Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Emails to a Skeptic #1: The Infidels are Partly Right

One of my parents' friends recently asked me to strike up a correspondence with their son, a man in his 30's, who grew up in a Christian family, but has been questioning both religion generally, and the Bible and Christianity in particular. As he put it:

I had always just believed in God and all the bible stories, it wasn't until I decided to actually read the Bible that I immediately started having issues with it.

The two of us struck up the conversation in question, and so far it's been both interesting and productive. I thought I'd post some edited versions of the emails back and forth. What follows is from my introductory email to him.

Just a bit of background on who I am . . . I grew up in an Assemblies of God church, and the summer before my senior year in high school, I felt like God might be calling me to the ministry.  As a result, I have a BA and an MA in Theology, but I eventually figured out that I had way too bad of an attitude to be a pastor, and as a result, I ended up going a different direction with my career.  I got into computers, and over the years worked my way up.  About nine years ago, along with my brother and a few friends, I helped to start an Internet advertising company named Zango, where I was CTO until last June.  I'm now looking into going back to school, to get my Ph.D. in theology.  I still have a bad attitude, but luckily, God doesn't seem to mind too much.

I should note that after I graduated from seminary in '92, I was so angry with God and Christianity and especially Christians (it's a long story) that I didn't darken the door of a church for nearly five years.  It wasn't until I got divorced in '98, and was lonely beyond belief, that I returned to church, and even when I did, it was only after I made a rather unorthodox deal with God.  I pretty much told Him outright, "Look, I don't want to be here, I'm not going to read my Bible, and you can kiss my ass if you think I'm going to do daily devotions.  But I'll show up, and hopefully that's sufficient."  And it turns out, it pretty much was.  I could put it in more devotional language – I could say, "God is faithful, even when we're not", and that would be true – but the reality of it was that I told God He could kiss my ass, and He was humble enough to take me in even on those terms.  And somehow, over the years, my bad attitude has tempered, I found a wife I loved and from whom I could learn about love, I'm teaching two different Sunday School classes, and I've even been reading my Bible a bit more (though nothing like I used to).

One of the things that I sympathize with in your emails is your critique of the fundamentalist use of Scripture.  I grew up with folks all around me who used Scripture in precisely the way that critiques so effectively.  And I have to say, I fully agree with their criticisms of that particular way to use Scripture.  Fundamentalists read Scripture as if it were a 20th century historical document, following all the rules of 20th century literature.  And of course, it's not.  It's variously a mish-mash of bronze age folk tales, iron age chronicles, half-pagan poetry, short stories, good stories, bad characters, profound theology, more-or-less accurate history, half-cocked letters, and hallucinations the likes of which Timothy Leary was never so unlucky to experience.  To the extent that the Infidels point out that this is the case, there's absolutely nothing (in my opinion) to disagree with them about.

In other words, I fully agree with everything you have to say about young earth theory.  I think "scientific creationism" is worse than wrong: it's silly.  It's also pretty clear that the New Testament writers, umm, appropriated prophecies in ways that the original authors never intended.  The various verses you mention in Matthew are some of the more blatant examples, though Paul's allegorical interpretation of the story of Sarah and Hagar is pretty good competition.  If you want to get fancy, compare Numbers 2:32 and 3:42, and do the math.  Or check the Greek of the book of Revelation: it's written like George Bush talks.  Were there two demoniacs that showed up after Jesus calmed the storm (as it says in Matthew), or was it just one (like it says in Luke and Mark)?  And was it in Gadara (like it says in most of the Matthew manuscripts), or was it in Gerasa (like it says in most of the Mark and Luke manuscripts)?  Is it all right to eat meat offered to idols, like Paul says (1 Cor. 8), or is it a Really Bad Thing, like Revelation says (Revelation 2)?  Does God actually want us to bash babies' brains out against the rocks (Ps. 137)?  Or would He prefer that we forgive our enemies instead (Matt. 5)?  Did God create humans after animals and plants (Genesis 1), or before (Genesis 2)?  And I could go on – but it gets boring after a while.  If you've been reading, you know these examples better than I do.

I guess my point is that if you accept that the fundamentalist way of reading Scripture is the only valid way, and is the only way that you can continue believing in God (and Jesus), then I think you're quite right to reject the Bible and God along with it.  My question to you is whether you think there's any room for a different way of reading Scripture. 

You can probably tell what I think the answer is – but you should be clear that I'm not talking about namby-pamby, watered-down liberalism, or any way of understanding Christianity that makes Christ anything other than what He claimed to be.  I believe that our God is nothing less than a consuming fire, in Whose presence we would do well to tremble.  And more than that, I believe the Church has generally managed to express truths about God faithfully and accurately.  I'm a catholic, orthodox, Protestant, Evangelical Christian.  But it took me a long time to get there: it took Jesus a great deal more fuss and bother to exorcise the fundamentalist out of me than it took Him to get Legion out of the Gerasene demoniac(s).

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