Tag Archives: Fundamentalism

Personifying Evil

Biographies seldom cover millennia. Even if one were to try to uncover all the scant facts on old Methuselah at 969 years, it would still fall short of four digits. So Peter Stanford’s The Devil: A Biography takes the long view. Even with that lengthy perspective, there’s little that might be known about the prince of darkness. Even with a role in the Good Book his appearances are few and details are lacking. What Stanford does, of course, is outline, more or less, the history of Satan. This is no easy task since few ancient sources focus on trying to provide explanations for exactly who this might be.

As with most books by non-academics (and I don’t mean to sound snobbish here) there are some overstatements. Some of the details aren’t so finely parsed. It’s the big picture the author’s after and he does quite well when it comes to the modern era. Not only is there enormously more material from which to choose, there is also a great deal of literature and even headlines available to harvest. All writers that I’ve encountered on the subject make the point of demonstrating that news of what’s happening in the modern world suggests either the Devil exists or that something (or things) is doing a great job parodying such a character. When seeing evil in the highest reaches of the government it’s not so hard to believe.

The thing about the Devil is that he almost died out. In the nineteenth century when the explanatory value of science was firmly kicking in, and industrialization was making our live both easier and harder, the dark lord went underground. Humans seemed capable of making and claiming their own evil, and even the professionals—the clergy and formal religionists—had admitted Satan was most likely a metaphor gone wild. The birth of Fundamentalism, a movement that became prominent only in the 1920s, necessarily resurrected the Devil. The Bible does mention Lucifer, so he had to be real. Since that day he’s learned a lot. Protean to the extreme, he bears many guises. No longer beholden to a demonic tail, cloven hooves, or a pointy beard, he most often appears clean shaven and wearing expensive business suits. Borrowing a phrase from the Good Book, it’s by his fruits that we know him. Stanford’s biography shows its age a little, but when you’re covering a couple thousand years of speculation, being outdated is only a venial sin.

Just As I Was

It was kind of a game. A game to teach us about important people, living or dead. The fact that we were playing it in high school history class, taught by one of my favorite teachers, made it even better. Everyone wrote a name on an index card—a person in the news or somebody from American history in the past. A student sat facing the class while the teacher selected a card and held it over the student’s head, so we could all read who it was, all except the chosen one. Then s/he would ask questions to guess whose name was written. I remember very well when the teacher picked up my card and read it. He said “that’s really a good choice!” The name led to a bit of joshing. “Is he alive or dead?” the student asked. “How can you tell?” joked our teacher. It was the one name the selected student couldn’t pin down, no matter how many questions she asked.

It’s fair to say that Billy Graham had a profound influence in my life. As a curious—and very frightened—child, whenever his crusades were on television I would watch, transfixed. I responded to his altar calls at home. Multiple times. My emotions were overwrought and I’d awake the next day feeling redeemed, for a while. I had no real mentors in my Fundamentalism. Ministers preached, but they didn’t explain things. Not to children (what was Sunday School for, after all?). All I knew was that when the rhetoric reached Hell, and the possibility I would die that very night, repentance seemed like the only logical option. The reality of the choice—a black and white one, no less—could not be denied. Either you were or you weren’t.

Source: Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Yale University via Wikimedia Commons

As my point of view eventually shifted around to that of my high school teacher—I was in college at the time—I began to realize that Graham’s version of Christianity wasn’t as monolithic as it claimed to be. Once you experience other people’s experience of religion, if you’re willing to listen to them, it’s pretty hard to hold up the blackness and whiteness of any one perspective. Over the years Graham tainted his pristine image in my eyes by his political choices. His son now stands as one of Trump’s biggest supporters. Now that Billy Graham has gone to his reward, I do hope that the Almighty doesn’t hold his mistakes against him. He had no way of knowing that his sermons were terrorizing a little boy in western Pennsylvania into a career track that would never pan out. Largely because other followers of Graham’s so decided. It’s kind of like a game.

Christian Sister

Difficult to believe as it may be, some of the biggest superstars in America’s history have been clergy. The case has been firmly made that George Whitefield, the evangelist, was the first to hold “rock star” status in these United States. He drew stadium-sized crowds before there were stadiums and was, perhaps, the most famous man in the country. Fast forward a number of years and we find a name that may not ring so many bells today. Aimee Semple McPherson, however, was more famous than Hollywood actors and most political figures of her day. The founder of the Foursquare Gospel church was, in the roaring ‘20s, one of the most recognizable names in America. It may not count for much, but even in rural Pennsylvania we learned about her in American History class in high school four decades after her time.

I read quite a lot about American religion, and Aimee Semple McPherson frequently comes up. I knew little about her, however, until reading Daniel Mark Epstein’s Sister Aimee: The Life of Aimee Semple McPherson. While it has its faults as a biography, it does convey a fair image of who this fascinating woman was. An evangelist when few women preachers existed, she was creative, crowd pleasing, and remarkably broad-minded for a Fundamentalist. Her personal life was full of drama—three marriages and at least one kidnapping episode—wealth, and want. She trusted Jesus implicitly and often suffered alone in silence. Secretly she befriended Charlie Chaplin, a man drawn to her stage presence but not her religion. It’s difficult not to like this woman who insisted on doing things her own way, and who ended up alienating her family (apart from her son) by doing so.

There can be no doubt that Aimee Semple McPherson believed what she said she did. Although she didn’t approve of theater she brought theatrics into church via her famous “illustrated sermons.” She pioneered radio evangelism, which subsequently grew into a hackneyed soapbox for lesser thinkers. She was a faith healer, a world traveler, and a woman who genuinely cared for the poor. Epstein’s book tells the story with heart and a touch of hagiography, but it is an entryway into one of the lives that shaped Jazz Age America, even if it is now largely forgotten behind flappers and Fitzgerald. It’s hard to believe that some of the most famous people in American history were religious leaders of their time, especially when we see what’s on offer in that arena today.

Spiritual Education

The water was hot. Notoriously hot. Our Junior High School had been built in the days of the prison esthetic, with heavy, cinderblock walls painted in penitent colors. And the water was famously hot. One of our gym teachers, nameless here forevermore, challenged us to be men. It takes a kind of courage mostly illegal these days to lecture a room full of naked boys, but he once came in during mandatory shower time to tell us that anyone who could hold their hand under the hot tap for a full minute would get an A in gym. Since he was an ex-Marine nobody was foolish enough to take him up on this challenge. At least not in my class. It’s difficult to be courageous when you’re unclothed.

The incident I recall, however, occurred at the opposite end of the spectrum, in art class. You may remember those days when you wove reed baskets to take home to your mom. The thing about reeds is that they’re brittle unless soaked in hot water. That was the key to working with them. Make them supple with hot water and then when they dried, they’d be remarkably sturdy, if somewhat lopsided. We had been weaving reed baskets when someone, unbeknownst to the teacher, had filled the sink with water as hot as our old school could deliver. Thinking it funny, since even in those days educational budgets were under threat, somebody dropped one of the very limited number of heavy reed-cutters into the sink, now at the very bottom of a basin of very hot water. I was not the guilty party; I don’t know who was. The drain was plugged from the bottom. Very funny, no?

At the end of class. the teacher was not amused. “No one leaves this room until that cutter is out of the water,” she flatly said. The first bell rang. She stood in front of the door. We would be late for the next period. Perhaps it is the weakness of character my religion instilled in me, but I’ve always had a great fear of not doing what I was told. It lingers to this day, that Fundamental unworthiness. This body of mere flesh is weak and prone to sinfulness. The clock was ticking. Teacher wanted the guilty party to suffer the price of their prank. I pulled up my sleeve, plunged my hand into the scalding water, pulled out the reed-cutter, slapped it on the counter, and walked out the door. We were released to class and the searing pain didn’t last long physically, but spiritually it has never gone away.

Persecution Myth

The myth of persecution is a great cover. Christians, we are accustomed to think, are timid and loving individuals eager to turn the other cheek. In this sophisticated world of science and technology, they might appear a little naive, but they’re not really out to hurt anyone. Or at least some of them aren’t. I grew up among what would now be called Fundamentalists. Harsh to their own sins, they’d not imagine harming others. The story went that in the Roman Empire days it was open season on Christians and the oppressors liked nothing better than killing off a dozen before breakfast. That myth has largely been debunked by historians. Yes, there were some brief periods of intensive persecution, but for the most part the early Christians were left alone.

Many of the more zealous among the literalist sects today feel the loss of that mythology keenly. What can you do when you learn that your primitive ancestry wasn’t as heroic as you thought it was? For some, that myth must be kept alive today. When it is acknowledged that our world has become a smaller place because of technology, we get exposed to those who give the lie to our prejudices. Moral Muslims (despite the media portrayals), Hindus, Buddhists, and even secular humanists, abound. News, however, thrives on negativity. After all, it too is a capitalistic enterprise. We see the violence, the hatred, the bigotry. The myth lives on. Christian Dominionists have simply given up on the rest of the race. The Bible, after all, says few will be saved. And they have thrived for decades based on the simple fact that nobody takes them seriously.

I have seen the lack of compassion in evangelical eyes firsthand. A coldness that declares education to be evil since the only truth was revealed long ago in unchanging form. The word of God stands forever. It says so itself. And among the most despised of all human beings are those who study that word instead of “just reading” it. Those outside this camp know there is no such thing as “just reading.” They also know that we have no original biblical manuscripts at all and that translations are merely approximations. It’s difficult to build absolute laws on approximations. Among themselves these groups claim that legislation to treat others equally is a direct affront and insult to them. In fact, they claim they are persecuted because of the fair treatment of others. The thing about democracy is that any system can be gamed. Even Putin can be your friend, for this is the world of myth.

Overlooked Scripture

In this great Trump Tower of capitalism in which we all live, I often wonder about the overlooked Bible. Fundamentalist Trump supporters certainly know how to thump it, but do they know how to read it? This thought occurred to me as I was rereading the story of Ananias and Sapphira in Acts 5 recently. The narrative isn’t hidden or obscure. Here’s how it goes: the earliest Christians were communists. Literally. Peter himself was involved. After Jesus’ ascension, his followers pooled their resources and divided them up by how much each person needed. Ananias and Sapphira, a husband and wife duo, sold their property and presented the money to Peter and the collective. They held a little back, though, just in case. The result? Peter saw through the lie and they died instantly. The point was pretty clear—Christians don’t hold anything back for themselves. They live communally.

Obviously, this didn’t last very long. Let the one without a savings account cast the first stone. In fact, by half-way through Acts the holy experiment is already forgotten. Nevertheless, it was the ideal. Christians were people who took care of one another, especially the poor. By the time communist governments (which didn’t work because people are people) took hold, Christians were dead-set against them. Okay, well, they were godless—but the idea behind them was biblical. Today any form of socialism is soundly condemned by most evangelicals. Apparently they don’t read the book of Acts any more. There was no moment when this commune was castigated in Holy Writ. It simply vanishes without a whimper to be condemned as utterly evil in these latter days.

The wedding between capitalism and Christianity has proven an enduring one. Capitalism allows, indeed pretty much mandates, selfishness. It’s difficult to live in such a system and not feel entitled to more than you already have. Who ever says, “No thanks, I don’t need a raise. I have enough”? Those who attempt communal living are generally called “cults” and the suspicion is omnipresent that the leader isn’t holding (usually) himself to the same standards as the pedestrian members. The story in Acts 5, however, is even more extreme. After Ananias lies to Peter and dies on the spot, his wife Sapphira comes in just as those who buried her husband are returning. Peter baits her with a question about how much money they received for their property and when she concurs with her late husband, the undertakers have a second job for the day. This is a faith taken seriously. It was bound not to last.

Noah’s Parable

I write a lot about Noah. For those who didn’t know me before this blog, I was once invited to write a book on Noah for a series ironically published by Oxford University Press. I had been researching Noah for years, and I intended to write the book. Then, as the kids are saying these days, life happened. My interest in Noah has never waned, however. And part of the reason is that it is perhaps the most influential story in the entire Bible. I realize I’ll need to explain that, but stop and think about it—Evangelicals seldom talk about Jesus any more. Their concerns are with unborn babies, people making babies outside wedlock, and destroying our environment in the name of capitalism. It is the last of these that brings us back to Noah.

A friend recently sent me a story on Splinter by Brendan O’Connor titled “How Fossil Fuel Money Made Climate Change Denial the Word of God.” O’Connor is looking at the history of how a pro-environmentalism-inclined evangelical movement decided to shift its base to align with climate-change deniers. Behind the scenes are fundamentalist clergy. Oh, we like to laugh at them and their ways, but they are the power behind the throne and we should really not let them out of our sight. You see, as O’Connor points out, they believe that the God of Noah can protect the world from the worst that we can throw at it. It’s perfectly okay to try to destroy the planet because the magic man upstairs can fix everything right back up if he needs to before sending his son back to town on the final business meeting. Laugh if you will. These people are dead serious and many who hold power in Washington believe every lie they utter.

As a nation—perhaps as an entire western culture—we’ve laughed off religion. Secure that there’s no God up there to rain down, well, rain, we laugh and jeer at Noah. It’s a children’s story, after all, isn’t it? Okay, forget about the part where everyone in the entire world drowns, except eight people. And when he gets drunk and lays naked in his tent after it’s all over. Other than that, it’s a kid’s story, right? The story of the flood is one of the oldest myths in the world. It has been part of human story-telling for millennia. We now have very powerful people with smart phones in their pockets and access to vast hordes of money who believe it literally happened. And since God took care of his own once, he can do it again. The educated smirk. The smart start building arks.