Dark Verses

I recently ran across this blog, which I found quite engaging. The author (named Tracy as I will refer to her in this post) claims to promote a state of being “radically free”, and generally, I would say she is on a good path towards that goal.

But she still continues to engage in one (in my opinion) form of delusion: She continues to maintain that the bible is the Word of God, or “revealed truth” as I like to call it. This particular Christian dogma takes many forms. In its most extreme fundamentalist form (which Tracy obviously rejects), the bible is to be read literally, as a historical document.

While Tracy certainly does not hold to that view, she does tend to quote the bible in support of her position. I call this “bible bashing”.

Bible bashing occurs when a person regards the bible as authoritative for human living, and the expression of divine will. I no longer hold that view, and I believe a careful and systematic study of the bible will reveal what I have discovered: The bible as we know it is a work of human culture. A collection of literature, nothing more.

How do I know this? Easy. First, I look at the 85% of the bible that almost all Christians (and Jews for that matter) tend to ignore. I call these the “dark verses” (hence the title of this post). These are the verses that show the character and nature of the god described in the bible. Which is a pretty poor character in my view, and I think most reasonable folks would agree.

Take a story that Christians love: The story of the flood, Noah, and so forth, which is contained in Genesis 6-9. This is a story which I personally taught to my children as  a bedtime story. My wife and I even decorated our children’s bedrooms with pictures of the ark, animals, and so forth.

Let’s get real. This is a terrible story. In this story, the god of the universe, the creator of all the stars, galaxies, and so forth, decides that he is annoyed with mankind, because they are engaging in all sorts of behavior of which he disapproves. (No explanation is ever given as to why this particular god has an opinion about things like foods, sexuality, what day we should rest, etc.) Anyway, because mankind has failed to measure up to his standard, he has a simple solution: Wipe them all out.

Imagine the young mother at that moment, holding her newborn infant in her arms while god causes the waters to rise. She struggles to keep her baby above the surface of the waters. Eventually, she is overwhelmed, and her baby falls into the water and is drowned as well.

Now, several questions are patently obvious:

  • Would you worship a god who would kill an innocent infant in cold blood for the purported crimes or his or her mother, or other adults in his or her culture? I mean come on here! Supposedly, one of the basic tenets of Christianity is redemption which is a beautiful idea. The gist is that all humans are capable of being fundamentally good, if simply given a chance. Everyone has the potential to be redeemed. Not this baby apparently. At least not in god’s eyes. He or she never gets a chance to prove what kind of life he or she would have had. In my mind that god is a monster, a genocidal maniac who makes Hitler look like an alter boy.
  • What are the crimes of which this culture is guilty, and which is connotated to justify mass genocide? Homosexual practices for one. Does anyone in our current culture maintain that because of homosexuality that our culture deserves to be wiped out? (If so, I would suggest that you are a bit out of step with modern values.)
  • Oh and the other crime: Worshipping the detestable gods of their religion. Which I have pointed out before is simply code: Religious documents of all stripes invariably refer to the practitioners of another religion as wicked idolaters. That’s right before they decide that these folks deserve to be killed.

Many other examples could be chosen. I have pointed out all of the incredibly cruel, misogynistic, bigoted and just plain stupid things in the Old Testament law. And the New Testament (especially the later books like the Pastoral Epistles and the Book of Revelation) are little better. Even the gospels do not escape from the issue of dark verses.

I will not belabor the point further. My real purpose in this blog post is to beseech all of my fellow humans: For the sake of the planet, for the sake of human suffering, please, please, pretty please, drop the silly pretension that your particular religious text (whether it is the bible, the Quran, the Vedas, the Gita, or whatever) is the revealed truth. It is simply not possible for all of these books to be faxed from heaven: They are wildly inconsistent, after all. (The bible is even internally inconsistent, which is also true of many of the other texts which claim the status of revealed truth).

As long as there are millions of believers who maintain that their particular book is the revealed truth, and yours is the work of demons, we are all going to remain stuck in a persistent state of being assholes who bash each other over the head with these books. Can we stop doing this now, please?

Larry

I met an interesting man recently, named Larry. We were total strangers when we met, but circumstances threw us together, and we ended up having dinner. In the course of dinner, we shared our views on spiritual matters. This discussion was very fascinating to me.

Larry is a putative Christian at the moment, but I suspect that is in flux. I sensed from Larry a bit of dissatisfaction with his current state, which I generally heard as this:

  • The existence of God is required due to the existence of the physical universe. I have previously talked about the anthropic argument (that is, arguing for the existence of God based upon the evidence of nature). I find this position fairly satisfying, actually. I am continually struck by the wonders of nature, and how they seem to speak loudly about the existence of God. Certainly, a person of faith receives a strong jolt of confidence when he or she considers nature.
  • If God does exist (see above), then He / She would naturally want to communicate with His / Her creations. That is a very common argument, but it does not necessarily hold water in my view. I call this belief the Personal God. That is, the creator of the universe, with all of the trillions of galaxies, etc., wants to have a personal relationship with me, which includes monitoring my very thoughts (including this one!) in real time. Several issues:
    • Many philosophers conclude that if God does exist, it would be utterly impossible for Him / Her to communicate with us. This view of God is referred to as the Divine Watchmaker. Deism holds this view, for example. Many founding fathers of the US, including Thomas Jefferson, for example, were famously deists. Thus, the idea that God is personal does not necessarily follow.
    • Even according to early Christian doctrine, it is not actually possible for God to “want” anything, due to His / Her eternal nature. This was the view of Augustine, for example, who famously stated that a special place in Hell was reserved for those who asked silly questions about such things. Augustine believed that God existed outside of the physical universe, and thus was not bound by space or time. Since He (we’ll stick with the masculine for the moment) does not exist within time, He is in the Eternal Now. Thus, He is perfectly wise, perfectly happy, perfectly at peace, etc. In that state, according to Augustine, God has no unmet desires and thus it is not possible for Him to “want” to be in relationship with His creation, or anything else for that matter.
  • And here is the clincher: Assuming God exists and wants to have a relationship with His creatures, then the Bible represents his attempt to do so. Bingo! And therein lies the rub. That simply does not follow logically, period. The collection of ancient documents we refer to as the Bible is simple one of dozens of alternative religious texts that exist on this planet, each of which is regarded as sacred. For example, the Buddhist scriptures represent the accumulated wisdom of the religion we know as Buddhism. Similarly the Hindu religion has several texts including the Gita, the Vedas, etc. And, finally, Islam has the Quran. One thing I did when I lost my faith in Christianity was to read many of these texts, and consider the claims made by each of them. I concluded that:
    • The competing claims of each religion cannot be reconciled.
    • There is no compelling reason to accept the writings of one religion (including the Bible) over any other. All religions have a similar basis for existence. Christianity is not unique in this regard, despite the claims of those within Christianity. Each set of writings of a given religion is a work of human culture, nothing more. Yes, they are beautiful. Yes, they can be transformational. But that does not make them divine, even if God exists.

The only reason that Larry accepted Christianity was because of his cultural context. If he had been born in Saudi Arabia, he would make a similar argument for Islam. Ditto for Bangalore with Hinduism, Tibet with Buddhism, etc.

Now, assuming that the Bible is not the Word of God, where does this leave me (and Larry)? Figuring it out on our own, I suppose. Based upon recent life experiences, I conclude that I am much better off doing that than trying to adhere to the teachings of an ancient religion based upon the assumptions of a different culture.

Lie to Me

You know the show Lie to Me? The main character (played beautifully by Tim Roth) is Dr. Cal Lightman, a famous scientist who has created a foolproof way to tell if someone is lying.

Now, imagine with me, please, that Dr. Lightman is standing in front of you, and he is holding a gun. Also, that gun is pointed at the person who is the most precious to you. If that is yourself, then that gun it pointed at you. Otherwise, it is pointed at your wife, daughter, mother, etc. Got it?

OK, Dr. Lightman speaks. He says: “I will ask you a question, and you must answer me honestly. I mean truly honestly. Remember that I will know if you lie. And if you lie, even just a little, I will pull this trigger.”

And here’s the question:

Do you believe that Jesus was born of a virgin?

Ouch! A classic hobson’s choice: If you say yes (I have written previously that the virgin birth is highly unlikely, although certainly not impossible), then you are probably lying. Even most Christians have a dark corner of their soul where they doubt the virgin birth a bit. And so, the person you love the most is going to die.

On the other hand, if you state truthfully that you doubt the virgin birth, even a teensie bit, you stand a chance of losing your salvation. Salvation is by faith after all, according to many, many verses in the NT. For example, Jesus said in the Gospel of Matthew 10:37 – 39

If you love your father or mother more than you love me, you are not worthy of being mine; or if you love your son or daughter more than me, you are not worthy of being mine. If you refuse to take up your cross and follow me, you are not worthy of being mine. If you cling to your life, you will lose it; but if you give up your life for me, you will find it.

Suffice it to say, that the standard held up in the Fox’s Book of Martyrs is pretty high: You have to be willing to die for your faith. Thus, the standard of faith is absolute, unwavering, unquestioning belief, even in the face if imminent death to yourself or your loved ones.

After all, the folks who were persecuted by Nero in Fox’s Book of Martyrs were willing to die rather than simply place a pinch of incense at the foot of a pagan idol. The pagans did not even demand that the Christians cease to worship Jesus. No, their beef was that the Christians insisted that their pagan gods were not gods at all, but rather demons and such.

At the time I first read Fox’s Book of Martyrs, I found these folks admirable. Now I simply find them stupid. Don’t get me wrong: I do not endorse or approve of the tactics of the Romans in the persecution of Christianity during the early centuries of our current era. (Neither do I endorse or approve of the actions of the Catholic Church during the period following Constantine.) But the pagans did have a good point, if a poor way of demonstrating it: Christianity is a pretty exclusive club. You are either in or you are out. And near as I can tell, the difference between in and out is in what you believe. Specifically, what you believe in terms of hard, specific historical facts like the virgin birth.

I did it myself when I was a Christian. I insisted to everyone I knew that the choice they faced was the Dr. Lightman choice. Jesus is the way, and the only way, to God. If you would be saved, you must surrender everything. You must buy it all, hook, line and sinker. You must be willing to die, or even to see your most beloved one die, rather than deny your faith. Otherwise, you are not a Christian at all. You are simply an imposter: A wolf in sheep’s clothing. A tear, waiting to be rooted up on the day of judgement and burned in the fire.

If that’s true (and I will admit that I sincerely hope not), I am royally screwed at this point.

Yeah, no kidding. I will burn in Hell. No doubt about it. If the Christian gospel is true, then I am damned.

Bummer.

The reason I say this is because I have looked at the hard, specific, historical facts that I am required to believe in order to be a Christian. In fact, I have made it one of my life’s tasks to understand the evidence (or lack thereof) for the truth of these facts. I have spent hundreds of hours of study in doing so. Certainly, there is no one that I have met who has studied this stuff as hard as I have, and few who have done nearly as much.

My conclusion? There is no way to know for sure. But the virgin birth is highly doubtful in my mind. Thus, I would be forced to answer Dr. Lightman truthfully: I do not believe that the virgin birth is necessarily true.

Now here is my final question, and the point of this blog: Because I have made a serious study of the culture, history, and language of the ancient world, so that I could better understand all of this, and because I have earnestly, and with all my heart, sought to understand this, and because I have concluded that I do not believe in the absolute truth of the things that religion claims, shall I then be damned by God?

I mean, what about the poor, dumb bastard who drifts through life with a vague idea of what is going on, but never bothers to question what he is told from the pulpit. Shall he go to heaven because of his laziness, while I burn in Hell because of my diligence?

Shall I believe six impossible things before breakfast, as Lewis Carroll said in Alice in Wonderland? Is that the price of heaven?

I mean come on! Is that fair? You tell me.

Reasonable Christians

I met a reasonable Christian today. It was a bit weird, actually.

My wife wanted to visit a local Anglican church where my Christian friend Ray and his wife attend, and I thought: Sure, why not? So we went. There you have it. I actually set foot in a Christian church today. And I have no doubt that many of the Christians in that room would be offended by the things that I say on this blog (although I would certainly love it if they would read it).

Be that as it may, I was immediately drawn to a young woman when we arrived. You are probably thinking that this was due to my (admittedly) heterosexual nature. But, no, in this case, I was not attracted to this person in that way at all. For one thing, she was dressed in a very traditionally religious manner, which is about as sexually unattractive as it is humanly possible to be. And she had done absolutely nothing to make herself attractive, as that standard is described in our current culture. (Not that I find that necessarily attractive either: More on that later.) It was not that she could not have made herself attractive in our terms, had she tried. She simply did not care to try.

What drew me to this person was her absolute, visible and obvious rebellion against the direction of our modern culture. As soon as I started talking to her, she explained to me about how the Anglican church we were in was “officially a mission of the Anglican Church of Rwanda. You see, the Rwandans decided that America was an evil, secular, and godless place that was in need of evangelizing. So they planted this church.”

I still cannot tell if this statement was dripping with irony or not. If so, she delivered it very well, and very straight. She had me immediately.

I confessed that I was an extreme theological liberal, and told her about a bit of my journey. How I had made a terrible mistake: I decided to read the bible as a work of human literature, and put my faith on the shelf for a while. As a result, my belief systems traumatically collapsed and left me as you see me here: A spiritual wreck. Of course, the irony in my case was more obvious.

Interestingly, she understood. Turns out that she is studying the New Testament at a major university in Israel. (A very interesting place to decide to study the New Testament.) She said she had been through a similar journey. She was, as she put it: “Aware of the difficulties.” That is, she has a place at the conversation because she is at least familiar with the material concerning the origins of Christianity, the bible and the rest, and is not simply deluding herself, as many Christians do. The good news, she said, was: “You can make it through this to a better place.”

I did not get to continue the conversation past that point, although I would like to. Is it possible for a person who does not even believe in Hell, or the concept of sin (as in failing to meet the standard set out by God in His law) to be a Christian in some way? Perhaps it is, so long as it is clear that I am also a Hindu, Buddhist and Muslim. As well as an agnostic, and in times of deep despair, possibly even an atheist.

But the Christian might be the better part of me.

One thing my friend Ray pointed out to was the 10 commandments, as a part of the standard raised by God. Unfortunately, I was not persuaded by that very much. If I had to come up with a set of human laws to live by, I would have created a very different list than these. Especially when you put it in the context of the rest of the Old Testament law. Like the commandment against adultery. I would certainly not condone the form of marriage described in the law of Moses, which was, as I have pointed out frequently, polygamous, blatantly discriminatory against women, and fundamentally a form of slavery. I would have certainly added a commandment against rape. (Want to get your hair raised? Read the laws in the Old Testament on rape.) And I certainly would have added a law encouraging compassion and empathy towards every human, regardless of race, gender, age, ethnicity, religion, or sexual orientation. Which is obviously missing from the Old Testament law, as it is completely bigoted in favor of the children of Israel, and against the rest of the human race.

So there is the challenge: Can a man like me fit into a community of Christian believers? Not sure. I guess we’ll see.

More later.

Strange Doctrine

In my previous post, I rather crudely described a painful experience I had with Christianity early on. As a divorced man, I was invited by my Christian friends to become a totally non-sexual being. I apologize for my rude language on that post. Generally, I try to keep things nice here, but of course that one got the better of me.

In this post, I would like to more thoroughly explore why it is that many Christians (including myself, in times past) believe some manifestly ridiculous and absurd notions, including the whole sex / divorce thing. I need to nuance this though: I have readily admitted on this blog that Christianity also probably saved my life. Certainly, I received lots of love and support from other Christians during my early Christian experience. (Later on, not so much.) So my experience with religion has not been completely negative. OK, let’s move on.

Why is it that Christians often believe very unlikely things? Simple: It comes from an obstructed view of the bible. I will use myself as an example. While I was enmeshed into the system of Christianity, I viewed the bible entirely through the lens of Christian theology, as shown in the following graphic:

Strange Doctrine 1

Note that I unified my approach to the entire bible: Like any other Christian, when I was is reading the bible, I attempted to reconcile the various books of the bible with each other. Thus, I approached the bible as a single work by a single author, because that is what I believed it was.

Also, notice that I looked at the bible alone. If I read anything other than the bible (and there were many years when I read nothing else), they were works by Christian authors that basically trumpeted the Christian point of view, quoting heavily from the bible in the process. Not very helpful in other words. I certainly did not consider the bible in the context of the culture in which it was written. (Heaven forbid!)

This approach worked for me for a while, but eventually I found it very frustrating. The contradictions were simply too numerous to count. I also found myself believing propositions which frankly are mind boggling. More on this later. Once I became aware of these issues, I considered the following idea: Whatever else the bible is, it is certainly a work of human culture. So why not simply approach the bible in that manner? This required me to remove the lens of Christian theology from my view of the bible.

In the process, the bible became deconstructed into its various books. Of course, once I ceased to approach the bible as a single unified work, I became aware that the bible is simply a collection of ancient documents, nothing more. I ceased trying to reconcile the author of the Gospel of Matthew (who was undoubtedly a Jewish Christian who believed that you must follow the Law of Moses and be circumcised in order to be saved) with the author of the Gospel of John (a gentile believer who was deeply influenced by pagan Greek philosophy). The following graphic illustrates this approach:

Strange Doctrine 2

Now for the final step. Once I had deconstructed the books of the bible, and approached them individually, and simply as works of human culture, I then began to investigate the other works of human culture (especially literature) which were contemporaneous with and adjacent geographically to the books of the bible. These works amplify and illustrate the books of the bible in a manner than simply cannot be replaced any other way. The final graphic shows this approach:

Strange Doctrine 3

This is, of course, the exact approach used by academics who study the bible and other ancient documents as their profession. Eventually, I discovered academics like Richard Elliott Freidman, Karen Armstrong, and the like, and those have certainly helped me on my way.

Now, let’s examine the process whereby my Christian friends concluded that I, as a divorced man, would never be allowed to marry or have sex ever again. This is based upon a very literal and restrictive reading of several passages in the New Testament, such as 1 Timothy 3:2 which reads:

Now the overseer must be above reproach, the husband of but one wife, temperate, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach,…

This passage describes the qualifications for an overseer (Greek: episcopas), which includes the injunction that he must be the husband of one wife. Given that Christians hold a theological position that God’s plan for marriage is for one woman to be married to one man, and to remain faithful to each other their entire lives, their interpretation of this passage is colored by this doctrine. It is manifestly obvious, once you look at the context of the culture of the times, that what was being referred to here was that the overseer could not be the husband of more than one wife simultaneously. That is, he could not be a polygamist. Before you react, bear in mind that polygamy has been by far the most common form of marriage in human history. To this day, many cultures are polygamous. Only in the former Roman Empire and colonies of powers which were previously part of the Roman Empire (such as the US), did monogamy prevail as the norm. In the case of 1st century Palestine, of course there was widespread polygamy, including among Christians. What the writer of this passage is saying (it is rather unlikely that the author of this passage was Paul, so instead he is generally referred to as pseudo-Paul) is that an overseer must be a monogamist. That is not to say that polygamists were not welcome in Christian churches. They were, and we know this from abundant contemporaneous literature from that time. But pseudo-Paul was simply expressing the prevailing Christian view that monogamy was best (as a result of the influence of Roman paganism, from which monogamy emerged).

Now, in my case, this very restrictive reading (again in the light of the Christian theology regarding marriage) meant that we had to read polygamy out of the passage: That is not what that passage could possibly mean, because we know that God would never countenance polygamy! (Never mind that every single patriarch in the Old Testament with the possible exception of Isaac was a polygamist, including Adam.) If we read the passage in the light (or darkness!) of this strange doctrine then the reading becomes obvious: In order to be an overseer, you must be the husband of only one wife in your entire life.

Now, how do we get from this to an injunction against anyone becoming married for the second (or third) time. Simple: God must want us all to be able to qualify as overseers. It is therefore God’s will that we maintain the highest standards of excellence, especially in the area of sex. Thus, I was told: You can get married if you want, but that’s not God’s will for you. If you pray hard enough, you will eventually learn to live as a eunuch for God.

Never mind that I am aggressively and stubbornly heterosexual, and deeply passionate. No problem. God will give you grace. Eventually, you will become able to bear this burden.

Hence my FtS reaction in my previous post. I simply refused to go along with this absurd notion. In the process I was attacked physically once, and was pretty roundly persecuted for a while. But eventually, I found my amazing and wonderful wife, Ruth, and we discovered each other. The rest is blessed history.

This is not the only ridiculous notion that I allowed myself to believe for many years while living as a Christian. Others included:

  • Evolution is a theory, nothing more.
  • The earth is only a few thousand years old.
  • We all descended from two individual humans who were miraculously created by God.
  • The entire universe was created by God in seven days.

You get the idea. Once you remove the lens of Christian theology, these will eventually fall away. At least they did for me.

More later.

Payoff

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.

More later.

The Big Lie

My wife hit me with this one yesterday: “You know how you talk about the Big Lie? I want you to blog on that! Please!”

Actually, I was kind of planning on easing into this one. But she generally gets anything she wants from me (I’m soft that way). Like I said, I am pretty crazy about this woman.

Anyway, the Big Lie. I touched upon this a bit in one of my previous posts entitled The Compiler. In that post, I state the following:

Problem is: This preacher has been to seminary, and in order to graduate from any reasonably reputable seminary in the US, this preacher would have to learn everything that I have just said above. Hermeneutics (i.e., the interpretation of ancient texts, including the bible, for which we have only copies of the originals, and in which the copies do not agree) is a required subject in all reputable seminaries. Thus, this preacher is effectively lying, or at best withholding critically important information. You are being mislead if a preacher tells you that your current, modern translation of the bible is the “Word of God”, regardless of whether or not you believe the words of Paul to have been inspired.

And therein (as I like to say) is the rub: For some strange reason, this preacher is telling his flock a big fat whopper, and he presumably knows that is a very naughty thing to do, given his religious training. So why does he do it?

I remember the intro to Richard Elliot Friedman’s book Who Wrote the Bible in which he related a story about how he came to a Christian church to talk about the Documentary Hypothesis and where the bible comes from generally. At the end of his talk, an elderly woman approached him who appeared to be slightly incensed. She demanded with some heat to know why in all of her years attending a Christian church, she had never heard this information before. Which struck Richard Elliott Friedman as odd (Friedman is Jewish, and the Ann and Jay Davis Professor of Jewish Studies at the University of Georgia, so attending Christian meetings is not something I would imagine he would do very much). However, once he looked into it, he realized that the typical Christian is shockingly ignorant on Hermeneutics, which is, as I have said before, is a required class at any reputable seminary in the US (if not the world). Wikipedia defines Hermeneutics in this way:

Hermeneutics broadly, is the art and science of text interpretation. Traditional hermeneutics is the study of the interpretation of written texts, especially texts in the areas of literature, religion and law. A type of traditional hermeneutic is biblical hermeneutics which concerns the study of the interpretation of the Bible.

You get the idea. It is simply not possible to seriously study the “art and science of text interpretation” in the context of the bible without learning the stuff I have said earlier on this blog. Therefore, the likelihood of the physical leather bound book the preacher is carrying as being “The Word of God” is about as great as the earth being struck by a comet. And, again, the preacher knows this.

So, again, why do all of the professional religious folks lie about this? Simple: The truth does not sell. And that is what religion has become: A money making organization, which is, effectively, a form of entertainment. More on this in my next post.