Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Mark's secret, sexy gospel

"Bairstow’s bulky frame, clad in rumpled linen pants and white cotton business shirt, appeared in the doorway. He reached over and took a mug from Sadie without looking up.
“Thanks, doll. I say, old boy, I rather like this bit about ‘spooky parallels’ between Christian right-wingers and Islamic fundamentalists.”
He was reading the first draft of an opinion piece Alex was toying with submitting to a European magazine. He quoted:
“‘ They both divvy up the world between the saved and the damned. Both have declared a holy war on secular culture and liberal democracy. They reject the separation of religion and state and seek to establish a new order based on their own interpretation of divine laws…’”
Alex sighed, and, catching a worried glance from Sadie, rolled his eyes. Aubrey’s limited social graces did not extend to a respect for privacy, and he had a frustrating habit of picking up and examining anything within reach.
“He was waiting at the door when I arrived,” Sadie mouthed silently with a theatrical shrug. Oblivious to their exchange, Bairstow plowed on.
“‘ But perhaps the spookiest parallels come in their views of the end of the world. A common scenario is a colossal confrontation in the desert in which the armies of God destroy the armies of Satan. Radical Muslims, of course, identify Israel and the United States as the forces of evil. Christian fundamentalists see Islam as the ultimate enemy…’ Hang on, that’s crap, that is.”
Bairstow paused and looked up. “A bit simplistic, to say the least.”"

The above excerpt is taken from an enjoyable novel I have just read, The Secret Gospel by Dan Eaton. It seems apt to quote that particular piece because last week some comments on this post suggested some parallels between Christian (if not Anglican) fundamentalism and Islamic fundamentalism. (Incidentally, the scenario envisaged in the excerpt, of a humanly provoked apocalyptic, eschatological conflagration, has had a recent focus in some op-eds I have been reading recently re Daesh's ultimate aims).

The great mistake when talking about 'fundamentalism' is to talk as though there is only plurality of fundamentalisms when we include all faiths. So, Christian fundamentalism is one phenomenon, Islamic fundamentalism another, Hindu fundamentalism yet a further manifestation. Of course there are similarities and there are differences, and, potentially, there are more similarities between Christian and Islamic fundamentalism - being fundamentalisms driven by 'the book' - than between, say, Islamic fundamentalism and Hindu fundamentalism. But right now, the differences more than the similarities are manifest: I can think of no public 'fundamentalist' Christian group advocating offensive violence through terror in order to advance the kingdom of God. I can imagine there are some groups currently operating secretively who may be stockpiling weapons (though I am inclined to think they would be doing that defensively, in some isolated hideout). But the world today is confronting public Islamic groups who are advocating and enacting terror. That is a point of difference.

On Christian fundamentalism, my point is that there are fundamentalisms within Christianity and I assume the same plurality exists within Islam, Hinduism, Judaism, etc. There are, for instance, fundamentalist Muslims who are no more likely to use a gun or a bomb in the furtherance of their religious aims than I am. Daesh is one form of Islamic fundamentalism, not the only form.

In the Christian world it is easy to use 'fundamentalism'/'fundamentalist' as a dismissive description, consigning fellow believers we have little time for to a bleak outhouse on the landscape of Christian diversity. But it is not exactly rocket science to recognise that there is a difference between (say) Westboro Baptists and various conservative Anglicans who get routinely described as 'fundamentalist.' Further, though a bit more thought is called for, there are differences among conservative Anglicans; and differences between conservative Anglicans and various conservative Christians.

Some Anglicans commenting here seem concerned about how 'extreme' certain conservative Anglicans are (possibly including moi!). But my general experience of conservative Anglicans versus other conservative Christians is that we are quite a kind-hearted, thoughtful group of caring Christians, more than liberal enough to remain part of the diverse Anglican church rather than leave it! Non-Anglican conservative Christians, in my experience, often look questioningly at conservative Anglicans: "How can you stay???"

So, perhaps some nuancing in the use of the word 'fundamentalist' could assist clearer communication?

Back to Dan Eaton's novel. The Secret Gospel of its title is a controversial version of Mark's Gospel, attested in a letter discovered at the back of a (non-ancient) book in the Mar Saba Monastery in 1958 by Morton Smith (one of the central characters in the mostly fictional novel Dan has written). The letter, if a copy of a genuine ancient letter, is by Clement of Alexandria, and refers to a version of Mark's Gospel much longer than the version we know well. The letter cites some passages from this longer form of the gospel, passages which portray Jesus in a different light to what we read in the canonical gospels, including sexual overtones which would be discomforting to many Christians if it were proved that the longer version of Mark was the original version (and thus that we have lived for most of the past two thousand years with a shorter, expurgated version). Much debate has occurred over this discovery, published to the world by Morton Smith in 1974, with some convinced that the Clementine letter is a forgery, possibly made by Morton Smith himself, but if not, then by some earlier forger (e.g. the person who wrote down the letter in the back of the book). Any which way, there is also scholarly debate over whether, even if there is a longer version of Mark lost in the sands of the Middle East, it preceded or succeeded canonical Mark.

You may or may not want to read Dan Eaton's book but if you are one of several kinds of Christian or Islamic fundamentalist, it might make your blood temperature rise.

My own interest in the novel is divided between my curiosity as a student of the New Testament and my happy memories of living with Dan and his family in Cairo many years ago, the city where much of the action of the novel is based.


Father Ron Smith said...

" I can think of no public 'fundamentalist' Christian group advocating offensive violence through terror in order to advance the kingdom of God" - Dr. Peter Carrell -

Perter, with all due respect; do you not consider the GAFCON Provinces' attitude towards the incarceration and punishment of homosexuals - and all who harbour them - even their own families - to be 'offensive violence'

One only has to read reports coming from places like Uganda, Kenya and Nigeria to realise that Gays are being hounded by the governments - aided and abetted by the Church.

Thne word 'fundamentalist', I agree, has many facets; the worst of which is that which persecutes others on the basis of taking offence at the perceived sectarian 'immoral actions' of others. This has been made obvious in the activities of Daesh, but is no unknown in fundamentalist 'christianity'.

Anonymous said...

The great mistake in talking about fundamentalism is talking about fundamentalism.

The word once had a clear meaning--

"Hallo, Maurice, I've meant to ask: are you a fundamentalist?"

"Well no, not quite. I do believe in original sin, the virgin birth, and the last judgment, but I'm afraid I prefer Christus Victor to penal substitutionary atonement."

"Ah well, you're right; that won't do. I was going to put up your name at The Fundamentalist Club, but you would have to subscribe to the Fundamentals to join. Otherwise it would be unclear just what a Fundamentalist is, and getting away from hazy, deceptive use of language in religion is the whole point... A shame, Maurice. Your fellow Princetonians will be disappointed. Perhaps they will have you at The Liberal Club?"

"Afraid not. After all, I do believe in original sin, and I don't believe in a Hegelian scheme of doctrinal development. Besides, you can always tell a Harvard man, but you cannot tell him much. The Liberals are so damnably doctrinaire."

"Oh dear. Well, we're always glad to see you around the clubhouse."

"Golf on Saturday?"

"No, God willing, we'll be riding to the hounds. My nephew is the master of hounds this year; my sister is so proud..."

-- whereas now *fundamentalist* is just an insult.

Bowman Walton

carl jacobs said...


The current usage of "Fundamentalist" is more than an insult, and it must transcend the boundaries between religions. There are after all Muslim Fundamentalists, and Christian Fundamentalists, and Jewish Fundamentalists, and Hindu Fundamentalists to name a few of the most prominent. The term has therefore moved far beyond a nomenclature for one who holds to the fundamentals of Christianity. It has instead become a generic description of a certain assumption about religion.

To the liberal world (religious or not) a "Fundamentalist" is one who asserts that there exists a knowable divine truth to which all men everywhere are accountable. It therefore removes the locus of authority from man to a revelation received by man. This directly contradicts a settled dogma of the (post) modern liberal world that truth is unknowable, and leads to the logical conclusion that "fundamentalism" is nothing but a power play based upon the presumed attribution of divine authority to certain works of men.

"Fundamentalism" is in other words a heresy against established liberal dogma. It is a denial of the cardinal epistemological presupposition of liberalism that "The one knowable Truth is that there are no other knowable Truths."

Just curious, btw, since you are posting here more frequently. Have you decided that Fulcrum is moribund? I have watched you carry the comments by yourself at Fulcrum for several years. Have you given up the ghost?

Peter Carrell said...

Hi Ron (@9.30am)
I see your point, since unjust imprisonment is a form of violence and there seems to have been some advocacy of that by some Anglican leaders in a few GAFCON countries. However, is that a fundamentalism as (for instance) we might experience in the West. The countries concerned have some significant issues going on re aggressive Islamic forces at work (through culture, but in Nigeria through the guns and bombs of Boko Haram). To what extent are the churches in the countries concerned caught up in a larger cultural, national (and perhaps tribal) spirit of conservative, traditional customs and ethics which are fuelling political debate and decision-making in a way which goes beyond a fundamentalism of the kind which says "The Bible says X, therefore our laws should also be X, so can we persuade our politicians to agree with us"?

I raise this question to understand, not to excuse.

Father Ron Smith said...

Peter, in reference to my first comments here, this is part of the latest report from the Pope's visit to African countries. Even the Roman Catholics have problems with official government proscriptions against gays:

"Marriage equality became legal in South Africa in 2006, and it remains the only African country where same-sex couples can legally marry. While in Africa, the Pope will visit Uganda, where the president Yoweri Museveni signed a law in February of this year that outlaws homosexual acts and requires citizens to report gay Ugandans to the police. In light of the difficulty faced by LGBTQ Africans, some of the African Catholic bishops, according to Pollitt, can “come across and dogmatic and exclusive,” so he hopes that the Pope will at least hint at a message of “openness and inclusivity.”

So, even African Catholics are hoping the Pope's visit may help Church leaders to see the injustice of violence against gays.

Anonymous said...

Even Catholics! Fr Ron; we are not the church known for promulgating compromise, flattering royals (as if they had a canonical relevance) and having endless lay chat. For that we can be criticised. But we don't approve of nasty laws that oppress God's beloved. Don't say even Catholics.

Anonymous said...

So good to hear from you, Carl. Thank you for your comment.

The trans-religious redefinition of *fundamentalism* was devised after the hostage crisis in Tehran to help our friends in *the company* understand how they had missed a religious revolution brewing under their noses. It thereafter became the term that scholars, journalists, and policymakers used for any group that sought power outside the official modern narrative. For those users of the word, this appropriation of the word enables one to sidestep the awkwardness of understanding others as they understand themselves. Now intelligence analysts must use historical analogies to see patterns in the data that anticipate future events, and the analogy from the Fundamentalist movement to Islamism can be heuristic. Moreover, if one means to kill people, it is operationally helpful to use distancing language for them. But since each of us is actually obliged to understand the hearts of others who are in Christ, it seems perverse to speak of our fellow Christians as Caesar might do.

Fulcrum moribund? Its circumstances are changing along with those of evangelicalism in the Church of England and the Anglican Communion. The religious blogosphere has changed in the past decade. There is an understandable desire to be, not just a blog, but a sponsor of events. The team presently leading it is still comparatively new. So some adaptation is to be expected. Nevertheless, Phil Almond and I nearly always have comments in the queue.

Peter's blog is attractive in its own right for several reasons-- Peter's own open evangelicalism; his attention to thought on the other side of the world; and the community of friends that he has attracted through the years.

I am pleased, Carl, to discover that you are among them.

Bowman Walton

Anonymous said...

I have a lovely Baptist friend who used to be quite happy to refer to himself as a fundamentalist in the old sense of the word, i.e. a believer in the doctrine described in the series of booklets known as 'The Fundamentals'. However, he said to me a few years ago "'Fundamentalist' has become the new establishment f-word".

Indeed it has, and I for one - who have been blessed with some wonderful Fundamentalist Christian friends - am long past the point of finding its use as a term of establishment abuse offensive. And, for the record, I'm not easy to offend!

Tim Chesterton

carl jacobs said...


I was in college during the Hostage Crisis. I don't remember the usage of "fundamentalist" emerging from that milieu, but I wouldn't have known back then what the word actually meant anyways. I was pretty clueless. I remember once listening to a man named Jed Smock preach in the center of campus and I could tell there was something off about him. It was only many years later I learned he was a Pelagian. I will generally identify myself as a "Fundamentalist" but only with the caveat that an actual "Fundamentalist" would (metaphorically) boil me in oil. Fundamentalism (according to its technical definition) is legalistic, isolationist, anti-intellectual in its response to modernity, and (most of all) uncompromisingly Arminian.

I asked about Fulcrum because its apparent fate seems a good metaphor for the collapse of conversation across the divide. I remember Fulcrum in 2007. There was vitality back then - a willingness to cross swords because the warriors still believed the fight mattered. It seems as if the contending parties have simply stopped caring about the argument. It's old. It's done. It's unresolvable. So each man goes his separate way. And places like Fulcrum are left trying to straddle the ever-widening crack in the surface of the Earth. The only possible outcome is a plunge into the abyss. Is this an accurate reading in your opinion?

I'm still here. But mostly I lurk anymore. Although I am watching this vote on the New Zealand Flag. Not that I have a dog in this fight, but my sympathies are all with the RSA.


Anonymous said...

Carl; the RSA isn't going to need much help. If you look at recent polls on the net, no-one is interested in our prime minister's vanity politics. An MP has openly spoiled her vote on Facebook and no one mentions the sorry topic. I'm a conservative, but the current PM is a light weight. I'm hoping the flag result will encourage him to find a new job.


Anonymous said...


I know well, and yet do not know at all, the divide in the village of Fulcrum circa 2007 to which you refer. Those threads were before my time, but I read them in 2012. My impression then was that the strongest voices in them had affinities with more than one of today's evangelical tribes. It was lively, as you say, but also as messy as any busy kitchen.

Ever-widening crack... Plunge into the abyss... It would be interesting to hear what Peter and his readers make of this. Obviously, years of wading through America's divided society, politics, and culture have made me alert to shared histories, commonalities, and parallels, and sceptical of polarising frames or identity politics. A happy warrior at either extreme could certainly see things differently. But using the usual reductive polarity with scare quotes of protest, I see "conservatives" rethinking quite a lot because (a) they have in most places lost a war over sex on which they had staked much of their influence, and (b) they are quietly harvesting the fruits of heirloom seeds replanted over the past generation. Meanwhile "progressives" continue to rethink what they must to remain evangelicals, much as the souls in David Hempton's Evangelical Disenchantment did, but with greater success. So those near the imagined poles are disengaged from grand debate, for the moment, because they are talking among themselves about different substantive things. Liveliness today would not look like that of 2007.

How then would it look? Naturally, I wish that the several conversations would exchange some observers, and it is high time that more of them engaged some voices farther from the runways at LHR, JFK, IAD, ORD, and LAX. The difficulty of doing that well is shown by Biola's two Future Of debates. The online consensus is that both flopped. The reason, I think, is that the format juxtaposed positions in a way that made them hard to compare. In contrast, the brisk sales of Five Views Of... books shows that where the format enables those comparisons, the result can be illuminating. (Who thought that Kevin Vanhoozer's defense of inerrancy would be more critical of common practise than Peter Enns's critique of it until the two of them exchanged chapters?) Some of us fondly recall Tom Wright's published debates with Dom Crossan and Marcus Borg. Sadly, I cannot recall ever seeing or reading a similarly friendly discussion of differences between someone interesting who was close to the heart of TEC and someone interesting who was close to the heart of GAFCON. Apart from the fact that dialogue is more interesting than monologue (or alas, soliloquy), multi-voice formats model the sort of generous hearty discussion of differences that you recall, and that Fulcrum has sought to model, often with striking success, from the very beginning.

Bowman Walton

Peter Carrell said...

Hi Bowman and Carl
I don't read much on Fulcrum these days, though not for any great reason other than shortage of time.
We need dialogue, wherever we find it. Christianity being pushed to the margins in multiple societies means we cannot luxuriate in division but should continue to find ways to talk across divides in order to bridge them (repair broken bridges from the past, restore ancient pathways across gulfs).
But dialogue (here and elsewhere) can be an exercise in talking past each other, e.g. because different starting points exist prior to the conversation).

Father Ron Smith said...

Further to your suggestion here, Peter, I see that there are U.K. commentators on the future of the Church of England (see 'Thinking Anglicans') who are of the opinion that that the Church must die in order to live. That sounds fairly Christ-like. One can only hope it will emerge even more Christ-like, in mercy and love. Advent is a good time to review our options.