Jesus Bothers Me

Posted: February 23, 2011 in Jesus

 

I really need to find this book.

This is in response (is it really in response if nobody reads it?) to a post an old friend wrote last week. We’ve lost touch for a number of silly reasons too dumb to mention. I think one of those reasons is Jesus. You see, my friend is an atheist and though Jesus bothers me very much, my friend’s post claims that Christ never bothered him. I feel like he must be speaking in terms of his time as an atheist because when you are following him, Jesus has a tendency to make you quite uncomfortable. In fact, if he doesn’t bother you, I don’t think you’re grasping what Jesus is saying at all.

The people who wrote the gospels were all believers. That is, they believed that Jesus was something very special. In one way or another they believed Jesus was Emmanuel – God with us. Whether or not they had developed what’s called a High Christology (Jesus as second person in The Trinity, equal with God…etc) is questionable. The first century church was not at all harmonized in their beliefs about Jesus and there were debates about what it meant to be “saved” from the get go.

 

The first piece of Christian literature, Galatians, is about one of these arguments. In it Paul comes out swinging against some Jewish believers who have been recommending that the churches in Galatia (there were 4 of them) start practicing circumcision. Paul’s frustration with the legalist believers culminates in expressing his desire that those men go and cut off, not just part, but the entirety of their genitalia. Thirteen years before he wrote this letter, Paul would not only have sympathized with these men, but concluded that they had not gone far enough because they were not killing the believers. As he wrote Galatians he was defending the freedom that Christ had given him and the churches of Galatia against all challengers. Something changed this man. Jesus had bothered Paul very much.

Around 33 A.D. Pontius Pilate had Jesus of Nazareth crucified. It was a very insignificant event. More than anything else it seems that Jesus was bothering the Jews and the Jews were bothering Pilate and Pilate didn’t like to be bothered. In the grand scheme of things, Pilate’s primary reason for sentencing Jesus to death may have been so he could get back to sleep. It was another boring day for the governor of the armpit of the Roman Empire. Later that same year the disciples who had followed Jesus started preaching that he was alive. This is significant because the Jews produced messiahs by the dozens and many of them were crucified by the romans. For some reason the Jesus movement had come back to life and was quickly gaining followers amongst the Jewish population.

What strikes me is this: there are a lot of good reasons for this not to have happened. Jesus was the movement. The disciples abandoned him when he was taken away. The chief among them, Peter, when faced with the same fate, denied ever knowing Jesus. After they saw first hand what happened to Jesus, these same men proclaimed his name fearlessly until nearly all of them were tortured and killed for it.

In order to "Speak in Tongues" a dove must first poop a snake into your mouth that will tickle your brain, causing you to say very strange things.

The Jews who converted had very little reason to follow Jesus. The Book of Acts says, during Pentecost, they laughed at the disciples, who seemed to be drunk, but after hearing Peter’s words they decided to sell whatever they could so they could stay near the disciples and one another. To be Jewish in the first century under the Roman Empire was not just to be part of a religion. To give it up was to give up one’s entire cultural identity. Before long they would be forbidden to even enter the Synagog. Their entire way of knowing God was quickly cut off from them, their families shunned them and yet they clung to Jesus. Something changed these people. Jesus bothered them very much.

But none of this matters.

Because none of it is absolute proof of anything. If you want you can find compelling arguments for why none of this can possibly have been due to Jesus’ resurrection from the dead. If you look for it you will find compelling arguments that prove the bible is entirely fabricated and untrustworthy. If you look for them you will find compelling arguments that Jesus never existed or, if he did exist, he was just a man and he became Christ because that’s what people wanted him to be. You can also find compelling arguments that compellingly argue that these arguments are not all that compelling. None of this matters. But you can’t say that Jesus doesn’t bother the people making these arguments.

 

This came from a website with a banner that said "C.S. Lewis is NOT A CHRISTIAN!" I wonder if it has anything to do with the smoking...

 

C.S. Lewis once proposed something people now call “Lewis’ Trilemma.” It is an argument for Jesus as The Christ and as God with us. My friend calls it foolishness because the trilemma (derived from things Jesus said about himself and what it might mean about a person who said them) is taken from the scripture and he considers scripture unreliable. My friend contends that if Lewis had thought a little harder he would not have said something so “embarrassing.” (Note: Lewis taught mythology for a living and after reading the gospels in their original languages concluded that they lacked the halmarks of mythology. Also, his conversion to deism and then Christian Theism is known to have been a begrudging one.) Yet the embarrassment my friend piles on Professor Lewis’ head is derived from his own belief in someone else’s argument on the reliability of the Christian Gospels. It becomes a matter of “who do you trust” or, put more simply, a matter of faith. I place some faith Lewis’ intellect and credentials, but again, none of this matters. Jesus bothered Clive a whole lot.

I think Jesus still bothers my friend quite a bit. Peter Hitchens (Christian brother of the infamous Atheist Christopher Hitchens) says in his book The Rage Against God “A polemicist writes first and foremost to convince himself.” In other words, myself and others make arguments like the ones you’re reading to convince ourselves as much as others. Taken a little further it means that we argue that we are right about the things we have doubts we are right about. (We are funny creatures aren’t we?) I think I write posts like this one (on a blog nobody reads) in order to wrestle with my fears that there is nothing out there; no God; no purpose; no reason why this world has so much pain; fear that my life is about as meaningful as a turnip. If these things didn’t bother me I wouldn’t write at all. I would stay silent and peaceful in my forgone conclusions about God and have no need to write about them.

So what do I think about Jesus? He bothers me so much that I can’t keep myself from trying to figure him out. The things he says debase the foundations of my self-image as a “good man.” They are indeed like a sword that threatens to cut me away from everything comfortable and send me out on a fantastic journey to fight a battle that I know can’t be won. They give me hope that this world is not just one big joke that we must try and laugh at while it tears us apart. Jesus bothers me so much that, like the ones he called, I have been compelled to walk with him awhile; to see if HE is worth believing in, regardless of the frustration and disillusionment I feel toward those who claim his name. Because if I find He’s alive…then none of this matters.

I hope Jesus always bothers me.



“Harriet”

Posted: January 26, 2011 in Uncategorized

Sooner or later the ones with their eyes wide open will see behind the curtain. The wizard has no clothes. He’s really just a fat, balding man with a great sound system. Some of us break down and can’t ever look at him the same way. Some of us try to shut the curtain again. Some of us try to burn his house down. None of us are ever the same.

In my own time I’ve tried to do all three.

When I was younger I was the son of a preacher man. I suppose I still am that son, but the experience, now that I am no longer a part of my father’s congregation, is much different. I don’t know when it started, but I knew from a very young age that something was wrong with the church. I can remember lying awake in bed at night and thinking about how I would fix the church at large if I ever got the chance.

When I got a little older I started going to a youth group with my cousin. I was mesmerized by the young youth pastor who was teaching us in between working on his ministry degree at Lincoln Christian College. He had ALL the answers. For every question I had there was a clear and concise biblical answer. I felt like I was finally safe. I had the rules. I had the answers. I just had to follow them and everything would be alright. Then I met her.

In Communist Russia…it’s a lot like a Christian Youth Group

Harriet came from a poor family. Her mother and siblings attended church, but never her father. She was one of the kids youth-group leaders love to worry about. It seemed that, for some reason, before I got there, everyone had decided that Harriet was going to screw up her life. (Luckily there were plenty of people there to tell her exactly how to live it.) Harriet never really fought those judgements. I think she figured out early on that people expected her to screw up and accepted that role instead of fighting it. That’s probably why I was drawn to her, if nothing else she was authentic. That and I thought she was cute.

Since Harriet was the person I got along with best at these meetings we would often spend time alone together talking afterwords. This raised more than a few eyebrows. Now I was not a saintly young man by any means. But I was a prude and though I had ample opportunity I never once made a move on Harriet. Most of our talks were about God or about her life and how she was viewed by the rest of the world. That and a whole lot of not-so-sage advice from a much younger, and dumber, version of myself.

One incident that sticks in my mind came right after the youth pastor’s lesson on Titus chapter 1. His big point was that as christians we are to be “above reproach.” Now, if any of us had any understanding of the scriptures (Youth Pastor included) we would have noticed that, in this particular passage, Paul is talking about appointing elders in the church. “Make sure the people leading you are the best of you.” Is the basic message of the passage.

After the lesson Harriet and I found ourselves alone on the balcony outside the meeting room. I was attempting to give her some advice when we were called back in a reprimanded for being alone outside. “We just told you that as christians you’re supposed to be above reproach!” I’m not sure what is reproachable about trying to give advice to a friend. But as you know, in church, we are all guilty until proven innocent…which no one ever is, so don’t bother trying.

I’ve thought about Harriet a lot over the years. I thought about how she was treated by the youth group and the effect it had on her. I’ve wondered how I might have been a better friend and how I should have stood up for her. I’ve thought often that I really should have stolen a kiss. The group fell apart and we lost contact not long after the youth pastor left. As time has gone on I realize just how little I was able to help her; and how trying so hard to help was probably the problem. Even when I was trying to be different and not judge Harriet, I had already bought into the identity she had been assigned by the group. Our talks always came back to me trying to save her from herself. She did some dumb things, sure. But she was a kid and so was I. I had no more moral high ground than she did but I let myself slip into the role of the priest who listened to her problems and then told her how she could do better. The thought of being genuine and sharing my own broken-ness; of expressing encouragement and God’s love regardless of results; of not treating her like a ticking time-bomb; never crossed my mind.

I’m sorry, Harriet. Wherever you are.

The Ninety-Nine

Posted: November 20, 2010 in Uncategorized

Recently a friend and I were talking about what it’s like to grow up in the modern church. I say the “modern” church because I have no idea what past churches were like for kids. What we both expressed was the feeling of never being lost. Which begs the question of whether or not we’ve ever been truly “found”. I mentioned feeling like we were almost “robbed” of the conversion experience that many people find so powerful and transformative. The question I’m left with is should we, children of christians, be more pitied than all men?

When I was a child I thought as a child. When I thought of myself I saw very few wrongs because anytime I saw a wrong I was so overwhelmed by it that I immediately confessed it and tried to make amends. I was an unusually sensitive child when it came to my wrongdoings. My sister, on the other hand, was so very obstinante that my mother used to spank her before they went into a situation in which she needed to behave. I was the exact oposite. If my parents even looked at me the wrong way I would break down in tears and confess any and all trespasses – even the ones I made up. I’m not sure where this came from. We were both reared by the same parents and my “spiritual sensitivity” started far too early to be from simple religious inculcation. It’s just who I am, or at least who I was.

What this left me with, once I reached the age of reason, was an impression of myself that was very positive. I knew the rights and wrongs. I knew what a christian did and did not do and I followed these rules to the letter. I can remember numerous times when reading the bible that I had the pharisaical notion that “I really should just write down all the rules so I could have a copy of them to follow.” Then I would be ok. It took me much longer to understand how deep the problem goes with humanity and even longer to convince myself that I was broken too. “But I’m obviously BETTER than those people!”

In the Gospels it seems that Jesus is doing one of two things: He’s either trying to get people to follow the law of moses to an even slighter degree…Or He’s trying very hard to get them to say “Who then can be saved?” This is not an inconsequential question. I believe the entirety of his relevancy, his messiahship, and the possibility that he might be the incarnation of the creator of the universe may very well hinge of this.

If he is asking people to draw closer to the law of moses (“not one letter shall pass away” -Matthew’s Jesus) then he is just another prophet telling people that they need to try harder. He’s here to reprimand you for not trying hard enough. He’ll do this for awhile and then he will die and we will all go back to being the people we were.

If he is trying to get you to HONESTLY ask the question “Who then can be saved” then He might just be something new.

When I was a child and thought about making that list it did not occur to me how impossible the things Jesus was asking us to do/be were. I mean…I had it down. I knew the steps. If there was something new to them then I just needed to learn it and practice a bit and then I would have it down too. But as I think of some of the demands he makes…

Love your neighbor as you love yourself - #1 You must actually learn to Love yourself and then…#2 Actively seek the GOOD of your neighbor…like it’s your job or something.

Love your enemy – I used to think this one was easy because I didn’t have any enemies. But  here again, you must ACTIVELY try to DO GOOD to the people who most irritate you and DO NOT recognize your value as a person. Often it’s the people who have power over you or those people who have really hurt you. Can any of us say we do this with a straight face?  I know I failed miserably at this one in my last job.

Forgive or you will not be forgiven (a corollary of the last part of The Lord’s Prayer)- This one is actually frightening. Could our forgiveness actually hinge on our willingness to forgive others? I think it can. I’ve known people who will not forgive and the invariably cannot let go of past wrongs and the pain they were caused. They carry them around everywhere they go; into their relationships and into conversation. They refuse to lay down these burdens because the hurt has become more beautiful to them than freedom. The other reality they live with is an inability to forgive themselves for their own shortcomings which turns into harsh judgement for anyone else who does not live up to their standards. I had thought for a long time that I escaped this one too. But these days, every time I think of the friend who so recently hurt me, I just want to hurt him back. That too is a burden I need to lay down.

“Who Then Can Be Saved?”

“Nobody, stupid”

“Oh…”

I think that must be the point of these “hard sayings”. We’ve heard them a lot and so they no longer carry the power they once did. They are not meant to show you the way so that you may walk it. They are meant to show you that you couldn’t walk it if you tried. They are meant to point out the fact that while you thought you were safely in the flock of 99 you’re really the one He’s searching for…out in the rain, on the edge of a cliff, just barely hanging on. Yes, you. The one who grew up thinking you were a nice little sheep. You will bite and scratch all the way home, because that’s who you are. But He will carry you just the same, because that’s who He is.

Maybe one day you’ll be one of the ninety-nine. But that day is not today.


 

Do not fear the dark night

Posted: October 26, 2010 in Uncategorized

I found this on a Mormon website. The awful photoshop work is what makes it awesome.

I once had a conversation with a very pretty, though slightly damaged, girl about my own philosophy of the search for truth. I can’t remember how it went but I do remember that this girl taught me something about love that I rejoiced in at the time but have now forgotten the details of. She was impressed by my philosophy and though I was only so glad to take her compliments at the time I wonder now if said philosophy is really all that wise.

It has two parts:

1. Doubt yourself more than you think you should; because you are always too sure.

2. Follow the truth wherever it leads no matter how painful or dangerous that journey seems.

That is the path I have followed for some time. I’m not sure where it developed but it has been my mode of operation for at least 5 years. It has not been fun. Purposely doubting your conclusions is not a natural state of mind. Though in practice it is not nearly so schizophrenic as it sounds. What it really means is that I never take my own conclusions too seriously. I’m willing to change my mind quickly when new evidence presents itself and I don’t invest my pride in my pet beliefs. It hurts a bit, but being able to stop on a dime and change course without flinching has the glad effect of stealing the taste of victory from an opponents mouth.

The second part is harder because it often requires going it alone. Most people don’t want to follow the argument. They do not welcome the pain of doubt that the search for truth requires. The journey may even be truly dangerous: If you’re worried about your eternal soul then you’re not likely to entertain what seem like “lies from the pit of hell” even for a moment. Though I have always thought that the truth, even from the mouth of the devil, is still the truth. The question is really, “do you believe you can spot the truth when you see it?” Honestly I may be a bit too sure of myself in this regard. I’d like to think I can spot the truth, but I know from past experience that’s not always true.

Here’s why I’m not afraid at the moment. I’ve been going through some dark periods lately with my faith (or lack thereof) but deep down I want there to be a God. I want things to be the way I always thought they were. My mind will not currently let these old beliefs rule, but I long for them still. They are a security blanket of sorts. The fact that I’m able to maintain this tug-of-war, to me, means that I’m still thinking straight. I’m not giving in to what I want and the fact that I still want it tells me I’m not taking this journey out of spite. This time spent in the wilderness is a common theme in my life. I’ve been doing it for as long as I can remember. You can call this silly if you like. But the strangeness of a young person going on these journeys into the darkness over and over again makes me wonder if it is a part of my ultimate purpose in this life.

Wise or not. I think it may be the only way I can live.

Who we are instead.

Posted: September 24, 2010 in Uncategorized

But you can't be in His club until you fix yourself...fag.

I don’t think our brains are made for bigotry. If anything it’s a thought process we learn to apply to invading ideas. Last night I saw it at work in a friend of mine and it was not just disturbing, but sad to watch.

The first moment came when I told him a secret I’d been keeping from him. The prayer book I’d loaned him, the one that had so inspired the community group, has been written by an unrepentant gay man. He was not just unrepentant, the man, Malcolm Boyd, had committed the newest ultimate sin: He married the man he loved.

“Did you know that?” he said.

“No.” I lied.

I did it on purpose. I did it because I wanted my friend to have the same jarring experience that I once had. How WAS IT that this man, who was so obviously an enemy to the church and the proper Godly Family, had such a clear and present relationship with Jesus? How come HE seemed to be able to talk to God in the kind of open and honest way that Christians never seem able to bring themselves to? How is it possible that this unrepentant gay man knew god in a deeper and more real way than ANY of us?

These are the questions that make church people ask you to leave (ever so politely). It took us a few thousand years, but we seem to have learned that casting people out in a theatrical fashion, or burning them out of their misery in public, just enforces their ideas. (If they’re THAT scary to our leaders…) We’ve certainly got the knack for it now though… If you brainwash the community properly you won’t even have to ask the dangerous influence to leave quietly; the sheep will naturally gravitate away from the doubter.

The second moment came when I pressed the issue.

“I didn’t choose my sexuality. I didn’t choose to be attracted to my wife. I just am. With the way the world is today, I can’t see any gay man choosing to be gay.”

“Yeah but…you know what Paul says in Romans”

“I know…I know. But I also see Paul saying that “obviously long hair on a man is an abomination.”

“Yes, but think about Dueteronomy…”

“Yes, but think about the mixed fabrics you’re wearing, or the shrimp you enjoy, or HOT DOGS! All of these were once thought to be just as abominable as lying with a man as you lay with a woman. THAT is the WORD OF GOD too. How come we get a pass?”

Its was clear that my friend was beaten…but he still had won. Because these thoughts, this bigotry, was so deeply ingrained in his perspective of reality that it didn’t matter what I had to say. This was the WORD OF GOD; not the words on the page, but the interpretation he had been given for them. There’s no breaking through those kinds of defenses. But it still hurt me to see him struggle. I saw how he wanted to take what I had said to heart, but he just would’t let himself. His filter was keeping out all truth that wasn’t being spoon-fed by his pastor.

I should have known that this was not the person to debate with. But how do you tell anyone that what they hold true; what they base their life on, doesn’t make sense to you anymore. How do you say that nicely?

I just read a blog post from an old pastor-friend of mine on one of the groups of people who Paul encounters during his evangelical journeys: The Bereans. The Bereans were some of Pauls favorite people because rather than just accepting what he told him they searched the scriptures for confirmation of the validity of his teaching. The pastor also talks about another set of people who are not good to have around – the wolves. “These people are not asking questions, they are questioning (authority (my addition)).”

So Paul is really cool with the whole questioning thing…as long as you’re playing within his rulebook. Here’s the problem: These days when you meet a group of questioning Bereans they aren’t just looking up the scriptures; they’re Googling arguments for and against every proposition you propose. Put simply, the questions have become a lot harder to answer and they’re no longer coming just from the scriptures. It becomes then much, much harder to pick out the sheep from the wolves.

I’m pretty sure I’m a wolf right now – or at least I’d be considered one. Because even though I really don’t care about advancing my own agenda (because I really don’t have one) I’m going to be asking questions that can’t be answered with your bible.

Pastor – “You see, it says here in the gospel of Luke that Jesus was born of a virgin which is prophesied in the Old Testament.”

Me – “Well pastor, I see that. But I also see that the earliest writings (Paul, Mark) don’t even mention a virgin birth of any kind. If there was one then Mary (mother of Jesus) can’t seem to remember it or the whole “You will bear the son of god” thing because she’s ready to drag Jesus to the psyche ward by the middle of Mark’s gospel. Couldn’t it be that this “born of a virgin” thing was a later tradition added to the story in order to make Jesus more “marketable” to the people of the time? Is it REALLY more reasonable to assume that the earliest writings had it wrong and there was no development to the Christ-mythos?”

“Uhhhhh”

That’s a valid question. But asking it in public makes the pastor look stupid because he’s got to tow the party line on any and all orthodox beliefs (if he wants to keep his pension). Schooling the pastor in textual criticism might also elevate you in the minds of anybody listening – which is supposedly what a “wolf” tries to do among the sheep. If you ask this question honestly (i.e. without trying to be a dick) you’re really just searching for the truth (just like the Bereans did). But in a Pastor’s mind you’re more likely “speaking twisted things” and that means you’re a wolf that he needs to drop the hammer on.

This is another reason why I can’t see myself returning to church anytime soon: Churches are not searching for the truth – they think they’ve found it…all of it. I’m more than happy to believe that within the pages of scripture there are a lot of truths. I love a lot of the bible because of its stories and, yes, even moral teachings (when it gets them right and doesn’t condone selling women or genocide or any of that). But I also recognize that we’ve come a long way these 2000 years. We no longer need to take Paul’s teaching on women’s roles in the church as set in stone because Paul had NEVER seen a woman in any kind of management position. His rulings on this and a great many other issues were not based on evidence but on the time and place he made them. I want to know the truth because I truly believe that it, no matter how scary it might be, will set us free.  But the best way to make sure you never find the truth is to fold you arms and say “I’ve already got it all figured out”. That’s exactly what churches do and this is why they are becoming more and more irrelevant. As long as the bible functions as our graven image we will never see the God who lives.

The idea I’m proposing is SO BLASPHEMOUS that no pastor today will ever take hold of it. But maybe one day, after church attendance dwindles to nothing, the coffers are no longer full, and people are no longer scared of hell….maybe then they’ll put down the Good Book and look their people in the eye and see the image of God. Maybe they’ll start learning from the God Who Is Love and set aside their seminary degrees. That day is not today. But a man can dream can’t he?

In The Beginning

Posted: December 3, 2009 in Uncategorized

Welcome.

This is a new personal venture to deal with the messiness of faith in God in general and christianity in particular. I myself am one who tries to follow Jesus Christ. I think the best most anyone on that path can say is that on some days we do a better job of acting like Jesus than others. Hopefully the days when my following out-weighs my foot-dragging will multiply but I really don’t think its going to get much better than that. Call me a pessimist.

The idea with this blog is for me to ask questions in a completely arbitrary way and for you lot to argue with me and one another about it. If you’re on the God in general (or Jesus in particular) side of the camp I’d ask you to refrain from purely scriptural answers as all scriptures go a lot deeper than most people realize and out of context are fairly useless as arguments. That’s not to say I hate scripture. I think there is a wealth of wisdom in the scriptures that flows from people just like you and me who were trying to make some sense about this crazy thing called life. If you happen to be on the a-theistic side of things then I’d ask you to leave any assumptions that people of faith are simply delusional, and therefore not worth arguing with, at the door. If you grew up in a God-free home thats one thing but if you have left faith in God behind then the one thing you should have gained is some fucking compassion for those who still believe.

Yes we will argue here but the point isn’t to WIN. The point, in fact, is to see how wrong we all are about our pre-concieved notions about God and one another. If you’re here to talk then let it be just that. Let’s all just talk about this stuff in a civil manner. On the other hand if you’re commenting here be prepared to get your feelings hurt, your faith challenged, and your hands dirty.

May peace be with you,

Martin