January 03, 2007

A Book I'm Reading and more

A friend of mine, Leila, suggested I read THE BATTLE FOR GOD, by Karen Armstrong, a former nun (I believe) and now an historian of religion, especially for the three monotheisms, Christianity, Judaism and Islam. In THE BATTLE FOR GOD, which I should have read after I read the first book, the HISTORY OF GOD, a more general study of the three religions, she takes on fundamentalism as it takes its form in each religion. Her observation is, from the outset, that for all their obvious differences, they are remarkably similar.

I read the introduction and am in the middle of the first chapter. I have to read it very slowly, because I keep getting distracted, despite underlining almost every other word in order to keep myself attending to the text. (Which helps, by the way, but makes rereading a real pain!) And because it is simply hard for me to read anything these days, hard to read because of some vague distress reading causes me that I find hard to define or explain. It doesn't feel good to me, mostly and I don't feel as excited by it, though I want to know the material. Occasionally I can pick up an easy novel and enjoy what I read if I can get into the swing of it, but even that is rare. But I'm going to slog through this as far as I can, because Leila loved it and says it is very much worth reading.

But before I get too far into the book, which no doubt has a lot more to say with a great deal more knowledge and discernment about fundamentalism than I, I wanted as I frequently do, to try to clarify how I feel and think about fundamentalism right now, with what I know about it now. So that I can compare it with how I feel after having read the book.

First thing I have to admit is that in general I find fundamentalists as a group, as an example of group thinking and ideology, chilling. I speak mostly of Christian fundamentalists here. I do not know much about Jewish or Muslim fundamentalist beliefs, though in fact I do perceive the quite similar results in terms of behavior in the outside world. I'm not talking about the little snake handling church in the Appalachians. I'm referring to the congregation of largely middle to upper middle class educated professionals, who pay taxes (grudgingly) and send their kids to Christian private schools or home school them so they are not sullied by the filth of the world and work as doctors or teachers or accountants or nurses by day, blending in more or less, until they start talking religion...

I find them chilling, one, because they wield so much power politically as the major component of the Religious Right yet lack all democratic impulses, lack a larger community spirit, except in their own little band of fundamentalists and display a singular void when it comes to compassion and helping those less fortunate than they. They don't believe they should pay taxes to support public schools when they send their children to private schools, they don't believe they should have to pay social security taxes because they will have plenty of money and won't need it. They certainly don't believe the government should be in the business of helping the poor. Let them get jobs or let's resurrect the old poor houses for them. They are lazy, that's all. I worked my butt off to earn my money, they all say, if I can do it, anyone can!

I know, this doesn't sound very religious, and it isn't, but it goes hand in glove with the religious fervor of the Bible verse quoting that reverberates like a tennis ball volley. Back and forth, back and forth the ball goes over the net, each person "proving" her literal point by reference to a book that is largely couched in parable and poetry and other non-literal means of communication.

The fundamentalist believes he or she is saved, or otherwise somehow among the elect, whether Christian, Jewish or Muslim, and doesn't much care about those who are not, or if she does or he does, cares only insofar as they must convert to the fundamentalist's beliefs posthaste, and in some cases there is an OR ELSE implied. Hell, sometimes it is pretty obvious: when the Taliban is threatening to stone any woman who wears white shoes or doesn't don a burka, it doesn't take much convincing to get her to put on dark shoes and cover up completely. Belief cannot be forced but fundamentalist practice can, and sometimes that is all that is necessary. A child who is taught by fundamentalist teachers, in a fundamentalist society, whose family is not allowed to talk about other ways of thinking (Afganistan), will most likely grow up fundamentalist. A child who is raised in a fundamentalist home in a society of free thinkers, who is sent to religious schools and shielded from worldly contact, has little chance to break out of the mold of fundamentalism, not at least while still living within that comfortable enclave.

The thing is, it is comfortable. You know who you are and where you belong, and you know where you are going i.e. to heaven or paradise or somewhere the sullied rest of the world won't deserve. If you are a woman you are by definition secondary to your husband, and must cook and clean and serve him, and dress modestly, perhaps covering your hair and face in public, if not your whole body. Even as a Christian you probably don't wear the slinky dresses of the world or the bare midrifts or the skin revealing styles, but more modest, less fashionable ones, and some churches even have dress codes that dictate what a female may and may not wear. You also know that your husband will be a good Christian (if Christian) and will not stray and take a mistress (hah!) or at least should not, but if he does that you must forgive him and start anew, because forgiveness is a holy virtue.

And so forth. In return for all that, God will reward you with good health and wealth and a fair amount of happiness, because you deserve it. But most of all, he will reward you with a place in heaven, either after you die or after the final battle, Armageddon, where you will go along with your friends, leaving your pagan enemies on earth or in hell to suffer and burn.

These are the sorts of things that fundamentalists have told me to my face, and with great seriousness. If I am not saved, they say, God will wash his hands of me. Jesus won't love me. I won't be welcome in heaven on the last day. On and on and on. But these are the same people who don't feel the slightest need to pay taxes so the government can help the poor or the elderly. Why should we pay for other people's X Y Z? they say. As if they aren't even part of a democratic community that looks out for each and every member, including them. Oh, I dunno, maybe the problem is that the upper middle class fundamentalist Christians I have met have all also been Republicans, and the two clearly meshed with poor and to me appalling results. But the limited, completely uncreative and rigid, hidebound even, thinking of fundamentalist religion just doesn't sit right with me. The spirit should not be fettered and chained; why else call it a spirit? The spiritual state to my way of thinking must also not be kept in chains but allowed the freedom to find out where it needs to be.

Enough for now. More when I have read more in this fascinating book.

I saw the gastroenterologist today and agreed to have a routine colonoscopy...ARGH! But he also wants to rule out certain reasons for my abnormal liver function tests and rule in what he thinks it might be, a fatty liver, which he says is a result of some people's glucose metabolism. It could go bad later on, so he told me, but is often quite benign. At this point I'm having an ultrasound tomorrow, and had bloodwork done today, which should tell him what he needs to know. I will get the results in two weeks. That's just about when the colonoscopy is scheduled for, so...Gawd, do I dread that. Anyone undergone this charming little procedure? Is it horrible? I've heard the preparation is the worst. He said I'd be asleep for the coloscopy itself and would not know or remember a thing, which is good. But I'm afraid of anesthesia, too, so I dunno which is worse, to be awake for it, or to have to be put out for it! Do they let you stay awake for it ever? Or would it hurt too much? Aah, I might as well take the anesthetic and sleep, but I'll fear it all the day before, right up until I fall asleep.

Posted by pamwagg at January 3, 2007 08:53 PM


Further on colonoscopy:

I did my first one with minimum sedation beause I was curious and I had never suffered serious pain, so I thought I would be able to tough it out. And I was. You CAN get less sedation so you're conscious, if you want to be. I have, however, asked for complete sedation in every colonoscopy since then. The difference is the godawful pain I had after the cancer surgery. I now welcome any opportunity to be under anesthesia during procedures.

Posted by: Debbie at January 5, 2007 01:55 PM

On colonoscopy.

I had colon cancer six years ago, so now I have a colonoscopy every year. The prep is dreadful: make sure you have a roll or two of the expensive, soft toilet paper and plenty of apple juice or some other tasty (permitted) drink to wash down the yukky prep solution. I have always found the procedure itself wonderful, possibly because of the intravenous valium I get. It's well worth doing if it saves you from colon cancer, which IT CAN! Go for it.

Posted by: Debbie at January 5, 2007 12:57 PM

Dear Pam,

I have two books (that I haven't read like a fair number of books in this house...)by Karen Armstrong: A History of God and The Spiral Staircase. I had heard of her from my parents. I began reading both of them but for one reason or another I stopped though in no way out of dislike. Ms. Armstrong is very knowledgeable and intelligent, sensitive and honest, in short a very good writer (and a bestseller to boot). While reading the beginning of The Spiral Staircase I thought how my mother would enjoy the book and wound up lending it to her (and she really did enjoy and reccommended it back to me). They're both on my phantom to-read list. I'm having trouble reading books too Pam. I read a little of this and a little of that but I miss the days when I would sit down and read a book for hours. I just don't do that anymore. But we're not fixed in stone, so that may change.

I'm similar in my dislike of any kind of religious fundamentalism. But I've had little contact with any fundamentalist. One high school acquaintance became Born Again a few years after she graduated. I'm ashamed to say that when I talked to her then she just sounded brainwashed and my instinct was to avoid her. But I have another friend of my brother who has been a Born Again Christian ever since his college days who is in his fifties. He and his wife and daughter and son are all Born Again Christians. But they are not typical. He comes from a poor background (smart Polish American , talented soccer player who almost made it to playing on the Cosmos team, who wound up teaching college soccer in a small town and nursing). He met his wife during college and both became Born Again around that time I think. She came from a town near the college and had a middle class background. Anyway this faith bonded them and they, despite ups and downs, are still together. It's too long a story to put down here, but they do not fit in with the Born Again Christians in my area. He, in particular, is a good neighbor and helps people out, including my brother and myself, regularly. I respect him in a lot of ways. He's been a great friend to my brother and I'll always love him for that but when he gets obsessive about his religious ideas (which, to his credit, is seldom) I have trouble embracing it.

And I try to, I try to see the world through his eyes but am unable to do it. It's too judgemental, too extreme, too deluded (and I know wherefore I speak from my own deluded periods). I care about him and his family but whenever I tried to broach the subject of Jesus and Christianity he would get into this repeated pattern, devoted and incredibly stubborn and too one-sided. I just felt as if I was being lectured at rather than talked to. I want so much to be able to communicate with others and this fundamentalist perspective seemed to disengage from questions, speculations, ruminations. There's too much fear in it too. But when it comes to Born Again Christians what really bothers me is that my friend believes my brother and I will go to hell when we die and he's okay with that. How does one come to terms with the eternal damnation of those who don't follow Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior? And what kind of God would create a place of eternal damnation anyway?! Don't we all have our crosses to bear in life? Is there really anyone out there who is completely carefree? I haven't met them. Why must we believe in Hell?

And then there's the wars in the Middle East but I've rambled on enough.

Elizabeth, someone left a comment at my blog saying I was a freak and that put me off for a few days, but Pam supported me, so I've written again. Thanks for paying me some attention. You made me feel good. When are you going to leave a comment? I would welcome that. Thanks for telling us something about yourself. I'm so glad to hear that you're feeling better and that your family is healthy and well.

Posted by: Kate K. at January 4, 2007 11:49 PM

Oh, Pam, I do agree with your assessment of religious fundamentalism! "Chilling" is an excellent choice of words; it has chilled me all of my life, or at least from the time that I first became aware of it.

Religion should (as Jesus himself pointed out) be replete with the full-hearted adoration of God and the love of man, and how could anyone adore, let alone full-heartedly, the capricious, petty and vengeful tyrant that God is so often conceptualized as being?

Must leave for a meeting, so all will be spared a further lecture. Oh, colonoscopy, ugh! I have not had one and cannot advise.


Posted by: Cynthia at January 4, 2007 06:56 PM

The Spiral Staircase, Karen Armstrong's autobiography, is a good book. She suffers from temporal lobe epilepsy.

Good luck with the medical procedures.

Enjoyed your entry on fundamentalists.


Posted by: ky perraun at January 4, 2007 12:09 PM


Why no blog entries lately?

Posted by: Elizabeth Grace at January 3, 2007 11:30 PM

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