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Christian Fundamentalism: Trouble with the Bible and Beyond

Posted on: March 08, 2020

Category: Theology

Christian Fundamentalism: Trouble with the Bible and Beyond


I’m sure that anyone who has been in or around Christian fundamentalism knows the question very well. “Have you accepted Jesus Christ as your Lord and personal saviour?” Once I was asked this question at a Baptist Church, and when I inquired about what my interlocutor meant by “saviour,” the response was that true Christians did not argue over such questions. This, of course, meant that I was not a true Christian in the eyes of the other.

Fundamentalists tend to think that they are not interpreting the Bible but humbly reporting what the Bible says. To claim that one is “just reporting” takes no account of the historical understanding of the Bible, the language of the Bible, or the history of copying, interpreting, and forming the Bible. This seemingly careless regard of the Bible has a name. It is called circumstantial dislocation, and it is the first of three great mistakes in Christian fundamentalism.

Circumstantial dislocation means that an individual assumes her or his special circumstances are universal truths. A circumstantial experience, like being born again, is dislocated from its context and made into a contextless or universal principle of life.

In truth, no one must be “born again” according to another person’s experience of that psychological shift; there are many “circumstances” where such an experience is possible, and often no such experience is necessary. When a person who has trouble in life experiences a psychological shift, that is, a re-ordering of values and thinking, that can indeed be “good news,” but it does not have to be according to a Christian fundamentalist formula. God is not that small. Christian fundamentalists mistake a formula of experience for a universal truth, and this re-casting of the particular as the universal is called circumstantial dislocation. In such an act, my interpretation of the Bible is cast as the interpretation of the Bible, as what the Bible “really” says.

The first Christian fundamentalist mistake of circumstantial dislocation ties to a second mistake, which is called biblical misappropriation. This fancy expression means that in fundamentalism the Bible is an idol (a substitute for reality). Circumstantial dislocation is a form of narcissism where my personal experience stands for the truth. In biblical misappropriation, the act of narcissism extends to the Bible. The Bible is true so long as it supports how I interpret it.

In critical understanding, the question of how to interpret the Bible involves community debate. Fundamentalists often accuse “liberals” of being wishy-washy and of not having solid faith. But this accusation mistakes the natural process of learning (involving uncertainty, debate, change, and maturity) for a lack of faith. In other words, and stated crassly, fundamentalists oddly accuse liberals of not being narcissists.

Biblical misappropriation is about not allowing the Bible to reflect the plurality of the culture from which it arose. Or, again crassly, about assuming the Bible is a narcissistic pawn that reflects or should reflect only my concerns. Biblical misappropriation names an idolatry of the self (or self-worship) projected onto the Bible, its historical context, and its various cultural expressions. This is called misappropriation because a type of swindling action occurs where the integrity of the Bible is substituted, like a bait and switch, with my personal ego or gain or authority or status. Narcissism is defined in this way: an act of swindling (substituting) common interest with personal interest.

The third major mistake of fundamentalism is the disdain it holds for honest biblical scholarship. I do not know any name for this element of disdain. If we wanted to make something up, we could call it the sin of pride. It rests on the idea that an educated person who holds some expertise has nothing to teach us. It’s remarkable that this happens particularly in relation to the Bible, but it never happens in relation to mechanical subjects. For instance, no one would get on an airplane that an aircraft mechanic said is unsafe. No one would say that the expert mechanic has an opinion of no value. For reasons that baffle me, this anti-intellectual attitude surfaces all the time when it comes to Christian fundamentalism and the Bible.

Certainly, in terms of history and the act of translating ancient languages into English, there is room for speculation and error. It is impossible to know everything about history. Secondly, the act of interpreting the Bible is like art. It is necessary to re-imagine another time in human history and another set of assumptions about reality that are not the assumptions we hold today. To understand the Bible, you must travel back in your mind to a time before Darwin and Einstein when life and the universe were vastly different. Such an act of re-imagining how to think of the world is an artistic as much as historical act.

The sin of pride comes in when it is believed that such artistic mixed with historical understanding is a waste of time. Pride rules out the need to learn from someone else who has experience and knowledge in these matters. Pride looks down upon or disdains another who may know something we do not. Fundamentalism is filled with this attitude. It rejects the historical-critical method of understanding the Bible. It assumes that people who have given years of study to developing and using such methods offer only scattered opinions that are not worth the time of day.

Fundamentalism rejects basic literary knowledge about the Bible, like its sources and its divergent theologies, and favours sustained ignorance. This is its pride and its most dangerous mistake. When pride acts to create disdain for knowledge, individuals spellbound by such pride are susceptible to believing in lies, charades, and various forms of hypocrisy. Believing in lies is not only a sign of fundamentalist disdain for knowledge but also a danger for a community if not a nation. In this sense, the mistakes of fundamentalism are more than errors; they are threats against our common humanity.

Years ago, when I started in biblical criticism, I look at fundamentalism as a kind of joke. It seemed to me to be a set of ridiculous beliefs. That was my pride speaking to me at that time. I have learned to see fundamentalism in its many forms, both religious and non-religious, as a type of addiction. Like with other forms of addiction, the elements of circumstantial dislocation, misappropriation, and pride predominate. Each of these is a self-inflicted wound, but the trouble with Christian fundamentalism is that it’s a social wound and a political wound. It is no joke.

©By David Galston

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