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Seeking Conclusions About Fundamentalist Christian B.S.

Background

Four years ago, I met a fundamentalist couple. This was not my first encounter with people who want to believe that the Bible is God’s word. To the contrary, as detailed in another post, I had been raised as a conservative Lutheran, had become a Lutheran pre-ministry student, and had spent several years deeply engaged in the Jesus movement of the early 1970s.

I say this man and woman (let’s call them Jack and Jill) were fundamentalists. I have seen other terms for their general kind of belief — “evangelical,” for instance, and “biblical literalist.” Maybe those words would be more accurate. I will stick with “fundamentalist,” here, because it is the word I used in a prior post that I will be citing shortly.

We got along well, these two fundamentalists and I. It seems this happened largely because I listened to their views and did not make much of an effort to present any other perspective. I suppose diplomacy is almost always a part of friendship, and deception is always a part of diplomacy, at least in the sense of choosing what one dares to say and how one dares to say it. These are uncomfortable realities, but they seem to reflect how most people approach interactions with persons of differing viewpoint.

The Internet is often criticized for removing important human dimensions of communication. In Facebook, email, and other digital interactions, we experience each other primarily as collections of words, attitudes, and opinions. We don’t necessarily get the smiles, the body language, the things left unsaid. Such media can promote misunderstanding; they can downplay some of the best aspects of the experience of communicating with an appreciated acquaintance.

And yet such media can also be liberating, and can facilitate learning and awareness. The side of me that wants to be honest seems to fare better in this digital realm. Here, online, those of us who stay diplomatically silent in person are sometimes more inclined to demonstrate that we have thoughts and ideas too, and that those thoughts and ideas deserve as much respect as those of the person who dominates face-to-face conversation.

So when I was with Jack and Jill, I tended to sit and listen as they — Jack, especially — went on and on about various topics. He did very much dominate the conversation. Then, and in our subsequent online conversations, he showed little interest in my life or my views. To the contrary, he frankly admitted that he did not consider himself openminded. He knew what he wanted to know, and that severely limited what we could talk about, and how much respect I would get.

I appreciated that Jack seemed to feel that I was a decent guy. But I think that was because I did not make a serious effort to stand up for myself, to explain why I had concluded that his form of belief was false. As many have found, you become less enjoyable when you stop serving as someone’s admirer.

Fundamentalist Christian B.S.

I am not very well equipped to be an admirer of someone who promotes fundamentalist Christianity. As I discovered in my own pilgrimage, that sort of religion requires an extraordinary determination to lie to other people, and to oneself — or, at best, a remarkable inability to realize that one might be mistaken.

In those years of deception and self-deception, I did meet people who tried to get through to me, as I came up with Bible passages to explain other Bible passages, and explanations to explain other explanations, and so on ad nauseum, in a never-ending circle. The problem is obvious to me now: I was afraid of going to Hell. To avoid that, I had to “believe in Jesus” — which meant, bizarrely, promoting a kind of religion that was not remotely what Jesus stood for.

The religion I was promoting was a legalistic one, based on lawyerly interpretation and analysis of Bible passages — whereas Jesus had made clear his opposition to the lawyers and the scribes of his day. Consider these remarks from Matthew ch. 23:

Nor are you to be called instructors, for you have one instructor, the Messiah. The greatest among you will be your servant. All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted. . . .

Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs, which on the outside look beautiful, but inside they are full of the bones of the dead and of all kinds of filth. So you also on the outside look righteous to others, but inside you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness. . . .

Therefore I send you prophets, sages, and scribes, some of whom you will kill and crucify, and some you will flog in your synagogues and pursue from town to town . . . .

Perhaps God did send us sages, in the form of scientists who contributed to our understanding of our world. How do Christians react to science? They reject it and cling to the Bible, as they always have done, from Galileo and Copernicus right down to evolution and global warming. Believers like science, when it says what they prefer — which is another way of saying that believers don’t like science at all, because science is all about questioning and seeking to replace one’s previous beliefs with better explanations.

(In these remarks, I don’t mean to suggest that secular science or liberal perspectives are always superior. I address that side of the table in 1 2 other posts.)

The fundamental problem of fundamentalist Christianity is that you can’t teach someone who does not want to understand. As soon as so-called Christians gained power in Rome, within a few hundred years after Jesus, they began to torture and kill people who did not interpret the Gospel their way. In the words of Jesus, these Christians were whitewashed tombs, seemingly righteous and yet full of lawlessness. And they only got worse, as elaborated in another post: they took over Europe and held control for a thousand years, from the Dark Ages to the Enlightenment, when people finally began to throw off the Christian yoke.

There was no humility in that sort of Christianity, no willingness to be the student. Bible-believing Christians always have been, and continue to be, proud of their ignorance. Indeed, they turn Jesus on his head, excusing and even glorifying their status as know-nothings, because Paul observed that not many members of the church at Corinth were wise by worldly standards. In the words of one interpreter of that passage, God “does not depend on education, philosophy, science, or any human device for doing His will.” As I learned during my fundamentalist years, real education is OK, as long as it doesn’t interfere with your Bible study.

If you were to think seriously about Jesus, you might focus especially on his message of love. “Love your enemies,” he said; “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” You might contemplate that message as you consider what people have done in his name — as they have diligently pursued the textual, lawyerly, scriptural project that he had nothing to do with. Think about it: he could have enlisted his disciples in the task of writing a scripture; he could have written one himself. That didn’t happen. But that was what his Gentile followers wanted, just as his Jewish would-be followers wanted him to be the conquering Messiah. So, like the Jews of his time, the Gentile believers of later centuries rejected who he actually was, and what he actually said, in favor of building their own preferred religion. From there, it was only a series of small steps to the point where, guided by Bible passages that he neither wrote nor authorized, his so-called followers would proceed to murder others, and each other, by the millions.

My other post discusses that in some detail. It speaks about the tortures, the abuses of prisoners and the mentally ill, the tolerance of slavery, and some of the other ways in which Bible-led Christians abused their centuries of power. Certainly the Middle Ages had their achievements — their Gothic cathedrals, for example, and their Gregorian chants. But, overwhelmingly, they represent a time that nobody wants to go back to. They demonstrated that a Bible-led society is a really bad idea.

And yet there I was, during my Bible-believing years, standing up for the Bible-based church. It’s not that I really approved of tearing people’s skin off in Christ’s name. Rather, like most fundamentalists, history was one of those subjects on which I was confidently ignorant. I didn’t necessarily know much about what had happened; but, whatever it was, I was sure that, now, we were past all that. We were on to something powerful and holy.

And yet, even there, I look back and shake my head. The Bible, itself, didn’t add up. For instance, fundamentalists see no problem in the fact that God forgot to number the chapters and verses of the Bible — that he needed human assistance to make those thousands of changes to the original texts of the manuscripts and letters now gathered together as so-called books of the Bible. God also forgot to even mention the Trinity, much less explain it — but that didn’t prevent the lawyers of fundamentalist Christianity from spending centuries sorting it out, burning Unitarians at the stake along the way for their failure to embrace this theological invention.

Bible believers do not ask themselves why, if God was unfolding his divine plan, the process of forming the official list of Bible books would require centuries of dispute — why, indeed, we still have disagreement among Christians as to which books belong in the Bible. Such believers are comfortable with the fact that, in a vast number of instances, surviving biblical manuscripts do not agree with one another — mostly in small instances, but sometimes in major ones. Somehow, Christians who find it exceedingly important to study the original Greek and Hebrew texts, so as to get to the exact meaning of God’s alleged word, are not in the least dismayed by the obvious fact that there have been hundreds of different translations of the Bible into English — disagreeing, again, on many small points and on some larger ones. To the kind of person who can swallow all this, it’s fine that the “original” Greek texts were, themselves, translations — that, historians tend to agree, Jesus primarily spoke Aramaic and probably knew very little Greek. The message is, never mind that, let’s study Greek anyway — as I did, for two years, during my own pre-ministerial studies.

Faced with such realities, an honest person will conclude that this Bible was not the work of a God seeking to provide a perfect text. Either God was not involved, or he was seeking something other than the human invention of biblical inerrancy — the notion, that is, that “the Bible is without error in all that it affirms” (BillyGraham.org). Certainly a person seeking to walk in the footsteps of Jesus, after reading his reported words about lawyers (e.g., “the lawyers rejected God’s purpose for themselves” and “Woe to you, lawyers!” — in Luke 7:30 and 11:46), will marvel at the legalistic acrobatics that theologians perform, in their desperate attempts to lawyer the Bible into submission.

Consider, for instance, how Bible.org tries to rationalize the many, often glaring, contradictions among Bible passages: it says biblical inerrancy “allows for variety in details in explaining the same event” and even “allows for problem passages.” To explain the latter admission, Bible.org says,

[I]t is impossible to provide solutions to all the problems [among seemingly contradictory Bible passages]. In some cases the solution awaits the findings of the archaeologist’s spade; in another case it awaits the linguist’s research; in other cases the solution may never be discovered for other reasons. The solution to some problems must be held in abeyance. The answer, however, is never to suggest there are contradictions or errors in Scripture.

So there you have it. The answer is never to suggest that the Bible contains errors or contradictions. Never is a big word. It means that no evidence of any sort will ever be allowed to shake the determination to make the Bible into something that the Bible, itself, does not claim to be. Because, let us be clear, what Bible.org says is not remotely found in the Bible itself. Unlike any halfway competent human writer, we are to believe that God did not have enough intelligence to simply list the books that he wanted in his Bible, provide authoritative copies of the originals, and give us what Bible.org has given us: a straightforward, definitive assurance that this Bible contains absolutely no errors.

There is no source other than the Bible that Christians commonly consider controlling in matters of faith, and the Bible itself fails to support the notion that its constituent books were all inspired or otherwise contributed or even influenced by God. Religious Tolerance offers a brief review of the passages most commonly cited in support of scriptural inerrancy — pointing out, for example, that when 2 Timothy 3:16-17 says, “All scripture is given by inspiration of God,” it could only have been referring to the Old Testament, because the New Testament did not yet exist. Defending Inerrancy illustrates the dishonesty of Christian theologians in such matters, claiming that certain statements by Jesus “speak to the Bible’s infallibility” when, again, the New Testament (focused substantially on the gospel of Jesus) would not come into existence until long after he had left the scene.

By this point, you might agree that, as I pointed out in another post, these Christians are guilty of blasphemy (commonly defined as speech conveying great disrespect) against their own God. According to Wikipedia, “Blasphemy has been condemned as a serious, or even the most serious, sin by the major creeds and Church theologians.” And that’s exactly what it is, when you make God out to be some kind of idiot, who failed to grasp the obvious need for these basic materials and statements, and thus has always been desperately dependent upon his so-called followers to help his religion remain viable. In fundamentalist Christianity, the followers are actually the leaders. They have thought of things that completely eluded their God; they are way ahead of him. No wonder they enjoy their religion — it tells them that, in their own way, they are the real masters of the universe.

Some Christian fundamentalists would reply that we should not second-guess God. But, in writings like this one, we are not second-guessing God. We are second-guessing Christian fundamentalists. If there is a God, it would be inordinately stupid to treat him as though he were stupid.

Rather than make the Bible into something that it patently is not, the humble and sensible thing is to take the Bible as it is. It is a collection of manuscripts, some pertaining to the Jews of the Old Testament, some to the Christians of the New. For those who find particular value in Jesus, the most important message of the Bible may have to do with his gospel. There is no denying that Jesus was, and remains, an extraordinary person with a remarkable message.

Goodbye to the B.S. Artist

As I say, I met Jack and Jill four years ago. A year and a half later, I wrote a blog post about some of my subsequent online interactions with Jack. Among other things, that post examined the practice of “lying for the Lord,” as I had once heard some Mormons call it. I summarized one section of that post in these words:

In several ways, then, it seems that pathological lying may serve as a relatively understandable (albeit informal and sometimes confused) diagnosis of the behavior practiced — indeed, encouraged — in fundamentalist Christianity. That impression would seem to apply especially to ministers and Bible students who waste enormous amounts of time trying to rephrase and repackage their beliefs in superficially credible terms.

Another section of that post offered some examples of online interactions with Jack and Jill. The main difference between them, for my purposes, was that Jill might express a view against vaccines, for instance, apparently based on nothing more than rumor; but if I questioned it, she would not waste my time inventing goofy arguments, playing games with words, or evading obvious points. Jack, by contrast, was a bullshit artist; as noted earlier, he had no interest in intelligent discussion. He knew where he wanted the discussion to go, in advance: it needed to reach a conclusion consistent with his fundamentalist beliefs — and he was going to get us there, by hook or by crook.

That, I think, was probably why I got out of Christian fundamentalism, whereas Jack will probably always stay in it. For all my attempts to invent scripture-based rationales supporting various conclusions, at the end of the day I was reachable. As described in another post, a professor did in fact get through to me: he listened to my arguments; he replied intelligently; I tried to work through what he was saying; a crisis of faith resulted; through strenuous efforts continuing for about a year, I concluded that he was right; and eventually I ceased to be a fundamentalist Christian.

When I realized that Jack was completely insincere, in the sense of seeking a predetermined outcome rather than the truth of a given matter, I unfriended him on Facebook. I hesitated to do that, but ultimately I had little choice: as illustrated in the other post, he kept inserting his irrationality into otherwise earnest discussions between people who were trying to explain their disagreements to each other. More than two years later, I still think that was the right thing to do. If you can’t or won’t be reasonable, I don’t want to help you bother people.

During the two years after I unfriended Jack, I continued to be Facebook friends with Jill. It was the usual Facebook interaction: she would “like” things that I posted, and vice versa. I would occasionally challenge her more extreme views, but those exchanges were invariably brief and to the point.

I assume Jack continued to be Jill’s Facebook friend throughout these past two years, and as such I assume he saw at least some of our interactions. He generally seemed to be a pretty mellow guy. My guess was that he saw that I didn’t care to interact with him anymore, and he was content to leave it at that.

For some reason, that changed recently. Jack decided to join in an exchange between Jill and me, probably because it was about a Bible passage and he is a minister. (He could inject himself into that exchange, on Facebook, because Jill had both of us as friends.) And immediately it was like old times: once again I was getting, from Jack, these long, rambling posts, unreasonable claims, and the same obvious desire to “win” rather than discuss. Here’s how it went in one such case:

  • First exchange: I posted a two-line response to Jill; she posted a two-line reply; Jack jumped in with two posts totaling 42 lines.
  • I did object to that verbosity. But eventually I took the bait and replied at some length. Jack (no advanced degrees) proceeded to explain things about the law to me (a lawyer). When I questioned that, he said he meant only to be discussing the law of Moses — on which he (having never studied theology, and having no substantial exposure to Jewish culture) felt that I (12 years in NYC; Jewish ex-wife; former theology student) had only “marginal knowledge.”
  • Seeing that Jack wanted to approach the Bible as a lawyer, I asked him for (a) “a straightforward statement of God’s intentions, regarding which laws are to be observed” and (b) a summary of the arguments against his position. Jack ignored those requests, choosing instead to bury me in another long, rambling reply.

I made those last requests, in part, because I wanted to see whether my impression was mistaken. It seemed to me that Jack just liked to hear himself talk, but I realized I could be wrong; he could be driving toward a coherent point in some way that I wasn’t recognizing. If he did have something specific to say (as distinct from trolling for interminable debate), it seemed reasonable to ask him to state, not his own point (which might have been construed as inviting yet another longwinded discourse), but rather the opposing points, on which he would presumably not expostulate at length. On the other hand, my exposure to counseling psychology suggested that, if he couldn’t say what his opponents argued, he might not be listening to them.

I might have had more patience with Jack if we hadn’t already gone down this road. I had written that previous post — I had rambled, in that previous post, I think — because I was trying to come to terms with, in some sense to gain some perspective on, this unpleasant kind of individual.

I don’t want to overstate the unpleasantness. In his (long) last remark, Jack did make some positive remarks about me. Unfortunately, he mixed them with some attacking remarks and some inaccuracies. It seemed to me that he may have found that he could keep people enmeshed in his debates by holding out that kind of olive branch. By that point, though, I really only cared that he had disregarded my reasonable request for a summary of what, exactly, he was disagreeing with.

Conclusion

From time to time, we must all deal with people who seem to be (or really are) disagreeable or unreasonable. In such situations, it seems best not to rush to judgment: sometimes those whom we find most annoying are those who have the most to teach us. At the same time, the person who strives to keep an open door and an open mind is at risk of being dragged into fruitless debates, or worse, with people who may be insincere, manipulative, or mentally ill.

I have recorded these reactions to this episode here because, as with the previous post about Jack and Jill, it gives me a point of reference that will remain readily accessible, long after the Facebook debate is buried — and also because, for more complicated or extensive issues, Facebook’s little posting space is not adequate. I hope these materials are useful, in the future, not only to me, but also to others who grapple with questions of faith, and with the frequently false statements that some believers make.

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