Fundamentalism - a dangerous reverence for words

Written by Terry Eagleton  | source

..... Fundamentalists, however, fail to realise that the phrase "sacred text" is self-contradictory. Since writing is meaning that can be handled by anybody, any time, it is always profane and promiscuous. Meaning that has been written down is bound to be unhygienic. Words that could only ever mean one thing would not be words. Fundamentalism is the paranoid condition of those who do not see that roughness is not a defect of human existence, but what makes it work. For them, it is as though we have to measure Everest down to the last millimetre if we are not to be completely stumped about how high it is. It is not surprising that fundamentalism abhors sexuality and the body, since in one sense all flesh is rough, and all sex is rough trade.

The New Testament author known as Luke is presumably aware that Jesus was actually born in Galilee. But he needs to have him born in Judea, since the Messiah is to spring from the Judea-based house of David. A Messiah born in bumpkinish Galilee would be like one born in Gary, Indiana. So Luke coolly invents a Roman census, for which there is no independent evidence, which requires everyone to return to their place of birth to be registered. Since Jesus's father Joseph comes from Bethlehem in Judea, he and his wife Mary obediently trudge off to the town, where Jesus is conveniently born.

It would be hard to think up a more ludicrous way of registering the population of the entire Roman empire than having them all return to their birthplaces. Why not just register them on the spot? The result of such a madcap scheme would have been total chaos. The traffic jams would have made Ken Livingstone's job look positively cushy. And we would almost certainly have heard about this international gridlocking from rather more disinterested witnesses than Luke. Yet fundamentalists must take Luke at his word.

Fundamentalists are really necrophiliacs, in love with a dead letter. The letter of the sacred text must be rigidly embalmed if it is to imbue life with the certitude and finality of death. Matthew's gospel, in a moment of carelessness, presents Jesus as riding into Jerusalem on both a colt and an ass - in which case, for the fundamentalist, the Son of God must indeed have had one leg thrown over each.

The fundamentalist is a more diseased version of the argument- from-the-floodgates type of conservative. Once you allow one motorist to throw up out of the car window without imposing a lengthy prison sentence, then before you know where you are, every motorist will be throwing up out of the window all the time, and the roads will become impassable. It is this kind of pathological anxiety, pressed to an extreme, which drove the religious police in Mecca early last year to send fleeing schoolgirls back into their burning school because they were not wearing their robes and head dresses, and which inspires family-loving US pro-lifers eager to incinerate Iraq to gun down doctors who terminate pregnancies. To read the world literally is a kind of insanity.

[ Submit feedback on this article ]