Archive for the ‘the “true-ish” series’ Category

A few readers asked me to repost this one.

stuff that matters

Find part 1 HERE;  Find prequel HERE (in which I come clean about my faith)

Church1Part 2 of 3

I just finished reading UnChristian, by David Kinnaman, president of the Barna group, a Christian research organization that set out to explore Christianity’s reputation today, especially among people between the ages of 16 and 29.   Every conservative Christian should be required by law to read this book. 

What would you guess are the first things that pop into people’s heads when asked their perception of present-day Christianity?  Think about that for a moment, then let me ask you this as well:  What are the first words that occur to you when you think of Jesus? Don’t read on until you’ve answered that question!

For me, I think “love,” “radical,” “grace,” “counter-culture,” “compassion,” “truth.”  Wouldn’t it be cool if those were the first thoughts people had when they thought about…

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NOTE:  This is a re-write…an update…to an article I wrote a year and a half ago.   – Mike Nash

leapoffaith-2I’m not sure what to do about God.

It was really hard to write about this when I first put it out there.  At the time I felt that it would be easier to admit that I’m an alcoholic, or that I like to wear women’s shoes. (I’m not and I don’t.) I live in a small town full of Christians, and I was part of the broader Christian world for 30 years. I spent a total of 20 years as a leader in Christian ministries. I was involved in worship and preaching at every church I’ve gone to. I taught a weekly Bible study in my home. And now I find myself not sure what I believe anymore.

Why is this hard for me to be honest about?  Why did it scare the hell out of me to admit this?  I’ll admit that I have a fear of rejection. Religious people tend to have a hard time with people who no longer believe they same way they do.  And since I first wrote about this, I’ve experienced some rejection.  It’s been difficult.  But, surprisingly, it’s also helped me to really figure out who I am and what I do and don’t believe anymore.

I met with a friend for coffee last year. I’d known her for over 25 years. I was looking forward to catching up, talking about our lives, our families, our worlds. Instead she shared with me how much I’d hurt her, how betrayed she felt, because of something I’d written questioning the Bible’s take on human origins. At one point I said something like, “can’t we disagree on some of our beliefs, and still be friends?” Sadly, her answer wasn’t yes. This stings, every time I remember it.

Another old friend recently told me through email that I’ve changed “and not in a good way.” When I asked her what she meant by that, she said that I don’t believe the same things I did when she first met me, and that she can’t accept that.

In contrast, however – just tonight I had a couple beers with another old friend – I guy I’ve known since we were both 19 years old and with whom I did ministry for a decade.  I told him my “story,” where I am spiritually, where my journey has taken me, and he was full of understanding and empathy – and he shared some of his own very real struggles and questions.  It was a healing time, and it’s what has prompted me to revisit this article.

I live in a small town. I’ve got some really good friends here, including people who are still involved in the town church, where I no longer show up on Sunday mornings. Most of them have been full of grace and understanding – I don’t feel like a bad guy when I’m around them. There are others, however, who don’t know what to say to me, now that I’m no longer part of the club. At one point an out-of-State friend warned me that I might be going to hell. (I think it was these recent conversations that have prompted this semi-public confession.)

I didn’t do this on purpose. At least for me, belief is something you have or you don’t. I can’t just believe because I want to. I’ve experienced that kind of intellectual dishonesty. I can’t do it anymore.

Brief history: I was not raised in a religious home. Between the drinking and the fighting and the divorcing, my parents never seemed to have the time to develop that part of their lives. When I was 14 I decided to “ask Jesus into my heart,” due to the loving influence of a group of new friends at school. It probably saved my life.  From there I got involved in Christian camps, briefly attended a Christian college, led Christians programs, married a wonderful Christian woman, became a leader in the Christian church. But 17 years or so ago things started falling apart in little ways…just minor fissures at first. Just a few small chunks would fall from the wall every so often, then a little more and a little more. Then finally, a few years ago, big sections of the wall crashed down.

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The science problem
The first small crack for me was a little thing called “science.” I’m not a scientist, and I’m not a genius, but I do believe in science, and reading about science has sort of become a hobby of mine. And you know what? Evolution really is a thing. The evidence for it is overwhelming. It’s “only a theory” in the way that Einstein’s theory of relativity is “only a theory.” And frankly I’m embarrassed by the conservative church’s war on science, whether it be climate change, psychology, biology or whatever. I was at the Smithsonian last year, blown away by the history of life on display in the fossil cases, and I overheard a home school dad explain to his two little boys, “Now remember, you guys. Satan buried all these fossils in order to convince people that there is no God, right?”

Talking snakes, the sun standing still for a day, a 6,000 year old earth, dinosaurs on the ark – I couldn’t keep it up any longer. I had to finally be honest with myself. Either evolution is true, or Genesis is true. Not both. And I had to consider the fact that one of those two theories has an avalanche of evidence going for it, while the other is based on a book and a strong desire to believe.

The Bible problem
A few years ago I was studying apologetics and Biblical criticism, and I discovered that the word that Matthew translates as “virgin” in the birth story actually means “young woman.” It’s the same word that’s used for the women in Solomon’s harem (and I think we can safely assume they weren’t virgins). Turns out there were about two dozen “virgin births” and savior myths during the time period in which Jesus appears on the scene. It’s widely believed that Matthew added the virgin birth miracle (along with several others details of Jesus’s life) to make the whole narrative more closely match up with Old Testament prophecy. Which finally explains why the apostle Paul, the primary writer of the New Testament, never got the virgin birth memo. Not once does he refer to it in his letters. In fact, in one letter (Galatians) he traces Jesus’s lineage through Joseph, apparently assuming that Joseph was Jesus’s actual father. Two of the four gospel writers don’t seem to know about this part of the story, either.

true-ish-logoWhy am I writing about the Bible? Because this was one of the bigger cracks in my strong wall of faith. I kept discovering that I couldn’t trust it. But I have to admit – I was terrified. What if these truths I’ve based my entire adult life on turn out to be only true-ish? What would happen to my faith? Would I have to start over? What would my friends say? What would my wife say? Would I end up alone, sent to live “outside the city walls” where the Old Testament heretics were sent?

And, speaking of the Bible, I soon ran into my next stumbling block – I started questioning whether or not the Bible’s morality was better than modern morality. Is it safe to set my compass on a bronze-age morality in which God required his followers to smash the heads of babies, “godly” men served up their daughters to be raped by lustful hordes, and homosexuals and people accused of witchcraft were executed? It’s in the modern era – not the ancient eras – in which we begin to deal with issues of genocide, equality and human rights, human trafficking, racism, slavery and child abuse, to name just a few. These aren’t issues that the God of the Old Testament seemed to be concerned about. The human race has developed and improved through “ages of enlightenment.”


Jesus rocks

An important note here. I really like Jesus. I mean, really. I’m not thrilled with the ways he’s often portrayed by conservative Christians. But him, he’s way cool. And he actually did speak to a morality that’s universal, radical, and more morale than any societal moral code. blog-jesus-rocks-vanLove everyone, even the people you don’t like. Do good to those who do you wrong. Take care of the poor. Don’t be an asshole. Be gentle and humble and kind. Don’t be judgmental or hypocritical. Be suspicious of people who love money – and don’t love it yourself. This is great stuff. I’ve often wished that being a Christian was less about having the correct theology and more about emulating Jesus.

 

I’m not an atheist…
Many years ago I took on the task of cleaning up our “office,” which was a room in our home that had for eight years been the dump, the storage, the “I’ll sort through this later” room. It looked like an episode of Hoarders. I spent the first hour or so trying to rearrange things in there, but I got frustrated and overwhelmed and made no progress whatsoever. Finally I decided that the only thing that was going to work was for me to take every single thing out of that room, and then decide, one at a time, which things were going to go back. That’s a little bit like what’s happened to my faith. I just can’t sort things out within the jumble of my own theology, experiences, traditions, expectations and beliefs. I’m definitely open to where this all ends up…but I have to start over.

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R.E.M.’s “Losing My Religion”

I’m hoping that the people who have known me for a while will remember a few things about me. One – that I’ve always been passionate about what I believe. I don’t take matters of faith lightly. Two – that I didn’t do this on purpose. I think that faith holds us at least as much as we hold faith. And three – that this isn’t about you. I’m not rejecting you, I’m not insulting you, I’m not angry at you. I care about you.Here are a few things I’m pretty sure about.

no-8-jesushate-2-2I’m pretty sure that when I “land” on a belief system, the god I hold close to my heart won’t be the exact same god that you hold close to yours. And that it won’t hate gay people – or any people, for that matter. And that she won’t create hurricanes and earthquakes as punishments for “Godless America.” And that it won’t be a magic genie or a controlling puppeteer. And he probably won’t be Republican. What I’m pretty sure I’ll end up with, actually, is a God who is in large part mystery. In fact, it’s the people who claim to have god all figured out who most worry me.

So…where do I stand today? Let me say it right here – clearly and succinctly. I’m not an atheist. That would take a lot of faith and certainty, and certainty seems to be the thing I just can’t hold to any more. Do I think it’s plausible that a higher power isn’t somehow involved in all of the amazingness around us? No, I don’t. But who, how, and in what way? I just don’t know what the hell is true. But I know that I’m open. If science has taught me anything, it’s that there is much, much more to this world than what we can see and understand.

Here’s where I guess I’m at, at least for now. I’ve been seeking God for over 30 years. I need God to seek me now.

Check out the follow up articles:
Part 1 (true? Truth? not true? just true-ish?) CLICK HERE
Part 2 CLICK HERE
Part 3 CLICK HERE
Epilogue CLICK HERE

contradictions

(Note:  This is a sort of epilogue to a series…see links at the end of this article.)

For a limited time only, if you act now, you can have the best of two worlds! You can retain your intellect and your capacity for logical analysis AND hold on to the truths and the beauty and the blueprint for living that is the Bible. Millions have done it, and you can too!

I know what you’re thinking. “Why in the hell is he writing about this again?” Good question. My three-part article on “truth” addresses this, so why get in the ring again? Live and let live, right? If someone wants to believe that the Bible is a supernatural book that gets absolutely everything right, then what’s that to me?

I wish I felt that way. But here’s why it matters. Maybe for most evangelicals who hold to the “Magic Book” view of the Bible, there is no downside to the “Incredible Supernatural One Stop Book Of 100% Accurate and Infallible Facts That Are Always And In Every Situation And Time Absolutely True” belief system. It is a comforting way to organize their lives and an easier, more black and white way to view the world around them, and it does little to no harm to themselves or others.

Unfortunately, however, this is not always the case. As I’ve previously written (see links below), I believe there is actually some danger in the belief that the Bible (a collection of writings from thousands of years ago, based on bronze-age morality, ethics, and scientific understandings) is 100% right, accurate and true. This sort of belief-ism is not always a neutral and harmless approach to theology. True Believers, from any religion, can do and have done damage to others in the name of Truth. Much pain has been inflicted, many relationships have been destroyed, lives have been lost, stunted and/or limited, all in the service of “Biblical truth.” And to a lesser degree, I think we can miss out on much beauty and adventure when we choose certainty over mystery. Furthermore, when we put all our eggs in a proscribed belief system basket, we risk losing everything when that basket turns out to be less-than-sturdy.

The problem: The inability to differentiate between the various “degrees of truth” found in scripture.

The main roadblock: The “slippery slope” argument. I understand this argument all too well – it’s why I spent so many years doing intellectual gymnastics trying to make the obvious inaccuracies of the Bible disappear through creative interpretation. The thinking goes like this: “If just one sentence in the Bible turns out to be wrong or untrue, then the whole thing becomes invalid, every statement becomes suspect, the foundation on which I’ve built my life crumbles to dust, and I’m left with nothing solid to believe in.” Stepping away from Bible-worship was probably the scariest thing I’ve ever done. It was like jumping off a solid and safe ledge into the unknown…and trusting that I’d fly rather than be smashed to bits on the rocks below.

The solution:  I discovered something wonderful. You can follow Jesus without having to give up your ability to reason and think and differentiate. You can gain wisdom and direction from scripture, you can discover ways to live a life of peace and joy, you can even join with others in a “religion” if you so choose (or not, as I’ve chosen) – and NOT be obligated to believe in a 6,000 year-old earth or that women should shut up in church or that homosexuals are going to hell or that the “Left Behind” series is even remotely prophetic or any number of other moral/ethical/logical sticking points. In fact, the Bible becomes more alive, more relevant, more life-giving when approached without absolutism…not less.

I’m not trying to tear down anyone’s faith. Faith can be beautiful and life-giving and brings much good to this world and to individual lives.   What I do hope is that people might loosen their grip on certainty, even slightly, and learn to read the Bible with more of an open mind, and find the joy that comes with embracing more mystery. That was really difficult for me at first. My long-held and sacred assumption was that “The Bible says it, I believe it, that settles it.” So everything else was measured against this “Truth,” and when “facts” contradicted the Bible, those “facts” were just wrong.

Faith in the “Magic Book” version of the Bible is a powerful insulation against seeing the world for what it is. The Bible contradicts an established scientific fact? No problem: the scientists are wrong (about cosmology, evolution, embryology, neurophysiology, climate change, etc.), and the Bible is right; or Jesus (or Paul, or whomever) didn’t really mean it (for example, regarding the mustard seed being the smallest seed). The Bible contradicts modern understandings of ethics and morals? No worries: we’ve misinterpreted the Bible (examples: slavery, women not being allowed to speak on church); or today’s ethics are wrong (example: homosexuality). A command we don’t especially love? No big deal: it was symbolism or analogy or poetic hyperbole or whatever (i.e., Jesus’ requirement that we sell everything we own and donate the proceeds to the poor). Or if we find it impossible to re-interpret using one of these methods, we can do what we want to anyway, then live with guilt (for example, in the case of the millions of divorced Christians who have chosen to remarry despite Jesus’ prohibition on such).

See how slippery it is? You can’t really demonstrate that anything in the Bible is untrue, because the standard of measurement is a moving target.

Maybe the only way to get a foot in the door is to discuss just a few of the hundreds of examples in which the Bible contradicts itself – where two things, both proclaimed as true, can’t both be true. Frivolous stuff, actually. But it might be enough to pry lose the death grip some have on inerrancy and infallibility. images-7

On how many donkeys did Jesus ride into Jerusalem? Mark, Luke and John all describe him riding a single animal. However, Matthew, attempting to fulfill Old Testament prophecy, has Jesus riding two donkeys. (By the way, this is a common theme in Matthew’s account of the life of Jesus. More than two dozen times he provides “proof” of Jesus’ fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy by adding in creative and usually contradictory “facts” about Jesus’ life.) Zechariah 9:9 says that the king would come “riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.” The repetition here is typical of Hebrew poesy, with the donkey being described twice in different words. Matthew, though, appears not to have understood this. He seems to have thought that the prophecy described Jesus riding both a donkey and a colt and so awkwardly introduces a second donkey into the triumphal entry: “When they had come near Jerusalem and had reached Bethphage, Jesus sent two disciples, saying to them, ‘Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately you will find a donkey tied, and a colt with her; untie them and bring them to me.’ This took place to fulfill what had been spoken through the prophet, saying, ‘Tell the daughter of Zion, Look your king is coming to you, humble, and mounted on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.’ The disciples went and did as Jesus had directed them; they brought the donkey and the colt, and put their clothes on them, and he sat on them. (Matthew 21:1-7) Mark, Luke and John apparently understood the Hebrew stylistic method, and were content to limit Jesus choice of transportation to something less bizarre.

How did Judas die? Did he hang himself (Matthew 27:3-8), or did he fall down and crack his head open (Acts 1:16-19)? It verges on the comedic to hear some evangelicals go through gyrations trying to have it both ways. A quite common solution to this apparent contradiction in scripture is, no kidding, Judas hung himself, but the rope broke, and he fell down and cracked his head open.

How many demon-possessed men were in the graveyard? There are three passages that describe this event (Matthew 8:28-34, Mark 5:1-20, and Luke 8:26-39.) The Matthew account mentions two demon-possessed men, while Mark and Luke only mention one. What gives? I looked this up this morning on a “Bible Answer” web site. I want to quote it here directly, because I think it’s so silly:

Is there a discrepancy in these accounts, and do the Gospel writers contradict one another? 

The first thing to determine is whether the three writers are describing the same event. The timing of the event in all three accounts—immediately following the calming of the storm on the sea of Galilee—as well as other similarities all give credence to Matthew, Mark, and Luke all describing the same event. The question remains, then, whether there was one demoniac or two. 

Matthew tells us there were two demoniacs, while Mark and Luke only mention one of the two. It is unclear why they chose to mention only one, but that does not negate the possibility of a second demoniac being present. Mark and Luke do not say there was “only one” demon-possessed man. For whatever reason, Matthew simply gives us more information than Mark and Luke. 

In any case, no contradiction exists. A contradiction occurs only if one statement makes the other impossible and there is absolutely no way for them to be reconciled. For example, let’s say we put two apples on a table. Statement 1: There are two apples on the table. Statement 2: There is only one apple on the table. These two statements contradict each other. Now read these two statements: Statement 1: There are two apples on the table. Statement 2: There is an apple on the table. These two statements do not contradict each other. In the same way, the biblical accounts do not represent a contradiction. All three affirm that there was at least one man who was plagued by demons.

Seriously? If I were holding two apples in my hand, and said to you, “I am holding an apple in my hand,” you wouldn’t think I was an idiot?

All this to say: Do you see how hard you have to work in order to believe that every word of the Bible is “Truth?” And the good news, again, is that it’s not necessary! In fact, Jesus himself engaged in a fair amount of picking and choosing in what to pay attention to Biblically and what to ignore, and often got in trouble with the religious folks because of it. He reserved his harshest words for the religious people of his day who “upheld the letter of the law over the spirit of the law,” and who chose strict adherence to the written word over what he called “the weightier matters of the law: mercy, justice and faithfulness.” He told them that they “strain out a gnat and swallow a camel” (Matthew 23:23-24). Let’s not make that mistake.

And now my New Year’s Resolution: No more articles on “truth!” We’ll make this the epilogue to the series referenced below, and call it good. Back to other “stuff that matters” soon!    Happy New Year!

Prequel (in which I come clean about my faith) CLICK HERE
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Part 1 (true? Truth? not true? just true-ish?) CLICK HERE

Part 2 CLICK HERE

Part 3 CLICK HERE

Find Part 1 HERE;  Find Part 2 HERE;  Find prequel HERE  (in which I come clean about my faith); Find epilogue HERE

dictionary-series-philosophy-truthPart 3 of 3
The Bible is the story of the failings, passions, false starts and victories of a people grappling to understand God’s character and stance toward humanity. It’s a record of misperceptions and bad decisions and incredibly redemptive and noble acts. It speaks to our fears and our hopes; it’s chalk full of nighttime weeping and morning joy. It’s a history of man’s attempt to understand mystery. It addresses the questions that mean the most to us: Are we loved? Do we matter? Is there purpose? And how, therefore, should we live? It’s the story of heaven meeting earth, where things can get really, really messy.

There have always been fundamentalists, even before that particular word showed up in the 20th century. Their hallmark is a hyper, laser-like focus on Absolute Biblical Truth (in the Christian version of fundamentalism) that conveniently happens to be what they themselves believe to be Absolutely Biblically True. Their psychology tends toward the need to embrace certainty and control, both of which tend to strangle the life out of mystery. They feel anxious when all the pieces don’t line up right, when they don’t know the rules, when they aren’t certain. And the Bible in the hands of fundagelicals can quickly degenerate from a book full of truths about man’s longing for spirit into The Incredible Supernatural One Stop Book of 100% Accurate and Infallible Facts That Are Always And In Every Situation And Time Absolutely True.

(By the way, I myself have these tendencies in spades. I was a really good fundamentalist, before I began to morph into…whatever the hell I am now. But I retain my over-developed need for certainty and my love affair with control. I fight these demons daily…and, happily, lately I’ve been winning a little more than I’ve been losing.)

Also, I feel I need to say this here (as I did in parts 1 & 2 of this series). I know that I am not describing every Christian in these articles, and I’m not describing most of my Christian friends. However, I am talking about a very real dynamic among conservative Christians – and including conservative Christians who don’t recognize these very real tendencies in themselves.

In part two of this series I stated that there are four very unfortunate and ultimately dangerous things that occur when individuals exchange mystery for certainty and come to rely on a rigid literal framework. In that article I mentioned two of them:

  1. We polarize…and hurt one another, and
  2. We destroy Jesus’ (and other Christians’) reputation

I’ll finish this series with what I believe are two additional things that happen when we take the fundamentalist-Absolute-Always-100%- Unarguable-Truth approach to interpreting the Bible.

(And I’m not going to repeat again here all the good that I believe faith communities bring to themselves and the world. I hope you’re all clear that I’m speaking of a particular brand of Christianity in these articles – not of the Church in general.)

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3. We come down on the wrong side of history.

“Speaking truth to power”
“Standing up against unjust systems”
“Fighting for the rights of the oppressed”

It’s ironic what happens when you type some of these phrases into Google. You pretty much get a mixture of two kinds of sites: You get Bible-quote sites (Isaiah 1:17 – “Learn to do good; seek justice, correct oppression…”) and liberal organizations (the ACLU, etc.). Stated differently, you get quotes from the Bible telling us to behave this way, and you get anti-religious organizations that are actually known for behaving this way.

Who have been the people throughout history who have consistently spoken truth to power, stood up against unjust systems and fought for the rights of the oppressed? Where has the conservative church tended to stand on the important human rights issues of their day?

As a general rule (with many notable, heroic, faithful, God-loving exceptions, such as William Wilberforce, the Quakers, etc.), true-fundamentalist Christians have tended to be behind the rest of the world, not in front, on issues like equality for women, child labor, civil rights, worker’s rights and more. To their shame, the conservative Church has earned the reputation of standing against human rights, always with Bible verses at the ready. Christians have murdered millions of aboriginal peoples over the past thousand years, or stood by, condoning this behavior, feeling supported by the Bible. German (and other European) Christians used scripture to justify harsh treatment toward Jews – and millions of Jews were eventually exterminated, often with the tacit blessing of churches. Southern Christians used Paul’s epistles to fight the abolitionists. In too many cases the conservative wing of the church has opted to maintain the status quo, Truth-book in hand, fighting against progress, instead of getting out in front and becoming a model of powerful and compassionate social change.

It is true, of course, that heroic Christians and Christian communities have also been very involved in abolishing these social evils, but they usually had to fight against the majority of the people in their own religion to do it.

The Bible-worshipers have tended to come down on the wrong side of science, as well. Need I go into the persecution faced by the thinkers of this world who discovered real facts about the universe that didn’t line up with Biblical “truths?” The list is consistent and depressing.

Sadly, the church is repeating these patterns today in the areas of human rights (sexual minorities) and science (climate change; human origins). In 300 years Christians will look back on today’s Church, scratch their heads, and say, “WTF?” Hopefully, they will also be able to celebrate the remnant of the Church that got out ahead on these issues and led the way. (And, I’ve got to say, I’ve been humbled and thrilled lately as I’m discovering that there are a LOT of you out there- many more of you than I originally thought. PLEASE don’t hide. Come out, come out, wherever you are.)

4. We miss out on the joy

I travel a lot for work. Air travel used to cause me some stress, to be honest. I’d locate my seat and anxiously wait to find out who my next victim was going to be. I know that sounds harsh…and I’m probably exaggerating a bit here. But seriously. I would sit there trying to get my head around the fact that my job, my calling, was to share my faith with whomever God placed next to me, lest that person end up burning in hell. It was a lot of pressure! But after my conversion to apostate-ism, things were suddenly very different. I remember a trip, just a few months after “emptying the hoarder’s room” (see “Sunday thoughts #3: In which I come clean about my faith”), in which I was seated next to a middle-aged guy from Alaska. We started talking, and I have to tell you, it was probably the best “single serving friendship” (Fight Club allusion) I’ve ever had.

This interaction wasn’t a one-way transaction – it wasn’t about me manipulating the conversation toward my beliefs and his future eternity. Instead it became two people sharing stories, experiences and perspectives. He had much to offer – he’d had a rich life marked by an interesting spiritual journey, and he was curious about mine. And ironically I probably did more to enrich his life during those four hours than I would have had I treated him like a project or a target or an obligation. This was a trip that could have been a bit stressful for me and pretty annoying for him, but instead it became a joyful experience that added some depth and texture to both our lives.

Being a fundamentalist, for me, was a mixed bag. On the one hand, things were pretty simple. There were easy answers for life’s hardballs and curveballs; I knew who was right and who was wrong; I could alleviate anxiety by figuring out the rules. But I was dying inside. I preached grace, but experienced guilt. I taught love, but felt forced to judge people based on their ability and/or willingness to wear my straight jacket of Truth. I don’t think I was an asshole – in fact, I’m pretty sure I wasn’t. But inside I lacked joy.

joy

And now? Joy comes often.

I experience joy when I welcome people into my life, temporarily or longer term. I have found that when I cease to see people as either “right or wrong,” when there are no proscribed conversations, when I’m open to the different ways people have of “being” in the world, people tend to show up with a surprising amount of light.

I experience joy when I walk through my day with fewer obligations and rules to follow, fewer people to please. Way less guilt, way more gratitude. I give myself a break, am gentler with myself, and consequently end up being gentler toward others.

I experience joy in the holiness and truth of nature.

I experience joy when I am curious, humble, open to ideas and alternate views, willing to explore and seek and question and live with the tension that mystery requires.

And I experience joy when I am faced with the reality that god, whoever she/he/it is, is way bigger than I imaged.

images-4Last Sunday, in “Sunday thoughts #3:  In which I come clean about my faith,” I came out of the closet, so to speak.   I posted it on my blog (which not very many people read) and on my secondary Facebook page, called “stuff that matters,” so that few people would actually read it.   Then last night I decided to just take the plunge and put it right smack dab on my main Facebook page.  No more chicken-shit stuff.  Time to let the chips fall, I figured.   My friends will continue to love me, and those who don’t aren’t worth holding on to, right?
For today’s “Sunday thoughts” I just want to share with you a few samplings of responses I’ve received – they’re truly beautiful.   (And thanks so much to everyone who responded…all of you have been amazingly kind and encouraging – even if I don’t include your words here.)
  • Wow, I salute the bravery it took to post that.  Reading your blog I see some similarities in your beliefs and my own.  I’m not a big church fan…I do believe in the God of the Bible, but I struggle with the science thing and the gay marriage issue.  I have a lot of people who I love and care about that are gay/lesbian and I struggle with what’s right, so I’ve decided to go with what is right for me and do my best to love others, as Jesus did with His example.  I don’t always agree with your political views but I do enjoy reading your posts…and they do make me think…(mostly that yer nutz;)…joking really.
  • I’ve tried several churches in this area and because I’m divorced and had been in ministry I feel like I either have the plaque or committed the unforgivable sin. I have not lost my faith in Jesus but I have lost all faith in organized religion.
  • Michael…. I hope you gain two friends for every one who lets you get away…. You are a sensitive, gifted writer and a wonderful person whom I am proud to call my forever friend. I’m so sorry there is any fear associated with living in spiritual mystery. I’m there also. Love you…
  • There is more than one way to be church, and there is more than one way to be a Christian. I myself have come out of a conservative Christian background. My faith has always been very important to me. I also happen to be a gay male, which did not go over well in the traditions I grew up with. I finally found my way into a much more “liberal” or “progressive” form of Christianity, where who God created me to be is not just accepted, but embraced. Questioning our theological stands, as well as incorporating scientific knowledge and human reasoning is not only acceptable, but encouraged.  One of our sayings is, “the church is not here to tell you what to believe, but to show you how to find out what you believe.” We believe each persons relationship with God is individual and personal, so my relationship and spiritual journey may not look exactly like yours, and yours may not look like the person sitting next to you, and we think that is a good thing, because in each of us, we get another little glimpse of God’s creation.  Please know, there are options out there who will accept you, love you, embrace you, and encourage you to ask any and all questions and seek the answers that resonate with you. Just remember, the questions you have, the life experiences you have had, all make up who God created you to be.
  • Thanks for this Mike. The fact that you didn’t “choose” to stop believing resonated most loudly with me and it’s the one thing that my family and Christian friends don’t seem to understand at all.
  • You are a true seeker for whom the journey for truth and meaning never ends. Thank you for sharing this phase of your journey so eloquently.
  • Be still and know that I am God. Listen for the still small voice and hearken to its promptings. You have faith, I remember your commitment to it in High School.  You sound like you are at a point of introspection into what you belive and what you know. You will always do the right thing, and you have many friends who will support you, no matter what you decide. Those who do not, miss the point of true friendship.
  • Thank you for posting this. We have noticed a change in you too. Not in a bad/good way. Just a change. Sometimes people use the church/god as a crutch when what really matters is what you feel in your heart. We live in a small town where everyone knows each others business. To judge someone and de-friend someone because they don’t go to church or have different beliefs is just wrong. They are not a true friend in my book. Everyone has a right to their own opinion and should not be judged on how they feel.
  • Hey, Michael. I’m a Christian. Not a namby-pamby, half-hearted one, but a deeply committed one. I read this and it resonated with me deeply. You’re struggling with beliefs, not with God. You clearly have a well-rooted awareness of God, but you’ve come increasingly to understand that excessive emphasis on what you believe is a prominent form of modern idolatry. Like all idolatry, it distracts people from God and damages us where it really matters. Let go. It’s OK. Trust me.
  • Thanks for sharing this. You’re not alone. Your articulation of your struggles, though, is a breath of fresh air and–dare I say it?–can serve as an inspiration to others who find they can no longer pretend to believe things that are obviously not factual just for the sake of dogmatic religion. You end saying you need God to seek you, and that’s the kind of prayer I think God answers. Thanks, again.
  • I am sad that you did not have the support of your old friends along this new part of your journey. Sometimes on our faith journey, we come to places we need to struggle over. Sometimes we come to a new understanding of something we’ve carried with us for a long time and it makes us see things in a new way. Realizing that we have come to the point of no longer believing in some of our cherished illusions and asking some hard questions is very scary. It kind of seems like the ground is shifting beneath our feet, but it can also be very exciting and refreshing and liberating. It sounds as though that’s where you are right now. From your writing, I sense an air of expectancy about what you might next find yourself thinking, and I believe you have a greater “handle” on your faith than you think…you are open to the possibilities that abound.
  • Oh, my dear fellow human, I did this exact same thing. Stripped my beliefs to the bone and started all over again. I’m an ex-Catholic, and this was more difficult that I ever imagined, but so worth it! We don’t know it all, darn it!!! God IS a mystery, and we have to learn to be OK with that if we’re going to keep on keeping on.
  • Loving one another is the only law, and it fulfills God’s law. We SHOULD be emulating Christ. That’s what it’s all about, my dear fellow human.  Much love to you! You’ve got your orders, my good man. Now march on….
  • This resonates for me too.I know I’m not an atheist, but I’ve been through too much to believe that everything is as simple as some christians would like it to be. You know, “Just say this and…” or “If you just believe this…” that variety. The truth is, I think God is much too big for many of us to comprehend. I do my best, and it’s the best I can do , for now. And I hope that’s okay for now, because it’s all I know I have.  So, you’re not alone.
  • You’re a brave soul. I know you are searching. I personally believe that if you are true to your faith, you will always be searching. I also, completely agree with how you see things.
  • Keep seeking and I am sure God loves you as much as He loves anyone else, may be slightly more for using your brain.
  • THANK YOU for sharing this! Your courage is appreciated, and your writing is easy to relate to. There are more of us out here than you realize. You are definitely not alone. Your effort is not in vain. I believe you are contributing to a bigger-picture reformation. Keep it up!!
  • I can’t say more than Thank You! Thank you for being brave! Thank you for opening yourself up to us! Thank you for using your words to help so many of us say “yes, that is what I mean!” I was always so afraid to speak open about how I feel because of the same experiences you discussed. However, I have matured and discovered those who really matter in your life are the ones who accept you for you.

Find part 1 HERE;  Find prequel HERE (in which I come clean about my faith)

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Part 2 of 3

I just finished reading UnChristian, by David Kinnaman, president of the Barna group, a Christian research organization that set out to explore Christianity’s reputation today, especially among people between the ages of 16 and 29.   Every conservative Christian should be required by law to read this book. 

What would you guess are the first things that pop into people’s heads when asked their perception of present-day Christianity?  Think about that for a moment, then let me ask you this as well:  What are the first words that occur to you when you think of Jesus? Don’t read on until you’ve answered that question!

For me, I think “love,” “radical,” “grace,” “counter-culture,” “compassion,” “truth.”  Wouldn’t it be cool if those were the first thoughts people had when they thought about modern-day Christians?

So what do you think all those young people said when asked their impressions of Christians today?   The most common response was “grace.”   The next most common response was “love.”  Then came “acceptance.”

I’m just kidding.  Actually, taking the number one slot was ”anti-homosexual.”  An astonishing 91% of non-Christians and 80% of churchgoers think of this word first when asked to describe Christians.  As the research probed this perception, non-Christians and Christians explained that beyond their recognition that Christians oppose homosexuality, they believe that “Christians show excessive contempt and unloving attitudes towards gays and lesbians.”

And the next word?  (Maybe they saved “compassion” for the number two slot?)  Nope.  It’s “judgmental.”

The most common insight these people had?  “Christianity in today’s society no longer looks like Jesus.”  This comment was the most frequent unprompted concept that these people called to mind.

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Kinnaman’s recent book

So, the score:

Jesus = grace, love, forgiveness, truth, compassion.
Christians = anti-gay and judgmental.

What the hell happened?  How did we get here?

As I wrote about in part one of this series, I believe that we as humans have an innate attraction to the supernatural, to things that are greater than ourselves, and as that drive toward the spiritual coalesces into something organized (i.e., religion) it can and does bring an amazing amount of good to ourselves and to our world.  But at the same time, human beings (some more than others) tend to have a rather low tolerance for mystery.  Our fears, our smallness, our lack of control over the world and of our own fate tend to drive us to create rules and answers and systems and lists – so that we can feel less fear and experience a greater sense of control.  We have this insatiable drive toward certainty – the more we know, the less we have to fear. And so we slowly move from a position of humble dependency and openness to a place in which Absolute Truth is pre-defined and proscribed, and a big honking line is drawn in the sand between people who are “right” and people who are “wrong.”   And the people who view themselves as “right” get to feel less fear and doubt and more certainty and control.

But at what cost?

I believe that four very unfortunate and ultimately dangerous things occur when individuals exchange mystery for certainty – when they fail to use their brains and hearts and histories and communities and experiences to interpret truth and instead solely rely on religious professionals to tell them what to think.  (I will mention two of these dangers here, in part 2 of this series, and the others in part 3.)

1.   We become polarized…and hurt one another
As we become more “religious,” our capacity for nuance and shades of grey and our tolerance for diversity of experience and opinion give way to an overwhelming drive toward rigidity and conformity.  Lock-step truthism gets thrust on the people who basically showed up for the love.

When we use Jesus’ name in our marketing campaigns, we are advertising a place of acceptance – a place where it’s ok to be human, to be flawed, to not know all the answers – a place to be loved.   And don’t get me wrong – many millions have found this very thing.   But an increasing number of people have been hurt by a bait and switch scheme, where acceptance becomes dependent on their willingness to join the right side, interpret Bible passages the correct way and conform to the right set of expectations and rules.

Many years ago I decided to teach an evening communication workshop in our town.  It was about how to give feedback to people in a non-offensive way and how to receive feedback non-defensivly.  It included active listening, conflict resolution and negotiation skills.  The first night about two dozen people showed up, and we had a great time. I had been working for a Christian organization for about a year, and a couple days after that first class I was asked to come see my boss.   He had gotten word about my class, and was not happy.   At first I thought maybe this was going to be about “moonlighting” or something like that – maybe he didn’t like me working a second “job?”  But no.  What he told me was that I was teaching anti-Biblical concepts out in the community, and that this was unacceptable, as I represent the organization and needed to be mindful of it’s reputation.   I asked him what was un-Biblical about the communication skills I was teaching, and to this day I can’t remember the scriptures he referenced or if he referenced any at all.   I was in shock.  And it got worse.   I had recently struck up a friendship with a local man, a liberal-leaning Lutheran (say that three times fast).  We became quick and easy friends and were able to talk about anything.   My boss apparently had gotten word of that, as well.   He told me that as a Christian leader in the community, I need to be careful about “being unequally yoked” with unbelievers, and that he would prefer it if I stopped spending time with this guy.   I then did two things that I’m still ashamed of today.  I was pretty invested in moving up the leadership ladder in this organization – so I capitulated.  I cancelled my class.   And worse – I stopped hanging out with my friend.    The Christian Taliban had struck again, and won.

2.  We destroy Jesus’ reputation
Call me crazy, but my understanding is that all Christians know that their primary “job” here is to represent as accurately as possible the spirit of Jesus.  Even their name – “Christian” –  (loosely) means “little Christ’s,” or “copies of Christ.”

images-1I’m talking about the guy who reminded us that “they will know you are Christians by the love you show” and who instructed us to “love them as I have loved you.”   The one who inspired the famous passages in Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, “If I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I have become a sounding brass or a clanging cymbal.  And if I have the gift of prophecy, and know all mysteries and all knowledge; and if I have all faith, so as to move mountains, but have not love, I am nothing.  And if I give everything I own to feed the poor, and if I give my body to be burned, but have not love, it doesn’t profit me in any way.  Love is patient, love is kind….and now remain faith, hope and love; but the greatest of these is love.”

And now at least the most visible Christians (the conservative, evangelical version of the faith), according to research, are known primarily as judgmental, unkind and unloving.

I want to say this again – because I know this can be really offensive to my Christian friends if they don’t read this in context.  There are many, many Evangelical Christians who don’t fit this mold at all – who are able to embrace mystery and nuance and who don’t draw those honking lines in the sand, who don’t give off an air of judgment or intolerance, but instead show the grace and compassion of Christ.  Most of you, my friends, are like this.  And I try to be, too, and I often succeed.

However, I know there are also many conservative evangelicals who believe that they project grace and love – and often do – but who are unaware of the judgment and intolerance that leak out of their conversations and interactions, due to their intolerant and judgmental theology.   One of the sweetest people I know, a Christian who does charity work and meets the needs to people in her church, recently told me that I am being deceived by Satan (always a fun thing to hear) and that I’m obviously “in trouble spiritually” because of my views on evolution.   She said this in a loving way.Hide-behind-your-religion-to-hate-84261703275

I have another friend who attends an “accepting church.”   This means, in part, that you can be a homosexual and be welcomed at his church.  My friend is frustrated, however, because so far no openly gay people have taken them up on this amazing offer.   As we talked, I discovered what the problem was.  It turns out that by “accepting” they mean something along the lines of, “We are all sinners, and your sin is no worse than mine, so welcome to our church.  We love you, even while hating your sin,” the “sin” in this case being the person’s homosexual orientation. “You know,” I lied, “there’s an awesome church in the next town.   They believe that black people are inferior to white people, however they are extremely welcoming and are totally ok with black people attending their services!”   He wasn’t amused.

When Christians give in to organized, pre-defined, package-deal “truth systems,” people stay away, and believers begin to filter away, and everyone loses, including Jesus.

I’ve had people tell me that they wish they could be more tolerant and loving, but that their faith (read:  proscribed truth) won’t allow it!    I want to end this with a refreshing story:

I used to teach a Bible study in my home, and one of the things I attempted to bring forth was the supremacy of love over doctrine.  Edith, a regular participant, asked me to stop by and chat one day.   She told me that several years earlier she had been told the news that her adult daughter was a lesbian, and that she was now feeling badly about the way she had responded.  Apparently she had quoted Bible verses to her daughter, and told her that she was sinning, and that she couldn’t accept her anymore.  They hadn’t spoken for years, and Edith was grieving the loss of this relationship, and the hurt she had caused.  And she was questioning how to be “Christian” in this situation.  I gave her my opinions (of which, you may have noticed, I have many).   A couple of months later she came by and told me a beautiful story.  She had re-thought her position – had used her brain and her heart and the input of people she trusted – and had decided, in part, that bronze-age social norms didn’t trump the 21st century mother/daughter relationship.   So she had made a big sign that said, “I love my gay daughter!”, taken a picture of her holding it up, and sent it off to her daughter.   Lots of tears, apologies and forgiveness later, they’re back in relationship, and love has won.

Find part 3 HERE

Find epilogue HERE

Part 1 of 3

I was discussing politics this morning with a conservative Christian in my town, and he accused me of “not believing in Absolute Truth.”  (He’s quite unhappy with me on account of my support of President Obama.)   Actually, he didn’t directly accuse me – he said, “Well, I still believe in Absolute Truth.”   Whatever.  The implication was clear.

Has anyone else had this conversation?   Am I the only one who feels marginalized by these sorts of statements?   This isn’t the first time I’ve been accused imagesof this, and it finally dawned on me this morning exactly why I’m so sick of hearing it.  Everyone believes in Absolute Truth, if by “truth” we mean that some things are either true or they’re not.  But what Christians usually mean when they throw this barb is:  “I know that I’m right, and you are wrong.  And the reason I know I’m right and you are wrong is because God and I both happen to have the same opinion on this particular issue.  And the reason I know that is because my interpretation of a particular Biblical passage is the only correct opinion one can hold. “    

The world was created in six days, because Genesis tells us this.  If I don’t believe that, then I don’t believe in Absolute Truth (the Bible), and everything about me is now suspect.   If I consider science, use my brain, weigh the evidence, discover the poetry of the Old Testament and the Jewish oral traditions of narrative, and came to the conclusion that science is TRUE and poetry is TRUE in a very different sense – that Genesis can both contain truth and be not factually and scientifically accurate – then I’m not a believer in “Absolute Truth” and nothing about me can be trusted.

Here’s the way I see it – and I’d love to hear your take on this so that maybe I’ll discover I’m not alone:  We as human beings have always been drawn to the supernatural and to worship as a way of expressing our awe and our smallness and our lack of understanding and our dependency on forces outside of us.   We want to reach out to something bigger than we are, something mysterious, something awesome.  From early man to ancient Egyptians to Native Americans to European Druids, we seem to have always had this built in desire to connect with something greater than ourselves.  In it’s best form, this urge helps us to focus on something/someone other than ourselves, it brings us together in worshiping communities, it gives us permission to be perplexed and disappointed but not be paralyzed by fear, it motivates us to be our better selves, it allows us to say “I don’t know” in the same breath that we say “it is well with my soul.”

But, like anything that’s overdone, it can easily turn on us.

As a people we have a very low tolerance for mystery and an insatiable need to be in control.   So we start tying up the loose ends.  We create “four spiritual laws” in line with our Western linear thinking in which everything can be categorized and bullet-pointed and logically explained.  And then it gets worse.  We create straight jackets of truth for ourselves and for those around us.  We honor people who get it right and can tell us what to think and how we must behave, and we suspect people who admit that they don’t have all the answers.

The history of the Christian Church illustrates this progression.   From a ragtag group of believers meeting in homes and doing their best to follow in the footsteps of their founder, often confused and struggling with how to interpret Truth, Christianity devolved into Constantine’s “state religion,” which morphed over time into the Catholic Church, which became the epitome of control and suppression.  “Oh, you want to know the Truth?   It’s in the Bible – but don’t worry your pretty heads about that complicated book – leave it to the professionals.  How about this – we’ll read it, and we’ll tell you what it says, what to do, what to believe, and we’ll reward and punish you according to how well you do what we say.”

And then we had a second chance to get it right – the Reformation, in which the Bible was given back to the common man.  So what did we do?  We chose new leaders who would read it, decide what’s important and what’s not, and create lists of what we were supposed to think and believe and rules for us to follow.  The most recent version of this way of thinking, of course, is American fundamentalism, whose motto might be: The bible is all absolutely 100% literally true and binding, except for the parts that aren’t.   (And we, of course, will tell you which parts are, and which parts aren’t…and then reward or punish you according to your acquiescence to these lists.)

These people are fond of declaring that the Bible “is either all true or none of it is true” and that we shouldn’t “pick and choose” what we take literally.  But here’s the problem:  NO ONE takes the Bible 100% literally.  No one.  We all pick and choose.  Even Jesus did.  He emphasized the spirit of the law over the letter of the law when it came to working on the Sabbath, stoning sinners, washing hands, and more.  Jesus picked and chose in his very first sermon that he gave – he chose to read only a certain portion of the Isaiah text.  He read the part that reads, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” (Isaiah 61:1-2).   What’s interesting here is that Jesus intentionally edited out a portion of verse 2, “and the day of vengeance of our Lord.”  Roger Wolsey (of the fabulous blog “Kissing Fish”) suggests that Jesus left this phrase out in order to deemphasize God’s wrath and to denounce violence as a means to an end.  Jesus clearly made choices of what he emphasized in the scriptures based upon his theological agenda.

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Even if we start reading right at the beginning, the tension of Biblical interpretation hits us in the face immediately – there are two conflicting accounts of the creation story in chapters 1 and 2 of Genesis.  Maybe this discrepancy  – in the very introduction to the Bible – should be a hint to us right up front to go easy on the “God said it, I believe it, that settles it” rhetoric.  Maybe it’s a reminder that we should give each other some room to embrace poetry, symbolism, “true-ishness,” mystery, Biblical contradictions (did Judas die from hanging or falling; did Jesus ride into Jerusalem on one donkey or two; were there two demon possessed men in the graveyard or just one?), Biblical inaccuracies (the mustard seed isn’t actually the smallest seed in the world; the earth actually does revolve around the sun and not the other way around), personal meaning and interpretation, changing societal norms and values, and more.

I tend to believe that all readers of the Bible are interpreting, picking and choosing, incorporating personal experiences and opinions, weighing what they’ve been taught by others, and reading through the lens of their own biases.  They are all deciding on what is True for them, what’s not True and what’s only true-ish.   Some make those decisions through study and scholarship, some by listening to their hearts and brains, some by purely believing what they’ve been told.

So what’s the current score?  What does the average modern, conservative, fundamentalist Christian mean by Absolute Truth, when discussing the issues of today?   Let’s map it out:

Homosexuals:  Bad
(Not mentioned by Jesus even once; condemned in the Old Testament right along with mixing dairy with meat and eating pork.)

Mixing dairy with meat and eating pork:  Acceptable  (also delicious)

Divorce:  Acceptable
(Strongly condemned by Jesus)

Woman speaking in church; wearing jewelry; cutting their hair short:  Good
(Paul writes that women shouldn’t speak at church, but should go home and ask their husbands any questions they may have, that they shouldn’t wear jewelry, and that they should leave their hair long.)

Slavery:  Very Bad
(Acceptable in the Bible)

Marriage between races:  Acceptable
(Not acceptable in the Old Testament)

Mormons:   Good
(Mormonism has been a “cult” in the eyes of most fundamentalist Christians almost since Joseph Smith found the magic scrolls.   Apparently, though, God recently changed His mind.  Billy Graham a few months ago declared that Mormonism IS NO LONGER A CULT, coincidently just in time for Christians to cast their ballots for Mitt Romney.) 

Not taking care of the poor:  Acceptable
(There are over 500 verses in the Bible making our mandate to care for the poor crystal clear.) 

Abortion:   Very Badjesus and republican suggestions
(There are maybe five verses about life that can be squeezed to possibly support an anti-abortion stance, and about the same number that could go the other way.)
See:  http://stuffthatmattersblog.com/category/abortion/ 

Greed, amassing riches, loving money:  Overlooked to Good
(All strongly condemned throughout scripture – way more obviously and numerously than abortion.)

I have to stop and imagine – What kind of world would it be if every Christian made it the whole focus of their “religion” to follow in Jesus’ footsteps by loving their neighbor, doing good to those who treat them badly, and taking care of the poor, instead of worrying about whether or not other people buy into their personal
version of “Absolute Truth?”  Please tell me there are other people out there entertaining this crazy dream?

Find prequel HERE (in which I come clean about my faith)

Find part 2 HERE

Find part 3 HERE

Find epilogue HERE