Thursday, February 24, 2011

#9: Different: Why is Christianity any different?

   If you have an interest in other religions in the world, it doesn't take that long to notice that all of them are interesting, rich and beautiful.  Here are my top three things that are most interesting and beautiful among the world religions.

   1. When I was in Africa I loved how at certain points in the day people stopped what they were doing, walked down the street, ceremonially washed themselves and joined neighbors in prayer.  It made me want to have that here in America.  Not sure that you would get the same rate of compliance here, though!

   2.  Zen masters are SERIOUS about their meditation . . . it spooked me to see these guys in a trance-like state while their masters would whip their backs with large planks.  It amazed me that they didn't even flinch.  They weren't even there.

   3.  I love how Hinduism views life as an endless cycle of birth, rebirth, pain and illusion.  I am amazed at how deeply the thoughts about life's purpose run.  The Ramayana is an interesting take on life - that we need to be released from Samsara (suffering) through bhakti (devotion) or moksha (duty).  I feel like Hinduism has so much wisdom to it.

   So why is Christianity any different?  I really love it when this is an honest question.  Too often, though, it is delivered as a defiant statement - an ultimatum of sorts.  It becomes more of a pronouncement that Jesus is no different than any other religious figure.

   This couldn't be more wrong.  

   Siddhartha's last words were "don't make me a god" . . . certain strains of Hinduism see the idea of a god as an illusion . . . Islam has five pillars to submission to God . . .  Buddhism has an eightfold path - all of these religions share the idea of a path to God.

   It is Christianity that reveals a path FROM God.  All throughout the Old Testament you read of a God who just wants to be among His people.  In the Gospels Jesus comes as God in the flesh.  In Revelation you can read of Jesus returning TO THE EARTH in order for God and humans to coexist.

   If there is anything that sets Jesus apart . . . if it is really a question . . . then it is the fact that Jesus does not claim to be a way TO God, but FROM God.  When asked about the way to God, Jesus responds in John 14: "I am the way, the truth and the life, no one comes to the Father but through me."

   So no, I don't want to talk much about how that sounds exclusive . . . I just want to answer the question - what makes Jesus so different?  He came to us, not vice-versa.

   Check out the video to the right "Different."

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

#10 - "Isn't the Bible just a collection of myths?"

   So how do we trust the Bible when it tells us of a really good man who was born of a virgin, taught people, did miracles, raised dead people and then came back to life himself?  Does it require all faith or is there any way we can put trust in these statements?
   Add to that question the fact that the Bible writers lived in a time when ideas like objective facts or copyright weren't in effect.  So people could pass on explanatory stories from generation to generation without the need to 'make sense' and people were allowed to pass on stories with their own twist - why would the Bible be any different?

   The difference is in why they wrote . . .

   When I was 11 years old I was working with my family out back.  My dad was cutting down a tree and we were all helping with some ropes -  the ropes were draped around another tree so that when we pulled one way, the tree would fall the other way.  It all seemed like it would go just fine.

   I remember my brother arguing with my mother about whether she would quit smoking.  I remember my mother had a jacket on and a pie in the oven.  I remember the kind of ear protection my dad was wearing as the chainsaw ate through the tree.  I remember the dark black loamy soil.  I remember the yellow rope we were pulling on.

   I also remember the crack that told us all the tree was ready to fall.  I remember that we had a plan to pull hard and then run up near where the tree fort was so that if anything bad happened we would be safe.

  This rather large tree began to fall the other way . . . our plan was working.  But then it bounced off another tree nearby and began to fall toward us . . . toward me.  The next thing I remember was the tree falling all around me.  Leaves and branches were everywhere.  I hadn't moved for some reason . . . I didn't run.  I looked on the ground and saw leaves and limbs everywhere around me and as I turned to the left I saw the most gruesome sight that my young eyes had ever seen.  

   The tree had spared me . . . but it had fallen right on my mother.  Mangled was probably the best descriptive word I could use.  I was in complete shock.

   The story continues from there . . . but those details I will never forget.  In fact the story snakes through my life in the most unpredictable twists and turns as my mother survived that day.  This is a part of my personal history.  I may have dropped the small details, but here it is over 20 years later and I can't forget that day.  As I tell it, I get an uneasy feeling as I relive its events.

   The story of the early disciples is personal history - it is not legend, it is not explanatory myth - it is normal people like you and me that were changed by an event that they couldn't explain.  These are the events that we preserve and remember with great care - not because we want to advance religious dogma . . . but because we can't forget.  When your teacher is unfairly tried, mocked, beat up and murdered by crucifixion, you don't forget the details of that day.

   There are certain things we memorize - like you could probably recite the pledge of allegiance (no doubt because you said it every day for some 12 years as a student in school). Then there are things that happened to you that you can't get out of your mind.  The details still haunt you.  Now imagine telling that story every day of your life over and over . . . and then about 20 years later writing it down.  That is the Gospel of Mark.  Why did he take so long?  Because Mark thought Jesus was returning very soon and speaking was a much quicker way to get the word out than writing in the ancient near east.  

   So anyhow, these personal histories - assembled by common people (not priests or shamans) and copied by followers of this new sect actually exhibit an impressive track record of reliability.  We have thousands of copies of these documents that agree (compared with a handful of other historic documents).  The Old Testament - just as impressive . . . see the video to the right called 'myth.'

   So we do have a pretty impressive record of faithful transmission of a major event that happened in time, with real place names and real people and a real story that changed the lives of a group of ordinary men.  Perhaps it is time to rethink how we look at it?

Friday, February 18, 2011

10 Doubts that we should begin to doubt.

   When I was growing up we had children's church in the basement of our church.  We'd hear the organ groan over top of Mrs. Sealey's rendition of "Onward Christian Soldiers" banged out on the piano by Uncle Harvey.  If you were under 6, it was a cool place to be . . . we celebrated birthdays every week by having the person whose birthday it was come up and count out pennies into something that looked like a plastic cake piggy-bank.  I don't think I got why we were paying for our birthday, but it was cool to have them light a candle on the plastic cake and Uncle Harvey play "happy birthday to you" on the piano.

  Ah, the days of flannel graphs and felt banners (for some reason it was all the rage at my church to cut outlines of Bible characters and glue them onto burlap and call it a banner).  We were Episcopalian so being in children's church was a short step away from being an acolyte or altar boy (I can't wait to tell you how bad I was at that).

  Well anyhow, it is a wonder how any of us took the Bible stories seriously when none of our questions got answered.  I remember having serious questions like, "what about all those people who don't read God's book?"  and "how do we know the Gospel writers didn't all just get together and map out this 'story' as a creative hoax?"  I am pretty sure I didn't use a word like "hoax" at 6 years old, but I remember frustratingly trying to get my question across to my Sunday school teacher and her completely missing the point.  Now to be fair, I am sure at 6 years old I wasn't the most clear communicator and maybe Mrs. Sealey was just ready to go home and watch football.

  The problem with so many of us is that these experiences are all we have of asking honest questions about faith.  We have memories of being given pat answers or frustrating attempts to just get our questions out.  Over time, these memories serve as barriers to faith and we think that maybe faith is for the kind of people who don't have questions.  This is completely untrue.  

   Do you realize the name "Israel" means one who wrestles with God?  Read the Psalms - any one of them - sometime.  Tell me that the ancient Jews weren't like, "hey - answer me on this one, God! I want answers!"

   The truth is that there are answers to our doubts . . . if and only if they are really questions that we have.  So many people I know use their questions as tools of disengagement.  Because they have a question it becomes the way to slam the door in God's face.  What a weird thing to do - a question becomes the beginning to an open-minded exploration of what may or may not be true.  In short . . . let the question become a way to understanding rather than an obstacle.

   In the next few weeks we are going to look at 10 of these hurdles.  On Tuesday the 1st question will be "Isn't the Bible just a collection of myths?"  Check out the video to the right and meet me back here on Tuesday to explore this question together.  Have a great weekend!  

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Sample of chapter 9 (small snippet)

Below is a snippet of the book "No Argument for God" available at Amazon (you can click the link of the book to the right) where right now it is only $9!  

THE FIRST TIME I SAW DOUBLE DUTCH, I had no idea what I was
witnessing . Imagine jumping rope on steroids: two people wave
two long ropes in circles, each one in different directions, alter-
nating so that when one rope is going down, the other is coming
up . Oh, and there is a person or group of people jumping inside
these ropes . They don’t just jump rope, though, they sing, dance,
do somersaults and flips . Forget all the gymnastics; just jumping
rope with two alternating ropes requires insane amounts of bal-
ance, coordination and daring . I consider myself pretty athletic,
so when I saw it, I wanted to try it . How hard could it be?
I shouldn’t have asked . The girls holding the ropes tried to be
patient as I kept tripping over the ropes . After four or five unsuc-
cessful tries, I asked one of them for some advice . You would have
thought that I had asked her the atomic weight of Beryllium . She
was completely clueless on how to help me . After struggling with
a few thoughts, the girl shrugged her shoulders and said some-
thing about just having to “feel it .”
Not really sure what to do with “feeling it,” I applied all my
mental abilities to figuring this thing out while another girl
jumped . At some point I felt like I had studied enough and was
ready to try it again . Slightly bouncing my knees in the rhythm
and trying to convince myself that I had this, I ran straight in like
a bull charging a combine .
It was all calculation and no feeling . There is something about
Double Dutch that you just have to get in order to do it  .  .  . and I
didn’t get it . You can’t think your way into it, you have to know
it before you know it .
What I don’t understand about Double Dutch, I do understand
about faith . “Knowing before you know” is the same principle at
work in faith and it is why faith and reason are so consistently at
odds . Simply put, faith requires acceptance before proof, and rea-
son requires proof before acceptance . Both reason and faith have
bouncers telling you to leave what you have at the door . In order
to enter reason, you need to trust only in what you see . In order
to enter faith, you need to trust in what you cannot see . Reason
is linear; faith is circular .

This is just the beginning of the chapter - it gets better!  Stop back on Friday for another snippet!

Monday, February 14, 2011

Sample Chapter 8 part 2: The conclusion of Roger the Warlock.

I gave a teaser last Friday of a snippet of Chapter 8 of my book No Argument for God (available at Amazon right now for $9).  Many of you were eager to hear the rest of the story - here is part of it.  More on Wednesday . . .

If you missed last post - it is worth it to go back and read about Roger.

And there it is—the truth! We both had a furtive laugh, and I
thanked him for his honesty . We had a really good conversation
after that about faith, God and the universe . No great conversions
were made that night, but things really took off when Roger was
true to himself . He was no Satanist, he was a normal young man
who liked to hang out with cute witches on Halloween . We can
work on his decision-making later, for right now one thing is
clear, Roger was a bad actor and an even worse Satanist .

It’s not easy to like a poser . We can learn something from this
as people of faith . Christianity gets awkward when it tries to cloak
itself in something that it is not . In an effort to appear more rational
and logical, Christianity has gotten away from its roots . Per-
haps it is time to get over appearances . Christianity is a glaringly
odd belief system that does not fit in with scientific empiricism .
Are we okay as people of faith to ignore the pressure to be reason-
able, to make sense?

Who do we look to as a model for this? We should go back to the beginning . When the Christian faith was new is perhaps when it was at its most laughable . The early church was born into a world dominated by Greek thought .

If there was ever a sophisticated and intelligent culture that could confront and defeat Christianity, it was Greek culture .

So when the first Christians brought their message to the
world, they knew that they were encountering a culture with
quite a few road blocks . The smart move would have been to
work within the framework of this impressive culture . Try to
sound smart and philosophical, try to package it in a way that the
Greeks could understand and take hold of . It is obvious, though,
that the early Christians were intent on relating their experience
with the risen Christ regardless of how it played . The early Chris-
tians knew that the “Jews demand miraculous signs and Greeks
look for wisdom,” but they decided that they would proclaim
“Christ crucified” (1 Corinthians 1:22-23) . They emphasized
that God came in the flesh and did mighty works among them—
chief among them being the resurrection .

This, of course, was a serious Hellenistic no-no.  For Greeks, bodies were the prison-house of the soul.  To say that God came among us in the flesh was sure to get a door slammed in your face.

I love how in light of that, John’s Gospel opens with a pronounce-
ment that Jesus was flesh . Look at it again  .  .  .
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with
God, and the Word was God .  .  .  . The Word became flesh
and made his dwelling among us .
(John 1:1, 14)

John’s bold break with Greek wisdom reveals his allegiance to something higher than Greek wisdom.  He chose not to argue with the logicians, just to relate his story. 

This kind of spirit is evident in the early Christian
community, which did not apologize for being so different .

This commitment to personal experience in the face of opposi-
tion is refreshing . Instead of worry about establishing credibility,
the young faith community stayed true to what they had lived
through . They proclaimed the resurrected Christ regardless of its
seeming irrationality . In Paul’s letter to the Corinthians he em-
braces the ridiculousness of the gospel . With apparent bravado,
Paul is saying, “Yeah, that’s right, this is nonsense . . . to you .” His
pride in the oddness of the gospel spills over with his questions to
the Greeks:

Where is the wise man? Where is the scholar? Where is the
philosopher of this age? Has not God made foolish the wis-
dom of the world? For since in the wisdom of God the world
through its wisdom did not know him, God was pleased
through the foolishness of what was preached to save those
who believe . (1 Corinthians 1:20-21)

Paul reveals two things in these verses . First, it is foolish . “Fine,
you win . What I believe is absurd . Now let me tell you what hap-
pened .” Paul was not taking the position that only the rational is
real, in fact the opposite may be true . Paul was an educated man
who could have taken great pride in his ability to explain theo-
logical and philosophical difficulties . But he does not parade his
academic accomplishments; in fact he is surprisingly humble .
Note his tone when he addresses the people of Corinth:
“When I came to you, brothers, I did not come with eloquence or
superior wisdom as I proclaimed to you the testimony about God .
For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus
Christ and him crucified . I came to you in weakness and fear,
and with much trembling . My message and my preaching were
not with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration
of the Spirit’s power, so that your faith might not rest on men’s
wisdom, but on God’s power . (1 Corinthians 2:1-5)

Contrary to the rationally exacting world of Hellenism, Paul
purposefully sidesteps proofs for his arguments and resolves only
to relate his personal experience . When Paul speaks of only know-
ing about Christ and his crucifixion, he is demonstrating the
foundation of the truth—the person of Jesus . The Greeks saw this
as foolishness . The foundation of Paul’s theology was the person
of Christ, and he knew that human reason was incapable of con-
veying that .

Lets face it, for too long we have been bogged down in an
attempt to establish the intellectual legitimacy of the Christian
faith . Has this pursuit taken us from the original mission and
mandate of the church—namely, to proclaim truth rather than
reshaping it? We have flattened the beauty of the message to fit in
the court of human reason . 

Friday, February 11, 2011

Book Sample . . . Chapter 8 (part one)

This is a sample of the new book "No Argument for God" available now at Amazon for $9

JUST BE WHO YOU ARE. Some people would benefit from this
small maxim in big ways. Let’s face it, everyone knows when we
are trying to be something we are not. Let me take you to Salem,
Massachusetts, on Halloween night in the mid 1990s. I was in
school nearby and a few friends had asked if I was interested in
visiting the central park of downtown Salem on Halloween night .
Apparently witches and warlocks gather there on Halloween to
do whatever witches and warlocks do.

As we arrived it was clear that the town was filled
with people who were eager to celebrate Halloween and catch a
glimpse of a witch at the Witch House or go on the Witch Tour.
I am sure that if I were hungry I could have had a witch burger
with a magic potion side of coke and warlock fries . It was pretty
commercialized. I was told that on Halloween everyone tries to
get some time with a celebrated witch who lives on the main
street of Salem.

We made our way to the park where the lesser-known
witches would hang out, and it was like walking into a junior
high dance. Clusters of darkly clad people—some with hats and
capes, most with fake fang teeth, occupied different sections of
the park in their own little circles. At one point I was able to
strike up a conversation with a young man who I’ll call Roger.
He had tried, as the others did, to present himself as
unpredictable and dangerous, but it was clear that
Roger was a pretty average warlock, nothing especially frighten-
ing about him. I asked him where he became a warlock and what
it means. He began to mumble something about an amulet he was
wearing around his neck, a five-pointed star within a circle . He
called it a pentagram and described himself as a Wiccan, and told
me he worships Satan.

Wiccans don’t worship Satan, for the record. This was my clue
that he was confused and just trying to unnerve me; it didn’t
work. Imagine Napoleon Dynamite in a cape with fake fangs and
a five-pointed star around his neck, trying to convince you that
he is a real menace to good people everywhere . Well, I couldn’t
help myself. I asked to look more closely at his amulet and noticed
that the five pointed star was upright within the circle. I said,
“Roger, this is a pentacle, not a pentagram, you have an ancient
symbol that has been used by all kinds of people throughout his-
tory—Babylonians, Greeks, Wiccans—but they don’t worship
Satan with it, it represents the five elements.”

It was clear that Roger was posing as something that
he wasn’t. He stepped into me as if to confide something and said,
“Look, I’m just a computer programmer who comes out here each
year because the girls are hot.”

So . . . what's the deal with Roger?  Check back Monday with part two of the sample.