The Attractions of Fundamentalism
This chapter is organized as follows:
- The attractions of fundamentalism, relating to the previous story of conversion
- Summarizing the Attractions of Fundamentalism
- Checklist: What fundamentalism offers
- People are drawn to fundamentalism for different reasons.
- Why leave fundamentalism?
THE ATTRACTIONS OF FUNDAMENTALISM
Before we can talk about leaving fundamentalism, we need to examine its allure. What was the siren call of fundamentalism to my parents, and to so many others?
Here’s what attracted my parents to the fundamentalist church:
A seed had been planted years ago for my mother, when her childhood pastor demanded her life, and for my father, in his scary parochial school experience. These are examples of the “power of suggestion.” It’s like having a spark plug ready and waiting for the spark to come…which it did, maybe 25 years later.
After my mother got “saved,” she referred to her birth family’s mainline church as “wishy washy.” They followed the “social gospel,” i.e., trying to practice justice and, she felt, being more interested in social activities than in saving souls.
In other words, her birth family’s church neither demanded much from her nor promised much. That was to change in the evangelical church, where the pastor called for the surrender of her life. She equated surrender of life as necessary to find meaning in life.
For my father, deliverance from fear of the hereafter was primary. His childhood religious experience was not wishy washy, but fearsome, and that fear stuck with him into adulthood.
My parents got “caught” by the congenial preacher (who happened to be a convert from Roman Catholicism) and by his message of a purposeful life and of freedom from fear with assurance of salvation. They got “cleaned,” through the church’s teaching of forgiveness of sin in Christ and then through following the teachings of the Bible, as they understood them. Lastly, they would be “cloned,” as they went forth and witnessed about Jesus and the plan of salvation for humankind.
The outdoor bulletin board at a local evangelical church read, “Our soul mission: We catch ‘em. We clean ‘em. We clone ‘em.” That happened with my parents – and later, with me and my brother. This catch-clean-clone framework will be the backdrop for so much in this web site.
In surrendering their lives, they believed that they got forgiveness of sin and the indwelling of the spirit of God. Hence, they were “born again,” this time into God’s family.
Their surrender brought relief from the sense of being rudderless that my mother had and from the guilt and fear that my father had been carrying around. They believed that they were forgiven, through Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross. They believed that his blood sacrifice washed them clean.
In return for their surrender to God, they got promises of being accepted into God’s family, being beloved by God, having a personal relationship with God, having a meaningful purpose on this earth, being led by God, and going to heaven after death.
Their lives were now purposeful and joyful. They learned that if someone didn’t know Jesus, that person was going to hell. By praying for that person and witnessing to that person about Christ, that person might also become saved from hell and enter onto the road to heaven. What higher calling could they have than to be God’s messenger – led by him – to the lost? Late in his life, my dad mentioned that if he had life to live over, he would have liked to have been a preacher. (In my opinion, he was a preacher all along.)
My folks were welcomed into a ready-made community. The people in the little church folded them in. There was warmth and fellowship, plenty to do, including socializing with the married couples’ club excursions. There were church services throughout the week, and Bible studies to give them satisfying steps of accomplishment. This was the first time either had seriously read the Bible.
My folks essentially had the key parts of their lives planned out for them. They had activities to go to, a value system laid out for them, emotional connection with others, places in the lively choir, laughter and fun with other young marrieds. Compare their situation before… new in the neighborhood, no social connections, nothing to do but talk to each other, go to work, care for the child, and take care of the house. They didn’t even have television in those early years. Their idea of “education” stopped with high school graduation.
My folks also had a pastor who was very interested in “prophecy.” That is, he tracked world events – particularly relating to Israel and the Middle East – and linked key events with what he believed were scriptural predictions of the events. He often mentioned the end times, Armageddon, etc. This caught my parents’ interest and solidified their belief in the inerrancy and inspiration of the Bible. They were taught that the Bible had no mistakes in its original writing and was essentially God-breathed, that it had no errors in matters of science or faith.
Prophecy is another example of “power of suggestion.” Religion shifted from having faith to “knowing we were right” as history unfolded. The pastor laid out events such as the return of the Jews to Palestine, formation of the state of Israel, goings on at the temple mount, etc. It was like having your own crystal ball and resultant superior knowledge. For many fundamentalists, these teachings further substantiate their faith.
This little church denomination believed in pre-millennialism, that is, they believed that they would be taken up to meet Jesus in the clouds before the unfolding of dire world events for the rest of the earth’s population.
The “Second Coming” [of Jesus] would happen before the battle of Armageddon and what is called the Great Tribulation. Then the anti-christ appears, known as “the beast,” and puts his mark (666) on everyone. He rules the world until the heavens open and God’s forces arrive for the final battle between good and evil. Good of course wins. In a nutshell, it’s glory for the saved and terrible suffering for everyone else.
The fundamentalists say that “666” is the mark of the beast, whereas I read somewhere that Jewish numerical scholars (where numbers are assigned to the Hebrew letters) say that 666 is a perfect match for “Nero,” one of the Caesars, a cruel Roman emperor. But enough on this…. I’m just mentioning it because there are some interesting books in the Resource list about political implications for post-millennialism. With pre-millennialism, one “waited” for events to unfold. With post-millennialism (build Christ’s kingdom on earth, and then he will return), one “acts” toward building that kingdom. Waiting or acting…big difference! Our church members were the waiters.
My folks had guidelines for how to live and act from the Bible, or at least in the church’s interpretation of the Bible. The more they studied the Bible and applied what they were reading to their lives, the closer to God they believed they could get. The Bible was the road map for getting to heaven and for living a life pleasing to God on this earth. Add to that prayer and meditation and the belief in communication with a living God.
In summary, my folks had ready-made lives of apparent significance handed to them, once they made the initial surrender of their lives. No longer were they “on the throne of their hearts” but Jesus was on the throne. They had turned over control of their lives – and responsibility for their lives – to their concept of God. Their belief was in a trinity, with the father, son, and holy spirit being the three-in-one god, which I remember being explained to me with the metaphor of water: solid, liquid, and gas. All water.
Further, the teaching was that God was personal and would speak with those who were open to listen. There was no intermediary between them and God. They could speak and listen to the divine through prayer. That’s the creator of the universe we’re talking about here, their loving heavenly father.
Because they both accepted this message of salvation, they were united in their marriage. I don’t even want to think about the scenario if my father had refused to get involved in my mother’s religion.
Did they have rough edges in their marriage? No problem. Surrender to God, follow the guidelines of the scriptures, and the rough edges would smooth themselves out. And that’s apparently what happened for the most part.
The net result of this was pretty much that my parents took on new identities. The old had passed away, all was made new by God. In those new roles, they had a lot of joy and happiness, a lot of singing. My childhood was basically sunny, though I later came to feel like an isolate in the middle of people, and to feel invisible. Had I even known how to feel my feelings of unease and how to communicate those feelings, I would have had no one to talk with.
SUMMARIZING THE ATTRACTIONS OF FUNDAMENTALISM
In fundamentalism, you are offered essentially a warm bath, cozy and secure and many times, satisfying. From the teachings of fundamentalist religion, you learn who you are, what to believe, how to study the Bible, what to do, how to organize your week, what friends to have, how to tell others the good news of the gospel, what opinions to have, how to feel, how to think, how to trust God for your future, how to get to heaven.
You get to have an invisible all-powerful best friend who loved you enough to have sent his son to die for you. For a person feeling lonely or guilty or directionless or without purpose or depressed and even suicidal, these are words of great comfort. One can “know” that he or she is right with God and is guided by God, if he or she will but listen and obey.
You may be drawn in by peppy music and the warm smiles of congregants. You may have been convinced by your church’s interpretation of prophecy. Your emotions may have thrilled with ecstatic experiences. You may have been surrounded with a warm church community and welcomed with open arms. You may have experienced intimacy with others through prayer and testimonials. You have a whole ready-made life given to you. If you have children, there would have been endless activities to draw them in, too.
You may have given up drugs or sleeping around and experienced a life change for the better. You learned discipline which may have been lacking in your life. You found a purpose for living. You learned about deeper meanings of marriage and realized how shallow much of the current dating scene is. You felt the relief of repenting from old ways that were unworthy and maybe shameful and the relief of being made anew with a better value system. You learned to care about yourself and others in new ways.
In many churches, especially the newer mega-churches, you may have been ushered right away into a small interest-centered group – maybe with other new parents, singles, or divorced people. You were adopted by group members who knew your name and watched out for you in the larger congregation. You were no longer lonely. You had people to care about and who cared about you. You had a ready-made community and avenues of growth and exploration (Bible study, sermons, religious books, etc.). You saw many examples of happy, involved young people singing and smiling.
These are heavy draws for many people. These selling points remind me of a saying I heard long ago: “If you don’t have your own opinion, someone else will give you theirs.”
Now it’s your turn. Would you like to pause here and consider your own experience in fundamentalism? What drew you to fundamentalism? If you were born in it, what did you like about it? I’ve made a list of attractions below, but if you make your own list first, you can learn from comparing with my checklist below.
DIERDRE’S CHECKLIST: ”The Attractions of Fundamentalism”
- Certainty of being on the right path
- Ready-made answers to life’s questions
- Something to do that is purposeful
- A meaningful life
- Some place to go – church services and other activities
- Singing, laughter, and camaraderie
- Assurance of salvation and heaven
- Forgiveness for sins
- An invisible heavenly friend with whom you can communicate
- An invisible heavenly friend who happens to be the creator of the universe, so that you know that your friend is more powerful than anyone else
- A value system and clear understanding of right and wrong
- An avenue to give your self and your resources to
- A new identity as a child of God
- An instant accepting family
- The apparent end of loneliness
- Commonality of language and objectives
- Avenues to grow in Bible study
- Sometimes, strength through faith to conquer an addiction
- A community for raising one’s children away from worldly temptations
- Links with missionary activities around the world
- Superior knowledge from a prophetic interpretation that explains the world and the future
How did your list compare? If you come up with points not on this list, please shoot me an email on them, and I will give consideration to adding them to the list.
PEOPLE ARE DRAWN TO FUNDAMENTALISM FOR DIFFERENT REASONS:
I reflected on the immediate attractions of fundamentalism for my parents, my brother, and myself. Here is what I came up with:
Father – relief from the fear of purgatory; attracted to the assurance of salvation and the music; wanted a better atmosphere for his child than he remembered from the Roman Catholic Church and his parochial education; through faith found the strength to stop smoking
Mother – wanted structure, community, and purpose, felt she was from a “wishy washy” mainline church; liked the authority that being “right” afforded
Brother – pressured to believe as a child in the church, drifted away, as an adult wanted morality and a decent family life; wanted acceptance in a church community and to go to church as part of a family; feared death without faith. (My parents sang him the childhood hymn, “Jesus Loves Me,” as he lay dying.)
Me – as a young child had much psychological pressure from preachers; lack of imagination to see indoctrination for other than what it was; received much encouragement to serve God
Why would anyone want to leave such a happy scenario, such a jolly built-in set of friends and community? Such purpose for life? Such a ready-made life with answers for questions about meaning, purpose, and the future? Such joy?
Click on the “Why Leave” tab to continue.