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The Cultural Contradictions of Christian Fundamentalism

Many have been caught unawares by the re-assertion of Christian fundamentalism. Guy Rundle looks at the rise of a religious form uniquely suited to contemporary cultural mores.

Writing in the months before he was executed by the Nazis for his part in the plot to kill Hitler, the priest and theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer noted that he was finding it increasingly difficult to deal with ostentatiously religious people, and that he was finding an increasing sense of connection and spirituality among those of no religious disposition at all. He looked forward to a ‘post-religious’ Christianity — thoroughly demythologised, questioning, not a fixed dogma nor a concrete idea of the form of God. At any time between the end of the War and the middle of the last decade it could have been supposed that this was the direction that religion was going to take, if it was not going to wither away entirely. The spread of Christian fundamentalism in the United States could be seen as a particular function of a Puritan cultural tradition, with the predicament of a poor lacking hope in secular traditions. Its popularity in areas of Africa and Latin America could be seen as a function of uncompleted modernisation — in the case of Africa, it could be regarded as a bridge to secular modernity out of animist traditions. It was assumed that the future of modern societies was that seen in northern European ones: a steady decline in active church participation even among those who defined themselves as believers, and the rise to unquestioned centrality of a humanist model of society and a mechanical model of the universe.

It is obvious that nothing like this has occurred. First in the United States, and more recently in other parts of the world, religion has re-entered major areas of social and political life in a manner that few imagined possible, even during the conservative social revival of the 1980s. The fundamentalist Christian revival has spread beyond its particular social and cultural bounds in the US to become a major force within every area of social life. Not only has ‘intelligent design’ — the refashioned notion of creationism — made a major assault on the US educational system, but large, fundamentalist-style churches, with a charismatic and ecstatic form of worship involving stadium-style Christian rock concerts and assemblies, have gathered large numbers of young followers.

Increasingly in the US, whole firms have established themselves as specifically Christian, trading with other Christian firms, just as Christians have constituted themselves as huge audience bases for films such as The Passion Of The Christ and the series of Left Behind novels — blockbusters about the coming of ‘the rapture’ and the struggle between good and evil prior to the day of judgment. Through the subcontracting of US social services, many welfare programs are now administered by Christian agencies, as are many counselling services. As Barbara Ehrenreich observes in Bait and Switch, her undercover account of job-seeking in the white collar jungles, Christian uplift has become a default setting for encouraging people to having a positive attitude to social redundancy.

All this is the pyramid upon which the apex sits — the explicit fundamentalist obeisance of the President and other officers of the US government to not only a religious commitment, but one which suggests that the hand of God is moving in their policy decisions and choices. Recently, UK PM Tony Blair got into the act, suggesting that God — rather than the world or the voters — would judge him over his actions in Iraq: a sign of the degree to which the US-style prophetic voice is moving into other societies. In Australia, it is visible in the success of the Hillsong and other churches, which are able to draw not only thousands of people to their events and conferences, but also to make it prudent for politicians such as Bob Carr to appear on their stages. When former Federal Education Minister Brendan Nelson was presented with the power and organisational ability of those pushing ‘intelligent design’ he rapidly caved in, saying that it should be taught in schools to offer students choice. As part of the commitment to moving God further towards the centre of Australian political culture, the News Ltd papers have been running a campaign to uphold the Judeo-Christian heritage against its enemies, whether they be in the ABC, the education system, or in defence of the free market.

The energy of the fundamentalist Christian revival has created its own momentum, moving into the cultural life of social groups and classes that would hitherto have been uninterested in it. On campuses, where secular humanism — or plain apathy — would once have been the dominant attitude with regard to religion, it is the Christian youth groups that are drawing large numbers of followers. For anyone who doubted the full extent of this revolution, the news came that Jane Fonda — the invariably reliable barometer of every modish movement — has dedicated her life to God.

Clearly something has happened, and those hoping to champion a secular, agnostic/atheist, humanist belief that our individual and collective destinies lie in our hands have been caught short. In part, this is because the campaign to move religion out of the centre of social and political life had largely been won across the course of the twentieth century, and those who fought it — the Rationalists and Sceptics and other such groups — had thereby acquired the air of cranky obsessives. From the availability of birth control to being able to go to the cinema on Sunday, the victories were so comprehensive that they obscured the struggles required to win them, and the degree to which this was an enormous social revolution.

The removal of the church as moral arbiter on every aspect of daily life was twinned with a ‘progressivist’ assumption that a secular understanding of the universe as a mechanism without a presiding Being would simply become the standard worldview. This was bound up in a humanism that was not neutral with regard to the form of human society, but which was necessarily bound up with a socialist view of it — that we would eventually control our own labour and life-processes, and be a consciously self-fashioning species. However much the radical content of post-war humanism was diluted into individualistic strands or particular causes from drugs to health foods, there can be no doubt that it provided the energy behind that movement, and that problems began to develop once that movement ran out of steam in the late 1970s.

Once such a project vanishes from the popular imagination, once the construction of a secular worldview and value system becomes detached from a wider project of liberation, then such non-religious value systems lose their capacity to command participation and motivate action. Thus, in the US, the battle to keep creationism and intelligent design out of school science curriculums has been a massive one, joining tens of thousands of activists, academics, parents and politicians together — because it was a struggle against active and willful ignorance. The attempt to advance a positive humanist view of social life and collective action has been far less succesful, because it is necessarily inchoate without a radical political form.

Indeed, what has moved to centre-stage is a form of fairly assertive atheism, as expressed in books such as Daniel Dennett’s Darwin’s Dangerous Idea: Evolution and the Meaning of Life or Richard Dawkins’s The Selfish Gene. Dennett sets out with the air of an early enlightenment philosopher to comprehensively demolish any notion that there could be any sort of thing called God worth speaking of, while Dawkins takes the line that religion is necessarily a veil of ignorance and thereby the major, if not sole, cause of war and oppression in the world. Both have an air of achieving their arguments by some sleight of hand: in Dennett’s case by ignoring or being ignorant of more complex theological constructions of God that arose in the twentieth century, and in Dawkins’s case by playing up the pseudo-religious elements of a movement such as Stalinism in order to back away from the fact that it was consciously humanist and atheist.

More importantly, neither seems willing, or perhaps able, to give much thought to the gap that exists between those who live within the world of science and the production of original knowledge, and the vast majority within modernity who inhabit a world the understanding of which is closed to them and which seems to consist of large impersonal forces beyond their control. For Dennett and Dawkins, the physical universe in all its blind complexity is sufficiently amazing to cater for our sense of wonder and awe, and any attribution of supernatural forces actually detracts from those qualities. But such a sense of wonder — one that overcomes the sense of indifference and emptiness of a mindless infinity — is far more likely to be found within people who are actually working with the raw material of such a universe, whether it be a gene or a quark, or the idea of dark matter, and who are therefore in a process of exchange with the cosmic model that they themselves are producing. In seeking to thus ground their assault on religion as it is currently being deployed politically and culturally — by an attempt to prove atheism — they overshoot the mark magnificently, not only providing raw material for their opponents (Dennett’s argument that natural selection proves atheism would give grounds for US-based creationists to get a non-specific form of creationism back on school curricula), but also giving full expression to the aspects of an atheist/mechanical universe that many people are currently flinching from.

For those populations in the West who — consciously or otherwise — feel themselves to be in a realm where history has stopped, a realm lacking grand narratives, causes and passions, this is to feel uniquely exposed to the void. The mid-century movement of existentialism tried to make acceptance of the void the ground upon which one made one’s life meaningful, and such an attitude has trickled down into everyday life via a range of self-help books, therapy practices and movements such as Landmark Education’s ‘Forum’. But the other dimension of freedom as characterised by existentialists — an acceptance of the absurdity of existence — has rarely accompanied insights about having to ‘make yourself up as you go along’ or to ‘do rather than be’, and it is difficult to see how such an attitude could become a central — rather than a marginal — feature of any culture, without that culture collapsing. Hence, in the absence of anything to supersede it, transcend it, or to fuse it with a humanist understanding of the world, religion has rushed back into social life — and into the lives of individuals who, years hitherto, could not have imagined such an occurrence possible.

For the religious, there is no difficulty explaining this — it is the return of God, who had suffered temporary setbacks at the hands of an adversarial (‘adversary’ being the original meaning of the term ‘Satan’) 60s culture. For conservatives such as John Carroll or John Gray, it is the reassertion of a permanent category of social life, whose necessity was temporarily obscured by the vain delusions of a scientific civilisation. For the ideologues of the hard political Right it is a necessary tool to maintain a society that is socially disciplined and continent, while at the same time having an open-ended appetite for consumption and bought self-fulfillment. Yet the form the religious return is taking is riven with contradiction and is itself a measure of its eclipse. Nevertheless, it would be easy to misunderstand its sources of renewal — as many on the secular Left do — as simply the revival of an unvanquished ignorance, rather than as a key to the deeper contradictions of social life.

II
Bonhoeffer’s desire for a post-religious Christianity came towards the end of a long revolution in theology that had commenced in the nineteenth century, with figures such as Berdyaev, Karl Barth and others, who redefined the idea not only of God, but of what it was to be a Christian. Although most were responding to age-old debates about the nature of Christ’s divinity and other matters — some of them stretching back to the writings of the Roman Church fathers — it is fair to say that they were doing so in a context in which the advancement of both the physical and biological sciences had created unbearable contradictions within a civilisation that sought to profess its knowledge through a Christian perspective. As Darwin’s theories were complemented by Mendel’s genetics, as the structure of the atom was hypothesised, Christianity split off in several directions. ‘Liberal’ Christianity sought to emphasise the humanist and moral message of the Gospels and rapidly became the gateway towards a Christian humanism, in which Jesus became the ‘great moral teacher’, the ‘first socialist’ or whatever.

In the US, splits and crises within the Baptist movement gave birth to fundamentalism within a number of small Bible colleges — a setting of doctrinal boundaries by refusing all new or contradictory information and by leaving aside the internal contradictions of the Bible. The ‘demythologised’ Christianity of Berdyaev saw that the path of liberal Christianity led rapidly away from the idea of divinity, whether that exclusively of Christ or in general, and sought to understand how those who still believed in the divine could profess it without going down the path of a willfully unreasoned fundamentalism. The answer, as expressed in the writings of those such as Barth or Kung, was to suggest that the understanding of God had to be radically de-anthropomorphised and that the historical encounter with God — via the church — was a process in which anthropomorphism was always creeping back in to an understanding of God, simply through the act of being in the world. If God was totally other to human being, if divinity was totally other to the material world, then God was found by an understanding of what God was not, rather than what God was.

That did not necessarily involve an ecumenicism — Barth believed in Christ as the unique revelation of the divinity — but it certainly meant that God could not be ‘drawn down’ as a particular supporter of this or that nation, cause or opinion. Seeking to understand Genesis as a literal story of the creation of the universe was not therefore a sign of devotion, but of an ultimate domestication of God to human concepts and categories. Prayer was not a one-to-one conversation with a fellow American and Republican, but an address in faith to an Other whose nature could not be known.

If the advancement of science was the context in which these new forms of theology were developed (cross-fertilised by the secular philosophy of figures such as Heidegger), it was the cataclysmic destructiveness of it — in the form of the First and especially the Second World Wars — that brought them to prominence within both Catholic and Protestant churches in the second half of the century. In particular, the occurrence of the Holocaust brought to a head so many problems with the idea of a watchful, interventionist, anthropomorphic God that the dilemma of how to worship God in any sort of intelligent way became, for many, central to the experience of being a Christian — and especially for those training to be priests.

In literature, the works of Graham Greene had already made central the figure of a priest who has lost his faith, but who maintains some sort of relationship to the idea of God as an enigma by continuing to act out the role. In the 60s, books such as Bishop John Robinson’s Honest To God made visible to a wider public the debates and dilemmas that had been exercising both Protestant and Catholic church hierarchies.

One result of this was a growing separation between the intellectual and spiritual leaders of the churches and the lay membership of the churches. When the full tide of modernity brimmed and broke in the 1960s, the established churches were reeling from a double dilemma: on the one hand how to lead a church whose lay population tended to maintain a belief (however intermittent or partial) in an interventionist, anthropomorphic God while the church leadership itself was thrown into a dilemma about what the meaning of God was at all, and on the other how to respond to a culture in which what had hitherto been virtues — modesty, continence, obedience, meekness — were now seen as psychologically repressive vices and the enemy of the full expression of rich human being.

In this confused era — of large scale departures from the priesthood and holy orders, of the enormous popularity of mystics such as Thomas Merton, of Vatican II and the attempt at transforming a closed system of worship into an open one — it was the fundamentalists who began to gather support beyond their base in traditional American communities, and become not only a distinctive way of worship, but a haven for those lay members of traditional churches who had realised the degree to which they could not get, from their church leadership, clear leadership of the type they wanted: in the worship of an interventionist, mythologised God.

While established churches had — in the process of demythologisation — stripped their worship of much of its ritual and trappings, fundamentalism had either retained or re-acquired its ecstatic dimension, and this connected well with a culture in which the experience of everyday life had acquired velocity and amplification. While the established churches had emphasised the nature of communion and contemplation as central to the act of worship, the fundamentalist experience — as it developed over the 1980s and 1990s — made ever more central techniques (such as ‘speaking in tongues’) that allowed for the surrender of consciousness and of ego boundaries in ecstatic rituals.

Initially, this occurred within fairly defined and conservative cultural boundaries, informed by Southern US separation of white and black cultures. Gradually, however, a second-stage fundamentalism has emerged in the US and around the world, which is willing to embrace all the techniques and cultural accoutrements generated by contemporary society. Thus it has become comparatively easy for this ‘second-stage’ fundamentalism to embrace rock music as a tool for recruiting and worship, and Christian rock, even Christian heavy metal, now accounts for a significant chunk of the US music market, and dovetails with other ecstatic, boundary-breaking techniques. While many Protestant churches went further in the direction of the Quaker ideal of silent prayer and non-directed worship, and while the Catholic church criticised rock music as a form of counterfeit transcendence, Christian fundamentalism could take itself further into the heart of contemporary culture without fear of apparent contradiction.

Such divergences ran down the middle of the nominal unity of mainstream Protestantism and fundamentalism and put the former much close to Catholicism in many of its attitudes. While both Protestant and Catholic churches have adopted explicitly and implicitly a more or less Frankfurt School critique of a world of eroticised consumerism and alienation (and thereby reconnected such a critique to the Christian roots it was shorn of in the early 1800s), the fundamentalists have embraced prosperity and consumerism, and lives of mobility and accumulation. For centuries, churches offered solace in the midst of suffering and a sense to the universe by emphasising virtues associated with acceptance — forbearance, abidingness, endurance. Comforting they may be, and a reflection of the trans-historical and trans-religious belief that our knowledge of the world is necessarily limited and that life remains enigmatic, but they are also virtues associated with a static pre-modern society.

Another of the influences that the fundamentalist movement has taken from the 60s countercultural revolution is the use of quick and instant versions of various forms of cognitive and behavioural psychotherapy, such as Carl Rogers’ person-centred analysis and quick transformational therapies such as neurolinguistic programming. The characteristics of such therapies can be seen, for example, in the range of leaflets and services offered by the Hillsong church for guidance in every area of life, from marriage counselling to financial management. Crucial to these techniques, especially when performed at a distance, is to give the person a quick burst of affirmation, a sense of towering self-worth and capability by the simple (and temporary) ‘reprogramming’ of thought patterns. In the Hillsong leaflets, these techniques are woven in with scripturally based advice, but it would be fair to say that much of their effectiveness, or the belief in such, derives from the secular techniques of pumping up the individual ego with programmed positivity, dream visualisation, and so on.

There is nothing wrong with a church offering specific advice or techniques for managing life, but in the case of Hillsong, and many of the other more successful churches, these tailored and segmented services often fail to lead the reader or follower back to a more wholistic message. They are strong on the mantra of accepting Christ as the Lord, often weak on what the concrete consequences of that would be — especially in situations where it would bring one into conflict with dominant political or cultural assumptions. The scattered and infrequent Gospel references that can be found to bless energetic wealth creation and accumulation are emphasised, while those lessons — the Golden Rule, turning the other cheek, turning away from wordly concerns — that might lead to a requirement of poverty or civil disobedience in the face of militarism get short shrift.

This segmented approach can be seen in the rhythm and character of fundamentalist worship as well. One of the core features of the ‘abidingness’ of traditional churches is that their services continue day in day out, whether some, one or no persons at all are attending, and that both places of worship and the style of the service are designed so that they do not require a spectacular or ecstatic effect to achieve their meaning. Even the largest of the great Gothic cathedrals have their small shrines and spaces which create intimate spaces among the sublimity of the soaring arches. By contrast, the fundamentalist experience is so wedded to the ecstatic and the gigantic that both services and buildings are oriented to it. The huge hangar-like structures that such churches favour feel not only empty when they are not filled with exposulating, entranced, collapsing people and blasting rock music, they feel anti-human, dwarfing the individual with characterless warehouse-style space. No-one could slip in to such a building for a private moment without having to struggle against the annihilating nature of the void.

Indeed, last year, many such churches in the US cancelled their Christmas Day services for fear of poor attendances and the resulting damp squib of a celebration that this would create. It would be hard to think of a better hint that something was going on than that of the impossibility of holding one of the most important masses of the year, but the transformation of the idea of worship in fundamentalism — indeed the creation of a new form of Christianity — has been so complete that this does not register as a problem for most. Such huge churches are, after all, the modern-day heirs to the old travelling revival tents given a permanent form and supplemented with direct cable TV broadcasts. They have more in common with the rented conference rooms of Hilton hotels, where groups such as the Forum pump up the self-esteem of 200 people at a time, than they have with the traditional church oriented as much to private communion with God as with collective worship.

It would seem that this explains their great success, their attractive quality to many people for whom an Anglican or Catholic service would be close to a null experience. The attractions of the outer form of ecstatic worship are supplemented by the manner in which it diverges from the content offered by the traditional churches. The latter, in the post-war era, foregrounded the dialectical nature of faith — that doubt is not a shadow on its surface, but its necessary other, that faith is an inherently contradictory and dynamic process — and the insolubility of the problem of evil. It called people to be in a questioning and critical mode in relation to the formal structure of the society developing around them — consumption, mobility, image and self-focus.

By contrast, the fundamentalist churches, while superfi-cially constructing themselves in opposition to the content of post-60s society, cut with the grain of its form, diving enthusiastically into mass media, accumulation, the cult of self-development and self-fashioning, and the refuge from oppressive selfhood in periods of ecstatic surrender of consciousness and control. What was relatively easy — the surrender to Jesus within this otherwise untransformed lifestyle — was represented as a major step, a process of being born again.

For many, however, it was a more straightforward process of re-branding many of the activities that they were already undertaking in their lives with the transcendental vim and vigour of a revealed God. While they can criticise the mainstream churches, and especially left-leaning groups such as the Uniting church and the WCC, for syncretism (mixing elements of different religions), the plain fact of the latest crop of fundamentalist groups is that they have mixed in so many ecstatic techniques and celebrations of selfhood that they are well on the way to a hybrid, postmodern Christian-Paganism. The speaking in tongues and the wild testifying that came through the southern US Baptist churches originated (in its post-medieval form at least) from the admixture of African and Haitian animist and voodoo style ceremonies, and much of the therapeutic self-focus derived from 60s techniques that were themselves influenced by the writings of the Epicureans and Stoics of classical Rome. It is wrapped within a Christian tradition and gloss, but it also escapes and overflows it, making it, I would suggest, a novel religious form accommodated to postmodern needs.

Guy Rundle is an Arena Publications editor. The second part of this two-part essay will appear in issue 84 of Arena Magazine.