Reason #705 Why Religious Zealotry Is Unhealthy

1 comment September 19th, 2005at 06:56pm Posted by Eli

From an NYT Magazine article by an ex-evangelical revisiting his youth on the occasion of a Billy Graham revival tour:

The caricature of American evangelicals as incurious and indifferent to learning is false. Visit any Christian bookstore and you will see that they are gluttons for learning – of a certain kind. They belong to Bible-study groups; they buy works of scriptural interpretation; they sit through tedious courses on cassette, CD or DVD; they take notes during sermons and highlight passages in their Bibles. If anything, it is their thirst for knowledge that undoes them. Like so many Americans, they know little about history, science, secular literature or, unless they are immigrants, foreign cultures. Yet their thirst for answers to the most urgent moral and existential questions is overwhelming. So they grab for the only glass in the room: God’s revealed Word.

A half-century ago, an American Christian seeking assistance could have turned to the popularizing works of serious religious thinkers like Reinhold Niebuhr, Paul Tillich, John Courtney Murray, Thomas Merton, Jacques Maritain and even Martin Buber and Will Herberg. Those writers were steeped in philosophy and the theological traditions of their faiths, which they brought to bear on the vital spiritual concerns of ordinary believers
– ethics, death, prayer, doubt and despair. But intellectual figures like these have disappeared from the American landscape and have been replaced by half-educated evangelical gurus who either publish vacant, cheery self-help books or are politically motivated. If an evangelical wants to satisfy his taste for truth today, it’s strictly self-service.

And I can see now how this state of affairs breeds a narrow fanaticism.
Until age 14, my own reading was pretty much limited to comic books, Mad Magazine, histories of the World Wars and the occasional Hardy Boys mystery. Then I discovered the strange new world of the Bible. That discovery might have led me to other books, but there was no one to guide me onto that path. So the Bible became my only portal into the realm of ideas – ideas about morality, justice, cosmology, psychology, eschatology, mortality. The Bible posed all the important questions, questions that were vaguely forming in my adolescent mind, but that now took on shape and contour. And, of course, it answered those questions.

I cannot even begin to imagine what it would be like to have my literary and intellectual horizon narrowed to encompass a single, solitary book, much less a two-thousand-year-old one from a completely different world. It would be like living in a coffin designed for an alien.

He also has some interesting reminiscences of his prayer group, and it provides some fascinating insight into the comfort and ecstasy of the religious experience. I still want no part of it, though.

Entry Filed under: Religion

1 Comment

  • 1. Ol' Froth  |  September 21st, 2005 at 2:12 pm

    I took a theology class in college, that focused on prophesy. Quite interesting, but the class attracted a number of “thumpers.”

    Anyway, one of the intellectual “thrusts” the professer stressed, was that you cannot really understand prophecy without understanding Hebrew. He then proceeded to write Hebrew on the board, give translations, and relate how it applied to whatever passage we were studying at the time.

    The ‘thumper” then spoke, and asked why we were learning all this “Jewish” stuff in a Bible class that was supposed to be about Jesus.

    The professor paused, looked at her, and said, “Well, we all have to learn Hebrew some day, if not here, then certainly in the hereafter.”

    And that’s the only thing I remember from that class!


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