A Slow Drive Over The Edge
An analysis of fanaticism among evangelical Christians
by Michael Spencer
NOTE: Several weeks ago, I published an essay on IM on the subject of religious fanaticism. Since that time, I’ve continued to think about the subject and find more relevant–and troubling–points that need to be mentioned. If you didn’t read the previous essay, “An Appetite For Fanaticism,” you should probably read it first, as I am picking up my own thoughts from there.
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“It is a fundamental principle with us that to renounce reason is to renounce religion, that religion and reason go hand in hand, that all irrational religion is false religion.” -John Wesley
“A fanatic is a man that does what he thinks the Lord would do if He knew the facts of the case.” -Finley Peter Dunne
“Defined in psychological terms, a fanatic is a man who consciously overcompensates a secret doubt.” -Aldous Huxley
“The glory of the English Church is, that it has taken the VIA MEDIA…” -John Henry Newman
I blame Jonathan Edwards.
It was Jonathan Edwards who first entangled evangelicalism with fanaticism and invested subsequent generations with doubts about what fanaticism really was. The First Great Awakening occurred during Edward’s ministry in Northampton, Massachusetts. That “revival” saw physical and spiritual excesses of many kinds, and many Christians suspicious of those excesses began to criticize the awakening as a work of the devil. Edwards, already a respected pastor and writer, defended the revivals in print and in person. Look at the fruit, not the occasional excesses, Edwards counseled. A genuine work of the Holy Spirit does not bypass our frail and often selfish humanity. Satan may counterfeit, but God is surely at work. His defense was valid and Biblical, and I believe it.
Yet, even as Edwards was opening the door to a broader definition of legitimate religious experience than straight-laced Calvinists were used to, he was also sowing into evangelicalism a seed of doubt about religious fanaticism; a seed of doubt that has been exploited by fanatics ever since. You see, even when people are rolling on the floor and barking, even when they are abandoning moderation and normality, even when they are harmfully strict and narrowly manipulative, even when they are clearly and dangerously fanatical- it STILL could be of God.
Surely you have heard the confident reasoning of those in whom Edward’s seed of doubt has bloomed into a full flower. Don’t judge the enthusiastic. Don’t criticize the “Lord’s Anointed.” Don’t quench the Spirit. Don’t let a spirit of religion take control of a genuine movement of the Holy Spirit. You never know what God will use. Why, didn’t God speak through Balaam’s donkey? If it even reaches one person, no matter how silly or fanatical or offensive it is, it is of God. If you don’t join in, you are resisting a move of God. You need to lay aside your mind and listen to your heart. God is always on the move. People are being helped. Are you coming along or are you going to be left behind? (So to speak.)
This is the legacy of Jonathan Edwards, though I think he would be horrified at the results and how his name and legacy have been used to justify things that would have caused you to be arrested and placed in stocks at Northampton. Now it is the problem of contemporary evangelicals, who, like drug addicts, have acquired a taste for fanaticism and can hardly bring themselves to give up the stuff. While my previous article examined evangelical fascination with fanaticism, this essay will seek to analyze the fanaticism that fascinates us.
Metaphors Run Amuck
My first observation is that religious fanaticism is a likely consequence of any religion that emphasizes human effort, human response and/or human evidence at the expense of divine grace. Christianity is a worldview about God and what he has done for us in Christ. Despite both a healthy and an unhealthy (in my opinion) dose of mysticism in Christian theology over the centuries, the enduring message of the Gospel is the actions of God on our behalf, outside of us, credited to us and given to us from a motive of God’s grace alone.
At the same time, human response is also an integral part of the Gospel, but if faith is not taught and proclaimed in clear, Biblical terms, Christianity quickly joins all other religions in becoming a demonstration of what we do, how much of God we can get, how far we can go, how much we can give up, how much God says to us, and so on. One need only look at modern Pentecostal/Charismatic Christianity to see that there is no sane limit to what will be approved under the label of God at work in a person or a person “yielding” to God.
So, for example, in I Corinthians, Paul uses the metaphor of a runner as a picture of his response to the grace of God. It is used elsewhere in the New Testament as well, and is an apt and appropriate metaphor for the life of faith. Yet, once the idea of running a race is out of the bag, the competition has begun. Who will outrun whom? Who runs the fastest, or with the greatest visible effort? Who has the best training or the best shoes or the best coach? Who suffers the most? Who has the best stories? We are, to put it simply, off to the races.
Fanaticism flourishes in this atmosphere of competitive human response to God and its underlying theology that God is into everything done in the “race” by any sincere runner. Even those who run unethically or excessively or completely off the track will still say they are in the race and that God is the reason for what they do. And most of us will stand there, infected with the doubts of Edwards, and think, “Who am I to say they are wrong?”
What The Lord Would Do If He Had All The Facts
My second observation is that fanaticism has the recurrent tendency to go well beyond anything in scripture, and to act confidently about those things on which God has been silent. The modus operandi here is almost always the same: God is revealing things to some people and not others. This is a problem.
I am extremely concerned that the evangelical fascination with private revelation has brought us across a bridge into territory where fanaticism is everywhere. It is a basic premise of Reformation and Biblical Christianity that all things necessary for salvation and the Christian life are contained in Holy Scripture and are universally available. Private revelations, while being an allowable part of Christian experience, cannot contain essential matters. For example, if Luther had claimed that the doctrine of justification by faith alone was a private revelation from God and not a doctrine plainly taught in Holy Scripture, he would have been standing in thin air and not on solid ground.
Today, evangelicals are awash in private revelations. The phrase “God spoke to me” is almost a requirement for authenticity. Well-meaning evangelical anecdotalists like Henry Blackaby have made the personal revelation from God into the equivalent of air-conditioning and indoor plumbing. Only the seriously deprived don’t have them.
This is not just a matter of God’s revealing dates of the rapture or that people falling over drunk in church are really full of God. Take for example, the typical church building program. How many times will the pastor use “special” revelations to justify the move, the outlay of money and the construction? “God has given us a vision of a new facility to reach the community.” This is harmless, unless the matter of revelation is important enough to guard from private manipulators. If you want to see where this goes, just Google search Benny Hinn.
From this tendency to approve personal revelations, fanatics draw the support of millions of evangelicals. And now we are discovering that the private pipeline from God and the God-approved ideas of the fanatic are less and less distinct. Once we know the “direction” God is going and who are the “anointed” prophets, then appeal to scripture is much less necessary. Just this morning I received a letter admonishing me not to criticize TBN on the warning, “touch not the Lord’s anointed, or his prophets.” Here was a good person, not just saying he agreed with some of the TBN gang, but that Paul and Jan are “the Lord’s anointed,” a special class whose ideas, whims and revelations are to be taken as God’s unquestionable work in our world. Prophets like Kim Clement and Mark Chirona have contempt for those of us who believe God is finished speaking as he did in scripture, and many less exciting ministers are right with them. The new credential of the pastor/prophet is to “hear God’s voice.” This is an error far more serious than Openness Theology, for it reduces the Bible to something south of the Mormon view of scripture and elevates human prophets to the status of the current divine mouthpiece.
Fanatics need to be told that their personal revelations are delusions and the gymnastics of a selfish and vain imagination. Whether they are saying that God has called them into Gospel music or told them to run naked in the park, fanatics don’t deserve our patient approval. They should be put out of the household of faith. It is demeaning to the Bible to listen to them act as if God is speaking to them as he did to Moses or Paul. No wonder scripture is held in such contempt today by most churches. Men and women have become their own Bibles. Everyone is on the isle of Patmos, waiting for one more vision and voice.
When Too Much Is Never Enough
My third observation is that fanaticism frequently appears to be an overcompensation for Christian fears and doubts. I first came upon this idea in an article about Islamist terrorists. The writer, a long-time resident of Pakistan, suggested that there was a certain kind of Muslim who had begun to doubt tradition and especially doubt whether Allah was really all he had been led to believe, and Jihad was a sort of fanatical overcompensation for these doubts and fears. They were attempting to submerge their doubts and fears of modernity in fanatical acts of terror. In this theory, Bin Laden and company are not so much true believers as those who are seeking to kill their doubts and fears by playing God.
This sort of amateur psychology has limits, but I do not think it is arguable that fanatics operate out of an overcompensation system driven by their fears. Christian fundamentalism demonstrates this characteristic all the time, and out of this motive comes some of the reluctance to label fanaticism as dangerous, and the equal tendency to excuse fanatical behavior as somehow warranted, excusable and harmless.
Much of the fanaticism that disturbs me is directed towards young people. To identify specific instances from my own context would be too controversial, but examples abound. Take the Harry Potter phenomenon. Evangelicals have generously contributed to the book-burning, witch-hunt mentality that abounds about these books. I cannot believe that evangelicals have abided this sort of fanaticism out of the material in the books; content that is no worse than the tales of Arthur or Narnia. I believe it is an overcompensation for the fear of the occult, an abiding fear in evangelicals who have seem to have not read the New Testament’s description of the victory of Jesus on our behalf. Yet this is not considered fanaticism among many American Christians, who would burn a copy of Harry Potter at Friday night youth group without much hesitancy. (I say this as one who was convinced to bury his Led Zepplin albums.)
Evangelicals are fanatical about the end of the world, overcompensating for their doubts and fears about current events and their meanings. I am part of a branch of evangelicalism that seems to think advanced forms of celibacy for young adults are scripturally prescribed, even to the point of bragging that “my wife and I never held hands till we were married.” Is this overcompensation for the sexual revolution? Wheaton College just said it was OK to have dances. What kind of fanaticism ever convinced us there was something wrong with a dance in the first place? Yet I grew up hearing dozens of sermons against such cultural trivialities, all decorated with rhetoric that sounded as if God really cared about such things. Spiritual warfare easily moves into fanaticism, but I will spare you how I know that.
Can we just say a few things here? Why do we have to have so much external Christianity in our lives? Why do churches act as if every day needs a church activity? Why does all our music have to be Christian? Why do Christian t-shirts appear to remind us that we have to “be a witness” in everything? Why do we need Christian animation for kids and Christian books for teens and Christian movies and Christian novels and a smothering, mediocre Christian product for everything? It’s because we can’t spot or admit fanaticism in ourselves. We can spot it when our kid hangs Eminem on every wall and dyes his hair and talks in rap lyrics, but we can’t spot it in ourselves. We can spot it in our neighbor’s devotion to NASCAR or our boss’s insistence that everyone come to the company picnic or be docked, but we can’t spot it in ourselves. But it is there nonetheless.
The Mind Is A Wonderful Thing To Waste
My fourth observation refers to the words of John Wesley at the beginning of this essay. Fanaticism abandons the legitimate role of reason in Christianity, and makes Christianity a dangerously irrational, and emotionally driven, faith.
Edwards would have been floored to hear his spiritual descendents denounce the mind as the instrument of the devil, but a war on reason in religion has been declared, and fanaticism is increasingly unchallenged because no one will think it through.
Take the recent criticisms of Charismatic excesses (such as the Pensacola Revival) by men like Hank Hannegraff. Respondents universally say that the attitude of the critics is hostile and biased. This may be so. Hannegraff does seem to have an ax to grind. But, really what does that matter when his criticism is substantial and reasonable? (Which it certainly is.) The objection is that Hannegraff cannot understand these workings of the Holy Spirit if he approaches it simply through reason, and not through entering into the Spirit’s work. This is fanatical nonsense.
Why not? In fact, why wouldn’t the rational evaluation of an atheist hold out the possibility of a truthful evaluation? “Well,” someone will say, “because the natural man cannot understand the things of God. They are spiritually discerned.” Right enough when we are talking about spiritual things, and surely there is room for misunderstanding. But abuse, lies and manipulation may be more obvious to the reasoned observer than to the spiritual one. Sadly, in instances when Christians have become abusive, it has usually been the reasoned, “unspiritual man” who has written the story and told the truth. The mind is God’s creative gift, and it works in accordance with all He does. Despising the mind is neither spiritual nor Biblical. The admission that our minds are fallen and need renewal does not mean our minds cannot understand right and wrong, true and false, and must be abandoned for feelings and leadings.
Christian fanatics tell their followers to skip the rational and go to the spiritual. Decode that and it means believe what you are told and do what we tell you to do. And when your brain kicks in, it’s the devil. Using the devil as the scapegoat for any reasoned objection, question, or caution is among the most offensive things fanatics do. Yet evangelical leaders continue their retreat from reason, with only a few voices calling for the brakes.
Education is less and less a requirement for ministry, and an increasing number of ministers are told that education in theology, languages or philosophy is really useless in a pragmatic and entrepreneurial culture. Many Christians never read, and what they do read often attacks rational religion and hawks the irrational. Charismatics, Pentecostals and Protestant gnostics no longer explain or exposit. Instead, they reveal and announce what they have discovered through mystical means. Most appalling of all, Christians don’t think. They feel, and as such, they are becoming as barbaric and contradictory as the rest of the culture. Even more foolish than those who are fools without God, in many instances.
In my own ministry, I have been repeatedly criticized for my education, and told plainly that I have a lack of sensitivity to the Spirit because I am “intelligent.” When I present reasoned objections or analysis, many of my Christian co-workers roll their eyes, and reject what I have to say out of hand because it isn’t “spiritual” enough. The many critiques you read on Internet Monk are often greeted with letters and responses from my fellow Christians that fault me for being out of touch with the Spirit. Unbelievers do idolize the mind above God, but God does not despise the mind in conveying truth. He revealed Himself as Word, and that is rational in every way, even though ultimately, incomprehensible.
Fanatics love such an environment. It allows them to operate unhindered from simple logic and consequences. Ignorance has consequences, and fanaticism is both the cause and the consequence of it.
God Told Me To Tell You What To Do
My fifth, and mercifully final, observation about fanaticism is about the eventual manipulation of people that fanaticism allows. Fanatics are bothered that you don’t know about the dangers of meat, so they preach at you till you become a vegetarian. Fanatics can’t stand the fact that you haven’t read the latest health fad and adjusted your life entirely. Fanatics want you to know the conspiracy theories that the media is covering up. They are people, as Winston Churchill said, who can’t change their mind and won’t change the subject.”
Grace is a wonderful thing for many reasons, but perhaps nowhere as wonderful as in its proclamation that I do not have to save or change you to be a Christian. I am accepted in Jesus, just as I am, and though Christians have a variety of motives for their interactions with their fellow human beings, forcible change of others is not one of God’s requirements for any Christian. In other words, nothing should be further from us than the desire to manipulate or force others to behave as we choose.
I have about a thousand pages of a very bad novel lying around my office. The thing appeals to me because I have a character who occasionally says some very wise things, things I wish I’d said. Here’s one: “I’m not interested in Christianity as the quest to convert people. I’m interested in Christianity the way I am interested in bread and water. The very essentials of life. Do away with food or air for a while and watch how interesting they suddenly become.” That’s my understanding of grace. My witness to you is how vital Christ is to me. If changing or manipulating you becomes vital to my Christian life, I have moved from grace to fear and it is not Christianity.
Now I realize all of us who have callings that involve children or employees or students know we have a right to require behavior from them, and that some kind of motivation, even some mild manipulation or coercion, may come into the picture. But this is not the true nature of God’s message to us as human beings. If, as a father, I require my son to be at the family dinner table every night, I cannot leave the impression that enforcing such a requirement is the total truth about me–or God. Hopefully, I will communicate that love and respect for the family will bring him to the table to enjoy the family and to be part of it. God freely invites us to His table. That is the bottom line of my interactions with others for whom I am responsible.
So I would plead with evangelicals to raise their voices against the fanaticism that manipulates our fellow human beings in any way. No matter how polite or subtle or well dressed the manipulator. No how how spiritual or well-meaning their spiel. If he does not respect the freedom of God and the freedom of his fellow human being, he is a manipulator using God as an excuse to make people do what he wants. That is fanaticism of the worst kind.
I am bone weary of evangelicalism that uses lies and sales tactics in evangelism. I am tired of listening to pastors and ministers extort money by fanatical means. I am frightened by the kinds of manipulations used to draw young people into evangelism and missions. I am angered that so many evangelicals are ready to impose their will on the culture with the bogus justification that this is a “Christian nation.” I am disgusted at the tricks and tortures evangelical leaders and gurus require of their true believers. Manipulation is ugly, and it is the bitter fruit of unchecked and unrestrained fanaticism. We should be done with it.
Bonhoeffer’s Unfinished Idea
As a young Christian, I read a lot Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and loved his Letters and Papers From Prison. In some of Bonhoeffer’s writings, he talked about a tantalizing idea: religionless Christianity. I will not quote Bonhoeffer, because what he says about the subject was never clear enough for anyone to do much more than speculate about what he meant. The idea was dropped in a few letters, and never explained adequately before his martyrdom.
I have often thought about Bonhoeffer’s phrase and its possibilities. It is akin to something I heard in fundamentalism. “Christianity isn’t a religion. It’s a relationship.” Bonhoeffer would have probably agreed, but he seemed to not be thinking of evangelicalism’s “personal Savior,” but was talking about how Christianity was lived out in the world. Coming from his Lutheran mindset, he may have envisioned a form of Christianity that freely moved in the secular world without the trappings or practices of external religious tradition; a kind of Christianity that partook of the gracious good news of the Gospel so much that all of our lives became worship and our worship became our lives in a world where we loved, labored, studied and served alongside other men and women–without asking them to be religious at all.
Religion, in this instance, is the external shell that surrounds the core. Gospel and Grace, surrounded by religion. Bonhoeffer was, perhaps, saying let the shell fall away. It isn’t needed. The Good News is utterly true and needs no sustaining from religious behavior, structures or institutions. Bonhoeffer may have been thinking that it is religion–and its inevitable connection to the weaknesses, ignorance and flaws of human beings–that stands in the way of the Gospel. And surely he would have thought of fanaticism as one of those aspects of religion that served no purpose except to distract from the reality of the Christ-empowered life.
Was Bonhoeffer, among other things, trying to conceive of a Christianity free from the distraction and curse of fanaticism? At the beginning of this essay is a quote from the pre-Roman Catholic John Henry Newman saying that the “glory” of the English church was the “Via Media,” the “middle way” between Rome and the excesses of Protestantism. Whether Anglicanism achieved this or not is a matter of debate, but surely evangelicalism needs to purposely steer its ship to a contemporary “Via Media.” A middle path between the errors of dead Protestant scholasticism and the excesses of fanaticism. At present, evangelicals are traveling under winds that are carrying them away from the rocks of dead rationalism and towards the reefs of fanaticism. Avoiding the rocks and the reefs will take a strong and steady hand determined to find that elusive middle way.