Understanding World Religious Fundamentalisms, Part 5: Christian Fundamentalism and Choking on a Camel
We turn now to the literary novel, Choking on a Camel, a story about fundamentalists that puts skin and bones on our discussion of fundamentalisms. A novel complements, and in some cases betters, the expository approach because when issues come to play in powerful human drama, they impact the reader on an emotional level. Choking on a Camel helps readers experience religious fundamentalism through the life of Alex, a skeptically analytic, devout believer going through a crisis of faith.
Although this should be obvious, perhaps it would be wise to emphasize that Choking on a Camel is not a theological discourse, it is a novel. Novels are fiction, and whereas the descriptions of fundamentalists in this book are informed by the author’s personal experience, this book is not meant to be a portrayal of all fundamentalists everywhere. Within any group of people, including fundamentalists, there is always a broad spectrum of attitudes, values, and behaviors. There are admirable fundamentalists in the book and ones we might want to hate.
Alex Ferguson is a fundamentalist Christian. She comes from a secular humanist family—well-educated, well-travelled atheists. As a teenager, Alex is converted at a Billy Graham evangelistic crusade. After her conversion, she stumbles into a deeply conservative fundamentalist church and is immersed in its theology and programs. Though she tries to share her new-found faith with her family, they aren’t interested. She prays earnestly for their salvation.
Alex is so fervent in her faith that she wants to dedicate her life to serving God. Since she is a female and fundamentalists do not allow females to take a leadership role, she is not able to become a pastor and must turn to the main avenue of service open to her at this time: becoming a foreign missionary.
To prepare for ministry, she attends a fundamentalist Christian university in the South, Providence Christian University (PCU). PCU is non-denominational and Arminian in its theological leanings, although Calvinism and fundamentalism are not in general incompatible. The Arminianism of the school is in conflict with the Calvinism that Alex has come to accept, albeit reluctantly, which adds to her pressure and confusion as she tries to nail down the truth.
PCU is rigidly focused on obedience to rules as the way to achieve personal holiness and the approval of God, equating obedience to the school with obedience to God. The school exerts great pressure on its students to conform to the accepted patterns of thinking and behavior and takes a staunchly literal approach to the Bible. Waging war with almost everybody else in Christendom except for the few who agree one hundred percent with the school, the preaching is largely negative and focused on the short-comings of liberals, supporters of ecumenicalism, modernists, Darwinists, and neoevangelicals, those who fail to separate far enough from liberals. In this environment, Alex does not feel safe to express her questions and doubts. She conforms outwardly, but inwardly she is full of misgivings.
When her beloved brother is killed in an accident, Alex is slammed by the horror of what her religion teaches: God ordained the accident and sent her brother to a literal hell where he will burn in agony forever.
Alex finds one professor, Dr. Levi Wells, who is open and willing to think outside the fundamentalist box. He is her maverick philosophy professor, the son-in-law of the school president. He advocates more intellectual freedom on the campus and fights against what he believes to be the school’s anti-intellectual attitudes. He becomes Alex’s mentor and employer. Over the course of the three years that they work together, their relationship becomes close, too close. Just as immorality and falls from grace sometimes plague any religious movement, so this blight also reaches the campus of PCU and threatens to undo Levi and Alex. When Alex breaks out of her rigid compliance to the rules, she faces the loss of the moral absolutes that have governed her life since conversion and struggles to find her way. As she begins to think independently, she finds herself on a path that the reader has reason to believe will lead her to a better place.
Part 1: Introduction to Religious Fundamentalism