Wednesday, September 12, 2007


One of the books I read this summer was Ayaan Hirsi Ali's Infidel. It is basically her autobiography about growing up Muslim and then growing up beyond Muslim. You may remember the brutal murder of her artist friend, Theodore Van Gogh, at the hands of a Muslim extremist in Holland a few years ago. There was a good deal of approval for this killing in the Dutch Muslim community. Van Gogh's crime? He made a movie, a very short movie, about the abuse of Muslim women. He and Ali dared to challenge Islam. For that he died and for that, and Ayaan's continued outspoken criticism against the abuses of Islam, she must have constant protection. She has now left Holland and lives in the US where she works with the American Enterprise Institute, a think tank in Washington, DC.

The book is a page turner. It stuns. But it is not only the issues that flame between her and Islam that ignite the pages. It is the parallels with evangelical Christianity. She, I must quickly point out, does not draw these parallels. But for myself the connections between major aspects of evangelicalism and rank and file fundamentalist Islam are too obvious to ignore. It almost made me break into a cold sweat as I read the book.

What parallels? For starters, intolerance. Evangelicals are very good at not giving any space to people who think and act differently than they do. Though there is supposed to be a separation of church and state in the west, there are many who would, like Islam, love to erase that distinction, make both one, and rule nations with their brand of evangelical Christianity - and a very ruthless brand it can be.

The subjection of women. Because subjection it is. Women can't teach men - women can't preach - women can't be pastors - women can't lead. We find a few verses in the New Testament, ignore a multitude of others, and condemn women to a second tier existence in the Body of Christ. And call it God.

Homosexuality. An Islamic Republic would execute them. When you listen to some of the rhetoric coming out of the evangelical camp, you wonder if they wouldn't do the same in a Christian Republic.

Not allowing people to choose. Evangelicals may not like abortion - I don't - but you cannot force a woman to bear a child. You cannot put a gun to her head, say she cannot have an abortion, and call it God. You cannot put the same gun to the gay man's head, to the gay woman's head, and say you cannot be homosexual, or have a gay marriage, and call it God. Christians have as ugly a history as Islam in this regard - the butchery of Jews and Muslims in Christ's name, forced conversions, forced mass baptisms, the slaughter of Christians by Christians - all because some people wanted to believe differently, be baptized differently, read a different translation of the Bible, take a different stance on the nature of God. I'm afraid that spirit of intolerance still broods in the evangelical breast. In fact, many would call it a mark of true spirituality - such people are celebrated as being closer to God.

Anti-intellectualism. Anti-imagination. Anti-literature. Anti-arts. I know as well as anyone the new flowering of the arts and intellect, yes, and even of tolerance, among evangelical Christians. I also know it is in relatively short supply and that mediocrity and ignorance still reign supreme. Evangelicals acclaim the depth and value of shallow and tepid books, they thump their chests and point to sales of the Left Behind series and say, "Look, we've made it, this is our literature, and it's making a lot of money." Crass, cruel, craven and commercial. Exalting materialism and ignorance and intolerance. Worshipping the shallow, affixing God to a bumper sticker or T shirt, hating gays, screaming at women who have abortions, calling themselves pro-life but supporting war and the death penalty, making abortion, gay marriage and stem cell research the most important issues, but saying little enough about Darfur and human rights issues and the environment, turning their back on centuries of sculpture and painting and writing by Christians (and everybody else). And calling it God.

Sweeping generalizations? No, not really. I grow tired of people always saying, "Oh, but not all evangelicals are like that." The truth is, quite a few are. And a smattering of Christian liberal arts colleges and a new generation of Phds doesn't change that. The rareified air of an academic institution may lull some into thinking rank and file evangelicalism is just like what happens in those classrooms, but that's just not the case. The same thinking and exploring and listening is not out there in the mosque and the chapel. A few interesting writers who have Christian beliefs - Walker Percy, Wendell Berry, Frederick Buechner to mention three - doesn't change what fills the fiction shelves of most Christian bookstores (and trinket emporiums) and it has no bearing whatsoever on the formula fiction evangelical publishers churn out by the bushel - it's all about $$$$ and maintaining an insipid evangelical status quo. Painting? Painting is what evangelicals do to their kitchen walls when they want to change the colour scheme of their homes. It's what they sell in the bookstores - shepherds and sheep and fat cutesy angels and chrome crosses. A few good paintings hung in a few evangelical colleges and institutions does not change what the majority are buying and hanging and calling sublime.

No wonder I felt panic when I read Ayaan's book. Islam and evangelicalism have so much in common it's scary. And this sort of religious, political and cultural fascism is not diminishing among Christian evangelicals. Despite well-wishers to the contrary, it's on the increase, and a handful of thinkers and writers and sculptors have not changed the face of evangelical Christianity from cruel to kind. Not yet.


Pastor Josh said...

Ah, I see you already disapprove the Left Behind series. I figured you would, but now I see it in print. Very good. I got through the middle of the second or third one before I gave up in despair and regret. I'm glad to hear someone else is saying what I've been telling friends and fellow believers for years. Maybe I should direct people here without going throught the pain of trying to convince them myself- but that would do no good. I became a pastor four years ago and when I arrived the congregation was in the middle of a cash-drive for a new stained glass window. We are a pretty new evangelical denomination, about as far from "high church" as you can get. They picked a design that was pretty standard, Christ in the garden with golden light illuminating his head, a dove, red flowers; at first it bothered me because it just seemed too predictable. I'd dropped the idea of an abstract pattern for our window but nobody picked it up. So I sit under this piece of religious artwork and I'm not sure what to think about it until one day I was doing some personal study in the sanctuary. Tuesday morning, no people, no pressure. As I'm pacing with my Bible I suddenly walk under the light and I see the pages I'm readin blush red. I've walked under the light of the red flowers, and I was just reading about the fall of Jerusalem in Jeremiah, and the slaughter that took place there. Now as I read, the pages were suddenly the color of blood. I finished that chapter and layed down on the platform under the colored sunlight and it warmed my skin. My clothes were suddenly interesting - blue and red and green with tiny prismatic rainbows where the stars in the window refract the light. I decided to ignore the design of the glass and soak up the light instead. It was a really good feeling, and it's helped me to feel less ambivalent about that silly thing up there on the wall. Sometimes you can still feel the light through the design... (but that still doesn't excuse mediocrity!)

murray said...

Thanks for the two comments you've left, Josh, they're great, and they add another dimension to the dialogue. God bless in depth.

EMP said...

"Because subjection it is. Women can't teach men - women can't preach - women can't be pastors - women can't lead. We find a few verses in the New Testament, ignore a multitude of others, and condemn women to a second tier existence in the Body of Christ. And call it God."

Murray, I should probably stop reading for tonight. All this nodding...well, it ain't making me sleepy. I teach in Connie's world: a world of gentle and godly SoBs (mostly men) who allow me to preach in their pulpits (encourage me, even), although their denomination doesn't ordain women; and every single semester I'm a stumbling block for a dear new brother who learns that I preach. "I'm not Baptist," I defend myself with raised hands and a smile; "I come in peace." As an outsider, a contractor/adjunct instructor, I get away with much. But my heart breaks every time I see us limiting God's children. He's the gift-Giver, for heaven's sake! And, as you say in this post and elsewhere, every time we call it God when it's clearly, biblically, NOT...maddens me, makes me sad.

murray said...

EMP, the Salvation Army ordains women. So do the Pentecostal churches and the Methodist churches and the Anglican churches and the Evangelical Covenant churches. (I'm probably missing a few.) This women-in-subjection thing is not a teaching, it's a cultural artifact like slavery. Thank goodness more and more Christians are seeing it that way and realizing Christ never wanted us to be like the Taliban.

EMP said...

I hear you, MAP: I do. In Africa I grew up in the Methodist church (gorgeous lady minister with a true preaching gift), and so obviously I am influenced. 'Tis one of the reasons I've never "converted" to the denomination of my workplace, bless their pure hearts. As I said, though, they're different up here than in the south, thank God (and I do thank Him).

EMP said...

As an aside, I'm a "Cathlo-Baptist Dangmethodite who follows Jesus"...and I come in peace.

(Married into a Catholic family; work at a Baptist seminary; christened in a Dutch Reformed church; mom's Dutch Reformed; dad's Anglican; confirmed in a Methodist church, also where I met Christ, hallelujah; and now Robin and I are members of an MB church in Calgary.)

murray said...

I spent years with the MBs in Winnipeg and just finished sharing a building with the MB church here (our church plant had the second floor). When I went to Providence it was like living in Goshen, USA, there were so many Mennonites. A good friend has just moved from Kelowna to pastor an MB church in London, ON. Yup, the MBs are old friends, though often enough you find MBs everywhere but an MB church. As you know, there is a strong Mennonite strain in Canadian lit, though I suppose many of them are ex-Mennonite as far as faith commitment is concerned: Judy Braun, Rudy Wiebe, Di Brandt, hmm, the guy who wrote The Salvation of Yasch Siemens, another Wiebe, and who bought our house and my third floor writing garret when we moved to the coast in 1989.

EMP said...

"...often enough you find MBs everywhere but an MB church." 'Tis true!

"...there is a strong Mennonite strain in Canadian lit, though I suppose many of them are ex-Mennonite as far as faith commitment is concerned: Judy Braun, Rudy Wiebe, Di Brandt, hmm, the guy who wrote The Salvation of Yasch Siemens"--yes, Armin Wiebe.

No, I have not yet read any of these (gasp! and I'm a Mennonite by choice!)--and there's Miriam Toews, too--but hope to in time. I think I'd enjoy Rudy Wiebe, from all I've heard.

Recommendations for my first venture into MB lit?

murray said...

MB lit? Read some of Di Brandt's poetry - you will see her reaction to her Ch'n Mennonite upbringing - where she has made peace and where she hasn't - but then you must have a Rudy Wiebe for a main course - let his jagged rhythms and cut-into-the-mind metaphors and similes engage you: The Blue Mountains of China, Peace Shall Destroy Many, The Temptations of Big Bear, The Scorched Wood People - of which the first and last named are particular favourites