If there’s a catchword for religious extremists, it’s probably the term “fundamentalist.” Which is sad, really, considering the origins of the term. What it’s supposed to mean to be a fundamentalist is that you believe that the Bible is actually true, and therefore is the primary (and perhaps only) source for theology – i.e. that it’s fundamental to Christianity and Christian theology. The term arose to prominence in Christian circles just over a hundred years ago (correct me if I’m wrong), quickly associated with the term “evangelical”, with several protestant Christian denominations claiming it as a distinctive belief (i.e. central, setting them apart from other denominations who may disagree). It came out at a time when “liberal” theology was a growing trend, when people were claiming that none of the stories in the Bible were true, the so-called “quest for the historical Jesus”, etc. If this sense of the word continued, every Christian denomination in the moderate and conservative camps would wholeheartedly claim the title “fundamentalist”, with only the denominations with the most liberal theology claiming that Jesus wasn’t actually a real person.
Since then, however, we’ve become bogged down in the question of exactly how the Bible is true. The fundamentalists who get all of the press strictly adhere to a “literal” reading of scripture, and in so doing have bastardized both the term “fundamentalist” and the term “literal.” When they say “literal”, they really mean “at face value.” This is what Tim LaHaye said about it in the foreword to The Truth Behind Left Behind: A Biblical View of the End Times by Mark Hitchcock and Thomas Ice (Multnomah Publishers, 2004):
“People are reading the Bible as never before. They are reading it and believing what they read. Just as it is written. And why shouldn’t they? After all, it comes from the hand of God himself. These readers take scripture literally whenever possible – unless some false teacher has clouded their thinking, rendering prophecy virtually impossible to understand by trying to interpret it through symbols or confusing allegories.”
LaHaye goes on to support this by pointing out that his bestselling Left Behind series portrayed events just as they appear in the pages of scripture, and people agree once they’ve read his books. Oddly enough, that’s a pretty convincing argument if you never actually look into scripture, or learn anything about interpretation, or interpret the Bible as you would any other writing or even human conversation. The line that really slays me is “after all, it came from the hand of God himself.” That argument is not only unscriptural, but it’s illogical – but it fools anyone who doesn’t think too hard about it. It paints an image of the Bible floating down from the heavens, into the hands of the apostles, and eventually to the publishing houses of today.
This so-called “literal” reading is very often anything but. It basically means that anyone should be able to pick up the Bible, look at the words, and immediately know exactly what they mean. Of course, that doesn’t take into account the fact that everyone has a slightly different take on what the Bible means, and extreme fundamentalists will always claim that there is only one correct interpretation. While I agree on the last point (one interpretation), the point is simply that you can’t expect to get a good reading of ANYTHING at face value; there’s a few little things, like context and literary techniques, to take into account.
In season one of the TV show “Heroes”, the invincible cheerleader Claire confesses to her mother “I walked through fire, and didn’t get burned.” She meant it literally, but of course her mother didn’t take it that way; she thought Claire was saying something deep and profound, to be using such an analogy. That’s because people often use analogies, metaphors, similies, hyperbole, and other literary techniques to say something deep and profound by using ordinary language. In fact, this is so common that most people would say that their face-value reading of something would allow for metaphors and analogies – it’s hard to hear “I walked through fire and didn’t get burned” any other way – but this is not the case with “literal” hermeneutics. So when Tim LaHaye sees the phrase “army of locusts”, he sees real locusts, or perhaps combining the terms, he gets an army that looks like locusts, which of course MUST mean apache helicopters.
For a recent paper I read a book called Four Views on Hell. John Walvoord, representing the literal view, was extremely arrogant in his assumption that the literal view is the “biblical view”, maintained that things must be read at face value, and then completely butchered texts that had obviously analogous or metaphorical meanings in order to fit them into his hellfire view – claiming that wherever the word fire appears it must refer to real fire, and thus it must be special magical fire because fire and darkness are seen together in several texts. Because if the Bible says that there are both fire and utter darkness in Hell, and we must take that literally, then it must be special fire that does not emit any light. Absolutely absurd, but it illustrates the point that the literal view, rather than preserving the integrity of the text, often does it great violence by trying to force it into a wooden frame that doesn’t fit.
It also illustrates one of the main reasons that “fundamentalism” goes together with extremism: because a preacher can interpret scripture however he likes so long as it conforms to someone’s idea of what the words say “at face value”, and people won’t question it because “that’s what it clearly says, and after all, it comes from the hand of God himself!” Incredible presuppositions can be read into the text very easily, allowing the Bible to be used to justify everything from slavery to racial profiling to sexism to war – and say what you like about liberal theology, but they’ve never produced such abominations of “Christian culture” as the fundamentalists have.
Which of course leads us back to how extremism leads to polarization. Because the voice of evangelicals and fundamentalists are so hard-core into “literal” interpretation, it appears that the only other option is to not take scripture seriously (which is what fundamentalists usually claim is the only other option). You’re left with the options presented in the following SMBC comic:
Finally, a quick look at a moderate view: Jesus is a real guy. Lots of the events of the Bible actually happened, but the Bible is not to be read as a modern history book, but rather as a theological revelation of God. It should be read in light of its genre, semantics, and most especially contexts, and allowing for non-‘literal’ interpretations wherever the text indicates. Basically, if we read it the same way we’d read other literature of similar types, we’ll probably do okay.