Oprah, Eckhart Tolle, and the fundamentalist hijacking of Christianity
A few weeks ago I went and jumped headfirst into the ruckus about Eckhart Tolle’s A New Earth over at Oprah Winfrey’s message boards.
Surely you’ve heard about the controversy, haven’t you? Ms. Winfrey recently picked Tolle’s book as the subject for a groundbreaking 10-week video class that streams across the Internet and around the world. Her decision has catapulted the book to the top of the bestseller lists (making it by far the most awesomely popular of her numerous book club picks) and has elicited both great excitement and great negativity from crowds far and wide.
The excitement has come from two types of people, those who already know Tolle’s brilliant work as a spiritual author and teacher and those who are thrilled to be introduced to it for the first time. The negativity has come from legions of fundamentalist Protestant Christians who are filling Oprah’s message boards, and also a lot of the rest of the Internet and World Wide Web, with criticisms of and attacks upon Tolle as an evil New Age deceiver and Oprah as the founder of a proprietary cult that probably has something to do with the anti-Christ and is certainly leading many people away from God, Christ, truth, and so on. It’s as if Winfrey’s decision to promote Tolle’s book has popped a kind of boil on the face of American religion, releasing a flood of pent up, festering nastiness.
You can find out all about it, if you like, by visiting YouTube or Google and entering Tolle’s and Oprah’s names as search terms. You’ll find homemade video segments about Tolle and Oprah that aspire to the status of exposés. You’ll find Pentecostal pastors speaking to large crowds at revival meetings about poor and/or dastardly Oprah Winfrey and her satanically inspired deception of the masses. You’ll find an Internet pastor challenging Oprah to a public debate about religion. You’ll find articles and blog posts by fundamentalist Protestants arguing that Tolle is just America’s “guru of the moment” who preaches a watered-down New Age pantheism and feel-good self-help philosophy, and that Oprah is a veritable she-devil who has made it her mission in life to twist, corrupt, and oppose the (literal, inerrant, non-negotiable, non-interpretable) truth of the Bible.
You can also visit the section of Oprah’s message boards devoted to discussing Tolle and A New Earth, where you’ll find vigorous conversations and arguments in progress about all of these things. If you poke around there long enough, you just might stumble across the following message written by me in response to somebody who suggested that participants in those conversations should consider drawing distinctions between types of Christians, since not all of the self-identified Christians who have been jumping into the conversation at those message boards are writing from a fundamentalist viewpoint.
I happen to know a little something about religion in general and Christianity in particular. I even have the by-God academic credential to talk with some authority about the matter. So here’s what I wrote in response to this very reasonable suggestion:
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You raise an excellent point. Over the past 30 years the words “Christian” and “Christianity” have been hijacked, so to speak, in America’s general public discourse to refer primarily or even solely to fundamentalist Christians and Christianity.
Fundamentalism is the attitude or approach to any given subject or issue (not just religion) that reduces it to a handful of rigid beliefs that are then held as utterly nonnegotiable. They’re also viewed as being pretty much the only points worth talking about. Moreover, in the specific phenomenon of religious fundamentalism, the beliefs are generally held in a literalistic, externalized sense. Anybody who won’t give assent to these rigid beliefs is viewed as an outsider, somebody who’s completely wrong and probably dangerous to those insiders who assent to the beliefs. In short, fundamentalism reduces religion etc. to a dogmatic belief system.
For American fundamentalist Christians this belief system involves a number of standard items, including the idea that Jesus of Nazareth was and is the only Son of God; that his death on a Roman cross was in reality a substitutionary sacrifice where he played the part of a sacrificial lamb according to the old Jewish system of ritual animal sacrifice (an idea that came not from him but from later interpreters of his life, death, and teachings, including, especially, Saint Paul); that the 66 books of the Protestant Bible are completely without error, are to be read in a literalistic sense (six days of creation and so forth), and are the sole statement of religious truth, beside which all other purported scriptures are satanic deceptions; and so on. Fundamentalist Protestantism is entirely about “right belief.” It teaches that spiritual salvation is found in intellectual assent to its propositions.
That’s why fundamentalist Christians are so suspicious of competing belief systems: because their entire religion is at root nothing more nor less than embrace of a belief system. Doctrinal purity is everything to them. This means they’re putting intellect in the chief position. Their religion is, as Tolle would say, “nothing but thoughts in their head.” That means they have trouble even recognizing that some religious and spiritual approaches are completely different, that some religious and spiritual paths are not belief-system based but what we might called “way” based, that is, ways of transformation instead of systems of doctrines. For fundamentalists this is generally incomprehensible and often infuriating.
Obviously I’ve drawn an ideal type here. Most fundamentalists aren’t really as rigid as all this. But they are pretty danged rigid, and some of them conform entirely to the broad picture I’ve drawn. Thankfully, there are lots of other Christians who are not like that.