Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Indoctrination in Vanilla

It was like being born a citizen.  I was an American before I had an appreciation for what the United States of America was as a country.  I was a Christian long before I understood what Christianity was about.

My own story of the beginning of my faith was so bland that I have great difficulty remembering details.

My parents shuffled me off to Sunday School while they attended the real sermon.  There, I learned how Jesus loves all the little children, yes, all the children of the world.  Cartoon pictures of Noah and David decorated the cinder block walls.  Cartoon versions of Biblical stories told to us, like how David, just a mere young boy, bravely stood up against the evil, giant Goliath, and killed him with God's help.  (They left off the part about the subsequent decapitation, as they did with any of the less-kid-friendly details from other stories.)

It was, for all intents and purposes, a real school without exams.  The stories which we were told were presented as fact, just like an History class.  That's not to say I would expect anything different, but just to point out that there was no deep thought involved.  There was no reason.  There was only the way it was.  And I just soaked it up without question.  Indoctrinated.  Christian.

I can't remember the precise age, maybe 10(?), but at some point I was deemed old enough to go through the Methodist Church Confirmation program.  It was to be a confirmation that I was actually in the faith, that I was indeed a Christian.  The program took the cartoon concepts presented in early Sunday School and, well, made them less cartoon like.  But just a little.  Still in two-dimensions, the concepts of Salvation and (the only alternative) damnation were sketched out on a foundation of sin.  God's love would save us.  Jesus would save us.  Make that:  Jesus had already saved us.

To this day I can't tell you what version of damnation they had preached to me at that time.  I thought I was already a Christian, and all the people I knew were too, so I didn't worry about it.  Also, I was pretty self-centered, even more than I am now.  ;-)

This program, too, was just another form of school.  The trouble is that I was a pretty smart kid with a wealth of laziness.  When you are "blessed" with that gift, a structured teaching pace can be unbearably slow.  So just like in real school, I would pay attention just long enough to get the gist of what the teacher was saying, and then completely zone out in daydreams.  The Confirmation program did have tests of sorts, and I paid attention just enough to pass them.  That's probably why I barely remember anything from the program.

Anyway, graduation day came, and I was confirmed in front of the entire congregation.  The whole class was paraded up front, where we each read a verse out of the Bible.  Voilà.  We were proclaimed Christians.  Our parents were happy.  I didn't feel any different.  I mean, I thought I already was a Christian.  To me, it wasn't a faith; it was a status, or identity.  It wasn't something you earned, it was something you were.  The pomp seemed a bit unnecessary.

However, now that I was a true Christian in the eyes of the church, from then on I attended the regular sermons with my parents.  Physically I attended, that is.  Mentally I was off in a different world.

Our church didn't have an energetic preacher.  Fire and brimstone was rarely in the forecast.  Nobody jumped up and yelled "PRAISE THE LORD!"  Nobody spoke in tongues.  Nobody got healed.  Nobody prophesied.  Nobody stood up and waved their arms back and forth with hands uplifted as if receiving invisible ray beams of love-energy from the God in the sky above.

There was no show.  There was only worship and psalms.  Reverent, quiet worship.  And daydreaming.  And the occasional nap.

It would take a special girl for me to start pondering my Christianity more deeply, but that's a story for another time...

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Christmas Love

Sorry about breaking out the guy in the red suit so early this year.  Seems to get earlier and earlier.  Half a century from now, people will be giving up Christmas cookies for Lent.  But I digress...

I have a confession to make:  I never loved Santa.  Don't get me wrong here.  I loved to get presents.  I certainly appreciated the big guy stopping by with a stash of toys, but I didn't love him.

That's not to say that I had something against him either.  I wasn't creeped out by the thought of him omnisciently watching over me.  After all, that's what God was doing too.  Nor was I scared that he could enter into everyone's houses in the middle of the night without waking anyone up.  Nope.  My parents didn't have a problem with it, so why should I?

I simply just didn't love Santa.  I didn't love Santa, because I didn't have a relationship with Santa.  He sneaked in, dropped off the gifts, and covertly left.  Our family didn't even leave milk and cookies out for him.  I never wrote him letters telling him what I wanted, and I never wrote him letters to thank him for the gifts.  He never wrote me letters either.  I didn't know how to use a phone to call anyone, but he never called me.

Santa was a stranger; a very generous stranger, mind you, but a stranger none-the-less.

This created a rather strange dynamic.  Someone I didn't know stopped by reliably once a year to shower me with gifts in secrecy, without any kind of relationship or return of gratitude.  And he did this with all the kids I knew!  With that kind of consistency, the endorsement of my parents, and the abundance of evidence, I had to accept that it was normal behavior for his special case.

Oh, it was a very beneficial system, but it was hollow.  There was no relationship and no love, so there was no real meaning, aside from knowing that I would get new toys every year.

I don't really remember when I stopped believing in Santa.  There was not an eureka moment.  I think it was a combination of overhearing conversations, leaked information on TV, and recognizing the handwriting on the gift tags.

It wasn't earth-shattering either.  I didn't get angry at my parents for lying to me.  In fact, to some extent it made me appreciate my parents even more because I then knew that they were the source of the gifts.

I didn't feel the need to tell my sisters, or anybody, about my discovery.  With every parent perpetuating this illusion, and every kid believing in Santa for a time, it seemed to my like a harmless right of passage.  There was no point in me spoiling the mystery for others.

You know where this is going, right?  ;-)

In my teens, as I began to develop a maturity of mind enough to explore my faith in God, love became a hanging point.  Like we find in Matthew 22:37 below, we are called to earnestly and actively love God:
Jesus replied: "‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’"  NIV
I didn't make the comparison at the time, but I was having the same issues loving God as I had with loving Santa.  I went to church, and always treated the church with a reverent respect.  I went to the youth group. I prayed from time to time.  It seemed to me as though I was putting forth an effort to be with God and talk with Him, but I never heard back in any discernible manner.

I never felt a relationship, and without a relationship, there can be no true love.  At least by my definition of love.

God, and Jesus for that matter, were like Santa, at least to me.  God was a stranger, a generous one, given the promise of an eternal blissful afterlife, but a stranger none-the-less.  Only this Stranger was demanding love.  The only evidence seemed to be that everybody around me believed in God.  There was no annual, reliable, tangible gift session to at least stoke the fire of faith.  You just had to wait it out.  You had to die to get the promised reward.  And before that, you had to love.

When I first had these kind of thoughts, about the lack of a real relationship, that wasn't enough for me to doubt my faith in God.  My parents didn't have a problem with faith, so why should I?  I just thought someday, someday I will hear from God.  I just need to be patient.  I just need to be patient.  It may take longer than a year.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Where, O death, is your sting?

Ten days ago, the 8th of August, the USA Today published an article which would have been unfathomable two hundred years ago.  It wasn't about the new iPad.  It was about Hell, or rather, it was not about Hell.

You see, in this piece titled "Should believers fear Hell - and God?" by Oliver Thomas, Mr. Thomas discussed one of the internal hot-buttons of the church today; whether or not the traditional concept of Hell exists.  Apparently, one major reason this issue is on the forefront is a book called Love Wins by Rob Bell.

Unlike technology, which seems to change faster than my wardrobe, the words of the Bible don't really change.  Finds like the Dead Sea Scrolls illuminate the accuracy and integrity of manuscript copies, and so sometimes changes are made (as in the previous post), but usually these changes do little or nothing to shake the core tenets of Scripture.  Tenets like Hell.  So, how the Hell does Bell make a case for change?

Based off of the words of Mr. Thomas (as I haven't read Bell's book), Bell claims that perpetuated mistranslation is the culprit causing the creation of this wayward doctrine. Thomas provided a four part defense, presumably thanks to Bell.
  1. The Old Testament does not portray the domain of the dead (Sheol) as a place of torture, but as a place of no activity.  
  2. The Greek word "aiónios" (which he had mistakenly spelled "aionos"), which is translated as "eternal," is better understood as a finality, not a perpetuity (in Bell's opinion).  
  3. The word translated as Hell (in the New Testament) is Gehenna, which in Jesus day was in a valley south of Jerusalem where trash was burned, so Jesus was basically telling people that they would be trashing their lives if they did not repent for Salvation.
  4. God has perfect love for all of us.  No parent who loved their child could bear to see their child tortured if that child turned out to be a murderer.  How much more that would be true with God.
And, thus, the traditional concept of Hell is completely wrong.  Gone is the burden of trying to reconcile a loving and merciful God with an eternally enduring punishment for the unsaved.

Well, imagine how relieved I felt upon reading this!  As an atheist, no longer did I have to fear repercussions from God, should He happen to exist!  Oh, death, where is your sting!  I now have a hope spoken of in 1 Corinthians 15:55, only on the flip-side of the coin.  It's not eternal life, but, hey, it's not an eternal roast either.

But.  But wait a minute.  Something... something just doesn't seem right.  Let's take a look point by point:
  1. Yes, he's right, the Old Testament doesn't suggest that Sheol is a place of torture, but it doesn't describe Heaven as a place of eternal life for good human souls after they die either.  In fact, there is very little to suggest that the concept of an after-life punishment or reward in the Old Testament, aside from what could happen to your still-living progeny.  If you use that to debunk Hell, you'd have to debunk Heaven too, or at least the Christian version of Heaven where the Saved will go.
  2. The Greek word "aiónios" has "aión" as its root, which is defined as "agelong, eternal," which is why aiónios itself is defined as "age-long, and therefore: practically eternal, unending; partaking of the character of that which lasts for an age, as contrasted with that which is brief and fleeting."  This does not necessarily contradict Bell's position, but his position seems a bit more untenable when you consider Matthew 25:46:
    “Then [those separated to the left of Jesus] will go away to eternal (aiónios) punishment, but the righteous to eternal (aiónios) life.” NIV
  3. Ah, Gehenna.  Yes, indeed, Jesus was using the vivid picture of a burning trash dump, but was it simply to say that those who did not repent would be throwing their lives away, or was it meant to be a metaphor for a punishment which would endure forever?  The verses lean towards the latter because of context.

    Take Mark 9:43-48, for example.  That's the lovely passage which says you should chop off your hand or foot if they cause you to sin, or likewise gouge out your eye.  You see, these are better alternatives than being thrown into Gehenna, "where the fire never goes out" and where "their worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched."

    Why would it matter that the fire never goes out?  How would it be possible that worms feeding on the unsaved would not die, and why would that be significant?  If nothing was to happen to the unsaved at Judgement Day, or if there was just some brief punishment, then these references do not make sense.  On the other hand, if there is an enduring and continuous punishment, well, they are right in line, and probably worth chopping of your hand or foot to avoid!

    That's why Jesus told us that we should fear what God could do to us after death.  That's also why the exact concept of Hell as a place of after-life torment is used in a parable told by Jesus in Luke 16:19-31!  That's the one with Lazarus is a beggar, and a rich guy who didn't help him.  When they both died, Lazarus went to "Abraham's side," while the rich guy got thrown into Hell, explicitly to be tormented.  The rich guy begged to have Lazarus sent to warn the rich man's still-living father about the place of torment, but Abraham refuses.

    It's rather hard to believe that this is just a matter of mistranslation which somehow Bell can sweep aside.  Instead, he is just ignoring this passage because it's not what he wants to believe, and isn't consistent with the God of love he "knows."
  4. God seems to have no problem torturing people, or perhaps you are not familiar with the Plagues on Egypt which were the impetus for the Exodus, or the wrath God plans on pouring out in the book of Revelation.
So, it looks like the concept of Hell is well supported by Scripture, and, according to a 2009 Pew pol, 59% of Americans believe that the eternal torment of Hell awaits the unsaved.

Now here is the fun part.  Thomas ends his article asking why would anyone want to worship a God who would eternally torture someone?  And, furthermore, what does it say about a nation which reveres such a God?  Thomas appears to be aligned with Bell, so he can ask these questions from a comfortable distance.  Which, I am sure, is why he doesn't flinch at tying believe in such a wicked version of God as the impetus for "Crusades, inquisitions, witch hunts, and, yes, jihad."

Why?  Because "[f]ear is a horrible motivator for human behavior."  Well, Mr. Thomas, on that point, we agree completely.  You might want to bring that up to your Maker.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Old News

Is the Bible inerrant and infallible?  Some people still think so, irrationally.  The reverent believers who study the oldest available manuscripts know better.

Ahab over at the Republic of Gilead sent me an interesting news link regarding a little known project which has been going on for over half a century.  Tucked away in a corner of the Promised Land, a small group of Orthodox Jews are re-writing their Bible, what Christians affectionately call the "Old Testament."  These Jews are meticulously going letter by letter using all of the modern finds, like the Dead Sea Scrolls and other, more obscure scraps of Scripture, and comparing them with the traditional sources used in today's mainstream interpretations of the Bible.

In this tedious process, they've uncovered that some, um, mistakes which were made.  Sometimes, they were just minor changes of a word or two.  Sometimes, the issues were a little more damaging:
"Some verses, including ones containing a prophecy about the seizure and return of Temple implements by Babylonian soldiers, appear to have been added after the events happened."

To the skeptic, this is manna from Heaven.  ;-)   It would be inappropriate to assume that all of the prophesies which appear to have accurately come true were written after the fact based on this finding, but it has happened.  At least once.  That represents something incredibly significant.

An intentionally forged prophesy.  Made to deceive the readers, and/or the followers.  This represents evil intent.  It's a lie.  Why would you need to lie if you have the truth?  If you knew God did exist, how could you dare purposefully write a forgery in His holy book?  If you realize the truth isn't so true, but you benefit from that misguided belief, why not help it become more believable?

The Jewish scholars continue their work with unyielding faith.  Quietly.  With full knowledge that the people working on this project today will not be alive by the time this labor of love is complete.

Friday, August 12, 2011

A-Cross the Line in the Sand

In my previous post, I examined the reasons why an atheist may appear to be rude to a Christian believer upon discovering those beliefs.

Well, the Chalitzah sandal's on the other foot now.  We'll turn our focus on why Christians often give atheists the cold shoulder upon learning about their lack of faith.  To me, this list is much more entertaining and enlightening.  ;-)

You'll find a lot of similar reasons on this list, because we are human, after all.  However, there are some unique twists based on Scripture-based beliefs which really put an ugly slant on life.  Here's why I think a Christian may appear to get rude to atheists based on examples I have seen:

  • Arrogance: believing that someone without faith is silly, willfully ignorant, or just slow.
  • Insecurity: not having a foundational defense for why you believe, you just avoid getting into the conversation.
  • Anger: in a stage of recovery due to the recent loss of belief that the other person had faith.  You can't understand why you didn't realize their lack of faith earlier.
  • Bored: heard all of the atheist reasoning before, is still not impressed, and does not want to listen to it again.
  • Turned Off(1): may have nothing or little to do with the other person's lack of belief, but the sum of the conversation thus far has made you decide the other person is not worth talking to, and you are just not a fan of perpetuating social graces.
  • Turned Off(2):the atheist has found a way to belittle the belief in God and/or Jesus ten times into his or her last five sentences, and so seems a bit overzealous.
  • Indignation(1): you believe that no one has the right to question God.
  • Indignation(2): you see the atheist before as a representative of all atheist, and can"t abide to be in the presence of a perceived wicked force against God.
  • Fear(1): you do not understand atheism so you try to avoid it for your own protection.
  • Fear(2): you believe that the other person's atheist cooties (for lack of a better word) may somehow contaminate you and threaten your Salvation.
  • Fear(3): you believe that the other person's atheist reasoning may somehow tempt you and turn you from God.
  • Fear(4): you believe the other person is demon possessed.
  • Fear(5): you believe the other person is deluded by Satan and has been turned into an agent working for Satan.
  • Fear(6): with the Bible as your trusted moral compass, you are afraid that someone without a Bible compass is inherently going to be wickedly evil.  Without the Bible, how do they know what is right and what is wrong?
If I left something off, please let me know.

You probably noticed the heavy concentration on fears.  Fear is one of the by-products of this kind of faith.  Whether or not this fear is justified on an accurate interpretation of Scripture is up for debate, but to deny that these fears are spawned from some parts of the Bible would just be a lie.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

A Line of Belief in the Sand

So much on the mind, but so little time to blog.  Here's a short one.

It's amazing, amusing, and sad to me to see what the mention of faith, or lack thereof, can do.  You can be having a perfectly good conversation with someone come to an abrupt end just by admitting you do not believe in God.  For others, it's just the opposite.  Mention you are a Christian in certain crowds and you get shut out.

A commenter by the name of Ollie Wallflower left this little nugget on my other blog on a post related to Jesus' controversial command to "hate" your family:
"Just a few months ago my friend's mother sent back the Mother's Day card he sent her because he had become a Christian and she has apparently disowned him because of it. It's a sad reality."
Based on my limited experience, here's a list of why some proclaimed atheists may appear to be that rude:
  • Arrogance: believing that someone of faith is silly, willfully ignorant, or just slow.
  • Insecurity: not having a foundational defense for why you don't believe despite the majority around you believing, you just avoid getting into the conversation
  • Anger(1): not really an atheist, but is rather angry with God for some personal tragedy.
  • Anger(2): in a stage of recovery due to the recent loss of faith.
  • Guilt: knowing that you have made some serious mistakes, you don't need anyone to remind you.  (May or may not be a true atheist)
  • Rebellion: you don't need anyone telling you what is right or wrong.  (May or may not be a true atheist)
  • Bored: heard all of the Christian talk before, is still not impressed, and does not want to listen to it again.
  • Offended: when you get told you are going to Hell just for not believing, you tend not to want to be friends with people who hold those kinds of beliefs.
  • Fear: you do not understand it so you try to avoid it for your own protection.
  • Turned Off(1): may have nothing or little to do with the other person's Christianity, but the sum of the conversation thus far has made you decide the other person is not worth talking to, and you are just not a fan of perpetuating social graces.
  • Turned Off(2):the believer has found a way to weave God and/or Jesus ten times into his or her last five sentences, and so seems a bit overzealous.
I'm sure I left some off, so I may append to this later.

I'll start the Christian side on the next post.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Row 14

Ticket in hand, I walked down the narrow aisle of the commuter jet.  Seat 14A, that's what I was looking for.  I spied row 12, moved two rows beyond, and sat down in the best of both worlds; a combination aisle and window seat.  Oh yeah, the armrests were all mine.  :-)

I started the settling-in ritual.  Adjust the backpack at my feet.  Grab the book.  Tighten the safety belt of my seat.  Look up to see a guy staring quizzically at me.

Wait.  That last part is not routine.  As I'm piecing this information together, the guy says to me "I think you're in my seat."

I furl my brow in confusion, and reply "No, I think I am where I am supposed to be.  I have seat 14A..."  And as I am looking up at him, a quick glance to the side catches the row number.  It's 15.  For a moment, I am thoroughly confused.  I could have sworn that I sat down two rows beyond from where I saw row 12.

"Oh, I'm sorry.  Somehow I managed to miss my row," I tell him.  Quickly I gather my things, and we proceed to do that nameless dance you have to do when moving around someone else on an airplane.

He sits down.  I move up.  OK, row 15.. and there's row 14 where I am... next to row 12.  Row 12.  Row 12?

I sat down in row "14" with a confident reassurance that I can still accurately add two to twelve, but I couldn't help but be amused.  There is no row labeled 13.  Triskaidekaphobia strikes again.

This irrational phobia is still made manifest more often then you think.  New hotels, airplanes, sports stadiums, etc. all avoid the number 13.  In hotels, it's usually just the thirteenth floor which is "skipped," but I've also stayed in some hotels where the thirteenth room on every floor was omitted from being labeled as such.

Of course, the label does not change a thing.  A rose by any other name would smell as sweet, and a thirteenth row in an airplane still exists, even if it is labeled as the fourteenth row.  The fear gets even more irrational when you consider that where we start numbering is essentially an arbitrary convention.  There is no reason why you could not start numbering the rows from back to front in an airplane, or numbering the floors from top to bottom in a hotel (although it is more intuitive with our conventions).

So how does this relate to religion?  One theory is that triskaidekaphobia originated due to Judas being the thirteenth guest to sit at the table for the Last Supper, from where Judas would go on to betray Jesus, but the origin not really important.

The point is that triskaidekaphobia exists, in our modern world, without any kind of rational reason to have this fear.  Yet people with triskaidekaphobia are frightened to the point of feeling that their lives are in mortal danger from an arbitrarily assigned label.  It is a visceral feeling which shakes them to the very core.  And it's all... in... their... head.

Sometimes things which feel so real to us are nothing more than the lies we are willing to believe.