Zealotry: A Danger

A personal e-mail yesterday from a blog reader, RJS, suggested another idea for this series on zealotry. What is the impact of a high fences or thick fences? That is, what happens when one is accustomed to dwell in the security and safety of a fence (what I’m calling a beyond the Bible immunity) and then learns, after all, that such a fence is wrong? It’s happened you know.
The stories here, of course, are legion. It is not unusual for some young adults who grew up in a family or church with lots of tall and thick fences to wander off to the university, discover the thrill of some freedom beyond one of those fences, and then feel the entire fence collapse along with everything connected to it. I’ve seen some kids nearly lose their faith because they thought it was impossible to be a Christian and enjoy a beer on a Friday night. (I simplify.)

The emerging church movement’s focusing on authentic relationships and fellowship is sometimes discovered by some who grew up with a strict “go to church every Sunday morning for SS class and worship at 10am or else.” Some of those, when they’ve discovered that “church can happen” on other than 11am Sunday morning begin to wonder if “church” (as they learned it) is of any value. You get the idea.
If a family or church focuses on a fence or attributes high significance to a fence, then when that fence collapses everything significant attributed to that fence might also collapse. E.g., if a given praxis is vested with more significance than it should (and it nearly always is), then along with the collapse of the fence goes the more significant ideas that are buttressed or protected by that fence.
The danger of fences is not as Robert Frost said. He said “good fences make good neighbors.” What do “good fences” make for us?

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  • Scot,
    I’m enjoying your series on zealotry. You have clearly defined both the motives and praxis of “fence-making.”
    “Good fences” make pseudo-pure ghettos governed by judgmental zealots. Saul of Tarsus was zealous and he still roams around, especially in the blogosphere. Did you see the blog titled “Is Tony Jones a Christian?”

  • Some knowingly build fences because they see a good reason for fear. They are very open about being afraid, afraid for their children, afraid for themselves. Their fear was wall long before they constructed the fence. The question then is how to build a gate and door to reach them to let in the perfect love that casts out fear.

  • Here’s the poem Scot–the tension is between the poet who doesn’t like a wall and the neighbor who wants to keep it. The fence keeper is “savage-armed”, they wear their fingers “rough” keeping the wall. I can’t get away from my English Major roots. Sorry
    Robert Frost, “Mending Wall”
    Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,
    That sends the frozen-ground-swell under it,
    And spills the upper boulders in the sun,
    And makes gaps even two can pass abreast.
    The work of hunters is another thing:
    I have come after them and made repair
    Where they have left not one stone on a stone,
    But they would have the rabbit out of hiding,
    To please the yelping dogs. The gaps I mean,
    No one has seen them made or heard them made,
    But at spring mending-time we find them there.
    I let my neighbor know beyond the hill;
    And on a day we meet to walk the line
    And set the wall between us once again.
    We keep the wall between us as we go.
    To each the boulders that have fallen to each.
    And some are loaves and some so nearly balls
    We have to use a spell to make them balance:
    ‘Stay where you are until our backs are turned!’
    We wear our fingers rough with handling them.
    Oh, just another kind of out-door game,
    One on a side. It comes to little more:
    There where it is we do not need the wall:
    He is all pine and I am apple orchard.
    My apple trees will never get across
    And eat the cones under his pines, I tell him.
    He only says, ‘Good fences make good neighbors’.
    Spring is the mischief in me, and I wonder
    If I could put a notion in his head:
    ‘Why do they make good neighbors? Isn’t it
    Where there are cows?
    But here there are no cows.
    Before I built a wall I’d ask to know
    What I was walling in or walling out,
    And to whom I was like to give offence.
    Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,
    That wants it down.’ I could say ‘Elves’ to him,
    But it’s not elves exactly, and I’d rather
    He said it for himself. I see him there
    Bringing a stone grasped firmly by the top
    In each hand, like an old-stone savage armed.
    He moves in darkness as it seems to me~
    Not of woods only and the shade of trees.
    He will not go behind his father’s saying,
    And he likes having thought of it so well
    He says again, “Good fences make good neighbors.”

  • Ken,
    I was alluding to Frost’s great poem. “Something … that wants it down.” Our “elves” are freedom and the need to grow.
    I think most of us agree that there are times for fences for individuals, and perhaps for families. Fences, however, are too easy to build and too simple for life and create problems when one learns the fence is not right.
    I saw that piece. A good example of zealotry.

  • Scott M

    ‘Fences’ need to be more fluid, dependent on specific circumstances, and based more on our care for others than for ourselves. For instance, in Frost’s famous poem, an instance when a fence does make a good neighbor is when it, for instance, keeps your cows from invading their space. That is a fence established as a good neighbor out of concern and love for your neighbor. So is the fence meant to exclude or ‘other’ or is it based in love? That seems to me to be the key distinction.

  • Do fences in this series function in a similar way to what the New Perspective identifies as the boundary markers or badges of first century Judaism?
    Not necessarily in a negative way, fences are the first appearance and encounter of the other. But when this leads to a parochialism of ‘our god’, the result is a denial of who God is; when this leads to separating us from them, rather than extending hospitality, the result is a denial of humanity — ours as much as theirs.

  • chris jones

    Watch out guys and gals about making fences around not being a fence builder.

  • Scott, your writing and ideas are rich! Thanks for sharing them. I really don’t have anything to add here, though I did grow up in some pretty conservative holiness circles that had their own share of fences. But I know someone who has contributed to this issue. Keith Drury has an excellent article titled, “The Story of My Faith Meltdown” it’s a biographical account of “fences” and zealotry in his own life. His blog is at http://www.drurywriting.com/keith I benefited so much from reading it I thought I would mention it.

  • Here’s the link to Drury’s article: http://www.drurywriting.com/keith/faith.meltdown.story.htm

  • BeckyR

    If you want to think of good fences as we have boundaries, personal and biblical – the do’s and do not’s we do follow. Without going extra biblical. Ok, another Schaefferism. In one of his books, as an illustration, he says if you go into the house of someone and they have this painting on a wall that shouts of their despair, hopelessness. We don’t tear it off the wall and tell them only that it’s wrong. No, we sit down and have conversation with them about their despair and hopelessness. A good fence would have the conversation. A bad fence would tear the painting off the wall, or have it so those paintings can’t be on walls, or protect their community from exposure to such paintings. But, we do have boundaries to be able to identify the painting speaks despair. So, a good fence solicits conversation? But it goes further than that, because where then is the definite boundary, like Paul in Corinthians telling them to expel the brother from their midst? That’s a definite wall. But that fence when used well, is done in such a way that the brother feels welcome to come back when set aright.

  • Chris Jones,
    You’re right, we do have to be careful of the “no-fence fence.” That comes by trusting God, and that’s not a fence.

  • This series has been great.
    It’s so true that when the fences come down, usually all comes down with it. People think their faith is threatened apart from this false security they’ve had from the fence. They must put up other fences, and so live in this kind of pseudo Christian existence. Or just abandon “Christianity” altogether. I’ve seen it happen and have tussled with it myself. And I wrestle not to build fences to this day. And sometimes have to tear down the little fences I put up. I tend to want to confront some fences around me, like the fence of “no drinking”, or the fence of “right politics” or other things that I think are fences.
    People need to see us living out the authentic life of Jesus’ community of faith and of God’s kingdom. Being willing to trash fences, as Jesus did with the woman at the well (as Joe Stowell so enably, by the Spirit of God, shared with us in our chapel today).

  • Scot, I’m assuming that you encounter at least some people at North Park whose fences get ripped down as freshmen, and they aren’t able to recover? It’s as if the chair is ripped out from under them and they don’t have anywhere left but the floor.
    I guess my fear is that without the fences (which I agree, need to go down), one can feel like they’re left with nothing, and abandon the core truths that the fences were built around in the first place. I wonder if as a college prof, you have further insight into strengthening the core of faith for those who may feel obliterated in the wake of the demise of their fences?

  • Tall Pants,
    Again, I’m not sure I have anything simple, but we need to learn to focus on the centralities — like loving God and loving others — instead of the fences. The freedom that comes with the core of Christian ethics, and the core of the gospel in God’s transforming grace, is important.

  • RJS

    Keith Drury’s story linked in comments #8,9 is really interesting. I liked the analogy of pencil, ink and blood.
    I have known many who have smashed through the fences and on over the cliff – nothing left to hold on to. It happens all the time in the college/university environment. Probably happens in many other situations as well, but this is the environment I am most familiar with.
    I think Drury is right – in this situation you must start at the core and build outward – realizing which fences/doctrines are absolutely essential – drawn in blood; which are good, probably true, and arguably necessary – drawn in ink; and which are perhaps useful for some, for a time, but are completely erasable – drawn in pencil.
    I too found the core expressed in the ancient orthodox creeds – the Apostles Creed and the Nicene Creed. Or more precisely in the core reality that the creator God exists and core doctrines of his nature and work in the world as expressed in the creeds.

  • Ian

    “Good walls” have gates in them.
    The idea of a wall is to keep the “bad people” out and the “good people” in, but every good wall has a gate.
    Jesus calls himself the gate. For us to make a wall that does not include Christ, the gate… do we go beyond what is needful?
    Fences keep out what is bad – and there is much to say for them on an individual basis. But does Christ wall out anyone but those who rebel against him?

  • Are you against creeds? Are creeds false fences? They are certainly something other than the Bible–but of course a good creed reflects the teaching of the Bible. How and what do you define as central? Love God. That is great and the same thing AW Tozer said 50 years ago in response to easy-believism. The difference being he was willing to flesh out who God was and how one was to love him. I do not see this hear–I have not searched your entire blog either. The goal of biblical theology is to end up with systematic theology or (I am sure this word will go over well on this site) scholastic theology. The tradition you sometime speak highly of practiced this. You seem to pretty criticizing conservatives and the like with simple arguments. You started this whole thing out with drawing a false argument between liberals and conservatives.
    Finally, we have to have fences–hence your primacy of the Bible not Bible only–what are they?

  • Ian,
    You’re just yacking now. I’m not sure you’ve read what I’ve said about fences.
    The series discusses “fencing” as praxis not credal faith. Credal faith is not a fence but the Church’s understanding of the gospel and the core of our faith.

  • Scot said
    Torah: God is the healer.
    Fence: God is the healer, but he doesn’t always (or any longer) heal.
    Immunity: We are not kooks.
    Implication: We fail to trust God to heal.
    Judgment: Those who practice healing are quacks and fakes.
    I found this really useful.
    I have always been reluctant to qualify God’s current ability or willingness to heal. That seems to big a call to make.
    I am quite happy to say that I do not have enough faith, or that we just do not get it yet.
    Actually, I think there a myriad of reasons why we do not experience the fullness of healing promised. I have explored some of these at http://www.kingwatch.co.nz/Church_Ministry/healing.htm
    One thing is clear: we should never tell the sick person that they do not have enough faith. That just produces condemnation. It is usually the church, which does not have enough faith.

  • David

    I am thinking that sometimes…….maybe it is the zealots who by thier fences…….and with that sense of immunity cast stones. “Let him who is without sin cast the first stone.” We are all sinners and therefore should not be picking up stones to throw at anyone, even if others are wrong. Fences give a false sense of security becasue the focus is on what we do or do not do instead of what Jesus did. Butt……..if you are going to build fences…….. this from rjs #15..this might help. In the Navy we used to have books to assist us with the procedures of flying planes. In these books they had Notes where extra emphasis was required……Caution where damage to the aircraft may occur if not followed and Warnings…that would result in injuries or death. There were three levels of emphasis to help the new pilots figure out what was of minor importance, important and really important. Maybe fences might be good initially like training wheels on a bike. Help the new folks get a handle of things but not the ultimate destination.

  • BeckyR

    Schaeffer said (yep, there I go again) about taking the roof off, or was it removing the floor, and he was talking about doing apologetics with the unbeliever. But he said in talking with them, getting down to the gritty things, we mustn’t remove the floor till we have something to offer that replaces it. They did have attempted suicides at L’Abri (well, I remember reading about 1) and he pressed the importance of not leaving a person dangling in mid air. A precarious place.
    I think if we are going to confront a person’s fence, it must only be done in the context of relationship, and so we follow the person through what is after fence removal. Or better said, we teach how we continue to remove fences and find what to replace them with.
    Hey, I’m not getting emails when there’s additional comments.

  • Hi Scot.
    Maybe you’ve addressed this already, but I think a huge problem with trusting fences, boundary markers and membership badges is that some of it seems to be organically connected with the Gospel core in a legitimate way – like much of Paul’s letters (e.g. Paul’s halakic statements about practices that he “teaches in every church”).

  • MarkE

    I was “listening” in on an atheistic forum where they were discussing the issue of deconverting Christians (they can be very evangelistic!). They were encouraging each other to be very careful when challenging another’s beliefs as it can create existential dispair in the person. I thought that was compassionate.
    Messing with beliefs (fences?) can do that if it is not done supportively. We seem to need an equilibrium in our worldview. When it gets disrupted, there is an adjustment period. That is when we need someone to life walk with us.

  • Jamie Westlake

    It seems that many people in the emerging movement have come out of fundamentalist traditions to feel the freedom of no fences. I grew up in a very liberal church where the word “pluralism” could have been on a worship banner up front. What does it mean to have “no fences,” however, when you had so few anyway? Augustine spoke of the 4 walls of the church providing “graceful limits.” An “anything goes” ethic (which is not what I hear you advocating!) can chain us, too. The introduction of some appropriate walls can bring us greater freedom. As I have said yes to more graceful limits in my life, I think it’s been very easy to step over the line into building bad walls. I guess that’s always a temptation we face. It seems that what is shared regardless of a fundamentalist or very liberal starting place is the need to discern carefully what is baby and what is bathwater on our journey with Jesus.

  • I’ve known a lot of people, from all denominational backgrounds, who grew up with solid faith but lost it when they went off to college. Many of them, however, have come back, and make much better Christians as a result – they’re more mature, more understanding, less harsh.
    False fences, or good fences applied with bad attitudes, can be a problem. But sometimes people rebel not because the fences are bad, but just because it’s a process of growing up. Christian parents set high standards for themselves in terms of parenting, and can be devastated if the kids go off in different directions. Sometimes they were so perfectionist, they may have unintentionally driven the kids off. But it’s not always the parent’s fault.
    This makes me wonder: is the problem really fences, or is it a problem of Christian maturity? And I mean this for both kids and adults.

  • Clare Krishan

    Is the “herding” metaphor of Frost’s poem perhaps leading us to consider too narrow a concept of zeal/zealotry? I have been tempted to chime in earlier in this great topic, but didn’t permitting myself time to ponder how to float some kind of alternative idea.
    During prayer yesterday, the verse “new wine in new wine skins” came to me as an apt metaphor for zeal. New wine is still rich in acidic fruit juices and sugars that ferment to form the alcohol that preserves the precious liquid. New wine has an abundance of ‘zeal,’ bubbles stretching the supple young leather with the sugar’s energy consumed in the process leaving tanins to age and mature the receptacle as food for the journey. Zeal is a good thing…
    Perhaps zealotry is experienced when new wine is forced to reside in old wine skins, releasing its acids and gases just as nature intended, in the process cracking, leaking and finally bursting the tight confines of a stiff old wineskin? The ‘Law’ defines what a wineskin is and how to use it with zeal, the false thrift of zealotry mistreats the premature contents by re-using a mature receptacle with all the unpleasant consequences of contravening of the covenant? Zealotry attempts to coerce man-made conformity on unripened fruits, while zeal’s ebullience permits those same fruits to be pressed and fermented by life’s experiences according to His Divine Plan. Does this reverberate with anyone?

  • Clare,
    I think your image works. Nice thoughts.

  • Clare Krishan

    Funny how we stumble on wee things that confirm us in faith – here’s a commentary on a Reformation Anglican priest’s poetic references to learning as a “winepress”