Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Holy Officiousness

I have 2 friends of quite different ethnicity and background from myself who are fascinated with Christian fundamentalism. One is Jewish, my friend David Kaplan, born and raised on the Upper West Side, the son of NYC school teachers ("He's grandmother Jewish," a former room-mate once remarked). The other goes by the blog name of Wilfried. He is American, ethnic Chinese, whose parents are scientists (physicists I think). Both of his parents are true-believing atheists and devout Communists. They spent time in the People's Republic of China as very honored guests. Wilfried still knows all the old Young Pioneer songs in English and in Mandarin.
David Kaplan belongs to a Conservative synagogue in Manhattan. Wilfried is a fellow parishoner with me, and after 5 years is still new to Christianity (though he certainly knows more about it than I do). Wilfried and I are both gay, and marched in this year's Pride March, though not together. He marched, as he does every year, with the Gaysians.
Both David and Wilfried are very different in background from each other and from me. Both of them are fascinated with Christian fundamentalism in its many forms. Christian fundamentalism for me is a surplus of very bad memories, coming as I did from Texas in the 1960s and 70s. For the both of them, Christian fundamentalism is as exotic as the Parsee's Towers of Silence. They both take an anthropological interest in the sheer freakishness of it.

They are both struck by the joylessness of it all beneath the smiles and the happy-clappy. David Kaplan finds the contrast with Jewish fundamentalists to be striking. The ueber-Orthodox Jewish Biblical literalists find some measure of inner peace in knowing that they are doing all they can to fulfill the requirements of the Halaka. He sees no such inner peace in fundamentalist Christians. Indeed, they seem to him to be always very anxious and deeply self-conscious, prickly and quick to take offense. There is something defensive in the aggressive cheeriness of their worship, and coercive in the insistent good fellowship in David's experience.
Wilfried sees something similar in what he's encountered. He likes to lurk through the most hard shell Calvinist fundamentalist websites and read the chatter among the "Fighting Fundamentalists." These are the folks who consider the Southern Baptist Convention to be nothing but godless liberal apostates and heretics and will have nothing to do with them. The Calvinist groups are all very small and very exclusive. One has a 2 page questionaire that must be filled out in detail before one can join their discussion group. The applicant must describe in detail their current church membership, who is their pastor, their "salvation history," etc. These small extreme fundamentalist Calvinist groups are all at war with each other, usually over points of doctrine that strike most outsiders as very arcane. They are all hard-shell Gomarists. Someone like me who is grateful to have been born into the humane Arminian theology of the Methodist Church would not be at all welcome with any of them. They are constantly arguing and splitting. The "Fighting Fundamentalists" are the most viscious fighters between themselves and with the outside world. They are always angry and always at war.

Both David Kaplan and Wilfried find the bitterness of all this utterly exotic and deeply puzzling. As Wilfried points out, there is no real joy in any of this arcane doctrinal internecine warfare. The only pleasure seems to come from the thrill of victory and the satisfaction of knowing that one is right and among the Elect. The hard Calvinists in particular are not shy about expressing a Taliban-like contempt for any and all aesthetic experience, including music. Wilfried notes that they all seem to be bibliophiles. All that repressed aestheticism comes out in their cherished very expensive leather bound Bibles (Geneva or King James; and they fight over which one God really wrote). Wilfried calls them "attack Bibles" bound in floppy black leather with gold stamped lettering and onion-skin pages edged in gold leaf. They do look like weapons of war, like Samurai swords. Perhaps Wilfried will show up in the comments section and give us some links to their sites.

Both David and Wilfried find the selectiveness in their literalism to be very striking. Wilfried points out that a truly literalist understanding of Genesis requires us to believe in a flat earth with a domed sky surrounded by the waters of chaos.

This is just the sort of officious Christianity that I find deeply alienating, and which seems to be the dominant image of Christianity for the general public (the Church as Cop as I discussed in an earlier post). It is that legalistic Christianity that values tidiness and exactitude above all else. It is the kind that makes a cult of purity. I've seen purity. I've been to the desert, purged of all variation, all color, all dirt, clean of all life. It's not for nothing that the Bedouin call the desert the "Garden of Allah." These are the sorts of Christians that drive me ever further into the antinomian camp and toward the likes of William Blake.

I remain an anti-systematic thinker, and proud of it.


Kirkepiscatoid said...

Interesting comparison, Counter, about their Bibles and Samurai swords. The one time my mom turfed me off to a Baptist Vacation Bible School for a week, what I remember the most were "sword drills," where they would call out a Bible verse and the kids all scrambled to flip their Bible open and be the first to find the verse.

Needless to say, as the non-Bapist in the group, I really sucked at it.

Rick+ said...

Dear Doug,

As usual, you're educating me. I had to look up three words in your post, including "Towers of Silence" (Now that I know what they are, may I just say as an educated, grown man... icky!)

Your experience with fundamentalism is the same as mine. I was raised in the conservative Church of Christ. The splits and the fighting and arguments about who's in and who's out continue in my little valley to this day. Being raised in a faith that stripped the Holy Spirit of every way of entry except the intellect was truly a desert. All other ways were deeply suspect or flat-out condemned: Art, music, dance, etc.

Coming to the Episcopal Church was like having color suddenly rush into my faith: If the Holy Spirit doesn't get to you through the Word, how about the liturgy or the stained glass or through groups or through music? We build armor around ourselves as we live that seems to prevent the Holy Spirit from getting into our lives. Faith in Christ seems to call us to a process of peeling those hard layers off so we can bathe in the Holy Spirit. The Episcopal Church seems to do a good job of creating as many chinks in the armor as possible.

Counterlight said...

I had the great good luck not to be born into a fundamentalist church or household, but I was certainly surrounded by them. They almost squeezed the religion out of me.

I tip my hat in salute to all those (like Rick+) who grew up in such churches, and survived with their faith and their humanity intact.