I am a Postchristian

I have discovered that I am a postchristian. Wikipedia defines postchristianity this way:

Postchristianity is the decline of Christianity.

I would accept that definition as long as the decline occurs not only within human societies (as the wikipedia article indicates) but also within my own heart. I read the article and recognized the state of my own heart: I am what you become once you decide the Christianity is bullshit.

I do not say that Jesus is bullshit. Jesus may be the real McCoy. I don’t know. At the very least, Jesus was a terrific guy, at least from what we can tell from the biblical record. Way, way ahead of his time. And a genuine improvement over the other apocalyptic prophets of the time.

My experience has not been so much with Jesus as with his followers. I have become a reluctant critic of the American style of Evangelical Christianity, which I have come to believe is simply a form of capitalism at this point. And the product is essentially a form of entertainment. A religious buzz, nothing more.

Now, having said that, others are apparently figuring this out as well. There is a postchristian church. And it is exploding, largely at the expense of the more traditional Protestant churches.

I encountered one such church last Sunday, and as I write this, my wife and I intend to go there again tomorrow. This is Unity Center of Peace in Chapel Hill. I had a nice conversation with Rosemary, the (oh, I don’t know what to call her: Head Pastor?) at Unity. Seems they welcome all comers. Persons of all faiths or no faith at all. Their statement of faith says that they welcome unbelievers. I replied: “Great! I am an unbeliever. Thanks for welcoming me.”

There does appear to be a mildly delusional, but otherwise quite pleasant, gospel, which I refer to as the “interfaith gospel”. I will blog on that later.

Sin is the Enemy

I had a bit of a breakthrough today. I now understand who (what) the enemy is. The enemy is not faith. Sorry to disagree with folks like Bill Maher, but the enemy is not religion.

The enemy is sin.

I don’t mean that you should try to live a sinless life, i.e. attempt to eradicate sinful behavior from your lifestyle. Nor should you abandon discretion and common sense and live a dissolute and reckless lifestyle. In other words, give in to sin. No, you should simply abandon the idea of sin, the idea that there is a vindictive, jealous and vengeful God who will wreak judgment upon those He finds displeasing. And that you can somehow please him by living in a particular manner.

Let’s examine that idea closely. Take the story of Elijah and the priests of Baal contained in 1 Kings 18:23-40. As this site indicates, this story is a favorite among Christians. Invariably, Christians spiritualize the story without really examining the events themselves. In the story, Elijah proves that Yahweh was the true God, whereas Baal was a false god. Elijah does so by miraculous means, and the way he does so is quite spectacular and rather amusing, no question. But look what happens afterwards:

And Elijah said unto them, Take the prophets of Baal; let not one of them escape. And they took them: and Elijah brought them down to the brook Kishon, and slew them there. (1 Kings 18:40 KJV)

Now, assuming you believe in God (which I certainly do much of the time), then you must have some internal concept of the nature of God. You probably believe that God is loving and compassionate. Let’s call this a Loving and Compassionate God, or L&CG.

Now, which of these two scenarios is more likely:

  • Elijah called fire down from heaven, which L&CG obligingly sent, thereby proving His existence and power in graphic terms. Elijah then proceeded to massacre a religious minority, with the explicit approval of L&CG.
  • Elijah orchestrated the massacre of a powerful religious minority for political gain. He then exploited his religious culture to justify his war crimes.

I don’t know about you, but I find the first scenario entirely less likely than the second one. Yes, Elijah may have existed. He even may have called down fire from heaven, although I seriously doubt it. What I do not doubt, however, is that the annihilation of a religious minority within ancient Israel (or anywhere else in history for that matter) is not, never has been, and never will be justified and endorsed by L&CG.

I came up with a hypothesis based upon this idea. The gist is that sin-based religion has caused more religious war, persecution, etc., than non-sin-based religion. It turns out that this is certainly true. Of the major world religions, the number one culprit in terms of causing religious war, persecution, etc., is Christianity, with about 15 million deaths. Islam is next, with between 8 and 9 million, except that most Islam-related religious wars also involved Christians. Thus, much of that has to be credited to Christianity as well. Everything else is noise.

Religions where sin is not a major feature (Hinduism and Buddhism being the two major world religions that fall into this category) do not figure in religious wars very much at all. If they appear, it is in a defensive role. Thus, Buddhists or Hindus will defend themselves, violently if necessary, when they are persecuted by another religion (usually Christians and Muslims). Typically, Christians or Muslims attempt to convert Hindus or Buddhists forcibly. This does result in resistance, understandably. Otherwise, the non-sin-based religions simply do not figure in religious wars very much.

Thus, it appears that my hypothesis is correct: It is not religion that dramatically increases human suffering. It is instead the concept of sin, with the associated idea of a vindictive, judgmental and vengeful God.

This gets played out in daily life of ordinary folks as well. Take this scenario. A small child is killed in some senseless and brutal manner. The parents are understandably devastated. A well-meaning but clueless religious person shows up, sees the pathetic scene, and says something like the following:

We just can’t know God’s plan. Although we don’t understand it, we have to accept that God knows best, and somehow this was the best thing for <fill in child’s name>. I mean, who knows, <fill in child’s name> might have turned away from God. By taking her now, God knew for sure that she would be in his loving embrace for all eternity. Maybe this is God’s perfect will.

I am not exaggerating here. I have been to many funerals that sounded just like this. And what has this religious leader just done? He or she has made God to blame for little <fill in child’s name>’s death, and the suffering of these poor parents, who must now try to worship a God who countenanced this obscene event.

In some cases, the opposite occurs. My cousin Monty was the most egregious example of which I ever heard. That happened fairly soon after I had just become a born-again Christian. Monty was a severe alcoholic who was separated from his wife, having multiple affairs, and died in a drunk driving accident in which he was at fault. In the process, he killed an entire innocent family. At his funeral, which I personally attended, the Baptist preacher said the following, more or less:

We can know for sure that Monty is in heaven today in the loving arms of Jesus. That’s because he came down the aisle in this very church at the age of 12 and accepted Jesus into his heart, and was baptized in this very church.

Now, if anyone ever arguably deserved to burn in Hell, Monty would be up there. He was a cad, no question. Not a lot in Monty’s life to admire. However, for me, given a choice of believing that Monty is burning in Hell or in the embrace of Jesus, I will go with neither.

Monty was broken. I am broken. You are broken. We are all in a terrible state. But that does not mean that there is a vengeful and jealous God who will condemn us when we die.

A few Christians are even beginning to embrace this idea. Take for example Rob Bell, a Christian I have thoroughly enjoyed. Rob seriously pissed off the Evangelical establishment when he announced that he no longer believed in Hell. He later recanted when faced with serious persecution, I suppose. The question that got him: If there is no sin, then why did Jesus die?

Why indeed?

Virgin Birth

I am fully aware that authoring this post makes me a heretic, as that term is defined by many Christians. Whatever.

In order to be a Christian, I had to believe, as a matter of faith, that Jesus Christ was born of a virgin. You see, if Jesus wasn’t born of a virgin, then he couldn’t be God. That would mean that he could not die on the cross for our sins, come back from the dead, and so forth.

Thus, the Evangelical Christian religion hinges entirely on this one question:

Was Jesus Christ born of a virgin?

For any practicing Christian, the answer to that question must be a resounding: Yes! Otherwise, if there is doubt, then the entire belief system collapses. That was certainly the case with me.

So, the question becomes:

What evidence do I have that Jesus was born of a virgin?

In my mind that evidence is wanting.  I have seriously studied the scriptures, as you can tell if you read this blog. For me to doubt the virgin birth does not take very much at all. I only really need to doubt one thing: The conversation between Mary and the Holy Spirit in Luke 1:26-38 (NIV), which reads:

26 In the sixth month of Elizabeth’s pregnancy, God sent the angel Gabriel to Nazareth, a town in Galilee, 27 to a virgin pledged to be married to a man named Joseph, a descendant of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. 28 The angel went to her and said, “Greetings, you who are highly favored! The Lord is with you.”

29 Mary was greatly troubled at his words and wondered what kind of greeting this might be. 30 But the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary; you have found favor with God. 31 You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you are to call him Jesus. 32 He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, 33 and he will reign over Jacob’s descendants forever; his kingdom will never end.”

34 “How will this be,” Mary asked the angel, “since I am a virgin?”

35 The angel answered, “The Holy Spirit will come on you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the holy one to be born will be called[a] the Son of God. 36 Even Elizabeth your relative is going to have a child in her old age, and she who was said to be unable to conceive is in her sixth month. 37 For no word from God will ever fail.”

38 “I am the Lord’s servant,” Mary answered. “May your word to me be fulfilled.” Then the angel left her.

Now, it is pretty obvious that there are some serious problems here. First of all, the only witness to this entire conversation was Mary. Second, the account was only written down around 70 years after the actual events at the earliest. Thus, Mary, Joseph, and everyone else involved in the events were all dead. The (supposed) added credibility of having Elizabeth (Mary’s relative, possibly an aunt) witness to the divine incarnation is evaporated once I understand that Elizabeth (who was older than Mary) was dead and gone before all of this got written down.

My father told me what he considered his “great heresy”. It went basically like this:

There was a nice Jewish girl named Mary. She was desperately and hopelessly in love with this young Jewish man. They lived in a small town called Nazareth in an ancient time. Because they both lived within a rigid, terrifying cruel religious culture, they knew their relationship was doomed: Mary had been given by her father in an arranged marriage to an older man named Joseph. Mary and the young man both knew if they consummated their love, that they could be stoned. If Mary became pregnant that would be the ultimate catastrophe. Yet the temptation proved to be too great for them. In an awkward compromise, the young man only penetrated Mary very gently and very shallowly, to avoid breaking the hymen. Nonetheless, he transmitted his seed, and Mary conceived.

When Mary became pregnant, they were both terrified. They came up with an insane plan: Mary would insist that she was a virgin! Thus, the conception must be divine! Knowing that her only other choice was either death or a life of terrible hardship, Mary agreed.

The plan worked beyond her wildest imagination! The priest examined Mary and declared her a virgin. Everyone acknowledged the miracle.  Joseph even agreed to support Mary and her son without having relations with her. Mary took the secret with her to her grave. Not even her own son knew the truth.

There is a rule of logic know as Occam’s Razor. This rule states that, when faced with two explanations for an event, choose the one which is simpler, and requires the fewest assumptions. In order to believe Mary’s account, we must assume:

  • God, the creator of the universe, the pre-existent, single cause of everything, craves an intimate and personal relationship with me, and is capable of monitoring my every action, including my own thoughts.
  • God has a very strong opinion about the way in which I should live my life, and has codified those preferences in the old testament law contained in the bible.
  • God will punish the slightest infraction of that law with an eternity in a place of torment.
  • Although I had no active participation in the event, I am nonetheless damned to eternal torment due to the original sin by my ancestors, Adam and Eve.
  • God decided in order to satisfy his own wrath to horribly torture and kill his own son (also divine).
  • If I believe all of that with no doubt, I will no longer be damned. Instead, I will go to a wonderful place when I die.

Six assumptions in other words. In order to believe my father’s account, I only need to believe this:

  • A teenage girl who was angry about an arranged marriage had sex with a random guy and lied about it.

Not sure about you, but I’m going with the simpler explanation.

More later.

Fraud

In my previous post, I outlined my views on the Shroud of Turin, and how it is very likely that this is the genuine burial cloth of the historical figure we refer to as Jesus Christ (not his real name, but we will use that name for convenience). In addition, I pointed out that the Shroud contains many, many layers. The most well-known image, though, is the negative photographic image, which creates huge challenges for us, both as secular observers and as religious folks. For purposes of reference, I include my favorite image of the Shroud, which is the photographic negative image which reverses the image back to positive:

Full_length_negatives_of_the_shroud_of_Turin

In another area of my study, I looked in depth at the development of Roman Catholicism and the rise of the Emperor Constantine. I am not a fan of Constantine, actually. Several books have led me to this conclusion. One of these is a particular favorite: Cities of God by Rodney Stark. Although Stark writes from a Christian perspective (which I respect, actually), his conclusions are telling: The rise of Christianity as a world religion was a process of social forces which made the events of the Medieval period inevitable. Basically, Christianity prevailed because (as I have said before on this blog) it replaced the ancestral village life for many people in ancient Rome who had been ripped out of their homes and sold into slavery. During the first three centuries CE, Christianity grew steadily within the Roman empire. There were several plagues during this period, and Christianity increased sharply (at the expense of paganism) during each plague. Stark points out that the Christians were venturing into the homes of their plague infected pagan neighbors and bringing them food and warm blankets. If the pagan family survived, they certainly were not pagan anymore after that! Because of their loving care for each other and for their neighbors, the survival rate of Christians was much higher than pagans during each of these plagues. Fundamentally, the big jump in numbers during these plagues would have resulted in Christianity constituting about 55% of the urban Roman population by the beginning of the 3rd century, when Constantine comes onto the scene.

Clearly, from the perspective of Constantine, he simply bet on a winning horse. The conclusion was inescapable and obvious by the time Constantine converted: If he did not become a Christian, eventually he would have been overthrown. Trouble is, as Stark points out, once Constantine co-opted early Christianity and made it an instrument of Roman power, all distinctiveness between the Christians and the pagans was lost. In the next plague, no Christians visited their neighbors bringing warm blankets and food. The Christians died as the same rate as the pagans. Thus, it is very obvious that much of the momentum and credibility of Christianity was lost once Constantine took over. (Most of the “Christians” who converted after Constantine were nominally Christian only, by and large, as Constantine provided many incentives to convert once he became the effective head of the Christian faith.)

This gets into the issue of Constantine’s mom, St. Helena. I have read several books on Constantine, and one on his mother. The best book by far that I have found on St. Helena is The Living Wood: Saint Helena and the Emperor Constantine by Louis de Wohl. Although he again writes from a Christian perspective, de Wohl points out some facts which, when combined with what we know about the Shroud, are extremely telling about Constantine, his mother and the rise of Medieval Christianity.

One interesting fact which I should point out before going on: The Shroud is the best and most convincing physical evidence of the facts surrounding the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. That should theoretically make it the most important relic in all of Christendom. But instead we find that the Shroud is being systematically suppressed by the Roman Catholic Church. The silly and inane Carbon 14 dating in 1988 is an exceptionally good example. This Carbon 14 dating was so fatally flawed that it is simply astounding that it was even taken seriously. The scientists in charge insisted on a minimum of six samples: They got three. They wanted to take the samples from different areas of the Shroud: Instead only one area of the Shroud was used, and those samples were collected in private by only two men, both Roman Catholic clergy, who provided the testers with the samples, plus false samples from another source, without anyone other than the two Roman Catholic clergy knowing which was which.

When the Carbon 14 dating project produced a date in the Middle Ages, the Roman Catholic church immediately caved: The Shroud is a fraud! It is an interesting relic, but obviously not the burial cloth of Jesus, etc. In other words, the Roman Catholic church has done everything humanly possible to simply make the Shroud go away. The interesting question is: Why?

Once you read Louis de Wohl’s book, and combine it with the books on the Shroud, the answer becomes obvious: The Shroud makes the crimes of Constantine and his mother obvious and apparent to anyone. Let me explain.

I said a moment ago that the Shroud should have been the most important Christian relic, but it wasn’t. Instead that relic was a piece supposedly found by St. Helena in Jerusalem in the mid-4th century: The True Cross. This was supposedly the cross of Christ. It was used by St. Helena and Constantine to enrich themselves and solidify their power. Constantine always carried the True Cross with him into battle. His troops believed that with the power of God behind them, they could not lose. And sure enough, they never did. In this way, using the power of Christianity, Constantine was able to consolidate the entire Roman empire under his rule, the last Emperor to accomplish this. Also, St. Helena sold off pieces of the True Cross to every cathedral in Europe. In the process, she and Constantine became the two wealthiest individuals in all of Christendom.

There is a serious problem with the idea of the True Cross. This relic was in the form of what is referred to as a unitary cross. The use of the cross as the symbol of Christianity dates from this time. This is a cross as we normally think of it: Two pieces of wood permanently attached to each other. Supposedly Jesus was nailed to this cross, and then the entire arrangement was hoisted into the air, as shown in films like The Passion of the Christ.

Looking back at the Shroud, the figure shown in the Shroud was not crucified in this manner. Instead, his arms were tied to a cross beam. Once he reached the crucifixion site, he was nailed to the cross beam, and then the cross beam was hoisted onto a vertical post (similar to a telephone pole), which had a hook mounted on top. A small angle bracket was then nailed to the vertical post, and his ankles were nailed to this piece. This is all completely consistent with archeological finds of other Roman crucifixion sites. Bear in mind that crucifixion was the dominant form of execution in the early Roman Empire, so we have lots of textual and archeological evidence to fall back on here.

When you think about it, the manner of execution shown in the Shroud is much more likely than the traditional Christian view. A unitary cross would simply be too heavy for Jesus to successfully carry from the trial site to the crucifixion area (referred to in the Gospels as Golgotha). A unitary cross would probably have weighed on the order of 400 pounds, far too heavy for even a normal person to carry that far, even if he had not been nearly beaten to death. A cross beam would have weighed between 50 and 80 pounds, which is quite doable, even for an injured person.

Thus, the Shroud speaks to us concerning the crimes of Constantine and his mother: Apparently, they faked the find of the True Cross, and foisted this fraud upon the ancient Christian world. In the process they made themselves incredibly powerful and wealthy. They also created phoney miracles (referred to as the Holy Fire) which were conducted in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher (the cathedral that Constantine and Helena built in Jerusalem) every Easter from the 4th century  all the way to the 18th century.

At the end of the day, the conclusion is inevitable: The church created  by Constantine was a fraud. He cynically and knowingly faked his conversion, the various miracles surrounding the True Cross, his victories in battle, and all the rest. It boggles the mind, actually.

Now, what does this say about Christianity as it exists today? Certainly, the legacy of Constantine must be dealt with. This is a process which is still going on in my own mind. More on that later.

Shroud

OK, I know, I know. You are saying “Here goes.” You saw the title and have now identified me as one of those people, the weirdos who always talk about the Shroud.

I hope to disappoint you. I am not a typical Shroud believer. Far from it. However, as I related in my previous post, my Christian friend Ray has thrown down the proverbial gauntlet, and I must now justify what I believe, or die trying. And, you see, Ray knows me very well. He knows that I have studied the issue of the Shroud deeply. So far, I have read a lot of books on the Shroud of Turin, as well as watched some video. All of this material falls into three categories:

  • The rapidly Christian stuff, which is by and large useless and full of junk science. And example of this is The Shroud of Turin by Bob and Penny Lord. These books and videos are written from an entirely Christian perspective, and thus approach the Shroud from a position of faith. This is actually not helpful at all. The Shroud creates huge challenges to traditional Christian faith, as we will see later in this blog, and this approach entirely hides those insights.
  • Some New Age stuff which is actually not too bad; at least it is grounded in science. It is pretty weird though. My favorite example is The Truth About the Shroud of Turin: Solving the Mystery by Robert K. Wilcox. Wilcox is a bit, well, odd, but his conclusions are not manifestly wrong, indirect though his path may be.
  • The rapidly anti-Christian stuff which attempts to either debunk the Shroud, or blame the entire Christian religion on it. An example of this claptrap would be The Sign: The Shroud of Turin and the Secret of the Resurrection by Thomas de Wesselow. Wesselow theorizes that the entire Christian movement occurred as a result of the viewing of the Shroud by various folks, including St. Paul, of course! The fly in the ointment is the Shroud itself: Wesselow attempts to dismiss it as a vaporgraph, which is quite frankly physically impossible. I will not bore you with the physics, but suffice it to say, I am certainly not convinced by Wesselow here.

After wading through a bit of this soft of thing, I have come to some conclusions about the Shroud.

First of all, the Shroud is either the genuine burial cloth of the historical figure we refer to as Jesus Christ, or there was more than one person crucified in almost (but not quite) precisely the manner described in the Gospels, and that person was crucified in the early 1st century in Jerusalem. The likelihood of more than one person being crucified in exactly this manner, especially considering the unusual circumstances surrounding these events, is highly remote. Therefore, I believe that I can state with reasonable confidence that the Shroud of Turin is in fact the burial cloth of Jesus Christ. Certainly, this is what I believe, and I have given the matter a lot of thought and study.

The Shroud is a many layered thing, with various images on it, but the most important part of the Shroud problem for our present discussion is the negative holographic image which is present on both the face up and face down portions of the Shroud. The following image has them placed conveniently side-by-side:

Full_length_negatives_of_the_shroud_of_Turin

There are several problems with the existence of this image. We cannot create this image even today with any technology we presently possess. It is too fine an image. It consists of an almost single-molecule thick layer of darker colored fibers in the linen cloth out of which the Shroud was made. Although it was made in the 1st century (the stupid 1988 carbon 14 dating has been completely debunked at this point), it contains a negative photographic image. That makes this the earliest photographic image in human history, so far as we know, and it was created approximately 1,800 years before the invention of photography.

And not only does it have a negative image, but that image contains holographic data, making the likelihood of a natural explanation even more unlikely.

Many highly competent and revered scientists have looked at the Shroud, but most have now stopped trying. It is considered a career killer. The Shroud simply cannot be explained by rational means.

Thus, my final conclusion: I don’t know what went on in that tomb, but it must have been some seriously gnarly stuff, that’s for sure! And that’s basically what I know. Apparently, Jesus was very important somehow, at least to the extent that an extremely inscrutable event surrounded His death.

In my next post, I will deal with the notion in Ray’s email that the evidence of the Shroud (which largely corroborates the Gospel accounts, with a few notable exceptions) means that we should give the New Testament a special break with respect to the Word of God thing. 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.

Clouds

My wife is the most beautiful person that I know. I have observed her for many years. Since I am pretty crazy about her, my attention is definitely focused on her most of the time.

She has been a Christian since she was 8, wandering though the various denominations in America. Presently, she is nominally a Baptist, as she was when she first got “saved” 47 years ago.

My wife’s relationship to the scriptures is fascinating to me. I once described to her what I perceived to be her approach to the scriptures in an analogy that I call “clouds”. Since then, I have used this analogy with other Christians with varying results. In the case of my wife, when I told her the analogy, she replied “Yes! You finally got it!”

So here goes. With respect to the scriptures, my wife reads maybe 15% of the bible, max. The ugly, depressing, crushingly dull, and appallingly violent parts she simply ignores. Most recently she has found a devotional (Jesus Calling by Sarah Young) which she effectively uses as a filter: She simply reads the verses in this book rather than reading her bible itself. In the process she neatly skips the uncomfortable parts of the bible. She also sees amazing insights in these verses. They “jump off the page” for her, and she finds all kinds of satisfying enlightenment and transformation through this process.

I have repeatedly told my wife that I envy her: She is like the person who, gazing at the clouds, sees in them all manner of beautiful things: People, animals, trees, and so forth, all bathed in this amazing golden light.

My relationship with the scriptures has been very different from this: I became a Christian in 1983, having been evangelized by a man who read the entire bible cover to cover four times a year. I absorbed the bookish quality of his faith and proceeded to study the bible exhaustively. First I simply read the bible cover to cover more times than I can count (certainly more than 20 or so). Once I became dissatisfied with simply reading the scriptures, I began to study more deeply. I learned Hebrew. (Interestingly, I did not pursue Greek as most bookish Christians do; I was far more interested in the Old Testament than in the New Testament, and this has had a profound impact on my journey: More on this later.)

In this respect, I moved down the path of being less of a cloud-gazer (similar to my wife), and more of a cloud-studier. Similar to the relationship that a meteorologist has with clouds, for example. In the process, much of the magic of the bible was lost to me. Instead, I gained a deeper and more realistic understanding of what this collection of ancient documents really is.

Eventually, I learned enough Hebrew to read the book of Ruth. In the process, I became immersed in the Jewish culture, and this lead to exploring works of ancient Jewish literature. I became at least familiar with the Talmud, the Midrash, and ancient Jewish authors like Josephus. This lead eventually to the worst question that you can ask as a Christian which is:

Where does the bible come from?

Stop!!!! OK, I have your attention, hopefully. Huge disclaimer: If you value your faith, do not read on. I am absolutely not responsible for the consequences of you reading this material at this point? Got it? Let’s move on.

Here is the First Proposition: The collection of ancient documents commonly referred to as the bible (actually a combination of ancient Jewish documents commonly referred to among Christians as the Old Testament plus early Christian documents referred to as the New Testament) is merely a work of human culture, and not the “Word of God” in any sense.