What SFF can learn from Christianity part 2

March 2nd 2014

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Following on from the previous post, here’s part 2

What SFF can learn from Christianity #2: There’s always someone more fundamentalist than you.

So we all know what a fundamentalist is, right?

1. ( sometimes initial capital letter ) a movement in American Protestantism that arose in the early part of the 20th century in reaction to modernism and that stresses the infallibility of the Bible not only in matters of faith and morals but also as a literal historical record, holding as essential to Christian faith belief in such doctrines as the creation of the world, the virgin birth, physical resurrection, atonement by the sacrificial death of Christ, and the Second Coming.
2. the beliefs held by those in this movement.
3. strict adherence to any set of basic ideas or principles: the fundamentalism of the extreme conservatives.

Was that what you were expecting? Definition 3, perhaps. Let’s look at the history behind definition 1 for a moment.

There’s a good overview here (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Fundamentals), but to summarise, the Fundamentals was a series of 90 essays, published in the US between 1910 and 1915, designed to defend and affirm a reformed conservative Protestant faith against both modernism and liberalism. They were widely distributed, free of charge to pastors, missionaries, teachers and so on: those who followed the Fundamentals became known as fundamentalists. There was a great deal in the Fundamentals that was orthodox Christian belief – the Virgin Birth, the Incarnation, the deity of both Jesus and the Holy Spirit – alongside the inerrancy of the Bible (the Protestant version), a particular reading of the Second Coming, and a refutation of evolution.

You could reasonably describe (as I do), fundamentalist Christianity as one of the last gasps of the Romantic movement – but its strong effect in the USA still has considerable legacy today. The fundamentalists were simply Christians who followed the Fundamentals, became Christians who believed the Bible to be (more-or-less) dictated to men by God and therefore the very word of God, and thus in 1948 became incredibly excited about the founding of the state of Israel as presaging the Second Coming. Innately social conservatives, fundamentalists have tended to be both politically and socially right-wing for at least half the 20th century.

So that’s what a fundamentalist was. What is one now? The problem with any set of rules or beliefs is the strictness with which they’re interpreted. No law, no rule is so perfectly worded that there isn’t some sort of wiggle-room around the edges, no tariff of punishment so explicit that there is no need for a judge to mitigate the sentence. And things can go both ways. Most of the Christians I know are a tolerant bunch, and don’t take things as far as, say, Fred Phelps of the notorious Westboro Baptist Church.

Actually that’s a lie. All the Christians I know don’t take things as far as Fred Phelps, because when it comes to Christian fundamentalists, Fred Phelps is pretty much the nadir. Even those who forbid women from the pulpit and hound gays out of their churches aren’t as fundamentalist as Fred Phelps.

The church which I used to go to was a conservative evangelical church – still within the Church of England, but during my time there, increasingly adrift from it and at odds with it. It’s reasonable to say I was a bit naive about what the leadership there was actually like when I first went. My theology has hopefully both broadened and deepened as I’ve got older, and it turned out that finding another church to go to was by far the most healthy option, for all concerned.

But however right-wing, however conservative, however reactionary my old church was, it was never as fundamentalist as Westboro Baptist. This church, which probably most of the people reading this will read about and say “why, Simon, why?” is considered heretic, apostate and non-Christian by Phelps. That’s because Phelps considers all other churches, denominations and sects as heretical. He alone is the judge of what passes for authentic Christianity, and to his mind, everybody else fails.

It doesn’t matter whether you believe anything about Christianity to be true: what’s important is that this is the dynamic between people who believe doctrinal purity to be important. It’s layered, stacked like a pile of books, if you will. Except it’s books all the way down. There is no end to bottom of the stack.

When it comes to what are termed social justice issues, exactly the same dynamic applies. There will always be someone more fundamentalist than you, someone who considers your feminist, anti-racist, queer political stand not quite intersectional enough. To them, you are the enemy, just as much an enemy as everybody you consider an enemy. Fundamentalism, in whatever form you encounter it, is essentially toxic, self-destructive, and anti-relationships. I believe we’re better than that.

This is not a counsel of despair, however. There is a way of sidestepping the whole fundamentalist mind-set. My relationship with God is – mostly, because relationships are complicated and involve family and friends – no one’s business but mine and God’s. The same goes with the people you interact with. How you do that is, caveats in mind, between you and them. The Golden Rule, which perhaps unsurprisingly crops up in most of the world’s religions, is Do to others as you’d have them do to you.

Or as two wise men from long ago once said, “Be excellent to one another, and party on.”


6 Responses to “What SFF can learn from Christianity part 2”

  • Zola says:

    While I agree with this analogy to an extent, what about the role that convention guests play?

    If, for example, certain writers or actors get invited to a convention and won’t accept the invitation if the convention doesn’t have a clear anti-harassment policy, then a con who wants those writers/actors is going to put a policy in place even if a small minority of the fans piss and moan about it.

    This is actually starting to happen at least to some extent, and even if some of the guests won’t go so far as to demand some kind of policy as a condition of attending, there are now quite a few that will speak approvingly of cons that put a solid policy in place, and there are a lot of fans who listen and support cons that do so.

    In the case of conventions, though, there are only so many desirable guests and it behooves the cons to make those guests happy so that the con attracts the maximum possible visitors.

    • Simon Morden says:

      Hi, Zola!
      I’m happy with anti-harassment policies as a simple extension of boundary-setting that’s common right outside the hall in which the convention is taking place, but inexplicably absent within it. It shouldn’t be necessary to state that any unwanted touching is verboten – it is, at least in English law, technically an assault, and depending on the place of touching, a sexual assault – but apparently some convention members need to be reminded that neither the law of the land nor normal social behaviour aren’t suspended when they put on the con badge. Many writers, publishers and agents come to cons to do business, and as such, it’s an extension of their workspace, albeit a public one – so again, if folk need reminding that doing stuff that’d get you fired in the office will still get you fired at the con, fine. And for fans, this may be their one holiday of the year – no one wants it ruined by people being dickish.
      As an addendum, an anti-harassment policy protects me, and the people I care about, from those who would make their time at a con at least less good, and possibly a nightmare.
      There is a problem with attempting to extend an anti-harassment policy, designed only to moderate behaviour at the con, to one which attempts to control behaviour outside of the con. Obviously, the con organisers need to be wise about this: no point in inviting as a GoH someone who has repeatedly shown themselves to behave inappropriately towards women, or minorities, and expect them to behave this time. But (having just watched Highlander again for the first time in a long time), I’m attracted to the idea of ‘holy ground’, where parties who normally vehemently disagree with each other can occupy the same space, under the same rules.

      • Zola says:

        I wasn’t entirely clear in my point, I think, my apologies. My observation is simply that conventions have an equal force for unification in the form of their guests.

        Christianity doesn’t have that in quite the same way, you don’t have guest preachers that will refuse to go to churches that don’t have specific rules.

        I was also observing that unlike Christianity, the number of conventions and fans are more limited, there are only some many guests available, which again acts as a unifying force.

        Highlander is fun. I think a concept of holy ground would benefit a lot of people.

        • Simon Morden says:

          “Christianity doesn’t have that in quite the same way, you don’t have guest preachers that will refuse to go to churches that don’t have specific rules.”
          Actually, this happens far more than it should – the evangelicals especially have a concept of ‘soundness’, as in “Is he sound?” (and it’s invariably a he if we’re talking about preachers). So some churches and almost all university Christian Unions here that are part of the UCCF organisation will insist that preachers sign a specifically-worded statement of faith before being formally invited to preach. The converse is also true – there was a big falling out at a Christian convention (I cringe as I write this) about one particular preacher being invited, so that others refused to go.

  • Veronica Zundel says:

    Simon, when are we going to hear what Christianity can learn from SFF? I’m sure there’s something…

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