Tag Archives: Christianity

The Amazing Thing About Christian Belief

The amazing thing about Christian belief is that, somehow, among the billions of possible planets, and the billions of people on this one, divided into innumerable sects and shades of belief — somehow, against all odds, my group got it right! Isn’t that amazing? God could be gods, or no god; they could have four heads or five hooves, or could speak only in the language of Zoltran — but no! None of that! By a coincidence beyond “inconceivable,” somehow, when it comes to God, I’m the one who wound up being completely right! about everything!

Nothing arrogant about that, right? I mean, obviously, this core belief is as good a reason as any to get mad at people — the ones who don’t recognize my superiority, that is — and call them names, ridicule their claims to know more than I do, even kill them. Not that contemporary Christians would do any of that, or at least not the killing. That’s medieval. That was when Christians had the power to do such things. They don’t anymore, and they won’t, and that’s too bad — because, aside from the tortures and the murders and the bad science and all that, at least the Middle Ages did give people the Kingdom of God. Right?

And so the question at hand is, how can we get back to that? Because that’s what God would want and, of course, he can’t do these things without our help.

Well. I’m no authority, but I’d say the first thing to do is to make sure God stays in his place. So let’s start with theology. The science of God! Gotta chuckle about that one. Theology tells us that God has to be a Trinity, even though the Bible itself doesn’t say so, and nobody can make sense of that — because, without a Trinity of just the right configuration, certain Bible passages will contradict each other. And that’s not acceptable because that would mean God wrote an imperfect Bible. Which, in turn, is not acceptable because it would mean that God didn’t actually write it and/or that we should not treat it as a legal document, replete with numbering of chapters and verses that God, himself, forgot to add. Neither of those options is acceptable because, really, how can you ever hope to have a religion that completely departs from practicing its founder’s most important message about the treatment of other people, if you don’t have an infallible scripture with which to overrule him?

So, like I say, the first thing is to help God explain who he is (the Trinity, I mean), and help him provide that explanation in a form that we can lawyer into submission — because, rather pathetically (for an all-knowing deity), he failed to realize that we would need this, so as to have specific reasons for burning people at the stake. Frankly, there are a lot of things that God forgot to put into that Bible, starting with a list of the books that it should include, so that our forbears wouldn’t have to spend centuries (continuing to the present) disagreeing about which books those should be, and also including an explanation of how the Bible can be the word of God when it says that, no, Jesus was the word of God.

The question posed by Ms. Olmstead is this: “To what extent are we called to flexibility and empathy in our doctrinal choices?” In other words, if the Bible says something, can we disregard it? For virtually all Christians in America, the answer is a resounding yes, if it happens to be something we don’t wish to make part of our religion. There’s that classic scene in The West Wing about that, but really we don’t need TV for this: everyone knows we can come up with reasons not to stone people, regardless of what God’s supposed laws might say. I mean, you have to keep the divinity in his place. He has his laws, and we have ours, right? Am I right?

Ms. Olmstead’s title asks, “Where Should Christianity Draw a Line in the Sand?” Because you can only put up with so much guff from these people who (like oneself) selectively decline to treat the Bible as it does not ask to be treated. Because, as I say, by some unbelievable (and I do mean unbelievable) coincidence, when it comes to drawing lines in the sand, it’s like Phil Collins says: Jesus, he knows me, and he knows I’m right!

* * * * *

This post was submitted as a comment on an article by Gracy Olmstead in The American Conservative (2018).


You Shall Know Them By Their Fruits

In other posts, I have occasionally reminded Christian readers of this excerpt from Jesus’s famous Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 7:15-23):

Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ravenous wolves. You will know them by their fruits. . . . A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a bad tree bear good fruit. . . . Many will say to Me in that day, “Lord, Lord, have we not . . . done many wonders in Your name?” And then I will declare to them, “I never knew you; depart from Me . . . .”

Christian or not, it seems advisable to check oneself and one’s beliefs and projects, to make sure there has not been slippage between what was supposed to happen and what is actually happening.

What was supposed to happen, in Christianity, was the development of a religion reflecting the priorities that Jesus set forth during his time on Earth. In that same Sermon, he expressed one such priority: Do unto others as you would have others do unto you. Or, as expressed in Romans 13:9-10, “[T]he commandments . . . are all summed up in this saying, namely, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ Love does no harm to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfillment of the law.”

Love for others is an important theme throughout the New Testament. It does seem reasonable to ask whether the project of Christianity has indeed been Christlike in the particular sense of demonstrating love for one’s neighbor. The answer is very much in the negative. The remainder of this post provides historical examples, some continuing into the present.

In my experience, Christians do not like to read this sort of thing. Certainly they are not big on preaching it and learning from it. To the contrary, they seem confident that, unlike all the generations of believers before them, they are different. They are better. They are not supporters of a disgusting religion.

That may be true of certain individuals and even of certain Christian denominations. And let us not deny that religious belief can have positive effects upon people and communities. Whether the positives outweigh the negatives is a topic worth discussing. The following evidence suggests that, over the 2,000-year history of Christian belief, the overall answer would be no: the Christian project started going off the rails within its first few centuries; it was enormously harmful for more than a thousand years; and it has become prettier and more tolerable in recent centuries only because secular political and intellectual pressures have reduced its control over daily life.

What I offer here is, obviously, only a fraction of the evidence on those matters. If any reader feels that the evidence does not support the conclusions just stated, I am open to comments and, time permitting, I will investigate further and revise this post as needed. For now, the material presented below is provided just to make clear that Christianity has been really terrible, in many ways, throughout its history.

In my view, as I say, the core problem lies in Christianity’s longstanding determination, very much against the advice of Jesus, to prioritize a lawyerly, text-oriented approach to the words of the New Testament, and on that basis to disregard the key Christlike priority: love of one’s neighbor.

Torture, Murder, and War

This section drew the bulk of my attention, as it seems to address the most extremely violent outrages committed in the name of Jesus. These are just a few examples, starting shortly after Christianity obtained political power during the Roman Empire.

  • Roman Emperor Theodosius I (380) ordered,

It is our will that all the peoples who are ruled by the administration of Our Clemency shall practice that religion which the divine Peter the Apostle transmitted to the Romans . . . . We command that those persons who follow this rule shall embrace the name of Catholic Christians. The rest, however, . . . shall be smitten first by divine vengeance and secondly by the retribution of Our own initiative . . . .

[T]he successors of Constantine were ever persuaded that the first concern of imperial authority was the protection of religion and so, with terrible regularity, issued many penal edicts against heretics. In the space of fifty seven years sixty-eight enactments were thus promulgated. All manner of heretics were affected by this legislation, and in various ways, by exile, confiscation of property, or death.

  • Charlemagne (774) defeated the Saxons and gave them a choice: be baptized or be killed.
  • The Catholic Encyclopedia acknowledges widespread public demand, by ordinary Christians in the Middle Ages, for heretics to be tortured and burned at the stake.
  • Wikipedia on the Crusades (primarily occurring in the 11th to 13th centuries):

Crusaders often pillaged as they travelled . . . . During the People’s Crusade, thousands of Jews were murdered in what is now called the Rhineland massacres. Constantinople was sacked during the Fourth Crusade. . . . The Crusades also reinforced the connection between Western Christendom, feudalism, and militarism.

  • The Fourth Lateran Council (1215) ruled,

Secular authorities . . . shall be admonished and induced and if necessary compelled . . . to take an oath that they will strive in good faith and to the best of their ability to exterminate in the territories subject to their jurisdiction all heretics pointed out by the Church . . . .

  • Wikipedia reports that the Spanish Inquisition (1478-1834) resulted in countless tortures and an estimated 3,000 to 5,000 executions by the Church. The Catholic Encylopedia admits that even witnesses were tortured.
  • I encountered and verified some claims by a site called Heretication (which, later, I found was probably based on a webpage in the Bad News About Christianity website).  Having determined that the claims I investigated were supported by other sources, I was inclined to believe other Heretication claims, including these:

The Waldensians . . . were excommunicated as heretics in 1184 at the Council of Verona, and persecuted with zeal for centuries. 150 were burned at Grenoble in a single day in 1393. . . . Anyone in Villaro who declined to go to a Roman Catholic mass was liable to be crucified upside down, but there was some variation in the manner of killing in other towns. Some were maimed and left to die of starvation, some had strips of flesh cut off their bodies until they bled to death, some were stoned, some impaled alive upon stakes or hooks. Some were dragged along the ground until [their] flesh was scraped away. One at least was literally minced. Daniel Rambaut had his toes and fingers cut off in sections: one joint being amputated each day in an attempt to make him recant and accept the Roman faith. Some had their mouths stuffed with gun-powder which was then ignited. Paolo Garnier of Roras was castrated, then skinned alive. Children were killed in various ways before the eyes of their parents. . . .

The term heresy covered ever more and more areas of belief. . . . Pope Innocent III . . . said that those who interpret literally Jesus’ statements about limiting their statements to a straight Yes or No were heretics worthy of death . . . . In 1229 Pope Gregory IX . . . [organized] a crusade against the Stedingers, a Germanic people living near the River Weser, whose heresy amounted to no more than rejecting the temporal authority of the Archbishop of Bremen. . . . The whole population was exterminated. . . .

It was heretical to eat meat on Friday, to read the bible, to know Greek, to criticise a cleric, to refuse to pay Church taxes, or to deny that money lending was sinful. . . . Franciscan spirituals were burned at the stake for such behaviour as claiming that Christ and the apostles had not owned property, preaching absolute poverty, wearing traditional hoods and habits and refusing to lay up stores of food. The Apostolicals, a sect founded in 1300, tried to live like the apostles. The luckier ones were burned at the stake like the sect’s founder, but others suffered worse fates. Dulcino of Novara, the successor to the founder, was publicly torn to pieces with hooks, as was his wife. . . . Cecco d’Ascoli, an Italian scientist, was burned at the stake in 1327 for having calculated the date of Jesus’ birth using the stars. . . . Heresy still covered everything from refusing to take oaths to refusal to pay church tithes. Any deviation from Church norms was enough to merit death: vegetarianism, the rejection of infant baptism, even holding the (previously orthodox) view that people should be given both bread and wine at Mass.

In 1482, under Pope Sixtus IV, 2000 heretics were burned in the tiny state of Andalusia alone. Pope Leo X condemned Martin Luther in 1520 for daring to say that burning heretics was against the will of God. Evidently he thought it presumptuous for an ordinary human being to claim to know God’s will. Perhaps he was right, because Luther changed his mind in 1531 and started advocating the death penalty for heretics and blasphemers. He thought it should be a capital offence to deny the resurrection of the dead, or the reality of heaven and Hell.

Translating the bible into vernacular languages, or helping with the printing of such a bible was heresy according to the Roman Church. Generally, in Europe, women were buried alive for this offence. Men were burned alive. . . .

Anabaptists, the precursors of modern Baptists, were persecuted by Catholics, Lutherans and Calvinists alike. The Anabaptists’ main crimes were to call for social reform, to favour adult baptism over infant baptism, and to embrace pacifism – they would not kill, condone capital punishment or serve in armies. They also allegedly advocated ancient Antinomian views. Their leaders died in various ways. Thomas Münzer was burned at the stake in 1525. Feliz Manz drowned in 1526 (drowning was a favourite way of executing Anabaptists because of their views on baptism). . . . When a whole town, Münster, went over to the Anabaptists in the 1530s Catholics and Protestants joined forces to retake the city. The Anabaptist leaders were publicly tortured to death with red-hot pincers and their bodies hung in cages outside a church, where they remained for some years. . . .

A Protestant writing master from Toledo was burned at the stake in 1676 for having decorated a room with the full text of the ten commandments. . . . Around 1520 the diocese of Lincoln alone was convicting over 100 people a year for the crime of “not thinking catholickly”. . . . In 1528 Patrick Hamilton was burned at St Andrews for holding heretical opinions, notably a denial of the freedom of the will. In 1546 Anne Askew was burned at Smithfield because of her beliefs about the Eucharist. In 1592 Henry Barrow and John Greenwood, who preached congregationalism, were hanged at Tyburn for “obstinately refusing to come to church”. . . . Unitarians were executed in 1612 in London and Lichfield, and one in 1651 in Dumfries. William Prynne, a Puritan lawyer, published criticisms of Archbishop Laud. For this had his ears hacked off by the public hangman in 1633. Along with others he was charged again and tried by the Star Chamber in 1637. The others charged had their ears cropped, and as it was discovered that Prynne still had stumps left on the side of his head, these were severed too. He was also branded on the cheeks, and then imprisoned for life along with the others.

  • Wikipedia’s article European Wars of Religion includes some of history’s deadliest wars. Examples include the Thirty Years War, with a death toll nearly half the worldwide toll of World War I — at a time when the population of Europe was only one-quarter of its 20th-century level — as well as the Hundred Years War, the French Wars of Religion, and the Crusades, each taking roughly two to three million lives.

Other Areas of Christian History

Bad News About Christianity (BNAC) offered additional reports on a rather astounding number of areas in which Christians have displayed execrable attitudes and behavior. Here were several examples:

  • Rape. “The words of Deuteronomy 22 . . . were often used to justify the rape of virgins. If a man wanted to marry a woman – whether she wanted him or not – a standard method was to abduct her and have sex with her. As “soiled goods”, she would be unlikely to find another husband, so her choice was to marry her abductor or live out the rest of her life as a spinster. . . . [This practice] was popular well into the twentieth century in conservative Christian countries.”
  • Freedom of Expression. I was concerned that, lately, liberal views were tending toward mild persecution of religion in the U.S. Yet it was difficult to sympathize with Christians who had brought this on themselves by failing, so intensively and for so long, to stand for scientific learning and for the universal human right of freedom of expression. Excerpts from BNAC:

Within a century of the introduction of printing in Europe a formal process was required to keep track of books that the Church had ordered to be destroyed. . . . [including works by some of the greatest minds in history, e.g., Dante, Copernicus, Galileo, and Locke]. Also placed on the Index were writings that told the truth about the forged documents that the Church had produced . . . .

Christians in secular states have often managed to ban respectable works, again well into the twentieth century: Webster’s Dictionary for example was banned in Arkansas because of its entry on Darwinian evolution. Information about family planning and birth control has been banned in many Christian countries.

Over the centuries the Christian Churches have burned countless thousands, perhaps millions, of books of which it disapproved. . . . Some writers destroyed their own unpublished works, fearing the consequences of discovery. . . . Philosophers were also obliged to publish posthumously or anonymously, for fear of the consequences. . . .

The traditional Christian obsession with sexual matters resulted in prosecutions for obscenity not only against books about birth control, but also against respectable literature and even books on psychology. . . .

Christians still seek to impose their views on others. Because of Christian sensitivities the film Monty Python’s Life of Brian . . . could not be shown on British commercial television. . . . In Britain and the USA attempts were made to ban Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ when it appeared in 1988. . . .

Fundamentalists in California have managed to ban schoolbooks that deal with a wide range of subjects, including the theory of evolution, race relations, nuclear war, sex discrimination, human sexuality, birth control and the Holocaust. . . .

During the whole period of 1,500 years or so that the Church enjoyed absolute power the concept of penal reform was unknown. Prisons in 1800 were as insanitary, cramped, infested and dangerous as they had been when the Roman Empire first adopted Christianity. . . .

Christian tortures took many forms. People were restrained by irons and fetters, sometimes locked into agonising positions with neck, wrists and ankles held within inches of each other. After a short time in this position they were permanently disabled. Alternatively prisoners could be racked, beaten, flogged or otherwise abused. One method was to keep their feet in water until they rotted. . . .

The pioneer of modern penology was an Italian rationalist, the Marquis Cesare Beccaria-Bonesana, who published Dei Delitti e delle Pene (On Crimes and Punishments) in 1764, claiming that the prevention of crime, not punishment, should be the prime aim of an enlightened society, and that crime was deterred by the likelihood of detection rather than the severity of punishment. The Inquisition condemned his ideas. For the Churches the prime purpose was punishment and retribution, as affirmed by the Bible, not rehabilitation, which was not mentioned in the Bible. . . .

The idea that gaols should be primarily for rehabilitation was entirely a secular one. So were the beliefs that prisoners had rights; that they were entitled to basic sanitation, and freedom from flogging, torture and mutilation; and that they should receive access to medical attention, adequate nutrition, and education. . . .

[The following are captions accompanying photos on the webpage.]

[C]hurchmen branded people with crosses and with letters: A for Adulterer, B for Blasphemer, etc, Sometimes in the forehead, sometimes in the cheek, sometimes on the chin. . . . Prisoners were often chained to an immovable object, or to a heavy object . . . not only to immobilize the victim, but also to cause pain: note the spikes on the inside of the iron ring. . . . [In the Iron Shoe, a] screw mechanism allows the torturer to crush the victims foot. . . . [The Scold’s Bridle included] various mouth-pieces that can be fitted to restrict speach and cause acute pain. . . . [In the Iron Maiden,] the doors shut “slowly, so that the very sharp points penetrated his arms, and his legs in several places, and his belly and chest, and his bladder and the root of his member, and his eyes, and his shoulders, and his buttocks, but not enough to kill him; and so he remained making great cry and lament for two days, after which he died.”

The Churches considered it wrong to attempt to eliminate poverty, since Jesus himself had given an assurance that the poor would always be with us. . . .

Oppression of the poor and aged has been common in all Christian countries. . . . On the other hand Churches have traditionally provided wealth and power to the younger sons of noble families whatever their beliefs. . . . Throughout Christendom the poorest were liable for a range of Church taxes. The nobility, which provided almost all senior ecclesiastics, was generally exempt. . . .

Not so long ago the rich sat at the front of the church and the poor at the back. Sometimes the rich took Communion on a different day from the poor, and sometimes the rich and poor were offered wine of different qualities. Some priests even preached that there were different heavens for the different sections of society . . . .

Churches have changed their ideas since secular principles of equality have become widely accepted. Few of them now use the third verse of the hymn All Things Bright And Beautiful although its truth was unimpeachable within living memory:

The rich man in his castle,
The poor man at his gate,
God made them, high or lowly,
And ordered their estate.

As in so many other areas of social improvement, the dynamos of change were almost all outside the mainstream Churches [being advocated instead by freethinkers, Utilitarians and Quakers]. . . .

[Photo caption:] Children were sold throughout Christendom . . . . This brace of babies was offered for sale around 1940 in France . . . .

Christians opposed all attempts at [workplace] reform, saying that existing conditions were natural, and reform was contrary to the Bible. Churchmen in the nineteenth century opposed the reduction in working hours, protection for women and children, and even safety legislation. Agitation to improve industrial working conditions came from freethinking Utilitarians like Jeremy Bentham and J. S. Mill. Ideas like safe and hygienic factories, education for workers, and infant schools were pioneered by the philanthropist Robert Owen, who had rejected all religions at the age of 14 after reading Seneca. . . .

At this point, I desisted from providing additional long excerpts from BNAC on other subjects of interest or, should I say, disgust. Briefly, here are a few examples of what some of those summaries would have contained:

  • Family life. “Relying on biblical passages, early Christians inferred that family life was worthless and hailed virginity as the ideal.”
  • Slavery. “For many centuries slavery was perfectly acceptable to Christians . . . [who] used a number of Old and New Testament quotations to prove their case.”
  • Treatment of mental illness. “According to Christians, lunatics were possessed by unclean spirits. . . . [Thus] for many centuries no advance was made in understanding the nature of mental illness . . . . [and] many thousands of men, women and children, already burdened with madness, were confined in chains and subjected to routine torture.”
  • Abuse of animals. “The Church deduced that because animals did not possess souls, they were . . . disposable toys provided for mankind’s amusement. Activities in which animals were tortured for sport, were recorded without any hint that there might be anything wrong with them. . . .” (Examples: cat burnings; blood fiestas; dog fighting.)

About Christians Losing the Culture War

I have recently encountered several articles in which Christian writers talk about losing the culture war. This post focuses on a prominent example: an article in Time by Mary Eberstadt titled “Regular Christians Are No Longer Welcome in American Culture.” Eberstadt is promoting her book and, as this post demonstrates, she peddles falsehoods to excite the persecution narrative and stimulate sales.

I felt that Eberstadt’s title started off a bit strangely. What, exactly, is a “regular Christian”? Her article said she was referring to “American Christians who lean in toward traditionalism,” and she immediately restated that as “Traditional American Christians.”

But what is “traditional”? The answer is, it depends. For example, according to History.com, Rhode Island was founded by Roger Williams in 1636 as a religious sanctuary against “the orthodoxy of New England Puritanism.” It seems the Puritans were the original “traditional American Christians.” But a funny thing has happened since then: they have pretty much vanished, being remembered nowadays as just one source upon which other Christian denominations draw.

Today, Baptists and Catholics would surely be considered “traditional American Christians” — and yet these were actually among the nontraditional types rejected by the Puritans. In this regard, Eberstadt made the mistake, common in Christian writing, of ignoring the history of her own religion. What was traditional in the 1600s is gone now; what is traditional now will probably be gone some day. That’s how it works. We don’t speak Middle English anymore; we don’t live in log cabins. Times change. The Baptists and the Catholics found a place in New England precisely because someone spoke up for those who were not the traditional American Christians of that time and place — just as Jesus did for the outcasts of his day.

As just noted, Eberstadt implies that the “Traditional American Christian” is a person who “leans in toward traditionalism.” But that’s not necessarily true. The Lutherans, Presbyterians, Episcopalians — these are among today’s mainstream, traditional Christian denominations in the United States. But being a traditional American Christian in that sense does not necessarily make a person a traditionalist in daily life. Among the members of those denominations, you don’t see much interest in, say, a Mormon-style emphasis on modest, traditional clothing. Nor do the teachings of the mainstream denominations necessarily result in mainstream beliefs among their members. Churchgoers often say they listen to the sermon, but don’t necessarily agree with everything in it. Silver (2013) offers research on atheists who attend churches for reasons of family, social connections, and church-related activities. From the Lutherans to the Jehovah’s Witnesses, Christianity’s thousands (some say tens of thousands) of denominations and sects exist because of the fact dramatized in the “West Wing” TV show: people feel entitled to pick and choose Bible passages, emphasizing those they like, and ignoring (or inventing alternate interpretations for) those they dislike.

Eberstadt is herself an example of this nontraditionalism among people who might claim to be traditional Christians. According to Family Life (Rainey, 2002), Eberstadt’s role as a married woman is supposed to be as follows:

  1. Be a helper to your husband.
  2. Respect your husband.
  3. Love your husband.
  4. Submit to the leadership of your husband.

Supporting such conclusions, Family Life quotes numerous Bible passages, starting with Genesis 2:18, in which God’s stated purpose in creating woman was “to make a ‘helper suitable for'” the man. But that is a gentle way of putting it. Valerie Tarico cites the Bible as the foundation upon which traditional theologians described woman as “the devil’s gateway” (Tertullian) and “an instrument of death leading to all perdition” and that this is “why today she is placed below and that she bears within her ignominy and shame” (Calvin). Tarico further cites Bible passages stating that a wife is a man’s property; a daughter can be sold, and a raped daughter can be sold to her rapist; menstruating women are spiritually unclean; and so forth.

Eberstadt is no doubt a good person in many ways. But her concept of tradition depends on the selective, self-serving style of interpretation commonly taught in Bible study. One hopes that, somewhere in her writings, she has honestly admitted that, historically speaking, she is a liberal, not traditional at all — that, traditionally, she would not be voting, would not be telling men what to think, and would not have had an opportunity for higher education. She apparently wants to wrap herself in the mantle of tradition, without doing the hard work of actually returning to where tradition has historically kept women, in this country and elsewhere.

So I think what Eberstadt really means is not “traditional” but rather “conservative.” She doesn’t seem dedicated to a return to traditional ways. She just prefers a go-slow approach. And that is not necessarily bad. There will always be a tension between those who leap at opportunities and those who urge us to look before we leap. The leapers and the lookers can produce a beneficial balance. But this doesn’t make either superior. There are risks and advantages in both directions. Some people are rich or successful because they were careful; some are poor or unsuccessful for the same reason.

Conservatism is particularly interesting in Eberstadt’s “culture war” context. Let us be clear: Christians of her type are not suddenly losing a culture war. The more accurate statement is that they are always losing the culture war, because they are always fearfully clinging onto past ways, afraid of losing the advantages that they have enjoyed as established members of a dominant community, looking down on minorities and outsiders. Conservative churches are often depicted (and in many cases deserve to be depicted) as narrowminded, hypocritical, judgmental places where “our type” of people pat each other on the back for helping to preserve their own advantages and fantasies.

Slavery is an example. As conservatives — that is, usually following rather than leading social, political, and economic trends — Christians have a history of widely accepting and supporting slavery. As another example, for some reason, “Thou shalt not kill” has not resonated against the wars, murders, and other horrific crimes recorded in the Bible and practiced by Christians down through the centuries.

But, whoa, same-sex marriage! Now that is evil. More to the point, it is a new thing and, to a dyed-in-the-wool conservative, that tends to mean it’s probably bad. Again, it’s not that the knee-jerk conservative reaction is intrinsically wrong; it’s that many conservatives don’t seem to want to stop and think about their own habit of stopping and thinking. Let’s just pull the brakes on everything, and then be dragged into it anyway, kicking and screaming and feeling wronged. Consider the criteria by which Wheaton College decided who would be eligible to join its faculty in the 1920s (Cole, 2008, pp. 252-253):

To prospective instructors a questionnaire is submitted bearing such interrogations as . . . “Do you dance, play cards, attend theatres, attend movies, or associate with worldly people in other amusements such as are indicated above?”

We, today, might find this absolutely bizarre — that God forgot to put in the Bible that he did not want people to play solitaire or even watch movies about Jesus. And yet that was the conservative Christian mindset a hundred years ago — culminating in (among other things) the disastrous social experiment known as Prohibition. Not that anything was learned from that fiasco: conservatives needed to inflict it upon us again, once again at enormous cost to lives and nation, in the mindless War on Drugs. This is where conservatism becomes most dangerous: when it radically departs from tradition, in pursuit of a harsh and unrealistic dream.

Gay marriage is relatively new; we did not have it when the Constitution was written, 200+ years ago. But then, we did not have bicycles 200 years ago either. When the newfangled bicycle contraption did come into existence, it remained in the legal shadows: for seventy years, according to Wikipedia, cyclists were given “no legal right to use the roads or walkways.” In other words, the gay movement itself only started in the 1960s. We had gay people; we had marriage; we had gay people who wanted to marry. We just didn’t have a political environment in which that desire could be taken seriously. The question did not previously have political force. Now is the first time when it has become a real possibility on a national level. There is no golden past to go back to, other than the centuries when supposedly respectable Christians were comfortable with an arrangement in which gay people had to lie about who they were and what they wanted.

There is no legal right to force gays to endure a substandard existence. That’s what the courts have decided, now that the question has been squarely presented for consideration. But the more shocking fact is that there is no religious right to do that either. A growing number of mainline Christian denominations have concluded that the matter is not so simple. For one thing, if homosexuality were so terribly important, why would Jesus overlook it? In his famous Sermon on the Mount, Jesus said nary a word about homosexuality, but had strong words against adultery and divorce. Much the same is true throughout the Bible. So why aren’t Christians distinguishing themselves with a principled demand for laws forbidding adulterers or divorcees to remarry? Because that would be unpopular. Frankly speaking, it would cut too close to the collection plate.

Christianity purports to be following in Christ’s footsteps. But in fact it often does the opposite. Just like the Jews of Jesus’s time, so-called Christians like Eberstadt reject his concept of Messiah. In both cases, it was because he came as a savior, not as a conqueror. Specifically, Eberstadt wants victory in the cultural war. She cites abortion as an area in which Christians are losing. And yet what kind of “Christian” would be involved in such a struggle? Abortion was a reality in ancient Rome. Jesus himself was a survivor of Herod’s notorious Massacre of the Innocents. Jesus was eminently qualified and able to make abortion a big issue, if he considered it one. He didn’t. The abortion fight gets people upset and excited, but it doesn’t make them the least bit Christlike. Others have been trying to tell them this for the past forty years. But they just haven’t wanted to hear it. Being Christlike is not their priority; they would rather fight and attack people than seek the truth. And so we follow this twisted path to Eberstadt’s complaint about losing the culture war — to which the schoolyard retort is quite apt: if you can’t finish it, don’t start it. Stop inventing reasons to pick on people. Mind your own business. Or as Jesus put it, “Judge not, lest ye be judged.”

Eberstadt cites “school prayer” as another front on which today’s alleged Christians are losing the cultural war. Some want to force kids of all denominations to pray together in public schools. The underlying fantasy appears to be that most Americans are Christians and, as such, are apt to construe prayer in approximately the same way. If that fantasy had any truth to it, we would see those schoolkids’ Catholic and Protestant parents praying together in their churches. These people want to bully teachers and school administrators into achieving an ideal unity that they, themselves, do not even hope to achieve. And so Eberstadt would return us to the mindset of the Dark Ages: if you can’t persuade the Jews, Muslims, pagans, and agnostics through the strength of your ideas, then hammer them with the force of your laws. Forward to the Crusades!

Alternately, there is the quest for voluntary school prayer opportunities — “voluntary” in the sense that the kids will supposedly not be browbeaten into participating in it when, in point of fact, their parents are being forced to accept it. Once again, we have a muscular, coercive, conquering concept of Christian faith that involves shoving one’s beliefs down another person’s throat. It is more the mentality of the Spanish Inquisition than of the New Testament. People who are mindful of the religion’s history can plainly see that such efforts besmirch the name of the God who gets dragged into it. But people who are willing to see the religion’s history in that light are not likely to remain within it. The ones who are left seem, too often, to be those who don’t want to know the truth.

Eberstadt’s article contains a remarkable number of borderline and just plain false statements. An example of the latter: “Religious expression is under attack,” she says, because of recent events, “including the Supreme Court decision overruling Texas’ restrictions on abortion clinics.” That Supreme Court decision had nothing to do with religious expression. According to Fox News, conservatives criticized that decision on grounds that it “erodes States’ lawmaking authority to safeguard the health and safety of women and subjects more innocent life to being lost” (quoting Texas Governor Greg Abbott). There is not a single reference to “expression” in that Fox News writeup of the Supreme Court decision, nor in the writeup offered by the conservative Wall Street Journal.

Eberstadt complains that people like her can no longer count on receiving “civil criticism of people’s most-cherished beliefs.” That complaint is disingenuous. What are a Christian’s most-cherished beliefs? A search leads to such topics as the deity of Christ, his resurrection, and salvation by grace. Eberstadt’s article is not about anything of the sort. Instead, she offers the example of a teacher in New Jersey who was suspended for giving a student a Bible. She doesn’t mention that the act violated a school policy against distributing religious literature on school grounds. (If necessary, think “Koran” or “porn” or “hand grenade,” instead of “Bible,” to be reminded of why a school district might try to discourage teachers from creating unnecessary controversies involving middle-school students and their parents.) In other words, there are multiple problems with Eberstadt’s example: it’s not about uncivil remarks, nor about anyone’s “most-cherished beliefs”; it is not a deliberate suppression of Christianity (suspension would have been equally appropriate for an atheist teacher giving a student a leaflet attacking the Bible); and all of these facts are left unmentioned, in hopes of tricking Eberstadt’s reader into believing something that is not true.

Eberstadt wants to bemoan the disappearance of “civil criticism” among those who question her beliefs. Let me offer a clue: lying for the Lord is not going to promote the desired civility. She is jumping into combat on some of the nation’s most contentious issues; she is firing at the enemy — sometimes making statements that, as shown here, are downright nonsense — and then she is complaining that the enemy shoots back. If Eberstadt were to completely rewrite her piece in a spirit of Christian humility, with a visible commitment to be honest and fair in her remarks about her own beliefs and those of others, then (a) Time probably wouldn’t publish it, because it wouldn’t contain all this posturing on behalf of the self-styled righteous, and (b) on the other hand, readers not similarly minded might find it more difficult to dismiss her as one more phony self-congratulator.

Eberstadt admits the great difference between “the horrors of ISIS-led genocide against Christians in the Middle East and what Pope Francis calls the ‘polite persecution’ of believers in the West.” Regrettably, she goes on to muddle that with a complaint that “some American citizens are fearful of expressing their religious views.” Well, yes, and some people are fearful of leaving their bedrooms. The fact of fear does not demonstrate the existence of a genuine threat. When 63% of us are absolutely certain God exists and an overwhelming 77% describe themselves as religiously affiliated (to cite the numbers quoted in her article), it is doubtful that most American Christians experience anywhere near the persecution experienced by American atheists (~3% of Americans). Moreover, among Christians who do fear ridicule, some deserve it: to varying degrees Christians themselves ridicule others.

Simply put, Christian belief per se is not being widely persecuted, politely or otherwise. What Eberstadt characterizes as persecution seems, for the most part, to be just the logical elimination of theories that do not stand up to scrutiny. There certainly are reasons why an intelligent person would doubt Christianity. It has had its share of high-profile fakes and frauds. It makes excessive and false claims about itself. When your religion conflates its most solemn holy events with the Easter Bunny and with one of ancient Rome’s biggest party times, you can expect people to wonder whether it is for real.

Eberstadt offers a separate set of examples in support of her claim that “Some Christian institutions face pressure to conform to secularist ideology.” But that’s America. It is a secularist nation. We have never had a state religion. At times, the secular state and the religious preference are going to conflict. At those times, the secular state will tend to prevail, because the country does not exist to serve the religion. As a different example, some Jewish people treat the U.S. as if its purpose were to serve Israel. As with Eberstadt, their wish is not reality, nor should it be.

She offers the example of Gordon College, which came under fire for policies that seemed to discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity. So, OK, let us review: you aren’t supposed to discriminate in America. We are all supposed to be equals here. Christians may not like it — they may want to shove the gays back into the dark — but fortunately their attitudes do not control the law of this land. Even so, on the particular issues in the Gordon case, a Christian lawyer’s analysis concludes that Gordon’s position has enjoyed the support of law, right up to the Supreme Court. That hardly points toward what Eberstadt decries as “an insidious intolerance for religion.” Another article suggests that, in fact, it is the school’s LGBT students “who feel they can’t say anything out of fear about what that will do to their college experience.”

In America, Christians have enjoyed virtually limitless opportunities to organize their practices, research their claims, market their views, and attack their opponents. After all that, if they still cannot achieve anything like the growing popularity of the first-century Christian movement that began with Jesus, it is fair to suggest that perhaps they are not really very much in touch with Jesus after all. In that case, Jesus made clear what he would say to such people: “I never knew you. Depart from me!” As the Matthew Henry commentary says about that,

Christ here shows that it will not be enough to own him for our Master, only in word and tongue. It is necessary to our happiness that we believe in Christ, that we repent of sin, that we live a holy life, that we love one another.

This article demonstrates the falsehood of arguments by which Mary Eberstadt tries to engage would-be Christians in fights that detract from the message of Christ. Replace people like Eberstadt with genuinely Christ-seeking writers who are committed to finding the truth, humble about what they know, and loving of others, and then let us revisit the questions of whether there is really a problem of religious intolerance in today’s America, and of whether followers of Christ should be jumping into a war to control the nation’s culture.

How I Came to Be an Ex-Christian


The End Times
Lying for the Lord
A Christian College
A Crisis of Faith
Give Away All That You Possess



I was raised and confirmed in the conservative Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod in northern Indiana. This is not to say I was an exceptionally good child. I was probably more profane than most, got in more trouble than many, and fought many a Sunday morning battle with Mom over whether I had to go to church, the equivalent of a city block away from our rural home. Religion was not a subject a person would ordinarily talk about. It felt awkward.

In the summer of 1971, after my sophomore year of high school, I started reading the Psalms in the Bible, and continued into the book of Proverbs. I’m not sure why. I had heard of Jesus Christ Superstar, but I don’t recall being particularly oriented toward that sort of thing. Maybe I was just curious. Psalms and Proverbs would have been relatively safe for me: they didn’t have the overly religious feel of the familiar old stories about Moses and Jesus and such.

This Bible reading may have predisposed me to be interested when my friend Neal told me (probably while we were hanging out outside the church building rather than submit to the deadly tedium of another Sunday service) about the so-called coffeehouse, the Adam’s Apple, run by Calvary Temple, in Fort Wayne. I went with Neal to Adam’s Apple for the first time that October. It quickly became a habit: for much of the next two years, I attended the Apple frequently and Calvary Temple occasionally, to my parents’ dismay. It was not their brand of religion. Dad, in particular, felt that Calvary Temple was run by a fraud.

Adam’s Apple put a whole new face on Christian belief. In stark contrast to the stiff religiosity on display in the pews of Zion Lutheran Church, people at the Apple would hug each other. There (and sometimes at other places in the vicinity), a young audience would sit on the floor and listen, laugh, clap, and pray while regular musicians like John Lloyd and Nancy Henigbaum (“Honeytree”), and guests like Phil Keaggy and Larry Norman, would play. I’ve posted a video that captures some of the sounds from that place.


Pentecostalism can be pretty heady: speaking in tongues; saving souls for the Lord; believing that the Devil is constantly trying to snare you; telling my high school composition teacher that I was not going to college because the world was going to end soon. I could not waste time on flawed human knowledge when there was so much important work to do for the Lord in those End Times. I was street-witnessing (i.e., stopping passers-by to ask if they had found Jesus), not only in nearby towns, but also as far away as Dayton, Ohio (with the Adam’s Apple group), Indianapolis (with Campus Crusade for Christ), and the Warren Dunes in Michigan (on a church youth group camping trip). I had my Dake Bible; I read it from cover to cover a half-dozen times, and investigated countless cross-references among Bible passages; I memorized several of the shorter New Testament books verbatim. They called me Preacher Ray, there at DeKalb High School.

The End Times

These things were unfolding in the context of something called the Jesus Movement. Many of our leaders, in that movement, had been the long-haired “hippie freak” type. When they turned to the Lord, they became known as “Jesus freaks” or “Jesus people.” As a younger brother of two older siblings who had been more directly involved with the ’60s counterculture, I very much looked up to these colorful, interesting people and influences. The Jesus movement had an influence on the larger culture – in, for instance, the Doobie Brothers’ song, “Jesus Is Just Alright” and the Byrds’ “Turn, Turn, Turn.”

Reach Out New Testament_Page_1

Of course, the movement was also influenced by that larger culture. We had our rock and (more commonly) folk musicians singing our songs, just like our secular classmates did; our graphic artists were using Peter Max-type psychedelia; we had the “One Way” hand sign (an index finger pointing toward heaven) as a response to the two-fingered, V-shaped “peace” sign of those times. (The “one way” concept derived from a Bible passage, John 14:6, in which Jesus said that he provided the only way to God the Father. We knew that the two-fingered peace sign was Satanic, since we were (incorrectly) told it was based on the upside-down cross on which St. Peter was crucified.)

Other than that investigation of Psalms and Proverbs, I had never done much Bible reading. But now I discovered the book of Revelation and, wow, that was exotic. It had been pretty much ignored, in my Lutheran upbringing, and that seemed wrong. I found it very moving. A friend got a recording of a New York preacher, David Wilkerson, delivering a sermon on what God had told him, as later recorded in his book The Vision (1974, pp. 11, 28, 75-76):

A second vision came to me this summer [1973]. It is a vision of five tragic calamities coming upon the earth. . . . Never again in the history of the world will there be a time of complete confidence and trust in world economies. . . . I see a time coming when nearly all evangelical missionary projects, all religious radio and TV programming, and all incorporated missionary societies will be so closely monitored, questioned, and badgered that they will be cautious of expanding in any area.

The passage of 40 years has made clear that what Rev. Wilkerson predicted would occur “soon” did not, in fact, occur. Anyone who has lived through these four decades since 1973 – who has seen the Dow Jones Industrial Average keep hitting higher and higher peaks, who has witnessed presidential elections being heavily influenced by the Christian Coalition, who has observed the rise of the megachurch – may be inclined to question Wilkerson’s claim that God showed him the future. This certainly was not someone who zeroed right in on exactly what was happening, as one would expect from a prophet of God.

At the time, though, Wilkerson and other eschatological predictions convinced me that it would be foolish to invest years in college or otherwise to build a career, a home, or a future, when Jesus was going to be coming back very soon. Notwithstanding this impact on me, Wilkerson was better known for The Cross and the Switchblade, about the positive impact of the gospel on the life of former New York gang member and heroin addict Nicky Cruz. I met Nicky Cruz, when his touring took him through Indiana, and found it very exciting that the Lord was changing lives like his.

There were other dramatic developments in the Christian press around that time. The most electrifying story of doing battle with the Devil emerged in Mike Warnke’s Satan Seller. Warnke told of his extraordinary experiences as a Satanic high priest in southern California, before he found Jesus. He described how the Devil gave him power to cause buildings to burn by putting a hex on them (pp. 74-75), and to order demons to torment people and cause car accidents (pp. 105-106); he said that he had even witnessed astral travel (i.e., the instantaneous transfer of a woman into his living room, and then away again) (p. 87).

Lying for the Lord

Warnke’s fraud would finally be exposed, many years later, by Christian journalists. But at the time, stories like his and Wilkerson’s fed both my commitment to God and also, over time, a subtext of uncertainty. There did seem to be a dramatic difference between their experiences and mine – a difference that I was unable to surmount despite enormous efforts in Bible study, self-scrutiny, prayer, and fasting. For some reason, I was just not having out-of-body experiences, seeing visions, or otherwise encountering firsthand the incredible supernatural power that people kept telling me about.

I did, however, have a different type of experience reminiscent of Wilkerson and Warnke. One time, years later, in a discussion with my co-workers in a Mormon-owned photocopy shop on upper Broadway in New York, I heard a very apt phrase. It was not one that we evangelicals had used, but it did speak to the problem. That phrase was “lying for the Lord.” I knew the experience well enough. As I discuss further in another post, we who tried to persuade people to join our religion would often make claims that weren’t true, or would advance arguments that did not jibe with our own beliefs and our actual experiences.

For instance, we would tell people that they could place their burdens on God, that Jesus would give them clarity and peace. But if they did take our advice and ask Jesus to enter their hearts and lives, they would soon find themselves transitioning into a Christian lifestyle of complexity, struggle, and anxiety. No peace for you! There was the Devil to worry about, as just noted, and the End Times developments in the daily newspaper to speculate upon; there was the Bible to read and interpret and apply, and assorted faith-related interpersonal complexities to deal with, and temptations to fight, and things to pray for, and anti-Christian schemes to detect, and so on ad infinitum. You would seriously not believe the number (and the astounding, frequently preposterous range) of things that seemed to be going on in the heads of myself and (even now) my Bible-believing Christian friends.

Of course, there are all kinds of people in this world. There are calm people in every profession, every religion. Generally, though, our worldview was not a path to Bob Marley-type mellowness. Yet we went right on speaking as though our lives did prominently feature an idyllic peace – and, adding to the stress, we expected ourselves to be enjoying that sort of thing, even when there was no reasonable prospect of it, given the many things we had to worry about. And yet, on the occasions when we did happen to experience a bit of it, we saw it as proof that we were on the right track.

Part of the explanation, I think, was that we were not allowed to doubt, and as a result we did not tend to critique our own upbeat claims about faith. This meant that, in the spirit of Wilkerson and Warnke, and perhaps as an unwitting invitation to habitual liars, we really didn’t have many constraints on telling people whatever might sound good. It was supposed to be like that for us; it was going to be like that for us; we just hadn’t quite gotten there yet.


Despite these shortcomings, let me emphasize that being a born-again Christian teenager was a fantastic experience — not in every way, but definitely in some important ways. I have never experienced fellowship like that which I experienced in our high school prayer group. Some of it was definitely mixed up with naivete and virginity; it was probably more fun for me than for some, given my status as an informal leader; maybe it resonated for me particularly, as an echo of the insular community of my childhood; but, still and all, it was special, and most of us seemed to be together in it.

On that foundation, temporary though it was (with many of us pairing off into couples, approaching graduation, and otherwise eventually drifting away from the shared group experience), we had some really great social and spiritual times. For starters, when I stopped going to my exploratory teaching gig in a nearby elementary school (in a profound fit of senioritis that the high school’s administrators never did detect), I discovered that I was left with a 100-minute lunch period. The other members of our prayer group would cycle in and out of the cafeteria, according to their individual schedules; but I was there the whole time, anchoring our group’s table and getting to see virtually every other member of our fellowship on a daily basis. Talk about redeeming the time! My expanded lunch break did not seem to irritate any teachers, as I had done when Mr. Stackhouse discovered that my midafternoon independent study hour was functioning as naptime in the library. In all regards, this extended luncheon opportunity provided an edifying social addition to my high school experience, and of course I must enthusiastically recommend it to future high schoolers.

It was also really special to have a life of semi-mystical experiences — looking up at the nighttime sky and thinking about God and eternity, believing that shooting stars signified love between me and the preacher’s daughter (don’t ask me where I got that connection), finding meaning in the sunsets and the trees and the waters. Everything was so rich. Sometimes even the secular song lyrics were like words directly from God: “Are you reeling in the years / Storing away the time.” Admittedly, some of the most intense experiences were on the dark and spooky side, involving the power and presence of Satan that many believers seemed so preoccupied with. Was I really alone, late on a snowy, moonlit winter’s night, as I warmed myself in our darkened kitchen?

In all this fellowship, I had experiences I have not had since, like when four of us guys got together, all with guitars, and spent a night singing and praying, talking and thinking, in an empty church lit only by a candle. There was another unchaperoned all-nighter, sponsored by a local church for the benefit of a couple dozen Lutheran high schoolers; but this time our adventures ran the gamut from solitary prayer in the sanctuary to rambunctious physical games (not limited to hide-and-seek) around the church grounds. Somebody probably caught hell for letting us tear the place up like that. And yet, on another level, this stuff pretty much kept me out of trouble. Of the three country boys I was hanging out with before I got the Jesus fever in my junior year, one is dead, one suffered serious brain injury in a suicide attempt, and the other nearly died in, and is profoundly impaired due to, an alcohol-related automobile crash. I might have survived anyway, without the Christ-oriented lifestyle, but then again I might not.

A Christian College

So those were some aspects of my experience as a born-again believer. Meanwhile, for better and worse, life went on. After graduating from high school in May 1973, I took a job, running a drill press in a local factory. In my free time, I was dinking around on my guitar, reading the Bible, and hanging out with fellow Christians. My parents were afraid that I was not going to get a proper education. Finally, in August 1973, Mom told me that they would pay the tuition if I would attend a Lutheran college.

Some months earlier, I had visited what was then Concordia Lutheran Junior College in Ann Arbor, Michigan; but, as noted above, I had decided not to apply. But in late July, the union organizer at the factory demanded a decision on whether I was going to pay the membership fee and join the union. I thought about it and finally said no. Despite enjoying the occasional horseplay, I was a very diligent and productive worker, and that did not seem to impress the stolid union members who had been standing at those machines for years. It was not the place for me. I was going to have to find a new job, or something. So now, as other recent grads started to peel off for their various campuses, it seemed I had probably better rethink this college thing. With just a few weeks of summer left, I applied, was accepted, and entered Concordia’s pre-ministerial program.

Concordia was certainly a religious place, but it was not pentecostal. I don’t remember exactly how that struck me. I will have to try to reconstruct the situation sometime. I think I must have been transitioning to a more thoughtful kind of belief, perhaps in reaction against the more dubious aspects of the Jesus movement. For whatever reason, I suddenly rediscovered an interest in being a good student, after years of a public school mental hiatus since leaving the one-room schoolhouse. Being at college, or perhaps being able to study religion, motivated me to take extra courses and also to test out of a couple of classes. Through such efforts, I completed most of the coursework required for the two-year degree in that one year. So there was no point staying around for a second year, accumulating credits that would not move me closer to a bachelor’s degree. Several years later, I sent Concordia a transcript from elsewhere; they granted some transfer credits; and on that basis they awarded my associate’s degree.

So now that I was finishing that first year at Concordia, there was the question of where to continue my education. I decided to transfer to Indiana University (IU), where I would qualify for in-state tuition rates. There, I continued in my ministry-oriented studies: I enrolled in second-year courses in German and ancient Greek, started Hebrew, and also took a couple of philosophy courses and a course on the New Testament.

A Crisis of Faith

That New Testament course at IU would play a pivotal role. As I discovered, people did not necessarily take an evangelical view of the Gospel in that big, secular university. I suddenly found myself as the stereotypical Bible-thumper, raising my hand to explain to the religion professor (Dr. Sampley, as I recall) how he did not have the proper view of Jesus and the biblical text. He was an agreeable guy, ready to listen to what I had to say. After class, on a couple of occasions, I gave him fundamentalist tracts and other materials to read, so that he would understand where he was mistaken; and then, after the next class session, he would explain to me why my materials seemed to be leaving questions unanswered.

The reasonableness of his approach threw me off balance. By midway in that fall semester, it was beginning to seem pretty obvious that I had taken a lot of things for granted. I had just accepted the Bible as being straightforward and obvious, and was now discovering that people who did not come from my religious background might not share that impression at all.

That was extremely disconcerting. I did understand the professor’s reservations. So it was not, as I had imagined or had wanted to believe, a simple matter of introducing people to God and letting the Holy Spirit work magic in their hearts. There were also these intellectual issues. And I did not have answers for them. I had not been certain how my pre-ministerial education was going to play out anyway; now it began to appear that it might not play out at all, certainly not until I could get past these barriers to faith.

Meanwhile, the previous summer, I’d had an experience that threw another wrench into my college education. I had taken the Greyhound bus to suburban Los Angeles, and had stayed with my older sister and her husband — along with my older brother, who had moved out there to join them some months earlier. That had been a lot of fun. So now, as the Indiana skies turned literally and spiritually gray and cold for me, it seemed that I might as well do my spiritual rethinking in sunny southern California. With a considerable sense of academic failure, I decided to drop out. When I told the religion professor of this decision, on my last day in his class, he looked at me and said just one word: “Courage.” His way of wishing me luck. A cool dude, all around.

So I left Bloomington and caught a train for the coast. But life is never simple. In L.A., it develops that my sister is letting two godforsaken Jehovah’s Witness ladies visit her living room on a weekly basis, and I am therefore obliged to argue Bible passages with them. Of all the irritants found in weird cults and heathen religions, I felt, this was perhaps the most annoying of all: that people didn’t have enough common sense and decency to recognize when their beliefs were just ridiculous, and were thus unable to straighten themselves out. These weren’t intelligent religion professors with compelling questions; these were just heretics who, in my view, were obviously misusing the scriptures. It was absurd that these people actually claimed that *I* was the one in error. My arguments didn’t have the least effect on them. So I got exposure to a different kind of reaction to the Bible: that not everybody who reads it is going to be a rocket scientist, and that some of the rocket scientists who do study it extensively will come up with unexpected and incompatible interpretations that their followers will cling to tenaciously.

I shouldn’t convey an impression that these occasional interactions were the sole source of doubt for me. Doubt was an inevitable thread throughout those years. It had been convenient enough, back in high school, to dismiss the doubters and the heretics, the songs like “Spirit in the Sky” and “Jesus Christ Superstar” and Tull’s “Hymn 43.” The music was good, but the message was flawed; and besides, as I say, it wasn’t as stimulating as the more directly Satanic stuff, like the Eagles’ “Witchy Woman” and (so we imagined) almost anything by a group that would dare to call itself Black Sabbath. For me, the surreptitious, truly evil nature of doubt was captured especially well in C.S. Lewis’s Screwtape Letters. And yet, despite the romantic energy of these stimuli, over time the more corrosive kind of doubt was that of the everyday American life, out there in what I considered “the so-called real world.” People out there didn’t seem to have much interest in this stuff. For some reason, the Lord was simply not smiting any Sodom and Gomorrahs. I wasn’t seeing plagues; nobody was even coming down with the pox. It was as though L.A.’s endless strip malls and McDonald’s restaurants might have a better grip on reality than I did.


Just in case, I did in fact get a job at a Mickey D’s, right there in my neighborhood. I also got a partial tuition refund from IU, slept on the floor in a utility room at my sister’s house, and saved my pennies for a flight to Switzerland. That next step occurred in February 1975. Switzerland was where an evangelical minister and thinker named Francis Schaeffer had set up shop, creating a Christian commune called L’Abri (French for “the shelter”), in Huemoz, a village up in the Swiss Alps. I had been reading Schaeffer’s book, True Spirituality, and I had come up with a long list of questions for him. So now I flew over to meet him.

Unfortunately, he wasn’t there. It seems that, if you are raised in the middle class, with experienced travelers to ask (or, nowadays, if you have an Internet), you learn that you are supposed to arrange these things in advance. So now I know this. At the time, however, the only people I knew who had ever been to Europe were World War II veterans and one local farmer who had been in the Army in the 1960s. They hadn’t needed to make reservations. So I just figured I was going to Schaeffer’s place; he would be there; and I would ask him my questions.

What happened instead was that I got to harass his assistant pastors, nice evangelical ministers who no doubt found me bothersome. My questions were apparently not easy to answer and, in fact, neither they nor the accumulated Francis Schaeffer materials in the L’Abri library (such as it was) seemed to have even begun to grapple with most of the things I was asking about. I was perplexed that these questions, some of which now seemed obvious, had apparently never even crossed the minds of these people who were supposedly advising thoughtful Christians from around the world.

After hanging around L’Abri for a while, mostly living on bread and jelly (and tripe, my new discovery, which tasted good at first, after a couple of weeks without much real food, but didn’t taste so good when I bought another can of it), I finally got admitted into L’Abri’s program of study, which I could have waltzed right into if I’d made reservations like the American Christians who had done this properly. But they still had to pay as much to live in one of the L’Abri buildings as I was paying in my humble hostel a few blocks away, and they also had to slave in the communal garden. Since there did not seem to be any prospect of getting answers to the questions that had taken me there, it seemed time to move on.

One of the other Americans was also leaving town, heading back to his mom’s home in a fishing village called Looe, on the English Channel, in Cornwall. I invited myself along with this guy, name of Ron, and that was the end of L’Abri for me. As it turned out, Ron’s brother was named Randy; Randy spent all his time in his room with his guitar and a huge tape recorder, trying to prepare an album for a record company up in London; and a couple years later, one day in New York, I turned on the radio and heard Randy VanWarmer singing “You Left Me (Just When I Needed You Most).” Ron later told me it hit No. 3 on the pop charts. Eventually, Randy even had a Greatest Hits album. So, you know, good for him.

Give Away All That You Possess

After several weeks of thinking, hiking along Cornwall’s craggy cliffs, and debating, alone and with Ron, I landed back in Chicago with about $10 in my pocket. I took the South Shore railroad as far as I could, and then hitchhiked and walked all night to make it to my folks’ place north of Fort Wayne. Before flying to Switzerland, back in February, I had driven from L.A. to the folks’ place; but then, too caffeinated to sleep, I had decided to drive over and see a friend. That was not a judicious decision. I fell asleep on the way and hit a tree. Kind of a close shave: awoke at the last second and cranked the wheel, thereby shearing off a fender instead of my head. So now I had to repair the VW and head back to L.A.

When I did get back to Los Angeles, my sister’s husband wasn’t terribly eager to have my brother and me stay there anymore. It was time for us to find our own places. Maybe I could have done better than my new job at another McDonald’s, or at least I could have worked two jobs to afford an apartment. But I was still concerned about spending eternity in hell for my doubt, and was thus still devoting a huge amount of time to Bible reading and agonizing over the logical inconsistencies I was finding in the Bible and in the commentaries of Christian writers. I was still attending various churches from time to time, hoping that maybe I was overlooking something; maybe somebody would have answers that would clear up everything and prevent my concept of Christianity from being simply false.

In a bid to make more than minimum wage, I bought a couple of run-down VWs and gradually fixed them up to resell. My finances would basically cover rent for a garage on Cherry Avenue in North Long Beach, where I could do autobody repairs on one car indoors while leaving the other outdoors. The indoor car kindly shared space with me. I had a couch in there, one that Bob (a fortyish Volkswagen mechanic) and I had rescued from the alley behind his house, and I slept on that. I had a board propped up on some crates; I used that as my desk. There was a bathroom at the Douglas Burger down the street, not to mention a cute redheaded employee whom I was too shy to approach. Once in a while, my brother, living downtown, would let me use his bathtub.

For about three months, I lived in that garage. I spent many hours rereading and rethinking Bible passages. I wrote out my thoughts, hoping that seeing them in black and white would make things clearer.

I kept trying to figure out a solution, but eventually realized there just wasn’t one. As detailed in another post, I was trying to make the Bible into something that it wasn’t, something that it didn’t even claim. Like many fundamentalists, my faith was more in the Bible than in God. Behaving like the religious experts that Jesus warned against, we had converted the writings of ancient writers into legalistic texts, adding chapter and verse numbers that God had apparently forgotten to include. And we used that revised text to place burdens on people that they could not bear, like those described in this post — burdens that intelligent, goodhearted people would appropriately reject.


We went through all kinds of mental gymnastics to try to persuade ourselves that the Bible, a patently flawed book, was perfect. We did that because that’s what we wanted, not because of any specific instructions from God. We held to this approach even though it required us to ignore the Bible’s obviously imperfect processes of formation, transmission, and translation. We basically decided to accuse God of something inconsistent with his supposedly perfect nature. It was like the police charging a man with a crime when everyone could see that he was nowhere near the scene. In the end, we made God look like an idiot, and we took pride in behaving likewise. If there was a God, then this was blasphemy; it was just plain wrong.

What I concluded was this: it was impossible for an intelligent individual to have an honest belief that the Bible was the literal Word of God. As a fundamentalist, I had essentially been telling people that God would put you in Hell for all eternity if you earnestly sought the truth and faced up to the problems that I had encountered. In the end, I concluded, that was not right. There might have been a god behind that sort of threat; but if there was, it was not a good one. If anything, it seemed that we, in our pride and arrogance, had decided we were smarter than the Prince of Darkness; that we had been completely fooled; and that we were doing all this hard work just to make things worse. We wouldn’t listen to reason, and that made us the perfect patsies for whatever nonsense might come trundling down the pike.

As described above, I had been trying to find a way out of this for quite a while, and I was continuing to devote a lot of time to it. But at a certain point, I just couldn’t afford to do that anymore. Along with the ongoing emotional and intellectual turmoil, my financial situation was desperate. I got a nudge on Christmas Day, 1975. I got sick, maybe because of the autobody chemicals, and the Douglas Burger was closed. I found myself barfing in the alley back of the garage. It was a moment of clarity.

More than four years had passed since my first visit to the Adam’s Apple. During those years, I had experienced excitement and fellowship, and also theological study and religious disputation. During the past year especially, I had confronted and endured emotional upset: a fear of losing both my eternal salvation and all those marvelous experiences and beliefs. The trip to L’Abri had been an extraordinary yet failing effort to obtain answers that a divinely inspired scripture would have made plain — and now the encounter with L’Abri itself was nearly a year in the past.

The essential facts were before me. I did not seem to be overlooking anything significant. It was time to decide how to proceed. And after that Christmas Day experience, I did proceed. Within a few weeks, I returned to full-time college student status, at California State University, Long Beach – once again taking philosophy and German courses, but this time without religion. Ultimately, my religious beliefs coalesced into agnostic polytheistic fundamentalism.


What Is a “Christian”?

This item was originally posted on October 15, 2011 on my other blog.  It drew a few comments there.  I have left the empty post and those comments at that location.

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I had someone ask me, today, what a Christian is.  I decided to look it up.  I started with the Oxford English Dictionary (OED); but when I boiled down its many meanings into those involving religion specifically (as distinct from e.g., a part of the historical titles of kings of France), I wound up with more or less the same list as I could get, from Dictionary.com, without a paid subscription:

  • a member of a particular church or denomination; or
  • a person who believes in Jesus Christ; an adherent of Christianity; or
  • a person who exemplifies in his or her life the teachings of Christ.

So, for example, some say “believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and you will be saved”; some say that “faith without works is dead” (i.e., if you don’t live a Christian life, your claim of belief is probably false); some say you have to be baptized or confirmed — in general, or into a particular denomination or sect.

In practice, these several different ways of being a Christian have produced tens of thousands of different Christian denominations, sects, and cults.  These varieties of Christianity have emerged for various reasons.  Some are due to historical developments (e.g., the split of the Roman Empire); some were formed by charismatic leaders who decided to break off and go their own way; many emerged from doctrinal disagreements.

As an example that may combine all three of those sources of dispute, it seems that Martin Luther, founder of the Protestant denomination in which I was raised, believed that the papacy was the Antichrist.  This can sound bizarre to people from some contemporary denominations who are forever running around, looking for reasons why Mikhail Gorbachev, Ronald Reagan, Barack Obama, or other politicians are the Antichrist.  Either way, people have been playing the guess-who’s-the-Antichrist game throughout the history of Christianity, targeting individuals as diverse as Arius of Alexandria; an unspecified Jew from the biblical tribe of Dan; various individual popes; and Czar Peter the Great.

That example may illustrate how scriptures — intrepreted creatively by people with all sorts of different fears, hopes, ideas, and agendas — can give rise to an endless set of reasons why those who belong to one so-called Christian sect can violently disagree with other so-called Christians.  Violent warfare among Christians began in the early years of the various churches.  For example, starting within a few centuries after Jesus, the Arian variety of Christian belief was murderously suppressed.  Since those early centuries, wars about “true” Christian belief — wars in which one kind of so-called Christian killed another — have claimed countless lives.  The 16th and 17th centuries were especially notable for that, but they weren’t alone; it has continued right up through the horrific atrocities committed by “Christian” armies fighting each other in Yugoslavia in the early 1990s.  Of course, so-called Christians have also prayed and sung and quoted the Bible on behalf of the troops that they have sent off into non-religious wars down through the centuries, thus trying to implicate God in the outcomes of everything from the medieval Crusades to the American invasion of Iraq.

Murder in the name of Christ appears to be especially common among people who think they know exactly what they are talking about.  In other words, it’s more difficult to justify hating people for their failure to understand Christ in the “proper” way, if you approach faith from a humble and questioning perspective.  People cannot do that, unfortunately, when they fear that they would go to hell for honestly admitting and investigating their doubts.  This results in an regrettable situation in which many so-called Christians try to make the Bible — particularly the New Testament — into the Word of God, when it is very obvious that God, himself, made no such claim.  It is also hard to imagine any such thing about the New Testament when you learn a little about the ugly fights regarding the question of which books should be considered part of the Bible.  (That question remains unsettled.)  Calling the Bible “holy,” as these people often do, appears to represent willful blindness to the realities.  Once again, the supposedly good God is dragged into a process that has plainly been very human.

These remarks may begin to indicate that the three approaches to the definition of “Christian” listed above are only the most superficial summaries of the countless ways in which alleged Christians actually do define themselves.  These remarks have focused especially on the first and second of those approaches to definition.  Basically, someone can claim to believe almost anything, can cook up some reason to claim that their belief makes them “real” Christians, and can use that putative reasoning to justify horrible acts in God’s name.  It’s not just the random crackpot who shoots an abortion doctor, nor even the “Onward Christian Soldiers” mentality that imagines God playing a role in religious wars.  The same mindset appears in the average “Christian” suburbanite who thanks God for giving them a life in which they can buy things made by Asians earning pennies a day, in manufacturing processes that wreck the environment.

I haven’t yet said much about the third of those three briefly summarized approaches to the definition of a Christian.  In that third approach, the emphasis is not upon the lawyerly demand for a rigid text, contrary to Jesus’s own advice, nor upon the mystical notion that there is a magical thing called “faith” or “belief” that somehow rises above reality.  To clarify how the third approach to definition differs from the second one, consider the famous claim that there are no atheists in foxholes.  The concept is that, if you put someone in a situation where other people are trying to kill them, they’ll remember how to pray quickly enough.  In other words, what people say they believe is not necessarily what they really believe — and they, themselves, may not know the truth of the matter until they find themselves in a sufficiently harrowing situation.  But that knife cuts both ways.  Consider, for instance, the people who suddenly discover a belief in abortion when it is their own wife, sister, or daughter who was raped or at risk of dying in childbirth.  The point is, so-called “belief” — an idea held loosely in mind — it not necessarily what a person really believes.

In the third approach to defining “Christian,” as noted above, some people have been called Christian because they try, in some sense, to practice the teachings of Christ.  It is impossible to be exactly Christlike — not only because, supposedly unlike Jesus, we are all born sinful but, also, because Christ’s example doesn’t always fit.  Nobody is able to walk on water.  People can’t pay their taxes by pulling coins out of the mouths of fish.  In America, nobody is going to be able to die on a cross for preaching the coming of God’s kingdom.  Although the New Testament makes it sound easy, Christianity does not in fact seem to be a religion in which people can cure blindness by waving their hands around, much less raise the dead.  Another reason for the impossibility of Christlikeness is that it is self-contradictory — that in various regards it requires people to do or believe opposing things.  Moreover, in some ways it is not even desirable to be Christlike.  For example, Jesus cursed a fig tree that had no fruit, when figs weren’t even in season.  It can take centuries before humans are able to invent plausible explanations for such antics — explanations that God himself, supposedly involved in the writeup, didn’t see fit to provide — and there is no way of knowing whether such invented explanations correspond to what actually happened.

Defining a Christian in terms of Christlike behavior can bring endless quandaries.  Does a person become a Christian by trying to buy the SUV that Jesus would have bought?  That question, somewhat laughable in itself, does illustrate that the New Testament does not remotely contain enough material to provide meaningful insight on the many questions that have always complicated people’s lives, never mind the especially complex questions of current times.  If one must sell everything and give it to the poor and follow Jesus, as he reportedly advised one person to do, where does that leave the would-be follower who is responsible for looking after his/her own family?  Does Christlikeness really require people to treat their own mothers and siblings as strangers?  Some of these are the sorts of difficulties that one would expect, in any effort to convert first-century ideas and stories into meaningful guidance for very different lives two millennia later; some are pecularities about the message(s) of Jesus.

The usual response to this sort of concern, from people who really want to emulate Jesus, seems to be to treat him as a sort of early Gandhi or late Buddha — to extract, that is, those parts of his reported messages and stories that seem most readily convertible into vastly different current terms, more or less consistent with one’s personal inclination.  This appears to be a relatively philosophical approach to Christlikeness, where being Christlike is somewhat like being Aristotelian:  you find your guiding philosopher, you master his/her worldview, and then you reconfigure it into something that works for today.  It’s not necessarily a bad approach, though this, too, can wind up being quite remote from what others consider the real story of Jesus and from what it really means to be a Christian.

So I have at least provided some thoughts on what appear to be the three major ways of defining what a Christian is.  This is a blog post, not a peer-reviewed article.  I realize that there is much more to say, and also that there are probably errors of various sorts here.  Nonetheless, this post seems adequate for the basic purpose.  The ability to choose among several different ways of defining a Christian appears to mean that you can find some reason to call yourself a Christian, if you want to.  Like so many other terms, “Christian” seems to be a vague word that means what people want it to mean, for purposes of saying, believing, or doing what they wish to do.  It seems that the same person can even mean different things by the word, for assorted purposes arising at various times.  Under such circumstances, maybe the best one can do is to offer a very vague, general definition:  maybe a Christian is someone who tends to draw from a collection of linguistic strategies in order to cite Jesus, or some religious or political authority arguably derived from Jesus, as the justification for his/her inclinations.

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