In my previous post, I talked about the notion that the bible (which is of course merely a collection of ancient documents) is the “Word of God”, and how this notion has become a critical component to Western European Evangelical Christianity. In several conversations with my friend Ray (who is Christian, of course), I think Ray and I may have teased out a possible reason why this notion became so central to this particular religion. One in which I and many of my loved ones have been enmeshed for so many years.
Ray calls it “Reading by Faith”. I have also heard this referred to as “Pray Reading”, and various other similar terms, depending on the religious context. The assumption is that the spiritual organ that lies within each of us, and connects us to the divine, gets turned on, and suddenly we are able to believe things for which there is no logical evidence. And the first thing you must believe, and for which there is plenty of evidence to the contrary, is that the bible is in some sense the “Word of God”.
Looking at this phenomenon from outside religion, of course, it appears to be very much like mass delusion. There is, after all, no scientific evidence to support the existence of a Human Spirit (at least not without serious questions). Thus, the act of believing propositions for which the evidence is seriously lacking seems, well, illogical.
Enter what I call Suspension of Disbelief (SoD). It is very similar to going to the movies, reading a book, or any other similar form of entertainment. You simply decide to believe what is presented to you, and you are good. You can only enjoy Harry Potter, Star Trek, and the like, by engaging in SoD to at least some degree. I am very good at this maneuver, actually. Anyone who has been to an action movie with me will laugh when they remember how agitated I can get during the fight scenes. This is because I actually lived in a fantasy world for several years (during the time my father was in Vietnam), and thus I have a very overdeveloped imagination.
Anyway, to become a Christian, you simply decide to believe. That’s it. The bible does say that it is “God’s Word” in several places (or at least you can interpret it that way). If you simply do the SoD thing (which, again, in the religious context can be called such things as “Reading by Faith”) then you can accept the bible, warts and all, as the utterance from the mind of God. Believe me. I know. I have done this very thing: I have believed this myself.
Now, the question: Why did I do this? Simple. There was a big payoff. In fact a payoff so huge that it could be said that it saved my life.
The payoff was love.
I was 28. It was 1983. My sister committed suicide by shooting herself in the head with a 38 caliber pistol. I got fired from my job and had basically no way to support myself. My wife was insane and abusive, as well as on her way to becoming a stumbling alcoholic. And I was joining her there. In the midst of all this stepped this older man named Frank.
Frank reminded me of my Dad, actually. I do not know as I sit here if Frank is still alive, although I have regularly tried to contact him. Frank, if you are out there, please let me know.
Frank was a Christian, and he took an interest in me, this young, intelligent, budding attorney who worked at the same natural gas pipeline company that he did. Frank took me under his wing. He offered me love. He offered me someone to talk to.
And he offered me the bible.
As I have said before, Frank was a very bookish guy. He seriously believed the proposition that the bible is the “Word of God”. And he dedicated an hour per day of his time to a practice based upon that belief: He read the bible cover to cover 4 times a year.
Now, of course, Frank was not reading the bible in the way that I do now. I read the bible as a piece of human culture, nothing more. Frank, on the other hand, used the same technique as my wife. I describe it above. Ray calls it “Reading by Faith”, which is the term I will use, or RbF for short.
The thing is, like I have said previously, most Christians only read about 15% of the complete content of their bible, max. And that’s the good stuff. Bear in mind that the bible is truly fabulous stuff at least 15% of the time. That’s the part that, for want of a better term, I call inspired (in the secular sense of course). The rest of the bible falls into three categories:
- Appallingly violent
- Miserably depressing
- Crushingly dull
At least, it does for me. Your mileage may vary. Depending on your tolerance level, and your commitment to reading the bible. Which in the case of Frank, was very high.
During my long association with Frank, I noticed that he did not ignore the uncomfortable parts of the bible like other Christians did. He read it all. I imitated Frank, and read the bible cover-to-cover many, many times. In the process I learned a lot about the bible. And gradually I got a better picture. The way that Frank and I were reading the bible was driving us crazy. I certainly knew that was what it was doing to me, and I also saw a lot of the same thing in Frank. At the very least, this practice was giving both of us a lot of stress. I personally observed Frank tortured to some extent by one of the more difficult passages in the bible. The early history books like Genesis and Exodus are great for this. Just open one and read a bit. You almost can’t miss it. But one example that I will pick on is Genesis 19, a truly miserable story in the OT, and the passage that was bothering Frank one day long ago.
In Genesis 19 we have Lot, Abraham’s nephew, living in Sodom with his wife and family. Two figures described as “Messengers of Yahweh” (frequently translated “Angels of the Lord”) arrive to warn Lot to flee Sodom. Apparently, the people of Sodom are homicidal, sexually crazed maniacs. (I have never found anyone in my all of travels who remotely resemble the men of Sodom, but whatever.) The men of Sodom try to break down the door to Lot’s house to drag out these two total strangers “so that they could know them” (literally “have sex with them”).
At that point Lot has a startling response. He brings out his two young daughters and declares
No, my friends. Don’t do this wicked thing. Look, I have two daughters who have never slept with a man. Let me bring them out to you, and you can do what you like with them. But don’t do anything to these men, for they have come under the protection of my roof. (NIV)
Soooo, it would be “wicked” to have sex (presumably rape) with these two strangers, but it’s fine to rape my two young daughters to death? What is Lot thinking here?
Now, of course Frank had a strong response to this passage. Not only does it seem remarkably cruel, evil even, but it makes no sense. It does not seem to particularly move the narrative along. It just seems to be stuck in there.
The thing that really bothered Frank was that this was in the bible. He didn’t get it. With each and every verse in the entire bible, Frank was trying with all of his heart to extract meaning and significance. And despite years and years of trying, and accreting massive amounts of “insight” onto his understanding of the bible, many, many verses eluded him his entire life, at least up to the point I knew him. And he was fairly elderly then, so this practice had been going on for many years.
What I saw in Frank, though, was a man with a purpose. A man who stood for something. And, most importantly, a human being who was willing to expend energy on me, who was willing to take his time, and give it to me freely.
What he saw in me was a successful, very intelligent young man who was utterly shattered and broken, but who still had enormous potential. Frank invested huge amounts of his time in conversations with me. Over the course of my conversion, which took the better part of a year, Frank and I spoke for hours, many times a week. However, even at Frank’s inflated hourly rate (Frank was also an attorney) this investment was wildly profitable to the Christian Church (if such an institution can be said to exist). I have given wildly, profligately in fact, during my period as a Christian. Thus, strictly as a business decision, the contribution of Frank to my life was a good one. However, I seriously doubt that Frank thought about it in that way. To him, I was merely a young atheist who was in his life, and who he was working with to share his faith. He had done the same thing many times before, and did it after he worked with me. To Frank, it truly was a form of love.
Because of this, the offer that Frank made was completely irresistible. I was exactly what has been described by Rodney Stark’s The Rise of Christianity as the ideal recruiting prospect for early Christianity: Isolated, lonely, desperate, and starved for human contact. It is possible that Christianity may have saved my life, as it did for many of the early Christian converts during all of the plagues in ancient Roman cities that Rodney Stark so eloquently describes. More on Rodney and his incredibly important contribution to my life in a later post.
The deal I made with Frank, which I suppose I secretly knew when I did it, was to receive access to a community, a support system, and most especially an emotional support system, in exchange for believing a few extremely implausible (but not provably wrong) propositions. Like that the bible is the “Word of God”. Which is, as I like to say, the Mother of Them All (TMotA). In terms of “foma” at least.
And why is that particular foma so important? Simple: Because it leads to all the rest.
If you believe, I mean truly believe, that the bible is the “Word of God”, then you will believe all kinds of improbable things. I have done it. Many folks in my life have done it. Entire doctrinal and theological card castles have been built around this initial single foma.
My daughter recently told me about some of the heated theological debates which were occurring in the Baptist church where she and her boyfriend sometimes attend. I suggested that she simply make the following statement during this sort of discussion:
You realize, don’t you, that the bible is a work of human culture and not the “Word of God” in any sense. Right?
At that point, all theological disputes should disappear. Because SoD will cease, assuming that this statement is believed. At least, that has been my experience. I was no longer able to buy the notion that the bible is the “Word of God” at some point in my journey (I have tried to figure out when this occurred, but so far it escapes me). My studies of the bible and the manuscripts upon which it is based eventually spilled over, and my faith in the bible as the “Word of God” simply collapsed. Once that happened, all of the other foma fell away as well. This included the following improbable notions, all of which I believed passionately up to this point:
- Evolution is just a theory.
- Marriage is an institution ordained by God in which one man and one woman live together their entire remaining lives and raise a family.
- The Church of Jesus Christ is the only legitimate expression of God’s love on the Earth.
- Your Hindu housekeeper is going to Hell because she has not accepted Jesus as her personal Lord and Savior.