Friday, December 21, 2012

Why I Am Not A Fundamentalist Christian

  This is part of a series of Essays from a Christian Perspective.

I've got that old time religion in my heart,
Way down inside.
I've got a new kind of feeling in my heart:
Rejoice, abide.
Nobody knows what it means to me,
Nobody knows but my Lord and me.

I received the following response from an item I posted on Facebook (about leaving fundamentalist Christianity without leaving behind everything good about it):
Let me begin by stating that I don't have a full knowledge of church history, and thus do not know when fundamentalism began. However, post-modern teachings, such as those by Rachel Held Evans, are far more recent. The problem that I have with this type of teaching is that it reads a post-modern world view into the Bible instead of allowing the Bible to speak for itself. Also, if by scientific advancement you are talking about creation, this is something I too struggle with. [...] See, I believe precisely the opposite of what you believe, and I would say that the post-modern views strike me as false. I would say that if the Bible doesn't mean what it says, then what does it mean? Can it mean whatever I want it to mean (because I can make it mean some pretty crazy things)? Who is the authority? I would say in a post-modern view, it would be society, and I think that is inherently wrong. Quick question as well: if fundamentalism doesn’t adhere "to age-old tradition and practice" what view does? Or should we even?
I pointed out in an earlier post that Christian fundamentalism, like all religious fundamentalism, is a new phenomenon. I referred my friend to this post, to which the above is partially a response.

My reasons for leaving behind Christian fundamentalism, and particularly Biblical literalism, are complex, and doing so was an important stage in my life. I wanted to share here my response to my friend: 
First, let me say thanks for engaging with me on this topic. It's important for me to figure out what I really think, and that's hard to do on my own without someone to disagree with. For this, I hope we can continue to speak in a friendly manner: these things are important, sure, but they are also mysterious, and perhaps ultimately the truth of the matter cannot be known in this life, so we should be forgiving and understanding with each other. (Not just you and me, but people on both sides of this issue in general.)
Okay, speechifying done. I'm going to try address the stuff in your post in the order it appears in to keep it all straight.
  1. "However, post-modern teachings, such as those by Rachel Held Evans, are far more recent." Post-modernism is recent; I don't have a problem with recent ways of interpreting the Bible. My problem with fundamentalism is that it claims to be the original, oldest, purest way of "doing" Christianity when it is actually quite new. Refusing to accept any non-literal interpretations of the Bible, which is the basic premise of Christian fundamentalism, is new. Christians have been trying to make sense of scripture in other ways for much longer than they have been relying on literal interpretation alone; see, for example, the Fourfold Sense of Scripture (about which you can find more here) that was already in operation over a thousand years ago. (This fourfold sense is basically what I mean when I talk about "age-old tradition and practice." For example, some great Christian thinkers from ages past used metaphorical and allegorical interpretation to understand Genesis. And yes, I think we should be trying to adhere to, or least engage with, such tradition and practice.)
  2. "The problem that I have with this type of teaching is that it reads a post-modern world view into the Bible, instead of allowing the Bible to speak for itself." My experience is that modern and post-modern Christian thought seeks to understand the context of scripture, to know what was going on in the world around the person writing the words. It then tries to use that to help understand scripture better; perhaps even to decide which portions of scripture are still applicable to our daily lives in their literal meaning, and which portions are applicable no longer. I see this process as the opposite of imposing a modern worldview on an ancient text: instead, we are trying to understand an ancient text and adapt it to the world we actually live in today (and that, I think, is really "letting the Bible speak for itself"). 
  3. "Also, if by scientific advancement you are talking about creation, this is something I too struggle with." Creationism was actually my starting point for rejecting fundamentalism. From a young age, I realized that either I had to utterly reject many of the findings of science, or start interpreting at least some of the Bible as not literally true. I was worried about this for a while, but I talked to my dad about it, and he pointed out that scripture can make more important points than "X happened," and in fact is usually doing so, so why should I be concerned? I don't care if God created everything in literally six days; what I care about is the other big ideas the creation story is very clearly telling me, though not in a literal list of items: God is in charge of everything and is in some strong sense its author and master; humans are special because of our relationship to God; we are charged with taking care of what God has made. I don't need to think that the creation story is historically accurate to think those things are true. And the story is a beautiful, memorable way to learn those truths. They would not benefit from just being written out in a list at the beginning of the Bible.
  4. "I would say that if the Bible doesn't mean what it says, then what does it mean? Can it mean whatever I want it to mean (because I can make it mean some pretty crazy things)." Here is how I view the Bible: the Bible is God's word. (Note: this is not a particularly post-modern view, if I understand correctly.) God has ultimate authority to determine what humans should and should not do, and God's main medium for telling us this is the Bible. But trying to hear God speak using only the literal meaning of the words is tricky. There are times when God speaks directly to people in the Bible and tells them what and what not to do: sometimes they are things we Christians think we should pay attention to (like the Ten Commandments) and others aren't (like how we should kill witchesthis is a clear case where "letting the Bible speak for itself" in a literal sense doesn't work and Christians don't do it). But for pretty much any other story, you have to do at least a little work to make it matter at all to you (who cares if God literally saved Daniel from the lions' den? No one, unless we do a little interpreting and say that we believe God will also save us from harm if we are faithful to God) That meaning is pretty obvious though, which is true of much of the Bible. I don't think, and most people don't, that you can just make up a meaning that you like and put it with a text. Who will buy it? The meaning has to make sense from reading the story, and from knowing its cultural and textual context. That said, there may be parts of the Bible that were intended for ancient people and are just not relevant to modern people (like, say, rules about hwo to treat your slaves). One of the big problems for modern believers is figuring out what those parts are.
  5. "Who is the authority?" When, in my own life, I combined number 3 (some of the Bible can't literally be true if the modern world is to make any sense) and number 4 (literal sense is less important in many, many cases than the meaning behind the story) I stopped seeing the Bible as needing to be literally true. So I turned to a way of thinking that says "let's try to get the meaning and richness out of it anyway." Like you, and pretty much every fundamentalist, I was worried about who was in charge of determining what those meanings were (and, as I mentioned above, whether there are parts of the Bible that just don't apply to our lives anymore). My answer is that the person in charge is, first, Godwe can trust God to help and guide us as we try to live in 2012 AD and not 2012 BCand second, the Church, the body of believers, praying, discerning, and communicating with each other, just as we have these last two millennia.
Arriving at these conclusions took a long time, a lot of personal reflection, and, especially, a great deal of reading. If I could recommend any book to read on the subject of there simply being more, as well as more important, meanings in the Bible than the literal sense, it would certainly be The Meaning in the Miracles, by Jeffrey John. It's a beautiful book.  

Friday, December 14, 2012

In Defense of Boring Movies

Part of a series of essays In Defense of Boring Movies.

It’s just a life story, so there’s no climax,
No more new territory, so pull away the IMAX.
—"Our Life Is Not a Movie, or Maybe," Okkervil River

One of my favorite films of all time is Stalker, directed in 1979 by Russian filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky. It is, in a word, boring.

Oh, there are more eloquent, poetic words an expert reviewer could use to describe this film—and I use those words, often with great relish. But "boring" is my personal description of choice for Stalker and its ilk; in fact, there are a whole class of movies that I love dearly that I group together as "boring movies."

Before I get into what makes a "boring movie" in the sense that I mean, let's back up and talk about Stalker. It's a science fiction film: it takes place in a world where, somewhere in rural Russia, an unknown, but clearly very strange, event occurred, creating a "Zone," said to drive people mad or kill them and cause mutations in their children. At the center of the Zone, supposedly, there is a room that, if you enter it, will make your dearest wish come true. It's illegal to go to the Zone, but in the film two men do, guided by a "Stalker," who knows the Zone's many (invisible) traps and pitfalls.

If that premise sounds intriguing, good, because it is. It is not, however, exciting, and, in its execution at least, is never entertaining. Instead, the movie ... takes ... its ... time. Through long stretches of dialogue-free scene- and mood-setting, it bores you into either turning it off and doing something else more fun, or to settling down, relaxing, and beginning to think. Take this scene as an example: the long, wordless ride to the Zone (filmed in beautiful color) from the world outside it (in sepia tone):

Sequences like that let you know that the director's goal is not to entertain, but to induce a meditative state and provoke thought. To quote Tarkovsky, "If the regular length of a shot is increased, one becomes bored, but if you keep on making it longer, it piques your interest, and if you make it even longer a new quality emerges, a special intensity of attention." In this film, you can focus this attention on a variety of subjects; I tend to pay attention to certain details and use them to debate with myself whether the Zone is real or made up (there is almost never any direct, visible evidence that anything is amiss: for most of the film, we have only the Stalker's word that the Zone is not wholly illusory), but a viewer can spend her time pondering many other questions, including another personal favorite: what does it mean to truly desire something—are our "dearest wishes" made consciously or unconsciously?

A boring movie, in this sense, is a movie with a subversive purpose. Many of my favorite movies in this category advertise themselves as genre fare—the science fiction film, the western, the frontier epic—almost as if they are hoping to draw in the unexpecting viewer, not prepared or wanting thought but an escape. Instead of offering the usual transport to another world, though, where you can forget your own life and its attendant troubles in a sea of fun, tensions quickly followed by resolutions, and the promise of a happy ending, they confront you with questions to ponder and problems to ruminate on. Such confrontations are necessary, and it is good to have pieces of art that will approach us, offer us the opportunity to think deeply, and provide some directions in which answers may lie. I am happy that films like this are out there. And I think you should be, too.

If what I've said on this subject interests you, here is a short list of my favorites, with articles linked to explain what each is about more thoroughly and with more expertise than I can here.

Stalker: I've explained this one to you, but see also Solaris by the same director.
Dead Man: an "acid western" wherein Johnny Depp confronts his own mortality.
The New World: the story of Pocahontas and John Smith as meditation on humanity's relationship to nature.

Photo source:

Friday, December 7, 2012

Story Lab Recording II

Part of a series of Live Story Recordings.

Art by my friend Alex

This week, I'm posting a story I told on stage at Story Lab Chicago in June of this year. I had a lot of fun telling it! If you're interested in reading instead of listening, I've told it in slightly altered form here. (The art above, which is from a collection of stories I made into an album, was made by my friend Alex; you can find more from her here.)