Today, Norm Goldman Publisher & Editor of Bookpleasures.com is excited to have as our guest, James Alexander Author of Stories of a Recovering Fundamentalist: Understanding and Responding to Christian Absolutism.
James is an education professor at a small liberal arts college and he also serves as a minister. In addition, he is a part-time author, writing several published articles and book chapters on education and religion.
Good day James and thanks for participating in our interview.
Could you define what you mean by Christian Absolutism?
I would suppose that, strictly speaking, one might say that the term "Christian Absolutism" is synonymous with the term "fundamentalism." If one were to read The Fundamentals, which are twelve volumes published at the height of the fundamentalist/modernist controversies of the early 1900's one would, in essence, arrive at what I mean by Christian absolutism.
I think it is essential to "throw" one more element in the "stew," however. Absolutism upholds notion that we must ALL become absolutists/fundamentalists. Because of that idea, absolutists cannot accept "not interested" for an answer-- they are pushy! In view of all of this, one might ask "Why refer to absolutism at all? Why not just stick to fundamentalism and be done with it?"
Actually, I use the terms interchangeably in the book. I guess I am concerned with making a distinction between your next-door neighbors "garden variety" fundamentalism or evangelicalism and the more violent, extremist varieties of fundamentalism mentioned in the media and associated with horrific acts. By some estimates, about 34% of Americans are some variety of fundamentalist or evangelical. I want to make sure that all fundamentalists are not lumped together. My book is not about politics, or fundamentalist violence (such as shooting or bombing abortion providers), the book mostly concerns itself with the Browns and the Smiths-- you know, the folks next-door.
Why do you believe that millions of people are drawn to Christian Fundamentalism?
We live in a confusing world. It is a world that cries out for guidance, for some way to navigate through the storming seas of living in a postmodern world--a world devoid of concrete answers and filled with questions and competing worldviews.
Along come fundamentalists offering a "perfect book" and a "perfect interpretation" of that book. They offer the certitude which promises a way of pain avoidance. By knowing absolutely, people are spared the pain of muddling through life and having to make it as best they can.
The existentialists have long recognized the phenomena of "humankind alone"--each of us finding our way by ourselves. This is the way of the world as given us by science and postmodernism (which are rather opposed to each other, although they both play a role in our "aloneness"). In the centuries gone by, the church and the papacy could define absolutely. In the absence of that, fundamentalists offer a "paper pope" and encourage us to defy reason. Who can say? Maybe the lack of certitude is a child of the Reformation. Some would certainly say it is exactly that. At any rate, fundamentalism appeals to the human desire for certitude.
share a little of Stories
of a Recovering Fundamentalist: Understanding and Responding to
must begin by saying that the book is part memoir and part research.
In some way, most of what it describes is tied to my own experience.
This extends from my early days of embracing fundamentalism to my
time of leaving the movement.
The main point of this book is that there are two types of knowing. One may know truth by empirical investigation. One may also arrive at knowledge via myth. Neither approach invalidates the other. They are complimentary ways of arriving at truth. Absolutists (fundamentalists) err in attempting to root religious truth in the empirical, largely by using the Bible as the dominating source of empirical truth.
To put all of this another way, I might say the following about the heart of this book. Throughout, it is stressed that fundamentalism is flawed at its core because of a basic failure to distinguish between two types of truth: the mythic and the empirical. Fundamentalism insists on putting mythic truths on the same plane as empirically established truth. It abhors relativism and demands certainty. Fundamentalists fail to recognize the human element in religion and the creation of religion, therefore they tend to view all of the Bible as absolute, true, without error, and (so they claim anyway), a book they accept without qualifications. This notion of a flat Bible, where all parts are equally true and equally useful and valid and no parts are viewed as part of a higher revelatory or moral plane, is explored and found wanting.
This book reviews the nature of Christian absolutism (fundamentalism) from various perspectives, conceptualizing absolutism as a search for certainty and order. Mainly, the point of view is sociological and philosophical. The writing is from the perspective of someone who spent his childhood years as part of a fundamentalist church and later, after abandoning the hippie counterculture, embraced the fundamentalist Jesus Movement (Jesus Freaks) and subculture of the early 1970s before finally leaving fundamentalism as a controlling paradigm.
After exploring several aspects of absolutism such as the relationship of absolutism to postmodernism and religion as a socially constructed phenomenon, the book poses a concluding question: Is there a way out of the maze of uncertainty? The books answer is that such a way does exist. It comes by faith. Faith is knowledge based in mythic truth as opposed to absolutism based in a literal approach to the Bible. Faith forms the basis of a proposed rapprochement between those inclined toward absolutism and those taking a more open view of Christianity.
Why would someone be interested in this book? It is a pertinent topic. Absolutism and evangelicalism are often in the media, and many are concerned about the implication of these conservative Christian movements. The book has special relevance for pastoral care since many pastors must deal with members and families concerned about the absolutist movement and might need to address the appeal of absolutism among their own congregants. However, its appeal and application is far wider than religious leaders and adherents. I think the appeal should hold for the secular and marginally religious folks as well.
Why do you think this is an important book at this time?
I think the recent election continues to reveal that we are in the midst of a culture war in the United States. Recall how Senator McCains choice of Governor Palin really did, as they say, energize the base. Much of the Republican base that was so energized derives from that 34% percent or so of Americans that come from the evangelical/fundamentalist segment of American society. We live in a deeply divided nation. The book helps folks understand why this is so.
Is there a message in Stories of a Recovering Fundamentalist: Understanding and Responding to Christian Absolutism that you want your readers to grasp?
would probably sum it up with two sentences. First, The
opposite of faith is not doubt but certainty. The idea is
not original, but I think the way I develop it in this book is.
Second, Faith is better than the certitude that absolutism
offers. Ultimately, either one must deny reality, or one
must admit that absolutism cannot account for the facts of the
world. Faith, on the other hand, is not rooted in a shifting
certainty or an inerrant Bible. Faith rests on hope and
belief. These things may utilize evidence (they probably
should), but they do not depend on knowingat least not knowledge
as conventionally understood. Faith can become a meeting
place. If not a meeting place for the very liberal and the
fundamentalist, it can at least be a place where the liberal
moderate and the conservative moderate can find common
ground. Thats doing better than we are doing now.
did you get your information and ideas for your book?
story aspects come from my personal experience as well as
discussions with old friends, both those currently involved in
fundamentalist/evangelical groups and those who left the movement.
Research for the more academic components of the book owe their
inclusion to the library and library journal databases at Kentucky
Wesleyan College where I work as an education professor.
What was one of the most surprising things you learned in writing your book?
As someone who embraced fundamentalism, lived with that paradigm for many years and then abandoned that perspective, I was surprised to discover the outline of my journey had been so closely mirrored in the journey of others. When I began to see how closely I followed the general path both in and out of fundamentalism, I knew I had discovered a journey that needed more carefully documentation, along with commentary from psychological, sociological, philosophical, and theological perspectives. Writing this book helped me to feel less alone in a journey that, to some degree, will always be one that those who would leave must make alone.
hear from your readers much? How
has the feedback been so far?
comments are available on the Amazon website and there are links to
reviews on my blog (see below). Comments have been
overwhelmingly positive. I have found it especially gratifying
to receive favourable comments from friends of nearly 40 years, many
of whom still identify themselves as fundamentalists/evangelicals.
They especially appreciated a chapter I included on misunderstandings
people often hold about fundamentalists.
challenges or obstacles did you encounter while writing your book?
How did you overcome these challenges?
obstacle was a need to maintain confidentiality in the stories I
told. Although all stories are true, I was careful to write
them in such a way as not to break confidences or reveal personal
can our readers find out more about you and your book?
source is my blog: http://repentantfundie.blogspot.com
, one can
also search the www.amazon.com
site for my
book and read reviews or visit my bookstore page by entering the book
title at the www.authorhouse.com
site for more
next for James Alexander and is there anything else you wish to add
that we have not covered?
I do engage in academic writing associated with my work as a
professor. I enjoy teaching and working with students day to
day. I also serve as minister of a bi-vocational parish near my
home. As to writing, I am strongly considering working on
something that is more pure memoir, but that remains to be
seen. It seems like I am always writing something!
Thanks once again and good luck with all of your future endeavors.