Deadly Certainty: Pope Francis and Fundamentalism

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When we believe we are in possession of complete knowledge of God, then it endows our actions with unassailable goodness. Even actions that we condemn when performed by our opponents will appear good and noble to us when we do them. A wonderful illustration of this comes from 1 Kings 18 where we are told that Queen Jezebel, the Baal worshipper, has been “killing off the prophets of the Lord” (18:4). To demonstrate that the Lord, not Baal, is God, the prophet Elijah miraculously ignites a sacrificial fire that humiliates Baal’s prophets. Elijah then “seized them; and Elijah brought down to the Wadi Kishon, and killed them there” (18:40).

I’m not sure we are meant to applaud Elijah’s murderous rampage. I think the biblical text invites us to see the similarities between Elijah and Jezebel, despite their insistence on how different they are from one another. They are both so strongly in the grip of religious fundamentalism that they condemn each other as murderers while celebrating murder as justified by their god. Nothing can dissuade them from their belief in their own goodness, not even the blood of their victims. This is what James Alison is referring to when he says that “our self-identity as ‘good’ is one of our most sacred idols. It is one of the things that makes us most dangerous to others and to ourselves.” When we cling to our sense of ourselves as good, despite evidence to the contrary, we have turned our goodness into a sacred idol.

Raising Children Un-Fundamentalist

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Here’s the thing: I live in a country that is predominantly Buddhist. Here, little kids are taught to hold incense and kneel and bow at ancestor tablets and a variety of gods. Do you know how cute it is to see a little kid praying with pure devotion to a Buddhist god? It is JUST AS CUTE as the blonde headed little girl singing Jesus Loves Me.

A child’s faith is not a testimony of the power of God to evangelize them. It demonstrates how malleable and impressionable children are to the faith values exposed to them at a young age. Children must trust wholeheartedly in order to survive. Their dependence on adults undergirds their entire worldview. Like it or not, as parents we are entrusted with this enormous responsibility to build the structures of faith in which our children will inevitably live fully into, especially when they are little.

Because of this drastic inequality of power between adults and our dependent children, we must take tender care to wield our tremendous spiritual influence on them in a way that is respectful of their autonomy, that listens to their concerns, that empowers them to grow into wholeness, and to ultimately make their own faith choices. We must always be aware of the power differential even as we act as the portal through which they come to know God.

REPORT: Bob Jones University Failed to Support Sexual Abuse Victims for 40 Years

Rolling Stone is not the only one throwing sexual abuse victims under the bus these days. An alarming report released today reveals that Bob Jones University, a historically fundamentalist Christian college, failed to support nearly 40 victims of sexual abuse over four decades.

In January 2013, Bob Jones University hired GRACE (Godly Response to Abuse in the Christian Environment) to conduct an independent investigation of the college’s response to sexual abuse allegations.

The report states that BJU officials were not adequately prepared or trained to counsel victims appropriately, often treating victims as blameworthy for their abuse or sexual assault experienced during childhood or adulthood.

In a video statement recorded yesterday, BJU President Steve Pettit issued an apology to students and faculty:

On behalf of Bob Jones University, I would like to sincerely and humbly apologize to those who felt they did not receive from us genuine love, compassion, understanding, and support after suffering sexual abuse or assault. We did not live up to their expectations. We failed to uphold and honor our own core values. We are deeply saddened to hear that we added to their pain and suffering.

A Theology of Interfaith Cooperation

SUMMER IS READNG time and there’s nothing I like more during the warm months than delving into geeky works on religion. This summer, Peter L. Berger and Brian D. McLaren have topped my list.

In a set of recent essays, Berger emphasizes that relativism and fundamentalism are two of the most prominent religious paths in the world today. Here’s my one line definition of fundamentalism: “Being me is based on dominating you.” And my simple definition of relativism: “I no longer know who I am when I encounter you.”

For Berger, while relativism and fundamentalism are at opposite extremes, they are actually closely connected in that they are both “products of the same proc-ess of modernization.” As he first wrote decades ago in his book The Heretical Imperative, frequent and intense encounters between people with different identities is the signature characteristic of the modern era. In Berger’s pithy phrase: modernity pluralizes.

Berger continues, “pluralism relativizes ... both institutionally and in the consciousness of individuals.” In the pre-modern era, institutions, ideas, and identities had a largely taken-for-granted status. For most of human history, the vast majority of humankind had little to no choice about which institutions they were going to participate in or what their identities were going to be. Such matters were experienced as fate.

In the modern era, institutions become voluntary associations—people choose whether to participate—and identity has moved from fate to choice. This puts an awful lot of pressure on moderns like us to constantly make conscious choices about what we participate in and who we are. This is pressure that our ancestors, who simply took for granted the network of institutions they grew up in and the identities they were handed, simply did not have.

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How to Respond to Online Religious Wars

soliman design/

We can respond to online discussions with love or hate. soliman design/

The history of religious wars in human civilization is a tragic commentary on those who adhere to religious traditions. From the French Wars to the Crusades, much blood has been shed in the name of the Holy. The dissonance between movements to perpetuate Goodness and the actions which deliver Evil is proof of how much the religious communities often miss the mark. Where violence reigns, religious people are acting out of ideology, rather than following a God of benevolence. 

There is a variant form of religion war taking place online. Seth Godin, a popular blogger, remarks on today’s marketing in the digital age as hailing back to the ancient ways humans organized themselves: tribes. He rightly notes the easy accessibility these days for ordinary citizens to congregate around shared values. His book, Tribes, inspires leaders to harness the power of tribes to affect great change. Yet it is precisely because we tie our identities so closely to our online tribes that when tribal conflicts break out on the internet, we are armed and ready to fight. 

Losing My Religion

RECENT POLLS SUGGEST that America’s vaunted religiosity is slipping, including the percentage of people willing to identify themselves as evangelicals. At the same time, the percentage of avowed secularists has risen. A movement calling itself the “New Atheism”—those adamantly opposed to religion—has attracted a considerable following.

The oracles of this movement—including Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett, and the late Christopher Hitchens—deny any possibility of the supernatural, assert that religious belief is irrational, and posit that religion has caused untold evil and suffering throughout history. Because of their dogmatism and their refusal to countenance views other than their own, I refer to these people as “secular fundamentalists.”

Hard data may be elusive, but the latest generation of American young people is much less religious than the last, and the growing secularism they represent could be a byproduct of the polarizing effect of the Religious Right. With evangelical fundamentalism being the dominant and most public form of U.S. Christianity over the last generation, young seekers would rather turn away from all religion than adapt to the harsh expression of faith that excludes so many of their peers and often stands against their aspirations for fairness and equality.

Religious fundamentalism has tainted the reputation of Christianity. For many, unbelief has become more palatable than belief, if believing requires an embrace of the distortions that have so characterized U.S. Christianity over the last several decades.

What prompted the emergence of this New Atheism or secular fundamentalism? What historical forces contributed to its rise? The roots of this phenomenon go back more than three decades—to the political mobilization of a different species of fundamentalism that became the movement commonly known as the Religious Right.

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A Matter of Misinformation

Via 'A Matter of Faith' website,

Via 'A Matter of Faith' website,

In just the latest evidence that a certain subset of conservative evangelical Christians really has no interest in occupying the real world with the rest of us, the trailer for a new movie called A Matter of Faith has hit the Internet.

The film follows the travails of a Christian father, who — horrified by the fact that his daughter’s college teaches the theory of evolution as a fact (gasp!) — challenges the villainous biology professor to a public debate that will no doubt settle the matter once and for all.

If this premise sounds strangely familiar, it could be that you’re remembering God’s Not Dead, a film released in March, in which a Christian student who — horrified by the fact that his philosophy professor is a committed atheist — challenges the dastardly nonbeliever to a debate on the existence of God that, no doubt, settled the matter once and for all.

(I’m told that the new movie was called Christians vs. the Straw Man II: This Time It’s Personal throughout production, before filmmakers decided to rename it A Matter of Faith.)

The similarities between the two pictures don’t stop there.

When We Were the Pre-Party to the Tea Party

When I was seven years old in the mid-‘80s, Mom started taking my brother Marco and me to Grace Bible Baptist Church and School in rural New Hampshire. We’d pass by all these well-attended, high-steepled liberal churches to worship in a squat, utilitarian building hidden on a back road in the woods, with a congregation of 30 or 40 strong: The Moral Majority. U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann’s recent claim that we’re living in the end times reminds me of those days. We were the pre-party to the Tea Party. There were Ronald Reagan posters in the lobby. We’d listen to sermons about “back masking” and the Satanist propaganda you’d hear if you played rock records backwards. One week, we came back to church every night after school to watch Russell Daughten’s four-part 1970s Rapture movie series, the original Left Behind: Polyester pandemonium.

Dear Young Christians: Reject Legalism, NOT Discipline!

Illustration of teen arguing with parents, Ron and Joe /

Illustration of teen arguing with parents, Ron and Joe /

Within the evangelical Christian universe, few things are more damning than being labeled 'Legalistic.' The term evokes images of strict rules, ruthlessness, enforced doctrines, unforgiving judges, and worst of all —unpopularity

When churches, schools, pastors, institutions, and communities are viewed as legalistic, they are demonized and shunned — sometimes rightfully so.

One disturbing trend I’ve noticed — especially among young believers — is to assume that everything associated with a few of legalism’s attributes: structure, requirements, consequences, and work, is legalistic — it’s not.