By Alan Jacobs
The Know-Nothing Party
In the December 2006 issue of Harper's there's an article by Jeff Sharlet called "Through a Glass, Darkly," which purports to explain fundamentalism to the readership of that august periodical. Sharlet shares the bizarre but increasingly common belief that the late R. J. Rushdoony is the eminence grise of contemporary anti–democratic would–be–despotic fundamentalism. Having introduced his readers to that Dark Armenian–American Lord on his dark Californian throne, Sharlet continues:
I read the works of Rushdoony's most influential student, the late Francis Schaeffer, an American whose Swiss mountain retreat, L'Abri ("The Shelter"), served as a Christian madrasah at which a generation of fundamentalist intellectuals studied an American past "Christian in memory." And I read Schaeffer's disciples: Tim LaHaye…
And here I pause. Well, it's true that Schaeffer read Rushdoony and cited him approvingly—but only in the latter stages of his career, and long after he had established L'Abri as a center for Christian reflection on culture. Schaeffer and Rushdoony were educated at opposite ends of the country (Schaeffer at Hampden–Sydney College in Virginia and then Westminster Seminary in Philadelphia, Rushdoony at Berkeley and then the Pacific School of Religion); moreover, Schaeffer was four years older than Rushdoony. When Schaeffer got the idea to found L'Abri, Rushdoony was just emerging from a decade as an utterly unknown missionary to Native Americans in Nevada. There is no conceivable sense in which Schaeffer could be called Rushdoony's student; their careers developed completely independently.
Well, then, how about the claim that Tim LaHaye is a "disciple" of Schaeffer's? Certainly LaHaye has expressed a debt to Schaeffer, but I'd like Sharlet (or anyone) to show me something in LaHaye's writing that indicates that influence. I must admit that I have not been able to discern, in my readings of the Left Behind books, much evidence that they were shaped by long evenings before L'Abri's roaring fireplace, immersed in endless discussions of Western art's passage from Giotto to Leonardo to Picasso, or of the varieties of existentialism from Kierkegaard and Dostoevsky to Sartre and Beckett—discussions punctuated by long sessions spent intently listening to Mozart and Beethoven… . Kinda hard to imagine LaHaye digging that party. But maybe I've missed something.
This could go on and on. L'Abri a "madrasah" for fundamentalists? Schaeffer's decades–long emphasis on the value, as well as the influence, of European high culture set him at odds with fundamentalism. L'Abri a place to study some imaginary early Christian America? Again, Schaeffer's lifelong primary focus was on European culture, though he had a few things to say about American history. Most absurd of all, a straight line of influence from Rushdoony through Schaeffer to LaHaye? How then to account for the obvious fact that, as I have tried to explain elsewhere, Rushdoony and LaHaye hold utterly opposing views about the Second Coming and its meaning for political life?
Note this: all those errors are in two sentences of Sharlet's essay. And, further, note this: Sharlet's job (on the website he edits, The Revealer) is to report on religion in the press.
One of the pleasures of reading the current crop of books and articles against fundamentalism, or against religion in general, is collecting howlers—wildly inaccurate, fanciful statements about the objects of critique. In an editorial I link to above, John Wilson mentions Lee Silver's claim, in his book Challenging Nature, that "American Christian evangelicals … believe that God in the form of Jesus Christ will grant them an eternal afterlife only if they work sufficiently hard to persuade non–Christians to become evangelicals themselves." This is sadly typical of the depth of research these critics of religion have undertaken. Thus the opening line of Terry Eagleton's response, in the London Review of Books, to Richard Dawkins's The God Delusion: "Imagine someone holding forth on biology whose only knowledge of the subject is the Book of British Birds, and you have a rough idea of what it feels like to read Richard Dawkins on theology."
None of this would be so depressingly comical were it not for an added feature of these polemics, their authors' frequent insistence that they have taken greater care in reading sacred texts than those who find divine guidance in those texts. Thus Sam Harris, in a recent exchange with Andrew Sullivan: "Read scripture more closely and you do not find reasons for religious moderation; you find reasons to live like a proper religious maniac." Cleverly anticipating a retort, he goes on, "Of course, one can cherry–pick scripture and find reasons to love one's neighbor and turn the other cheek, but the truth is, the pickings are pretty slim." Are they? Does the Bible—does even the Qu'ran, for that matter—expend more words exhorting us to practice maniacal hatred ("to despise nonbelievers, to persecute homosexuals, etc.") than exhorting us to practice justice, mercy, and compassion? It is perfectly obvious that Harris has never taken the trouble to study this question, nor is it likely that he ever will; yet he scruples not to accuse other people of cherry–picking.
Or take the eminent cognitive scientist Stephen Pinker, in a recent article in Time magazine: "When you think about it, the doctrine of a life–to–come is not such an uplifting idea after all because it necessarily devalues life on earth. Just remember the most famous people in recent memory who acted in expectation of a reward in the hereafter: the conspirators who hijacked the airliners on 9/11."
But countless millions of religious believers—Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Hindu, and so on—have treated other people with compassion and generosity precisely because they believed that it pleased God, or comported with an eternal moral law, for them to do so; and in many cases they believed they would be rewarded for their virtue in a life to come. (That's not precisely my theology, but is's an extraordinarily common one among the world's religions.)
So it turns out that it's not believing in "a life–to–come" that "necessarily" devalues anything; instead, what really matters is what kind of life–to–come you believe in, and how you think a person gets to it. If you believe that what you do in this world has eternal consequences, that actions in this world can matter forever, then that intensifies and deepens the value of life here—unless you're among the tiny minority who believe that your eternal reward will come from killing people. At least, that's what you realize when you really think about it, even for five minutes, which apparently Professor Pinker didn't have time to do; he was too busy typing.
How should Christians respond to this kind of thing? My counsel would be: infrequently and briefly. A blog post ought to do it, and even what I've written here may be too long. I have to say that I am somewhat troubled when I see major Christian thinkers like N. T. Wright going to some lengths to respond to The Da Vinci Code and even writing a whole book on the Gospel of Judas. The Da Vinci Code phenomenon, which agitated so many Christians so violently, came and went without having any discernible effect on the cause of the Gospel, and as for the Gospel of Judas … now, what was all that about again? (Sometimes we should be thankful for the short attention span of the American people.)
But there's another reason to keep on with the ancient work of preaching the Gospel and making disciples without worrying ourselves about these occasional outbursts of anti–religious invective. You can find many people these days claiming that, among the many causes of the miseries that continue to afflict the American intervention in Iraq, one of the leading ones is American leaders' ignorance of Islam in general and the Arab world in particular. Our government is regularly (and I think rightly) chastised for its failure to follow the ancient injunction to "know thy enemy." But our contemporary skeptics' new war on religion (or on what they like to call "fundamentalism") suffers from the identical failing. The first notable atheists and agnostics, the nineteenth–century critics of Christianity in England and America, were raised in largely Christian cultures and knew, often in considerable detail, the contours of the faith they were opposing. This made them more forceful arguers and more effective debaters, even if it also made them more vulnerable to the power and beauty of the Christian message—as my colleague Tim Larsen has convincingly shown in his new book Crisis of Doubt.
But today's polemical skeptics not only lack adequate knowledge of Christianity or of other religions, they're apparently unaware that such knowledge would be to their advantage. (Might they be unconsciously fearful that, if they learned more about religion, they would be risking the terrible fate of those earlier atheists who converted to belief?) Largely or wholly innocent of religious culture, religious language, and religious belief, they make their confident pronouncements and wonder why, for all the articles and books they're selling, the world seems to be getting more religious rather than less. As a committed Christian myself, all I can say is: May their tribe increase.
Alan Jacobs teaches English at Wheaton College in Illinois, and is writing a book about original sin. His Tumblelog is here.
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