Benoid Denizet-Lewis had yet another a fascinating story in the New York Times this past weekend. This time it was about Michael Glatze, a former gay rights activist who has since renounced his past. The two used to be friends and colleagues at XY, a San-Francisco-based national magazine for young gay men.
It’s a news piece, in one sense, but written in that Denizet-Lewis style where the author is actively involved in the narration. You get the feeling you learn as much about the author as you do the subject of the piece. In this case, I didn’t actually get the feeling I learned hardly anything about the subject but I still enjoyed the piece.
Right at the beginning we learn:
Though only a year removed from Dartmouth when he arrived at XY, Michael had seemingly read every gay book ever written. While I was busy trying to secure a boyfriend, he was busy contemplating queer theory, marching in gay rights rallies and urging young people to celebrate (not just accept) their same-sex attractions. Michael was devoted to helping gay youth, and he was particularly affected by the letters the magazine received regularly from teenagers who were rejected by their religious families. “Christian fundamentalists should burn in hell!” he told me once, slamming his fist on his desk. I had never met anyone so sure of himself.
This is the first of four uses of the word “fundamentalist” in the article, none of which are defined. We’re told, for instance:
It was a good question. Had part of me come to “save” my old friend from the clutches of the Christian right? Though I don’t doubt that sexual attraction can evolve, I was skeptical of Michael’s claim of heterosexuality — and I rejected his argument that “homosexuality prevents us from finding our true self within.” Besides, I had a hard time believing that Michael’s “true self” was a fundamentalist Christian who writes derogatorily about being gay. But whatever aspirations I had about persuading Michael to join the ranks of ex-ex-gays, they were no match for his eagerness to save me.
Skip over the rather fascinating line from the author about his completely politically incorrect view that sexual attraction can change. See how we’re told that Glatze is now a “fundamentalist” Christian? The author uses the term once more and one of Glatze’s ex-boyfriends from a three-partner-relationship also uses the term.
At no time does an actual Christian use the term. I literally have no idea why the author is using the term. Is it because Glatze is now a fundamentalist? If so, the article didn’t explain that. In fact, while the piece could not better show the author’s turmoil over Glatze’s change of heart, I wish we’d learned more about Glatze himself. And maybe the author wasn’t the right person to tell that part of the story.
The article mentions that Glatze is now at a Bible school. The term “Bible school” is used seven times. But, oddly, we never learn what that school is. Because the opening paragraph mentions that the author is driving around the plains north of Cheyenne, I wonder if it’s not Frontier School of the Bible. From a look at that school’s doctrinal views, it’s clear they’re not “fundamentalist.” But maybe he’s attending a different school? I don’t know.
But what does it say about the education of a writer such as Denizet-Lewis on matters of religion? Is his vocabulary really so limited that the only word he can think of to describe someone with traditional religious views is “fundamentalist”? Really? I can’t help but think of the Reformed Christian philosopher Alvin Plantinga who tmatt quoted recently:
I fully realize that the dreaded f-word will be trotted out to stigmatize any model of this kind. Before responding, however, we must first look into the use of this term ‘fundamentalist’. On the most common contemporary academic use of the term, it is a term of abuse or disapprobation, rather like ‘son of a bitch’, more exactly ‘sonovabitch’, or perhaps still more exactly (at least according to those authorities who look to the Old West as normative on matters of pronunciation) ‘sumbitch’. When the term is used in this way, no definition of it is ordinarily given. (If you called someone a sumbitch, would you feel obliged first to define the term?) Still, there is a bit more to the meaning of ‘fundamentalist’ (in this widely current use): it isn’t simply a term of abuse. In addition to its emotive force, it does have some cognitive content, and ordinarily denotes relatively conservative theological views. That makes it more like ‘stupid sumbitch’ (or maybe ‘fascist sumbitch’?) than ‘sumbitch’ simpliciter. It isn’t exactly like that term either, however, because its cognitive content can expand and contract on demand; its content seems to depend on who is using it. In the mouths of certain liberal theologians, for example, it tends to denote any who accept traditional Christianity, including Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, Calvin, and Barth; in the mouths of devout secularists like Richard Dawkins or Daniel Dennett, it tends to denote anyone who believes there is such a person as God. The explanation is that the term has a certain indexical element: its cognitive content is given by the phrase ‘considerably to the right, theologically speaking, of me and my enlightened friends.’ The full meaning of the term, therefore (in this use), can be given by something like ‘stupid sumbitch whose theological opinions are considerably to the right of mine’.
Exactly. It’s a term that tells us nothing, really, about the subject but something about the author. And while we tend to like Denizet-Lewis’ work here and I always kind of find him fascinating, in this case it was a bit too much. Particularly for a story where religion plays such a key role, it’s important to describe those religious views rather than denigrate them.