Monday, October 27, 2008

Early Encounters with God's Word

The first spiritual experience I can recall with any clarity came after I was given an Explorer's Bible as a gift. Honestly, to this day, I don't know where I got it. My family was not a "church going" family. Often, we attended a church service on Christmas and Easter. And, every time we spent time with my father's family in New York, we attended their local Catholic church on Sundays. I am inclined to imagine that my Catholic grandmother gave the Bible to me. But, as I said, I don't know for sure.

As many young people do when they first approach the Bible, I made the mistake of attempting to read the Bible cover-to-cover. I began in Genesis and trudged my way through, even forcing myself to read the "begats," assuming that if they're in the Bible, it must be vitally important that I read them.

The most humorous moment in these early Bible readings was when I asked my stunned father to tell me what "circumcision" was. I can still recall the blank, uncomfortable stare I got for several seconds as he stood in the doorway of his fifth-grade daughter's bedroom, trying to come up with an answer that didn't involve saying the word, "penis."

Nevertheless, my real moment of spiritual clarity came when I reached the sacrificial laws of Leviticus. (Yes, I made it as far as Leviticus. By the time I gave up, I had gotten all the way through Numbers. The name "Emily," does mean industrious, after all!) On the one hand, I was truly appalled that God required the killing of many animals to make him happy. Yet, on the other hand, the sheer number of laws and regulations that my family was ignoring truly overwhelmed me.

When I was confronted with the requirements of the law, I did what just about every fifth-grader would do. I consulted a higher power. I went to my mom. I remember the conversation went something like this:

Me: Hey mom, I was reading in the Bible about the laws that God wants us to keep.

Mom: Oh yeah?

Me: Yeah. Did you know that we're supposed to be sacrificing animals on a gold altar?

Mom: Wow. No, I didn't know that.

Me: Well, the Bible says we are. So... I was thinking...

Mom: OK...

Me: Can I set up an altar in the backyard and burn something on it for God?

Mom: [Smiling] Um, honey, I don't think we need to do stuff like that anymore.

Me: Why not?

Mom: Well, I don't know, but things are different now.

Me: Oh...

Maybe this story isn't as funny to you as it is to me, but I find this interchange pretty hilarious. I even remember my train of thought at the time: "God wants animal sacrifices to deal with sin... We're not doing animal sacrifices, which means we're in big trouble with God... But, I don't think I could stand to kill an animal... So, maybe he'll be OK if we don't sacrifice animals... Maybe I could burn some lunch meat instead... Yeah... That will work... Lunch meat... Its an animal... Its just already dead... God will like that a lot better than doing nothing, anyway."

Looking back, I wonder what was going through my mom's head when her fifth-grade daughter proposed burning a pound of smoked turkey on a makeshift altar in the backyard. I'm not sure I would let my daughter continue to read a book that gave her thoughts like that. But, she did. And, I continued to be fascinated by the strange, supernatural stories in the Old Testament.

Interestingly, I never reached the New Testament in these early readings. The terrifying stories of God's judgment and animal sacrifices dominated my thoughts of the Bible from that time forward. Still, I wasn't repulsed, but wanted to know more. That thirst for the knowledge of God and God's Word continued from that time forward.

Later, when my family began to attend services at the local United Methodist Church, I became enamored with the Christ story. My fascination with the story of Jesus always reached its peak around the Easter season, when the Methodist minister would preach from Ash Wednesday to Resurrection morning on the Passion of Christ. All of the church's children were given small wooden crosses, where we could place symbolic stickers, each representing an aspect of the Christ story. I participated with solemnity and devotion.

Once again, though, while I was informed of the facts of the story, I never grasped their ultimate point. And, never did I make the connection between the sacrificial requirements of the Old Testament and the sacrificial death of Jesus. The dots should have led me to Jesus. But, they didn't. Not yet...

Friday, October 24, 2008

Reflections on Blogging and What to Write Next

In recent days, it has been brought to my attention how easy it is to misconstrue the both the intentions and meaning of a person as they communicate through written media, particularly written media on the internet. This is particularly true in the case of a personal blog like mine.

If you think about it, personal blogs are a tricky context in which to write, particularly for a follower of Jesus. A blog is an online journal of sorts--a place to record your thoughts, reflections, and evaluations of... well... whatever you like, really. You get to determine when to write, how to write, what to write, and whether or not others can write back. In this way, it seems the personal blog is the most self-serving and, perhaps, self-promoting, media in existence today. For, not only are you writing your thoughts on various topics of your choice, but you are anticipating that your thoughts are valuable enough that others will want to read them, as well. It takes a special kind of "self-confidence" to believe that, don't you think?

Moreover, the personal blog is a "minefield" for readers, too. When one begins to evaluate and engage with the reflections of a person over the internet, one is unable to pair a "real life" story with a name, a heart with a sentence, a tone of voice with a point-of-view. In fact, all of the things that are essential parts of meaningful communication (and conversation, for that matter), are left out because of the nature of the internet. This means, of course, that misunderstanding is rampant and the tendency to assume all of the above (heart, tone, story) is a rip current for the mind. At times, this leads to an environment wherein blog-reading becomes the least edifying way to engage ideas, because true understanding is lost at sea.

I am not saying all this to announce the end of my blog. And, I am not saying all this to announce a break from my blog. Really, I am sharing this with you, my readers, so that we can, perhaps, agree together that even in the apparently simple realm of blogging, dangers lurk for both writer and reader. Recent circumstances have made this more than apparent to me and I have been pondering for a few days what I can do about it.

Sadly, I don't think there is much I can do to remove the dangers themselves. But, I am hopeful that I can offer "something that's of worth," in a way that will both bring honor to the Lord I've committed my heart and life to, and perhaps, a measure of deeper understanding to those who read what I have to say on this, my personal blog. To say what I mean more plainly: I would like to take the next few posts and attempt to offer some insight into my story and my heart. I don't know how long this series will last or whether it will accomplish what I desire (that is, an increased level of understanding between me, the writer, and you, the reader). I am hopeful. But, we shall see.

Once again, there is risk in thinking one's story is significant enough for others to want to read it. "Hey everybody! I think I'm so great I want you to read about me!" It does seem quite arrogant, doesn't it? But, I'm going to have to take the risk. The truth is, I don't believe my story is my story at all. I believe I'm a part of a much bigger story: the story of God, who, in Christ, is making all things new. Really, its that story that makes my story worth anything at all.

I hope that in the next few days and weeks, you will learn more about me. But, even more, I hope that you learn more about the goodness of the God who is continuing to call me out of darkness and into light. Stay tuned...

Saturday, October 18, 2008

A Review of Religulous...or Why Bill Maher is an Evangelist for Fundamentalist Agnosticism

I know that Bill Maher is not a favorite figure of the evangelical world. As the host of Politically Incorrect from 1993 to 2002, and Real Time with Bill Maher from 2003 to the present, he has been a flash-point for controversy. Maher has a gift for satire and sociopolitical commentary and the focus of his criticism typically includes right wing politics, political correctness, mass media, and religions of all kinds. He supports the legalization of cannabis and gay marriage and serves on the board of PETA. He is also an outspoken critic of religion and is an advisory board member of Sam Harris' The Reason Project, along with notable atheist Richard Dawkins.

Ronnie and I went to see his new film Religulous last night because we felt it was important to hear what this well-known social commentator and comedian is saying to the world. The basics about the movie are as follows: Religulous was released October 3; it has a run time of 101 minutes; and it is rated R by the MPAA. The R rating is for some salty language (although, I must say, I've heard much worse), violent images (mostly from news broadcasts), some crude sexual references, and a brief shot of female nudity.

Let's start with the strengths of the movie, shall we? Religulous definitely lives up to its title. Maher manages to find some of the more ridiculous (or ridiculous sounding) representatives of a variety of religions. Personally, however, I found the people he interviewed about Christianity the most laughable and cringe-worthy. For the most part, these "interviews" were entertaining, but I probably cringed and said "Oh no," as many times as I laughed out loud. The funnier moments in the film were when the film editors spliced humorous B-movie clips in the middle of conversations and/or monologues.

For the most part, Maher focuses his criticism on the "Big 3," Christianity, Judaism, and Islam, with occasional interviews with cult leaders and former cult members. The interesting thing is that I found myself agreeing with quite a lot of Maher's more substantive criticisms of religion--even his criticisms of Christianity and Christians. I think history and experience reveal that religion is dangerous. And, like pastor and theologian Greg Boyd, whose review of the movie you can read here, I think its important that Christians recognize this truth. How easily we forget that it was the religious folks (not the "heathen") that crucified Jesus. And, how easily we forget our capability to allow religion to lead to violence and destruction. In this way, I think Maher is justified in pointing out the danger of religion.

Even though Maher's primary motivation is certainly not to offer "food for thought" to Christians (more on his real motivation below), I think thoughtful people will find many significant matters to ponder after viewing Religulous. I'll tease out just a few of them here. First, Maher's primary criticism of religious people is the matter of certainty. He argues that certainty is arrogant, while doubt is humble. When speaking to a group of truckers at their "Trucker Chapel," Maher pounds the pulpit and says, "I preach the Gospel of 'I don't know.'" I think its worth considering whether one can have faith without certainty and what is the role of doubt in the life of a person of faith. And, I think we could talk for a long time about Maher's claim that religion "makes a virtue out of not thinking."

Second, Maher spends a good bit of time addressing the creationist movement within American evangelicalism. Beyond the matter of whether Christians can or should believe in evolution, I think there is a larger question to be considered: What is the relationship between the Bible and science? This is something about which many Christians haven't thought deeply or carefully. My questions about this topic crystallized for me when Maher interviews a Vatican astronomer, who explains that the Bible was written somewhere between 2,000 BC and 100 AD, but the age of science in the Western world didn't dawn until the 1800s. For this reason, the Vatican official argues, the Bible and science cannot have anything in common. Is this the case? If not, why not? If so, what does this mean?

Third, towards the end of the film, Maher focuses on the apocalyptic elements of all of the major religions, but especially Christianity. He does filming in the Valley of Megiddo, stating something to the effect of, "This the place where many Christians believe the end of the world will take place." Then, as his condemnation of apocalypticism heats up, verses from the Book of Revelation are flashed on the screen, over a constant barrage of footage showing nuclear bombs, mass death, and destruction. Yes, its a cheap attempt to scare people but, it also raises a question.

What are the social and political implications of holding to the traditional dispensational view of the End Times? Does the belief in a rapture of the church and the destruction of the world at Armageddon lead to an irresponsible and "devil may care" attitude toward worldwide peacemaking and care for the environment? When dispensational preachers teach that Israel must bomb Iran in order to initiate the beginning of the End, will that not impact the way evangelical Christians view their responsibility to pursue peace with all men? I think there is an important issue. And, to "show my cards" a little bit, this is one of the practical reasons (among many biblical and theological reasons) that I have rejected the "Left Behind" view of eschatology.

Even though I found much to ponder and learn from in Religulous, I think there was much lacking, as well. I could address the details of Maher's arguments against Christianity, but I'll let Boyd take care of that for you. What follows are my general criticisms of the film. First, Maher doesn't make a distinction between religion and faith. This is a curious thing, because there are times when Maher distinguishes between the tenets of the historical Jesus and the many dogmas, traditions, and rituals added to the original message. In my personal experience and expression of Christianity, I seek not to teach religion, but to point to a person and a faith that grows from an encounter with that person. Maybe I'm deluding myself, but I see a major difference between that and the religion Maher attacks.

Of course, because Maher has the outcome "rigged"--he is making a comedy about ridiculous religion, after all--he doesn't address the best proponents of any religion. Frankly, watching many of his interviews is a bit like watching someone shoot fish in a barrel. This makes for good laughs, of course, but not for good debate. And, I can't help but wonder what he would have to say if Christians made a movie about agnosticism and/or atheism that portrayed the worst spokespersons of those viewpoints in the same manner. I have a feeling he'd be more than a little miffed.

Despite Maher's assertion that his primary problem is with certainty--more specifically, people who claim to be certain of their religious beliefs--Maher seems to miss the fact that he is himself the most certain person in the film. He is certain of the fact that no one should be certain of anything. And, he is certain of the fact that if you are certain of religious truths, you are suffering from, in his words, "a neurological disorder."

In this way, Maher cannot avoid making himself the arbiter of right and wrong, truth and lies. Although he tells creationist Ken Ham that he doesn't think he is God, in a sense, Maher becomes his own god, which is the only real position you can take when you do not acknowledge another authority apart from your own intellect. That may be a conscious decision on Maher's part. I don't know. Unfortunately, Maher doesn't feel the need to clarify the implications of this perspective in this film.

Also, I think that Maher drastically overestimates the goodness of human nature and the human intellect. At the end of the film, Maher says, "Religion must die for humankind to live." He believes that religion is holding humanity back from developing into the reasonable, peaceable people we should be. It doesn't hurt his claim, of course, that a majority of wars throughout human history have had something to do with religion, and many of them overtly so. But, I think it is naive in the extreme for Maher to suggest that without religion the world would become a peaceful, reasonable place. Puh-lease.

There are plenty of reasonable, rational reasons why we should bomb the heck out of "rogue nations" that cause us major problems and don't like us very much. There are plenty of reasonable, rational reasons why we should kill the "weak" members of society. There are plenty of reasonable, rational reasons why we should do lots of terrible things to fellow human beings, for our personal benefit or the benefit of society as a whole. Sorry, Bill. Rationalism and godlessness does not necessarily lead to peace, love, and happiness. Countless atheistic regimes have enacted violence and destruction in the world, completely devoid of any religious motivation. In the end, every human is capable of tremendous evil. The issue is not the human intellect. The issue is the human heart.

Finally, I found it the ultimate irony that even as Maher lambasts religious folks for their irrepressible desire to convert nonbelievers and "indoctrinate" converts, Maher closes Religulous with a clear evangelistic appeal. Just like your cheesiest "10 Minutes in Hell," evangelistic video, which uses the specter of burning brimstone to scare the unbeliever into "accepting Christ," Maher plays apocalyptic images over the screen for a full five minutes, making his appeal for the audience to repent of the destructive forces of religion and join him on the side of doubt, reason, and peace. Well done, Bill. I think you've done the "Turn or Burn" street preachers proud.

Bill Maher's Religulous won't win any Oscars and it won't be a bestselling DVD. But, it is entertaining and, ultimately, Maher raises some good questions for thinking religious folks. Take a peek, if you want. Avoid it, if you don't. Either way, Bill Maher, is an intelligent man with a increasingly popular view of religion. (You'll find out in the movie the "non-religious" make up a 18% minority in the US, more than African-Americans and Asians.) Christians need to know what they're saying and what are the weaknesses in their argument. In the end, though, I found nothing in the film to shake persons of thoughtful and, yes, reasonable, faith.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Book Review: Expecting Adam, by Martha Beck

Apart from classic works like Les Miserables, Crime and Punishment, and Jane Eyre, I rarely recommend books as "must-reads" to my friends. In fact, I find that many "must-reads" and "bestsellers" today are not all they're cracked up to be. Still, every once in a while, a book that is popular, is popular for a good reason. And, I think that is clearly the case with Martha Beck's Expecting Adam: A True Story of Birth, Rebirth, and Everyday Magic.

Martha Beck begins her memoir by acknowledging that the story she's about to tell is fantastic and, at times, unbelievable. In fact, she relates that many times she tried to pass the book off to editors and agents as a novel, an amazing story that happened to someone else in a fictitious world. She says, "You see, by calling it a novel, I could tell the story without putting myself in danger from skeptics, scientists, and intellectuals...Then they would all go away and leave me alone..." But, in the end, Beck cannot deny what happened to her and her husband John, after they found out they were expecting Adam.

Martha and John were a young married couple, working their tails off at a Harvard, both seeking graduate degrees, while raising a three year-old little girl. Martha was pursuing her Master's and Ph.D. in sociology (with an emphasis on women's issues), while John pursued a Ph.D. in business. She describes the cutthroat, cold, dog-eat-dog world of Harvard with ironic and laugh-out-loud humor. In the end, it becomes the unlikely stage upon which the Becks' life gets turned inside-out, when Martha becomes unexpectedly pregnant and eventually discovers she's carrying a baby with Down syndrome.

The entire book is filled with Martha's detailed re-telling of the transformation she undergoes (with John) over the nine months of her pregnancy. She is taxed to the physical extreme by non-stop nausea and dehydration, through her entire pregnancy (on average, making a trip to the ER about once a week). She's challenged spiritually by the sudden awareness of a world beyond herself--powers beyond her comprehension, which are working for her good and the good of her unborn child. And, she's forced to grapple with the values that the Harvard environment has pumped into her since she began there as a college freshman. By the time Adam is born, in Martha's words, "I had to unlearn virtually everything Harvard taught me about what is precious and what is garbage."

There are several elements of this volume that were particularly touching to me. First, there is the startling honest depiction of John and Martha's struggle to maintain the image of success and respectability on the Harvard campus. You can truly feel Martha's loneliness and sense of alienation, especially once it becomes known to the Harvard community that she's choosing to keep her Down syndrome child (something, you can imagine, that is not considered the "smart" thing to do). And, you rejoice with her when she finds true friends, who love her through her ordeal and provide support for her fragile physical condition.

Second, there is the bizarre way in which the spiritual realm invades Martha's life during her pregnancy. Although I am a skeptic by nature, Martha's descriptions of visions, out-of-body experiences, and miraculous rescues by unknown powers, were things I found I couldn't scoff at. In her drastic self-transformation, why wouldn't these stories also be true? As a professed evangelical Christian, I found myself both puzzled and encouraged at the descriptions of an admitted agnostic being forced to come to grips with spiritual realities she doesn't understand.

Third, there is the fact that Martha, a dedicated pro-choice feminist, chooses to keep her Down syndrome child, even though she and her husband had agreed long ago that they would abort in such a case. It is fascinating to observe as Martha struggles with her inability to answer the "why" question in a reasonable, Harvard-style fashion. In the end, she has no legitimate, scholarly, or moral reason why she wanted to bring Adam into the world, only that she was driven by an irrepressible compulsion to love and protect him.

I should note that Martha does not present herself as a converted "pro-lifer" after her decision to continue her pregnancy. And, from what I can tell, today she defends the right of women to do with their bodies as they see fit. But, it is clear from her writing that something within Martha compelled her to fight for the value and beauty of the child she was carrying, and that is an amazing and praiseworthy thing. And, I would imagine her experience--being forced to re-evaluate what is lovely, useful, and worthy of life--has impacted her counsel to women ever since.

It seems that I am a little late in discovering Expecting Adam. According to the title page, it was published first in 1999, with many re-printings since then, and has since become a national bestseller. Beck has gone on to launch a successful career as a "life coach," an O Magazine columnist, and an author of several more books. I haven't looked into Beck's current work, or read any of her other books, so I cannot speak to those things. But, I was deeply moved by Expecting Adam and I highly recommend it to you, my readers. Enjoy.