Essay

Watching the sparrow

Why should I feel discouraged, why should the shadows fall?
Why should my heart be lonely, and long for heaven and home?
When Jesus is my portion, my constant friend is he
His eye is on the sparrow, and I know he watches me.
I sing because I'm happy,
I sing because I'm free,
His eye is on the sparrow, and I know he watches me.

IT'S A SEDUCTIVE idea. I used to sing those words, back in the far-off days when I was myself an ardent fundamentalist. It's an old song, recently revived by the brilliant jazz/gospel a cappella group, The Idea of North. The words capture, better than any intellectual analysis could, the essence of Christian fundamentalism: there's a personal god out there who will watch over you in an individual way, paying attention to the specific details of your life, as long as you have committed yourself to belief in Jesus Christ as God's son and your personal saviour.

"His eye is on the sparrow" could serve as the theme song for the current revival of fundamentalism in Australia and around the world. And it's not only Christian fundamentalism that's on the rise: Islam and Judaism are experiencing similar surges of support for the conservative theology of the extreme right.

Fundamentalism involves a commitment to one central, simple, "fundamental" idea that underpins a complete world view. In Christian fundamentalism, that idea is that the Bible, being the inspired word of God, should be accepted as literally true. For fundamentalists, two crucial implications flow from that: we are all sinners, thanks to the genetic consequences of Adam's "fall" as described in the Book of Genesis, and we must accept of Jesus Christ as the "personal saviour" – the only pathway to salvation.

Those tenets are broadly within the evangelical tradition of Christianity, though the absolute literalist approach to scripture is more hardline than the approach many contemporary evangelicals would take. "Evangelical" is a term that derives from "evangel" or "good news": within the Christian church, it has historically referred to Christianity itself – the religion that rejected legalistic Judaism in favour of the "good news" of redemption of the world through faith in Jesus Christ, as outlined in the New Testament gospels.

Christian fundamentalism, as a narrow movement distinguishable from broad evangelicalism, was launched after World War I by a group of United States Baptists who published a series of paperbacks under the title, The Fundamentals, designed to impose a hardline literalism on biblical interpretation as a form of protest against modern liberalism. The early fundamentalists were convinced that the idea of America as a Christian civilisation was an illusion: in their view, the apparent decline of religious observance was paralleled by social decline as well. (It is no accident that the rise of fundamentalism occurred in the Prohibition era, when various protest movements were springing up in response to social as well as religious liberalism: indeed, fundamentalism should perhaps be regarded as part of a social-protest movement.)

More recently, the line between fundamentalism and evangelicalism has become blurred, partly because "fundamentalism", originally a desirable self-descriptor, has become a pejorative term in society at large, applied not only to Christianity but to other religions and, indeed, to various secular philosophies, such as feminism and economic rationalism. Today, many fundamentalists reject that label in favour of the broader term, "evangelical".

Still, the essence of Christian fundamentalism remains its belief in the inerrancy of the Bible and the corresponding need for a literal approach to biblical study that rejects new trends in scholarship and culture, especially the views of contemporary liberal theologians and biblical scholars who want to treat the Bible as a source of inspirational parables, myths and metaphors. Such theologians may regard "God" as a concept – like love or goodness – that bears little relationship to the ancient idea of a superhuman figure "out there". Fundamentalism will have none of that: indeed, part of its appeal is that it ignores contemporary scholarship in favour of the nostalgic certainty and simplicity of "old-time religion".

 

AT A TIME when the rate of change has driven Australians to swallow antidepressants in record numbers, when marriage and family life are under threat from a sustained high rate of divorce, a record low birthrate and a painful adjustment to the new realities of a post-feminist culture, when households are shrinking (more than half of all Australian households now contain only one or two people), when many Australians are learning to live with job insecurity and when our longstanding dream of an egalitarian society appears to be under challenge from the effects of a radical redistribution of work and wealth, the comfort of simple certainty is very welcome indeed.

But there's more to the contemporary appeal of fundamentalism than the promise of certainty. Though it may not be obvious at first glance, the current surge of religious fundamentalism in Australia may also be connected to two of our national preoccupations: the growing emphasis on me – self-discovery, self-absorption, self-indulgence – and the closely connected embrace of materialism.

The obsession with "me" is partly the heritage of the baby-boom generation, which responded to the postwar economic boom with such unbridled enthusiasm. Living under the constant threat of a nuclear holocaust, baby boomers' response was to become impatient and voraciously self-indulgent consumers: "We're not here for a long time; we're here for a good time." They quickly learned that borrowing and spending were the ways to achieve the "good time" they craved, so they jettisoned the savings ethic of their parents' generation, along with many of their parents' moral and spiritual values. They became known around the world as the Me Generation.

In turn, they passed on their materialistic values to their children. They may have raised the first generation of young Australians who were not exposed to traditional Christian teachings on a large scale, since it was the boomers who presided over the free fall in church attendance during the last quarter of the 20th century, but their children are now becoming deeply interested in what they call "spirituality". The meaning of life is a hot topic among the young, which doesn't mean they've abandoned materialism but simply that they've decided "there's more to life than Nike".

But the self-centredness of contemporary Australia is also partly a reaction to the anxiety that has occurred in epidemic proportions in Australia for the past 25 years or so, as we have been swept by a series of revolutions that have challenged many of our traditional perceptions of the Australian way of life – the women's movement, the restructure of the economy, the technology revolution and even a revolution in our sense of ourselves as an increasingly diverse, multicultural society. Not everyone has welcomed these changes and even those who have embraced them have often found it a challenge to adjust their thinking to this new kind of Australia.

In response, many Australians have turned their focus inward, as a means of insulating themselves from what's been going on in the world beyond their front fences. Globalisation, Aboriginal reconciliation, international terrorism, foreign investment, population policy, environmental disasters, sustainable development, tax reform ... too many of these issues have seemed beyond their control and, in any case, they have become wearied by the rate of change. They have sought consolation and compensation for their feelings of powerlessness by bringing their horizons up close and concentrating on things they can control: backyards, home renovations, children's schooling, holidays.

They have become disengaged from the political, social and economic agenda because it has all become too daunting. Terrorism? Pass me another snag. The invasion of Iraq? We won, didn't we? Let's move on. An election campaign? Wake me when it's over. When the mood is as insular as it is at present, self-indulgence looks like an effective strategy for making us feel better about ourselves, and retail therapy is achieved, at least in the short term, by simply spending a few dollars on yourself.

Such a retreat from big-picture issues may be bad for the health of our democracy, and it may lead – as it now appears to be doing – to an outbreak of prejudice against "outsiders", to a loss of compassion for the underprivileged or the disadvantaged, and to a less tolerant attitude towards ethnic, religious, sexual or cultural minorities. But it does offer people a break from the struggle to keep up. Many television viewers, for instance, are quite explicit about their tendency to switch from current affairs to "lifestyle" as a way of seeking relief from a rougher, tougher world.

 

SO THE GROWING obsession with me and my life, me and my kids, me and my house, me and my rights reflects our desire to find a manageable agenda. And the new wave of religious fundamentalism taps directly into this yearning not only for certainty, but also for simplicity ... and for an emphasis on me.

Fundamentalism has always been about me and my salvation; me and my personal relationship to God; me and my own peace of mind. Themes such as social justice or practical concern for society's disadvantaged and marginalised are less central to the fundamentalist's world view than they are for some other Christian groups. Indeed, hardline fundamentalists tend to be sceptical about the "social gospel" in the same way as they are about traditional sacred music, religious icons or stained glass. Even the Salvation Army is sometimes regarded as suspect because of its non-judgemental compassion for the deadbeats and derelicts of society, and the trendies of the Uniting Church, buying into political debate and getting worked up about the plight of refugees, are likely to be regarded as missing the real point.

For fundamentalists, that "real point" concerns personal faith and personal religious experience – especially "conversion". Their interest in the wider community is dominated by a religious rather than a social agenda. "Bring them in with all their sin, He'll wash them white as snow," we sang, with brutal simplicity, in the '50s. The words and music might be more sophisticated today (though some visitors to currently popular fundamentalist strongholds complain that the words are indecipherable under the amplified onslaught of the band), but the emphasis hasn't changed.

While other Christians may be wondering how they can express their faith in charitable acts that respond to the needs of a wounded community, the fundamentalists want souls, and they want them on their own terms. In the Anglican Diocese of Sydney, for instance, where fundamentalists have become a powerful force, the primary focus of a recently agreed "mission" was not to marshal the resources of the diocese in order to relieve the suffering of the homeless or disadvantaged of Sydney, but to get 10 per cent of the population of Sydney attending Bible-based churches within the next 10 years. Fundamentalists love numbers: it's typical of their quantitative approach to success that they would set themselves such a precise numerical target. Their constant challenge is to swell the ranks of converts (which, by the way, they are doing: Sydney is the only Anglican diocese in Australia actually increasing its numbers).

The preoccupation with personal salvation can easily lead fundamentalists to adopt a certain smugness about their position. At their best, fundamentalists are inclined to regard the rest of us with pity; at their worst, they see the "unsaved" as inferior beings who will pay an eternal price for their obstinacy – and, for them, that will include the followers of any other faith – Islam, Judaism, Confucianism, Buddhism – that fails to acknowledge the "one true faith". For this reason, fundamentalists are typically resistant to inter-faith initiatives now gathering momentum in various parts of the world, including Australia. But many fundamentalists are even opposed to ecumenical movements within Christianity itself, on the grounds that they alone understand the pure essence of the gospel. (Baptists, for instance, have consistently refused to join the Australian Council of Churches.)

Though fundamentalism, like any system of religious beliefs, is supposed to be about supplying religious answers to life's questions and emphasising the spiritual over the material, the sense of superiority inherent in fundamentalism sometimes produces a curious twist. For Christians who are supposed to value humility, poverty, self-sacrifice and compassion, there's a surprising emphasis among fundamentalists on material prosperity as a sign of God's blessing on them. In what looks like a contradiction of the messages of the New Testament about poverty, restraint and self-sacrifice, many of them speak as if God is personally rewarding their faith with commercial and material success. Far from being embarrassed by wealth, they welcome it as evidence that they are on the right track.

In some of the biggest Pentecostal churches, for example, the pursuit of wealth is explicitly encouraged (partly so that generous donations can be made to the church) and the perceived wealth of the ministers is seen as a sign of God's blessing on their work. This is a recurring theme: back in the 1950s, a member of the committee that organised a visit to Sydney by the Billy Graham Crusade remarked that the Graham organisation "was sincere about everything but money". He meant that there was a huge emphasis on income generation in the conduct of the crusades, but perhaps he hadn't then understood what has become clearer since – that the theology of fundamentalism rather conveniently embraces material prosperity. "God is good to me," is their defence, if they are called upon to supply one.

The emotional security offered by fundamentalism extends to the strong sense of connectedness between the members of fundamentalist congregations. Of course, all churches potentially offer a sense of community to their congregations but the experience of belonging is often richer and more emotionally charged in the fundamentalist context. Constant reinforcement of the same, simple message (that the Bible has all the answers), combined with strong emotional stimuli through music, testimonies of the faithful and, in the most extreme cases, swooning and "speaking in tongues", all serve as powerful affirmation that we are bound together in our faith. Social contact outside the church community is sometimes explicitly discouraged, reinforcing the sense of belonging to a closed, secure group.

 

DOES IT WORK? When pentecostal churches like Hillsong in Sydney's north-west and the Christian City Churches in various parts of Australia attract congregations of several thousand to a single service, you'd have to say it does. For people who are feeling lonely, disconnected or even alienated from their communities, the appeal of such a palpable sense of belonging is obvious. Generally speaking, you'll never get a warmer welcome anywhere than on the doorstep of a fundamentalist church ("Bring them in with all their sin," etc).

It is an open question as to whether people who are drawn into fundamentalism will be satisfied by it for long. Some spend their lives happily ploughing the same field and never feeling the need to move on. They will never tremble before those mysteries of life that trouble the rest of us. We may regard doubt as the very engine of faith; for the fundamentalists, faith is indistinguishable from certain knowledge.

But others do move on, finally coming to feel that things aren't quite as simple as the fundamentalists would have us believe, or that to stick with such a simple system of religious beliefs might lock them into a kind of perpetual spiritual adolescence. Among young people, in particular, anecdotal evidence suggests there is quite a high turnover rate as they are initially drawn to the emotional intensity and overweening confidence of fundamentalism, often throwing themselves into it with a commitment bordering on fanaticism, only to weary of it, or "see through it", or, in a sense, fall out of love with it.

The separation can be painful. A friend of mine who tore himself away from a fundamentalist congregation in the 1960s was told by his minister that he was "turning his back on God"; as if there were no other authentic pathway to religious experience and no other acceptable form of religious faith. When I made my own break, never to set foot inside a church again for 20 years, a sympathetic priest later remarked that the only way to break free of the strictures of fundamentalism was to get right out of the church altogether, so that a fresh approach to the mysteries of faith could subsequently be taken (one that acknowledged, perhaps, the centrality of doubt in religious faith).

For many young people, the most powerful of all the attractions of fundamentalism lies in its heady mixture of faith and sex. Being generally anti-intellectual in its emphasis ("Why would a Christian want to study philosophy," I was once asked by a deacon in the church I attended as a youth), fundamentalism offers an emotionally charged, almost primitive experience of religion to those who abandon themselves to it. When the hormones are racing through the body of a young adult, it's often hard to tell whether the sense of ecstasy is sexual or religious, or a complex blend of the two.

But it's also about being on the winning side. Even as a young "fundo", I was always a bit perplexed by the apparent contradiction between our embrace of the New Testament gospel and its "law of love" and our lingering enthusiasm for some of the most gruesome and prescriptive bits of the Old Testament as well. In particular, we loved the stories of God protecting his chosen people – the Jews, originally, but now taken to mean "us".

For the Lion of Judah will break ev'ry chain
And give us the vict'ry again and again.

Our lusty rendition of choruses like those stimulated our conviction that we were in a struggle – not only against the devil and all his works, but also against the heretics within our own gates. Heretics included Catholics, Seventh-day Adventists, Mormons and, especially, Jehovah's Witnesses. (Muslims were too remote, too foreign, to be of much concern.) Since then, the Catholic Church has spawned its own breed of guitar-strumming fundamentalists, so perhaps a bridge has been built between them and the hardline literalists on the Protestant side (though I suspect there'd still be a sneaking suspicion, as there was in my day, that the Catholic Church was really "the whore of Babylon" or even the antichrist, as described in the Book of Revelation).

Underneath all this is the persistent appeal of security. Others may grapple with the meaning of their lives; fundamentalists know the meaning of theirs, and it's as much to do with the afterlife and their assured place in it as with the here-and-now. For the committed fundamentalist, the sense of having found "the answer" is deeply reassuring and, if you are convinced that the Bible is like a road map for your life (or, as fundamentalists are fond of saying, "the Maker's instruction manual"), you will feel as if you're able to avoid the angst that plagues the postmodern world. You may find it convenient to be rather selective in the bits of the Bible you choose to obey: you might choose, for example, to overlook some of the more bizarre Old Testament prescriptions coming out of ancient cultural contexts, such as the prohibition on the eating of pork or the barring of disabled people from approaching the altar; you may wish to tone down some of the encouragement to destroy your enemies or to take multiple wives; and you may not find answers to some contemporary moral dilemmas like the rights and wrongs of embryonic stem-cell research or human cloning, or the right way to treat prisoners captured in the war on terror. But confidence is the stock-in-trade of fundamentalism, so such niggles will be easily brushed aside.

 

FOR ADOLESCENTS STRUGGLING with the challenges of their own, often erratic, emotional development, this kind of certainty (no matter how irrational) has always been seductive. In the Age of Discontinuity, we are all increasingly vulnerable to its blandishments. So does that mean Australia is in for a widespread religious revival led by the fundamentalists? Was Family First's modest entry into politics at the 2004 federal election a sign that the religious conservatives are about to exert a more orchestrated effect on politics? Is the more liberal, inclusive branch of the church on its last legs?

History suggests that the answer to all these questions is "no". For a start, the current wave of fundamentalism will inevitably abate as Australian society itself settles into a more conservative cycle and Australians, en masse, more famous as lotus-eaters than activists, are unlikely to become any more passionate about religion than they have been about anything else.

Professor Horst Priessnitz, a Dutch scholar who has made a comparative study of the cultural histories of Australia and America, has been particularly struck by the different religious climates of these two New World nations. Whereas the seeds of American colonial civilisation were sown in the puritanism of the Pilgrim Fathers, European settlement in Australia was, from the point of view of religion, inauspicious. "Australia was founded at the time of the Enlightenment and its character formed by men and women who shared the preoccupations of that period. Eighteenth-century science seemed to have established a universe that no longer needed God as an explanation of its development and further progress ... If Australia is frequently described as the Garden of Eden, it is a garden from which God, not Adam and Eve, has been banished," Priessnitz wrote in "Dreams in Austerica" in Anglia, a German journal of comparative cultural studies.

In these early years of the 21st century, the echoes of our godless origins can still be heard in our rampant materialism and hedonism. This may provide fundamentalism with a focal point for its essential role as a social protest movement, but there's little evidence to suggest that, in the Australian context, it will prevail.

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