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What Fundamentalists Need for Their Salvation

In defense of truth, stewardship, and neighborly love

by David James Duncan

Published in the July/August 2005 issue of Orion magazine



I WAS BORN A CHOSEN PERSON, THOUGH this state of affairs was not of my choosing. My mother, grandmother and great-grandmother were staunch Seventh Day Adventists—a Saturday-worshiping fundamentalist sect that arose in the mid-19th century. Our faith’s founder prophesied Jesus’ Second Coming and “the Rapture” in 1850. When both failed to occur, he instead started the church into which the matriarchs of my family were later born. These strong women gave their offspring no choice but to attend the same churches and share their faith, so attend and share we did. My father and grandfather, however, did not attend church, and my friends at public school didn’t either. I, in other words, was “saved”—no plagues of frogs or eternal hellfire for me—whereas my father, grandfather, and school friends were impending toast.

My earliest memory of Adventist faith-training is of being four-years-old in Sabbath School and having to sing “Jesus Wants Me for a Sunbeam” while making our fingers extend out around our faces like ‘sunbeams.’ I felt nothing for Jesus as we did this—and I loved Jesus; found him heroic from earliest memory. All I can recall feeling during the sunbeam song, though, was bafflement that our teachers would make us do such silly things. As for the time I asked Jesus for a base hit at a ball game, when I stepped to the plate and struck out on three pitches I was relieved: if every kid in America could get a hit just by asking Jesus, we’d all bat a thousand and ruin baseball in a day.

Intense spiritual feelings were frequent visitors during my boyhood, but they did not come from church-going or from bargaining with God in prayer. They came, unmediated, from Creation itself. In even the smallest suburban wilds I felt linked to powers and mysteries I could imagine calling “the Presence of God.” In fifteen years of church-going I did not once feel this same sense of Presence. What I felt instead was a lot of heavily agenda-ed fear-based information being shoved at me by men on the church payroll. Though these men claimed to speak for God, I was never convinced.

On the day I was granted the option of what our preachers called “leaving the faith,” I did. Following intuition and love with all the sincerity and attentiveness I could muster, I chose to spend my life in the company of rivers, wilderness, wisdom literature, like-minded friends, and quiet contemplation. As it’s turned out, this life has enriched me with a sense of the holy, and left me far more grateful than I’ll ever be able to say.

AFTER THREE DECADES OF INTIMACY with some of the world’s greatest wisdom texts and some of the West’s most beautiful rivers, I assumed I’d escaped the orbit of organized religion. Then came a night in Medford, Oregon. After giving a literary reading to a warm, not-at-all-church-like crowd, I was walking to the car when one of the most astute men I know—my good friend, Sam Alvord—clapped me on the back and amiably remarked: “I enjoy your evangelism.”

I was flabbergasted. Evangelism? I was a story-teller, not one of those dang proselytizers! The evangelists I’d known since childhood thought the supposed “inerrancy of the Bible” magically neutralized their own flaming errancy and gave them an apostolic right to judge humanity and bilk it at the same time. The evangelists I’d known proclaimed themselves saved, the rest of us damned, and swore that only by shouting “John 3:16! John 3:16!” at others, as if selling Redemption Peanuts at a ball game, could we avoid an Eternal State of Ouch.

Then honest Sam tells me: “I enjoy your evangelism”?

Shit O. Deer.

My response to Sam’s remark was to repress the living bejeezus out of it. Ten years passed before I dared look up the “e-word” in The Oxford English Dictionary. What I found was what you might call “damning.” Though the range of meanings surrounding the root-word “evangel” was vast, a whole raft of definitions tied my public readings, literary writings and me to Sam’s characterization. Insofar as I believe Jesus is the bee’s knees, and insofar as I speak words that could be seen as spreading the spiritual intent of the gospels, I must admit, with “fear and trembling,” that I am (gulp!) evangelical.

Having damned myself in what we might call “anti-evangelical circles,” I’d like to qualify that damnation by stating what the word “evangelical” suggests to me.

Religious laws, in all the major traditions, have both a letter and a spirit. As I understand the words and example of Jesus, the spirit of a law is all-important, whereas the letter, while useful in conjunction with spirit, becomes lifeless and deadly without it. In accord with this distinction, a yearning to worship in wilderness or beside rivers, rather than in churches, could legitimately be called evangelical. Jesus himself began his mission after forty days and nights in wilderness. According to the same letter vs. spirit distinction, the law-heavy literalism of many so-called evangelicals is not evangelical at all: “evangel” means “the gospels”; the essence of the gospels is Jesus; and literalism is not something that Jesus personified or taught.

Nor need one be a Christian for the word “evangelical” to apply: if your words or deeds harmonize with the example of Jesus, you are evangelical in spirit whether you claim to be or not. When the non-Christian Ambrose Bierce, for instance, wrote, “War is the means by which Americans learn geography,” there was acid dripping almost visibly from his pen. His words, however, are aimed at the same anti-war end as the gospel statements “Love thine enemies” and “Love thy neighbor as thyself.” And “Blessed are the peacemakers.” Bierce’s wit is in this sense evangelical whether he likes it or not.

True evangelism, based on the example of Jesus, does not suggest the “missionary zeal” of self-righteous proselytizers. It implies, on the contrary, the kind of all-embracing universality evident in Mother Teresa’s prayer: “May God break my heart so completely that the whole world falls in.” Not just fellow nuns, Catholics, Calcuttans, Indians. The whole world. It gives me pause to realize that, were such a prayer said by me and answered by God, I would afterward possess a heart so open that even hate-driven zealots would fall inside. There is a self-righteous knot in me that finds zealotry so repugnant it wants to sit on the sidelines with the like-minded, plaster our cars with bumper stickers that say “Mean People Suck” and “No Billionaire Left Behind” and “Who would Jesus Bomb?”, and leave it at that. But my sense of the world as a gift, my sense of a grace operative in this world despite its terrors, propels me to allow the world to open my heart still wider, even if the openness comes by breaking—for I have seen the whole world fall into a few hearts, and nothing has ever struck me as more beautiful.

The whole world, for example, seemed to fall into the heart of Mahatma Gandhi, not only on the day he said, “I am a Christian, I am a Hindu, I am a Muslim, I am a Jew,” but on the day he proved the depth of his declaration when, after receiving two fatal bullets from a fundamentalist zealot, he blessed that zealot with a namasté before dying. For the fundamentalists of each tradition he names, Gandhi’s four-fold profession of faith is three-fourths heresy. It is also a statement I can imagine Jesus making and, for me personally, a description of spiritual terrain in which I yearn to take up permanent residence.

THE GULF BETWEEN THIS OPEN-HEARTED EVANGELISM and the aims of modern fundamentalism is vast. Most of the famed leaders of the new “Bible-based” American political alliances share a conviction that their causes and agendas are approved of, and directly inspired, by no less a being than God. This enviable conviction is less enviably arrived at by accepting on faith, hence as fact, that the Christian Bible pared down into American TV English is God’s “word” to humankind, that this same Bible is His only word to humankind, and that the politicized apocalyptic fundamentalists’ unprecedentedly selective slant on this Bible is the one true slant.

The position is remarkably self-insulating. Possessing little knowledge of or regard for the world’s wealth of religious, literary, spiritual and cultural traditions, fundamentalist leaders allow themselves no concept of love or compassion but their own. They can therefore honestly say that it is out of “Christian compassion” and a sort of “tough love” for others that they seek to impose on all others their tendentiously literalized God, Bible and slant.

But how tough can love be before it ceases to be love at all? Well-known variations on the theme include the various Inquisitions’ murderously tough love for “heretics,” who were defined as those defiant of the Inquisition itself; the European Catholic and American Puritan tough love for “witches,” who were defined as virtually any sexually active or humanitarian or unusually skilled single woman whose healing herbs or independence from men defied a male church hierarchy’s claim to be the source of all healing; the Conquistador’s genocidally tough love for the Incas, Aztecs, and Mayans whose gold they stole for the “glory” of a church meant to honor the perfect poverty of a life begun in a manger and ended on a cross; the missionaries’ and U.S. Cavalry’s genocidally tough love for land-rich indigenous peoples whose crime was merely to exist; and, today, the Bush team’s murderously tough love for an oil-rich Muslim world as likely to convert to Texas neocon values as Bush himself is likely to convert to Islam.

Each of these crusader groups has seen itself as fighting to make its own or some other culture “more Christian” even as it tramples the teachings of Christ into a blood-soaked earth. The result, among millions of non-fundamentalists, has been revulsion toward anything that chooses to call itself “Christian.” But I see no more crucial tool for defusing fundamentalist aggression than the four books of the gospels, and can think of no more crucial question to keep asking our crusaders than whether there is anything truly imitative of Jesus—that is, anything compassionate, self-abnegating, empathetic, forgiving, and enemy-loving—in their assaults on those they have determined to be “evil.”

The appropriation of Christian terminology by the American political movement known as neoconservative has resulted in a breed of believer I’m tempted to call “avengelical,” but in the interests of diplomacy will simply call right-wing. The fusion of right-wing politics and religiosity has changed America’s leadership, altered our identity in the eyes of the world, and created a mood of close-minded vehemence in millions. Critics of the right-wing/fundamentalist conflation are now often demonized not just as “traitors to America,” but as enemies of a new kind of Americanized “God.” A growing number of people of faith, however, believe that Americans are being asked to worship a bogus image of God. Though examples of this are numerous beyond count, I’ll describe two which came to my attention through the writings of the self-proclaimed evangelical Christian, Jim Wallis:

On the first anniversary of the destruction of the World Trade Center, President Bush gave a speech in New York in which he said that the “ideal of America is the hope of all mankind.” Six billion people on earth are not Americans; to call America their hope is, to put it mildly, hubristic. What’s more, anyone who places their hope not in nations but in God is obligated by their faith to find Bush’s statement untrue. But Bush’s speechwriters ratcheted the rhetoric up even further: Bush added, “That hope still lights our way. And the light shines in the darkness. And the darkness has not overcome it.” As Wallis points out in “Dangerous Religion” (Mississippi Review, Vol. 10 No. 1), these last sentences are lifted straight out of the gospel of John, where they refer not to America or any nation, but to the Word of God and the Light of Christ.

Second example: in his 2003 State of the Union address, the president said that there is “power, wonder-working power in the goodness and idealism and faith of the American people”—words stolen from a hymn that in fact says there is “power, wonder-working power in the blood of the Lamb.” This thievery is breathtaking, and leaves me wondering what Bush’s speechwriters might steal next. John 1:1 perhaps? “In the beginning was America, and America was with God, and America was God…

“The real theological problem in America today,” writes Wallis, is “the nationalist religion… that confuses the identity of the nation with the church, and God’s purposes with the mission of American empire. America’s foreign policy is more than preemptive, it is theologically presumptuous; not only unilateral, but dangerously messianic; not just arrogant, but… blasphemous.”

I would add the Bush administration’s notion of stewardship to Wallis’s list of blasphemies. To describe the Bush team’s war on nature as “stewardship” is to forsake the Bible. In Genesis, men and women are made in the image of the God who just created and blessed all creatures and their ability to multiply, and Adam is placed in Eden merely “to dress it and keep it.” In Exodus, the Sabbath rest is given to animals as well as humans. In Leviticus, humans are told by God to tend the land carefully, and not possessively, because, “the land is mine, and you are but aliens who have become my tenants.” Then in the gospels we meet, in Jesus, a leader who refused political power and defines dominion as “Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven,” a king of kings whose life is characterized throughout by sensitivity to the meek, the weak, the poor, birds, field lilies, the voiceless, and all other forms of life.

American fundamentalists, despite avowed love for this same Jesus, predominately support a Bush administration that has worked to weaken the Clear Air and Clean Water Acts and gut the Endangered Species and Environmental Policy Acts; this administration has stopped fining air and water polluters, dropped all suits against coal-fired power, weakened limits on pollutants that destroy ozone, increased the amount of mercury in the air and water, vowed to drill in the Arctic wildlife sanctuary, stopped citizen review of logging proposals in the people’s own forests—the list goes on and on. I wish that none of it were true. I wish that devastation, extinctions, ever-more-powerful hurricanes, epidemic diseases and cancers were not raining down upon us as I write. But since they are, I must ask: how Christian is the cunning of speechwriters who place words meant to praise God, or Christ’s spilled blood, in the mouth of a man who instead uses them to exalt an empire born of the destruction of America’s own ecosystems, civility, and honesty?

The manipulators who convert the very “blood of the Lamb” into the phrase “the American people” force people of faith to make a call: to treat the earth as disposable and the Bible as “God,” turn that God into a political action committee, equate arrogance and effrontery with evangelism, right-wing politics with worship, aggression with compassion, devastation with stewardship, disingenuous televised prattle with prayer, and call the result Christianity, is, according to the teachings of Jesus, not an enviable position, but a fatal one.

CONTEMPORARY AMERICAN FUNDAMENTALISM is more a manufactured product, or even an industrial by-product, than a result of careful reflection. Those of us struggling to defend ravaged ecosystems, demonized Muslims, biologically-betrayed children, vanished compassion, and every other casualty of neocon-fundamentalist rhetoric are dealing with end results, not primary cause. We might do better to shift our attention to the fundamentalist machinery itself.

The “Christian Right’s” fully-automated evangelical machine runs twenty-four hours a day—like McDonald’s, Coca Cola and Exxon-Mobil—making converts globally. But to what? The conversion industry’s notion of the word Christian has substituted a “Rapture Index” and Armageddon fantasy for Christ’s interior kingdom of heaven and love of neighbor; it is funded by donors lured by a televangelical “guarantee” of “a hundredfold increase on all financial donations,” as if Mark 10:30 were an ad for a financial pyramid scheme and Jesus never said, “Sell all thou hast and distribute it unto the poor”; it has replaced once-personal relationships between parishioners and priests or preachers with radio and TV bombast, sham healings, and congregation-fleecing scams performed by televangelical rock stars; it has trumped worship characterized by ancient music, reflective thought and silent prayer with three-ring media-circuses and Victory Campaigns; it inserts veritable lobbyists in its pulpits and political brochures in its pews, claims that both speak for Jesus, and raises millions for this Jesus, though its version of Him preaches neocon policies straight out of Washington think tanks and spends most of “His” money on war; it quotes Mark 10:15 and Matthew 5:44 and Matthew 6:6 and Luke 18: 9-14 a grand total of never; it revels in its election of a violent, historically ignorant, science-flaunting, carcinogenic-policied president who goads us toward theocracy at home even as he decries theocracies overseas; it defies cooperation and reason in governance, exults in division, and hastens the degeneration of a democracy built upon cooperation and reason; it claims an exclusive monopoly on truth (”America is the hope of all mankind…”) yet trivializes truth globally by evincing ignorance of Christianity’s historic essence and disrespect toward the world’s ethnic and religious diversity and astonishingly rich cultural present and past.

To refer to peregrinating Celtic monks and fundamentalist lobbyists, Origen and Oral Roberts, the Desert Fathers and Tim La Haye, Jerry Falwell and Dante, St. Francis and the TV “prosperity gospel” hucksters, Lady Julian of Norwich and Tammy Faye Baker, or John of the Cross and George W. Bush all as Christian stretches the word so thin its meaning vanishes. The term “carbon-based life-form” is as informative. Though it may shock those who equate fundamentalism and Christianity, ninety years ago the term “fundamentalist” did not exist. The term was coined by an American Protestant splinter-group which, in 1920, proclaimed that adhering to “the literal inerrancy of the Bible” was the true Christian faith. The current size of this group does not change the aberrance of its stance: deification of the mere words of the Bible, in light of every scripture-based wisdom tradition including Christianity’s two-thousand-year-old own, is not just naiveté: it is idolatry.

This, in all sincerity, is why fundamentalists need connections to, and the compassion of, those who are no such thing. How can those lost in literalism save one another? As Max Weber once put it: “We [Christians] are building an iron cage, and we’re inside of it, and we’re closing the door. And the handle is on the outside.”

Every fundamentalist who believes there is just one Holy Book is ignoring the fact that the Christian Bible, Quran, Torah and Vedas are each considered to be that one Book, and the God of each faith has become the Empowerer of millions of potentially violent literalists. The proponents of all four faiths consider themselves chosen, they’re all armed with nuclear weapons, and the zealots of each faith are prepared to kill in defense of their chosenness. This is why each faith stands in need not of a turning away from tradition, but of a compassion rebellion against the presumptuous “certainties” of the zealots within each tradition, and a universal recognition of the fact that the sigh within the prayer is the same in the heart of the Christian, the Muslim, the Hindu and the Jew.

There is, for most humans born on earth, just one mother tongue, and a given tongue at a given time consists of only so many words. These words can absorb only so many abuses before they cease to mean. America’s spiritual vocabulary—with its huge defining terms such as “God,” “soul,” “sacrifice,” “mysticism,” “faith,” “salvation,” “grace,” “redemption”—has been enduring a series of abuses so constricting that the damage may last for centuries. Too many of us have tried to sidestep this damage by simply rejecting the terminology. But the defamation of a religious vocabulary cannot be undone by turning away: the harm is undone when we work to reopen each word’s true history, nuance and depth. Holy words need stewardship as surely as do gardens, orchards or ecosystems. When lovingly tended, such words surround us with spaciousness and mystery the way a sacred grove surrounds us with peace and oxygenated air. But when we abandon our holy words and fail to replace them, we end up living in a spiritual clearcut.

If Americans of European descent are to understand and honor the legacy of Celtic, European, Middle Eastern and other Christian traditions and pass our literature, music, art, monasticism and mysticism on intact, the right-wing hijacking of Christianity must be defined as the reductionist rip-off that it is. To allow televangelists or pulpit neocons to claim exclusive ownership of Jesus is to hand that incomparable lover of enemies, prostitutes, foreigners, field lilies, children and fishermen over to those who evince no such love.

The God of politically-organized fundamentalism, as advertised daily by a vast array of media, is a Supramundane Caucasian Male as furious with humanity’s failure to live by a few lines from Leviticus as He is oblivious to the “Christian” right’s failure to live the compassion of the gospels and earth-stewardship of both testaments. As surely as I feel love and need for food and water, I feel love and need for God. But these feelings have nothing to do with Supramundane Males planning torments for those who don’t abide by neocon “moral values.” I hold the evangelical truth of our situation to be that contemporary politicized fundamentalists, including first and foremost those aimed at Empire and Armageddon, need us non-fundamentalists, mystics, ecosystem activists, unprogrammable artists, agnostic humanitarians, incorrigible writers, truth-telling musicians, incorruptible scientists, organic gardeners, slow food farmers, gay restaurateurs, wilderness visionaries, pagan preachers of sustainability, compassion-driven entrepreneurs, heartbroken Muslims, grief-stricken children, loving believers, loving disbelievers, peace-marching millions, and the One who loves us all in such a huge way that it is not going too far to say: they need us for their salvation.

As Mark Twain pointed out over a century ago, the only truly prominent community that fundamentalists have so far established in any world, real or imaginary, is hell.

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This article has been abridged for the web.

DAVID JAMES DUNCAN is author of The River Why, The Brothers K, Nijinsky Hosts Saturday Night Live , and God Laughs and Plays, from which this essay is adapted. This adaptation has been awarded a 2006 Pushcart Prize.

Duncan lives and writes in Montana.

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