Seriously? There is an actual “day” for this? Well, if you’re a medievalist consider yourself hugged.
A Lexical Analysis of “Fundamentalist” in Ehrman’s HoPo Piece
by Charles Halton
Submitted to the Faculty of the Blogosophere
In partial fulfillment of my blogging duties
The term “fundamentalist” appears twice in Bart Ehrman’s recent piece in the Huffington Post.1 Even though he only uses the term twice, it is pivotal for his purpose in writing. Ehrman contrasts his view of peudepigraphical writing to that of “the fundamentalists.” In order to understand who comprises this elusive group and how Ehrman conceives of it, a thorough lexical analysis is in order.
Historical-Etymological History of “Fundamentalist”
The historical and etymological history of the term, “fundamentalist,” has been charted before so a only a brief survey is in order.2 As Robert Glass outlines, Curtis Lee Laws “coined the term ‘fundamentalist’ to denote the party within the Northern Baptist denomination that sought to reaffirm the core of Christian orthodoxy while resisting control by theological liberals of their Church.”3 Therefore, word originally referred to those that adhered to the so-called “fundamentals” of the Christian faith as identified by conservative religionists.
As we all know, later usages often stray far from a word’s original etymological origin and so it is with “fundamentalist.” While this word originally referred to Christians who were devoted to certain traditional doctrinal confessions such as the historical resurrection of Jesus, “fundamentalist” gained a larger semantic range within common usage. No longer do people employ the term to designate Christians but also Muslims4 and Jews.5 As the word has expanded to include other faith communities it nonetheless has retained some of its original connotation since it is associated with conservative groups that adhere to more traditional formulations of their respective religions. However, within more popular use and journalistic reportage “fundamentalist” often carries an added patina of violent and extremist tendencies.6
Not only is the term “fundamentalist” used to connote a particular ideological position but it is often used for rhetorical effect as a slur. Alvin Plantinga provides a memorable treatment of this term that is on par in its combination of wit and lexical dexterity as Harry Frankfurter’s most famous lexical exploration:7
On the most common contemporary academic use of the term, it is a term of abuse or disapprobation, rather like ‘son of a bitch’, more exactly ‘sonovabitch’, or perhaps still more exactly (at least according to those authorities who look to the Old West as normative on matters of pronunciation) ‘sumbitch’. When the term is used in this way, no definition of it is ordinarily given. (If you called someone a sumbitch, would you feel obliged first to define the term?) Still, there is a bit more to the meaning of ‘fundamentalist’ (in this widely current use): it isn’t simply a term of abuse. In addition to its emotive force, it does have some cognitive content, and ordinarily denotes relatively conservative theological views. That makes it more like ‘stupid sumbitch’ (or maybe ‘fascist sumbitch’?) than ‘sumbitch’ simpliciter. It isn’t exactly like that term either, however, because its cognitive content can expand and contract on demand; its content seems to depend on who is using it. In the mouths of certain liberal theologians, for example, it tends to denote any who accept traditional Christianity, including Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, Calvin, and Barth; in the mouths of devout secularists like Richard Dawkins or Daniel Dennett, it tends to denote anyone who believes there is such a person as God. The explanation is that the term has a certain indexical element: its cognitive content is given by the phrase ‘considerably to the right, theologically speaking, of me and my enlightened friends.’ The full meaning of the term, therefore (in this use), can be given by something like ‘stupid sumbitch whose theological opinions are considerably to the right of mine’.8
So, we have seen that the term, “fundamentalist,” can refer to a traditionalist Christian, a conservative Jew, a violent Muslim, or a stupid sumbitch whose theological opinions are considerably to the right of mine.
Ehrman’s Use of “Fundamentalist”
Now we move to consider the precise meaning of “fundamentalist” within Bart Ehrman’s HoPo piece. The first appearance of the word is in the very first sentence:
Apart from the most rabid fundamentalists among us, nearly everyone admits that the Bible might contain errors — a faulty creation story here, a historical mistake there, a contradiction or two in some other place.
There are several elements in this sentence that shed light on Ehrman’s usage: 1) rabid is normally a term with a negative connotation (e.g. a rabid dog) and 2) these “fundamentalists” are implied to believe in a literalistic interpretation of the creation story [sic]. Accordingly, the first usage should be regarded as rhetorically charged and implying that those that make up this group are inept at genre detection and interpretation.
On the surface, Ehrman’s second use of “fundamentalist” appears different from the first:
But scholars everywhere — except for our friends among the fundamentalists — will tell you that there is no way on God’s green earth that Peter wrote the book.
At first glance, it seems that Ehrman has a positive regard for fundamentalists. After all, he calls them “our friends.” Yet, other elements hint at a different interpretation. For example, he invokes the universal witness of “scholars everywhere” to buttress his position which he contrasts with “our friends among the fundamentalists.” He follows this with a rather sarcastic statement (particularly for an agnostic to use such a theologically charged idiom) to indicate the far fetchedness of the position to which the “fundamentalists” cling. Therefore, it seems that the use of “our friends among the fundamentalists” is a patronizing reference.
Lastly, a brief bio at the end of the piece includes the statement:
His latest book, ‘Forged: Writing in the Name of God — Why the Bible’s Authors Are Not Who We Think They Are’, is now available from HarperOne.
The fact that Ehrman wrote this piece to coincide with the release of a new book that sensationalizes generations-old ideas within biblical studies gives insight into his use of “fundamentalist.”
Since the presumed purpose of writing behind this piece is to stir up media attention and spur book sales (and nothing does this better than to rile up the easy and politically acceptable target that is religious conservatives) it seems that Ehrman uses “fundamentalist” to construct an ideological opponent that he can then demolish. However, his rhetorical usages suggest that Plantinga’s definition “stupid sumbitch whose theological opinions are considerably to the right of mine” is the specific meaning in play here. Furthermore, since few would self-identify as “stupid” and we can always find someone whose theological opinions are to the right of us, then the group to which Ehrman refers must be small indeed.
In light of Ehrman’s use of the term “fundamentalist” as “that incredibly small group of people who know that they are stupid sumbitches of whom there is no one to the theological right” this author wonders if the opponents that Ehrman has created as his rhetorical opposite really exist in sizable number since the other groups within the semantic range of “fundamentalist”–traditionalist Christians, conservative Jews, and violent Muslims–are not intended. In other words, instead of a discussion that mainstream thinking people are engaged with, it seems that Ehrman’s camp and the ideological opponents that he constructs comprise merely a tiny handful of people at the very periphery of theological discourse. With this in mind, how is he going to sell any books?
(NB: This has been a parody of the genre of a second year seminary lexical assignment, Bart Ehrman, and probably many other things as well. So, read it with a grain (or, better yet, a jar) of salt. As I am a connoisseur of all things parody and satire, feel free to parody, pillory, or spoof me in the comments.)
- http://www.huffingtonpost.com/bart-d-ehrman/the-bible-telling-lies-to_b_840301.html [back]
- George M. Marsden, Fundamentalism and American Culture (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006). [back]
- Strangers in Zion: Fundamentalists in the South, 1900-1950 (Macon: Mercer University Press, 2001), xii. [back]
- Youseff Choueiri, Islamic Fundamentalism (London: Continuum, 1997). [back]
- Motti Inbari, Jewish Fundamentalism and the Temple Mount (Albany: SUNY, 2009). [back]
- http://www.nytimes.com/2010/01/31/world/europe/31dagestan.html [back]
- On Bullshit (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2005). [back]
- Warranted Christian Belief (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), 245. [back]
Over at the Ancient Hebrew Grammar blog the first of a planned two part post is up concerning the ups and downs of submitting work to journals. This is a pretty important topic for anyone in academia so it is well worth your time to check it out and then post your own experiences.
In one of the posts concerning Blenkinsopp on reading David Reimer passed along a great quote from and link to an article by Chip Dobbs-Allsopp that I thought I would repost so that people who don’t follow the thread can still benefit from it:
In the last couple days I’ve been digging into some secondary literature on Psalm 133, and ran across these resonant few lines from Chip Dobbs-Allsopp:
There is no one right way of reading, no tidy, pre-set template or calculus guaranteed to generate meaningful construals, sure and compelling readings. Reading is not an un-messy affair, not risk free. It is a practice, with many modes and an inestimable number of different and competing aims and outcomes. Proficiency (however measured) comes, much as it does in many other endeavors, through iteration and habituation, as does the peculiar and pleasurable satisfactions that it brings.
FWIW! From: F. W. Dobbs-Allsopp, ‘Psalm 133: A (Close) Reading’,JHS 8/20 (2008), 2-30.
Thanks, David, good stuff!
I remember listening to a paper at one of the annual meetings of Bible and religion professors in which the presenter tried to construct a full-orbed environmental ethic from passages in the Pentateuch. The presenter ended her talk by quoting Deuteronomy 20:19-20 (the prohibition against chopping down fruit trees when taking land away from indigenous peoples) as a proof text justifying the modern environmental movement. I wasn’t buying it for a minute.
The reason why she did not persuade me is not because I do not care for the environment–I do. In fact, I consider myself to be an environmentalist. I was a vegetarian for a decade partly because of ethical concerns (I don’t eat much meat now and when I do I make every effort to do so in a sustainable and ethical way), my wife and I get our produce and eggs from a local CSA, our milk comes from a sustainable local dairy, we bought a house close to where we work in order to minimize driving, and I even hugged trees when I was kid. I think that care for the environment is an ethical mandate, yet, if we go to the Bible for proof texts to support this position we will find a precious few (furthermore, I think that the whole enterprise of “proof-texting” is questionable at best). We can only arrive at a conception of environmental ethics using the Bible indirectly.
In light of this, John Rogerson has a delightful essay on this very topic: “The Old Testament and the Environment” in Bible and Justice: Ancient Texts, Modern Challenges, pp. 147-57. His first sentence is exquisite:
There is no such thing as ‘the environment.’
Rogerson goes on to explain that the world is made up of many various systems which function in different environments so the definite, singular term “the environment” is a misnomer. In any case, starting off an essay titled “The Old Testament and the Environment” with this sentence is provocative, disorienting, and impishly creative–it drew me into the essay immediately and made me really interested in how he was going to address the topic.
Rogerson’s last paragraph is also a gem:
The Old Testament cannot tell us what to do in the face of the environmental crisis that threatens us, and we may be divided about our attitude concerning the alternatives outlined by Kinzelbach, or feel that both contain important insights that might claim our allegiance. Where the Old Testament comes into its own is in its insistence that the world cannot be as it is intended to be without radical alteration in our understanding and practice of what it means to be human. This no doubt entails moral and historical discussion and reflection. It also entails drawing on the strength that God supplies, through prayer, worship and the study of the Scriptures.
I think Rogerson is right on point with this. My unease with the presenter using Deuteronomy 20 as a prooftext for the intrinsic worth of and necessity to protect forests came from the fact that a modern, ecological perspective wasn’t ever in the theological horizon of the biblical writers. The backdrop of Deuteronomy 20 is not “creation care” or “environmental stewardship” but a very practical concern to not shoot yourself in the foot. Why on earth would you chop down a fruit bearing tree when you could enjoy the produce of the tree for years at a time (and it would also take several years for trees planted in its place to start bearing fruit)? In other words, the focus of this command is on the human enjoyment of the fruit not the protection of the tree (note that non-fruit bearing trees are not covered by this prohibition).
The usual way for people to enter a biblically informed reflection upon the environment is by means of the theological category of “creation.” In most cases they argue that a mandate for responsible care of the environment follows from the biblical confession that God created the world, therefore, humans do not own it and should preserve it for the sake of its creator.
I think that there is some merit to this line of thinking, however, I think a more productive path is that advocated by Rogerson–an exploration of what it means to be human. As Rogerson implies I think that this route is more complicated and will take a higher level of theological discernment than attempts at formulating an ethic from “creation.” But, like with most areas of life, things that are more difficult often yield more profound and satisfying results.
What do you think?
Here is another quote from Joseph Blenkinsopp’s “A Prefatory Note on Reading” in his commentary on Isaiah 40-55:
A good reading is always a matter of delicate and precarious balance between text and reader. As Umberto Eco put it, the text is a macchina pigra, a lazy machine, needing the cooperation of the reader for the production of meaning. The encounter between text and reader should be like a successful conversation, in which both partners listen and in which there takes place what Hans-Georg Gadamer calls a fusion or overlapping of horizons. For this to happen, the reader must respect the otherness of the textual interlocutor, which also includes the need for awareness that the text is speaking from a different culture and a different epoch. I would view the historical-critical method, when practiced in a discriminating and imaginative manner, as essential for enabling the text to hold up its end of the conversation and to say what it has to say (126).
Things that I like in this: respecting otherness, text as conversation partner, and the “lazy machine” image is quite clever.
Joseph Blenkinsopp has a nice little section in his commentary on Isaiah 40-55 for the Anchor Bible titled, “A Prefatory Word about Reading.” In it he makes some very valuable observations about the fact that the relationship between historical-critical methods and imaginative perspectival responses go hand-in-hand for an informed reader. Here is a particularly good selection:
The historical-critical method is located somewhere near one end of a spectrum to which corresponds, at the other end, the idea of the text as a kind of Rorschach ink blot that serves to elicit responses, insights, and emotions that differ from one reader to the next. Meanings inscribed in texts are as fluid, indeterminite, and perspectival as the cloud to which Hamlet draws the attention of Polonius:
H: Do you see yonder cloud that’s almost in shape of a camel?
P: By th’mass, and ’tis like a camel, indeed.
H: Methinks it is like a weasel.
P: It is backt like a weasel.
H: Or like a whale.
P: Very like a whale. (Hamlet, Act III Scene 2)
Biblical texts, like all texts, are open to a multiplicity of interpretations. But to state this raises at once the question whether there are criteria for demonstrating that some interpretations are better than others, or that this or that interpretation is simply wrong. To put it differently , we could ask whether the text imposes any constraints on the interpreter.
For my part, I think that the text does put constraints on the interpreter and this is where Blenkinsopp (and I) think that historical-critical methodologies are particularly helpful. In my thought, historical criticism doesn’t have the last word but it does serve to help us determine which ideas are legitimately “in play” in any given text. I’ll post another snippet in a bit but until then, how do historical-critical methodologies function in conjunction with biblical interpretation?
Martha Roth, dean of the Humanities at the University of Chicago and former editor of the Chicago Assyrian Dictionary, had a reception at her flat for the Assyriologists attending the AOS meeting. It was a fun time listing to Lance Allred and Steven Garfinkle argue about modern conceptions of core and periphery in relation to the Ur III period, there was a great spread of food (my favorite was the sopressa), and the flat itself was stunning. Note to self: become an administrator; teaching is for chumps. (to those literarily challenged, this last statement was typed tongue-in-cheek)