Religion in America III

[sepoy notes: Fundamentalism, a term now associated with Islam – though largely supplanted by Islamofascists among the freepers, originated in the 19th century America to describe those who maintained the inerrancy of the Bible. In 1895, the five points of fundamentalism were agreed upon in Niagra: Literal inerrancy of the Bible, the divinity of Jesus Christ, the virgin birth, a theory of atonement and the bodily return of Christ. In the early 20th century, a series of twelve tracts, The Fundamentals, were distributed all over. Around the 1920s the Scopes trial cemented nearly all American Protestant churches in the Fundamentalist or Modernist camps. In Islam, the Salafiya or Usuliya doctrines similarly maintain that the Qur’an is the literal truth]

Sola Scriptura

As Bishop Spong explained above, science as narrative has supplanted religious faith, at least in Europe, some of its former colonies, and North America, as the de facto point of view for most reasonable people. This is not the case elsewhere, even for geniuses1. Most faithful people in the so-called first world do not go to a minister or faith-healer when they’re sick; instead, they go to a doctor or hospital, where they may still pray, but rely primarily on blood tests, CT scans, surgery, diagnostic conventions, modern pharmaceuticals and the opinions of medical staff to help them get better. Science has won. Modern Catholicism has little problem with science, especially in terms of the traditional science-religion conflict Americans are used to, i.e., Darwinism2. The primary reason for this is that the earliest church fathers, many of them well-educated Hellenists, understood the danger of backing themselves into a rhetorical corner, and allowed themselves an out.

As a text-based faith, Christianity relies upon the New Testament, as settled in the early part of the 5th century CE3. Christians rely on the Hebrew Scriptures as well, but most Christians read the Hebrew bible through a prism of Christic prophecy, so much that the understandings of Jewish and Christian theologians regarding critical sections differ so widely that the readings are irreconcilable.

The Roman Church and its Eastern counterparts have a second, critical component, allowing them to periodically reevaluate scripture4 The Church√≠s magisterium, or teaching authority, permits a highly hierarchical Church bureaucracy, without disparaging‚Ćscripture’s sacred nature, consider, debate and revise human understanding of the text. Over the centuries, as the Church became more concerned in temporal affairs, some Bishops abused the Church√≠s magisterial prerogatives to justify questionable practices, or twist legitimate practices in exploitative ways.

Luther was particularly concerned about the selling of indulgences5, which he seems to have considered a form of simony. At first, he intended his 95 Theses to inspire reform within the Church, but when conversation began, it soon became apparent that the Church’s and Luther’s contentions went to the heart of the Church’s authority, which was not up for negotiation. There remained little to do but part ways. In 1521 Pope Leo X, a member of the Medici family and something of a dandy, excommunicated Luther. According to tradition, Luther would not be outdone. He responded by excommunicating Pope Leo X back; which, while not having the same impact, must have been quite a gesture. Suddenly the founder of a new subreligion, Luther summarized his new “Protestant” creed thusly: Sola Fide, Sola Gratia, Sola Scriptura, meaning Faith Alone, Grace Alone, and Scripture Alone.

As revolutions trend, over the next 400 years Luther’s Protestantism devolved into thousands of subsects, most‚Ćfracturing due to hairfine disputes. Today, most Protestants inherit their denominations by birth, and all but few would be unable to explain the difference between a Methodist, a Wesleyan, a Presbyterian, a Lutheran and an Episcopalian without resorting to descriptions of church decorations or liturgy. But‚ the divisions are logically necessary; without a concept like the magisterium, allowing doctrine to evolve as knowledge about the universe grows, or as social realities demand, each new challenge or contest of understanding requires a schism. In essence, by rejecting a magisterial concept with the concept of sola Scriptura, Luther included the seed of Protestantism√≠s eventual death at its birth.

As we discussed above, High Church (which carried over some scholarly traditions from Catholicism, including‚ a weakened critical-type apparatus) has been presented with a choice between making sense to educated people and standing on literal interpretations of scripture. Fundamentalists, most of whom have never heard of the magisterium, and consider Catholic reliance on tradition to be blasphemy, watched fin de siecle‚ High Church denominations torture themselves attempting to maintain cognitive consistency. The fundamentalists refused even to undertake the negotiation. Lacking any serious‚ critical regime‚ or the power to do something with good criticism, should it have arisen, fundamentalists are bound to a description of the universe that, in some places, is older than stone. When reality contradicts that scripture, the reality must be proven wrong, ignored or denied. You’ve seen this: Creationist science folks adamantly arguing that the earth is little more than 4000 years old, offering “proof” which usually consists of a reputed deathbed recant by Darwin, some holes in the fossil record, and statistical analyses questioning the likelihood that evolution, as popularly understood.

The fundamentalist approach to the Bible changes as needed. There appears to be a sliding scale of literalism, applied when needed, eschewed when inconvenient. Genesis’ seven day creation, worldwide flood, thousand year old men and women, etc., is read with from the most serious, literate posture. Yet when dealing with books of apocalyptic prophecy-specifically, Ezekiel, Daniel, Thessalonians, the Johns, and Revelation, a more relaxed standard applies. Prophecy wonks employ nautiline layers of symbols, free-associative connections between books written thousands of years and miles apart, quasi-occult numerology, pop-Cabbala, and even -I could not kid about this -the codes reputedly buried in the Torah to justify their contention that the world will soon end in bloody drama, with Israel as its stage6.

I have never seen this schizophrenic approach exposed or justified, and would be interested to hear the fundamentalist apology. But the devolution continues. Its ramifications go beyond maddeningly circular syllogisms: The radically democratic non-denominational movement places ecclesiastical control of a megachurch or complex of megachurches in the hands of a single charismatic preacher, who often has no formal theological training, and has instead studied under, or apprenticed with, a senior minister from another nondenominational church. This emerging system, often based on the charismatic Pentecostal model7, challenges traditional Christian modes.

First, without a denomination or any other sort of authority, and because of reliance on expository preaching, individual ministers are free, within an inherited fundamentalist outline8, to mine the Scriptures for new wisdom, so long as the wisdom can be cited to scripture. In the past fifty years, ministers who “had bible” for their claims have trumpeted end-of-the-world false-alarms, promises of wealth and health, or physical healings. There have also been, of course, financial scandals, sexual scandals, exposures of rampant hypocrisy, and, particularly vexing, a sad willingness to exploit the trust and simplicity of some poor and elderly.

The bizarre world of televangelism works tooth-in-gear with the nondenominational movement by giving young, attractive, charismatic preachers a worldwide voice. The main protestant network, TBN,(www.tbn.org) is a multibillion dollar multinational conglomerate whose‚ signal covers the entire planet. TBN personalities have the wealth and cache of rock stars. In addition to touring, to preach for three and four-night stands in sold out coliseums, these clergy also write million-selling books that usually go completely ignored by the mainstream press. An aside: they’re among America’s biggest event draws and best selling writers, yet most intellectuals wouldn’t recognize them on the street. Currently, the media turn to Pat Robertson and Jerry Fallwell for fundamentalist perspectives, and while those fellows are always good for a sharp quote, they represent the old guard of nondenominational televangelism, and are too invested and established to speak plainly about the fine details of their beliefs. Ignorance of hot-shot preachers shouldn’t shame intellectuals, but citizens should demand that the press inform of news, even when it means announcing that Elmer Gantry has‚ gained ground; that all would know dead-and-gone William Jennings Bryan and most would not know Rod Parsley, whose nationally broadcast ministry is a political and economic force, is a shame on CNN, et. al.

With some notable exceptions, the most successful nondenominational ministers tend to share a few traits. Theyíre white, male, conservative in philosophy, nationalist in politics, retributive in ethic, and Southern in accent.

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[1] http://nobelprize.org/literature/laureates/1982/marquez-lecture-e.html

[2] http://www.newadvent.org/library/docs_jp02tc.htm

[3] http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/03274a.htm

[4] http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/15006b.htm

[5] Some Bishops raised funds by absolving future and present sin.

[6] If interested, attempt to read the “Left Behind” Series, by Tim LaHaye and Terry Jenkins. Though not exactly Proust, these books dramatize the Christian apocalyptic narrative perfectly.

[7] American religious sect marked by reliance on personal Revelation, speaking in tongues, intense religious ecstasy, expository preaching and a belief in the literal and soon fulfillment of the Apocalypse.

[8] (from www.breakthrough.net):

– We believe the Bible to be given by inspiration of the Holy Spirit, infallible, and God’s revealed word to man.

– We believe that Scripture teaches that there is only one true and living God who has chosen to reveal Himself as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit (Deuteronomy 6:4; Isaiah 43:10,11; Matthew 28:19; Luke 3:22).

– We believe that man is a sinful being in need of redemption (Genesis 1:26-31, 3:1-7; Psalm 51:5; Ecclesiastes 7:29; John 6:44; Romans 5:12-21; 1 Corinthians 2:14).

– We believe in the virgin birth of Jesus Christ, that He is the Son of God and the son of man, that He came to save man from condemnation of sin by offering His blood as an atonement and making it available to all who exercise faith in Him (Matthew 1:23; Luke 1:31, 35; John 3:16; 1 Corinthians 15:3; 2 Corinthians 5:21).

– We believe that for salvation of lost and sinful man, regeneration by the Holy Spirit is absolutely essential (Luke 7:50, 24:47; Romans 10:13-15; 1 Corinthians 1:18; 2 Corinthians 2:15; Ephesians 2:8, 9; 2 Timothy 1:9; Titus 2:11, 3:5-7).

– We believe the Scriptures ascribe to the Holy Spirit the acts and attributes of an intelligent being, and that the works of God such as creation, inspiration, giving of life, and sanctification are also ascribed to the Holy Spirit (Genesis 1:2; Job 33:4; Mark 3:29; John 16:8, 13; Acts 7:51, 10:19, 13:2, 13:4, 16:6; 1 Corinthians 2:11, 6:11, 12; Ephesians 4:30; 1 Peter 3:18; 2 Peter 1:21).

– We believe in the sanctifying power of the Holy Spirit by whose indwelling the Christian is enabled to live a holy life (Romans 8:5; Philippians 2:12, 13; 1 Thessalonians 4:3; 1 John 2:29).

– We believe that the baptism in the Holy Spirit is given to believers who ask for it (Joel 2:28; Acts 2:4).

– We believe that all mankind is subject to the death of the body as a result of original sin. The soul and spirit do not die, but immediately after death enter into a conscious state of happiness or misery according to the character here possessed by rejection or acceptance of the Savior (Ecclesiastes 12:7; Romans 5:12; Philippians 1:23).

– We believe in the bodily resurrection of both the saved and the lost; the saved to everlasting life and the lost without Christ to everlasting damnation (Matthew 24:31-46; Acts 24:15; Revelation 22:11).

– We believe in the personal, imminent return of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ (Acts 1:11; 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18).

– We believe the redemptive work of Christ on the Cross provides healing for the human body in answer to believing prayer (Isaiah 53:4, 5; James 5:14, 15; 1 Peter 2:24).

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Dale Marlowe

Writer, teacher, lawyer. Ignorance of a topic has never stopped me from holding forth on it at length.

3 thoughts on “Religion in America III”

  1. Hmm… My followup to your ealier post seems to have gotten lost. Once I’m done with this paper I’m working on, I’d definitely like to talk via e-mail. For the moment, the question of how exegesis is done in certain cases has a maddeningly complex lineage. There is a long tradition of “figural” exegesis of scripture that finds its fullest initial expression in St. Augustine of Hippo, which will take a text that is obviously historical and yet be able to apply a deeper meaning to it (like, say, the Song of Songs). Part of the basis of such exegesis is that it basically looks at the entirety of God’s creation as a text, and so when scripture records a historical event, the *event itself* is a text by which God can pre-figure events that are later to come.

    So it is that the events in the life of David were a text prefiguring the life of Christ and thus the text describing those events could be taken to have more than one meaning.

    Figural interpretation lost some of its zanier elements with the Reformation, but the strongly Augustinian streak present in protestant exegesis kept something of that tradition alive.

    I could go on for much longer about this, but I am quite busy. More to come.

  2. Thanks for the close reading, Andrew. I agree with you that St. John included some keys to understanding Revelation within the book itself. It is exactly my point that Revelation must be interpreted. The better critical scholarship hinges upon radical approaches like, unlocking “666’s” numerological meaning, or the location of the “Great Whore Babylon,” by the number of her surrounding hills, etc. Therefore, unless we admit that Revelation, Daniel, Isaiah, etc. MUST be interpreted, we’ll just have to put some of their gorgeous yet disconnected ramblings down to really great acid.

    But why not interpret or criticize Genesis? My concern is that Genesis and Revelation contain scads of mythological language (and even some common motifs). Neither can be taken seriously by educated people without interpretation.

    The Hebrew myths of Genesis were parcel of a regional overmyth of creation and flood, and their original hearers would’ve likely known to take them with a grain of salt, much as we know Geo. Washington was real and significant, but that the cherry tree story is absolute buncombe. Why not go into that, illuminate it, analyze it, allow it to inform?

    Perhaps my examples could’ve been better chosen. Here’s another, in case I haven’t made enough a muddle of things: I’ve been told to read Song of Solomon primarily as a metaphor for Christ’s love of his Bride, the Church. Why? I’m not sure. Perhaps it’s just erotic literature. Why must Daniel or Jeremiah be exempt from context and metaphor, while randy King Solomon has his fine erotica twisted wierdly?

    Is the Resurrection exempt from critical reading? Why? Its symbology is quite powerful as metaphor, as well as if taken literally. Like many Christians’ hearts, mine wavers on how to digest that powerful idea. My soul knows its Truth, and my mind doubts its phsyics.

    My heart skipped a beat when I read in the Egyptian Book of the Dead (predating the gospels, alas) a line spoken by Isis best transliterated as: “They have taken my Lord, and I know not where they have lain him?” The entire 1st century Roman Empire, with its mystery cults and Egyptophilia, suddenly rose up to envelope the Resurrection narrative–not dousing it, mind you, but informing it.

    The Cana wedding story, where Jesus turns water to wine, becomes very powerful when you learn of the prevalence of Bacchae in the area. Narratively, Jesus was sticking his finger in Dionysus’ eye, helping his pals keep the party up, and prefiguring his own absorption of the Dionysiac myth of the dying god who is reborn through wine.

    These notions have deepened the mysteries of faith for me, and context has helped make sense of things that would otherwise drive me from communion. But I did not learn them at Southern Baptist Sunday School, nor did I learn them in the Pentecostal and nonedonminational churches I’ve attended, nor was I made aware of them as I studied for a vocation. I learned them in a secular, public, liberal university. It’s a wonder, too, that I learned anything, what with Sepoy constantly begging me to cut class and smoke sheesha with him.

    Anyway, my implicit point was to be that if one section can be read as metaphor, and applied simultaneously to now, the first century, and eternity, perhaps it’s fair to open up the rest of the text for examination, using all that we know from archeology, history, textual criticism, etc.

    Those whom I’m calling “fundamentalist,” attempt to “rightly divide the Word,” and exempt from criticism those passages they hold inviolable, while going absolutely apeshit with other passages. I’ve not been able to find a consistent regime to explain the process, your admirable comment notwithstanding. I hope you’ll elaborate, because I want to understand the thought process if you can diagram it more completely.

    Regarding that final pesky nit: You’re absolutely correct that the midwest is rife with fundamentalism. Rod Parsley is based in Columbus. Yet as I hope to explain in the final installment, the midwest is geographically definable, while the idea of the “South,” has become something bigger.

    Also, an Exodus from the rural South for blacks and poor whites to Michigan, Ohio, Indiana and Illinois after WWI carried a huge amount of Southern culture, as it were, into the midwest. They were like voices out of the Wilderness, making a way for Elvis Presley, our funky Lord and Savior Faire.

    Thanks for the input, and forgive the overwhelming length of the reply. I seem to have contracted logorrhea. And again, please elaborate on your understanding of the critical regime within fundamentalism. If we’re able to uncover one, it’ll drive Sepoy into a year of depth-reading on the subject from which he may never recover. A worthy goal, if you ask me.

  3. Let me put on my Christian hat for a moment so that I can explain the reason for the “sliding scale of literalism.” The weird beasties that often show up in Ezekiel, Revelation, Daniel, etc. are said to be symbolic in the text of the scripture itself. Revelation specifically says that the seven heads of the Red Dragon are the Seven Hills. The imagery of the statue and beasts in Daniel is likewise pretty obviously symbolic.

    The creation narrative, though, occurs in a book that is historical rather than allegorical in character.

    That is why a fundamentalist will interpret the Bible in they way that he does. Though it still doesn’t explain why the get ridiculously literal with parts of Ezekiel.

    For a final nitpick: Evangelical Protestant Christianity has a strong midwestern component as well.

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