“there is no such thing as fundamentalist art”–(or, fighting the creative battle within)

I’m now reading for the second time in 4 months an amazing book by Steven Pressfield, The War of Art: Break Through the Blocks and Win Your Inner Creative Battles. Pressfield is probably best known for being the author of  The Legend of Bagger Vance.

I’m reading the book–again–because I am having trouble breaking through the blocks to win my inner creative battle.

For me that creative battle is sitting down to write. For others it is painting, dieting, exercise, education, entrepreneurial ventures–pretty much anything you deep down want to do but, for some reason, feel blocked from doing.

Pressfield names this block, this destructive force, “Resistance,” and his explanation for what Resistance is, why we all have it, and what can be done about it is brilliantly insightful and at times snortingly HIGH-larious. The dude is funny.

For me at least, virtually every page has a quotable sentence or paragraph–beginning already in the preface written by Robert McKee, who describes his own creative paralysis: “Some years ago I was as blocked as a Calcutta sewer…” (p. ii).

I want to share with you a quote from one portion of the book that struck me in particular: “Resistance and Fundamentalism” (pp. 33-37). You have to read the whole book up to this point to catch the full impact, but even on its own, you might find this very insightful.

Pressfield, by the way, does not have Christian fundamentalism specifically in his sights (though one can hardly be blamed for making that connection). Pressfield is addressing any sort fundamentlist outlook on life, i.e., that which is hostile to the life of art/creativity.

This quote is from pp. 34-36 and I have maintained Pressfield’s paragraph divisions.

Fundamentalism is the philosophy of the powerless, the conquered, the displaced and the dispossessed. Its spawning ground is the wreckage of political and military defeat, as Hebrew fundamentalism arose during the Babylonian captivity, as white Christian fundamentalism appeared in the American South during Reconstruction, as the notion of the Master Race evolved in Germany following World War I. In such desperate times, the vanquished race would perish without a doctrine that restored hope and pride. Islamic fundamentalism ascends from the same landscape of despair and possesses the same tremendous and potent appeal.

What exactly is this despair? It is the despair of freedom. The dislocation and emasculation experienced by the individual cut free from the familiar and comforting structures of the tribe and the clan, the village and the family.

It is the state of modern life.

The fundamentalists (or, more accurately, the beleaguered individual who comes to embrace fundamentalism) cannot stand freedom. He cannot find his way into the future, so he retreats to the past. He returns in imagination to the glory days of his race and seeks to reconstitute both of them and himself in their purer, more virtuous light. He gets back to basics. To fundamentals.

Fundamentalism and art are mutually exclusive. There is no such thing as fundamentalist art. This does not mean that the fundamentalist is not creative. Rather, his creativity is inverted.  He creates destruction. Even the structures he builds, his schools and networks of organization, are dedicated to annihilation, of his enemies and of himself.

But the fundamentalist reserves his greatest creativity for the fashioning of Satan, the image of his foe, in opposition to which he defines and gives meaning to his own life. Like the artist, the fundamentalist experiences Resistance. He experiences it as temptation to sin. Resistance to the fundamentalist is the call of the Evil one, seeking to seduce him from his virtue. The fundamentalist is consumed with Satan, whom he loves as he loves death. Is it coincidence that the suicide bombers of the World Trade Center frequented strip clubs during their training, or that they conceived of their reward as a squadron of virgin brides and the license to ravish them in the fleshpots of heaven?….

To combat the call of sin, i.e., Resistance, plunges either into action or into the study of sacred texts. He loses himself in these, much as the artist does in the process of creation. The difference is that while the one looks forward, hoping to create a better world, the other looks backward, seeking to return to a purer world from which he and all have fallen.


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  • Jdbar14

    Wow…I’m currently working my way through Pressfield’s Greco-Roman military fiction and I see that his ability to capture the emotional essence of his topic translates to his non-fiction.

  • Dang this is good. I think the “imagination of the glory days” can be one of the most troublesome elements of fundamentalism. The creation and destruction language seems key too. Either we believe God is moving us forward toward something and we’re participating in that movement or God wants to return us back to our original, “glorified” state in “the Garden” so we resist forward movement.

  • Just Sayin’

    One way to get down to writing is to set yourself the ongoing task of writing something every day. So if you are working on a book, you commit to writing, say, a minimum of 100 words per day. If you wish, you can allow yourself one day off, say Sunday. ANYONE can write 100 words per day, so the task is, in one sense, easy. The hard bit is the unrelenting commitment, you allow yourself no excuses for not writing those 100 words. Even if you get in at midnight you still have to write ’em!

    The good thing is that, while some days the 100 words will be plenty and hard enough to squeeze in, on other days you’ll be in the zone and produce several hundred words, maybe 1,000 words or even more.

    The no-excuses commitment to the everyday minimum, plus the special days when productivity is much higher, will get the book written.

  • rvs

    “It is the despair of freedom…”–interesting. Freedom of self and of other, presumably. Freedom to disagree. I’m also intrigued by the talk about Satan. To what extent is the fundamentalist “projecting” in the Freudian sense?

    • William Tarbush

      I wouldn’t call myself a fundamentalist, but it seems there is also regular “projecting” in saying that people love Satan as a being rather than as “the accuser!”

  • toddh

    Wow, stunning. Great quote!

  • What exactly is this despair? It is the despair of freedom. The dislocation and emasculation experienced by the individual cut free from the familiar and comforting structures of the tribe and the clan, the village and the family.

    It is the state of modern life.

    Sociologist and Christian Peter Berger has a lot to say about both of these results of modernism and pluralism. In A Far Glory, he describes the impact Paul was having on Corinth:

    Take anything which in your immediate mileau is taken for granted as scientifically established knowledge or as self-evident common sense—and then imagine your reaction to someone who confidently and aggressively proclaims the opposite. (6)

    And then Paul challenged the Jews!:

    No one, Jew or Gentile, would have been taken aback at a statement that the power of God is greater than that of men; Paul’s scandalous proposition is that the weakness of God reveals His true power, including the power to triumph over sin and death. (6)

    So this “cutting free” is precisely what Jesus and Paul and crew did to both Judaism and Hellenism. Here’s a great description:

        When Paul spoke of the “folly” of the Gospel and counter-posed it to the “wisdom of this world,” he was pointing to a cognitive aspect of God’s kenosis, of God’s abasement. In Christian preaching, and unite properly so, we more often hear of its moral aspect: Jesus came especially to the poor and the despised, to the margins of society, and he died as a criminal; and today we too are more likely to find him visible in the margins than among the rich, the powerful, and the respected. This is the morally revolutionary content of the “word of the cross,” and, I seems to me. This shocking message has never been fully absorbed in all he centuries of Christian history. It continues to shake the foundations of all moral systems invented by men, it relativizes all social hierarchies, and in the final analysis it shows up th hollowness of all humanly constructed orders. But the “wisdom of the world” is part and parcel of every such order; the “folly” of the gospel is, precisely, that it relativizes, puts into question, everything that passes for “wisdom” and everyone who claims to possess it. (13-14)

    Berger talks more about the bolded section in The Precarious Vision: A Sociologist Looks at Social Fictions and Christian Faith. A taste:

    For most of us as we grow up and learn to live in society, its forms take on the appearance of structures as self evident and as solid as those of the natural cosmos. Very likely society could not exist otherwise. Nor is it likely that socialization could take place if this were not the case. Yet this consciousness of what Alfred Schuetz has called the “world taken for granted” is not of such solidity that it cannot be breached. When such a breach occurs the world is transformed, takes on new dimensions and colors. If the breach occurs suddenly it marks the day after which life will never be the same again. (10-11)

    It’s almost as if God wishes to always cut us free from man-made social orders such that we can seek him more and more, being transformed from one degree of glory to the next. 🙂

  • We are created with the ability to create. I’ve wondered if our enemy is “angry” that we can create and he can’t, so he instead destroys and distorts creation by hi-jacking that which we create. Essentially, the enemy can never create – he is unoriginal. Instead ,he can only distort that which is created and he does so by hi-jacking our creativity.

  • Preston Garrison

    I like how Pete’s response to the prodding (by Kathryn Helmers) in the comments to the previous post was to read a book over again and write a blog post. 🙂

  • Russ Slater

    Hi Pete. I’m thinking you’re feeling the pressure of deadlines and maybe an unwillingness to write on your intended subject. Sometimes I take necessary breaks to rethink or recharge but at a certain point it’s the subject itself that has become over extended and careworn. Too much of today’s religious discussions are focused on what’s wrong and what’s broken. But I’m thinking it’s actually time to start writing fresh stuff that is forward thinking, brilliant, and new. For myself I’m curious how to develop a new language with its own symbols in a postmodern, post evangelical context. Maybe even more radical than that. But to depressingly kick the can down the road anymore re the past several decade’s upheaval is best left to those still interested in historical theology. Better to describe how God speaks and the Spirit moves given all that we know is possible and true than to worry if anyone will follow us. Hence, possibly new subject matter is what’s needed. Perhaps in a new voice using a different pen and artistic expressions. Frank Schaeffer is trying this conceptually. Perhaps there’s some other ways to do this as well. All the best. – Russ

  • James

    Amazing quote. Funny how the meaning of terms change over time. The Nazis had a Ministry of Propaganda and were proud of it. Now propaganda is negative. A hundred years ago Christians were proud to be called fundamentalists in the face of perceived liberal attack. Now most of us don’t like the term, though I’m sure there are some who still do. But really, may we not gain perspective in looking to the past and freedom in embracing the future? Maybe fundamentalism today is simply animation by the wrong spirit.

  • Thanks Peter for having shared this wonderful quote!

    Being myself a (struggling) writer, it touches me in many ways.

    You’re entirely right that fundamentalism is characterized by a willingness to DESTROY one’s foe rather than trying to construct anything, it is always directed towards villains who ought to be unconditionally despised and often even hated.

    It is completely true that it hinders creativity from springing up, as the infamous “Left Behind” novels illustrate all too readily.

    But given the cognitive dissonance and emotional ordeal faced by Christian fundamentalists, it isn’t astounding at all they cannot genuinely create anything.

    If you believe that God is going to eternally torture the large majority of human beings owing to a sinful nature they’ve never asked for, it is obvious that expressing your (God-given) creativity will occupy a pretty low position in your list of priorities.

    As I once spoke with a Conservative Evangelical pastor about starting cultural activities for promoting the regional language of my homeland (Lorraine Franconian, a German dialect) he answered me at once:
    “The time God granted us is limited and this isn’t going to save any additional soul!”

    It cannot be denied that mainstream Conservative Evangelical beliefs have a profoundly harmful effect on our very humanity, transforming us into instrumental salvation machines .

    Now, I want to go into another type of fundamentalists, namely militant atheism who interestingly enough turns out to be mostly populated by former religious fundies.

    They also divide reality into two camps (religious and non-religious) and are convinced that the most urgent priority of mankind should be to utterly wipe out religion from the face of the earth.
    If you spend time looking at their websites and blogs, you’ll see striking parallels between their sub-culture and fundamentalism as described by Pressfield, i.e. the same kind of narrow-mindedness and instrumentalism.

  • There might be another way to view this thing being called ‘fundamentalism’. A friend of mine, a professor at an elite university, describes two modes of thinking:

    grow mode: This is the creative, brainstorming mode of thought. Anything is valid and anything can be associated with anything else. We’re searching for possible ideas, here, and we aren’t very discriminating.

    acid mode: What actually makes logical sense about what we collected from grow mode? We pour acid on the behemoth, which eats away all the “jaggies” and other bits that don’t form a cohesive whole. Sometimes we’re left with nothing, but sometimes we’re left with a pearl.

    The two modes can, of course, be alternated. The idea of acid mode seemed awfully similar to the bits about “destruction”. Not all destruction is bad! See, for example, Hosea 6:1.

  • Jim Lovelady

    Wow! Great quote.

    I have Screwtape in my mind for some reason. Maybe you could write a sequel where the fundamentalist uncle is educating his nephew…;)