Tim: All right, it is cavity time. Ah, here we go. Which reminds me, did you here the one about the rabbi and the farmer’s daughter? Huh?
Tim: Those aren’t matzo balls.
Jerry: Tim, do you think you should be making jokes like that?
Tim: Why not? I’m Jewish, remember?
Jerry: I know, but…
Tim: Jerry, it’s our sense of humor that sustained us as a people for 3000 years.
Tim: 5000, even better. Okay, Chrissie. Give me a stickle of fluoride.
From Seinfeld, Episode 153, “The Yada, Yada”
I gotta admit — I’m still timid about calling myself “Reformed.” I think that’s the main reason I don’t write frequently over here because I feel like the new fifth-grader who moved and started a new school in the middle of November. I know I can’t call myself a fundamentalist anymore, but I don’t want “Reformed” to be just my “rebound” description. I don’t want to convert just for the jokes either. And I do happen to know one.
Did you hear about the Presbyterian who fell down the stairs? He got himself up, brushed himself off and said, “Glad that’s over with.”
My Reformed friends have been calling me Reformed for a long time, so that’s a comfort. And I now understand why some faiths make the conversion process so hard — so you feel converted in the end. Like you’ve earned it. I know enough to know that’s kind of silly.
But I can clearly and unabashedly say that I’m a Protestant.
When you leave the faith-home that you’ve occupied for a lifetime, you wonder where you belong. You look around at where everyone else is going. And I don’t have to tell you all that many a conservative evangelical has ended up where Protestantism took off! I’ve even talked about it at length with my former-fundy-turned-Reformed-students. Do I belong over there too? Do I belong in the Old World?
And every single time I intersect with the more Old-World sorts of faiths, I come away with the same conclusion — they are very fundamentalist. I really see no difference. When I say that, it’s not a jab — at fundies or those proto-fundies. I was a fundamentalist for 39 years, and I defended and promoted the movement loudly and boldly. It’s more of an empathetic sigh. I’ve been there. And I know why you’re there. But I can’t go back.
I’ve studied all sorts of sectarians: the 18th-century Quakers, the Shakers, the Millerites, the Amish, the Nation of Islam, and, of course, 20th-century fundamentalists. I believe now that they are merely re-creating the sacred Old World that existed prior to modernity. They all share the same characteristics:
* They have a difficult time with deliberative rhetoric, but excel in epideictic rhetoric.
* They speak mysteriously and incomprehensibly to outsiders.
* They elevate community purity to the highest virtue.
* They frequently excommunicate/shun. They may even have an elaborate structure and record-keeping system to maintain this.
* They insist that access to God’s Grace is available through their ethic.
* They create extra-biblical “levels” of believers.
* They reinforce subjective and uncommunicable standards for those levels.
* They fetishize externals to the point of denying their own foibles.
* They resist any outsider criticism by simply saying that “You can’t understand until you see it for yourself.”
* They fetishize authority.
(Jerry at confession)
Jerry: … I wanted to talk to you about Dr. Whatley. I have a suspicion that he’s converted to Judaism purely for the jokes.
Father: And this offends you as a Jewish person.
Jerry: No, it offends me as a comedian.
And it bugs me. “It bugs you as a fundamentalist?” you might say. No, it bugs me as a scholar! It starts with the crippled deliberation. The argumentation is passive-aggressive and over-generalizing. Talking plain is just plain impossible! And that builds up to the intellectually easy and morally recalcitrant authority fetish.
I’m willing to critique modernity. I was reared an anti-modernist after all, and I was trained in a sort of pomo Cultural Studies department. But the Master Modernity has given us a good set of tools that we can use even to dismantle his own house! Why throw out the systematic theologies for incense? Why make fun of the intellect for the spirit? Why trade the rough-and-tumble Gospel for an exotic expression of works-righteousness? Why diss marriage for celibacy? If we do, we’re setting ourselves up for failure, for repeating the errors our Luther identified.
My Polish-immigrant grandparents left the Roman Catholic Church because it gave them no hope that their first-born son (who died in the 1918 flu epidemic) was in Heaven (since he was not properly baptized nor his parents properly married in the Church). They became Russelites — a sort of proto-JW group that was so small, wikipedia barely mentions them. I’ve always explained that their conversion was a very American thing to do — cast off the Old World, embrace a home-grown religion that privileges individualism and argumentation. My parents married and later became fundamentalists. And now we all sit on the cusp of another change. I couldn’t go back to the old abusive ways that hurt my forebears. I can’t understand why anyone would.
Reformed theology makes the most sense to me. It’s big enough to have tensions that keep the extremes at bay. It’s endured over the years so the rough spots have been sanded smooth. But even if I weren’t Reformed, I’d have to be Protestant. Because I see no better use of modernity’s assets and no more intelligent critique of its pitfalls.
And I just like to make a stink every now and then.