Dancing at the Fundamentalist Ball
A Special Essay by Michael Spencer
I am almost through with fundamentalism. Almost.
There are still some places where I want to hang on to my fundamentalism, but not many. After spending most of my life listening to my fundamentalist relation sing their song in the current cultural climate, I long ago quit singing with them. Eventually, I put down my hymnal and left the choir loft. Now I think it’s time to leave the building altogether.
Of course, I realize some liberals will always think I am a fundamentalist because I believe in classically orthodox Christianity, the truthfulness of the Bible (rightly interpreted,) the resurrection of Jesus, miracles, prayer, the church and creation. The somewhat theologically astute will realize that stadiums full of non-fundamentalists believe all that stuff, but among that segment of American culture that finds any serious place given to faith fundamentalist, then I will always be mistaken for one. It’s fine with me, even fun, especially around really angry liberals (who are rather fundamentalistic themselves.)
Among, fundamentalists, however, my departure has been noticed for some time, both theologically and culturally. I hold no place for young earth creationism. I do not read the King James Version, and I do not want others to do so. My description of scripture does not choose to use the word, “inerrant.” I do not believe in the rapture. I abhor revivalism and its shallow, manipulative techniques. The four Spiritual laws are not the Gospel. Aisle walking is just plain wrong. I strongly suspect that most of what is on the shelves of Christian bookstores is somewhere between shallow and heretical. Women in ministry is good Bible as far as I am concerned. I avoid TBN like a fundamentalist avoids MTV. I like a whole bunch of Roman Catholics. Sometimes, I don’t pray over my food. (Actually, I pray one prayer on January 1st for the whole year, but that’s another column.)
On the cultural front, I consider the temperate use of alcohol to be harmless, if not mildly virtuous. (Alert Baptists: Psalms 4:7, 104:15. Read it first before you do anything rash.) I wish I danced and intend for my children to do so. I read a variety of books that fundamentalists consider occultic, worldly and dangerous. I listen to music ranging from Led Zeppelin to the Beatles to Dave Mathews. I find Contemporary Christian music to be, in the main, embarrassing. (With a few significant exceptions.) I love movies and the language doesn’t bother me, though I certainly don’t want to talk that way. I have raised my children in the Christian faith, but I have not sheltered them from bad culture, bad language or flawed people. I have not taught my children that it impresses God if you dress nicely for church, wear a WWJD bracelet or listen to the Christian radio station. I’ve actually told them God is great and loving enough to speak through any medium he desires. I bought my son three Harry Potter books. I love Halloween. I think Landover Baptist Church is stone cold funny.
This could go on, but I would belabor, bore and give my critics ammunition. I left the Fundamentalist ranch a long time ago. Every so often, I look back from my new view up in the hills and think of the good times, the good friends and the good truth, but I am not raising my kids there, and I am not going back.
And here is the main reason I have decided to move on. (There are many, for you e-mailers.) I don’t think Jesus was a mean, negative person who viewed life as a conspiracy. I think Jesus was a positive, gracious person who thought God was into everything, which was a matter of great rejoicing. I have decided Jesus was not a fundamentalist, and so I am not going to be either.
First, the mean part. I know being mean doesn’t have a thing to do with anything, but fundamentalists are mean a lot of the time, and they seem to think this is somehow OK. Now when it’s a Muslim fundamentalist being mean we see this rather easily. I know that Christian fundamentalists don’t blow things up or cheer those who do, but we are talking only about a matter of degree.
The best example of this is the reaction of fundamentalists to Hollywood. A few years ago, Tinseltown put out a perfectly horrible little movie called “The Last Temptation of Christ.” The particular problems with this piece of cinema aren’t really germane here, but let’s just say that a nation that fills the theaters for “American Pie II” and “Scary Movie” was not going to be excited about this entertainment. It was a stinker, of the highest order. Yet, fundamentalists mounted a campaign of protest, spleen-venting, tantrum-throwing and name calling that has yet to be matched. Just plain, grit-your-teeth, grind-your-jaw, get-in-your-face-and-spit mean and mad. The over-reaction of fundamentalists dignified this movie a thousand times more than it deserved by making it a victim of censorship.
The meanness that really bothers me is that reserved for those opponents of fundamentalism who simply disagree with them over one of their favorite topics. People who like Harry Potter. Or who endorse women in ministry or reject young earth creationism. Or happen to want alcohol served in restaurants. Hey- these are issues on which real Christians disagree, but fundamentalists chew on these issues with all the civility of a night at WWF Raw. I’ve not just seen this meanness, I’ve experienced it and, unfortunately, I’ve dished it out.
Don’t get me wrong- in the public arena, it’s sometimes give as good as you get, and some of those who want to take over our culture and reshape it into their own image are angry, mean and even vicious. But tough-mindedness and meanness are two different things. I’m happy to play hardball, and I want to win the culture war, but I would like to leave the meanness to someone else.
Then there’s negativity. By this I mean an overall approach to life as a series of prohibitions and restrictions. Now I recognize that there are plenty of negatives in the Bible, and lots of rules against various things of varying significance. Take the Ten Commandments. Quite a few “Thou shalt not’s” in there. But the first and greatest commandment, the commandment that dominates and sets the tone, is to love God with all we are and to love our neighbor as ourselves. The relationship between these commandments is important here: it is the positive that controls the negative. You shall not commit adultery is controlled by loving God, neighbor and self rightly. The reverse- to love God by what we do NOT do- is only true in a limited sense, but don’t try and tell that to your fundamentalist friends.
Fundamentalists love God by not doing what the larger culture does, by not sinning, by not being worldly, by not indulging temptation. If you haven’t noticed, the negative way is simpler, easier to define and far more likely to be controlled by an authority figure who eliminates all the questions and gray areas. Trusting people to love God and do as they please scares fundamentalists to death.
This negative approach is generously applied to young people, who thrive on being told what NOT to do, and who adults like to believe can be controlled. Eventually, however, the negative approach begins to force a certain amount of cognitive dissonance, and a choice must be made on how to maintain the superiority of the negative commands over the positive. There is no one more perplexed than a thoughtful fundamentalist, who realizes that there really is no virtue in not dancing, but whose believing community insists that not dancing is an article of faith.
This, by the way, is why fundamentalists never produce any real art, and why their ventures into film and music are so predictably awful. Their conception of art is so dominated by the negative approach, that characters can’t be real human beings and lyrics can’t be real poetry. The whole realm of the imagination and the appreciation of beauty have to be controlled by what they can not represent and how things are not to be expressed. It’s no wonder that the ranks of real artists trying to exist in fundamentalism resembles a community of abused and neglected refugees.
I believe scripture teaches that negativity is no more able to create true virtue than a fence is able to grow a crop. In fact, it was Jesus who said that a house swept clean of seven demons was once again ripe for the same, or even worse, occupants. I have discovered that loving God, neighbor and self is far more than the accumulated negative commands of my fundamentalist upbringing. It is a LOT more challenging than keeping the rules. It is so difficult, that transformation by God himself is my only hope.
Finally, the conspiratorial mindset. Fundamentalism is awash with conspiracy theories. The devil, the Illuminati, the CFR, the World Council of Churches, the NEA, Satanists, New Agers, The Networks, Procter and Gamble, Madelyn Murray O’Hare, the relatives of Bill Clinton…well, that one has some interesting possibilities. Anyway, as someone said, it’s not just a conspiracy, it’s a LIFESTYLE.
Prominent in this kind of thinking is the belief that participating in any aspect of the larger culture exposes one to forces posed to drag the victim into witchcraft and demon possession. Eric Rigney’s endorsement of the Harry Potter books has yielded message after message warning that the books are a gateway into bondage to occultic powers. Where is a single shred of evidence that Harry Potter is any more harmful than Snow White or the tales of King Arthur? The predictability of fundamentalist conspiracy theories have become downright annoying.
The conspiratorial prophets- Warnke, Hunt, Van Impe, Lindsey, Maddux, et al- exert a remarkable amount of unquestioned control in the fundamentalist community. How can so many intelligent people see conspiracies in everything, yet never question themselves or their sources at all? It is the same impulse that turned hysterical teenagers into witches in Salem, and wound up hanging the innocent.
It is here that fundamentalism shows such a remarkable difference from the Bible. While taking the reality of evil totally seriously, Holy Scripture never falls to the level of seeing conspiracies as the explanations for events that are hard to understand or impossible to control. A sovereign God, fallen angels and sinful men are the full extent of the Bible’s conspiracy theory. The early Christians did not waste their time teaching about Roman or pagan conspiracies, but simply lived and worshipped faithfully. It was not a mistake that the apostle Paul counseled believers to avoid myths, fables, and gossip.
Yet fundamentalists don’t avoid this way of thinking, they absolutely revel in seeing evil conspiracies at work in everything. So prevalent are conspiracies as the explanation for events, that a kind of concrete pessimism permeates fundamentalism, leaving Christians to believe that nothing is as it seems and only a conspiracy that really explain life, culture and history. One has to salute those in the fundamentalist community who have defied this dark way of looking at the world and have gone out into the world to do good.
As I said earlier, I do not see any of these trends in Jesus. Instead, I see grace, love and faith, lived out in bringing the Kingdom of God into the world through compassion, servanthood and sacrifice. I am sure that Jesus might be called a theological fundamentalist by some, but does anyone really see the spirit of modern fundamentalism in Jesus?
My departure from fundamentalism will be impossible to explain to fundamentalists. To them, to depart from the community in any way is to call into question one’s basic Christian commitment. They are convinced that if one is in touch with God, he or she will agree with them and stand with them in things large and small. It is sadly common among fundamentalists to respond to any deviation from their worldview with an invitation to pray and listen to God more closely, as if God spoke each of their beliefs directly into their ears. But I am at peace with this, and I am glad that my children will not grow up, as I did, believing all Catholics were going to hell, anyone who drank was lost, dancing was evil, movies and secular music were of the devil, and, of course, we and only we, were right.
I missed my prom, because my church told me it was evil to go. Other than a weak moment in the 8th grade, I’ve never been to a dance. I’d love to say that once I’ve renounced my fundamentalism, I’ll be the first one out on the dance floor, but its not that easy. It will take a lifetime to get over the narrow mindset of fundamentalism. But if you stop by the nursing home around, say 2033, that will be me turning circles in the wheelchair, looking for a partner.