Today, the ugly face of Christian fundamentalism showed itself in my church, and it was not good.
Fundamentally, I know that the Bible says that those who do not accept Jesus cannot be saved. But in an alarming and particularly poorly timed sermon, our guest preacher (a student from the local theological college) propounded his view that those who are not with us are against us – enemies of Christ, in his words.
On this day of all days, when we should have been standing arm in arm with our brothers and sisters of every creed, whatever they believe in. At a time when I want to rush up to the Muslim woman walking down my street and tell her that I know Isis does not represent her, nor the majority of her fellow believers; at a time when I want, irrationally, to beg my son in London to come home… instead I sat seething, arguing in my head with the narrow-mindedness I was witnessing before me.
Fundamentally, of course, he is right… and that is why we call that view “fundamentalism”. No amount of “I’m sorry if this offends you” or “I’m happy to debate this with you” will change the fact that it is this very view, technically “correct” but in no way “right”, that has been at the heart of every religious war in the history of mankind. This is why the crusades were fought, why we endured the “troubles” in Northern Ireland – the list goes on and on.
Indeed, man’s inhumanity to man is so often justified by religious belief, the belief that we are the chosen people, and you are not, that this on its own turns many away from religion of any sort.
Now of course our young(ish) soon-to-be-minister was not suggesting we go out and slaughter the infidel! No, we need to hold them close, love them and use our best efforts to save them – but never forgetting that they are the enemy.
I wanted to stand up right there and rail against his narrow view of what I consider to be my religion, my beliefs. I wanted to remind him, and the gathered congregation, that Chistian fundamentalists are no better than fundamentalists of other cloths and creeds. And that having the ear of believers is a privilege, a privilege that gives your words power to do good and evil, more so perhaps than guns.
I realise that my beliefs are not his beliefs, and that 2 minutes into any debate I would have revealed myself as what he might consider a faux-Christian at best, at worst even an imposter.
Instead I was saved by the bell… actually by the arrival of the children from Sunday school, with a particularly rowdy grandson giving me the excuse I needed to leave the service to play outside in the tree, to reflect on why I was there at all. I come most Sundays, bringing my mother and grand-daughter, each of whom cares more about the church than I do – I come because I care for them, and because just occasionally a precious gem emerges from a sermon that resonates, supports or simply comforts me.
Am I the only one in those pews each week who does not believe that Noah actually took the animals two by two into the ark? Literally? Who knows? Who cares?
But this I do know. I could not stand by and say nothing in the face of such fundamentalism.
And no, I am not sorry if my views offend you.
4 thoughts on “A fundamentalist walked into my church”
Thanks for your articulate response to what was possibly the most untimely sermon I have heard. It WAS awful and inappropriate and I believe unchristian in the sense of being divorced from the message of Christ. It was also completely outside the guidelines of the World Council of Churches’ Recommendations for Conduct with respect to “Christian Witness in Multi-Religious World.”1 I’m thinking particularly of Principle 10: “Renouncing false witness. Christians are to speak sincerely and respectfully; they are to listen in order to learn about and understand others’ beliefs and practices, and are encouraged to acknowledge and appreciate what is true and good in them. Any comment or critical approach should be made in a spirit of mutual respect, making sure not to bear false witness concerning other religions.” One of NZ’s leading theologians of Muslim-Christian relations, the Rev’d Prof Douglas Pratt has written on this matter of bearing true witness, and certainly describing a practising Hindu (to pick another faith at random) who has a heart for justice, peace and the integrity of creation as an enemy of Christ is clearly bearing false witness.
So you are not alone, neither in your beliefs about Noah, nor in your opinion of that sermon. I’ve been in touch with the vicar to offer some materials that might help in “redirecting the jury”. It’s very disappointing that a theological student in this day and age could offer such a simplistic analysis of the Hebrew’s passage. The SCM Core Text “Christian Approaches to Other Faiths” demonstrates that there are many middle ways between the extreme positions of a) Jesus sitting patiently on the throne till all non-Christians are vanquished and firmly under his foot, and b) it doesn’t matter what faith you are or even if you’re atheist, let’s all get along.
I hope that student will take the time to read Brian McLaren’s book “Why did Jesus, Moses, the Buddha, and Mohammed Cross the Road?”2 This might help them to find a way of expressing a healthy and strong Christian identity without any associated hostility.
Other books that might be of benefit include:
Derek Flood, Disarming Scripture: Cherry-picking Liberals, Violence-loving Conservatives, and Why We All Need to Read the Bible Like Jesus Did.
David I Smith, Learning from the Stranger: Christian Faith and Cultural Diversity.
Thank you andrewmckiwi for your thoughtful and fascinating response. Very much appreciated, and I will certainly follow up on some of your suggested materials.
Hi Debra and Andrew,
My name is Toby – I am the person who delivered the sermon which you have mentioned.
I’d like to thank you both very much for the time and effort involved in posting. Time in particular is a very scarce resource these days, it seems (I find it so easy to feel completely rushed off my feet – always needing to move on to ‘the next thing’!) – so I do thank you both for putting time aside and setting pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard) – and for doing so in such a clear and considered manner.
It takes courage to put thoughts out into the public sphere – which I’d also like to acknowledge you for. Certainly, speaking for myself, I found the whole prospect of speaking in front of a church family quite nerve-wracking!
My thanks to you both again. 🙂
Your comments DO offend me. The following is from the well known blog by Peter Carrell called Anglicans Down Under..
The great mistake when talking about ‘fundamentalism’ is to talk as though there is only plurality of fundamentalisms when we include all faiths. So, Christian fundamentalism is one phenomenon, Islamic fundamentalism another, Hindu fundamentalism yet a further manifestation. Of course there are similarities and there are differences, and, potentially, there are more similarities between Christian and Islamic fundamentalism – being fundamentalisms driven by ‘the book’ – than between, say, Islamic fundamentalism and Hindu fundamentalism. But right now, the differences more than the similarities are manifest: I can think of no public ‘fundamentalist’ Christian group advocating offensive violence through terror in order to advance the kingdom of God. I can imagine there are some groups currently operating secretively who may be stockpiling weapons (though I am inclined to think they would be doing that defensively, in some isolated hideout). But the world today is confronting public Islamic groups who are advocating and enacting terror. That is a point of difference.
On Christian fundamentalism, my point is that there are fundamentalisms within Christianity and I assume the same plurality exists within Islam, Hinduism, Judaism, etc. There are, for instance, fundamentalist Muslims who are no more likely to use a gun or a bomb in the furtherance of their religious aims than I am. Daesh is one form of Islamic fundamentalism, not the only form.
In the Christian world it is easy to use ‘fundamentalism’/’fundamentalist’ as a dismissive description, consigning fellow believers we have little time for to a bleak outhouse on the landscape of Christian diversity. But it is not exactly rocket science to recognise that there is a difference between (say) Westboro Baptists and various conservative Anglicans who get routinely described as ‘fundamentalist.’ Further, though a bit more thought is called for, there are differences among conservative Anglicans; and differences between conservative Anglicans and various conservative Christians.
Some Anglicans commenting here seem concerned about how ‘extreme’ certain conservative Anglicans are (possibly including moi!). But my general experience of conservative Anglicans versus other conservative Christians is that we are quite a kind-hearted, thoughtful group of caring Christians, more than liberal enough to remain part of the diverse Anglican church rather than leave it! Non-Anglican conservative Christians, in my experience, often look questioningly at conservative Anglicans: “How can you stay???”
So, perhaps some nuancing in the use of the word ‘fundamentalist’ could assist clearer communication?