Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Christian fundamentalism, mislabeling

Anders Behring Breivik

Anders Behring Breivik, whose official body count in Norway has been trimmed to 76, was labeled a “Christian fundamentalist” by some in the aftermath of his deranged attacks. No sign has emerged that he’s any such thing. But the branding is interesting, seems to be sticking and is in a way logical in a world increasingly uninformed or misinformed about Christianity.

It is a fairly good example of what happens when self-identifying “Christians” are perceived to be cutting loose from their underpinnings in theology and Christology and shifting toward ideology. And a good deal of that’s going around. So if Christians are misperceived and lumped in with the Breiviks of the world it’s largely our own fault.

The misperceived Breivik seems have some adherence to a skewed form of cultural Christianity that has been integrated into a white supremacist ideology. We’ve seen elements of that in Iowa recently in The Family Leader’s “Marriage Vow” that deifies a view of marriage, rather than a deity, and in the process demonizes LGBT people, celebrates “robust” reproduction (a coded call to produce more white babies) and includes another supremacist flourish --- that nutty clause involving “Sharia Islam.”

There’s no indication, however, that Breivik has any understanding of Christian theology, any interest in who Christ was or what he may or may not have been trying to accomplish or, as some of my Baptist friends might put it, any form of “personal relationship with Jesus Christ.” According to my definition of “Christian fundamentalist,” all three elements would have to be present in order for the label to be accurately applied.

Part of the labeling difficulty involves the elusive and shifting meanings associated with the various adjectives we now use to modify the noun “Christian.”

“Orthodox” is one. I understand Christian orthodoxy, for example, as whole-hearted affirmation of prevailing but varying traditional Christian doctrines involving Christ --- incarnation and atonement, the virgin birth, death and resurrection, justification in one manner or another, etc.

I’m not orthodox most days. But the orthodox are present within every Christian expression, from Roman Catholic to Quaker.

I understand Christian “fundamentalism” as orthodoxy to which has been added a sincere but selective commitment to Biblical literalism and reliance on some form of “born again” experience. While I may expect a Christian fundamentalist to believe God created the universe in six 24-hour days, then rested on the seventh, I don’t expect a fundamentalist to run around shooting people with whom they disagree or waving “God hates fags” signs while protesting at military funerals. I’m not a “fundamentalist” either.

“Evangelical” is perhaps the most confusing modifier of all. The word, tracked back to the Greek “euangelion,” means simply “good news,” although it now is a term most frequently applied to a big and vaguely defined chunk of Christianity that is both generally orthodox and to some degree fundamentalist.

However, all Christians no matter how they define themselves, generally are committed to sharing the good news from their perspective, so a Lutheran, a Roman Catholic, a Methodist or an Episcopalian actually is no more or less “evangelical” than a Baptist.

Maybe we need to start using more descriptive modifiers. I’d call myself a radically inclusive Christian but prefer radically inclusive Episcopalian because it’s more specific. Bible-believing or born-again Baptist, at the other end of the theological spectrum, works well, too.

I suppose it would be nice if all Christians could all just agree to be “Christian,” but that seems increasingly impossible.

Slipping from Christian faith and its related theology and Christology into Christianist ideology is the big hazard in a world that is increasingly secular --- if we expect Christianity to have any positive relevance whatsoever in the long run.

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