The Bible:an ex-fundamentalist's perspective
By May E. Dooley
Let's turn to the issue of the Bible. To fundamentalists the Bible
is the inerrant (without error), inspired (every word written under
the influence of God) word of God. They have heard countless sermons
delivered from it on every aspect of life. It has been presented as
absolute truth. Some fundamentalists go so far as to not read other
religious books, even by fundamentalists, because they feel there
is nothing that can be added to the Bible. All truth is in the Bible.
When I was with Intervarsity Christian Fellowship, our leadership
training revolved around their brand of Bible study: read the passage,
ask questions about it such as "who, what, how, when" in order to
make sure everyone got the details right. IVCF Bible studies were
viewed as superior to some of the others because of their goal of
accuracy and thoroughness. And then, after the study, go home. I protested
during staff orientation. "Is that all? How does one relate what one
reads to one's life?" My supervisor responded later that to know the
Bible is to know Christ. Somehow the more Scripture one got into one's
mind, the more one would think, and consequently live, as a walking
Bible. I wouldn't have known the word "clone" in those days, but looking
back, it comes to mind.
My approach wasn't much better. I would have introduced thinking a
tad more. "Read the Bible, see how it applies, consider how you are
falling short, practice making the adjustments, share your efforts
with the group, and see your life change." The Bible was still central;
a person was still being measured by that yardstick and encouraged
to change or be changed in line with it.
The Bible is a friend while you are in fundamentalism. It comforts
you, tells you that you are right and the rest of the world is wrong,
gives you an answer to every question that arises, assures you that
you are beloved by God and that God will lead you every step of the
When you begin to leave fundamentalism, the Bible becomes as fearful
as it was previously comforting. You don't know how to deal with it.
You don't have the knowledge or the skill to learn of other points
of view regarding it. There are still, to this date, no books out
here for the layperson which put the fundamentalist interpretation
into perspective and show the weaknesses and fallacies and give a
liberating way of viewing the Bible. (Is any theologian listening
who can put pen to paper in a clear, non-scholarly style? We need
First things first. You are afraid of the Bible, but there is nothing
you can do about it at present. You can either live with that fear
and even feed it, coming back to read the Bible and flirt with it.
Or you can put the Bible on that closet shelf with God for the time
being and get on with your life and your quest. Put the Bible into
the box marked "unresolved issues." You will deal with it some time
in the future when you are able, and you will also accept that some
issues may be unresolved all your life, and that is OK, too.
Don't let the fundamentalists threaten you with the Bible and try
and pull you back among them. Have the courage to make your stand,
if necessary. We ex-fundamentalists are used to being hit over the
head, figuratively speaking, with the Bible. We used to do it to others
ourselves. I can remember being six or seven years old and telling
my little Catholic playmate that she didn't love God and was going
to hell. Well, now the shoe is on the other foot, and our fundamentalist
friends, out of concern for the wellbeing of our souls of course,
may attack us in the same way we did to others in the past. One ex-fundamentalist
told me that she was called a "demolition expert" by a non-fundamentalist
male friend she was trying to convert.
Remember the tactics. Put your foot down and do not allow yourself
to be a victim. You cannot deal with the Bible issue at first; don't
allow yourself to be beaten to a pulp. Let's begin to loosen the stranglehold
of the fundamentalist interpretation of the Bible as straitjacket
by considering a few different approaches.
Look at the religion you have come out of in light of what it claims
for itself. Fundamentalism presents the notion of the "abundant life."
Is this boring group of people evidence of the abundant life? Their
interests and conversations, aside from religion, are almost nil.
Instead of dealing with life's complexities and ambiguities, they
reduce life to black and white terms. Instead of relating compassionately
to persons whose lives are not quite as neat as theirs, they judge
them moralistically. They have been apolitical until fairly recently
and are only jumping on the political bandwagon in droves because
they see a chance of turning this country around "morally." Where
are they when minorities are being oppressed? Where are they when
it comes to getting involved as citizens? It is only now, when power
seems within reach, that the bullying nature of fundamentalism becomes
evident. They become blind to the pluralistic nature of our society;
our Constitution can be twisted to support a theocracy. The fundamentalists
cry that they know God's laws, and they will give us laws to keep
the rest of us in line with their view of God's laws. This is the
route of the Ayatollah, who represents the fundamentalist mind-set
in Islam. The fundamentalist mind-set, whatever the religion, is noted
for its willingness to impose on others what it knows is for the other's
Next, where is the call for justice that the Bible so emphasizes?
It is almost non-existent in the fundamentalist churches. I can remember
years back the fundamentalist responses to some news in the Middle
East. The news was sad, enough to make an emotionally free person
feel compassion. The fundamentalists rejoiced over the news, relating
to it strictly in terms of fulfillment of prophecy. They believe that
certain events will occur in the Middle East prior to the second coming
of Christ, and these events and their sequence are of far more interest
to them than are issues of justice and compassion. One never (in my
experience, anyway) heard the Middle East spoken of in terms of justice
for Jewish folk or for Arabs. It was rather the preoccupation with
prophecy and of the coming of God's kingdom on earth. The fundamentalists,
being a maligned minority, have a boundless sense of superiority over
this, for they believe that one day they will be the top dogs, and
the evil people who turned down their message will be killed in a
thousand horrible ways and burn in the lake of fire eternally. I have
been away from this type of thinking for so long that it overwhelms
my spirit right now. What a ghastly, inhuman worldview to be teaching
young children. Letters arrive every day from persons caught in this
crossfire with fundamentalists. One divorced father wrote that his
fundamentalist ex-wife and her church were teaching his young children
that their father was going to hell. When the youngsters visited him
on weekends, they clearly conveyed this to him in their efforts to
get him to change. No normal, human father-child relationship can
develop in this atmosphere. What a loss to that father, what a loss
for those youngsters. What grief.
Let's take a look at another option for dealing with the Bible, aside
from the "it's not working" option of above. Let's apply some commonsense
reasoning to one fundamentalist interpretation of the Bible. If we
can look at this particular interpretation from a new direction, we
can again apply that process to other interpretations.
Let's deal with the position of women in the Bible. The fundamentalist
teaching on women is pretty clear. They would say that women are separate
but equal, that women have a God-given role to play that is of prime
importance. Women provide the heart of the home and are the primary
caregivers of the children. Women lead their men to the Lord, and
their prayers are a spiritual protection for the household.
There are some things these separate-but-equal females cannot do.
They cannot be ordained as ministers and they cannot be viewed as
administrative equals in the home, for fundamentalists believe that
God has made men the household leaders. They cannot be feminists,
for that would be going against God's order. Now, to put it another
way, simply: In the home and in the church, there is a male hierarchy
in fundamentalism. The inner circles, the circles of power, are male.
The ministers run the church and missionary structure; the husbands
hold sway over the homes. A woman's position is to marry and be help
meet for her husband in God's work. She is to have a family and see
to her children. Her own development, release of creative energies,
etc., are seldom referred to. She is a caregiver, a helper, a supporter.
She is to serve. Since this is God's plan, woman the server is equal.
She should be content with her role.
I propose that this picture is not anti-Christian. First of all, the
Bible is very clear on the centrality of relationships: God with human,
and human with human. Secondly, the Bible speaks of the new family
in Christ, a family where there are no divisions based on difference.
"Jew, Greek, male, female, all are one in Christ." Putting this together
with my common sense, I deduce that friendship must be based on equality.
One partner cannot be developing himself while his mate spends all
her time giving of herself. Psychological and emotional health are
needed in a vital friendship; no wimps need apply. The story of Jacob
wrestling with the angel in the Old Testament has much to say on this
topic. Jacob was applauded and called a friend of God by the Eternal
One, because he stood up to the angel as a man.
The message to me is that God likes people who think and take responsibility
for themselves, not milquetoasts who cry for pablum. A fundamentalist
father asked his daughter why she didn't like the men at the Christian
college she attended. Her swift response was that they lacked red
blood. He didn't comment. My feeling is that fundamentalism is castrating
to male and female alike. It puts both in roles that it says are God-ordained.
Neither is free to be a person, to explore and to have adventures
and to learn to love life. Fundamentalism sucks the personhood of
people; then it teaches them to live out their roles peacefully and
make no waves.
When I was exiting fundamentalism, I was guided to a series of six
novels by an English Christian fantasy romance writer, Charles Williams.
He described the followers of a healer as "beatles." They so lusted
for healing that they willingly gave up their personalities in exchange;
all were transformed into insect-like creatures. I have thought of
that analogy from time to time in relation to fundamentalism.
Now we are ready to link up this discussion of female-male persons
with the fundamentalist interpretation of the Bible. I believe the
fundamentalists are denying the heart of the Christian message, i.e.,
the possibility of an I-Thou relationship between equals -- person
with God, person to person. Anything less precludes friendship. If
this is so, then what are the fundamentalists dealing with when they
quote certain verses and passages relating to male-female relationships?
They are simply quoting passages which were written by men who reflect
the cultural mores of the times. Women were to be seen and not heard;
they were not to cut their hair, for hair is the glory of women; they
were to be subservient to their husbands, for the culture was male
What does this mean? Are we speaking heresy? Are we saying that the
Bible might actually have some errors in it? Are we saying that the
Bible contains the Word of God, not is the Word of God? We ex-fundamentalists
have been well warned about those modernists, those bad theologians
who lead people down the garden path away from the inspired and inerrant
word of God. We have been warned about devils in men's clothing who
say that the Bible contains the Word of God, not is the Word of God.
The fundamentalists fear that by permitting a human to judge the Bible,
that human will toss out everything that he doesn't like. The Bible
will end up so watered down that there is nothing left. This reflects
again a very poor view of human beings, consonant with the fundamentalists'
view of human nature.
Well, to me it makes sense that a lot of things relating to women
in the Bible relate more to the understanding of the authors and their
times rather than to Divine inspiration. If people who believed in
the equality and dignity of each sex wrote the Bible, I believe we
would see different thoughts expressed and not see so much chauvinism.
My common sense tells me that the authoritative power of the Bible
as interpreted by the fundamentalists is broken for me. I have caught
them in a mistake. And if there's one mistake, the door is open to
more. My process of thinking has discarded a central tenet of fundamentalism
regarding women. What I know deep within myself to be the case, i.e.
the equality of both sexes, I can see also within the central tenets
of Christianity. I can see it in verses that the fundamentalists don't
apply regarding women. What freedom this gives me from them! It restores
my trust that God is, after all, fair, that the Eternal One doesn't
set illogical rules in concrete and then expect us to carry them out.
This applies whether those illogical rules relate to women or to the
Middle East. We ex-fundamentalists don't ever again have to be hit
over the head by the black book.
What do the fundamentalists say to this "knowing deep within one's
self" how something should be? They say it's setting one's self up
above the Bible, that it's sin, that one has been misled. What do
I say? That the Bible contains God's Word, but that I do, too. I am
made in the image of God, I have healthy impulses and impulses toward
truth. I am, in myself, a source of the ongoing revelation of God,
a revelation that continues to unfold throughout all time, not a revelation
which was ended almost two millennia ago with the compilation of the
Biblical canon. I am free at last. And in trust, I can take the positives
of the Scripture and build on them and not get overly upset about
what I don't relate to.
Let's take one more look at a possible chink in the fundamentalists'
armor. They teach that the unsaved are the damned, the lost for all
eternity. Yet I read in the Bible that where love is, there God is.
They don't dwell much on the possibility of the unsaved being able
to love; they feel that they have a corner on the market of love.
After all, they have Christ within them, and He is the source of love.
Let's examine that. Once a person is on the outside of fundamentalism
and open to what he had previously believed were "worldly people,"
he realizes not only is there plenty of goodwill in those people,
generally speaking, but in many cases, more so than a lot of the church
people he knew back home. How is this to be explained? Let's go back
to our definition of what a person is: a being created in the image
of God. If those "worldly people" are also made in God's image, doesn't
it stand to reason that the traits also reflect the traits of the
Divine? If God is love, why shouldn't they hunger for love, too? Why
shouldn't love be the language of their lives? There is of course
much unhappiness and unhealthiness in life; many people have lots
of room for improvement, and many people have not taken responsibility
for their lives and are not living up to their full potential. This
notwithstanding, we on the outside also find a great deal of love,
acceptance, goodwill, and heart-to-heart concern with what it means
to be human. The fundamentalists never prepared us for this surprise,
and it seems at first a forbidden pleasure to experience the love
and acceptance of the "unredeemed."
Let's go below the surface and take a look at our hidden fears relating
to another fundamentalist interpretation of the Bible. That interpretation
is the one about the unsaved being damned and the only salvation being
available as a free gift through Christ. There are certain stock questions
for children growing up in fundamentalism that are viewed as brain
teasers and are offered to the elders in churches and at fundamentalist
camps. Among these questions is the stock one relating to telling
the truth and not lying. It goes like this: "If you were hiding Jews
in your house in Nazi Germany, and the Nazis came to the door and
asked if you had any Jews there, what would you say?" The central
issue was telling a lie, because that was forbidden in the Bible.
But you knew also that the lives of people were at stake. Even with
the fundamentalists there may have been a little room for a white
lie at this juncture. The question is interesting for illustrating
the dichotomy between the importance of one's own soul versus the
love of another. If one is absolutely forced into thinking about the
love of another before one's own soul, then maybe we'll give a little
room for thinking about that other. If it's not a life and death matter,
however, one's own soul and one's own moral obedience come first.
We cannot just accept our common-law neighbors and realize that their
marital status is not our business; we have to let them know we disapprove
of the way they are living.
The other brainteaser I want to discuss is the perennial question
about the native in darkest Africa who loves God but who never heard
about Jesus because there wasn't a missionary to his tribe yet. Is
this man saved or lost? First, the fundamentalists will qualify the
existence of this man. His type is exceedingly rare; the vast majority
of the natives are lost in sin. This man is that rare creature, much
applauded by fundamentalists, who says, when the missionary finally
comes, that he loves the missionary's God and that he just didn't
know the name of the God.
What of this man? This is an important issue for fundamentalists because
they are taught that only through Christ can a person be saved. There
is no easy answer; it is one of the relatively few issues that fundamentalist
church people can apply their thinking mechanisms on and work up a
little juice. In their own daily lives, they don't use the "godly
savage" approach towards looking for God in their neighbors. No, they
consider all the neighbors as sinners and in need of salvation. The
level of trust human to human is nonexistent.
I did hear an interesting response to this brainteaser from a fundamentalist
philosophy professor at my college. He believed that the cross was
necessary for salvation for everyone, but for the person who hadn't
heard about Christ and the cross, God could look at that person through
the cross (like looking through a filter) and accept that person.
That is, the person would be "saved" without knowing it but would
certainly recognize the Christian God were a missionary to arrive.
Actually, there are some fundamentalists who would even give a little
leeway here. Maybe the fundamentalist carrying the message is doing
an inadequate job. Even if the godly savage couldn't see past the
missionary's inadequacies and recognize that this message is the one
for which he was searching, he would still be saved because God would
view him through the cross. You can see how complex this gets.
The point to be made here is this. By taking on the concept of God
looking through the filter of the cross, the emerging ex-fundamentalist
can be freed of the psychological burden of trying to deal with the
saved versus the lost. The wall of separation between her and her
neighbors is dissolved. Instead of distrusting them, instead of subconsciously
fearing that they are sinners and that there is nothing good to be
found in them, instead of fearing that they might be eternally lost
if she doesn't tell them about salvation, she can place the whole
saved/lost argument up on that shelf in the "unresolved issues" box,
and then she can get on with her life. If she believes that all are
created in the image of God, she is free to believe that she is dealing
with the godly savage in her environment and to think positively and
look for and expect the best in her friends and neighbors, rather
than being tied up like a slave to the conscious and subconscious
fears and projections of her fundamentalist background. The salvation
of her friends and neighbors, so to speak, is in God's hands. Her
job is to love. To love herself and to love her neighbor and not to
stint on either one.
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