Monday, July 25, 2011

What is a fundamentalist?

With the disaster of events in Norway, I have heard this question being asked in two different ways, and thought that it is an important question to address. When you think of a fundamentalist, who is it that you see in your minds eye? Do you regard yourself as a fundamentalist? Why? I believe like many words in the English language, this word has metamorphosed over recent years.

As young Christian, being a fundamentalist was not necessarily a bad thing, but since September 11th 2001, being a fundamentalist was definitely not a good thing and people who would have happily admitted to being a fundamentalist, would deny it vociferously now.

From the perspective of Christians, after the 9/11 attacks in the USA and the 7/7 attacks in London, and the attacks in Spain and in Mumbai, it was easy to differentiate our enthusiasm for Christianity from the "extremism" of Islam or any other religion for that matter. We even allow ourselves to think that people who perpetrate these evil acts claim to act in the name of their religion, that they truly represent the religion and the god they claim to follow. 

However, the moment someone who claims to be a Christian, carries out an atrocity like the one in Norway, we immediately want to disown the individual and claim that this person could not possibly be a true Christian. We conveniently forget that there were many Muslim people with more moderate beliefs who protested that the suicide bombers were not true Muslims and that Islam is a religion of peace, and the very word Islam means peace. At the time we poo-pooed the notion. However, we would be rightly offended if someone suggested Bleivik was representative of what you as a Christian. 

It is easy, when a bad thing is done to jump to the conclusion that the person or people who perpetrated the acts are "others" - i.e. different in one or many ways. It is a natural Human urge to want to disown people who do bad things. We do this in many ways. He is not of our religion. he is not of our country - he's a FOREIGNER. He's not of our racial or cultural group. When enquiries into the 7/7 bombings, it came as something of a shock in the UK that many of the bombers were born in the UK and attended UK schools. How was it that these young British-born Muslims would go to the extent of murdering other British people iin the name of their religion. 

However, with the terrorist acts in Norway the people had to accept that the accused is as Norwegian as they are. 

However what we are discussing is "What is a FUNDAMENTALIST?"

The original connotation of fundamentalism was the notion of getting back to the "fundamentals" of our faith. (I am speaking specifically about Christians here) and so, a fundamentalist Christian subscribes to what they believe are the "definitive beliefs" of Christianity. They would say, that unless you subscribe to all off these specific beliefs, without exception, you are not a genuine Christian. Here are some of the "definitive beliefs" :

  1. Belief in the Trinity - belief that there is One god existing in Three Persons - The Father, The Son, and the Holy Spirit.
  2. The full and literal belief in the virgin birth of Jesus, the Death, Resurrection and Ascension of Jesus, and the eventual return of Jesus Christ.
  3. The belief that Salvation is obtained ONLY by grace through faith in Jesus Christ.
  4. The inspiration and inerrancy of the Scriptures in the form of the Bible - consisting of 66 'books' - 39 in the Old Testament, 27 in the New Testament. With this is the belief in the literal reality of the miracles described therein - e.g. Creation, Parting of the Red Sea at the time of the Exodus, Universality of the flood (Noah), Jesus' miracles, etc. 
I probably have missed things out, but you get the idea. I personally subscribe to points 1, 2 and 3. Point 4 would be a matter of discussion for me, but by and large I believe that the Bible is true. However, if a person subscribes to all of these and more (which they regard are "deal breakers" as far as Christianity is concerned), is not a problem. However, holding to a set of beliefs and values and living accordingly is not a problem. It is when the individual feels that it is not enough - but that EVERYONE should subscribe to these beliefs, when we have a problem.

If we get down to what the root of the meaning is - now reverting to generalities in terms of religion - the notion is that a fundamentalist is getting back to the "fundamentals". What are fundamentals? They are those basic principles of the religion that define its adherents. I've listed some of those fundamentals of the Christian belief.

The problem is, like most things in life religion adapts and changes over time, but people do not change at the same rate. There are those who believe we need to adapt and change with the times and will embrace these changes enthusiastically. These people say that those who don't want to change are wrong and conversely, those who see these changes as compromises and are naturally resistant to any such change (fundamentalists), and will label the modernist (or those keen to embrace change) as liberals - with the implication that the person is NOT a true adherent of their religion.

Many of the internal conflicts and discrepancies within a religion comes down to this "old versus new" argument. Sometimes though, I think that people who THINK they are fundamentalists would more accurately be described as a TRADITIONALIST. Growing up in the 70's when "Christian choruses" were all the rage, and gainin g in popularity, there were those, who insisted that nothing but HYMNS shoulod be sung in Church and that these "happy clappy" choruses were bringing down the tone. The solution in many churches was to have services dedicated to traditional service - in which it would be quite acceptable to sing:

Now thank we all our God, with heart and soul and voices...
but not
Clap your hand, all ye people, shout unto God with a voice of triumph...

What is the difference - the first was written a long time ago, and is sung to organ music, while the latter (the chorus of it - as it is directly out of Scripture) was written more recently, and people actually raise their hands, clap their hands and SHOUT. Sadly these differences have caused Christians to leave fellowship, and fight.

Again, there is nothing wrong with being a traditionalist, but when it comes to a point where people decide that everybody has to ascribe to the same traditions, and to want to do things differently is somehow a rejection or a walking away from one's faith.

Tradition is a good thing, We can learn so much from old ways, but there are traditions that are not good and are better assigned to history where it belongs. Let us look at the tradition of a man owning his wife as chattel. There are many traditions which are linked to this - like in the marriage vows where a bride would vow to obey her husband. There will be those among you who read this blog who feel that that should still be the case. Some of you will be ready to quote verses of Scripture to defend this mentality. However, by and large society has moved on, and the notion of equality of the sexes is widely accepted and considered the NORM.

However, on reflection, as I've listened to discussions on radio to radio we should perhaps avoid describing the terrorists as "fundamentalist". They are not defending the fundamentals of faith, but they are defending their tradition. They may fight under the banner of "Islam" or under the banner of "Christianity" but what they are "defending" is not the fundamentals of their religion, but their own lifestyles. The 9/11 bombers, the 7/7 bombers, Bali, Spain, claimed to be Muslim. But They do not represent true Islam. Breivik claims to be a fundamentalist Christian, but his violent act is exactly the opposite of what we stand for a Christians.

I think that the Church must be willing to either stop referring to people as Muslim terrorists as if their terrorism is truly represented the Islamic faith, or be willing to refer to Breivik as a Christian terrorist. It should be cut both ways. I've heard people phoning up the radio station and assert that the Quran taught that such violence was right. However these people are not Islamic Scholars interpreting their own Scripture, but non-Islamic people who have heard these ideas talked about and taken them without question. It's easy to believe that what other people do is evil.

Well, I think in conclusion, I would say that it is not FUNDAMENTALISM that is the issue, but being an EXTREMIST.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Your Wish is My Command

Have you ever written something, not being one hundred percent sure or even one percent sure where it will lead you – well this is such a piece. I have just been reading the Bible and I came across an account that puzzles me. It is the story of when three of David’s mighty men, take enormous risks to get David a cup of water from the well outside Bethlehem, and when they return, he pours it out on the ground. Well that is the story in brief. I will quote the story as it appears in the Bible but first, I need to put it in the context that it appears in Scripture.  It First Chronicles 11 – and list of David’s mighty men (of which the THREE were the mightiest) and their brave actions in fighting for David.

1 Chron 11:15-19
15 Three of the thirty chiefs came down to David to the rock at the cave of Adullam, while a band of Philistines was encamped in the Valley of Rephaim. 16 At that time David was in the stronghold, and the Philistine garrison was at Bethlehem. 17David longed for water and said, “Oh, that someone would get me a drink of water from the well near the gate of Bethlehem!”18 So the Three broke through the Philistine lines, drew water from the well near the gate of Bethlehem and carried it back to David. But he refused to drink it; instead, he poured it out to the LORD. 19 “God forbid that I should do this!” he said. “Should I drink the blood of these men who went at the risk of their lives?” Because they risked their lives to bring it back, David would not drink it. (NIV)

So now – I think you can see why I called this piece “Your wish is my (or in the case of the story, our) command.  There are a few puzzling aspects from this story – and we shall explore them. I cannot guarantee that I can shed light on any of it – but I will try. At the nub, what it is that I want to understand, is what can I learn from this story – why did God move that this story was included in the account of the “exploits of David’s mighty men”.

First off, why did these three men go in the first place? Was it really a case of “Your wish is our command?” What is without doubt, these men were very devoted to their leader David. Remember that at the time this took place, David was NOT King, and as far as natural lineage, not even an heir to the throne. Saul was the king and ruler in Israel, and at this point he was a tyrant, prone to fits of rage and jealousy. David was, in his eyes, the arch enemy. But he was God’s choice. These men were drawn to David, not through compulsion of duty, but because they believed in his cause. These men, were ready to join the “struggle for liberation” if you like, and David was their leader. These three, who were described as the mightiest of the mighty men were attentive to their leader and no task, it would seem was beneath them. David wanted water, they didn’t choose a junior warrior to get him water, they went themselves. But did they need to go at all? I don’t know. David had not given a command – it wasn’t some test of strength or bravery on David’s part – he merely said that it would be nice to have some water from the well outside of Bethlehem. David was born in Bethlehem and when he looked after the sheep on the hills around the town, no doubt he would sate his thirst with water from that well. It had sentimental connections to his childhood.  He might have been thinking how ironic it was that they were so close to the place where he used to draw out that water from the well, and yet unable to go to it because of the presence of the enemy. Did he intend that three of his mighty men – men he relied on in the fight against Saul’s men – would go, endangering themselves, to get him some water from the well? I think – based on his reaction – it was clearly NO. So why did they go? Was it bravery or stupidity? Was it not both? In order to get that precious cup of water, they would have had to go against the Philistines and fight them off – literally go into battle.

We are advised to “choose our battles wisely” – I wonder if these three mighty men chose a wise battle in this case? I have no doubt that what they were doing was well meaning – David would have realised that too, but was it what they should have been doing – was it the most productive use of their time?
Was David perhaps foolish in actually saying out loud what he yearned for? Should he have just kept his thoughts to himself? I remember as a child we used to visit the home of Chinese friends of ours. They were such loving people. The wife used to work as a pattern maker in the factory my father ran. When we visited our home we had to be careful about what we would admire as she seemed to think that whatever we said “that is nice” that we wanted to take it home. – We were merely admiring it. She would try and give us those things.  It might have been a cultural thing, I don’t know, but we soon learnt that we would admire things in such a way that she would know that we did not expect or want her to give it to us. However, I don’t think that David did anything wrong by saying that he would love to have a cup of water from the well. Perhaps the men interpreted his statement as a command. What puzzles me is why they didn’t clarify with David as to why he would make such a command in light of the clear danger that they faced. Was it a fool’s errand?
Here is my best shot at trying to understand what God may be saying through this:

We need to distinguish in life between the essential and the additional. Some people have  a “The Sky’s the limit” mentality – where they are not satisfied to just get by, they want it all. That is all very well, and in some cases, they are blessed to achieve this. They are the type of people who will say “never say never” and “you can do anything you want to in life” – go-getters. However, while we admire people who rise over what seem insurmountable odds to achieve amazing things, it is because of the unusualness of their achievements that we admire them. If everybody could achieve what they achieved, nobody would be impressed. I wonder if God is not saying to us stop trying too hard. Those three guys didn’t have to go for that cup of water – David would not have thought any less of them because they went for the cup of water. God doesn’t think less of you or me because we do not achieve whatever we set our sights on to achieve. We hear a lot of talk these days of people “lacking faith” because they do not become a millionaire by the time they are forty, or because they are not the captain of a national sports team, or even in the team. Young people, year on year, commit suicide because they did not achieve the results they hoped for or expected, in their school exams. We have a mentality that says that unless you have achieved the best, it was not worth the effort.

I am reminded of a time when I was in high school. Frankly – I am not sporty – I lack hand-eye co-ordination so bat and ball games such as cricket and tennis, I was hopeless at, and I am not extremely strong. However, at the school a LOT of emphasis was placed on sporting prowess. It really bothered me that I was not good at sport and was consequently looked down upon (or that is how I perceived it) because I couldn’t prove myself in that sphere. Every year, like all schools in Zimbabwe, they had their Interhouse Athlitics Competition. All the usual track and field events were included. In the run up to the big day, each “head of house” would call all the students who were in that house team and we were put through our paces and heats were run to see, who was the best in each specific discipline, and they were selected to represent the house in the main competition. However, because they believed that it was important that EVERYONE should be participating in some event, those who failed to shine in any event, were made to run in what was called the “Rabble’s mile” or some such disparaging term (I’m sure that wasn’t the official title, but basically that is how it was perceived by the participants – the “wasters” who aren’t good at anything – the rubbish). Far from being motivating, we were made to run 1500 m. round the track at the hottest time of the day, during the hottest days of the year. We were an act for the entertainment of the elite. Laughed at and jeered. Every participant got a point provided you finished – so if you slugged your guts out and collapsed just before the finish line – that was it – no point at all. (I don’t know if they were that brutal!)  Well I was a runner in this race year after year, and each year – I would say to myself – next year I won’t be in this race. There were those who couldn’t care less, but I hated that race and everything it stood for. So when the next year swung round I would participate with gusto in all the heats and throwing and jumping events. But each year there were those who could run faster, jump higher or further or throw further. And each year I would be back in the rabble mile. That was until one year, I think one of the last I would be participating in this circus they called a sports day. I had been making a particular effort in PE, and when we had cross-country. I was not great at cross-country – I wanted to do Cross country because my big brother was a cross country runner, but I lacked the stamina to run the distances they set. Well this particular year, during class physical education lessons I really did my best. There were shirkers in my class who liked to lark about when sent off on a run, and they realised that it was not a good thing for the teacher to see me coming in before them (a bit of a tortoise and hare situation.) Well, they tried to hold me back. However thanks to the vigilance of my PE teachers, that nonsense was stopped. When the sport’s day was coming up, I determined, like every year that I would try and get into some event. As it happened, this year, I managed to come second in the 800 m. Heats, and I was selected to run for the House. At long last I was out of the “Rabble Mile” – I was so happy.  I think there those on my team who were not sharing my elation – for them it was DISASTER! We may miss out on 7 vital points. To their credit – the teachers selected me – despite probably realising that I was not their best hope – and that my achievement in the heat was probably more a fluke than anything else, but they had set a rule for selection and I had met the criteria on the day, and so I was selected. Also – to their credit – none of the students tried to persuade me to give up my place in the race. Some might have thought so on the day – I don’t know perhaps some students might have gone to the sports master asking him to replace me with them, if they did he had the good grace not to and not to tell me either. If they had, I would have refused (and probably been accused of not being team spirited). I lined up on the starting line, and listened for the starter’s gun. Bang – I ran as fast as I could, probably too fast for a middle distance track event, and the inevitable happened – I ran out of energy, but by sheer determination I kept running (well it was probably a slow trot by this stage). I came last. I was exhausted but also elated and I so enjoyed the Mile that year – from the benches. You know what I still got the team 1 point for participation that year but that 1 point was worth far more to me than the 1-points I got in the previous years that I was one of the rabble. Was it a waste of time that I ran in it? NO – it wasn’t for me. I didn’t win THE race, but I won my own race. Should there have been a “Rabble Mile” (or whatever they called it)? If you asked me before I might have said “No, stupidest idea ever”, but thinking about it, perhaps if it were not that dastardly race, I might not have aspired to participating in the 800 m. So what that I cannot run as fast as others, jump as high or as far as others, throw a javelin or whatever, I have areas of strength, which over the years I have discovered. So – wow – I told you I didn’t know what direction this Bible would take me. I think, I can summarise, if we do our best in the circumstances, that is all that God asks us to do.
David was shocked when these men appeared before him with this cup of water for him which they risked life and limb to obtain. His reaction was odd – why did he not drink it, or even offer to share it with the three young men who had gone to get it. Why pour it out on the ground – the Bible says he poured it out as an offering to the Lord. But That was not what the three men who went to fetch it had in their minds. I wonder if they thought he was a tad ungrateful? Did David react fairly? Are we allowed to ask that question? Was his reaction considered or a knee-jerk reaction? Was he perhaps actually angry with the three men for taking unnecessary risks? Perhaps he wanted to teach them a lesson? Have you ever had a surprising and disappointing reaction to something you have done for someone, that you thought would please them, but that they were not impressed with, or actually rather put out by it? We don’t know how the three men would have reacted to it, as we are not told? They may have been annoyed, angry, disappointed, demotivated – well not demotivated because they remained his mighty men.  How do you react when mistreated by someone in authority or to whom you look up to? I’m not saying that David mistreated his men – I am just thinking that they may have felt mistreated, unappreciated, but they got over it. It’s easy to get into a “woe is me” mentality – but we need to realise that, we cannot stay there.
If circumstances in your life are rough right now and you are feeling overwhelmed maybe we can learn a few things from this – here are my ideas – feel free to add in yours:

  1. Choose your battles – sometimes something simply is NOT worth the effort.
  2.  Do your best in the circumstances and don’t be downhearted if you cannot be THE BEST. Don’t let failure caused you to become demotivated. Pick yourself up and keep pushing.
  3. Don’t try to do it alone – Three mighty men went to get a cup of water. One of them might have thought he could go alone, but he didn’t. When circumstances are difficult – it is not a shame to ask for help.
  4. You may not get the reaction you expected or were hoping for. You may be disappointed when you set out to do something nice for someone that they don’t appreciate it. Don’t allow that disappointment to develop into bitterness – forgive them – even if they don’t think that they have done anything wrong, and move on.

Any other ideas? Do you agree with me? Please comment.