Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Faith Works 9-22

Faith Works 9-22-12

Jeff Gill


Fundamentalism and its discontents



When you hear the word "fundamentalism" used it's often in the context of describing violent demonstrations ("Islamic fundamentalism") or intolerant displays of disapproval ("Christian fundamentalism"); it can show up on the other side of the world ("Hindu fundamentalism") and even appear in discussions of politics ("constitutional fundamentalism").


I think it's helpful, and also interesting to look at where the whole idea of "fundamentalism" comes from, and what gave it birth, because it has not only a history, but a fairly recent one.


Fundamentalism is essentially one of a number of reactions to Modernism. It dates almost entirely to the period of the late 1800s and dawn of the 1900s, when the implications of the European Enlightenment from the 1600s were starting to percolate into popular, mass culture . . . and some would argue it was the rise of mass culture (sometimes called more recently "pop culture") that not only created the context of Modernism, but virtually forced the rise of Fundamentalism.


There are other reactions to Modernism, the best known of which is Post-Modernism, a cultural move that's largely (in this writer's opinion) running out of gas. But if you think the end of the PoMo period in academic and artistic discourse means that Modernism died long ago, you'd be (again, in my opinion) dead wrong.


Modernism is Darwin, Marx, and Freud, but it's also Pulitzer and Hearst and Hollywood. It's a sense of scientific understanding combined with an awareness of "deep time" in geology and biology that evokes a little awe and wonder, and lots of irony. Modernism is the realization that things haven't always been this way, so historical consciousness looks back and a certain wry apocalypticism looks forward, nervously. Modernism says "try something new" and values it not because it continues a tradition, but because of the innovation that becomes a value of its own: cars and electricity and flight are new, and good, so something new in art and literature is very likely to be good, too – right?


Or not. So conservatism, with roots in the English hesitation over the twin challenges of the American Revolution and the French, starts to offer a qualification to "new equals good." Conservatism (as opposed to reactionary-ism) says "let's try something new, but cautiously, without tossing the old and traditional, not yet."


So liberal and conservative trends in social and cultural life began butting heads (and became political parties), but what about the church? Or the Church?


Some faith traditions had an innate conservatism built into them (Orthodoxy, much of Catholicism), while others reasonably would tend to a more liberal acceptance of change (Protestantism in general). But "new" and "revealed truth" are not likely to be automatic fast friends.


This is where "The Fundamentals" come in. They were, in fact, a series of lengthy essays, ultimately multiple books worth, edited by a group of Protestant theologians and church leaders who looked Modernism in the eye around 1910 and said "Not so fast, bucko."


Or words to that effect.


I bring all this up simply to note that whether it's Islam, Hinduism, Christianity, or even Buddhism, all world religious traditions are still trying to figure out what to make of Modernism's inroads on their traditional terrain. Complete withdrawal from Modernism means a disavowal of science and culture, which is itself not in keeping with Protestant tradition, but Modernism has proven to be a sticky lint ball of a cultural trend, which is difficult to touch lightly.


So I actually have a smidgen of sympathy for some in the Far East, whether you dismiss them as mad mullahs or outraged imams. The Enlightenment in general, and Modernism in particular, has only relatively recently (since WWII) made inroads into their home territory, and they are only just now trying to figure out what it means to affirm or reject, in whole or in part, this strange new ideology.


And I'd argue that we're not done figuring it out right here, either.


Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and pastor in central Ohio; he'd not call himself a fundamentalist, but he may have read more of "The Fundamentals" than most who would. Tell him what's foundational for you at or follow @Knapsack on Twitter.

Monday, September 17, 2012

Knapsack 9-19-12

Notes From My Knapsack 9-19-12

Jeff Gill



We need nature, and now more than ever




Yes, the election season is wholly upon us.


Yes, the rhetoric is overheated and the facts are being spun, twisted, mangled, and fracked beyond all earthly recognition.


Yes, I have no interest in joining in with the din (nor do I have bananas, I have no bananas today).


What I need is a walk in the woods. Or . . .


To tell you the truth, I've been doing a fair amount of creekwalking recently. Creekwalking is not something you should do, nor am I recommending it. You get me? I. AM. NOT. RECOMMENDING. IT. (Corporate legal, are we happy now?)


Creekwalking is indeed tricky because there are legal questions about who owns what or where, whose liability covers you down in the shallow waterways (I. AM. NOT. RECOMMENDING. IT.), and then there's the fact that once in a while, even around Licking County (or Legend County, if you prefer) the water gets deep.


Not often, though. You can pick your way from Alexandria down through Granville if you don't mind getting wet up to your armpits, and as a citizen measuring five foot, seventeen inches, that might come out a little differently for you.


My favorite stretches are closer to the confluences, where the South Fork of the Licking curls down from Pataskala to bounce off of the northbank of Buckeye Lake, then wandering through Hebron arcing north to Heath and joining Raccoon Creek where Newark begins.


Down in the lowest levels of the ecosystem, you can still see the richest span of species and types, along with the rarities not often spotted on the flat stretches we think of as the lowlands, which are far above your head when you tread the gravelly, sandy, occasionally soggy breadth of the bottomlands.


Sheltered by overhanging trees and high banks of shrub and sapling, a cedar waxwing perches on one bush; a kingfisher splashes into the water in front of you; a great blue heron slowly flaps a primordial path past your vantage point; scarlet tanagers and goldfinches punctuate the margins of the ribbon of blue unspooling overhead.


When your path allows no other way forward than into the water, you share the road with fish in shoals and schools; young and small, you tend to see only those who have the potential of being fished, since the seniors of the set stay in the very spots you intentionally avoid while creekwalking: deep pools, side riffles with overhanging brambly brush.


Native accounts and early settler tales remind us that once these waters were rich in paddlefish and freshwater sturgeon, in a time when the moral equivalent of caviar was a local staple, not a foreign delicacy. Clams and mussels are seen almost not at all, only as broken, long dead shell bits probably only washing down from the furthest upstream reaches. The general lack of health in the waters, even with all the progress we've made since the Clean Water Act and the EPA, is reflected in the absence still of those canaries in our well lit coal mines, the freshwater molluscs.


Despite that hint of concern, it's remarkable the range and number of wildlife you can see literally within blocks of the county courthouse. Yes, including bald eagles. Yet for all my creekwalking in recent months, I've seen precisely one guy out there fishing, and he said the catch was good. (Okay, I saw two other people, but they were smoking something and didn't seem pleased to see me pass by their secluded bankside hideaway. Anyhow.)


Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times has noted that the US Fish and Wildlife Service reports the number of Americans who fish has dropped fifteen percent from 1996 to 2006; the National Park Service has seen a thirty percent drop in the number of backcountry permits since the late 1970s.


"In wildness is the preservation of the world" said Thoreau in his magnificent essay "Walking," and it is certainly the preservation of my sanity. There's social science data coming in showing that exposure to and time spent in nature helps youth reduce the impact of things like attention deficit disorder and general anxiety, and for adults it can improve blood pressure and general well-being far beyond just the health impact of walking alone.


Have you had your nature today?


Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and pastor in central Ohio; he DOES NOT RECOMMEND creekwalking. Tell him what you recommend at or follow @Knapsack on Twitter.