Tag Archives: Fundamentalism


Inside, outside, upside-down.  The more life moves toward binary code—what isn’t computerized these days?—the more scholars are moving away from simple binaries.  Just when I thought I was getting used to this sacred/profane divide, academics are scrapping it for more nuanced paradigms not based on any assumptions of presumed deities and their projected wishes.  Nothing as simple as “either/or” could justify all these salaries for stuff you can just look up on the internet, after all.  Still, binaries are a very human way of looking at the world.  Light and dark doesn’t mean there aren’t all the shades in between.  And the very basic difference between inside and outside may be far more helpful than it might appear.

Being inside a religious tradition—really being inside—creates a pattern of thinking that frames all of one’s experience of life.  While reading about the Book of Mormon recently this became clear to me.  Looking at it from the outside is something those on the inside have great trouble doing.  The same is true of various Eastern Orthodox Christian traditions, or Evangelicalism.  Those living on the inside of tightly constrained ways of thinking—believing—can’t see what it looks like from the outside.  I suspect that not all religions traditions fall into such ways of thinking; there are shades here.  “Mainstream” Christianities, for example, tend to blend at the edges and those inside might have an idea of how those on the outside view them.  Lutherans know the jokes about their outlooks and can even tell them.  Methodists and Presbyterians too.  They tend to conform a bit to expectations and  tend not to be extremist about things.  Being mainstream will do that to you.

It is unusual for a person to change religious traditions.  Those who do can see their former tradition from the outside—whether mainstream of not—with a kind of objectivity that frightens true believers.  Most religions have some tenets that look a bit unbelievable when viewed from outside.  Once seen from that perspective, however, there’s no unseeing it.  I grew up Fundamentalist.  After some time in the mainstream Methodist tradition I could see Fundamentalism from the outside.  When I eventually joined the Episcopal Church I had been viewing it from the outside my entire life up to that point.  Looking at faith traditions inside out offers perspectives otherwise not to be had.  Nobody wants to believe the wrong religion.  Perhaps that’s why it’s so difficult to look at your own from the outside.  You have to be willing to accept shades of gray, even if looking at it in a binary way.

Galilean Blues

Call me nostalgic, but growing up Fundie, “Capernaum” tripped easily off my lips.  In fact, it was a word I heard very frequently at church, always pronounced “kap-er-NEE-um” (please pardon my amateur phonetics).  Even though no one I knew had ever been to Israel, we all knew it was in Galilee and that it figured large in the early life of Jesus of Nazareth (although we assumed he was surnamed “Christ”).  When I attended seminary I was surprised to hear the geonym pronounced “ka-per-NUM.”  It sounded so sophisticated—aristocratic, even.  Still, everyone at Boston University School of Theology knew what, and roughly where, it was.  It was a household name, no matter how you pronounced it.

Spellcheck disagrees.  It doesn’t recognize one of the most famous places in the New Testament.  Now, I’m aware that my view of things is idiosyncratic.  This blog should be proof of that.  Those who grow up from Fundamentalism often know this experience—something that everyone knew when you were young and informed is arcane knowledge to the rest of the world where Kardashians and Sedarises are household names.  The Bible, irrelevant at best, is a foreign country.  Then the religious right comes to power and everyone’s confused.  They don’t speak the same language as the rest of the world.  They say kap-er-NEE-um.  Others scratch their heads and glance at their knee caps.

When I visited ancient Capernaum it required some imagination to reconstruct what it had been, back in the day.  Since the ruins were relatively recent—only a millennium or two—some of the buildings were still above ground, including the famous synagogue.  Even among the unchurched archaeologists, everyone knew the connection of the city to Jesus of Nazareth.  That doesn’t mean, however, that the programmers responsible for spellcheck recognize the name.  Kardashian doesn’t get a red underline on my word processor.  Even in the first century, however, Galilee was a backwater (with real water!).  Important people came from big cities and had family connections.

Some things don’t change much over the millennia.  The famous often find their spotlight because of connections.  If the deity decided to incarnate today, s/he’d know to get a website put together first.  And it would help to have some product endorsements.  Even salvation at a click isn’t enough to draw most people in.  Of course, the matter of name—excuse me, “brand”—is important.  More than anything, you want something people can pronounce.  And just to be safe, anchor it to either New York or the city named The Angels.

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.