Hearty Heresy

I Bet the Number of Heretics Is on the Rise, Too
September 15, 2007, 2:30 pm
Filed under: Bible, Christianity, Faith, God, Heresy, Religion

I just saw an article in the Washington Post titled In America, Nonbelievers Find Strength in Numbers, and it’s got me wondering if the number of heretics in America is rising as well. Here’s a bit from the article:

A study released in June by the Barna Group, a religious polling firm, found that about 5 million adults in the United States call themselves atheists. The number rises to about 20 million — about one in every 11 Americans — if people who say they have no religious faith or are agnostic (they doubt the existence of a God or a supreme deity) are included.

That sounds like a pretty significant number for a “Christian Nation.” In fact, if I’m doing my math right (which isn’t one of my strong points), it appears that there are more atheists and agnostics in the United States then there are people who have a “Biblical worldview” (see this earlier Barna report I blogged on a while back, which says “only 4% of adults have a biblical worldview as the basis of their decision-making.”) Sounds to me like reason is winning over Biblical literalism. Who says there ain’t no good news in the papers these days!


The God Game
September 9, 2007, 12:36 pm
Filed under: Bible, Christianity, Faith, God, Jesus, Religion, Theology

“One of Us” is not my favorite Joan Osborne song–that would be her version of Sister Rosetta Tharpe’s “Nobody’s Fault But Mine” with the incomparable Holmes Brothers. But I can’t help but thinking about “One of Us” when I’m riding the bus to or from work. You see, Mrs. Heretic and I reduced our carbon footprint earlier this summer by donating our second car (a late ’90s white Toyota Corolla with manual transmission) to Habitat for Humanity, and since then (well, actually, even before then) I’ve been commuting to work via Metro Transit. And it didn’t take long before I heard a trio of riders actually quote Osborne’s top 10 hit. In fact, they even asked me my opinion on the subject while we were waiting for the bus. “What do you think? Do you think God could be one of us?” And I said something like, “We’re all God’s children, aren’t we?”

At any rate, I don’t miss the old white Corolla that much. I find sitting on the bus much more relaxing (fighting traffic is not one of my favorite activities) and it gives me plenty of extra time to read things like Crossan’s The Historical Jesus and Frend’s The Rise of Chrisitanity. It also gives me a little time to play the God Game, which is pretty much doing what “One of Us” says: imagining that God was “just a stranger on the bus.” The rules are pretty simple. Whenever you happen to spot someone (either on the bus or waiting at a stop) who would be the least likely to fulfill, say, Pat Robertson’s image of God, you say to yourself, “That’s God.” And you have to take it seriously. That older woman with the bad dye job and the sloppy lipstick? God. The overweight man in the dirty Our Lady of Guadelupe T-shirt? God. The shirtless young blood with corn rows and saggy black jeans? God.

But that’s just the beginning. Then you have to imagine, “If this person really is God, what would they have to do demonstrate their divinity?” Now folks who believe in the Strict Father type of God would find this pretty easy. All someone has to do to prove that they are God is to perform some sort of miracle, preferably something that contradicts the laws of nature: walk on water, calm the seas, raise the dead. But folks who, like me, believe in a more Nurturant Parent type of God would look for another sign. For us, the clearest demonstration that one embodies the divine is to perform an act of love. And that’s what I like to imagine. What if my current candidate for God were in a no-win situation, like being robbed at gun point? Would they use their super God powers to melt the gun out of the assailant’s hands? Or would they choose to see the face of God in another and respond with compassion and forgiveness, even if it meant losing everything they had?

Okay, you probably see where this is going. As far as I can tell from the Gospels, Jesus took the second option. He confronted the worst case scenario of arrest, trial, and crucifixion with dignity and grace. And by doing so, he proved that he possessed to an almost unimaginable degree the most powerful force in the universe: love. For me, that’s enough to show how seriously he took the core message of his ministry, “Love one another.” But for Orthodox Christians, love is not enough. Jesus’ death gets loaded with so much baggage by Brand Xians (ALL the SINS of the WORLD), that it’s almost impossible to see the simple truth of the cross. In the words of Saint Paul (via The Message):

Love never gives up.
Love cares more for others than for self.
Love doesn’t want what it doesn’t have.
Love doesn’t strut,
Doesn’t have a swelled head,
Doesn’t force itself on others,
Isn’t always “me first,”
Doesn’t fly off the handle,
Doesn’t keep score of the sins of others,
Doesn’t revel when others grovel,
Takes pleasure in the flowering of truth,
Puts up with anything,
Trusts God always,
Always looks for the best,
Never looks back,
But keeps going to the end.

Bible Answers
September 5, 2007, 11:45 am
Filed under: Bible, Christianity, God, Jesus, Religion

No, I don’t believe the Bible has all the answers! These are the answers to Monday’s Bible Quiz.

1. Name the first five books of the Old Testament.

Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy.

2. Name the four Gospels.

Matthew, Mark, Luke, John.

3. Name three letters attributed to the Apostle Paul.

Romans, Thessalonians 1 and 2, Galatians, Corinthians 1 and 2, Ephesians, Colossians, Philemon, Philippians, Timothy 1 and 2, and Titus have all traditionally been attributed to Paul.

4. What chapter in what book begins with the words, “The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not want”?

The 23rd Psalm.

5. Name the giant that David slew.


6. Which of the Gospels do not include the narratives concerning the birth of Jesus?

The birth story appears in Matthew I: 18 ff and in Luke I: 26 ff, but not in Mark or John.

7. In how many Gospels will you find the word “Trinity”?

“Trinity” appears nowhere in the Gospels.

8. List as many of the Ten Commandments as you can.

From Deuteronomy V: 7-21:

You shall have no other gods before me.

You shall not make for yourself a graven image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth; you shall not bow down to them or serve them; for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing steadfast love to thousands of those who love me and keep my commandments.

You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain; for the Lord will not hold him guiltless who takes his name in vain.

Observe the sabbath day, to keep it holy, as the Lord your God commanded you.

Honor your father and your mother, as the Lord your God commanded you; that your days may be prolonged, and that it may go well with you, in the land which the Lord your God gives you.

You shall not kill.

Neither shall you commit adultery.

Neither shall you steal.

Neither shall you bear false witness against your neighbor.

Neither shall you covet your neighbor’s wife; and you shall not desire your neighbor’s house, his field, or his manservant, or his maidservant, his ox, or his ass, or anything that is your neighbor’s.

9. State the Golden Rule and tell where it is found in the Bible.

Luke VI: 32–”And as you wish that men would do to you, do so to them.”

Matthew VII: 12–”So whatever you wish that men would do to you, do so to them; for this is the law and the prophets.”

10. Name four of Jesus’ disciples.

The twelve disciples were Simon Peter, James and John (sons of Zebedee), Andrew, Philip, Bartholomew, Matthew, Thomas, James (son of Alpheus), Thaddeus, Simon the Canaanite, Judas Iscariot.

So, how’d I do? I missed the book of Numbers in the first question, and I forgot about taking God’s name in vain and committing adultery in the eighth. I also over did it on question nine because I thought the Golden Rule could be found in Mark, too. I may not be a “Walking Bible” like Jack Van Impe (who says he has logged over 70,000 hours of Bible study), but at least I’m not Biblically illiterate.

Bible Quiz
September 3, 2007, 9:10 pm
Filed under: Bible, Christianity, God, Jesus, Religion

I found this Bible Quiz in a resource for new Unitarian Universalists (remember, I scored as both a Liberal Quaker and a Unitarian Universalist on the Belief-O-Matic quiz). I think that everyone who calls him- or herself a Christian should be able to score a perfect ten on this. Give it a try…and no peeking!

  1. Name the first five books of the Old Testament.
  2. Name the four Gospels.
  3. Name three letters attributed to the Apostle Paul.
  4. What chapter in what book begins with the words, “The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not want”?
  5. Name the giant that David slew.
  6. Which of the Gospels do not include the narratives concerning the birth of Jesus?
  7. In how many Gospels will you find the word “Trinity”?
  8. List as many of the Ten Commandments as you can.
  9. State the Golden Rule and tell where it is found in the Bible.
  10. Name four of Jesus’ disciples.

I’ll give you the answers (and let you know how I did) later this week.

Love is All I Know About God
August 23, 2007, 11:47 am
Filed under: Bible, Christianity, Faith, God, Heresy, Jesus, Religion, Spirituality, Theology

Emphasis on love. One of the first posts I wrote for this blog included this response from Stephen Mitchell to the question “What is the Gospel According to Jesus?”: “Simply this: that the love we all long for in our innermost heart is already present, beyond longing.” I mention this now because for some time I’ve been meaning to write a post about my experience of God, and I have to say that all I have ever known about God has always been love.

Emphasis on know. You see, the God that I know, the God that Mitchell’s quote points to, is the only God that I have ever experienced in my life. Sure, I’ve been told lots of things about God, from people who think that God can be found in the “common storyline, common theme, and common message” of the Christian Scriptures. That God is what I like to call the “Bad Dad” God, the God who acts like a petty tyrant lording over his household, whose every action (no matter how indefensible) is an expression of his perfect will and must not be questioned, and who enforces submission to that will through violence. Oh, and he loves you, too. How do you know? Because “the Bible tells you so,” so you’ll just have to believe that it’s true.

In all honesty, I’ve never experienced that God. I’ve experienced petty tyrants who could easily be human models for such a being, but I’ve never truly had a sense that the real God–the God I know in my innermost heart–is anything like this Bad Dad. No, the God of my innermost heart is a loving God, pure and simple. And my belief in that God doesn’t come from “66 books, written by 40 different authors, over 1500 years, in 3 different languages, on 3 different continents,” but my from own personal experience, as confirmed by what I believe to be the true teachings of Jesus, summarized repeatedly by Jesus himself: “That you love the Lord your God with all your passion and prayer and muscle and intelligence—and that you love your neighbor as well as you do yourself.”

So when I read the Christian Scriptures, I can’t help but understand them based on what has been my experience of the holy and the divine. And when I look at the teachings of Jesus, it’s pretty clear to me that he, too, experienced the holy and divine in a similar way. That experience is what informs the most beautiful and compassionate parts of his teachings. All the other stuff attributed to Jesus just sounds too much like the same old Bad Dad story to be the authentic teachings of a truly enlightened being.

Does this sound naive? “I’m telling you, once and for all, that unless you return to square one and start over like children, you’re not even going to get a look at the kingdom, let alone get in.” Jesus said that, too.

The One Question Christians Should Ask Themselves
August 8, 2007, 9:03 pm
Filed under: Bible, Christianity, Faith, God, Heresy, Jesus, Religion, Theology

I started to look around the web after my last post, looking for some back up to my claim that everything Brand Xians believe about God, Jesus, and the whole shooting match depends solely on the Bible. Once they’ve accepted the Bible as the inerrant Word of God (or at least the Inspired Word of God), then they pretty much have to believe whatever the Bible says. At any rate, I found an article at Christian Ministries International that pretty much supports what I’m saying–only from a Brand Xian perspective. Here’s the question: “What is so special, so unique about the Bible that Christians believe it is literally the inspired word of God?”

Now you may remember that my previous post was about the really, really simple arguments that even the most intellectual Christians sometimes use to support their version of the truth (specifically C. S. Lewis saying we must choose between believing Jesus was the Son of God or believing that he was a poached egg). I noted that this line of reasoning depends on believing that everything the Bible says about Jesus (and most anything else, for that matter) are indisputable facts. So if Brand Xians want folks to buy the bit (that Jesus was the Son of God) they need to buy the premise (that the Bible is the Inspired Word of God). So here’s what I think is a pretty darn silly reason for believing that:

[The Bible is] 66 books, written by 40 different authors, over 1500 years, in 3 different languages, on 3 different continents. What’s more, this collection of books shares a common storyline–the creation, fall, and redemption of God’s people; a common theme–God’s universal love for all of humanity; and a common message–salvation is available to all who repent of their sins and commit to following God with all of their heart, soul, mind and strength. In addition to sharing these commonalities, these 66 books contain no historical errors or contradictions. God’s word truly is an amazing collection of writings!

Jason Carlson and Ron Carlson, the authors, then go on to challenge the reader to “to go to any library in the world…and find 66 books which match the characteristics of the 66 books in the Bible. You must choose 66 books, written by 40 different authors, over 1500 years, in 3 different languages, written on 3 different continents. However, they must share a common storyline, a common theme, and a common message, with no historical errors or contradictions.”

You got me on that one, guys! Gosh, I probably can’t do that, so…the BIBLE MUST BE THE WORD OF GOD!!!! Or, perhaps it’s not so clear cut. Ask a practicing Jew if they think the Christian Bible shares a common story line, theme, and message. They’d probably agree with Nietzsche and say that New Testament really didn’t improve on the Old Testament at all. And as far as there being no historical errors or contradictions in the Bible, well I just don’t know where to begin. Of the bat, I’d just note that the timeline in the Gospel of John is radically different from the timeline in the synoptic Gospels. And that there are TWO creation stories in Genesis. And two distinct genealogies for Jesus in Matthew and Luke.

But of course, Brand Xians will try to explain all of this away, which only proves that this 66 books, 40 authors, u.s.w. argument really isn’t as straightforward as the authors claim it is. Ultimately, accepting the Bible as true is nothing other than an act of faith, the exact same sort of act of faith Muslims make when they accept the Qur’an or Jews make when they accept the Torah. As I’ve said before, I’d be more inclined to believe a single scripture written by a single person (Mohammed or Joseph Smith, for example) as the inspired word of God before I’d accept the mish mash that is the Holy Bible. And I’m not going to do that any time soon.

Mere Heresy
August 5, 2007, 6:47 pm
Filed under: Bible, Christianity, Faith, God, Heresy, Jesus, Theology

Once upon a time, I used to think that C. S. Lewis was a pretty cool guy. As a reasonably intelligent, fairly literary sort of Christian, I enjoyed reading both his fiction (I loved the “Space Trilogy“) and his apologetics. I figured if an Oxford don bought this whole Christianity thing, it must be okay. But as Saint Paul once said, “When I was a child, I thought as a child….” Now that I’m a free-thinking heretic, I can see that what I appreciated about my beloved Lewis wasn’t the depth of his theological thinking, but the simplicity of his explanations. Take this quote from Mere Christianity, for example:

A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic–on a level with the man who says he is a poached egg–or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God, or else a madman or something worse.

What?!? Jesus a poached egg? Absurd! It is absolutely true, though, isn’t it? If Jesus did say all of the things the Bible says he did, he was either on a mission from God, or he was utterly nuts. And since the majority of the influences on my thinking at that time were traceable to some form of Brand Xianity (parents, friends, church…even good old fashioned post-prayer public school), Lewis’ argument made perfect sense. But of course, in order to believe that Jesus said everything the Bible said he did, you first have to accept that everything in the Bible is true.

Ultimately, that’s what Brand Xianity boils down to–accepting the Bible as the Word of God, without hesitation or reservation. There’s no argument for any of the basic tenets of Christianity without appealing to the authority of scripture. And as I think I’ve said before, there’s really nothing so absolutely extraordinary in the Bible itself that makes me believe that it is anything other than what it appears to be: a collection of writings by a bunch of different people from a relatively wide swath of recorded history (which is a minuscule amount of cosmic history). And the same argument Lewis makes about Jesus can be made about the Bible as a whole. As a book cobbled together from an assortment of various writings by a lot of different people over a long period of time, it makes total sense that it would be full of contradictions (even the contradictions that make the teachings of Jesus sound the ramblings of a religious crackpot). As the inerrant Word of God, it is, frankly, a mess. (I mean both Mormons and Muslims have scripture that was given solely to their founders. If I were God, that’s definitely the way I’d go–it dramatically lowers the chance of something getting garbled).

So as C. S. Lewis says, you must make a choice: read the Bible critically, using your God-given reason, or accept it without question. Choose one, and you may be able to discern the teachings of a religious genius (the diamonds in the dunghill as Thomas Jefferson called them); choose another, and you’re saddled with a tangle of contradictions that make sense only if you believe that the infinite complexity of creation can be reduced to God’s simple plan of salvation, something like this version seen on a homemade roadside sign: “Life is short, death is sure, sin is the cause, and Christ is the cure.” D’oh! How could I be so stupid as to assume that the universe had any other possible purpose!