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Anthony Egan SJ (Jesuit Institute South Africa, Johannesburg)

Recently a South African pastor and self-styled prophet, Penuel Mnguni of the End Times Disciples Ministries, has been commanding members of his congregation to eat (apparently) live snakes. Charged with cruelty to animals and released pending trial, the pastor has recently made his followers eat their underwear. Others of his ilk have made believers eat grass or drink petrol. 

While church leaders from across the theological spectrum have denounced these practices and secular observers have called it a gross violation of human rights, sadly this is not an isolated case. Nor is it uniquely South African or African. We read of such activities everywhere. It has its roots in religious fundamentalism, theological illiteracy and – in many cases, including this one – economic desperation. 

We need to demythologise fundamentalism. It is not a pure, original form of a faith but a modern phenomenon rooted in a late 19th/early 20th Century reaction by segments of (initially) the Christian churches to critical theological thinking that sought to reconcile faith with advances in science, politics and culture – in short, with modernity. Biblical scholars came to see how the Bible was itself an intricate combination of sources and literary genres that read the history of God’s encounter with humanity (i.e. revelation) in a variety of ways. Historical events were overwritten with ancient myth; theological truths were told through literary fiction (e.g. the meaning of suffering through the fantasy of Job) or poetry (e.g. the Psalms or Song of Songs).

This is nothing new. Augustine commented that it was mad to imagine the world’s origins as happening literally in seven days. Medieval and early modern giants like Aquinas, Luther and Calvin were also all too aware of the distinction between truth as fact and truth as symbol. Their insights were mirrored in thinkers of other great faiths like Hinduism and Judaism.

Ironically one might say that fundamentalists’ obsession with literal truth was religious capitulation to the very pathology they fought: modernity’s abandonment of the truth we find in poetry and literature, symbol and imagination in favour of a narrow and bland ‘scientific’ literalism.

But fundamentalism also serves a more sinister purpose in many cases: cults of personality and dependence around charismatic pastors who either kept congregations in ignorance of new theological insights or were themselves poorly trained. Religious leadership can attract a range of personalities. Most (I hope) act out of faith in God and a genuine desire to help others grow in the love of God. Some, however, are authoritarian personalities drawn by a desire for power and sometimes wealth. And a few are just mad. 

Why does fundamentalism (and dangerous fundamentalist preachers) exist? It claims to defend faith against modernity and doubt, at the price of us leaving our minds at the church door. It offers alleged certainty: because we are too afraid (and sometimes too intellectually lazy) to live and engage critically with religious and moral complexity we prefer to hand ourselves over to irrational religion. The result is that occasionally we end up eating snakes or drinking poisoned orange juice.

The Mnguni Case is particularly wicked because it highlights how some (not all) fundamentalist preachers misuse their charisma and congregants’ theological gullibility. In an environment where many of the latter are poor, lack adequate health care, or simply feel overwhelmed by the chaos and confusion of daily life, such pastors manipulate their flock’s insecurities for power and financial gain. This religious abuse has terrible consequences.  Some, when they realise they’ve been duped, abandon religion completely. And to religious outsiders, fundamentalism makes all religion seem nonsensical.

At bottom fundamentalism exists because we let it exist. We who share in the ministry of theology – as pastors or scholars or both – must consider not only how sound theology can serve as a defence against fundamentalism, but also examine how we can better communicate our insights to non-specialists so as to prevent abusive religion.