Coming from — “Bah! Humbug!!”
Implicit in the interaction between showman and pigeon, there’s agon — a contest, a debate, a struggle. It doesn’t work without that difference and distance and antagonism between the humbug and consumer, the “cast member” and the “guest,” and even the revivalist and the revived. The best peddler of humbug leverages that antagonism, skillfully wielding it to his own advantage. Sadly enough, the showman often winds up fooling himself. The illusion is so all-consuming, the illusionist himself becomes an unwitting dupe.
I’ve come to realize in the last seven years that purveyors Fundamentalism are not much different. After years of fighting the evolutionists, the higher critics, and the “modernists,” after wholly digesting urban revival á la Moody and Barnum as their raison d’être, they pick up their well-worn Scofields (for the older set) or ESVs (for the young ones) and see nothing but agon. In other words, Fundamentalism goes to the Text Itself and reads every story in the Bible as the same kind of contest, debate, or struggle. It’s all a fight. The fight is not between Good and Evil, not between Christ and Satan, not between the Oppressors and the Oppressed. No, Fundamentalism reads every story as a fight between God and humanity. Or better yet, as a fight between God and the individual. Or even more directly, between The Omniscient Almighty Power of the Universe and little ol’ you. The divine vs. the self. The Infinite Creator vs. the lowly creature.
Fundamentalism easily views Scripture through this lens. Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac is a story not about God’s promise to provide the End of Sacrifices, but about Abraham’s submission. The three Hebrews in the fiery furnace is a story not about God’s salvation, but about three young men maintain their shining testimonies before their pagan audience. Jonah is a story not about a merciful God acting through a nationalistic prophet, but about a disobedient man. Prophetic passages about wicked heathen are (mis)read as direct condemnations of contemporary believers sitting in the pew. The Prodigal Son is not about a gracious, always-loving Father, but about two selfish sons. Paul’s warning that legalism wrests us from grace and his command that we “bear one another’s burdens” are met with complete confusion since the well-honed legalistic cudgel of agon must be dropped when in an unguarded embrace. The Fruit of the Spirit is not the work of that Spirit living within you, but God’s divine character qualities that you must struggle to grow in your own life.
In the end, the entire canon of Scripture is not God’s Book about His Son, but merely a book about us.
So Isaiah 55:8 is then predictably mangled to read: “For my thoughts are incompatible with your thoughts, And my ways conflict with your ways, declares the LORD.” That’s not what the Text says! God doesn’t say we believers are at odds with Him any more than the salt and pepper on the table are at odds with the banquet being served. He says: “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, And my ways are not your ways, declares the LORD. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.” God’s saying that He’s not as short-sighted as we are. Although He’s infinitely bigger than we are, He harbors no belligerence towards us. He sees the pattern in the tapestry that we can’t see.
And so it goes. . . . In Fundamentalism even the Christian is at odds with himself. Sure — the Holy Spirit lives within, but every believer also supposedly has a “clone of Satan’s own nature” that “violently opposes God.” Strangely enough, Fundamentalist theology allows for the tables to be turned, creature controlling the Creator as he “lets go” and “lets God” in and out of his life like air from a balloon. Even while recognizing God to be all-powerful, this approach places the believer on an equal footing with his Sovereign God.
Reading God’s Book as an epic war story between God and man trickles down into everyday life. Everything’s agon. It’s all a fight. Husbands end up quoting the “submission” passages to their wives more than they remember the “love” passages God has written to them. Masters forget that God is the premier no-respector-of-persons since they are too often preaching “You will respect my authority!!” Parents and in loco parentis, albeit without a whiff of anger, literally and emotionally whip their charges into a learned helplessness, completely ignorant of the seething ire such rituals induce.
Sure — God’s sovereignty and His grace do mercifully pop up every now and then. But it is, unfortunately, the exception rather than the rule.
And it gets worse.
Since the Bible is always viewed through the lens of agon — a contest between God and human beings — normal anxieties and conflicts are condemned. Any human attribute that is “not-God” is sinful. Being silly is a sin. Being sad is a sin. Thinking too much is a sin. Feeling too much is a sin. Overeating is a sin. Undereating is a sin. Worry is a sin. Apathy is a sin. Sleeping too much is a sin. Not sleeping enough is a sin. Trying too hard is a sin. Giving up is a sin. And the myriad variations between those extremes are muddled with the ever-present and totally subjective appeal to “balance.” Whenever you do one thing, you get scolded for not doing the other. It’s a push-pull. A Catch-22. You can’t win.
Essentially, being human is sin.
It seems like a tolerable enough read on the Scripture. What’s wrong with a little unselfishness, right? But when you live it out in the nitty-gritty of daily life, it becomes nothing more than a sublimation of God-given personhood and, worst case, a squelching of the Holy Spirit.
Since being human is a sin, then the most human among us — the small and the weak — are the most sinful and the most dangerous. Even our children are our enemies — “vipers in diapers.” Read the prominent texts on child-rearing recommended within conservative Evangelicalism. Read them with your eyes wide open and don’t miss a word. There’s a war presumed to be raging in our homes. And the littlest one is the biggest threat.
So when life gets complicated, contemporary Fundamentalism isn’t teaching its followers to be like its founders — to be the rugged individual who will resist the wrong and the choose the right in spite of the culture. No, we’ve been trained that the self is wholly sinful and, by extension, the singular and the small is sinful, leaving the corporate as the only alternative. So whenever a believer faces opposition with someone or something more powerful or more popular, he must acquiesce. He has been trained to follow the corporate over the small and the quiet. It’s not “do right ’til the stars fall.” It’s “do right because we say it’s right.” It’s “peace at all costs.” How far we have strayed from the roots of our faith!
All of these tropes and habits are so prominent that I can easily predict the Fundamentalist’s response to my words. It won’t be a head-to-head clash (which is what I relish and welcome!). It won’t be, “Mmmm. . . . I’d like to see more proof.” It won’t be a shrugging it off and saying, “Whatever.” No, the response will be to make me small — to presume the worst about me, to shame, to insult, to name-call, to question my character — ad hominem responses which are far from necessary or logical or Christian. Some will say, “Well, you aren’t being gracious by saying all this. By talking about such things, you’re just revealing the seething bitterness in your heart.” And I must beg this last person, whom I know is a friend, to understand that I believe keeping quiet would be the most ungracious, embittering, unChristian thing I might do.
Then again, you may be muttering under your breath: “So what? What’s the big deal? That’s what everybody does. Every group does that.” Well, yes, groupthink is a problem among many gatherings of people. But this particular gathering is the one I care about, and this group or movement is most obviously losing its moorings. The consequences in this instance is that the groupthink will continue until Fundamentalism’s followers are unique among their contemporaries — uniquely miswired, unable to communicate with those around them, incapable of seeing the right choice when powerful hegemony looms.
What happens is that a Fundamentalist child becomes most vulnerable to sexual predators since he doesn’t know how to listen to the small voice bellowing inside to “RUN!!” from stranger danger. His wiring has taught him to mistrust his inner voice, and the adult authority must be obeyed at all costs.
What happens is that a white, middle-class, conservative Evangelical co-ed, who would always vote pro-life, is the most likely person in Upstate South Carolina to resort to abortion because appeasing the overwhelming, punitive culture is easier than listening to the small, thriving life within her. Yes, you read that right: it’s not the lack of religion that pushes many young women to kill their babies; it’s too much bad religion.
What happens is that a young man who is asked to give his credit card number to the mysterious voice over the phone — even though his gut is screaming to “STOP!!” — can’t resist since to do so would be impolite and contrary.
What happens is that a new mother prematurely stops breastfeeding (or never even starts) because so many have told her that it’s a sexual stumblingblock to men.
And others get strong-armed into submission as well. Bullied into dropping out of school. Shamed into silence about a contrary opinion. Blacklisted for not continuing to maintain the image. Shunned for speaking out about injustice. None of these stories are exaggerations. All have recently happened to real people fully committed to Fundamentalism — over and over again. And all for the same reason — to squash the small self and defer to the powerful, popular, dominant culture.
The single group member, we’re told, can mar the reputation of the movement. The baby’s wiggles are clearly “defiant” and make us all look bad. The individual, no matter how small, speaks for the whole group, right? Unless that individual is very powerful and prominent; then he only speaks for himself.
So the hegemony rules. The big, the corporate, the loud is most important. The god-like becomes God.
At that point, the Great and Powerful Oz needs Toto as much as Dorothy does. After all, he’s not a bad man. He’s just a very bad wizard.
Next — “I’m just a bad wizard!”
[tags]Fundamentalism, Bob Jones University, Keswick theology, Chaferianism, Humbugs, The Wizard of Oz[/tags]