Reading the Bible Like a Fundamentalist: What Does That Mean?

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by Tim Widowfield

I had meant to say something about this subject over a month ago as it popped up in my Facebook feed, when Benjamin Corey over on Patheos asked, “Why Do Intelligent Atheists Still Read The Bible Like Fundamentalists?

I was a fundamentalist until my mid-teens, and even though that was quite a long time ago, I still remember what it was like to think and believe like one. Longtime Vridar readers may recall serious scholars like Maurice Casey bemoaning the supposed fundamentalist nature of mythicism. Once a fundie, always a fundie, eh wot? For the sophisticated polyglot like the late Dr. Casey, what could be worse than calling one’s enemy a closed-minded fundamentalist?

My early warning systems start honking whenever I see someone accuse another person of doing anything “like a fundamentalist,” since it often signals a sweeping dismissal. Not only that, but often, at the heart of it, the accusation seeks to terminate rather than continue the debate.

Corey is sort of right, up to a point. Christians have a long history of tolerance or at least ambivalence toward tattoos. Sure, there’s that verse in Leviticus (19:28) but this subject falls within the body of ritual law. Just as Christians have no problem with shaving their beards or eating dead pigs, they probably won’t have an issue with the cutting or marking of the skin. They might not like them personally, but they wouldn’t claim that tattoos will keep you out of paradise.

And that would hold true for fundamentalist Christians as well. They say they read the Bible literally and believe it to be the inerrant Word of God. But what does that mean in practice? Suppose, for example, as a child I had read Leviticus 19:28 and felt troubled about it, what do you think I would have done?

The first thing you should understand is that a fundamentalist sees the Bible as a unified document. I would not have asked, “What does Leviticus say?” Instead, I worried about: “What does The Bible say?” If I couldn’t make sense of it, I would have asked my minister, or some other wise adult in the church.

No doubt my pastor would have pointed out all the things the Jews did (and do) to set them apart from other nations of the world. But since they were under a different covenant, we don’t need to worry about it.

So Corey is correct when he writes:

Long story short: the vast majority of Christians for the past 2,000 years have felt little compulsion to follow most of the ritualistic and cultural practices of our religious ancestors.

But I, as a fundamentalist, reading the Bible as the inerrant Word of God, would almost certainly have come to the same conclusion. So, what is the point of accusing his atheist interlocutor of behaving like a fundie? Is he saying that fundies don’t actually understand what they read? Perhaps.

The second thing you should understand about fundamentalists is that they believe the Bible is the inspired Word of God, that the Holy Spirit worked through the various authors, and that all of it is good, true, and useful. In a sense, this verse from 2 Timothy is the gateway for understanding the fundamentalist outlook:

16 All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness:

17 That the man of God may be perfect, thoroughly furnished unto all good works. (2 Tim 3:16-17, KJV)

Because it is inspired, fundamentalists think of it as a living thing. It’s the living word. It’s how God talks to us.

When I was a kid, we had this plastic card holder on the kitchen table in the shape of a loaf of bread, imprinted with the words “The Bread of Life.” Each little card inside contained a verse of scripture. Before a meal (or was it after?), each of us would pull a card and read it. It was a way for God to speak to us. Way better than a fortune cookie.

It reminds me of that episode of the Twilight Zone, “Nick of Time,” where William Shatner and Patricia Breslin get stuck in a small town. They are at the mercy of the Mystic Seer.

Shatner begs to leave Ohio

Later on in life, I came to refer to this behavior as the “I Ching Method” of reading the Bible. This was no rare case. Lots of people all over the world will look away, riffle through the pages, stop at a random point, and think: “This is what God wants to say to me. This!”

What we’re dealing with here is a sort of bibliomancy, the practice of using a book to divine the future or to ward away evil spirits. When I first read Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle, I became mildly obsessed with the I Ching. I threw the stalks. I read the related passages. I opened my mind.

But Dick was right: It lies! Or perhaps more accurately, it encourages you to lie to yourself. At other times, it may force you to doubt yourself, and that can be a dangerous thing.

Any troubling verse a fundamentalist might come upon while reading scripture is a potential breaking point. I studied the Bible carefully as a boy, and I could sense this palpable danger. The only thing that held the rickety structure together was that cardinal rule, the belief that the Bible is God-breathed, trustworthy, literally true, inerrant, and that it speaks to believers.

And what does it say?

Here’s the third thing you should know about fundamentalists and fundamentalism: All scripture requires interpretation. No Christian can truly read the Bible literally, because there’s no such thing as a literal, uninterpreted reading. Our Catholic friends will read the previous sentence and say, “Well, of course. Christianity is embodied in the Church itself, the priesthood, the body of believers, the writings of the patristic fathers, bishops, popes, etc. Experts in the Church interpret the Bible. If you had to go to court, would you ask a layman to interpret the law and defend you? That’s crazy!”

But for us, it was different. Protestant fundamentalists may contest any point of faith or question any interpretation of scripture. Under sola scriptura, every man (and woman) is his own priest. Hell, he’s his own Pope. If you can’t find a church that believes exactly as you do, start your own!

If the Bible is inspired, then it can inspire any reader. Once the spirit enters you, who’s to say some egghead with a degree in religion understands the Bible better? God speaks through whomever he chooses. “Listen. Somebody is getting a direct message from heaven, and it concerns a new interpretation . . .”

And that brings us to my last point about fundamentalism. It is infinitely malleable. It can justify or condemn nearly any behavior. Their reputation for rigidity is largely a sham. Forget about tattoos. Let’s consider instead two major items of religious law — the observance of the Sabbath and Jesus’ prohibition on divorce. I lived through the total rethinking of both questions, and I was a Christian for less than 16 years.

I can remember sermons about both — the loud, white-knuckle, fire-and-brimstone kind. Yet by the early ’70s, my dad took us out to eat on Sunday, causing others to work. I knew of fellow Nazarenes who worked on Sunday. We somehow came to terms with breaking one of the Ten Commandments. We were fine with installing the Decalogue on public property, but we didn’t see a need to pay attention to a commandment which caused personal inconvenience.

The loosening up on the rule against divorce and remarriage is more difficult to explain than the amnesia about blue laws. The prohibitions are right there in black and white (or, in our Bibles, red and white). Jesus said it. No divorce. And no marrying somebody else, because if you do, you’re committing adultery over and over again.

And yet we jettisoned it. There went another commandment. We decided not to pay attention to the literal words uttered by Jesus or the literal words written by God’s finger.

When we use the term “Cafeteria Christianity,” it makes liberal Christians wince, because it’s what fundies often accuse them of. “They only take the parts they like” is the accusation. But the truth is that all Christians do it. A religion that cannot adapt to external forces will wither and die. They bend when they feel they must bend. If certain political factions didn’t find Creationism so damned useful, even the most radical fundies would eventually dump that embarrassing albatross, too.

Christians of all stripes believe that their interpretations of the scriptures are true. Where they may differ is in which parts they consider literal and which, metaphorical.

Finally, given my experience with both liberal and conservative Christians and how they view the Bible, I must insist atheists cannot read the Bible like fundamentalists. First, we don’t think any of it is true, except perhaps in the most metaphorical way. The Bible is no more reliable or true than any other ancient religious text, which is to say only inadvertently reliable and randomly true.

Next, we don’t think the Bible, written over several centuries by many authors in different locations, speaks univocally, let alone coherently. So we don’t really care if a Christian takes one verse literally and another verse right next to it figuratively.

If an atheist makes fun of a Christian because he or she has tats, it’s because that atheist doesn’t know the history of the religion or the Bible. It has nothing to do with reading the Bible as a fundie, as we demonstrated above.

The problem is one of literacy, not literalism.

Nor do we, as nonbelievers, have any vested interest in choosing a single interpretation of scripture as valid. In fact, as amateur historians, we should be aware of all interpretations and maintain our disinterest. We have no reason to try to harmonize the gospels, or even to guess “which” things are true or authentic.

Consequently, an atheist would have a hard time accusing a Christian of hypocrisy based on some esoteric point of the law. I will poke fun at Christians for believing in a Bible that contains instructions for selling their children into slavery, but that’s because I’m trying to point out the dangers of using an ancient text as a modern instruction book for living.

So, why do they do it? Why do they accuse atheists of acting like fundamentalists? Mostly because that’s their go-to insult. They see themselves as mature, cultivated, educated Christians. They’re not like those people who handle snakes or wail in some pretend angelic language. Don’t you get it? They’ve thought this stuff through!

And so, when the going gets tough, the tough invoke the names of their favorite enemies, the ones who keep saying they aren’t real Christians because they reject a six-day creation and think it’s OK for gays to marry.

I try not to take it personally, because it’s a mixture of “swearing phonetically” combined with the invocation of the language of an internal turf war that makes no sense outside its original context. Still, in the end, if you decide to confront them don’t expect to get anywhere. This is a touchy subject, and they won’t be inclined to budge.

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Tim Widowfield

Tim is a retired vagabond who lives with his wife and multiple cats in a 20-year-old motor home. To read more about Tim, see our About page.

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8 thoughts on “Reading the Bible Like a Fundamentalist: What Does That Mean?”

  1. Do I sense that you know you are whistling in the wind, Tim? But someone has to say it; and it is good and necessary that it is down on record. And you do express it eloquently.

  2. We did take seriously the tattoo laws, and the sabbath, even to the point of losing our jobs, and for far too long even the letter of the divorce laws, and not mixing seeds, etc. But then some of us who read the fine print more attentively did wonder why we didn’t keep those laws forbidding the shaving of the “corners of one’s beard” and having tassells on the fringes of our clothes. There’s always something!

    1. We used to get “The Plain Truth” delivered to our house, and it caused me to ask why Christians switched to Sunday. Because Protestant fundies are completely ignorant of the Patristic writings or the early Catholic Church, everything from the last chapter of Acts until today is a bit of a fog.

  3. The whole reason for holy texts are not really what they say but to allow people to use it as a source of authority for themselves.

    Here’s one even most atheists never really notice:

    “Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image.” Crosses are graven and they’re an image. Therefore, those crosses everyone kneels in front of in church are idols.

    “Oh, wait! But Jesus is God. So that doesn’t count.”

    “Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image… or any likeness in heaven above, or in the earth beneath, or in the water under the earth.” It’s covered.

    “Well, historically, Christians have believed…”

    A letter attributed to the late fourth century bishop Epiphanius says that he ripped down a curtain in a Palestinian church for having an image of either Jesus or a saint – something that would today be sacrilegious – and then warned John II of Jerusalem that the church using this iconography were against their religion. Yet the typical modern, so-called “Literalist” Christian would probably consider the shepherd, fisherman and “True Son” Dumuzi being hung on a tree to rise again to save the believer to be an “idol” because it’s “pagan” or “polytheistic” and then look at the graven image of the Good Shepherd, “Fisher of Men” and true “Son of God” being “hung on a tree” (Gal. 3:13) to rise again to save the believer and say that is “Judeo-Christian” or “monotheistic” because Jesus, unlike Dumuzi, is the Second Person of the Trinity. Some modern Christians try to say that the Trinity are just other forms but they’re the same “person” but actually that is the “modalist” heresy. Orthodox Christianity believes their monotheism is Three “Persons”, not three forms of the same person. It is no wonder that “idolism” has been redefined in modern times to mean abstract greed or hero-worship.

    1. There are those who argue that the “molten image” prohibition has to do with the golden calf idols set up in Israel after the split from Judah. The legend grew, then, that Aaron had formed the original calf by gathering up all the gold in the camp, melting it, and then throwing the blob into the sand. Magically, the amorphous lump resembled a calf.

      At first, then, the commandment was very specific — they didn’t care about carved or constructed objects, just molten and cast metal images of living creatures. Eventually, though, all objects were prohibited, including the items related to other cults that amazingly enough were still sitting in the Temple when Josiah became king.

      Of course, it’s all possible that this rich history was imagined and embellished, much like the canals on Mars.

  4. I left the church in 1998. Up until that point, fundamentalist study of the bible only focused on things which fundamentalists wanted to focus on. There was basically no atheist voice at that time compelling anyone to either focus on or avoid any specific problematic topic. I can’t recall ever having any discussion with anyone about tattoos even up until now.

    From the time I left, the issue was always psychological. It’s the fundamentalists who always wanted to argue technical, even scientific points with me. And the ironic thing is those same people today don’t care because the issues they care about were ultimately political, not religious, so they no longer feel any need to defend their faith at all, just their politics.

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