Fundamentalism’s fatal flaw

“The Earth is the Lords, and the flatness thereof.” [Ps 24, NFV]*

If it does not seem possible to dialog directly with fundamentalists, we can at least reflect on why this is so. While some refuse point blank to enter any debate regarding the/ir truth, other might see this fact as an opportunity to learn about compassion, difference, peacemaking and unity, and allow the potential “logs in their own eye” to be challenged as they identify the splinters in the eyes of their detractors.

Fundamentalism may have had a good purpose once, as a response to liberal modernism. But now, it is not just unnecessary, or outmoded. It is not only unpleasant and damaging. It does not just discredit the God of Compassion. No, its final flaw is more basic: from where I stand, fundamentalism is in fact impossible.

One of its chief features is its lateralization of language. To literalise is to flatten, removing all poetry or ambiguity – all Life – from ideas. A true fundamentalism outlaws all metaphor. But who does not use metaphor daily: “I’m just popping out” means I am leaving then returning, but true fundamentalist literalisation would be bound to ask “You mean your eye? Or are you leaving us via an explosion?” Yet they do not – they accept metaphor.

And did Jesus not abundantly describe his mission via simile – “The Kingdom is like a net…” Perhaps the fundamentalist requires a strict delineation between metaphor and simile, so that we are very explicit about abstract comparisons, by using the disclaimer “like”. If Jesus had said “The Kingdom is a net”, what would anti-metaphorical fundamentalists make of his words? “Not so Lord, it will never be a net”? No, Jesus assumes his message will be filtered via our imaginations, in order to fire them up and grow faith for the hearers.

And when Jesus says (rather curiously I have always thought) “You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again?” is he not implying that it is impossible for this earth not to be good, so long as those who trust him remain true? It is a chemical fact that salt – Soduim Chloride – is extremely stable, and can virtually not lose its salty properties.

As Kabir says, “I laugh when I hear that the fish is thirsty.” Meaning, it is impossible for the fish to be thirsty, and that it is impossible for the earth not to be good:  seasoned, purified, preserved and fertilized via the Grace of God and the Salt of Faith.

As I read the scriptures, and as I contemplate the world in which I live, I see abundant evidence of a Poetic God at play in his Universe of Marvels. My ultimate response to Life is one of awe. It is to perceive an endless mystery at every level of being.

If Life, God or the Cosmos are even in the slightest bit Poetic, then any attempt to do away with this poetry in the name of God, Life or the Cosmos, is impossible. It goes against the Truth, and this attempt at the impossible is therefore hypocrisy. And hypocrisy is sin.

From this reasoning, the sin of fundamentalism, and its fatal flaw, is the rejection of the Poetic God of Multifaceted Beauty and the embrace of the Reductionist Idol of Unifaceted Fact.

As we wrestle with truth, these are some of the questions we might ask:

  • Is this created Universe reducible, as the Newtonian approach would have it, to an objective series of mere facts?
  • Is this essentially Greek approach to truth “biblical” – does it line up with almost all other non-modern traditions, especially the Hebraic – of narrative truth as revealed through story?
  • Are the words of Jesus and the biblical authors reducible to a set of codified truth propositions – in effect, laws?
  • Is there a single meaning of the cross by which we determine a single, simple approach to Salvation?

To the extent you answered yes to these, you are a modern fundamentalist. Your worldview, whether you know it or not, is deeply influenced by the Enlightenment and Scientific rationalism. You probably see this as normal, and are unwilling to countenance another point of view. You partake in an “excess of confidence”.

If all of this remained merely a philosophical issue, then the sin of fundamentalism would not be that serious. It would fall into the category of abstract problems like any other “ism” might. But the fact is this: the actions and morality based on an impossible belief system, one at odds with Life and ultimately with God, is bound to be problematic. The fruits speak for themselves: a hypocritical belief framework leads inevitably to hypocritical deeds.

In my online skirmishes with fundamentalists I often find myself cast as the villain, the renegade and the rejecter of God. My attempts to effect reconciliation which as I see it are a foundational (fundamental in fact) part of the gospel of reconciliation, are met with scorn and worse. My desire to forge peace is mirrored back as an act of war. Any talk of truth is interpreted as deception on my part.

It is this same toxic thinking that makes people hate homosexuals, for instance. Or kill them. In the name of the Christian God.

We should not be surprised then at the vehemence with which certain people reject the emergent message. The postmodern tendencies of this message, which attempt to reclaim the mystery which rightfully belongs in the broad tradition of Christian spirituality, confound the Modern thought process. Any attempt to question or any hint of ambiguity in the written words of scripture is demonised and condemned as compromising truth by making it less clear and less one-dimensional.

To this, Peter Rollins can have the last word:

“… if we were to do the impossible and render the text into the ultimate fantasy of the fundamentalist (a text at one with itself) then the Word of God would not be clearer; rather, the Word of God would be systematically eradicated.” (The Fidelity of Betrayal, Peter Rollins, Paraclete 2008, p 57)

* The New Fundamentalist Version is not currently available (and will hopefully never become available).


  1. Chad said

    Great thoughts, Nic.
    The last bit about scripture and the way the fundies treat it reminds me of a poem by Billy Collins titled, “Introduction to Poetry.” I am using this in a series I am writing on my blog on a book called “Pastor.” The poem goes..

    I ask them to take a poem
    and hold it up to the light
    like a color slide

    or press an ear against its hive.

    I say drop a mouse into a poem
    and watch him probe his way out,

    or walk inside the poem’s room
    and feel the walls for a light switch.

    I want them to waterski
    across the surface of a poem
    waving at the author’s name on the shore.

    But all they want to do
    is tie the poem to a chair with rope
    and torture a confession out of it.

    They begin beating it with a hose
    to find out what it really means.

    Now, take the word “poem” above and replace it with the word “scripture.”

    One of the most frustrating things for me in talking to fundies is not only their literalist renderings of God’s mysterious, holy Word but also how they pick and choose segments that construct God in their own image. On the DTW site I asked if anyone can imaging Jesus not eating with someone, saying “I refuse to sit at the table with you” or “I hate you” or the like. Amanda’s response to me was one of complete surprise, for did I not KNOW that Jesus came not to bring peace but a sword???? She chose to use Matt. 7 as her lens for which to portray Jesus to me – one who came to turn household against household. She conveniently ignores the countless passages where Jesus is despised by the “religious” for eating with “sinners, whores and tax collectors.” (I have a response submitted to her about all this and am waiting to see if it gets through the Gatekeeper. If it does not, I will post it on emergingafrica).

    peace to you.

  2. nic paton said

    Chad – yes, torturing confessions out of the Word is a pretty good description.
    Excellant quote there.

    BTW I am still resonating with what you said on EV: seeking a robust Gospel. Thats a mantra and a mission statement worth holding up.

    Chad, I will seek out your post on the pastor – this creature really intruigues me as it lives both within me and as a target of my own ire.

  3. Chad said

    Thanks. I think the gospel is far more robust than we can even begin to articulate. We merely stutter when we try to put it into words. Thus, Paul says we only see through a glass dimly.

    On my blog is a series I am working through on Will Willimon’s book “Pastor.” I have been stretched much by it. Just put a new one up that talks about how we interpret Scripture. I think it is a worthy critique of the way fundies tend to do it.


  4. […]   The discussions that have been going on at that site and elsewhere  (along with my friend Nic Paton) have brought to light some of the toxic tendencies and attitudes that can exist in Christian […]

  5. Don Rogers said

    Nic- Oh so true!! I see the truth in your post. Very enlightening!
    Chad- The poem is so true with the substitution.

  6. Ryan Peter said

    Using Paul’s method we see outlined in his talk to the Atheneans in Acts, where Paul quotes the Greek’s own poets to prove his point about God, I’m sure we can do the same with fundamentalists.

    In other words, there is a lot of truth to what many of them are saying. I think most of us agree that there is some truth in all worldviews (and even if we didn’t we would be proved wrong) and therefore there is actually a lot of truth in what fundamentalists say, albeit their style and method is either flat out unJesus like or just different to ours (we should be careful we do not judge people on what they are saying just because of style and presentation).

    Perhaps looking for those nuggets of truth in the fundamentalist worldview while challenging consistency is the best way to go about the reconciliatory approach in this conversation.

  7. nic paton said

    Thanks for your thoughts.

    My attack is against ways of thinking. It is not aimed against individuals. However you have seen how intractable certain people have been recently, and its not surprizing that it gets personal and specific with this level of wilfull manipulation and rejection of honest conversation.

    But thanks for the reminder, of course we can learn from fundy’s. I just think their message is very hidden because of their approach.

    McLuhan famous aphorism comes to mind “The medium is the message”: In chosing confrontation, intransigence, and manipulation of truth, the recieved message morphs from the original “Jesus loves you” to “You are wrong and I am certain of that fact”. I simply cannot see how the message coming out of the DTW project can lead people to God,other than scare them into a doctrinal position of pseudo salvation.

    So maybe I am saying we should redefine what we mean by “message” – I’d suggest we need to take more account of the medium (attitude, method, anonymity, virtual) in this definition.

    The other factor is that all efforts to be concilliatory were rebuffed, due to the fact that in their head we were already anathema. When we say “Peace”, they read “false peace”, when we say “Christ” they say “Another Christ”.

    I do however heed your words regarding the dangers of hypocrisy. We need to be challenging “the fundy within”.

  8. russell said


    you make some sound point here, for example the toxic payload of many fundamentalists. however i know a number of people that you would probably class as fundamentalist who don’t fit your description.

    in your opening statement, you say that it does not seem possible to dialogue directly with fundamentalists. my experience says otherwise – with some individuals in certain situations, it is impossible. but speak to that person when their dear father has just passed away & you may perceive them differently.

    fundamentalists seem much more heterodox to me than your definitions & descriptions. i know a number of christians who would hold to the inerrancy of scripture for instance, but also embrace it’s ambiguity, obliqueness & metaphor.

    i have been cast as a heretic or a forsaker of Christ on a number of occasions, so appreciate how your recent skirmishes may have made you feel or think.



  9. nic paton said

    I am glad my description is less than complete. I am glad there are fundy’s – you are correct – who are not completely unable to converse. That the vast majority are not sociopaths.

    As you point out, the post has a context, and it is not a pleasent one. I’m an accomodating type who looks for what is in common, but when I get slandered with such disregard for the facts, I will tend towards imbalance.

    Listing, oh mighty ship of fools, listing we sail…

  10. russ... said


    for sure, noone likes to be lambasted, accused & judged – i must confess that haven’t read any of the recent emergents vs fundamentalists threads. for me, i’m choosing to opt out of the conversation, to wait & see what emergence coagulates into.

    last night i was listening to an interview with a archaeological researcher, who has explored a variety of anomalies & potential paradigm shifting discoveries that have been either hushed up or ignored by the scientific status quo – discoveries that give credibility to the view that humans have inhabited our planet for far longer than the plus/minus 100k years that the scientific cabal will allow. many empirically driven scientists hold such suspicions privately but cannot utter them publically, for fear of professional marginalization.

    people often castigate the so-called fundamentalists for holding to a young earth theory, while cozying up to the darwinists – either because they want to be seen as credible, hip, non-luddite or whatever, or because they themselves have embraced the new fundamentalisms, such as darwinism.

    Darwin said that if transformational forms could not be found in the archeological data, then his theory would fall flat. as far as i know, they are yet to be found and yet emergents often seem keen to assimilate evolution into their new spiritual cosmology. the vedic puranas also put forward the idea that humans have been around for much longer than current scientific dogma would allow.

    i think we need to widen our focus beyond one sub-species of fundamentalist.


  11. Gavin Marshall said

    I was going to pass comment on this subject, but I think I may have something to offer the conversation. I think the issue here goes much deeper than an issue of belief, or theology for that matter. Just like a bee who stings you isn’t thinking so much about the logic of doing so – even though she (worker bee and all) is going to dies doing it. It’s instinctual. It’s a defense mechanism designed to protect the hive.

    In that sense I doubt if it’s a ‘battle’ that can ever be won because while you wage it with words and a whole lot of good intent – it goes beyond that. Like in the Matrix – where they wouldn’t try and free a mind that was not ready – they could very well turn into a sentinel – you have the same thing when trying to ‘liberate’ people’s thinking.

    Fundamentalism is all about being safe. Being safe from ‘hell’, being safe from being excluded, being safe within your rightness, being safe from paradox, from mystery, being safe from the incredible power that each of us have within us. So when you challenge it, the response isn’t personal or intellectual (despite the wordplay). The whole thing is a system designed to make you feel safe – so challenging it causes an instinctual response – fight or flight, take out the enemy.

    My advice – learn Tai Chi – don’t waste your energy. There are multiple universes. Each sentient being is a Universe – a different perspective, a different neural network and set of memories. There are places where these resonate with each other, and places where they collide and cause Big Bangs (all in 6 days of course😉 )….

    • nic paton said

      Gavin – thanks for giving this some thought.

      I agree that fundies are looking for safety. The problem for me is that safety
      1) assumes a dangerous, vendictive God.
      2) tries to undermine faith which is according to the christian and specifically protestant tradition, is what justifies us before God.

      On the other hand, because there is ALWAYS another hand, we need to show compassion to those who are needing safe arms. Which is all of us.

  12. Gavin Marshall said

    ( pass comment = pass on commenting😉 )

  13. Hi there,

    I don’t get it. I mean, well written, flowery and all that, but I’m still confused… since when don’t fundementlists do metaphors. That’s the premise is it not? Unless that in itself is just another metaphor, like a literary fractal.

  14. Gavin Marshall said

    Mark – yes they do metaphors. We all do metaphors. Joseph Campbell once defined myth as being ‘someone else’s religion’, and perhaps this is what was meant. ‘Fundamentalists’ usually take a whole lot of stuff that is probably best interpreted mythologically (or metaphorically) and read it literally. Of course they wouldn’t see it that way. But as I’ve tried to argue – it runs a whole lot deeper than an approach to theology, or a method of interpretation.

  15. […] conversation”, the emergent conversation. I felt like some were shouting at me like Sound and Silence and others were just picketing, singing protest songs like The Emerging Bracken but all were […]

  16. The only flaw we fundamentalists might have is that we did not purge the world of all infidels when we had a chance. Don’t you know it is our job as genuine Christians to sift the wheat from the tares?

    • Blessed are the tares!!

      As Paul reminds us in 1 Corinthians 1:27-28 (King James Version):

      27But God hath chosen the foolish things of the world to confound the wise; and God hath chosen the weak things of the world to confound the things which are mighty;

      28And base things of the world, and things which are despised, hath God chosen, yea, and things which are not, to bring to nought things that are:

      Thank you for sharing this.

    • This probably wont be posted, but I hope you do, cos I am sure Nic you would hate it if someone impersonated you.

      There is a big difference between arguing and writing about eachother on our OWN blogs vs what this guy is going.

      Discerning the World (The real one)

    • nic paton said

      “purge the world of all infidels” – what do you mean by that?

      • What I mean is Anyone who stands against me stands against GOD!

        We are the real genuine Christians. When the disciples told Jesus that others were healing in his name but were not part of them, Jesus SHOULD have rained fire down upon the other group. If Jesus were a “genuine Christian” like us he would have. So we have to do it now. We must rain fire down on those that are not with us. Join us in the fight!

  17. OK,

    I’m distancing myself from that fruit loop (um, I’m assuming after dropping by your blog that you’re a meerkat dressed up in hamster clothing).

    The point I was trying to make above was: Where were you going with statements like, “To literalise is to flatten, removing all poetry or ambiguity – all Life – from ideas. A true fundamentalism outlaws all metaphor.”?

    • nic paton said

      Hi Mark
      Apologies for my absence, but here I now am.
      I’d like to address your question,but you are not really giving me an easy entry point.

      Where am I going? In THAT statement I am merely suggesting a definition of “literalise”. To be literal as opposed to poetic.

      Maybe you are asking something else … like “what do you believe” – well if that’s the case, I believe in a poetic God who has created a poetic universe. TO squeeze this innate poetry from it is in my view to show disdain for our Creator.

      Thanks for asking, I am quite happy to engage your questions if we canrespect one another, regardless of your position.

  18. Mark it’s like a metaphor, for example. One can take my blog Discerning The World and replicate it by making a fake blog called Discerning The World, it looks the ‘similar’ on the outside but the message on the blog itself is warped.

    So you can take the gospel of Jesus, the Word of God and you can replicte it and present the world with a fake version of the gospel.

    But hey I’m a fundie, what do I know about metaphors – hence I have had my identity hijacked and a replica blog called discerningtheworld3.wordpress… made, where mine is discerningtheworld2.wordpress.

    • Gavin Marshall said

      I prefer discerningtheworld3. It’s more honest as to what fundamentalism is really all about. Either way – this has been entertaining. Thanks for the reminder as to why I steer clear of church😉

  19. […] while back I read a blog entry over at Sound and Silence called “Fundamentalism’s fatal flaw”. Whether it was right or not is inconsequential because: it got me thinking about: what are the […]

  20. Yikes…

    I am fundamentalist in my theology, evangelical in my approach to culture.

    Fundamentalism has an historical definition (a movement in the early 20th century founded by Princeton professors to combat modernism) and a sociological definition (a harsh, rigid, rule-bound, literalistic interpretation of a body of truth, resulting in an anti-progressive worldview).

    I think, perhaps, maybe, the two have been conflated in this dialog. I’d like to comment (respectfully) on the historical/theological movement called fundamentalism.

    I love metaphor, and Scripture abounds in it. Those who launched the fundy movement in the early 1900’s were scholars’ scholars… Princeton types… who understood lateralism even as they opted for literalism. Their concept of literalism allowed for figures of speech.

    What it did not allow for was turning language into metaphor when the author did not clearly intend the reader to do so. For example, I could allegorize most of your blog post, but that wasn’t your intent when you wrote it… I can tell. We usually can tell.

    Of course, that leads to all kinds of debates over what’s literal (“This is my body”?) and what’s not. That’s where the fun begins.

    I have never met a fundamentalist who subscribes to the lateralization of Scripture; never met one who accepts a wooden literalism as a core hermeneutical principle. Milton Terry’s classic work on Hermeneutics spends whole chapters delineating various figures of speech.

    The problem w/fundamentalism as a movement is its separation from culture… a few notches shy of being Amish. As an intellectual movement, however, no one can be faithful to history and deny fundamentalism’s heavyweight status.

    I just found your blog today, and love it. Especially your respectful approach. Thanks so much.


    • nic paton said

      Hi Bill
      Thanks for your input, honesty, and level headedness.

      Your point about separation from culture as the fundamental problem with fundamentalism is an interesting angle, and true.

      But I’m not sure that we should give so much credit to the F camp – why should they have the monopoly on historicity? Also, historicity without the poetic is just as dangerous as the opposite. And, the historical emphasis of F’sts may be robust but it is very selective. For example, can most historically heavyweight F’s treat other cultures with the same objectivity they take to the story of the Jews?

      Bill, the approach you adopt is not what I am describing at all when I criticise fundamentalism. The context for the post was a devisive person who completely slandered my poetic approach to theology. They were essentially hiding their fear and hatred behind a mask of biblicalism.

      I apprecaite your thoughts.

      • Hi nic,

        I was kinda expecting a follow on. You still around?

  21. nic paton said

    Mark – I certainly am. Which “follow on” do you mean?

    • I read the previous post and this one and thought you had a series going. Um, also you had been quiet since July. I browsed you historical posts and that’s a long time for you.

  22. nic paton said

    Aah I see – you are quite right: I have been very otherwise engaged. I’m finishing a musical project and at the same time theres a high degree of transformation happening around us that demands a lot of attention.

    But Mark, where have we left off in terms of OUR conversation? What is resonating with you at the moment?

  23. Hi Nic

    just to let you know that I have added your site to my Home Page links – scroll to the bottom right and find Writers I like. Hope you are ok the with the description I lifted from About Nic – if not, let me know! Tried to email you in response to your comment – but it came out as a further comment on the Brian Swimme review post! Hope you will read “Evoking the Twelfth House” and “Sea as church” in response to your question.

    Anne W

  24. Hi Nic

    my comment letting you know I’d added your site to my ‘Writers I like’ category has just been wiped! Hope you have seen my reply to your comment on the Brian Swimme review page.

    Best wishes


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