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

The all-or-nothing lie of fundamentalist Christianity (part 2) December 4, 2012

(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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  • EllieMurasaki

    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.

    Proverbs 31 in the KJV is still pretty straightforward, and pretty clear that it’s about a businesswoman. The verbs keep ending in ‘-eth’, but that’s it.

  • Jenny Islander

    This is why fundamentalist books about Proverbs 31 womanhood replace the verses that describe the Valiant Wife making business decisions with ellipses.  Or if their flavor of fundamentalism is okay with women handling business matters under their husband’s “covering” (that is, asking their permission first, or waiting for them to decree that a home business must be started, or the men getting to decide what to do with the income), but jibs at the thought of women teaching, then those verses get replaced with ellipses.  Seriously, I’ve seen these books.  So much for Biblical literalism!

  • Blaine

    Great post. And I think it really gets to the big reason why so many Evangelicals are pushing home school: They want to isolate their children because they know exposure to differences of opinion in a peer environment makes it a lot less likely they’ll adopt such a hard line, all-or-nothing approach to religion. That frightens them. Ambiguity is the enemy of fundamentalism.

    I was lucky in a lot of senses with respect to my upbringing. While we frequented primarily Conservative-Evangelical Churches (non-denominational) growing up, I also went to public school (which my brother and I were routinely mocked for, because public schools were teaching Satanism) and so I was exposed to a lot of diverse opinions early on. That didn’t stop me from having a crisis of faith, but ultimately that stemmed more from my being a gay man than it did from me being trapped inside a bubble. I’m glad everything turned out the way it has though. I’ve found myself happier and more liberated than ever before; as well as being far more involved and compassionate than I was as a kid. So I consider my “crisis of faith” to have been a very good thing.

  • It really depends on how well-funded the public schools are in their area.

  • Sadiemizisin

    For all my fellow CST seminarians…a different perspective of interreligious dialogue. Very interesting.

  • Tricksterson

    Having gone to Catholic schools both elementary and secondary in a place and time where the public school sucked, yes, the education was quite good if slanted in a certain ideological direction.

    I can’t judge other shcools but I think that the answer to your question depends on the definition of the term “better education”.

  • Tricksterson

    Or vice versa, it depends on which side you ask.

  • Tricksterson

    Then of course, there’s this

  • fraser

     And when Woody converts,he tells the gang “Now we won’t be separated in heaven by the guard dogs and barbed wire.”

  • Dan Audy

    I attended a Catholic school in Alberta, Canada (which have a separate parallel public school system rather than being private) and the actual education provided was quite decent but the environment in which that education was provided was absolutely toxic.  The faculty were roughly evenly split between aging authoritarians and younger liberal Catholics which made for some serious whiplash between years and extremely inconsistent rules and enforcement.  Religious education was primarily provided by one of the (authoritarian) nuns and was a listen and memorize, there will be no discussion type of affairs.  Evolution was taught as an ongoing process but the origin of life and creation of humans was strictly a divine causation, though some of the liberal teachers very carefully taught that ‘some other people say these very detailed things, but they are wrong’.  Sex Ed was a mess and pushed abstinence education at way too early an age and just confused the hell out of the kids who had no interest in sex yet anyway.

    When I was faced with the choice last year of whether to send my young man to start school in a Catholic French-Immersion school or have him not receive a education in french by sending him to an English language Public School, I cut the Gordian knot and moved out of the city to a district that had a French-Immersion Public School and have been very happy with that.

  • 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.

    That’s the usual party line on paper. But in practice, it’s more that Catholics hold that their authority should be respected because of their long history of scholarship and tradition, while Protestant traditions do this quasi-Socratic “You should respect our authority because the things we say require no special scholarship but are instead patently obvious to anyone who just looks at the plain and simple obvious meaning, and no honest person who looks at it honestly could possibly come to any other conclusion than ours.”

  • You seem, to me, to be painting Protestantism with a very broad brush.

    Protestant traditions range from the touchy-feely to the cerebral, and from the freethinking to the authoritarian, with stops at all points in between.

    I grew up in a relatively cerebral congregation of the United Methodist Church.  Our minister was highly educated and tried to transmit the benefit of that education to us.  Our church also employed seminarians as associate pastors, so that we would get the benefit of the latest scholarship. 

    I was never told anything like “this is patently obvious.”  If someone purporting to have any kind of authority had come into our church and said that, I’m not sure what my minister would have replied, but I am pretty sure it would not have been complimentary.

  • esmerelda_ogg

    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?

    I don’t know how common it is, but I was thinking more or less exactly this at the age of thirteen or fourteen. Of course, by fourteen or fifteen I was also thinking “how can you call God good when he deliberately designs traps just so he can have an excuse to send people to hell?” And I came to the obvious conclusion. From there it was a pretty short path to atheism and a long road back to a very different approach to Christianity.

    So, based on my own trajectory, I do suspect that people who consciously think along these lines may be on their way out of fundamentalism. Where they wind up after that is hard to predict.

  •  Inerrancy always seemed to me to be arrogancy…

  • What a wonderful post. I am a Bob Jones University graduate. I was a Christian school teacher. I am divorced. I am gay.  After my marriage fell apart, I decided to come out the closet (I had never had any gay experiences up to that point). My beliefs didn’t change, I just figured God has abandoned me or I wasn’t a ‘chosen one’. About a year ago I stumbled across a group of folks just like me — some were just former fundies who threw it all away, some were former fundies who also came out as gay. What a relief! I wasn’t alone as I thought I had been for 10+ years. And while my belief system hadn’t changed (I didn’t really care about it at this point, or put any effort into it), as I read about these folks’ lives, about the lies and deceptions and the CULT to which I had belonged, my house of cards came tumbling down rather quickly.

  • Exactly. Because Pa wants Junior to be just as narrow-minded…err, “rightly guided” as he (thinks he) is. Multiply that by a couple hundred thousand diverging home-schools and a few thousand different flavors of fundamentalism, let stew in own juices, and then stand *way* back as the whole concoction explodes. And people wonder why South Asia is such a theological powder keg in the middle of a roaring sociopolitical forest fire, with each village preaching just a bit different than the next… they’ve just been at the process a while longer than American fundies have, with less influence from historically competent, reasonably secular and inclusionary governments. Give us another decade or three along the current path, and things will tend to get very ugly indeed.

  • “A difference that makes no difference, is no difference”


    “Semantics is the art of inferring differences that do not explicitly exist.”

    With theology, we can have both at the same time. Proof that God does indeed have a sense of humor.

  • Where too many fundies, Christian or otherwise, go off the rails is by conflating individual faith with collective religion, and insisting that the former is invalid without blind obeisance to the latter.

    That was not a comfortable realisation, or a convenient one, but necessary and liberating in its own way.

  • Yeah, I remember that guy, and, and Usenet as a socially useful, interesting entertainment. I suppose that puts me into the same obsolete era as the punched cards and 1600 bpi tape reels sitting in the box behind me.

    People crave fashionability and certainty in all things, are confused when they’re offered and outraged when they’re imposed unless in the guise of religion substituting for education. Personally, I think that’s a sucker’s game; God and His Word are both greater than and simpler than that.

  • Taking an alternate example, Islam’s scriptural tradition states that any five adult believers (whether all-male or not is almost obviously deliberately ambiguous) can split off and start their own congregation, and the leader(s) of any congregation are elected and may be recalled at any time by a simple plurality vote of its members. Many, if not most countries that either have Islam as a state religion or officially recognize it in any fashion put enough bureaucracy in the way so that doesn’t happen very often — officially, at least.

    People crave stability, and to hear The Word from Above… but even more, they crave the ability to go off and do their own thing when that “Word from Above” is not to their liking.

  • Consumer Unit 5012