Now that I’m leaving the German Bible Belt, I have come to terms with my own Christian fundamentalist heritage. Religious fundamentalism is on the rise in today’s world, it seems, and it is increasingly coupled with intolerance and violence. This is not to say that fundamentalism is necessarily and inherently militant, which can be seen in the origin of the term “fundamentalism”. Between 1910 and 1915, some conservative American Christians published a series of essays called “The Fundamentals: A Testimony To The Truth”. In it, they attempted to refute the conclusions of liberal theologians who stressed the necessity of a historical-critical understanding of the Bible. The fundamentalists came up with their “five fundamentals”, which included the belief in the inerrancy of Scripture, the literal word of God.
These conservative Christians weren’t militants. Their battlefield was theology, their weapons preaching and publishing, their constitution the Bible. However, this group has influenced numerous fundamentalist movements in the US and in Europe to this day. While this fundamentalism was predominantly Protestant, or evangelical, one can also point to Catholic, Jewish, and Islamic forms of fundamentalist thought and praxis. Of course, my personal experience is mostly limited to Christian fundamentalism, and yet I see parallels and similarities in certain areas that are becoming increasingly dangerous in the context of political conflicts. In this article, I am trying to refute three misunderstandings that have crossed my path in fundamentalist circles (of different religions). In refuting them, I am hoping to be able to give a clear-cut Christian response:
1) God’s word is not a book: Neither the Bible nor the Talmud, nor any other Holy Scripture can claim to be “the word of God”. How could they? These texts were written and compiled by people. Some books were canonised, others were not. Some manuscripts were integrated, others were not. Even if one verse claims to be the word of God, it cannot speak for the entirety of the book. Now I am not denying that there is divine wisdom in these texts, and I do believe that the Bible contains God’s word (which must be carefully interpreted in its historical context). But if someone argues that the entire book is God’s word, then he or she must explain God’s heart behind Psalm 137, verse 9:
“Happy are those who grab your babies and smash them against the rocks.”
Clearly, this is not God’s word. It is the hate-filled climax of the psalmist’s otherwise beautiful song. The danger of a literal understanding of religious texts is most obvious in the face of militant Islamist and Jihadist movements. They have hate-filled verses too. But what about the peaceful passages, the ones preaching tolerance and love? Are they God’s word? Maybe. But from a Christian perspective, it is not the text that must be considered the word of God, it is a person: Jesus Christ. He is the ultimate image of God, his perfect reflection. He is the fundamental doctrine of true theology.
2) God’s house is not a building: Having said that, it must be clear that it is not sound theology to build an entire doctrine around a single verse. With this method one can make the Bible or the Qur’an say almost anything, or nothing. It is true that the Hebrew Bible stresses the central role of the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem (the Second Temple was destroyed by the Romans in the year 70 CE). It was the place where God’s presence would reside among his people and where sacrifices were offered. But what about God’s house now that it is no longer there? I believe it is always wrong to attack or destroy a place of worship – whether it was the Temple back then or a church or a mosque today (or any other place). It is a crime. However, God doesn’t need an earthly house. If at all, it is people who need it. God cares much more about human lives than about a building. Some people, on the other hand, care much more about a building than about human lives. Which brings us to the Middle East.
3) God’s people is not (only) a nation: It is striking how many fundamentalist Christians explain their undivided and, after the Shoah, justified support of the State of Israel with a theological argument. According to their view, Israel is “the people of God”, and some hardliners even argue that the Bible rules out a two-state solution with an Israeli and a Palestinian state side by side. It is again a literal understanding of (primarily) Old Testament passages which speak about God’s people in a different context at a different time. But who cares about context? If God’s word says it, we must take it at face value. I wonder if it ever occurred to these fundamentalists that 20 percent of Israel’s citizens are Arabs (a fact that some Israel haters – right, left, Muslim – also tend to forget). How can a contemporary nation state be God’s people? And what about the Palestinian Christians in Bethlehem and Nazareth, or in Gaza, for that matter? And on the other hand, what about those Jews who live in the US, like the BDS supporting Judith Butler? Aren’t they part of God’s chosen people, the Jews, too? And then, what about Muslims with Israeli citizenship? And what about the Druze or the Baha’i? There is no fundamentalist answer to these questions. Because the truth is: God’s people is not (only) a nation state. God’s kingdom is not (just) a political entity. Peter, the Jewish disciple of Jesus, once put it this way:
“I now realize how true it is that God does not show favoritism but accepts from every nation the one who fears him and does what is right.” (Acts 10:34f.)