housing the homeless, etc. – is concerned, this is all-too-often condemned as “works religion,” something Roman Catholics do; no genuine, Bible-believing Christian would ever engage in works-based religion. There is, of course, an entire breakdown in logic in this line of thinking: If one should show gratitude through abiding by some strict moral standard, then one should also give charitably in order to show gratitude. (After all, it’s certainly commanded in Scripture!) If, however, charity is “works-based religion,” i.e. trying to earn one’s way to heaven, and if this is wrong, then abiding by a strict moral code must also be “works-based religion,” and thereby be wrong as well. Both are of the same species, and what applies to one, so far as life-action is concerned,[3] applies to the other, too.

I’m also certainly capable of illogic, perhaps as much as the average Joe or Jane (maybe even more so), but I think the difference is, if someone points out to me the intenability of something I’ve said or written (argued, presented, etc.), then I believe I will usually respond by rethinking my original position (perspective or whatnot) and make whatever corrections need be made, if not change altogether. The legalistic fundamentalist doesn’t typically do this, which is something brought through, at least indirectly, in my Sloughheart Series. On the topic of men and women, masculinity and femininity – gender characteristics, or attributes, I suppose – there is also a definite militation against the legalistic, fundamentalist perspective in the narrative. The character of Joy Brighterday serves as the premier example of this: She is well-educated, cultured, intellectually astute, and well-spoken; she has an affable personality, complete with an excellent sense of humor and deep compassion; physically she is stunningly beautiful, strong, robust, lively, and healthy. One might say I’ve idealized this character, making her an almost demi-god, but that’s probably not quite accurate.

The character has been exaggerated, and purposely so, but Joy Brighterday also has her share of shortcomings, evidenced, for example, in her meetings (along with Effete) with the attorney, Justin Case. Also, she is introduced at the beginning of the whole series struggling in prayer at the altar of St. Gianna’s, where she is the rector (or pastor.) She is unmarried, and in the end this seems to come back to bite her; she is, at a deep level, virtually left alone while those she has helped so much go on with their healing and/or now-very happy lives… All in all, though, the character of Joy Brighterday presents a woman, who is not only physiologically female but very much “in tune” with herself; who is strong, resilient, caring as well as commanding; who possesses upstanding character and integrity, wisdom and discernment, but also some faults, failings and shortcomings, too. And why this character? In order to image an archetype female in both a specific role traditionally ascribed to men and within a general cultural-societal context where women have found it difficult to thrive (and still do).

Along the way, the attempt is made to provide justification for this in the face of condemnation by the character Fen Sloughheart, an independent, legalistic, fundamentalist preacher – the antihero of the story. One episode consists of Joy writing to a young woman considering entering the ministry. Early in her letter, Joy notes:

Yes, even now it’s still difficult for women, especially when you’ve grown up in a tradition, such as your own church, that (paradoxical as it may seem) both honors women and yet bars them from ordination. Have no fear on that point, though; I know you’re not ‘dissing’ your church, as you say! And I’m not going to either, but believe me, I fully understand.

It is still challenging, but not impossible or unbiblical. (Bishop N. T. Wright addresses this issue very beautifully and effectively in an essay entitled, “Women’s Service in the Church.”) This is something completely out-of-bounds for the fundamentalist, though: To completely reconsider long-held perspectives, even by means of utilizing careful exegesis of Scripture. (One could reasonably argue that if they did so, they would no longer be fundamentalists!) The fundamentalist would say, “Thus saith the Lord…” and that’s the way it is, and that’s the way it will be in obedient, Bible-believing churches until Jesus comes back to rapture the faithful into heaven (leaving billions behind to suffer unthinkable atrocities … supposedly.) For some reason, this mentality is excruciatingly difficult for me to ignore; I suppose to some extent, at least, I take it personally, almost as if beloved family are being attacked. Of course, I know very well that the Ancient Near East was a patriarchal society, just as I know the ancient world as a whole was thought by its occupants to be shot through with the numinous, often to be overrun by the dæmonic, full of mysterium tremendum.[4] There are no illusions here, and perhaps this is part of the point.

My ancestors in the faith-religion of Judeo-Christianity may not measure up to contemporary, Western, socio-religious and ethical standards any more than my biological ancestors. There is no pretending otherwise, I suppose, but I’m still in many ways their progeny; consequently, I don’t really appreciate their lives being misrepresented or their teachings misconstrued … or sometimes horribly distorted. That convoluted interpretation of selected portions of Scripture is often used to justify all forms of abuse only makes legalistic fundamentalism all-the-more egregious. One simply cannot cherry-pick juicy bits of an ancient law code of nomadic peoples about to settle into an agrarian way of life and apply those decrees and guidelines – or forcefully impose them like diktats – within contemporary society, no matter how divinely inspired in origin. Besides, we have ample witness from the New Testament that much of the ancient law code would no longer be applicable to Christians – Jew or Gentile – and that was approximately two thousand years ago!

Fundamentalism wallows in shallow, anemic over-simplification, and when challenged, IBFs will (in the greater part of such instances) either try to out shout their opponent(s) with Bible verses and trite remarks, or withdraw into their fundamentalist fortress where they can privately deride their opponent(s) and relish the fantastical feeling of victory. In the meantime, the archetype of Joy Brighterday answers them on a number of fronts, including, for example, the ordination of women to the ministry:

You probably know, of course, some of the common objections to the ordination of women. The Apostle, St. Paul, instructed women to be silent in church, but then he also recommends women as “fellow workers” and even deacons, like Phoebe. Besides which, there were always female prophets, with whom Paul would have been familiar, like Miriam and the four daughters of Philip as well as the prophetess Anna, who openly spoke at the Temple. So, in my estimation, this particular argument is rather weak.

Of course, Paul also instructs women to veil their heads when they pray, yet how many opponents of female ordination actually push this practice? You see, as in so many other cases, there seems to be some inconsistency here, but I think Paul’s words ought to be contextualized anyway … at least, as best we can do that, and only then applied. But there are other arguments, too, like, ‘Christ was male, and so his priests should be male.’

My response to this has simply been the fact that there are any number of qualities we might lay down as restrictions. He was also Jewish, for example, but do we really want to prohibit non-Jewish people from serving in ordained ministry? For that matter, I suppose we could restrict ordained ministry not only to Jewish males, but to virgin-born Jewish males! You see, that sort of argument is not only weak, but it’s anything but helpful.

The question is, how much difference does gender really make in ministry now and why? And is the restriction of this vocation physiologically based? If so, why? Or is there another reason … perhaps psychological and/or spiritual? You see, one either quickly descends into a morass of confusion on this point, or ends up forwarding chauvinistic arguments, such as:

  1. The woman is physically weaker; therefore, she cannot command the respect, much less the following, of adult males
  2. The woman is generally less intelligent; therefore, she cannot reasonably be expected to teach adult men, who are, on average, more intelligent
  3. The woman is more emotional; therefore, she is psychically unstable and, thus, unable to “shepherd the flock”

And other distasteful, reprehensible contentions, all subsumed under the heretical assumption: God created woman to be subservient to the man.

This is not, of course, the only area in which the legalistic fundamentalist perspective is baneful. Another is the fundamentalist’s aversion to the Sacraments – which, naturally, they don’t recognize as Sacraments – thus, their infrequent celebration of Communion, or the Lord’s Supper. Simon Chan explains their excuse(s), then rebuts those reasons quite effectively:

Two reasons are commonly given for infrequent observance of the Eucharist. One is that if the Lord’s Supper were observed too frequently, it would lose its meaning. But according to a Reformed evangelical pastor, Leonard J. Vander Zee, this rationale betrays ‘the old gnostic tendency’ to exalt the ‘spiritual’ and denigrate the ‘material.’ Further, the rationale assumes the Lord’s Supper is another commemorative event, like a birthday or wedding anniversary. But if the Lord’s Supper is indeed a ‘feeding on Christ to eternal life,’ making us into what we eat, then there is no question about whether frequent Communion would cause a loss of significance. No one has ever yet complained that having three meals a day had eroded the significance of eating. (Some even insist on have more!) As Vander Zee puts it, ‘If God feeds and confirms our faith in the sacrament, then we deprive ourselves of the fullness of his grace when we sit around the table only once in awhile. We need every nourishment God provides, and to miss the meal not only snubs his gracious hospitality but creates spiritual anorexics.’

Second, it is sometimes argued that Word and sacrament are merely two ways of communicating the same gospel. If what the sacrament conveys is already conveyed, in fact in a better way, in preaching, then the sacrament is quite extraneous in the regular church service. Sacrament, according to this view, merely ‘portrays’ the gospel – and in a limited way at that – whereas preaching gives almost unlimited scope for the exposition of the gospel. But this is to misunderstand the very nature of Word and sacrament and their distinctive functions in the liturgy. Not only is the sacrament more than the visible form of the Word, but each is indispensable to the other. Sacrament brings the proclaimed Word to its fulfillment.

We come to know the Real Presence effected by the Spirit in the Lord’s Supper. Word without sacrament remains incomplete, and sacrament without Word becomes an empty sign. ‘If one cannot live by bread alone, neither can one live by word alone.’ For just as the Word is completed in the sacrament, so the sacrament derives its meaning from the Word. As Louis Bouyer states, ‘Every sacrament is a verbum visibile, a word made visible, and every sacrament also essentially implies verba sacramentalia, the sacred words which give to the sacred action itself not only meaning but also its own inner reality.’ Word and sacrament cannot be separated. The whole liturgy of Word and sacrament is both God’s Word and God’s action for the sake of the church. Worship becomes less than what it is when one is emphasized at the expense of the other.[5]

Chan states these two commonly given excuses for infrequent Communion quite graciously, wording them far more intelligently than one usually hears them in person. Still, he points out quite well the lack of spiritual depth and theological understanding one typically finds within the IBF world,[6] which reveals an ongoing spiritual abuse-by-neglect in these churches. Bereft of healthful, life-sustaining, divine nourishment, it’s little wonder, then, there is also abuse-by-action. It’s almost as if, being starved within sight of food and drink they cannot get to, they become frenzied and begin cannibalizing each other!

Fundamentalism is defined in the Oxford Dictionary as “a form of a religion, especially Islam or Protestant Christianity, which upholds belief in the strict, literal interpretation of scripture.” I think I would modify this definition to read, “1 a form of religion, which upholds belief in the strictly literal interpretation and application, sometimes selective, of sacred scriptures and/or inherited customs and religious traditions; 2 the elevation of particular doctrines and practices as being fundamentally important to the religious faith-community, the observation and practice of which are obligatory, with the failure to adhere to this standard being punished, sometime severely.” Robert J. Burrowes offers an apt analysis of the fundamentalist along the lines of this definition:

A fundamentalist is usually considered to be a person who adheres strictly to a doctrine, viewpoint or set of principles that are considered original and ‘pure’; this doctrine might be theological in nature. For the fundamentalist, many of their beliefs and the behaviors that arise from them will, at least in theory, be derivative of their fundamental doctrine. For the fundamentalist, there is no room to consider views that are at variance with their accepted doctrine and contrary views will usually either be dismissed out-of-hand or resisted with considerable vigor and, often, violence.[7]

Touché! Which makes me all-the-more grateful that I grew up in an environment of free enquiry and learning, wisdom and discernment, appreciation for the arts, literature and music, and so much more conducive to a healthy mind, body and soul. Pity the victims of legalistic fundamentalism!

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[1] Note: I believe this was the title, though I’m not completely certain. Also, I’m not absolutely sure of the place of publication.

[2] Dispensationalism is a Christian evangelical, futurist, Biblical interpretation that believes that God has related to human beings in different ways under different Biblical covenants in a series of “dispensations,” or periods in history.

[3] In other words, same context, i.e. one’s life; similar scriptural injunctions; same purpose, i.e. to show gratitude; etc.

[4] Rudolf Otto’s classic work, The Idea of the Holy, is an excellent read on the subject and where I got the expression of mysterium tremendum. On this note, I would venture to say we could use more mystery and greater awareness of the numinous in our day and age, if for no other reason than to counter-balance the all-too-often cold and impersonal sciences as well as what has come to be called the “corporate mentality.”

[5] Simon Chan, Liturgical Theology: The Church as Worshiping Community, 65-66

[6] Note: This is not to imply that IBFs are the only ones who partake of the Lord’s Supper infrequently. This, in fact, is Anabaptist in origin, yet no one would say Ulrich Zwingli was cognitively retarded. Also, many evangelical Protestant churches have fallen into infrequent celebration of Communion, or the Lord’s Supper, yet this is not the Lutheran or Reformed heritage. Martin Luther celebrated Holy Communion weekly, if not more frequently, and promulgated the doctrine of consubstantiation. Calvin in Geneva celebrated the Lord’s Supper more often than four times per annum (quarterly,) and believed in the real pneumatic presence of Christ. Of course, the Orthodox, Roman Catholic, and Anglican churches celebrate the Eucharist quite frequently and most reverently with a far deeper, richer understanding of Communion than one finds elsewhere.

[7] Robert J. Burrowes, “Fundamentalism: A Psychological Problem,” January 9, 2014, as accessed on May 19, 2015

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