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How to live with a fundamentalist

Q&A with Brian McLaren

Question & Answer



Q: By A Reader

My husband of 38 years is a quiet fundamentalist. Everyday he listens to podcasts by J. Vernon Magee and Alastair Begg, two Bible literalists. He subscribes to Charles Stanley literature. I am a progressive Christian, although when I use the word “Christian” it carries a nuance with it that I’m not comfortable with. Whenever we have tried to discuss our beliefs I get attacked. I’ve also been told I’m going to Hell because I do not have a “personal relationship with Jesus” whatever that really means. I think all religions have merit and I can’t stand the “us” against “them” mentality that goes along with being “saved”. I have read many books that have opened my eyes about dogmatic religion and he refuses to read anything but fundamentalist articles.

My question is: How do I not perceive my loving husband as ignorant? He’s so intelligent otherwise that I don’t understand how he can believe in the Bible as a literal history.


A: By Brian D. McLaren

Dear Reader,

Thanks for this question. I think many people will feel a resonance with similar situations in their own families, whether with a spouse, a parent, or a child.

Before I try to respond to your question, I can’t help but mention a tension within it. You called your husband “loving” and “intelligent otherwise.” But your husband also “attacks” and tells you that you’re going to hell. That is an incongruity many people experience, I think. Their partner, parent, or child is loving in general, but becomes the least loving when religious beliefs are the subject of discussion.

The idea of multiple belonging helps me understand your husband’s behavior. Your husband “belongs” to your marriage, but he also belongs to the community of fundamentalist Christianity. He demonstrates his loyalty to that community by the teachers he chooses – and the influences he rejects. Being married to you is, in a sense, out of sync with his membership in that community, and to avoid conflict with you, he is usually “quiet” about his membership.

Whenever you criticize his beliefs, he feels an acute conflict of loyalty. He is loyal to you, and to fundamentalist community. So he defends his community and its beliefs against what must feel to him like attacks by you … attacks on his community, which is part of his identity, which is part of him.

So, here’s what I’d recommend, put very briefly in three steps. First, try to feel some empathy with your husband and especially with his predicament of multiple belonging. This should be easier when you realize you experience this tension too. You belong to progressive Christian (and other) circles whose beliefs are in conflict with your husband’s beliefs. That tension causes you pain.

Second, once you feel that empathy, stop criticizing your husband’s beliefs. Understand that every criticism will feel like an attack, and every attack will engender a defensive or offensive response.

Third, after cultivating empathy and desisting from criticism, try to show genuine curiosity. That doesn’t mean asking, “How can an intelligent person like you believe such ridiculous things?” It means asking, “Tell me how it used to feel for you when I used to criticize some of your deeply held beliefs. I’m curious. I really want to understand.” If you want to talk about beliefs (again, only after spending significant time in the first two steps), stay away from argument. Instead, show sincere curiosity, “Tell me how you first came to believe in literal six-day creationism. Tell me what benefits it brings you. Tell me how your life would change if you lost this belief.” Again, this can’t be as a gotcha set-up, where he is vulnerable and you pounce.

Through this process, I think you’ll come to understand that your husband isn’t ignorant. He’s human, and his beliefs are framed less by reason than by belonging to groups in which those beliefs are essential. If you’re interested in more on this subject, you might find the first six episodes of my podcast Learning How to See to be helpful.

~ Brian D. McLaren

This Q&A was originally published on Progressing Spirit – As a member of this online community, you’ll receive insightful weekly essays, access to all of the essay archives (including all of Bishop John Shelby Spong), and answers to your questions in our free weekly Q&A. Click here to see free sample essays.

About the Author
Brian D. McLaren is an author, speaker, activist, and public theologian. A former college English teacher and pastor, he is an Auburn Senior Fellow and a leader in the Convergence Network, through which he is developing an innovative training/mentoring program for pastors, church planters, and lay leaders called Convergence Leadership Project. He works closely with the Center for Progressive Renewal/Convergence, the Wild Goose Festival and the Fair Food Program‘s Faith Working Group. His most recent book is Faith After Doubt.  He is the author of the illustrated children’s book (for all ages) called Cory and the Seventh StoryThe Great Spiritual MigrationWe Make the Road by Walking, and Why Did Jesus, Moses, the Buddha, and Mohammed Cross the Road? Brian is a popular conference speaker and a frequent guest lecturer for denominational and ecumenical leadership gatherings. He has written for or contributed interviews to many periodicals, including Leadership, Sojourners, Tikkun, Worship Leader, and Conversations and is a frequent guest on television, radio, and news media programs.

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