Tuesday, August 17, 2004

The "F" Word

From Book Club Bullies by Giles Fraser;

...to describe the prime minister as a fundamentalist is flippant nonsense that seriously misplaces the meaning of the term. Using the F-word as a generalised insult for all those with religious convictions allows the real thing to slip by unchallenged.

Fundamentalism was first employed in southern California in the 1920s and rapidly gained an audience among Southern Baptists keen to reclaim what they perceived as Christian fundamentals against the onslaught of secular modernity and liberal theology. It's now a portmanteau concept applied to many religious fringe groups in all the world's faiths and spans huge differences in theological temperament.

The common denominator is a refusal to accept that a sacred text can be legitimately read in more than one way. This goes hand in hand with the belief that scripture has a straightforward meaning, often twisted by clever sophistry dancing to secular tunes of gay liberation, feminism, socialism, and so on. Fundamentalism is not about the degree of religious conviction or about having beliefs that are non-negotiable - all but the most cynically pragmatic of us have those. Terry Eagleton gets it right: "It is a textual affair."

Yet it is precisely here that fundamentalism is most vulnerable, for the written word is wholly unsuited to the transmission of a single message. A text, particularly one as fecund and multi- layered as the Bible, cannot be ring-fenced. Meaning scatters off the page in a multiplicity of directions. Ironically, for the fundamentalist, the text turns out to be the very source of the problem.

It is no coincidence that fundamentalism flourishes in places of low literacy. The US Bible belt is not a place where books are commonly read for pleasure or enlightenment: information comes from the radio and TV. For all their emphasis on the sacred text, fundamentalists are generally unfamiliar with the culture of books...

...Of course, the reasons for resisting the idea that a text requires interpretation are social and political, not principally theological. Fundamentalism flourishes in places of instability and social vulnerability. It is the desire for solid foundations in a world in which the vulnerable are tossed about like flies to wanton boys...

... The fundamentalist is the bully of the religious book club determined to regulate the conversation and silence disagreement. Even within the traditionally inclusive Church of England these book club bullies are increasingly using political muscle to change the rules of the conversation so that only those who subscribe to a particular interpretation of the text can participate. Elsewhere, this muscle is exercised at the point of a gun.

Perhaps I am insufferably liberal, but we need to have a greater appreciation of why bullies become bullies. Fundamentalism can only be defeated if we understand it.
"It's a textual affair." That is the point, isn't it? Is the bible dictation from God, or written by humans, sometimes inspired by God?

I first read the bible when confined to a bedroom during my elementary years. I loved the stories, and still do. But even at that young age, I understood that most of the heroes of the stories were, at best, "colorful characters."

Abraham was a bit of a scoundrel; giving his wife away to save his tail, and almost murdering his son. As I read the story of Isaac then, and today as well, it seemed obvious that there was something wrong with the man. God told him to kill his son? Serious child abuse going on here; blamed on "just following orders."

I liked his brother Lot even less. He takes the best land, and then remains there when it evolves into some kind of perpetual mardi gras. He offers his daughters to the crowd, to save the angels. And the angels have no problem with this? I sure did. His wife as a pillar of salt was a bit much, but I suppose it set things up for the incestuous scene later on with his daughters. Racey, maybe, but also rather disgusting.

We don't hear much about Isaac, except about his acquiring a foreign wife. Next time he takes the stage, he's an old man. No surprise. If my dad tied me up and offered me as a blood sacrifice to a God only he heard, most likely I'd have a few "issues" that would keep me from doing anything very productive with my life.

Jacob was a much more likeable guy. A thief and a liar, but still likeable. Served him right that he lost the wrestling match because the angel cheated; a kind of karmic justice, if you will. Yet, he is blessed by God. So God likes incorrigible rascals? Ok; nice twist to the story.

Joseph starts out depicted as a goody-two-shoes, but just can't resist making his brothers sweat in the end. A dream interpreter; I thought that kind of thing was verboten? I suppose dabbling in the occult was still considered a cut above the legacy left to him by his crazy great-grandfather, traumatized grandfather and unscrupulous father.

Moses had a mean temper, and it appears a drinking problem as well. And a huge ego. No doubt he needed it to keep those folks together for so long out in the middle of nowhere. He established the law, the ritual, and their form of government. Not too bad for a condemned murderer. The plagues were storytelling at its best. Frogs everywhere...I love it! The best part of the story to me, except for that last one. Killing the oldest son? Being an oldest son myself, that seems way over the top. And the drowning of the Egyptians in the sea; now come on, the story claims that God "hardened" Pharoah's heart. Either God doesn't play fair, or the Israelites need to tighten up their story line.

Joshua comes off pretty well; I even liked the part where he stops the sun. Never mind that the sun wasn't moving. Great image; need more light to finish slaughtering your enemy? No problem; I'm hooked up with the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob (somehow, by the time of Joshua, these three are depicted as impeccable models of character...imagine that!).

You can imagine going through the rest of the stories; reading them with the understanding of a precocious ten year old. Much later in life, when I showed up in church, and started attending indoctrination classes (they were called "bible study" of course), I was dumbfounded by the way the "teachers" insisted that there was only one "right" way to read these stories, and my way was just plain wrong.

That was the end of group bible study for me for awhile. Instead, I went to college and majored in literature, where creative interpretation was not only allowed, but encouraged, as long as you had some thin thread of supporting documentation to back up your theory.

I love the bible. I find parts of it clearly inspired by God. Other parts seem just as clearly to be inspired by colorful characters, and that's ok too. But this notion of using it like an instruction manual is a mindset that has never made much sense to me. Sorry if that's your approach. I just can't do it. If that makes me a heretic, so be it.


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