Thinking Anglicans

The Fundamentalists

A Channel Four television programme with this title, lasting two hours, airs in the UK on Saturday at 7.15 pm. The presenter is Mark Dowd. The official publicity blurb reads:

Former Dominican friar Mark Dowd travels the world to explore the origins of and reasons for religious fundamentalism. Examining five different faiths and a century of history, Dowd strives to discover who fundamentalists are, what their common attributes might be, and why a literalist approach to the religious text is so important to them.

Mark Vernon who has seen the programme, has written this preview:

The Fundamentalists – Channel 4, Saturday 9th Sept

Would you know a fundamentalist if you met one? A black hood and Kalashnikov might rouse your suspicion. But what of the peaceful sort, in regular clothes. What would give them away?

Four individuals featured in Mark Dowd’s film, ‘The Fundamentalists’, shatter preconceptions. For one thing they are women – a Hindi nationalist in India, a settler wife in Israel, an evangelical grandma in the US, and a Palestinian mum in Gaza. These four are also of four different religions – Hinduism, Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Fundamentalists are as likely to be Buddhist too, particularly if you live in Sri Lanka where they wear saffron robes. You needn’t go abroad for fundamentalism either. I recently spent the day with a fundamentalist from the home counties. He is white, middle class and a minister in the Church of England. We drank tea as he told me homosexuals are at risk of burning for all eternity.

From its origins in America, modern media have given the word fundamentalist global recognition in a few short decades, as Dowd shows when it is instantly recognised by people across four continents. Inspired by American fundamentalists, all sorts of people who feel politically embattled and/or personally unsure now turn to it for security. What fundamentalists have in common is breaking with the past: they do religion without tradition; something written or spoken two or three thousand years ago can be directly and unproblematically applied to today.

How should liberals respond to fundamentalism? Dowd shows how it is partly a political problem but it is also a spiritual problem. This leads him to make some pertinent suggestions. First, recognising that fundamentalism is here to stay, it is important to be savvy about their sense of the sacred to ensure that peaceable fundamentalists stay peaceable. Second, and more aggressively, it is important to challenge them religiously, particularly on the break with tradition: for example, as Jonathan Sacks puts it, God’s word without interpretation is like nuclear fuel without insulation. Third, we must strive for more spirituality enlightened times: the spiritual crudity of fundamentalism is a reflection of the spiritual crudity of materialism. As Dowd concludes, ultimately, only towering spiritual figures can lead fundamentalists away from their fears.

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Em Bee
Em Bee
14 years ago

I wonder if this program will ever make it across the Atlantic? I’ll commend it to generally non-religious UK friends for their perspective.

Coincidentally, I’ve begun reading Karen Armstrong’s 2000 book, The Battle for God: A History of Fundamentalism. From the brief descrption above, the program seems to cover some of her points.

J. C. Fisher
J. C. Fisher
14 years ago

This sounds excellent: I hope we get it here, Stateside (*), too! 🙂

(*) Birthplace of at least the *term*, if not the phenomenon, also…

John Henry
John Henry
14 years ago

“As Jonathan Sacks puts it, God’s word without interpretation is like nuclear fuel without insulation.” The Chief Rabbi in the U.K. said it so well. I read all the misrepresentations about TEC and the theological schools that allegedly have departed from Christian “orthodoxy” (as “orthodoxy” has been re-defined by the reasserters and the ACN fundamentalists) and, then, to recover my sanity I read, say, Keith Ward’s Religion and Revelation or Religion and Human Nature. What a different world! Keith Ward hasn’t embraced the spirit of the secular world. On the contrary, he is biblical, traditional and rational. An hour ago… Read more »

IT
IT
14 years ago

Wow. I doubt that would ever be allowed to play in the US–the fundamentalists are too muchin control. I miss British TV.

Alan Marsh
Alan Marsh
14 years ago

A full TWO hours on fundamentalism! Will there be a break for a rest in the middle?

Simon Sarmiento
14 years ago

It’s a commercial channel, Alan: lots of advertising breaks…

Graeme Watson
Graeme Watson
14 years ago

I hope that this extremely important subject is seriously commented on by all the religious and secular press globally- it could not be more topical. What seems to me vital is to see that all forms of religious fundamentalism arise out of existential anxiety as much as ignorance, and therefore intellectual challenge is never enough.

Cheryl Clough
14 years ago

Coincidentally I was reading Isaiah today and came across Isaiah 45:18 where God comments that the earth was formed “… he did not create it to be empty, but formed it to be inhabited…” One of the bemusements with a local fundamentalist last year was they told me point blank that Jesus was only going to come in a destroy the earth and take only the saved souls to heaven. He would not accept that Jesus would come in any other way (and any other way would mean that they were an impostor). Thus these people do not care whether… Read more »

Christopher Shell
Christopher Shell
14 years ago

Definitions are important. Take the Labour party or the Conservative party. Anyone who held particularly strongly to their central tenets would be called a strong member. Not a fringe figure: in fact, the very reverse. Why is it different with Christianity. It is, in fact, precisely the fundamentals which are non-negotiable (and precisely the non-fundamentals that are negotiable) when one is trying to determine whether or not to classify someone as a Christian (or indeed as anything else). The term ‘fundamentalist’ contains this contradiction at its core. (Of course, the word’s etymology has a primarily historical explanation.) As to literal/non-literal… Read more »

Cynthia
Cynthia
14 years ago

Might this eventually be available as a dvd or be archived online? I am teaching an undergraduate class on Milton, and as we discuss the Puritans and Milton’s own idiosycratic version of puritanism, I realize that for many of them, the terms ‘fundamentalist’ and ‘Puritan” mean much the same fuzzy thing. Armsrong’s book is excellent, but not something I would expect my students to be patient enough to read, although I will recommend it to them. They might, however, watch something…

Steven
Steven
14 years ago

Yawn. I’ve seen these kinds of hatchet jobs before–I’m not impressed (at least not in view of the initial review). Some initial observations: (1) “Literal” interpretation is a bad choice of terms (at least for Christian fundamentalists). Some Biblical language is figurative. I don’t know of any Christian fundamentalists who chop off their hands in response to Christ’s injunction–the injunction is understood figuratively as hyperbole that emphasizes the importance of avoiding sin. It would be more accurate with regard to Christian circles to emphasize the fact that fundamentalists see Scripture as infallible. (2) A false equivalence is set up in… Read more »

Tim Jones
Tim Jones
14 years ago

I wonder why this kind of documentary is so often presented by ex-religious/clergy, etc. (except for programs about art or favourite hymns, etc.).

Tony C.
Tony C.
14 years ago

I am not fundamentally a fundamentalist, though I have been called one in debate; I am a sinner who has found comfort in the promises of the Christian gospel. The only authoritative basis for believing seems to me to be in the ancient accounts of God at work in the world, i.e. the Bible. If these are not trustworthy, there seems to be no reason to accept Christianity at all. When my understanding will not accomodate what I read, I could relieve the conflict by denying the truth of what was written, but that would be no escape unless my… Read more »

Nick Finke
Nick Finke
14 years ago

I recently read Armstrong’s book and highly recommend it. She seems to have correctly analyzed fundamentalists as those who take traditional “mythic” religious statements and treat them as if they were modern “scientific” statements (e.g., reading Genesis as history). Her work is particularly good because it describes the fundamentalist phenomenon in Islam and Judaism as well as Christianity. By showing the historical development of fundamentalism in these three different traditions she is better able to focus on its basic nature and root causes. It looks to me as if Dowd’s work might give us something that is somewhat lacking in… Read more »

Cheryl Clough
14 years ago

Tony C The difficulty is what happens when people refuse to accept the data, even if it is observable and measurable? The ozone hole over Antartica is a classic, the scientists decided it was an error in the program and corrected it to ignore the “false readings”. Steven Your concerns about the likelihood of going into error are valid. The tragedy is that we think of prophecy as a historical anomaly and therefore have lost the gift of knowing how to reap their rewards. We have forgotten how to screen for what is from God versus what is from them,… Read more »

James
James
14 years ago

The Channel 4 website says you can watch this programme live over the net, it seems to involve ‘simulcast’. This may help those beyond the UK.

James

J. C. Fisher
J. C. Fisher
14 years ago

The point, Tony C, is that liberals *KNOW* that we all “see through a glass, darkly”: they don’t *need* to “agree”, in order to grant each other respect, and freedom to search for their own answers.

[Compare to Steven’s response, above: “Those who adhere closely to {Steven’s definition of} Christianity are adhering closely to the Truth. The same is not necessarily true of, for example, a moslem. A liberal moslem may well be closer to the Truth by departing from some of the falsehoods of his religon.” Would Muslims reading this, feel they were being respected? :-(]

drdanfee
drdanfee
14 years ago

Oh gee. So our exclusive, absolute choices are only between the extremes of godless nihilism/hedonism, and lining up like eyes wide shut clones along these silly, dubious closed new conservative realignment views? Pul-eeese. Gimme a common sense break, duh. In between these forced, false dilemma choice options is the huge, huge, huge middle grounds of all known modern best practices in almost very important domain of knowledge, ethical daily living, and most of the rest. Every single liberal-progressive person I know inhabits this middle ground, which is quite varied and yet still coherent thanks to the modern lexicons of all… Read more »

Byron
Byron
14 years ago

Looking forward to seeing this in the U.S. as well. I note that the so-called “orthodox” have posted here with well-reasoned rhetoric. I’ve seen it on many of the other progressive blogs. I suspect that some are part of organized blog attacks by Network/Ahmanson-funded groups – preformulated arguments nicely tied up in a bow for consumption by the rather specialized audience reading Anglican blogs. So be it. But beware. There is little of Jesus’ love in those hearts and much to fear.

Robin
Robin
14 years ago

I will look for this if it comes to the US in a form I can use (haven’t even GOT a TV!) and in the meantime I’ll look for Karen Armstrong’s book on the topic. Yes, her work is fairly densely packed, but I’ve gotten a lot from her in the past. Given that the program referred to is about fundamentalism in religion, not just Christian fundamentalists of whatever stripe, I’m surprised no one has responded to Graeme’s comment. Seems obvious to me that when a large portion of the world has reason to expect life to be short and… Read more »

Christopher Shell
Christopher Shell
14 years ago

In the NT, figurative language and allegory is very much in the minority. Ask someone for a NT exaggeration/hyperbole and they will probably come up with the camel and the needle’s eye, or cutting off hands. Thus showing that there’s not a lot of examples. Ask someone for an allegory, and they will probably come up with Hagar and Sarah and the two mountains (Gal. 4), which is just about the only obvious example. Apart from, of course, the parables, which are explicitly described as such in context, and are only narratives-within-narratives anyway. Steven is correct that the essential question… Read more »

David Rowett (= mynsterpreost)
David Rowett (= mynsterpreost)
14 years ago

Interesting, he mused, that some responses already show that sort of insecurity in the face of challenge which is so precisely delineated in the review….

Cheryl Clough
14 years ago

Byron I am sure that there would be some posters from those organised groups here – they have a policy of keeping all the “liberals” smeared with a certain amount of mud. Fortunately TA is an honestly run site and their attempts to censor and suppress us only go so far. And when the TA team do move, we probably have become too passionate and bolshie and need to have our enthusiasm cooled. We are dealing with theology as it is practised in the 21st century, and Christopher S’s comments that we have not taken on the issues of hedonism… Read more »

Steven
Steven
14 years ago

Tim Jones: You asked: ” wonder why this kind of documentary is so often presented by ex-religious/clergy, etc. (except for programs about art or favourite hymns, etc.).” This made me curious, so I did a brief websearch and turned up the following in an article posted at http://www.remnantofgod.org/homo7.htm: “Fr Haggerty raises the issue in a Channel 4 documentary, Queer and Catholic, to be broadcast next Saturday. The presenter, Mark Dowd, a former Dominican friar who is gay, claims that the priesthood is becoming a “gay profession” like hairdressing. . . .” “Mr Dowd, 41, was a friar at Blackfriars in… Read more »

Steven
Steven
14 years ago

JC: You ask: “Would Muslims reading this, feel they were being respected?” To which I can only say–I don’t see why not. It wasn’t said disrespectfully or sneeringly. Any honest moslem will tell you (generally without hesitation) that Christianity errs. He believes he has the “Truth” and must, therefore, say this if he is to be honest. I believe the same thing about Christianity. Thus, I have no hesitation in saying the same thing to Moslems, Hindus, etc. If I belied hinduism or islam was the “Truth”–I would be a hindu or a moslem. I will not pretend to believe… Read more »

Steven
Steven
14 years ago

Byron: You have said “I note that the so-called “orthodox” have posted here with well-reasoned rhetoric. I’ve seen it on many of the other progressive blogs. I suspect that some are part of organized blog attacks by Network/Ahmanson-funded groups – preformulated arguments nicely tied up in a bow for consumption by the rather specialized audience reading Anglican blogs. So be it. But beware. There is little of Jesus’ love in those hearts and much to fear.” To which I respond: I certainly hope you are talking about me in terms of the “well reasoned rhetoric” etc. I don’t often get… Read more »

Byron
Byron
14 years ago

Nothing personal Steven and glad to hear about your happy family life. Also good to hear that the “forces of darkness” (your term) have yet to snare you in their thrall. The Word, the Lamb, the reason for our sanctification, puts all-embracing love first and foremost. The Network (et al.) leadership (not necessarily those in the pews) put the Law first (as they interpret it – fundamentalism is quite modern after all). That way lies wickedness.

Thanks Cheryl, wonderful.

Byron

James
James
14 years ago

Jesus said, “If you love me, keep my commandments.” “All-embracing love” also includes adherence to the Law. Love of one’s fellow neighbor also means shepherding those who are astray, not blessing their sins. Love is more than a feeling. It’s an act of union with God and his plan.

Steven
Steven
14 years ago

Byron: You bring up an interesting point that pertains to the subject matter under discussion with your remark that “fundamentalism is quite modern”. This is incorrect. Only the application of the word to particular groups is modern. There have always been those who strove to faithfully live in accordance with the fundamental tenets of their religious beliefs — i.e., fundamentalists. They were found in the old testament period, they were found in the middle ages, and they are found today. It is only the attachment of this word to particular groups of religious believers (first in America and then elsewhere)… Read more »

David Rowett (= mynsterpreost)
David Rowett (= mynsterpreost)
14 years ago

Steven, this is disingenuous. The phenomenon of fundamentalism within Christianity is post-enlightenment, and probably exists as a reaction to same. ‘The Fundamentals’ as published out of Princeton, admittedly marks a step on the road which generates the neologism ‘fundamentalism’ but the hallmarks of fundamentalist behaviour (which, by the way, contantly reinterprets its hermeneutic so as to be unfalsifiable, rather like the hypothesis that all cats are Martian spies) — that is to say, an inability to deal with the modern, is inevitably related to the arrival of the modern in the first place.

Steven
Steven
14 years ago

James:

Thankyou. You make some good point.

Steven

J. C. Fisher
J. C. Fisher
14 years ago

“Love of one’s fellow neighbor also means shepherding those who are astray, not blessing their sins.”

Yes, James, but it DOESN’T mean “lording it over” your neighbors, who — with as much Christian knowledge and faith as you (thank you very much!) — don’t believe that their intimate relationship is “astray”.

Jesus also said “Judge not, that you be judged” did he not?

Steven
Steven
14 years ago

David: You are approaching the matter from a different direction–i.e., I don’t think you are saying anything that conflicts with my remarks. I was pointing out the fact that “fundamentalism” taken as a bare term indicates a willingness and determination to adhere to certain believed “fundamentals”. As such, it is without doctrinal distinctives and can indicate an ardent Marxist as easily as it indicates an ardent Methodist, an ardent Medieval Catholic saint as easily as an ardent Medieval jihadi. (Or, perhaps more disturbingly given the site, an ardent religious liberal as easily as an ardent religious conservative). You are taking… Read more »

Simon Sarmiento
14 years ago

In response to several requests, I have removed a sequence of comments that did not focus on the subject matter of the article.

James
James
14 years ago

Extremely well-stated, Steven.

It is a very common fallacy that change by its nature means progress, that Western history is an uninterrupted arc of advancement from the Renaissance to today.

It is amazing how many people still associate absolutism and the union of church and state with the Middle Ages. Actually, both ideas were new and modern in the 16th and 17th centuries. They were all the rage then, though now discredited — being reactionary isn’t always bad.

Cheryl Clough
14 years ago

Christopher, you made a posting several days ago that “In the NT, figurative language and allegory is very much in the minority”

It snuck up on me, and I did reply on the weekend with some internet links that you and others might find interesting. But Simon S quite rightly bounced it as being too long. So enter plan B – here is the posting with the hyperlinks for those who are interested http://forum.wombatwonderings.org/viewtopic.php?p=79#79

Cheryl Clough
14 years ago

Steven’s postings remind us we should treat everyone with respect and not presume to know their history. Fundamentalism can be gentle and taking a fundamental belief to justify control over the “State” is not new and is not always bad. The modern concerns are the misuse of theology to justify outright abuse of human rights e.g. “dirty weapons” like cluster or phosphorus bombs; or justifying systemised poverty and repression – either of outcastes within a nation, or the vast majority of souls of a nation or even a continent. My fears are that when theology and “the state” marry, the… Read more »

Christopher Shell
Christopher Shell
14 years ago

Hi Cheryl-

Your link is essentially about the parables. As I mentioned above, the parables are sub-narratives within the main narrative. Therefore if people are saying that the main narrative should not be taken literally they remain incorrect.

On the other hand, if they are saying that the parables should not be taken literally, then this is a non-issue since no-one *was* taking them literally, in the sense of believing in a real good samaritan or prodigal son.

David Rowett (= mynsterpreost)
David Rowett (= mynsterpreost)
14 years ago

Steven said ‘Some of the greatest creeds of Christendom were developed as a reaction to the then prevailing (and then modern) climate of Arianism. And, in all of these cases it was the reactionaries who were proved to be right in their rejection of the modernist innovations of the day.’ I’m not sure that the two halves of this quite add up. Arianism (if I remember my patristics correctly) saw itself as the faithful conservative movement rather than as a modernist innovation – deep unease was expressed by those on the Arian wing about the unscriptural word ‘homoousios’, for example,… Read more »

Ford Elms
Ford Elms
14 years ago

Whether the term “fundamentalist” is appropriate or not is immaterial. There is a stream within Christianity that we call, rightly or wrongly, fundamentalist. It is not true to state, as Steven does that: “as Scripture and Tradition are generally aligned, most Christian fundamentalists do not end up departing from tradition nearly as far as Christian liberals do.” They may seem to agree with traditional Christianity about Scriptural authority, but they disagree about how that authority is expressed, and about Sacraments, the Incarnation, Christian initiation, Church governance, and on and on. They actually bear little resemblance to traditional Christianity. Call them… Read more »

Cheryl Clough
14 years ago

Christopher If what you are saying is an “and”, then we have no issue. The “and” being to understand the main narrative and also recognise the allusion to other stories. Some of my frustrations have been with souls who think there is only one story, and do not go off to check out the subplots. Some of my joys have been going off to check out the sub-plots and having whole new stories open up. Word searching for key words e.g. shepherd, vine and then looking at the “themes” that come from that. It has meant when I go back… Read more »

Steven
Steven
14 years ago

David: Re: Arians seeing themselves as traditionalists. There is nothing new under the sun. I’m continually hearing the same thing around here–that liberals represent the true “traditional” broad-minded spirit of Anglicanism, and that conservatives (especially in TEC and Africa) are a bizarre and noxious aberration. You won’t have to go back through very many threads to find out that what I am saying is true. This only goes to show that everyone likes to think well of themselves as well as to claim the high ground as much as they can. Ford: I know what you’re talking about, and agree… Read more »

Steven
Steven
14 years ago

Cheryl:

I like your comment that “fundamentalism can be gentle”. Christian fundamentalists are demonized far more than homosexuals in the media and by the intelligentsia. Somehow, listening to the folks around here you would think fundamentalists were redneck zombies wandering the streets with glazed eyes, torches and pitchforks looking for gays to burn.

It ain’t so. Most of the fundamentalists I’ve known were good-hearted wonderful people — grannies, and young-folks, and across-the-board. I won’t accuse them of always being right on everything, but they — at least the sincere ones — are certainly trying the best they can.

Steven

David Rowett (= mynsterpreost)
David Rowett (= mynsterpreost)
14 years ago

Steven observed that “Scripture and Tradition are generally aligned.”

Given that Scripture is a particular product of the tradition, that’s hardly surprising is it — unless the Bible actually DID drop from the skies in 1611 (some with apocrypha and some without).

Ford Elms
Ford Elms
14 years ago

Sorry, Steven, I thought the topic was Fundamentalists in general. Sexual ethics do not define traditional Christianity. I come from a place where there a lot of fundamentalists, many of my own family included. I have encountered some who are far better Christians than I can hope to be. In my experience, however, most have no respect for anyone who isn’t a fundamentalist, and will not even refer to us as Christians. They have declined ecumenical (interChristian, since in my hometown there were no non-Christians) activities because they “don’t associate with the unGodly”. Children coming home crying Hallowe’en night because… Read more »

Steven
Steven
14 years ago

Ford: As noted, I have my own problems with fundamentalists (of the Christian stripe). However, they take such a thorough bashing in places like this and are presented in such grotesque caricatures that I can’t help but try to stick up for them. Their greatest problem tends to be a lack of in-depth knowledge about the history of Christianity. What they do have is grossly distorted–i.e., the real Church (theirs) ended when Constantine came to power, etc., and popped back into existence sometime well after the rise of Protestantism. However, they are usually nice people, very sincere, and trying their… Read more »

Steven
Steven
14 years ago

David:

The relationship between scripture and tradition is a touchy subject to some folks. To me its a bit like asking which came first, the chicken or the egg.

Steven

Cheryl Clough
14 years ago

Steven I think the problem with any label is “bundling”. People try to find a label to explain a worst-case scenario, but it inevitably captures other people. You try to find a new word but are told it isn’t in the dictionary, or adopt it becomes adopted by a broader spectrum. Or you have people who justify their distortions by elevating others’ errors as if their own don’t matter. For example sticking to legalistic conventions e.g. diet means you are “holy” and can turn therefore turn a blind eye to cluster or phosphorous bombs. Relying on established law and precedents… Read more »

Ford Elms
Ford Elms
14 years ago

Well, Steven, your experience is radically different from mine, and my exposure has been anything but limited.

As to your statement on Scripture, I’d imagine the traditions of Israel were orally passed on before God inspired people to write them down, and the Christian Gospels were certainly orally transmitted before they were written down. The Epistles were written to clarify the Tradition which their intended audiences had already received, so Tradition comes before Scripture. Indeed, Scripture is a part, perhaps the most important part, of Tradition and does not stand outside of it.

Cheryl Clough
14 years ago

Also, God warns of the danger of using scripture but forgetting its intent e.g. Isaiah 28: especially “So then, the word of the LORD to them will become: Do and do, do and do, rule on rule, rule on rule; a little here, a little there—so that they will go and fall backward, be injured and snared and captured. Therefore hear the word of the LORD, you scoffers who rule this people in Jerusalem. You boast, “We have entered into a covenant with death… for we have made a lie our refuge and falsehood our hiding place.” So this is… Read more »

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