I debated a fundamentalist minister from a local branch of The Vineyard last Wednesday.
I was supposed to be debating a professional "youth evangelist," one Alex McFarland, on the topic of his talk, Truth Exists--Absolutely!. I'm not altogether clear on the story but apparently, when McFarland found out, the day before the event, that a real, live professor would debate him, he backed out.
So I was left to debate the local guru, the very model of a modern neo-fundamentalist as described in a remarkable NYTimes Magazine story about the Radiant Church of Surprise, AZ some time back.
The guru, big and genial, wouldn't fight and wouldn't bite. He began by asserting that if there was one thing we knew it was that Truth was "relational" and also that Truth was "dynamic." I couldn't fathom what he was talking about but the audience seemed to be following--and approving. The questions from the audience were equally incomprehensible. Somehow, however, he and they had an understanding, though I couldn't grasp what it was about, beyond some vague idea that Truth=Jesus=Love and that loving Truth/Love/Jesus made people happy and morally good.
I was disheartening, not only or primarily because so many of these decent kids were hooked on fundamentalism but because of why they and others were hooked--and not only on fundamentalism. It was the appetite for empty sentimentalities and uplift without content, the boosterism, the unshakable faith in slogans, "training" to teach leaders recipes, pep rallies to "energize" the base, and the vacuous blandness of the whole thing. That I think is characteristically American, and that is why American-style neo-fundamentalism takes hold. It isn't puritanism--long dead. It isn't Elmer Gantry, the promise of heaven or threat of hell--it's the glad-handing, boosterism and sloganeering of Main Street, the slicked up sales pitch, the inflated pseudo-technology of group dynamics, pedagogy, and management. It's the hegemony of Business: salesmanship, marketing and management--professionalized, refined and applied to everything, including education, religion and politics.
What bothers me is the intolerance for anything gritty, unconventional, combatative or simply difficult, the obsession with slick, smooth, and bland, the utter tedium of the whole thing and the waste--the energy people could spend on learning real technical skills wasted on these elaborate techniques of social interaction: management, marketing, "leadership," cultivating the art of likablity so that in the end neither technical skills nor intellectual content matter. That, it seemed, was the draw of this neo-fundamentalism--religion without ritual, symbolism or intellectual content beyond a few theological nuggets swallowed painlessly because to adherents they didn't matter: what mattered were "relationships"--to Jesus, to the affable pastor, and to the "community" of fellow-adherents.