Fleeing Fundamentalism

Carlene Cross’ Fleeing Fundamentalism (Alconquin: 2006) is a good book. Actually, it’s a lot more interesting than I anticipated it to be. When I first read the inside jacket of the book cover, I got this summary: Carlene Cross was raised in a fundamentalist family in rural Montana, and she followed her brother to a Bible college. There, she met and married a charismatic student named “David” (not his real name). David became a successful pastor, and she was expected to fulfill the role of a meek and submissive pastor’s wife. When David demanded total obedience from her and began to revisit old sins, she left him, the church, and the fundamentalist Christian faith of her childhood. Consequently, the church condemned and ostracized her. As she made her way into the secular world, she discovered that it was not as corrupt and evil as she expected it to be.

So I anticipated a bitter account of Christian hypocrisy and the subordination of women. And, on some level, that is what I got. But I also got a lot more. I got adventure, scholarship, and Carlene Cross’ reflections on her personal growth. I learned about welfare, and I thought about education and spirituality.

Overall, the character of David really baffled me. As Carlene talked about his gifts and success as a preacher, I wondered what his real name was and if I’d heard of him. But, also, he behaved in ways that I did not expect. When I read the inside jacket, I expected him to be a hypocritical preacher who had multiple affairs and relished his power within fundamentalist Christianity. Actually, he didn’t have any affairs, though he did have a problem with alcohol and pornography. Interestingly, when he and Carlene met in Bible college, he strictly walked the straight and narrow. He was practically a monk. He never asked girls out or touched them, even though he had plenty of admirers. He treated women as equals, which Carlene says was rare at her Bible college.

And, when Carlene is leaving the church, her husband leaves with her. He doesn’t hold on to his position of power and influence. The turning point comes when Carlene questions the doctrine of hell in her church, much to the consternation of the congregates. I expected David to rebuke her and beat her over the head with his Bible. Actually, he said that he didn’t believe in hell either, and he that thought his old fire and brimstone sermons were immature.

We learn throughout the book that David had a rough childhood. His parents abused him, and he sought solace in alcohol and pornography. But, for some reason, Bible college was a place of refuge for him, an area that allowed him to draw closer to God and become clean. It was his monastic experience. When he returned to the stresses of the real world, however, he relapsed. So David managed to baffle rather than outrage me, mainly because he acted in ways that I did not expect.

Contrary to the summary in the jacket, the congregates did not exactly ostracize Carlene after she left the church and her husband. As she plotted her divorce, she was fully expecting them to do so. She feared that she would have no social support system if she left David, so she went back to school to get a good job so she could raise her children. When she finally did divorce him, there were people in the church who actually reached out to her, and they were glad to see her at social gatherings. But, as she admits in her book (with regret), she turned her back on them in her eagerness to leave fundamentalism and start a new life.

Carlene Cross is a scholar, for she has an M.A. in communications history from the University of Washington. She wrote her thesis on Teddy Roosevelt and the media. So the book has a slight scholarly aura. When she does research to discover the “true” history of Christianity, however, she tends to rely on the Elaine Pagels-Bart Ehrman-Gerd Ludemann kinds of scholarship, the types that treat Christianity as a conspiratorial power play. She appears well-versed in American history and philosophy, but her research into religion is a little one-sided.

She did have interesting thoughts on education, though. When she went to a community college, she loved the openness in her classical history class, as the professor encouraged students to challenge his ideas. Carlene contrasts that with her education at Bible college, which she considers to be indoctrination rather than a free exchange of thought. Carlene is speaking from her perspective, but mine is a little different. In my experience, a secular education is not necessarily more open than a religious one. Not only are there secular professors who try to indoctrinate students with their worldview, but there are many academics who are committed to the correctness of their research, so they’re not overly tolerant of other ideas. And, on the other side, there are religious teachers who actually welcome a good challenge. But Carlene does well to specify her idea of a good classroom experience, and I’ve had good ones in secular and religious settings.

As far as her spiritual development goes, she seemed to flirt with goddess religion at one point. She was reading books about how the goddess religion was once dominant and got overthrown by these patriarchal tribal invaders, who replaced the goddess with their male deity. (I remember discussing this idea in a class when I was an undergraduate, and I remember that there are scholars who dismiss it, though I forget their specific arguments.) Later, as she experiences love from her children and reflects on the kindness that strangers have shown to her, she begins to see atheistic materialism as inadequate, as she embraces the possibility of a spiritual dimension. She eventually encounters the Gnostic Nag Hammadi texts, and she concludes that self-discovery rather than adherence to a book is the best spirituality. For her, people should heed the Gnostic admonition to look within, for those who are not at peace with themselves usually aren’t at peace with others. She dislikes religions that claim sole access to the truth because that leads to division and hostility. She concludes that “the ability to forgive and find common ground [is] the only means of turning our battered lives into a song.”

Although I have mixed reactions to Carlene’s spirituality, I must admit that there are touching moments in her self-discovery. At the beginning of the book, she mentions that she was ashamed of her rural Montana background when she was young, since it didn’t strike her as erudite or sophisticated. Later in her life, as she struggled with her life and spirituality, she came to admire her frontier heritage because it was tough in the midst of adversity and in touch with the land. This reminds me of a scene in Roots: The Next Generation, in which Alex Haley’s elderly aunt inquires, “You mean after spending all these years traveling the globe, you’ve finally found what you’re looking for right on this very porch?” Often, who we are and where we’ve been can contain more answers than we might think.

The book also taught me about welfare, since Carlene had to go on it for a while after she left her husband. Carlene gets a rough caseworker, whose gleefully reminds her that her benefits will soon be cut. I never figured that a welfare caseworker would be a Republican! And I actually admired some of what she did. She told Carlene about cheap places to buy food, while promoting the Goodwill as a place to shop. And that’s the way it should be. People who are receiving tax money should try to stretch that buck as far as it will go. Plus, the Goodwill has a lot of good stuff.

But I also had to reconsider some aspects of welfare reform, assuming that Carlene’s depiction is accurate. According to Carlene, the government does not like for single mothers to receive welfare when they are in school, since it wants them to work. Personally, I’d be a lot more flexible. There should be a time limit for welfare, since it shouldn’t be a way of life. But I’d give recipients the choice of working or going to school, since both are steps to getting on their feet.

So the book was surprisingly an enjoyable and thought-provoking read. I didn’t agree with all of it, but it’s fun to read other people’s stories and reflections.

About jamesbradfordpate

My name is James Pate. This blog is about my journey. I read books. I watch movies and TV shows. I go to church. I try to find meaning. And, when I can’t do that, I just talk about stuff that I find interesting. I have degrees in fields of religious studies. I have an M.Phil. in the History of Biblical Interpretation from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio. I also have an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Jewish Theological Seminary, an M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, and a B.A. from DePauw University.
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10 Responses to Fleeing Fundamentalism

  1. Anonymous says:

    excellent review-touching and insightful! -jake

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  2. James Pate says:

    Thanks, Jake. 🙂

    You study the ancient Near East, right? Is there anything to that view that there was a dominant goddess religion in the ANE up to 5000 B.C.E.?

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  3. scott gray says:

    james–

    great essay. i envy your output on these fabulous essays…each one i write takes me forever.

    i’m still thinking about your last question…haven’t forgotten.

    john hobbins is thinking about ‘compassionate conservatism.’ what, in your view, is compassionate conservatism? how does it fit in with your world view, your orthopraxy?

    sorry– i’m way off-topic here.

    peace–

    scott

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  4. James Pate says:

    Thanks, Scott. 🙂

    Actually, it takes me longer to write than I’d like. Right now, I’m on a leave of absence from school, so I have the time, but I’ll eventually have to try to get all I want to say into one hour.

    I’ll check out what John Hobbins is saying about compassionate conservatism. To be honest, I define it as big government conservatism. It’s been the mantra used to justify all of this domestic government spending (except for Homeland Security) over the last eight years. And more government spending doesn’t really solve the problem.

    What do you think?

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  5. scott gray says:

    james–

    i don’t have a good feel for what compassionate conservatism is, so it’s hard for me to have much of an opinion. i’m starting to think there’s a gradient of ‘conserve-reform-revolution, where conserving is about keeping things the same, or with minimal change, where reforming is about keeping a system but tweaking it, improving it, and where revolution is about overhauling the system completely. like you, i’m not sure that the ‘conserving’ that’s been done enhances ‘compassion.’ it strikes me that jesus, in focusing our attention on compassion, came somewhere between reformation (i come to fulfill the law, not to overthrow it), and revolution (through resurrection; and the last shall be first). i think it has more to do with living compassionately than with deliberately wanting change. if, in living compassionately, you change others, or systems, or your own self, then the change makes sense. i think the order of action is to act compassionately and accept or embrace the change, rather than change systems for a more compassionate outcome. on this issue, it’s behavior-based, not outcome based.

    but i still don’t know what the coiners and users of the phrase ‘compassionate conservatism’ mean.

    new thought. in your experience in you current schooling, what were some of your most profound ‘aha’ moments, when a new way of thinking overhauled your old way of thinking?

    peace–

    scott

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  6. James Pate says:

    Scott–

    Wikipedia is actually a good place to find definitions of things like compassionate conservatism. I know that it’s criticized because anyone can write in it, but it’s good if you want a fast definition.

    You raise some interesting points on compassion and change. I think, though, that there should be a concern about outcome. In high school, I was debating a liberal guidance counselor, and I told him that welfare doesn’t work. He replied, “Well, at least the Democrats tried, which is more than I can say for the Republicans.” But I don’t think that trying is enough. We should evaluate if something is effective.

    As far as aha moments go, to be honest, most of them occurred when I was an undergraduate. As an undergraduate, I learned that the Old Testament references that Christians apply to Jesus actually had a different meaning in their own context, or at least I learned that point of view. That was certainly new to me, and it opened me up to a historical-critical approach to the Bible. I’d say that, if anything, that has been the longest-running paradigm shift I’ve had. There was a time in college when I was enamored with Ayn Rand and that challenged some of my views, but that hasn’t lasted.

    Recently, I guess that I’ve learned certain ways of reading that crop up in how I approach texts. I’m a little more open to postmodernism and deconstruction right now than I have been in the past. That doesn’t mean that I dismiss the concepts of right or wrong, or even our ability to know on some level that some things are true or false. I just think that there is a lot of bias, ideology, and interpretation in what passes as reality. And I also think that there are different ways to see the Bible, and it’s not always so easy to determine which is the correct interpretation.

    Marxist interpretation also comes into my reading. I don’t like Marxist interpretations because they tend to read texts as power-plays or as attempts to uphold a class structure, and I prefer to see the biblical authors as well-intentioned. But I also feel that different possibilities should be acknowledged, and I try to interact with them, even though I may not agree.

    Also, something else I’ve learned at HUC is that many of the things we struggle with today were also struggles in antiquity. The narrative I always got at previous schools is that everyone was practically a fundamentalist in pre-Enlightenment days, and then the Enlightenment came and challenged everyone’s views on the Bible. It questioned that certain biblical events happened, pointed out contradictions, and disputed the existence of miracles. But there were plenty of pre-Enlightenment people of antiquity who struggled with these issues, in terms of both the Bible and also Homer. I’d have to check my notes to be more specific, but I’d say that is a paradigm shift in that it undermined a narrative I once assumed to be true.

    Thanks for asking this question. It makes me realize that I’m being influenced by my education, even though I may not always realize it.

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  7. scott gray says:

    i think welfare is a good example of compassion gone bad. i think also of the localized funding of faith-based initiatives, where there is government money available for churches who run soup kitchens. it feels like it should work, but each response creates new injustices. i wrote my masters about how justice responses to perceived injustices rooted in anything other than relationship are bound to create new injustices. when injustices occur when we have relationships with those we minister to, these relationships allow us to reconcile, and try again. when injustices occur in system responses, because there is no relationship, there is not much chance for useful reconciliation.

    peace–

    scott

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  8. James Pate says:

    I agree with you there. And that’s an argument for faith based initiatives–private charities can have more face to face contact with the person they’re helping. And they’re also more flexible.

    So what was the focus of your master’s thesis? Was it welfare?

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  9. Anonymous says:

    your question is a good one, and may provoke some ire.

    i’m not sure i’m comfortable with the phrase goddess religion, but i would say that goddesses were often worshipped early on. off the top of my head (i.e. don’t skewer me if some of the data are woefully incorrect that I present), the warka vase found in Uruk II seems to depict EANNA in the late 4th millenium. in the baadian culture of egypt there seems to be some ivory goddess in the early 4th-late 5th millenium, and in ‘ain ghazel and jericho there seems to be some goddess type material during Neolithic (pre-pottery B, I think). Later we see goddess worship at Ugarit and one of the proto-sinaitic inscriptions says “lady…” in the Late Bronze Age. And of course we have Kuntillet ‘Ajrud and Judean Pillar Figurines–but I won’t go there.

    It seems very common but I wouldn’t say it was necessarily monolithic.

    Jake

    PS. To what degree do “conservative” economic approaches presuppose social darwinism?

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  10. James Pate says:

    Thanks for your response, Jake.

    I think what Carlene was saying was that the Ancient Near East once has religions in which a goddess was dominant, and they got replaced by religions with a male deity. Does that sound right to you? I know that goddesses were worshipped in the ANE, but, usually, they were part of a pantheon that included male gods (as far as I know). Was the situation different before 5000 B.C.E.?

    I’ll have to think about your social darwinism question. I don’t think that conservative economic approaches (by which I mean classical liberal or libertarian approaches) consciously presuppose social darwinism. I don’t think their aim is to weed out the weak. For them, everyone benefits from a free market economy. That’s Adam Smith’s invisible hand.

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