Leaving fundamentalism

Leaving Fundamentalism, ed. G. Elijah Dann

Leaving Fundamentalism, ed. G. Elijah Dann

We’re like a bunch of PTSD sufferers comparing notes on how we all got shell-shocked. We’re all a bit…twitchy.

A reviewer should maintain some objectivity to do justice to the book she reviews — as I’m attempting, with Leaving Fundamentalism: Personal Stories, from Wilfrid Laurier University Press. The catch is that like the book’s editor, University of Victoria Research Fellow G. Elijah Dann, and like those who tell their stories in this book, I myself am an ex-fundamentalist.

A fundamentalism-survivor, as it were.

But that’s the point, the common theme running through these stories: the writers were damaged by that world view, many giving the impression they only just escaped with their sanity.

Virtually all describe their experience of being convinced of the doctrines of their church, convinced they have a personal relationship with God, and often making plans to “do God’s work” through some sort of ministry. They frequently enter via an emotional appeal, and firmly believe that through the indwelling power of God’s Spirit, they can overcome sin and live a victorious life.

Then the cracks appear. Sin is not overcome — and it’s never the fault of the teachings — it’s always the believer’s fault, no matter how devout and prayerful and committed they are. Or a dissonance appears, between what fellow believers say in public and how they behave in private. Or — the worst sin of all — the believer asks a question.

Fundamentalism insists on adherence to a rigid set of doctrines, so even an honest question is viewed suspiciously. Pat answers are provided, but if questions continue, other believers attack the questioner, reinforcing the impression that fundamentalism’s simplistic, black-and-white world view can’t handle the real world.

Some of these writers retained a belief in God or some form of spirituality, while others, trained in the fundamentalist “all or nothing” mentality, decided, “Well, then — nothing.” But always their departure from this movement was a painful, seismic upheaval.

Jacob Shelley, in “Life Stages,” describes the “contempt and scorn” with which his wife’s family treated both of them: “…a letter in which she beseeched her parents to accept her decision to marry me … resulted in the bulk of her family — in the name of God, peace, and love — cutting her out of their lives. Their righteous indignation has also led them to reject any interaction with our newborn daughter, their only grandchild so far.”

Julie Rak, in “Looking Back at Sodom,” relates how she could no longer deny she was a lesbian, despite fundamentalist teachings about homosexuality. Her honesty led to a divorce, with the resulting repercussions for her husband and children.

This book will enlighten ex-fundamentalists along with those having no experience in the movement. The fundamentalist mindset appears in places I’d never have expected, such as a group with Marxist beliefs, living as the early Christians did in the Book of Acts. Yet the church I attended would have attacked these people too, for not being “real Christians.” Such is the rigidity of fundamentalism.

I had few issues with anything in this book. In the earlier stories, I felt the writers skimmed over their internal thought process, so I didn’t fully understand why they left. I kept wondering, “What were you actually thinking at the time?”

Many gave detailed descriptions, though. In “The Jesus Lizard,” James Fieser’s story closely resembles mine: an intellectual inability to believe the fundamentalist story, for lack of evidence or coherence. Fieser also encapsulates one of the most poignant reasons why a believer would begin to question. He describes how his friend’s family was swept away in a flood, and “while he wasn’t bothered by the good Lord’s handling of the situation, I was. I felt it was odd that while Alan prayed for the safety of his family, all that was granted was the life of his dog.”

This book will give non-fundamentalists some astonishing insight into how otherwise rational, humane people might plunge into such an anti-rational, harsh world view, and why it’s so hard for them to escape.

But for former fundamentalists, reliving their — our — own traumatic experiences through these stories, the understanding will go much deeper. We will think to ourselves, in relief and empathy, “I was not alone.”

[Note: Thanks so much to Mini Book Expo, where I learned about this book and was able to request a review copy.]