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 fitting in.

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 this:

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 stomach.

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 need it?

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 but acceptance.

Copyright, David L Rattigan 2004



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