The all-or-nothing lie of fundamentalist Christianity (part 2)

(Part 1 of this post is here.)

I attended a private, fundamentalist Christian school. I also belonged to a fundamentalist local church.

Our church was an independent, fundamentalist, Baptist church. It had once been a Northern Baptist church, then split off to join the Conservative Baptists, then split off again to join the still-more-conservative General Association of Regular Baptists before eventually splitting off from the GARB to go it alone.

But our independent, fundamentalist and Baptist church should not be confused with an Independent Fundamentalist Baptist church, which is a very specific, and quite different, brand of fundamentalism.

There are many such different brands of fundamentalism. You’ve got your Calvinist fundies and your Arminian fundies, your premillennial dispensationalist fundies and your postmillennial dominionist fundies, your raucous holy rollers and your somber frozen chosen.

Denominations represented by the students at Timothy Christian School — my fundamentalist alma mater.

What all these groups have in common is that they all believe they have unambiguous access to absolute truth through the literal reading of the inerrant, infallible Bible.

I’ve strung together a bunch of adjectives there, but each is important for understanding the all-or-nothing, package-deal aspect of fundamentalist Christianity. The belief that the Bible is the “inerrant” and “infallible” word of God means that every word of it is true, without error, and thus it stands as the ultimate arbiter of absolute truth. The belief that this absolute truth should be read literally entails that it is accessible to us, which means it cannot leave room for ambiguity and honest disagreement between two well-intentioned, Spirit-guided readers.

So while the absolute truth of the Bible must obviously be defended against worldly enemies such as liberals, modernists and secular humanists, it’s even more important that this absolute truth be defended against other fundamentalists who disagree on any point of doctrine, however seemingly minor. We worldly types are a favorite bogeyman for fundies, but “the world” — a category just as comprehensive as it sounds — cannot pose an existential threat to the core of fundamentalist identity. Other fundamentalists can.

“The world” is wrong, but our errors reinforce fundie identity and fundie epistemology. We are wrong because we reject the absolute truth of the literal reading of the inerrant, etc., Bible. Those other fundamentalists, however, claim to accept the same epistemology, and that threatens to undermine the whole conceit, because if it is indeed true that the Bible provides us unambiguous access to God’s absolute truth, then all fundamentalists ought to believe exactly the same things.*

This is why if you go to a pre-Tribulation premillennial dispensationalist Bible prophecy seminar, you won’t hear speakers wasting their breath condemning historical or liberationist readings of the book of Revelation. They focus instead on the graver, existential danger posed by alternative fundamentalist readings, attacking the post-tribbers and mid-tribbers who distort God’s absolute truth even though they ought to know better.

That’s related, I think, to what Freud called the “narcissism of small differences,” but it makes a lot of sense from the fundies’ point of view. The belief that an inerrant Bible provides us access to absolute truth cannot be reconciled with the existence of competing fundamentalists who disagree on even the most esoteric points. Those groups can be attacked or avoided, but not accepted and accommodated. There’s no room for “let’s all agree to disagree.”

That helps to explain why there is such a multiplicity of fundamentalist denominations. And also why they tend to be so small.

And that smallness poses a big challenge for anyone trying to run a fundamentalist school. A functional school needs an adequate number of students and staff. Huge fundie mega-churches, like the sordid Hyles-Anderson creep-show in Indiana, are big enough to run their own schools, staffed and attended only by uniform members of their own churches. But most fundamentalist churches are nowhere near big enough to do that. For most fundie churches, having a fundie school for your kids means having to collaborate and co-operate with other churches — including with other churches that may not agree with yours on every detail of doctrine.

The website for my alma mater, Timothy Christian School, says that its students come from 150 different churches in 70 different towns. And as that pie-graph up above shows, those churches represent quite a diversity of religious traditions and perspectives.

When I was a student at TCS, I had many classmates and teachers who were members of Pentecostal and Assemblies of God churches. Those churches were just as fundamentalist as my own, and our churches were fully in agreement on many points of fundie doctrine — young-earth creationism, Rapture prophecy, inerrantism, literalism, KJV-onlyism, etc. (This was the late 1970s and early ’80s, so anti-abortionism hadn’t yet arisen to eclipse all of those as the pre-eminent identifier.)

But those Pentecostal and AofG churches also taught the charismatic gifts of the Holy Spirit, including a big emphasis on speaking in tongues, which they taught was the sign of the baptism in the Spirit and a necessary mark for any true Christian.

At my independent, fundamentalist Baptist church, speaking in tongues was forbidden. It was seen as, at best, a heresy, and at worst as evidence of demonic possession. Anything even slightly charismatic-seeming was frowned on at my church. I remember once someone raised their hands above their head during worship. Once.

One life-long member of our church graduated from Bible College and then went off to the Urbana missions conference where he went forward and committed his life to full-time Christian service as a missionary. Our church was very big on missionaries, providing financial support for dozens of them through our local mission committee. From a very young age, we were taught that full-time Christian service as a missionary was the highest calling for any Christian.

But it turns out that this guy from our church had signed up with a fundamentalist mission agency that our mission committee had come to regard with suspicion. The head of the agency, apparently, had been asked in an interview about speaking in tongues. He condemned the practice and said he had never done it himself, but he also said that he supposed, maybe, it might not be too grievous a sin if someone were to do it privately as part of their own personal prayer and devotions. This was regarded as an unacceptably lenient stance toward speaking in tongues, and so our mission committee denied the request for support from our own home-grown missionary to-be.

The point here is that the form of fundamentalism taught by our church was utterly incompatible with the form of fundamentalism taught by some of my classmates’ and teachers’ churches. Our church taught that they were not legitimate Christians, and their church taught that we were not legitimate Christians. Both sides took this disagreement very seriously, with the denial/acceptance of speaking in tongues regarded as a theological disaster equivalent to embracing evolutionary science or textual criticism. Each side regarded the other as violating the all-or-nothing package-deal of fundamentalist Christianity.

And yet there we all were at Timothy Christian School. We were studying together, praying together and taking turns sharing our personal testimonies in chapel together. We were agreeing to disagree, respecting one another despite our differences. We’d have shuddered to hear the word, but our practice was downright ecumenical.

We couldn’t both be right. We might both be wrong. We might both be partly right and partly wrong. And those weren’t supposed to be possibilities for people with direct access to the infallible word of God.

Our very presence there together forced us to acknowledge our difference of opinion. And that, in turn, forced us to acknowledge that such diversity of opinion seemed inevitable even among those of us committed to a literal reading of the inerrant, infallible Bible.

In other words it forced us to accept, at least implicitly, that unambiguous direct access to absolute truth might not be quite as accessible as we liked to pretend. And just like that, there goes the whole fundie epistemological construct and all the all-or-nothing, package-deal claims that go with it.

I could not have articulated any of that at the time, when I was still a student there at Timothy. But looking back, much later, I came to see this as a saving grace. It spared me from the intense crisis of faith I might otherwise have experienced when many of the ingredients of the package-deal I had been taught were destroyed in their collision with reality. The truths I had learned had been chained together with a ludicrous bundle of lies — young-earth creationism, PMD “prophecy,” etc. — but the chains did not hold because I had already come to see that the chains were not real.

Our teachers at Timothy Christian told us that our faith was an all-or-nothing package deal, but the diversity of traditions and theologies there at the school — as narrow as such diversity may have been — showed us otherwise. That provided us an advantage over the home-schoolers and other fundie kids who were schooled in more denominationally homogenous settings. Those kids were being set up for a crisis of faith.

We were too, but we were also — accidentally and inadvertently — being prepared to deal with it.

– – – – – – – – – – – –

* This isn’t to say that fundamentalists think that reading the Bible requires no interpretation at all. They acknowledge, at least nominally, that some parts of their doctrine are based on less-than surface-level readings of passages they admit can be confusing. So even a literal, common-sense approach to reading the Bible, they concede, may require what they like to call “rightly dividing the word of truth.”

But just as fundamentalists insist that the Holy Spirit guided every word of the Bible’s composition to guarantee its inerrancy, and — as many, if not all, fundies believe — that the Holy Spirit watched over every word of the Bible’s translation, to ensure the inerrancy of our English King James Version, so too they believe that the Holy Spirit will guide the faithful reader to ensure that reader is rightly dividing the word of truth. Inerrancy is not simply a claim about the nature of the Bible, but also a claim about our access to it — our ability to read the inerrant Bible inerrantly.

This framework ups the ante on any disagreement over the meaning of the Bible. If Bob and Jack disagree, then one of them must not be obeying the guidance of the Holy Spirit. And since Bob knows in his heart that he is a well-intentioned, real, true Christian who is genuinely seeking the Spirit’s guidance, that must mean that Jack is not. And Jack is assuming the same thing about Bob. It tends to get ugly from there.

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  • Robyrt

    I like this series – a good way to put a personal, relatable spin on a dry theological topic.

    The footnote at the end, I think, is the key division between an untenable fundamentalist worldview and the more limited claims of inerrancy that I’m inclined to subscribe to. The short version is, the Bible is inerrant, but we do not have access to a perfect translation or interpretation of it, and it certainly isn’t obvious to the untrained reader.

    I think the root cause of such a jaw-dropping claim as Fred details is treating the book as an instruction manual, instead of a work of literature. While this is certainly convenient, it runs into problems with figurative language, which is why so many fundamentalist internecine squabbles are over things like the book of Revelation that can’t be explained literally.

  • I’m kinda curious *why* such a school would exist back then, what with the dangers of exposing precious precious children to those deadly heresies. I mean, back when Fred was in school. Obviously, *now* it makes sense, since any heresy can be forgiven as long as those hell-bound heretical sects agree on the *really* important thing: lower taxes and reduced corporate regulation.

  • vsm

    It will be fun to see if our current political ecumenism ends up influencing theology in the long-term or if it becomes just another source of cognitive dissonance.

  • Katie

    This article helps me understand why very conservative evangelicals have really started to push home schooling over sending kids to private Christian schools.

  • But our independent, fundamentalist and Baptist church should not be
    confused with an Independent Fundamentalist Baptist church, which is a
    very specific, and quite different, brand of fundamentalism.

    BRIAN: Are you the Judean People’s Front?

    REG: Fuck off!

    BRIAN: What?

    REG: Judean People’s Front. We’re the People’s Front of Judea!
    Judean People’s Front. Cawk.

    Sorry, I was irresistibly reminded. :)

  • vsm


    I was walking across a bridge one day, and I saw a man standing on the
    edge, about to jump off. So I ran over and said “Stop! don’t do it!”
    “Why shouldn’t I?” he said. I said, “Well, there’s so much to live for!”
    He said, “Like what?” I said, “Well…are you religious or atheist?” He
    said, “Religious.” I said, “Me too! Are you christian or buddhist?” He
    “Christian.” I said, “Me too! Are you catholic or protestant?” He said,
    “Protestant.” I said, “Me too! Are you episcopalian or baptist?” He
    said, “Baptist!” I said,”Wow! Me too! Are you baptist church of god or
    baptist church of the lord?” He said, “Baptist church of god!” I said,
    “Me too! Are you original baptist church of god, or are you reformed
    baptist church of god?” He said,”Reformed Baptist church of god!” I
    said, “Me too! Are you reformed baptist church of god, reformation of
    1879, or reformed baptist church of god, reformation of 1915?” He said,
    “Reformed baptist church of god, reformation of 1915!” I said, “Die,
    heretic scum”, and pushed him off.

  • LL

    I’m trying to figure out why Catholics and Methodists would send their kids to this school. I mean, was it lack of options other than the evil public schools? 

    I can’t imagine anybody other than a hardcore Southern Baptist fundamentalist being comfortable sending their kid to the school affiliated with my mother’s church (in OKC). I won’t mention the name, but here’s a bit of their mission statement or whatever: 

    “… taking a stand for academic diligence and hard work, moral
    purity, godly patriotism, Christian character, governmental thinking and order.
    These qualities have become hallmarks of __________________   and are reflected within the framework of
    the school, specifically through the Principle Approach to American Christian

    I’m guessing “governmental thinking” means something different than what the word “government” would imply to the rest of us. And I have no idea what “principle approach to American Christian Education” means and no real desire to Google it. 

    If someone else wants to explain it, feel free. 

  •  The jokes are endless.
    About the only thing that the Catholic church was right about during the Reformation: if one group can think for themselves, then any group can do the same.
    Result: many denominations.

  • I grew up in non-demominational (fundamentalist) Church of Christ.  You know, the sort that doesn’t allow musical instruments in worship because if you sing to God while a piano is playing you will go to hell (naturally).  It was a really oppressive enviornment and to be honest, spiritually damaging.  

    Many, if not most, sermons were explicitly about how other Christians were wrong (and going to hell).  We were not allowed to celebrate Christmas as the birth of Jesus, and were also discouraged from celebrating any of the rest because it came from evil pagans (same deal with Easter). I was in a school choir but couldn’t sing for the Christmas concert because I couldn’t sing “Silent Night” with the piano accompaniment. I spent my childhood believing with all my heart that my grandparents and best friends were going to hell for being the wrong kind of Christian.

    Everything was so petty, so divisive, that I couldn’t even fight for my faith when my life experiences piled up against the church’s teachings.  Some would shame me saying – “Where was your love and devotion to God?  Your faith?” but my religion smothered out the love of God with his unbending and capricious judgments.  God was like an immutable force of nature, a being of pure cause and effect.  

    And I went to public school, where eventually my best friends were all of non christian faiths (or no faith).  It was fully impossible for me to reconcile the beliefs of my church and reality.  And what’s more I didn’t want to be on the side of my church against these people.  Even when I still mostly believed the church, I found myself deciding I’d rather go to hell with the rest of humanity.  It seemed impossible to please their God enough to be spared that fate anyhow.

    It is almost funny now, as I look back I would say that the church I grew up with, despite its instance as the ONLY TRUE CHURCH, was in fact not even a shadow of representation of Christianity.  My crisis of faith was a basic question: adhere to the dogma no matter what, or make an honest attempt at finding God and being a good person in this life.  I chose the latter and now identify as a pagan.  This blog and some others have helped me come to a fuller understanding of what it can mean to be a Christian and how the Bible can be read in a different light.  It was so strictly controlled before I could hardly bare to read it anymore.

    I believed the lie of all or nothing fundamentalist christianity.  And I chose nothing.  But I am glad that it is a lie, even if I am not sure I can overcome my history with it completely.   I’m glad that my kids have positive examples of Christians in their lives (my mom and mother-in-law) and that they won’t have the same baggage I have. 

  • arcseconds

    I think the root cause of such a jaw-dropping claim as Fred details is
    treating the book as an instruction manual, instead of a work of
    literature. While this is certainly convenient, it runs into problems
    with figurative language, which is why so many fundamentalist
    internecine squabbles are over things like the book of Revelation that
    can’t be explained literally.

    There are other options than ‘instruction manual’ and ‘work of literature’.    The Bible has often in the past been considered by many of its adherents (including rabbis with regards to the Tanakh — famously so in fact) to be a densely symbolic (and hence rather opaque) corpus, which requires special genius to interpret.

    So, why literalism?

    I think that’s a very interesting question, and I don’t have a full answer to it.

    But I do have a few thoughts:

    *) it’s surely connected with anti-intellectualism.  You don’t need an embossed piece of parchment from a fancy-pants university, or to be able to speak Koine Greek and Hebrew, or to study for years, or have to listen to people who have done those things to understand the Bible.   You just read it, and it’s clear what it says.

    (although, it’s interesting to note that literalists still read books about the Bible, and listen to sermons about the Bible.  Why would this be necessary if the meaning is clear? To say nothing of the rather technical discussions over Revelation that you’ve already alluded to)

    *) it’s surely also connected to the Protestant idea that you don’t need an intermediary between you and the Bible.  There’s some cross over with the first point, interestingly.  I hadn’t considered that protestanism and anti-intellectualism (amongst North American conservative Christians at any rate) could be linked before.

    But I suspect one of the big reasons ends up being security, which seems to me to be a large motivating feature behind a lot of fundamentalist tropes.   By (saying you’re) just abiding by the plain meaning of the text, you eliminate any need for any kind of hermeneutical or epistemological justification.  No need for risky thinking, potentially defeasible reasoning, possibly admitting that your opponent might just have a point there, wondering why it is that you believe something and whether you really have any justification for it…

     You’re just right, that’s all, and the other person is wrong.  End of story.

    (it seems to me you can often find a similar need for security amongst some atheists, and I think the adoption of simplistic views of scientific methodology and justification mirrors the adoption of the simplistic view that fundamentalists have of their hermeneutic practice)

  • Back in the days of Usenet, the had a pretty persistent fundamentalist who’d pop up, repeat the following loop, then disappear for a while:

    F: You Catholics are all wrong! You’re listening to the Word of Man, not the Word of God! Don’t listen to your priests! Read it for yourself and you’ll believe what I do!

    Us: So, for the sake of argument, what if we “read it for ourselves” and come out believing what the priests do? Because, y’know, we have.

    F: That could never happen! What I tell you is the right thing to get from it!

    Us: So basically instead of listening to the priests and the tradition built up of hundreds of years of study, we should listen to you? And that’s not listening to the “Word of Man” how?

    F: It-it-it’s just different! Because I said so!

    Us: Yeah, proving our point there.

    F: /flounce

  • arcseconds

     If I can pretend to be serious for just a moment,  coincidentally I had been thinking recently about just this.

    That episode in the *Life of Brian*, of course, was lampooning Leftist groups in the 1970s, who tended to be highly fractional.

    I can’t really cite chapter and verse to prove this, but this sort of thing still seems to me to plague left-wing political groups to a much greater extent than right-wing ones, and I’m not entirely sure I understand why that should be (although of course I can venture some guesses)

    Although we have a good parallel here, as evidenced by the two similar jokes.

    I suppose it’s easy to say ‘ideological purity’ here.  But why are fundamentalist churches and (maybe) left-wing groups so concerned with ideological purity, when large mainstream churches (such as the Anglican Communion, and even the Catholic church embraces a lot of divergent theological ideas and religious practices) and (arguably) right-wing groups don’t seem to be?

    Not that I’m suggesting that it’s necessarily the same reason in both cases, but it might be interesting to explore the parallel to see whether there might be something there…

  • SisterCoyote

    Definitely. It’s… just about exactly what Fred’s described, here. Our tiny, three-family church is reading The True Word Of God, and that other tiny church that we split off from is sadly deceived by the flesh, and let’s not even get INTO the Lutherans down the street. And that’s why all the kids were homeschooled – it was the only way to keep kids safe from both the World/flesh and from the heresies of Christian schools everywhere.

    My mother, when she realized she couldn’t keep homeschooling us alone, had a Really Convenient Spiritual Epiphany that Pentecostals were just worshiping God differently, and it wasn’t heresy after all, and she’d totally been deceived this whole time. Being eight years old at the time, it was too tough of a line for me to cross, and I spent any and all worship/church time at said school being quietly terrified for my soul.

    Homeschooling… is problematic, for that reason precisely (and others. Because no matter how much you love your kid, if basic algebra is the limit of your math skills, the education just isn’t going to work.). Fundie schools might be a bit problematic, but at least there’s a measure of religious diversity – and that can open the gates to a whole flood of tolerance later, as this post points out. If the only religion you’re ever exposed to is your parents’ very specific flavor… that’s going to be a really steep hurdle to jump, later on.

  • vsm

    Good question. Keeping with the theme, there’s also a Trotskyist version of the Emo Phillips joke I posted earlier.

    I imagine at least one factor is how well the party has managed to integrate itself to society. If you look at Europe, there are plenty of established Communist Parties that didn’t split themselves into death. If you look at the more respectable Social Democrats, you’ll find parties that have survived a century with few or no splits. When you have actually gained a certain amount of power, suddenly losing half your voters is not a very pleasant idea. However, if you only had a couple of hundred or a thousand members, telling the petty bourgeois counter-revolutionary agent provocateurs to take a hike is much easier.  The same applies to churches. The Catholic Church is pretty stable (for an organization with over a billion members), as are European state churches.

  • Jurgan

    Yeah, I came here to post this:

  • Madhabmatics

     At least with communist groups it’s because most of the ones that affiliate with Marxism-Leninism or Stalinism or Maoism view their ideology as a science. So if you and another Marxist-Leninist are doing a thang and come up with two contradictory conclusions, that isn’t just “Oh he thinks that is better” – that means that one of you is doing the science wrong, and of course if someone does the science of Marxism-Leninism wrong, that opens up the door to a counter-revolution, so the other guy has to go.

  • Andrew Wyatt

    [I]t’s surely also connected to the Protestant idea that you don’t need an intermediary between you and the Bible.  There’s some cross over with the first point, interestingly.

    That’s pretty much the double-edged sword of Protestantism, right there. Once you translate and disseminate a holy text in vernacular, you start chipping away at the need for a priest caste. After that it’s “priesthood of all believers” and splinter sect after splinter sect as far as the eye can see.

  • Keulan

    I thought of the exact same thing. In fact, I found the clip from Life of Brian with that dialogue.

  • DStecks

    Somebody once asked me to explain the difference between Catholic and Protestant theology to them. I said that the defining difference is that the Catholics hold that the average person is not sufficiently schooled in scripture to form sound theology, whereas Protestants believe in the priesthood of all believers. The implication of this is that Catholicism is less prone to wackiness like Young Earth Creationism and PMD, but when they do get wacky ideas, they stick around for centuries.

  • Loquat

    Regarding the books and sermons explaining the “plain meaning” of the Bible – I get the feeling that a substantial majority of the population of Christians who consider the Bible a plain, literal, instruction manual also consider the King James translation to be the definitive English-language version. After all, it was the definitive version for quite a long time, and if you admit that the English language has changed sufficiently that the old definitive version is no longer readily comprehensible to those without specialized education and should really be replaced by a new definitive version written in modern English… well, it does tend to undermine the assertion that the Bible’s words are timeless and unchanging and totally not subject to honest disagreements about what a particular phrase in a long-dead language was commonly understood to mean among the Bronze Age tribes who used it.

  • GDwarf


    I get the feeling that a substantial majority of the population of
    Christians who consider the Bible a plain, literal, instruction manual
    also consider the King James translation to be the definitive
    English-language version.

    Oh, no contest. Talk to…pretty much any fundamentalist about which Bible to use and they’ll cite the KJV (Often, oddly, the NKJV, though many of them don’t realize that there isn’t just one version).

    As for why…I think it ties into authoritarianism and traditionalism. For all the Catholic hierarchy was the reason for the Protestant movement many, of the modern Protestant faiths are very authoritarian and traditional; They simply have different authorities and traditions. The KJV sounds authoritative, and it’s definitely traditional, so it just seems “right”. Further, it’s what they were raised on, so other translations sound odd*, making it much easier to discount them.

    It’s, ultimately, conservatism: The KJV is the best because it’s what the previous generation used, and you’re not saying they were all wrong and/or idiots, are you?

    *See also how everyone in a Biblical epic speaks in very formal, stilted, and slightly-archaic language. Most people associate that sort of tone with the Bible, despite it being completely unrelated to the wildly varying style and quality of writing actually used.

  • PorlockJunior

     To call it the definitive English-language version is if anything to understate the case. There is a faction that holds it to be the definitive version, period.

    I’ve never quite understood how all those errors got into the older versions — maybe because Greek is just such a hard language that nobody ever could get it right until King James worked out what it meant to say? Or the Devil had something to do with it.

  • stardreamer42

     Really, the whole thing brings one particular phrase irresistibly to mind: fan-feud.

    Which is to say, like the difference between “Trekkies” and “Trekkers”, a petty squabbling over trivial things which, in the long term, makes no difference whatsoever, and only causes friction and heartbreak to the people who engage in it, while rendering all of them ridiculous in the eyes of anyone outside the scuffle.

  • My church seemed to really like the American Standard version for accuracy.  Didn’t like the KJV, NKJV was okay and NIV was against the rules for my teen class.  They also typically had a Vines companion to look at the greek and such.  It didn’t seem to help with true understanding though, unless the goal really is strict legalism…

  • I suspect that it’s easier to keep secular right-wing groups together because the “glue” is more fundamental (if you’ll pardon the accidental pun): it’s usually about money and who gets to get more of it, and how to reinforce the increasing trend of worshipping those who have lots of it. (*)

    As for religious right-wing groups, if there is as much schisming as there is among the leftist groups it’s probably not as widely reported, or if there isn’t, then chances are the “glue” is some aspect of doctrine they have agreed upon that trumps differences of interpretation.

    (*) by contrast, leftists seem to have all kinds of different bases for agreement, some of which only poorly overlap. For example, the objectives of industrial-union workers often have apparent direct conflict with environmental-protection groups, even though it would be possible to improve industrial processes, reduce waste overall, and maintain the standard of living we’re accustomed to.

    A pretty basic example is the way cars have been re-engineered to be built on lighter frames with fiberglass autobodies.

  • Fred, I appreciate you sharing this, these posts are like medicine to me.


    For myself, I grew up in an independent Charismatic Pentecostal church* – we** spoke in tongues, rolled on the floor moaned, groaned, shook and generally looked crazypants to any outsider.  While I didn’t think it at the time, during some of the more intense services I would not have been surprised if someone listening in thought there was an orgy going on inside – that’s certainly what it sounded like (x,x)

    Our church was small – a couple hundred people – but regardless of that we had our own school, so we never had that mixing of styles of fundamentalism – we just had plain old homogenus “us” and everyone else was ‘them’.

    Christians who weren’t ‘us’ had were ‘dead’ spiritually – Catholics particularly, but any church that didn’t roll around on the ground shaking with the power of the holy spirit was ‘dead’.

    Lots of preaching about the End of Days, lots of it about the darkness in our country – a very bizarre mixture of anti-American sentiment and American exceptionalism coming from the same people at the same time.  Bizarre stuff once you’re outside the bubble looking back.

    What always got me though was the incessant feeling that I was Not Saved because I never felt ‘moved by the holy spirit’.  I never shook, I never spoke in tongues (I faked it once but it didn’t come off well), I never felt the power of Christ compel me to do anything.

    So I felt damned; and likely so was my mother (who’d seperated from my dad when I was 6), and my brother, who didn’t come to church anymore.  Or in my more optimistic but equally distraught moments, I’d think that I was going to heaven with my dad, but mom and my brother were damned – which made me quite frankly just as upset as the other option.

    Really I could probably summarize much of my church as “You are probably going to hell, and so is everyone else!”  At least that’s sure how it felt.

    *I want to note that that’s what they called it – since I never knew otherwise and they were into some weird stuff, I’m not going to pretend that it’s guaranteed that that is indeed what they were.

    **Well “they” – rather; part of my own crisis of faith was wondering why I never did.

  • arcseconds

     Oh, yes.

    I remember thinking actually not all that long ago, that surely all that’s necessary to undermine biblical literalism is to point out the obvious: that the Bible wasn’t written in modern English, that translating and interpreting 2,000+ texts is no simple matter, and there’s disagreement about what a lot of terms mean even on a plain text reading.

    There’s strong arguments that whole verses were added centuries after the canon was settled on, too (such as the ‘comma johanneum’).

    Then there’s the discussion about what warrants the inclusion of each book in the Bible.

    et cetera.

    Then I discovered the KJV-only movement, and thought to myself

    “that’s actually quite clever”

    It’s a very nice solution to avoid any actual thought about the topic.  The Bible you’re familiar with just happens to be the One True Bible!  And the argument has some degree of strength to it (I mean, for example, it isn’t formally circular, and given ordinary theistic premises an argument not unlike it could even be reasonably persuasive. ), and what’s really neat is that the prejudices required to make it really seem clear-cut are exactly the prejudices held by those for whom it’s intended.

    In fact, right at the current time, I can’t think of another justification for protecting oneself from the dangerous process of actually thinking that’s quite so nice and efficient.  Although I’m keen to hear any that anyone has to offer!

    What I don’t grok is how anyone could be clever enough to come up with an argument like this, yet be unclever enough to be persuaded by it.  (Maybe they were studiously ignorant of the history of the work? that probably helps)

    Yes, I know that humans are so inclined to embrace just about anything that shores up their precious beliefs that they’ll create the most arrant nonsense one moment and believe it to the bottom of their hearts the very next, but I still find this perplexing.

  • reynard61

    “I’m guessing that ‘governmental thinking’ means something different than what the word ‘government’ would imply for the rest of us.”

    Just guessing too, but I strongly suspect that it boils down to “I’LL DO THE THIN(k)IN’ AROUND HERE, AN’ DOOOOOON’T YOU FER-GIT IT!!!”

    Educational Rule #374: If your school takes a point of it’s teaching philosophy from a Hanna-Barbera cartoon, run — don’t walk — to the nearest exit…

  • arcseconds


    *See also how everyone in a Biblical epic speaks in very formal,
    stilted, and slightly-archaic language. Most people associate that sort
    of tone with the Bible, despite it being completely unrelated to the
    wildly varying style and quality of writing actually used.

    Don’t forget fantasy epics. 

    Also, you’ve got to wonder why those stones Joseph Smith used to translate the Book of Mormon from the original hieroglyphics resulted in anachronistic Jacobeanesque English.  

    Maybe the stones could not just perform translation, but translation into a form of language expected of an authoritative holy book?  That’s pretty clever.

  • Sgt. Pepper’s Bleeding Heart

    Wow Fred, your church growing up sounds like the exact opposite of Catholics. We’re the people who stubbornly refuse to split off. Most of us disagree with various things that the Powers That Be say cannot be disagreed with, but take the attitude that there are too many of us to kick out, and fuck it, *we’re* not leaving.

  • arcseconds

     I suspect that it’s easier to keep secular right-wing groups together
    because the “glue” is more fundamental (if you’ll pardon the accidental
    pun): it’s usually about money and who gets to get more of it, and how
    to reinforce the increasing trend of worshipping those who have lots of

    Well, I had thought of that of course, but it’s not entirely sufficient.  I do think it’s true that mainstream right-wing parties serve the interests of business pretty purely and directly (whereas major left-wing parties serve them impurely and more indirectly).   And the people who write the cheques don’t really care too much of the details about how it gets sold, just so long as it happens.  So the power-brokers aren’t going to split on a matter of principle: that’s all thoroughly pragmatic.

    However, the rank-and-file don’t think of themselves as voting for, say, corporate welfare or keeping the median income where it is while the mean rises.   For one thing, when put like that it’s clearly against their interests.

    What I’m inclined to say about this is that right-wing parties sell the platform on sentiment, often anti-something sentiment (anti-Europe, anti-immigration), although pro-our-special-relationship-with-America is plenty sentimental too (so is pro-our-captains-of-industry).  Left-wing politics is hardly free of sentiment either (Obama’s initial campaign was heavy on a pretty nebulous ‘change’ motif), but tends to involve principle and ideology a lot more, which results in more conflict as you describe. I’m not sure i can explain the difference too clearly, but I get the impression that for many left-wingers their principles are prior to and separate from their politics: they listen to the Green party because they’re already into recycling, and not the other way around.  If the Green party stops caring about recycling, they’ll stop caring about the Green party. 

    Right-wing groups can be principled in this way too, mind, but when they are, it seems to me that they’re inclined to fracture, too.  Libertarians often have a  separate political presence from other right-wing groups, just as an example, and white supremicist groups seem to proliferate.  Also, I think the tea party is an interesting example of an ideological right-wing group (even though it’s not a particularly coherent ideology, and is strongly rooted in the wider party’s talking points) which has already caused a lot of internal headaches for the Republicans.

  • Parisienne

    Can someone who knows more about American education than me tell whether the education you get in a “Christian” school is better or worse than what you get in a public one?

    I have evangelical friends (a couple of families) who send their children to private schools – which in France means Catholic. They don’t agree with everything taught in catechism classes at these schools but still feel they’re doing better by their kids by having them privately educated because it’s a healthier learning environment. One of these people is himself a teacher in the public system – he doesn’t disapprove of public education per se, but the particular school where his daughter would have ended up is a dump (very poor educational and disciplinary standards) so despite feeling a bit conflicted about it, he decided he preferred to pay for a private education.

    But I get the feeling that parents who choose Timothy School don’t necessarily do so because they think the education dispensed there is any better. Is that right? 

  • fraser

     Discussions of this make me think of Robert Altmeyer’s “The Authoritarians.” Among the authoritarian traits he lists are believing in a grey-free world–everything is black and white, and anything that moves too close to the boundary (not only forbidden acts but dissent or questioning of where the boundary should be) is Bad. Closely tied to this is the view that the world is incredibly fragile and that (as Fred put it in Part One), if any part of the system fails, everything falls into chaos.

  • Lunch Meat

    In my experience, private school made me better at learning in general, if only because the school was smaller so I got one-on-one attention, lesson plans that were more tailored to my specific needs, and teachers that were more motivated. I loved learning, reading, and thinking, and my teachers encouraged me. However, the “facts” that we learned, specifically in science and history, were terrible. Math and english were okay, though, and a good (public) high school and (private) college mitigated some of the bad fact learning I’d gotten, while I benefited from being better at learning.

  • The_L1985

    I am shocked by the number of Catholics and Seventh-Day Adventists at your school, Fred.  The fundie school I went to was run by the local Church of God (and about a decade ago, was no longer able to keep enrollment enough to keep its accreditation and disappeared).  At its height, it had 250 students.  My brother and I made up half of the Catholic student population.  I knew about (and went to class with) Baptists, Methodists (the fundie kind), Church of God, Church of Christ, and Assembly of God.  I knew that Lutherans, Presbyterians, Mormons, Pentecostals, and Jehovah’s Witnesses existed, but none of those went to my school.  I’d never heard of Seventh-Day Adventists at all–I first heard of the denomination about 7 years ago, when my roommate was one.

  • The_L1985

     My parents sent me to one because there were no other private schools in the county, or in any of the surrounding counties, and the Alabama educational system was even more fail-tastic than the A Beka “education” we were getting.

  • The_L1985

     This is similar to what happened to me, only add in a lot of Catholic guilt and membership in anti-abortion youth groups.

  • Jim Roberts

    It depends on what you mean by “a good education.”

    A private school – any private school, really – is going to tend to produce kids who have better reading and study habits than they might have in public school simply because of a smaller class size, higher volunteerism, reduced paperwork and more direct learning. I would regularly sit down, just my teacher and I, and go over a lesson if I had trouble understanding it, often for half an hour or more, while a volunteer assistance teacher watched the class as they navigated through their math problems or worked on projects.

    According to a friend in the public system, she would not be able to do that without filling out paperworkt hat would take her at least ten minutes to complete, and wouldn’t have volunteers that would enable her to do that anyway.

    The actually information the kids get . . . varies. History and science can be pretty heavily skewed, obviously, if the school teaches that the U.S. was founded on the Bible and literal creationism, but math, art, music and non-biological sciences are often quite solid. And some schools really don’t do badly with history and science. My sons go to a Christian school where they are taught creationism as a possible explanation of origins, and where the teachers do not object to me teaching my sons otherwise.

  • The_L1985

     Seconding.  Yes, there were a wide variety of conservative Christian denominations at my elementary school.  But I didn’t knowingly encounter anyone who wasn’t also a conservative Christian of some kind until I was 14, and most of what I “knew” about liberal Christians, atheists, and members of other religions was a giant mass of strawmen that made it very hard to accept people as they were.  It took me a long time to get past that.

  • I too am another former born again Christian, now in recovery.  You can only take so much bs for sol long before you just have to leave it all behind.  Free at last, free at last, thank God I’m free at last.

  • Loquat

    Well, nobody actually sits there saying to themselves, “how can I protect myself from the dangerous process of actually thinking about my religion?” now, do they? It’s more of an organic process – generations of fundie kids raised on the KJV, told that it’s the timeless and unchanging word of God and that all necessary moral guidance can be gotten from a plain and literal reading of it, with no particular mention of the older versions written in no-longer-living languages or the translation issues involved. So it’s not so much a conscious desire to avoid thinking as a natural combination of resistance to change and fear that the secular world is trying to corrupt the One True Faith.

  • spiritanointed

    It’s funny because the Catholics actually split from the Eastern Orthodox WAY before that Reformation. The Great Schism, my friend.

  • Jenny Islander

    Also, your KJV-only group may loudly insist that their KJV is the only and original KJV, not a jot or tittle out of place–and if you tell them that their version is a slightly later edition, or that it’s the original but somebody seems to have left out the translators’ preface, they will scream at you and consign you to Satan.

    The really hardcore groups insist that the(ir) KJV is the proper basis for all translations into other languages.  Some have indeed commissioned attempts to translate the KJV into Spanish or what have you.

    My cynical side suspects that KJV-onlyism is popular among Real True Christians because the language is so archaic and obscure that it’s easy to make up whatever you like and insist that it’s the plain, clear, and literal meaning.  People can’t just open their Bibles and ask (as one of many examples) why women can’t do X orY or Z when women in the Bible were very plainly doing X and Y and Z because they can barely read the book and have to depend on the preacher to tell them what’s what.

  • spiritanointed

    That’s a tough call. American public schools vary extremely in their quality. I won’t say any more as to the reasons behind that however, as I am Canadian and I haven’t looked into it. . .at all.

  • Michael Pullmann

     I was going to say something similar. Two Spider-Man fans will fight each other much harder over Gwen vs. MJ than either of them will fight a Batman fan over Spidey vs. Batman.

    Also, now I’ve got this image in my head of Danny Vermin as a fundamentalist preacher. “You shouldn’t raise your hands over your head during worship, Johnny. My uncle raised his hands over his head during worship once. ONCE.”

  • MaryKaye

    I went to secular schools in Alaska (which were not great by any means) but when we spent a sabbatical year here in Seattle my parents sent me to a private Catholic girl’s school as they were skeptical of the public schools.

    They were very strong on math, and having only girls meant no nonsense about “math is for boys”.  I learned a ton of math that year which has served me well.  On the other hand, I hated my French teacher and this blighted my interest in foreign languages for several years.

    During my teens I was an on-and-off atheist, and that year (tenth grade) was one of the “on” years.  Surprisingly, I still got a lot out of the religious education class, because we debated ethics and talked about what makes a good ethical argument, and I needed that.  It was HUGELY better than any of my church-school CCD (continuing Catholic development?) classes, which tended to be very authoritarian.

    Social studies was taught somewhat weakly, but that’s partly because state law said 10th grade was History of Washington State and no one was real interested in teaching that…. And it was taught weakly in most of my public schools as well, with the exception of one excellent class that turned out to be mostly “why do wars start?”

    Overall I think it was academically competitive with my secular school.  It was smaller so if you wanted highly specialized classes you couldn’t necessarily get them (at the secular school I did organic chemistry and debate, which I don’t think the religious school had).  But the average quality of the classes was high.

    These were Catholics, though, and not the recent hard-right flavor either.

    (As for it being a girl’s school?  I was happy to go back to co-ed next year.  I did notice that math was well taught, but I found similar classes and groups of people in Alaska next year, and other than that it just meant that there were fewer people who shared my fairly male-skewed interests, like chess and D&D.  And it felt a little restrictive–I like being around both men and women, why limit myself?)

  • Jenny Islander

    MaryKaye noted that her Alaskan public school education wasn’t very good.  Mine was good enough that when I attended a Little Ivy university populated largely by students from feeder schools,* I was regularly outshining the feeder school freshmen.  Public schools can vary enormously in quality.

    Nowadays all public schools struggle under the burden of No Child Left Behind.  NCLB’s provisions make an education like the one I got impossible, so I homeschool.  We can afford to have me work a flexible part-time job, but we can’t afford to have me do that AND send the kids to private school.

    American homeschooling is a whole other can of worms.  Regulation in some states is so lax that children can grow up functionally illiterate and unaware that the Earth goes around the Sun.  In other states, the amount of paperwork needed to teach a child at home is absurd.  I think Alaska strikes a happy medium.  My children have to pass the same standardized annual tests as anyone else starting in third grade (the tests are proctored by someone who is not me).  Meanwhile, my school district allots exactly as much money to registered homeschool students as it does to students who attend classes on campus.  All mate rials that are not explicitly religious are paid for by the school district with the understanding that anything nonconsumable becomes the property of the district when my last child ages out of needing it.*A feeder school is a school that is oriented toward college prep from the moment a young child first steps through the doors.  Often feeder schools are closely associated with a particular college or university; they may actually use the same campus.

  • Jenny Islander

    Narf?  I thought I was replying to Parisienne.

  • Carstonio

    Anyone remember the episode of Cheers where Woody has a fight with Kelly because they belong to different subdenominations of Lutheranism?

  • EllieMurasaki

    Can someone who knows more about American education than me tell whether the education you get in a “Christian” school is better or worse than what you get in a public one?

    In my experience:

    Public elementary school in Florida: rocked.

    Public elementary school in Mississippi: sucked.

    Catholic elementary school in Mississippi: rocked. (Except for Thursday Mass and religion class, which my mother considered a plus and my father considered the price we had to pay.)

    Catholic junior-senior high in Missisippi: SUCKED. (Seventh grade was the fourth year running that I was taking seventh-grade math. This was part of the Florida school’s rock, part of the Mississippi public school’s suck, and not the Catholic elementary’s fault, but the Catholic high knew damn well I’d already had prealgebra because that was the highest-level math book they’d let my sixth-grade teacher borrow for me, and “we don’t want her in a class with older students–there must be something she can learn in this one”. Which was bullshit because I’d skipped a grade and was therefore the school’s youngest student by some months, and also my phys ed class had lots of people above seventh grade. And Thursday Mass and religion class, and for seventh-graders religion was a full-year class when everything else was a half year, and my schedule worked out to, before Christmas, phys ed, two interesting classes, and religion, and after, three snoozefests and religion.)

    Public middle school and junior high in Mississippi (the district reorganized between my eighth and ninth grade): sucked, just as bad as public elementary in Mississippi but not nearly as bad as the Catholic high.
    Public high school in my current state of residence: by then I’d rather lost interest in the whole formal education deal, but my siblings assure me it rocks.

    Even with my sample size of one, I feel confident in assuring you it’s a school-by-school thing, like everything else pertaining to education.