Bruce Bawer keeps stealing my ideas. I don’t know how he gets into my head, but he does. So far, he’s written two books I wish I had written. First, there was A Place At The Table, an unblinkingly critical look at gay and lesbian life that he was soundly lambasted for in the gay press. It was a book that spoke directly to me. I found it easier to underline the parts I didn’t like in that book, so I would have far less underlining to do!
Now, he’s done it again! His new book Stealing Jesus: How Fundamentalism Betrays Christianity, is just the book I’ve been wanting to write. It’s a primer on fundamentalism and how it has emerged as “the” definition of Christianity in modern times. Bawer calls his book “Fundamentalism 101.”
“I talked to clergy and theologians that I knew, and realized through what little reading I had done I already knew more about fundamentalism than they did,” Bawer told me over lunch at his hotel while visiting Atlanta for a book signing. “I thought it was amazing that here was this whole Christian culture that we thought we knew about, and we don’t. So the first step is to educate ourselves.”
“Stealing Jesus” is an excellent place to begin learning about fundamentalism. Bawer takes great pains to outline the roots of fundamentalism, its beliefs, and its broad affect on Christianity as a whole. He begins with the man who could be called the father of fundamentalism, John Nelson Darby, and traces the effect of his teachings in the 1840s through present day messengers like Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell.
Darby’s theology is “dispensational premillennialism” which Bawer defines as “a belief that the cryptic apocalyptic visions found in the Book of Revelation and elsewhere signify that Christ will someday return personally to earth, will establish an earthly kingdom with it capital in Jerusalem, and will reign over the earth from that city for exactly one thousand years.” Darby’s view was codified for fundamentalists through C. I. Scofield who put together the Scofield Bible in 1909. It was this move that set fundamentalism in stone as the true way to be Christian. As Bawer puts it, “those who declare their belief in the dispensations, the Rapture, and so forth will be saved; those who don’t will endure the pains of hell. Period.”
Bawer says it is this rigid set of beliefs that lie at the heart of fundamentalism.
“Whether it’s Protestant, Muslim, Jewish or Hindu,” he explains, “fundamentalism is a modern phenomena, a reaction to modern change, science, liberalism and complexities. People are scared, threatened, angry and frustrated. They want certainty, they want faith handed to them at the door, all packaged and tidy. They want it to be black and white, they are disturbed by the greys. They don’t want to have to use their minds to look at the world and figure out for themselves exactly how they feel about things. Fundamentalism puts together a specific set of doctrines and says ‘this is the truth, anything that deviates by the slightest iota is wrong and leads you to perdition.'”
Church of Law vs. Church of Love
This belief is what Bawer calls “The Church of Law,” where sharp distinctions are drawn between the “saved” and the “unsaved” and a God of judgment and wrath is worshipped. He contrasts this church with what he calls “The Church of Love,” where everyone is considered a child of a loving God who calls upon humans to ease suffering and break down barriers of hate and prejudice.
Church of Love doctrine is based on the Social Gospel message preached by Walter Rauschenbusch and Harry Emerson Fosdick. Bawer says Rauschenbusch repudiated legalistic Christianity in his book “Christianity and the Social Crisis.” The book “emphasized society’s responsibility rather than the individual’s. Rauschenbusch traced this emphasis through the entire Bible. The Old Testament prophets, he argued, were ‘less about the pure heart for the individual than of just institutions for the nation”; for them, ‘personal religion was chiefly a means’ to a social end.”
As for the Kingdom of God, Rauschenbusch wrote, “it is not a matter of getting individuals to heaven, but of transforming the life on earth into the harmony of heaven.” If “the fundamental virtue of ethics of Jesus was love,” it is because “love is the society-making quality … Love creates fellowship.”
For Bawer the difference between the two churches boils down to their view of love. “In fundamentalism, love is often looked upon with scorn as weak,” he says. “They don’t want a God that’s weak, they want a God that is strong and can smite their enemies.”
So, how does this belief betray Christianity?
“Because Jesus wasn’t about that,” Bawer replies. “Depending on his mood, Jesus would have found all this awful or amusing.”
Bawer uses the parable of the Good Samaritan to make his point. He says being Christian is “not about being a preacher or a Levite and avoiding helping someone by the side of road because you might defile yourself by touching a dead body. The priority is loving somebody else, and doctrine is nothing compared to that. Fundamentalism, by definition, is what loses sight of that. The men who passed by the injured man on the road to Jericho were fundamentalists.”
Bawer says the Jesus makes it clear that we are to steer away from fundamentalism in all forms.
“When Jesus loses it in the book of Matthew [Chapter 23], yelling at the scribes and Pharisees, he’s yelling at the fundamentalists. How biblical literalists can read that passage and not take that to heart is beyond me.”
The effectiveness of the fundamentalist message cannot be denied. Just say the word Christian today and most people think of fundamentalists like Robertson and Falwell. Those who identify with the Church of Love must move to take back their Christian identity. Bawer feels this is best done “on a person by person basis. It’s not a matter of going on television and issuing press releases, it’s a matter of feeling free during your daily life to talk about what you do on Sunday morning.”
We are so often loath to talk about our faith with others, for fear of making them uncomfortable, or for fear of starting a fight. Bawer insists we must start talking about God and why our faith is important.
“If we get in the habit of talking more freely about our spiritual lives, that’s a big step. Then people get a wider understanding of what the word Christian can mean,” Bawer says. “Once people talk we can change the world. Simply by not talking we’ve allowed fundamentalism to grow.”
By wearing our religion on our sleeves, aren’t we in danger of becoming just like the fundamentalists, pushing our religion on others? Bawer says it’s a chance we must take.
“This is why there has been so little engagement on this subject because we think by talking about it we become like them. We don’t want to be smug, self-righteous, or judgmental, we don’t want to criticise anyone’s religion. It’s a fine line to walk. But we must remember that when Jesus got angry it was over this. He got angry at fundamentalists. He got angry at people trying to close the door of heaven on people. That’ s what got him angry, not what people did in their bedrooms.”
Founder of Motley Mystic and the Jubilee! Circle interfaith spiritual community In Columbia, S.C., Candace Chellew (she/her) is the author of Bulletproof Faith: A Spiritual Survival Guide for Gay and Lesbian Christians (Jossey-Bass, 2008). Founder and Editor Emeritus of Whosoever, she earned her masters of theological studies at Emory University’s Candler School of Theology, was ordained by Gentle Spirit Christian Church in December 2003, and trained as a spiritual director through the Omega Point program of the Episcopal Diocese of Atlanta. She is also a musician and animal lover.