Friday, October 06, 2006

Jesus Camp

I saw this documentary last night. It's about a summer camp for evangelical fundamentalist children, where the desire of the pastor is to instil in them the same passion and fire that she sees in children throughout the Islamic world (presumably on television). It's full of extremist rhetoric about "Christians" seizing back the country, as well as highly emotional, almost crazed, worship services. The most horrific moment comes when the children are urged to worship and pray before a "golden calf" in the form of a cardboard cut-out of George W. Bush.

What to make of this? It's too easy to go for the standard liberal platitudes about separation of church and state, and the horror of Chistians mimicking the Taliban. I think there is a need to go deeper, to explore how these people think. What is the true underlying theology, and how has it deviated so much from historic Christianity? And in that, what are the errors and dangers? Three points come to mind.

First, they are voluntarists. As I noted before the in context of Islam, voluntarism believes that God should be seen as a force of pure will, not intelligence or reason, and that God's purposes are essentially arbitrary. On the other hand, the Catholic view is that God is rational (Logos), which means that God is truth and infinite Intelligence. Voluntarism suffuses the evangelical Christianity on display in this movie. One of the opening scenes in the movie shows the pastor beginning her sermon by repeating over and over "God can do anything". And when you look at some of their beliefs pertaining to the world, it's hard to deny the influence of voluntarism. Science and the laws of nature can pretty much be ignored. As one of the protagonists claims, "science doesn't prove anything". They go to great pains to debunk the consensus of scientific wisdom pertaining to global warming, and adhere to a ridiculous notion of "creationism" (denying evolution). This is voluntarism, pure and simple. And as I noted before, voluntarism is always tempting when your source of revelation is a fixed text. So, yes, American evangelicalism shares some traits and faults with Islam.

Aside from an anti-intellectualism in the scientific sphere, is this really so dangerous. Well, yes. To see why, I need to explore the second issue: the doctrine of predestination. This holds that God divides the world randomly into two groups, the saved and the unsaved, with the latter damned to hell. Even worse, this decision is made before you are born, so there is nothing you can do about it. We see evidence of this too in the movie. In a sense, this comes directly out of the voluntarist ethic, given the concept of an erratic, somewhat capricious God, that it implies. And in the ultimate random capricious act of all, they believe that God will take all believers to heaven (the "rapture") and damn the rest. What this means of course is that it is possible to divide the world into good and evil, the realm of God and the realm of the devil. It then takes only a short leap to claim America as God's country (you can hear a lot of that in the movie) and the obvious implication that America's enemy (communism yesterday, fundamentalist Islam today) is the realm of Satan. It goes without saying that Satan needs to be destroyed, not negotiated with, and we certainly need to waste no effort trying to understand him! This also explains the embrace of Bush, the military trappings and the idealization of the military, and the constant presence of the American flag. More worryingly, it explains the evangelical support for American exceptionalism, a hyper-Zionist view of the Palestinian crisis, and Bush's "pre-emptive" war. If God has damned them all anyway, what's the problem with a few carpet bombs, or even a small nuclear attack?

Third, what is striking about the movie is the lack of rootedness in historic Christianity. Conservatism is supposed to be about conserving what is good about the past, and yet this supposedly "conservative" groups embrace the most shallow, most materialistic, most banal, aspects of American suburban life. It's convenient they deny global warming, because they drive trucks and SUVs. And clearly, the sin of gluttony is not high on their agenda given the size of the pastor. Top of the list are sexual sins, but the other stuff seems to get left behind. As a Catholic, it's hard to describe how weird I find these "churches'', that look like concert halls, replete with huge stages, bands, cheesy soft rock music, and lots of emotional jumping up and down. How is this related to historic Christianity? It isn't. It comes right out of modern America. Orthodox Jews and Amish dress in certain ways to remind themselves that they are ultimately not of this world. Similarly, when Catholic priests wear vestments, use incense, and celebrate mass using prayers dating from the earliest days of the church, it reminds us that we are part of something bigger, something more profound, a sense of the sacred amid the hum-drum of the early 21st century life. But with the evangelicals, they take modern America right into their churches with them. Is it any surprise that their outlook is so narrow?

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