An Appetite for Fanaticism
Is there something wrong with saying “You’ve gone too far”?
by Michael Spencer
It occurred to me this week, while observing a group of religious fanatics putting on a public demonstration of embarrassing, excessive religious behavior, that I would be considered way out of line if I told the fanatics to cut it out and calm down. Such is the equation of fanaticism with the genuine work of God, that I would be proving to my peers that I was totally insensitive to the Holy Spirit if I questioned the behavior of fanatics in any way.
The American Heritage Dictionary defines a fanatic as a person motivated by an extreme, unreasoning, enthusiasm for a cause. The original latin root had religious connotations referring to orgiastic temple rites and ceremonies. Today, the word “fanatic” is used generously in everything from sports to hobbies to religion. Americans are, generally, quite tolerant of fanatics, whether they be grown men dressed as Jedi Knights or football fans colored and tatooed like some kind of visitor from the islands of New Guinea. Unvarnished, undiluted enthusiasm is considered a good thing, even if it borders on the excessive.
The exception to this seems to be the secular view of religion. Your average Joe or Joanne doesn’t want to work next to a religious fanatic, have their kid’s team coached by a fanatic or be visited by fanatics selling literature. A whole array of laws have now come into existence to warn the religious fanatic to build his church elsewhere and keep his religion invisible. So one may tattoo a team logo on his forehead, but John 3:16 tacked on a cubicle may result in reeducation camp. Even churches are discovering that their once-welcome presence in the community is now interpreted as an invasion of drooling pedophiles.
On the other hand- and of more interest to me in this article- is the inability of the Christian community to come to terms with fanaticism in its own ranks, and to agree that it is 1) probably not the work of the Holy Spirit and 2) ought to be discouraged- firmly and frequently.
This has been a perennial problem in Christian history, but I do not have the space to document that claim. I will make a view historical observations. For one thing, Americans have always shown a temperament for fanaticism. From the two great awakenings to Azusa Street to the Toronto Blessing, religious enthusiasm has frequently broken out into behavior that needed…uh…explanation. One will find that other cultures- such as the British- may have burned at the stake from time to time, but the kinds of historical appetite for fanaticism we enjoy on our side of the pond have been rare to unknown.
Further, American Christian history is full of the defense of the fanatical impulse. One will find that in virtually every historical outbreak of fanaticism, no matter how manipulated or bizarre it may have been, there will be someone defending it as the work of the Holy Spirit. From Jonathan Edwards to the editors of Christianity Today, there have always been those who made reasoned defenses of unreasonable behavior. The Biblical evaluation of such defenses is the purview of the reader, but I am struck by the fact that so many are clearly uncomfortable saying “Barking like a dog or stumbling around drunk are unspiritual, fanatical, bad behaviors and we ought to have nothing to do with them.”
Instead, there is a tendency to be influenced by what I call the Pentecostal mindset towards the excessive or the strange. The Pentecostal mindset, exemplified most clearly in the early years of the Pentecostal movement, says that when bizarre and fanatical behavior occurs in the context of Christian experience, one ought to consider, even be willing to err on the side of, the possibility that such behavior is the work of the Holy Spirit. The Vineyard movement is the most sophisticated practitioner of this approach, and only the frightening excesses of the Toronto movement caused the Vineyard to put on the brakes, and even then at the cost of many Vineyard congregations who preferred to give the shaking, drunken, laughing, barkers the benefit of the doubt.
The scriptural support for this approach is meager. It consists of the following: 1) the description of some Old Testament characters acting fanatically under the influence of the Holy Spirit. 2) The notation in Acts that, when filled with the Spirit, some concluded the disciples were drunk. 3) The description of worship in Corinth, which sounds rather busy. Beyond that, you have the word of observers of such behavior that, in the end, it was really mostly God. If you sense I am not impressed, you are right. That the Bible makes a case for the Pentecostal mindset towards fanaticism seems to me to be a claim built upon certain presuppositions that should be routed.
What are those presuppositions? Anything done zealously is the work of the Spirit. The louder,the better. The more attention-getting, the more likely God is in it. Whatever is different from a typical Sunday morning in a well-behaved church is certainly God at work. If the fanatic gives God the credit or the blame, then God was at work. This is all, of course, patent nonsense.
As plainly weak as the case for generously overlooking fanaticism is, it is the rare Christian who will tell his or her friend or family member or pastor that they are over the edge. Perhaps it is a case of “What right do I have to judge?” And the answer should be, the perfect right all Biblically reasoning people have to call the unreasonable ridiculous and wrong.
For example, one frequent mild case of fanaticism I experience is the person who tells me that “God has told me to sing this song in church.” I will admit that I rarely challenge this claim, since it does little harm to tolerate it, but what if I did? (And really I should.) What if I said that there is no reason for me to believe God is telling them what to sing, that God instructed them specifically that I should give them an place in public worship to do so or that I should subject the congregation to the claim that God is whispering secret messages into the ear of some people but not others.
I would be perfectly right to say that if she would like to sing, just ask me, and keep the fanatical ploy out of it. There is nothing more spiritual about saying “I am only singing this Ray Boltz tune because God appeared to me like Moses and told me sing it.” This is an attempt to parade one’s spiritual experience, it is probably a lie, and it can’t be verified. Just ask, do it for the glory of God and sit down.
Of course, some of you are already shocked at the rudeness of this, and have concluded, like me, that tolerating this is the greater good. You suppose that when the youth groups come to the altar rubbing and hugging all over one another, I should bless God for their love in the Spirit. You suppose that when a group of church members begins telling others not to vaccinate, pay taxes or use contraceptives because God directly told them so, I should say nothing. When the pastor says that God told him we are to sell, move and build, we ought to do exactly that. You suppose that person who quits their job to watch TBN full time may be hearing from God and who am I to judge?
And it may be, in every case, that the zealot is right and I am wrong. But tolerating fanaticism has turned American Christianity on its head. Rather than being a religion of the Word, it is a religion of experience. Instead of being objective, it has become hopelessly subjective. Instead of being a collective, corporate participation in a Biblical community, it has become an individual, radical, quest to “chase God.” Instead of being comprehensible, it has become esoteric and mysterious.
In modern Christianity, fanatics have a clear runway to positions of leadership and influence. And virtually no one wants to dampen our appetite for fanaticism, no matter how much scripture and reason indicate a better way. Perhaps we are so sensitive to the secular persecution of our religion, that we are reluctant to criticize anything within our own fold. Our reluctance could prove costly, as fanatics tend to rise above correction, and to only be deterred when the damage has been done.
Here’s a closing thought. Jesus was perfectly filled with the Holy Spirit, and he seemed to be a really normal guy. Not normal as in sinful, selfish and foolish, but normal as in not a fanatic. He didn’t fit into the world system, that’s for sure. But it wasn’t because he was a wacko or a zealot. He was impassioned with the Spirit of God, and he shows us what a real God-filled person is like. God-centered, sacrificial, love-motivated living without the distractions of fanaticism.