#18 One Doesn’t Have to be a Fundamentalist to be a Good Christian

ANNE RICE IS AN interesting person. She achieved fame (at least in some circles) as the writer of vampire novels.[1] Then after many years as an atheist, estranged for some thirty years from the Roman Catholic Church in which she grew up, Rice (b. 1941) returned to the Church in 1998 and in 2004 announced in a Newsweek article that from then on she would “write only for the Lord.” Her next book was Christ the Lord: Out of Egypt, and that was followed by Christ the Lord: The Road to Cana.[2]

As one who has read Rice’s stimulating books about the life of Jesus, finding them to be insightful and reverent, I was somewhat dismayed in July 2010 to learn that she had (on Facebook of all places!) publically renounced Christianity. She makes it clear that she has not renounced her faith in Jesus Christ, just her identification with the Christian religion.

Here is what she posted on Facebook on July 28, 2010:

For those who care, and I understand if you don’t: Today I quit being a Christian. I’m out. I remain committed to Christ as always but not to being “Christian” or to being part of Christianity. It’s simply impossible for me to “belong” to this quarrelsome, hostile, disputatious, and deservedly infamous group. For ten years, I’ve tried. I’ve failed. I’m an outsider. My conscience will allow nothing else.

Five minutes later, she wrote this on her Facebook wall (as it was called then):

As I said below, I quit being a Christian. I’m out. In the name of Christ, I refuse to be anti-gay. I refuse to be anti-feminist. I refuse to be anti-artificial birth control. I refuse to be anti-Democrat. I refuse to be anti-secular humanism. I refuse to be anti-science. I refuse to be anti-life. In the name of Christ, I quit Christianity and being Christian. Amen.

And then the next day Rice wrote,

My faith in Christ is central to my life. My conversion from a pessimistic atheist lost in a world I didn’t understand, to an optimistic believer in a universe created and sustained by a loving God is crucial to me. But following Christ does not mean following His followers. Christ is infinitely more important than Christianity and always will be, no matter what Christianity is, has been, or might become.

The above quotes are given in their entirety to indicate how one public person has embraced Christ and Christianity and then rejected the latter because of her faith in Christ. But it seems mainly to be the fundamentalist form of the Christian faith, and the traditional form of Catholicism, that she has rejected. That is why I wrote on my Facebook page that I wish Rice had read my book Fed Up with Fundamentalism, for I firmly believe that it is possible for a Christian to be for most of the things Rice is for, or at least not against all of the things that Rice thinks Christianity is against. It is not necessary for one to be a fundamentalist, or a traditional Roman Catholic, in order to be a Christian, and a good one at that. And, certainly, not all Christians are “quarrelsome, hostile, disputatious,” although, unfortunately, some (or many) are.

 Fundamentalists Then and Now

Between 1910 and 1915, sixty-four conservative Christian authors wrote ninety essays that were published in twelve small paperback books under the general title The Fundamentals: A Testimony to the Truth. Financed by two wealthy Christian laymen, all or some of those booklets were sent free of charge to some 300,000 ministers, missionaries, and other Christian workers in the United States and in different parts of the world.

In 1920, Curtis Lee Laws, the editor of The Watchman-Examiner, a Baptist publication, coined the word Fundamentalists. The publication of The Fundamentals, the conference on “The Fundamentals of Our Baptist Faith” about which Laws wrote, and the subsequent use of the term Fundamentalists were all part of what I call “a sincere movement to preserve or to restore the true faith.”[3]

Through the years, though, the fundamentalist movement changed from being primarily an irenic theological movement that dealt with core Christian doctrines to becoming a militant movement led mostly by fiery preachers, such as J. Frank Norris, Bob Jones, and John R. Rice in the early decades of the movement and by Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell, and James Dobson and the like in recent decades. It is preachers like those—and there are certainly many others—that Anne Rice could be referring to when she writes about “quarrelsome, hostile, disputatious, and deservedly infamous” Christians.

Another major shift in Christian fundamentalism is seen in the change from the emphasis on doctrines to an emphasis on ethical issues. Thus, in recent years Christian fundamentalists, often called the Religious Right in the U.S., have been primarily known for what they adamantly oppose: abortion, and homosexual practices, women in ministry, among several other issues. It is because of their strong opposition to such practices that Rice could write about refusing to be anti-gay or anti-feminist.

Fundamentalism is primarily a Protestant movement, but there are many similarities with traditional Roman Catholicism, which throughout Anne Rice’s lifetime has also been staunchly against abortion, homosexual practices, and women clergy. In addition, the Roman Catholic Church has consistently opposed contraception, so it was because of being a Roman Catholic that Rice could also write about leaving Christianity because of refusing to be anti-artificial birth control.

Of course, there are some common characteristics seen in the fundamentalists in the 1920s as well as in the 2010s, the main one being the insistence on biblical inerrancy and the literal interpretation of the Bible. It is also because of that emphasis that Anne Rice rejects Christianity; she refuses to be anti-science. It has been a literal reading of what is believed to be an inerrant Bible that has caused many Christians from the eighteenth century to the present day to reject evolution and to profess belief in the creation of the earth some six thousand years ago—in spite of the preponderance of scientific evidence to the contrary.

Even though there are some similarities between fundamentalism “then” and now, it is particularly present-day fundamentalism, as well as some traditional Roman Catholic ideas, that makes Christianity a problem for many contemporary people, both in and out of the church.

 Rejecting the Religious Right

Anne Rice said she also rejected Christianity because she refuses to be “anti-Democratic.” That statement was likely prompted by the fact that during the decade she was back in the Catholic Church the Religious Right, made up primarily of fundamentalist Christians, was almost completely aligned with the Republican Party in the United States.

After retiring as missionaries to Japan for thirty-eight years, June and I lived in south Missouri our first year back in the States, beginning in August 2004. As you remember, there was an important presidential election that fall, and in that connection we visited the Democratic headquarters in the town where we lived that year. The volunteer on duty that day expressed some surprise when she learned that we had been Christian missionaries, for she said that there was a widespread perception in that area that one could not be a Christian and a Democrat. There had been several who had expressed that opinion to her.

There are those, of course, who have been actively engaged in combating that kind of mistaken or misguided thinking. Jim Wallis, the founding editor of Sojourners magazine and leader of the Sojourners Christian community in Washington, D.C. is one such person. One of his bestselling books is God’s Politics: Why the Right Gets It Wrong and the Left Doesn’t Get It.[4]

In the Introduction of his book, Wallis writes, “Of course, God is not partisan; God is not a Republican or a Democrat. When either party tries to politicize God, or co-opt religious communities for their political agendas, they make a terrible mistake.” For what they consider legitimate reasons, though, those who are Republicans think that being so is consistent with their deepest understanding of the Christian faith. (And although it may not be so common, the same for at least some Democrats.)

It is the sense of certainty, or maybe I should say arrogance, that I see as one of the most distressing aspects of fundamentalism. So many fundamentalists seem to think that on every major issue there is one and only one Christian position and that they know exactly what that position is. That sense of certainty keeps them from being willing, or even able, to dialogue with those who have an opposing viewpoint. Quite often, those who hold opposing viewpoints are considered not only wrong but even non-Christian.

There are some people who are fundamentalist-like on the opposite side of the theological or social-issues spectrum, of course. Thus in the same Introduction mentioned above, and in several places later in his book, Wallis refers to secular fundamentalists. And Alister E. McGrath, one of the leading contemporary theologians in the English-speaking world, writes about “atheist fundamentalism.”[5]

Still, many of the most strident voices in American society are those of Christian fundamentalists who have been the main force behind the Religious Right. So I am sympathetic to the rejection of Christianity by Anne Rice, and by many others who are not public figures such as she is. Fundamentalism and the Religious Right have caused many to jettison Christianity. But it is not necessary to give up on Christianity or the church as a whole because of the excesses of some, even a sizeable “some,” within the church.

There are all kinds of hate groups who not only are U.S. citizens but who flaunt their “freedoms” in their outrageous tirades on the basis of being Americans. But such hotheads haven’t caused Rice or most other sensitive persons to renounce their U.S. citizenship. If people of goodwill can remain U.S. citizens in spite of the “nuts” that besmirch the best that this country stands for, why can’t Christians remain church members and Christians even though there are those—fundamentalists, members of the Religious Right, and others—whose ideas and attitudes need to be rejected?

Affirming the Faith of and the Faith about Jesus Christ

Some fundamentalists declare that people either believe the Bible in the same way they do (as the inerrant Word of God to be interpreted literally) or else they are not (true) Christians. In recent decades, some devout Christian seminary professors and others have been opposed and their faith impugned because they interpreted some biblical passages as symbolic or metaphorical and suggested that some passages were relative to the times in which they were written but not universally applicable and not authoritative for the present.

But in the beginning, Christianity was not based upon faith in what was recorded in a book. Faith was commitment to Jesus as Lord, and the Christian life was lived by allegiance to the teachings of Jesus and to the teachings about Christ. The Bible as we know it today was not universally accepted by Christianity until the fourth century.

There were, to be sure, key writings in the first century that guided and undergirded the young church, writings that later became a part of the Christian Bible. But the Bible was not the basis of the church. Rather, churches as communities of faith were the matrix in which the biblical books were written and in which they were read and found to be helpful. But the basis of the faith was commitment to Jesus Christ and the determination to live not only by his teachings but to follow “in his steps.”

For that reason, it should be clear that one does not have to be a fundamentalist in order to be a good Christian. On the contrary, as I argue in my book Fed Up with Fundamentalism, shucking off the excesses of that form of the faith ought to help one to be a better Christian, that is, one more faithful to the teachings of Jesus Christ. As Jim Wallis says in God’s Politics, the best response to “bad religion” (such as fundamentalism) is “better religion.” Thus, “The best response to fundamentalism is to take faith more seriously than fundamentalism usually does. . . . It is faith that leads us to assert the vital religious commitments that fundamentalists often leave out, namely compassion, social justice, peacemaking, humility, tolerance, and even democracy as a religious commitment” (p. 67). Those words are well worth heeding.

I am happy that Anne Rice did not reject Christ when she rejected Christianity, for it is faith in Christ, not religion, that is essential. In spite of the positive references to religion in the preceding paragraph, I still contend that faith is more important than religion. So Rice has kept what is important, maintaining faith but rejecting the Christian religion. She was wise, I believe, to recognize the faults and failings of some forms of Christianity, and I can’t fault her for giving up on that type of religion. Still, it is a shame that she had to give up on Christianity as a whole.

So, not only do I insist that one doesn’t have to be a fundamentalist to be a good Christian, neither should anyone have to give up on Christianity as a whole because of the excesses and the faults of fundamentalism, which is only one form of the Christian religion. I wish that Anne Rice, and the many others who have jettisoned Christianity because of fundamentalism, could experience the type of non-fundamentalist Christianity that is taught by many churches and Christian communities and that is practiced by many Christians across the land. Although they may be a minority, there are many churches and Christians whose values are consistent with those held by Rice and others who follow Christ but have, for good reason, rejected fundamentalist Christianity.

[1] Rice (b. 1941), whose birth name was Howard [sic] Allen Frances O’Brien, wrote eighteen books about vampires and witches between 1976 and 2003. Under a pen name, she also authored three erotic novels (1983~85).

[2] The former was published by Ballantine Books in 2005 and the latter by Anchor Books in 2008.

[3] Pp. 3~17 of Fed Up with Fundamentalism: A Historical, Theological, and Personal Appraisal of Christian Fundamentalism (4-L Publications, 2007).

[4] (HarperSanFrancisco, 2005). Wallis (b. 1948) is often referred to as a progressive evangelical; perhaps he is best thought of as an evangelical Christian who is a progressive (or liberal) with regard to social and political issues.

[5] McGrath (b. 1953) is the author of The Dawkins Delusion?: Atheist Fundamentalism and the Denial of the Divine (IVP Books, 2007).