Worldviews, Stories and Why
Leaving Fundamentalism Hurts
By David L Rattigan
While reading the other day, I came across the phrase "the
Babylonian captivity of evangelicalism", and the question was asked of
evangelicalism, "Why is it so difficult to get out, once you've been in?" I
decided it was time to write something. I think the answer is something to
with stories and how they frame our world.
Before I start, let me get the acknowledgements my indebtedness to the work of
the New Testament scholar NT Wright. It was in his writings, in particular the
first volume of his epic project Christian
Origins and the Question of God
entitled, The New Testament and the People
of God, that I first came across the theory of narratives and
their relationship to worldviews. So for much of what I have to say about
worldviews and stories I owe Wright.
Leaving fundamentalism hurts.
It's not like changing what brand of margarine you buy or replacing the
wallpaper. It's more like waking up to discover that margarine is really
petroleum, and the wallpaper's decided overnight to replace you. To
leave fundamentalism is to leave a whole world behind, and oftentimes that
means being cut off from an entire community, whether by your own choice, by
the choice of the community or simply as the natural result of no longer
Stories are the way we make sense of the world around us. We try to explain
what we see and experience by inventing stories and seeing whether they cohere
with the evidence. Let me give an example. I'm walking along and I see a man
lying on the ground. In my mind, I put together a story to explain what's
going on, because without the story, I won't know the proper response to make.
Straight away I can rule out a story about a man going sunbathing, because
this chap is fully dressed, we're on a side-street downtown somewhere, and
besides, it's a freezing cold day in November. As I approach, I wonder whether
the story goes something like this: Ordinary man is walking down the street,
has a heart attack and ends up on the floor. Except from where I'm standing
now, I can see he's starting to move around, and he's rubbing his backside in
a way you wouldn't really be doing after a heart attack. So I adjust the story
a little: Probably not a heart attack, but he's hurt himself in some way. And
I'm guessing the bit of the story I missed was that a few seconds ago,
possibly a few minutes, he was just a regular guy walking down the street with
no particular plans to wind up on the floor. As I get nearer, the telltale
clue becomes visible: Nearby lies a rather slippery-looking banana skin. Said
feller is looking at the banana skin and muttering some choice words under his
breath. By now the story is obvious: Man walks along, banana skin sits on
street, man slips on banana skin, man ends up on floor, luckily I turn up to
save the day. By now I am right there with him, and I've figured out the story
to the extent that I know my appropriate response is to give the poor chap a
hand up and ask him if he's feeling okay. That is, until I notice all the
other folk standing around on the sidewalks watching, and then I see the guy
with the movie camera, and I hear someone shout, "Cut!", and my story takes
another twist: I've walked onto a movie set, the movie's a comedy, and now
suddenly I've become the villain of the story rather than the hero, because
here I am ruining a perfect take.
Far-fetched, obviously, but it illustrates my main point: We make sense of the
world by inventing stories, and then either fitting the evidence into the
story or changing the story to fit the evidence; most times, probably a
combination of the two.
Our worldview or world-taken-for-granted will be made up of several
interweaving stories that form one overarching story or narrative through
which we see and interpret everything. For example, if you're a particularly
patriotic American, you might see yourself as part of a story about how some
noble men came to the continent and founded a great civilization based on
human liberty, and how it has survived by battling valiantly against every
threat to this liberty, and how political liberalism is the latest in a
history of threats to the fundamental freedoms of your society. If on the
other hand you're a Native American, you might see yourself more as part of a
story about oppression and tyranny than liberty. And that basic way of looking
at the story of your existence will inform the way you think and act.
All this is important because when the parts that together make up the big
story start to come loose, it's like trying to take the bottom block away from
a pillar of building blocks. The whole lot comes tumbling down. What makes
leaving fundamentalism uniquely hard, perhaps, is that it's not a system
designed to withstand such an assault. Fundamentalism by it's very nature is
about certainty, shutting out every other story, being closed to change,
ambiguity or other truth-claims. It's all or nothing, and when the edifice of
fundamentalism starts to crumble, there's no halting it.
Fundamentalism has a story, and it is a story that underlies
the identity of fundamentalists and fundamentalism.
The overarching story of fundamentalism, based on a highly literal and
selective interpretation of the story of the Bible itself, goes something like
this: God created the world; man was created good; Adam and Eve sinned; man
was corrupted, and came under God's condemnation, specifically the judgment of
eternal punishment, i.e. hell; God sent Jesus to take the punishment for us;
if we become (properly born-again) Christians, we will go to heaven and be
saved from hell. It is a story about good versus evil, God versus Satan. It is
a story in which the world is a battleground between the two.
When you become a fundamentalist Christian, typically by being "born again",
you become a part of that story. A distant and alien story about God and a
group of people thousands of years ago becomes the story of how you yourself,
two millennia after the cross, crossed over onto the right path and became
destined for heaven.
You will join a community where the big story will be told over and over
again, whether explicitly or implicitly, in the songs you sing, the sermons
you hear, the conversations you have, the language you use and the rituals in
which you participate. Present-day fundamentalists may well see themselves as
part of a story about how society is getting worse and worse as standards
decline and the ungodly have their wicked way, a story about how people have
overcome by resisting this decline and how you too can overcome. Within the
big story are smaller stories, whether hypothetical or attached to actual
events, about how accepting this, that and the other is the beginning of the
slippery slope into heresy and apostasy.
As in all good stories, there is a cast of characters, of heroes and villains.
The world is divided up unambiguously into Believers and Unbelievers, the
Saved and the Unsaved. The Believers are faithful, Bible-believing, valiant
defenders of eternal truth, heavenbound. Unbelievers are godless, blinded,
hellbound. There are the Liberals, pretend Christians, attackers of the truth,
rebellious against God. Everyone falls into one category or another.
Fundamentalism presents a very black-and-white world. And if all this looks
like a caricature of fundamentalism, perhaps that's because the fundamentalist
worldview is a caricature of the world itself?
I think we're beginning to see the problem of fundamentalism and its
underlying story. By its very nature it is exclusive, because it's a story
about how we, the fundamentalists, are saved and the rest of the world is
going to hell in a handbasket. It's a story that does not tolerate other
stories, that will not accept experiences and knowledge that comes from
outside its own story, precisely because being exclusive, being the sole
bearers of truth in a corrupt, not-to-be-trusted world, is the main part of
the story itself.
We're getting nearer the reason why leaving fundamentalism hurts. It's because
when you become a fundamentalist, you're not simply acquiring some new beliefs
and practices to add onto your previous existence; you're entering a different
universe. And when you leave that universe, it's like suddenly realizing that
the world is flat after all. Everything is different. The rug's been pulled
out from underneath you.
It hurts for another reason, too. It hurts because when you're in that
inbetween stage, in fundamentalism and yet not quite in it, journeying out of
fundamentalism, as it were, according to the story you've switched characters.
You're the Backslider. You're the Liberal. You're the Apostate. You're the
Unsaved. You've become the Enemy.
In Craig Thompson's Blankets, the author recounts convincingly his
adolescent departure from the strictures of his fundamentalist upbringing.
Craig paraphrases Plato and writes:
[Since] childhood, humans have been prisoners ... bound at their neck and
feet, facing a wall, and unable to turn their heads. Behind them is a walled
path, traversed by people carrying statues of animals and humans ... and
beyond that is a fire illuminating the cave. From the prisoners'
perspective, all that can be seen are the shadows of these statues projected
upon the wall by the fire; sort of like a shadow puppet show, only the
prisoners aren't aware that what they see are shadows or puppets ... [They]
think they're studying reality. Now if a prisoner was released from his
binds, allowed to turn about and examine his surroundings; it'd be a shock
to his entire system. In fact, he'd probably believe that what he'd
previously known was the truth, and that this was a sort of heresy. ... What
an even greater shock it would be to bring the prisoner out of the cave and
into the sunlight. The initial effect would be blinding. ... The final step
would be the ability to study the sky in the day ... to look directly into
the light of the sun.
I cannot think of a better way of expressing the journey out of
fundamentalism and, moreover, why it hurts so much. It comes very much down to
In fact, he'd probably believe that what he'd previously known was the
truth, and that this was a sort of heresy.
Here's the key. When we're in that intermediate stage, the old stories
still have a hold on us. We can't simply trade in the old story for a new one
in one quick, tidy exchange. It's like the child told all his life that he was
useless. Shaking off the nagging guilt that he is useless is a process that
lasts far longer than the one moment at which he realizes he was lied to by an
abusive parent. The old stories are so deeply ingrained, so much a part of our
version of reality for so long, that thinking in terms of those stories is a
habit of mind we still have to shake off. It was our reality for so long that
thinking outside its conventions is not something you can all of a sudden just
decide to do. It's a process.
When you pick up the Bible and question whether such-and-such is really true,
there's that story going round and round in the back of your mind, the story
called The Christian Who Let Doubts Creep in One Day and Began Sliding down
the Slippery Slope of Heresy.
When you walk into that store, pick up a book that claims something is amiss
with fundamentalism and you consider that there might actually be some truth
in its pages, you're haunted by the story called The Once-Faithful Believer
Who Listened to the Devil and Lost Her Salvation.
When you have an erotic thought, and what's more you don't necessarily think
that having an erotic thought is a particularly bad thing, a story continues
to niggle you deep down, the one called The Christian Who Gave in to
Temptation and Slid into Sin.
When you start to question whether gays might in fact be expressing their
God-given sexuality, whether those unmarried neighbours of yours who've been
living together for as long as you've known them really are "living in sin"
and whether your church and your religion might not have quite the monopoly on
the truth you were led to believe, the story of The Christian Who Bought into
the Lie of Liberalism is still there irritating you in the pit of your
And when you start to wonder where your journey will take you, and you
contemplate just how much of what you'd been told is true, another story comes
back to whisper in your ear, the story called The Wicked Sinner Who Believed
What He Wanted to Believe, Rejected the Plain Truth and Ended up in Hell.
Is it any wonder that the pilgrimage out of fundamentalism is full of pain and
heartache and fear and hurt and shame and guilt? It's possible as you read
this you're feeling all those emotions right now simply because you're tempted
to believe all this, and the fact that you're entertaining the idea makes you
feel terribly ashamed. I'd suggest that's because of one other story we're
told as fundamentalists, and that story's title is The Christian Who
Suppressed the Conviction of the Holy Spirit But Knew Deep Down That She Was
Really Rebelling against God. That is perhaps the most powerful of all the
stories within the big story of fundamentalism, and it's probably the one we
will have to work hardest to overcome.
I think I've said almost everything I wanted to say about stories, worldviews
and why leaving fundamentalism hurts. But let me say one last thing.
Leaving fundamentalism is also hard because fundamentalism promised us
security and stability, and stepping outside it can be like a leap into the
unknown. Fundamentalism was about certainty, and we've taken the bold step of
admitting that the world is more ambiguous than we thought and leaving that
certainty behind. That can be terrifying and overwhelming. Sometimes just
staying inside fundamentalism seems a lot more attractive.
A few years ago the British newspapers reported a story about a man who was
stranded on a mountainside with his arm trapped under a boulder. He had to
make a difficult choice: Stay there and freeze to death; or amputate his own
arm and live. He chose the latter. He bravely took a knife to his arm and
sliced. He lived.
Leaving fundamentalism can be very much like that. To leave, to go and explore
the outside, requires courage, bravery and great trust in someone or something
bigger than you. The ironic thing when many Christians talk about grace is
that apparently it becomes null and void when you feel like you just don't
know a damn thing anymore. But what is grace if not our only hope to cling
onto when we really don't know what's out there, where we might end up or what
is and is not? What is grace if it isn't guaranteed at the moment when we most
I can't help but think here of the words of Paul Tillich, and I don't think
they've ever struck me with quite the same meaning as they have as I've
reflected on what it means to step outside fundamentalism and into the
unknown. I think they'd be a fitting way of bringing this to a close:
Do we know what it means to be struck by grace? It does not mean that we
suddenly believe that God exists, or that Jesus is the Saviour, or that the
Bible contains the truth. To believe that something is, is almost
contrary to the meaning of grace. ... Grace strikes us when we are in great
pain and restlessness. It strikes us when we walk through the dark valley of
a meaningless and empty life. ... [Sometimes] at that moment a wave of light
breaks into our darkness, and it is as though a voice were saying: "You are
accepted. You are accepted, accepted by that which is greater than
you, and the name of which you do not know. Do not ask for the name now;
perhaps you will find it later. Do not try to do anything now; perhaps later
you will do much. Do not seek for anything; do not perform anything; do not
intend anything. Simply accept the fact that you are accepted!" If
that happens to us, we experience grace. ... And nothing is demanded of this
experience, no religious or moral or intellectual presupposition, nothing