Books for Critical-Thinking Christians

Does the title of this post sound a tad arrogant? Intellectually elitist even? Arrogance is not my intent, and I don’t have an elite intellect. I do have a keen and personal interest in religion generally and Christianity specifically. I was raised on conservative Christian values — the Southern Baptist variety, which is quite fierce. Over the years, my beliefs, practices, and worldview have changed considerably due to education, travel, social interaction, and perhaps above all, reading. The following is an annotated bibliography of authors and books that have influenced my thinking about religion. I offer this suggested reading list for those who want to approach faith from a critical and thoughtful perspective that does not always confirm but instead challenges traditional assumptions about religion.

I have read all or parts of numerous books on world religions, and there are plenty of good introductions by major publishers, especially academic presses like Oxford, Yale, and Cambridge. A book I read not too long ago that addresses religious faith in general is Why Religion Matters: The Fate of the Human Spirit in an Age of Disbelief by Huston Smith. No one would question how influential Huston Smith was (he died in December, 2016) in the study of world religions. His book on the subject has sold over 2 million copies since it was first published in 1958. In 2000 he wrote this apologia for religion in the face of the growing post-modern position that faith is no longer necessary in the age of enlightenment. He is a skilled writer, and his prose is certainly accessible, even entertaining. In Why Religion Matters, Smith lays out his case for why religion exists, why it has survived for tens of thousands of years, and why it will continue in spite of opposition from the agnostic and atheistic sector of the scientific community.

I think Smith makes some good arguments, and I tend to agree with him that there is evolutionary evidence for the necessity of religious faith for humans. Where I question Smith is on the broad assumptions and emphatic stands he takes along the way. I also take issue when Smith seems to resort to tired religious clichés and platitudes. As an example, Smith writes: “Scientists would give their eye-teeth to know what the non-material component of photons is. For religionists, it is Spirit.” With this type of dismissive assumption, Smith is falling into the “god of the gaps” trap that atheists so often describe.  At any rate, this book is a good source for lay people (like me) who want to hear justification of faith by someone who spent a lifetime studying the subject.

CHRISTIAN HISTORY

It is probably my interest in history that has attracted me to books on early Christianity, so I add here several titles from well-respected scholars. The Historical Figure of Jesus by E. P. Sanders studies the relationship between Judaism and Christianity, distinguishing the certain from the improbable, and assessing the historical and religious context of Christ’s time. In Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews: A Jewish Life and the Emergence of Christianity, Paula Fredriksen explores the religious worlds, Jewish and pagan, of Mediterranean antiquity, through the labyrinth of Galilean and Judean politics, and on into the ancient narratives of Paul’s letters, the gospels, the Dead Sea Scrolls, and Josephus’ histories. Both of these books are dated now but are fine contributions to our understanding of the social and religious contexts within which Jesus of Nazareth moved, and to our appreciation of the mission and message that ended in the proclamation of Jesus as Messiah. For a less traditional perspective on the historical Jesus, I recommend The Misunderstood Jew: The Church and the Scandal of the Jewish Jesus by Amy-Jill Levine, who has dedicated her career to helping Christians and Jews understand the Jewishness of Jesus, thereby deepening the understanding of him, and facilitating greater interfaith dialogue.

One of my favorite scholars who enjoyed studying the life and legacy of Jesus is Marcus Borg. He apparently also enjoyed stirring up controversy, along with his frequent co-author, John Dominic Crossan. It isn’t really necessary to provide details of these books here because the subtitles are fairly descriptive. I freely admit a significant bias toward Borg and his approach toward examining the Gospels in a historical context, and I know that many readers will criticize him for recycling material in his books. The man was a master book salesman, and his prose is accessible and thought-provoking.

  • The First Christmas: What the Gospels Really Teach About Jesus’s Birth
  • The Last Week: What the Gospels Really Teach About Jesus’s Final Days in Jerusalem
  • Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time: The Historical Jesus and the Heart of Contemporary Faith
  • Jesus: A New Vision: Spirit, Culture, and the Life of Discipleship
  • The First Paul: Reclaiming the Radical Visionary Behind the Church’s Conservative Icon

A recent title by another scholar whom I respect is The Triumph of Christianity: How a Small Band of Outcasts Conquered an Empire. Bart D. Erhman doesn’t break any new ground here, but as in previous works, he manages to make early Church history more palatable for a large audience. He writes well and can manage to find opportunities to be witty with a subject that is not inherently humorous. Most of what we read here is generally covered in any survey of world civilizations, except in far more detail, which is why the book is worth reading for those of us who are not scholars but are nevertheless interested in history, religion, and the evolution of Christianity. Ehrman takes a direct and well-documented approach to explain why Christianity did indeed triumph over all the long-held religious traditions of the classical world.

THEOLOGY

Again, the titles in this category are not necessarily complex nor heavy. My intent is to introduce books that the rest of us can grasp and appreciate. Some of these would be considered more like apologies than theology, but subject headings are not my focus either. Here are a few books that have had the greatest impact on my thinking.

  • Mere Christianity by C. S. Lewis
  • The Seven Storey Mountain by Thomas Merton
  • Mystery and Manners by Flannery O’Connor
  • Waiting for God by Simone Weil
  • Heart of Christianity: Rediscovering a Life of Faith by Marcus Borg (I told you I was a fan)

I will add a couple of books here that are much more recent than the previous selections. These two titles by Philip Gulley and James Mulholland changed the way I thought about some fundamental tenants of Christian theology. If Grace Is True: Why God Will Save Every Person presents a radical departure from traditional teaching for most Christians. The element of this book I found most interesting was the authors’ belief in the bodily resurrection of Jesus, which begs the question: do they believe in the supernatural traditions of other major religions, like the stories surrounding Muhammad or Siddhartha Gautama? I decided to email Philip Gulley and put the question directly to him, and he wrote back! He responded, “Yes, bodily resurrection is an issue with which we both continue to struggle.” I truly admire his honesty. The other book by Gulley and Mulholland I recommend is If God Is Love: Rediscovering Grace in an Ungracious World. As idealistic as the premise of this book is (and perhaps a bit naïve in places), these guys make a compelling argument for how challenging it is to truly embrace the teachings of Jesus and the basic tenants of the major world religions.

RELIGION AND SCIENCE 

In so many ways, the last 250 years of religious thought and practice have been defined by the conflict between religion and science.  My intellectual interests as an adult have been concentrated in these two areas resulting from my heritage and a childhood curiosity about the natural world. Much of my reading that touches on both topics has been in the area of anthropology and evolution. Here are two titles that take a more general and conciliatory approach, one from a scientist and one from a minister. Stephen Jay Gould’s Rocks of Ages: Science and Religion in the Fullness of Life allows science and religion to coexist peacefully in a position of respectful noninterference. Science defines the natural world; religion our moral world in recognition of their separate spheres of influence. More recent scholars have scoffed at Gould’s compromise, especially scientists and humanists, but I still believe the concept is worth considering.

Luminous Web: Essays on Science and Religion is the fourth book thus far that I have read by Barbara Brown Taylor. It is actually a collection of essays from 2000 that predates the bestsellers by this Episcopal priest who left the ministry to finish her career teaching in the small liberal arts college where I am working now. Taylor was named by TIME magazine as one of the most influential people in the world in 2014. The principle thesis and the sharp observations in this book are still perfectly relevant. Taylor is a priest with a sincere interest in science, which places her in good company with some of the greatest minds in history going back to the Middle Ages with Thomas Aquinas and up to the 20th century with people like Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, who was both a priest and a scientist. I think Taylor believes in and is always searching for what Teilhard de Chardin named the “Omega Point,” that evolutionary conclusion where God and the physical universe are united, or as some have phrased it, a “divine unification.” To Taylor, God is not superseded by science nor is God made irrelevant by the scientific method. She clings to the idea that science and religion are equally in pursuit of the truth — the former in its exploration and explanation of the physical universe and the latter in its attempts to find meaning and purpose.

AGNOSTICISM AND ATHEISM

A critical study of Christianity is incomplete without the most challenging opinions of all. My fascination with science has led me to scholars and writers who completely dismiss religion as supernatural nonsense at best and dangerous, manipulative propaganda at worst. On any given day, I may find myself in sympathy with their judgments, but I still embrace mystery in the universe that I am not yet convinced science can explain nor dismiss. Good Without God: What a Billion Nonreligious People Do Believe by Greg M. Epstein is a nice overview of how people who do not believe in God live an ethical life, how they are charitable, loving, compassionate, fulfilled, and inspired without religion as their primary motivation. Epstein is obviously trying to soften the message of the irreligious that has been expressed with sarcasm, indignation, and even rudeness by leading atheists. It does seem to me, especially toward the end of the book, that Epstein is attempting to find ways in which humanists can enjoy the worldly fruits of religion through culture and ritual, as if living a humanist life without the type of community that faith offers is empty or disconnected. No doubt, his Jewish heritage is coming into play here, which he fully discloses. Perhaps this perspective also comes out of his role as a humanist chaplain (still an odd title for a humanist in my opinion) at Harvard.

In his cleverly-spelled title, god is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything, Christopher Hitchens is just a bit too unreasonable about the evils of religion in general. Of course, he is correct about so many of the atrocities committed in the name of religion, and I certainly wouldn’t dispute his calculated and logical arguments dispelling the myths that are at the center of religion. However, I maintain that religion seems to be a necessary component for so many humans, as history and other social sciences have firmly demonstrated. He thinks because he has successfully faced facts, reality, mortality, and the cosmos apart from the supernatural, that everyone else should be able to do so as well. Obviously, he is mistaken. And frankly, no amount of evidence or persuasion on his part or that of any other atheist will likely win over the multitudes around the globe who prefer supernatural beliefs about the universe instead of rational, scientific explanations. I suppose he is, nevertheless, compelled to keep trying. Hitchens is as brilliant as any of his contemporaries who have presented the case of atheism.

Speaking of brilliant, it is probably good form to give the last word on critical thinking to one of the leading evolutionary biologists in the world, who also happens to be the most outspoken and popular atheists of the 21st century. In The God Delusion, Richard Dawkins asserts the irrationality of belief in God and the grievous harm religion has inflicted on society, from the Crusades to 9/11. As much as I respect Dawkins as a scientist, scholar, and writer, I think he overstates the danger of religious practice. I prefer the more mellow and considerate position of humanists like Greg M. Epstein. However, anyone who truly wants to cover the range of opinions about religion, from pure devotion to intransigent denial, should consider reading this and other books by Richard Dawkins. Oh, and you can’t insult him by calling him the Devil’s advocate — he doesn’t believe in Him either.

(Note: some of the book descriptions in this post were lifted from the Goodreads website.)

Schooled by the President

My wife and I joined a group of people from our community to mark off another travel experience bucket list item. In this case, the distance from home was short enough for a road trip. We traveled through pines and vast farmland to the little village of Plains, Georgia, where we gathered with a couple of hundred other people before sunrise in anticipation of the big event: Sunday School at Maranatha Baptist Church. Okay, I haven’t attended Sunday School in over twelve years, and we could have easily found a class to attend much closer to home, but the teacher wouldn’t have been the 39th President of the United States.

Jimmy Carter has been teaching Sunday School for most of his life, reportedly even during his presidency (1977-1981). However, in recent years his class at Maranatha Baptist Church has been drawing capacity crowds, especially after his diagnosis of brain cancer in 2015. This health scare may have interrupted his teaching, but it didn’t stop it. He teaches his class in the church’s sanctuary that seats about 350 people when filled to capacity, and there is an overflow adjacent room that seats 100 more people who watch  via video feed. The 93-year-old former Commander in Chief is still greeting anywhere from several dozen to a few hundred pilgrims multiple times throughout the year for a 45-minute session, although there are rumors that he will scale back if not completely stop teaching sometime this year (2018).

The charming little red-brick church is tucked in a pecan grove a couple of miles outside the center of Plains, a hamlet of less than 800 people where Jimmy Carter was born and raised and the place he and First Lady, Rosalynn, still call home. No part of the state defines “rural Georgia” better than its southwest section, and Plains is a bonafide representative. Maranatha Baptist Church looks like so many other little churches I have seen and visited during my life. The members are equally familiar: genuine, proud, polite, but above all in this case, fiercely respectful and protective of their world-famous congregant. Those who are charged with orchestrating this unusual ministry of the church do so with humility, humor, grace, and above all, efficiency.

The church’s website advises attendees to arrive no later than 6:00 a.m. in case the crowd is large. We arrive at ten after the hour. Entrance to the sanctuary is based on a simple numbering system. When we pull into the dirt driveway of the property, a friendly fellow welcomes us and hands us through the car window a slip of paper with a sequential number indicating what will later be our place in the lineup to file into the church. We are number 58 — obviously not quite as committed as 57 other sojourners, the earliest of which we later learn arrived at 4:00 a.m.

Like many activities that combine religious practice with celebrity status, the President’s Sunday School class attracts an eclectic assembly that writers like Chaucer would find fascinating, as do we. One notable example is the chap who arrives in a mint-condition Model-T, sporting the requisite hat/goggle combination and accompanied by an extraordinarily tall tabby cat that he walks among the pecan trees on a leash. We learn that he is just beginning a long journey across the country to visit various attractions, an adventure he will record in a travelogue — think Steinbeck’s Travels with Charley, the feline version.

On the Sundays the Carters are attending, the glaring distinction of this church is the early and abundant presence of law enforcement, which includes local sheriff deputies and at least six Secret Service agents, complete with bomb-sniffing dogs canvassing the exterior of the church building and weaving their way through the herd of vehicles parked under the trees behind the church. A member of our group observes what a misnomer “Secret Service” is to describe a team of people at a little country church dressed all in black with sunglasses and ear pieces, handguns clearly visible. Their service is no secret whatsoever. During the hour of worship that follows his class, President Carter sits in a pew next to one of the two center aisles (the Carters are indeed members at Maranatha). There are agents at the entrances to the building and one agent sitting directly behind him. Every time President Carter stands with the rest of the congregation, the agent stands and shifts his own position slightly out into the aisle just behind Carter’s left shoulder — an added measure of protection. Without a doubt, we are attending the safest worship service in the state that morning.

On the Sunday we attend, illness has descended upon a significant portion of the congregation, including Rosalynn Carter who is recovering from surgery in Atlanta. A few of the members are having to pull double duty. Jan is the fearless and funny woman, school teacher turned event coordinator, who lines everyone up outside and gets them ready to go through security and enter the church. She is joined by several other members inside who provide instructions for the Presidential encounter, all the dos and don’ts that are expected, including no applause for the President. We are reminded this is church, not a campaign rally. Jan also plays the piano later in the morning for the worship service. Shortly before the teacher enters the sanctuary, the recently-installed pastor, at the ripe age of 23, provides a Q&A about himself, his family, the church, and the Carters. Another woman who helps with the orientation before the President’s arrival identifies herself with the last name “Carter,” and someone in the audience asks if there is any relation. She replies, “Yes. Billy Carter was my father.” Later that morning, this jovial niece of the President returns to the podium to lead the singing — the music minister is out that day involved in a church-related activity out of town. They are a resourceful and flexible church family.

President Jimmy Carter
President Jimmy Carter

 

President Carter could not be more charming. We just barely make the cut to get in the sanctuary and are sitting in the choir loft behind him, but he graciously turns around to include us. He spends the first few minutes greeting everyone and asking, by sections of pews, “where are ya’ll from?” Place names are shouted out: Maine, Texas, Canada, Illinois, Kentucky, Colorado, and many others. We are amazed by the distance some of these folks have traveled to hear a great statesman with humble beginnings speak of a faith that has no doubt sustained him through trials that would crumble most of us.

Jimmy Carter is judged harshly these days by so many of our population who consider his presidency to be lackluster at best and a dismal failure at its worst. He faced insurmountable challenges and horrible crises while in office, and admittedly some of his decisions perhaps did not serve the country well. Many of his accomplishments in the White House are overlooked now, but he should always be remembered for brokering a peaceful resolution demonstrated by a handshake between a Jewish prime minister and a Muslim president that undoubtedly saved many, many lives in the Middle East and beyond. Also, no one denies his decades of post-Presidential humanitarian achievements with Habitat for Humanity, the Carter Center, monitoring elections around the world, and so much more. To my way of thinking, he is a remarkable testimony to the charity and love most often identified with Jesus, the one he calls Savior. In the end, his Sunday School lesson always comes back to that simple but profound profession of faith.

The Omega Point: Where Science and Religion Converge

I just finished reading The Luminous Web by Barbara Brown Taylor. This is the fourth book I have read by Taylor, and although it is not her best-known work, I think this short essay collection is very fine. Admittedly, my praise of the book comes out of my deep interest in the intersection (or polarization) of science and religion. Most scientists will not find it as compelling as those who are sympathetic to religious belief or even spirituality. Published in 2000, the book is perhaps somewhat dated now, but the principle thesis and the keen observations are still perfectly relevant. Taylor is a priest and a professor of religion with a sincere interest in science, which places her in good company with some of the greatest minds in history, going back to the Middle Ages with Thomas Aquinas and up to the 20th century with people like Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, who was both a priest and a scientist. I think Rev. Dr. Taylor believes in and is always searching for what Teilhard de Chardin named the “Omega Point,” that evolutionary conclusion where God and the physical universe are united, or as some have phrased it, a “divine unification.” To Taylor, God is not superseded by science nor is God made irrelevant by the scientific method.  She clings to the idea that science and religion are equally in pursuit of the truth — the former in its exploration and explanation of the physical universe and the latter in its attempts to find meaning and purpose.

The Luminous Web by Barbara Brown Taylor

I have been reading popular books on science and religion for about thirty years. I am drawn to authors who tend to challenge or even shatter long-held assumptions about religion, mainly Christianity since that is the faith of my heritage. In addition to Barbara Brown Taylor, a few that come to mind are Marcus Borg, John Dominic Crossan, Bart D. Ehrman, Philip Gulley, and James Mulholland. In recent years I have also been reading books by the modern atheists and humanists, like Carl Sagan, Stephen J. Gould, Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Greg M. Epstein, Edward O. Wilson, Eugenie C. Scott, and Jerry A. Coyne. All of these writers have addressed the friction created where science and religion meet.

I certainly have issues with organized religion, although I am a member of the Episcopal Church. I am repelled by evangelical Christianity, fundamentalist factions across the globe, radical sects of all faiths, and any religious practice that results in division, discrimination, sexism, racism, and superiority. At the same time, I cannot agree with some of the modern atheists who have decided that all religion is superstitious nonsense with no purpose, no value to humanity. Some of these scholars claim that religion is not just a benign fantasy but a dangerous threat to the survival of humanity.  To judge religion based on the manner in which it is too often adulterated by immoral clergy, zealots, dictators, and politicians, to my way of thinking, is similar to faulting science when technology is used by power-hungry leaders to make weapons of mass destruction.

Some scientists posit that, since the beginning of the Enlightenment, science has been rapidly replacing religion as a unified explanation for all existence. In other words, we don’t need religion anymore. As much as Dawkins and others have tried to make the case of science’s ability to answer all our questions, I believe there will always be significant gaps. My argument for the existence and validity of religion is primarily built on its longevity, that it has been a hallmark of hominids at least as far back as the Neanderthals. Evolutionary theory teaches us that nature selects what will and will not survive based on characteristics such as fitness, adaptability, necessity, and the ability to pass on vital information from one generation to the next.  It works for genes, language, technology, and yes, religion. Humans have passed down faith and myth for thousands of years, not because they are entertained by them, but because they need them.

As contemplative animals who are consciously aware of their existence, their past, and their possible future, humans have evolved a thirst for answers to questions about our place in the universe, how it all began, and the meaning of life. But, we also need a practice to help us appreciate and absorb emotion, beauty, and a whole host of other experiences. Sometimes science falls short, not because of what is yet undiscovered, but because so many people need the most treasured part of life to remain a mystery. Is religion nothing more than a panacea? Is it “the opium of the people” as Karl Marx observed? Is it a vestige that we will eventually slough off like dead skin? I suppose it’s possible, but I don’t think that we will see that next stage in our evolutionary development nearly as soon as some of our atheist friends are predicting.

Godless Ethics

Good Without God by Greg M. Epstein is a nice overview of how people who do not believe in God live an ethical life, how they are charitable, loving, compassionate, fulfilled, and inspired without religion as their primary motivation. Epstein is obviously trying to soften the message of the irreligious that has been expressed by leading atheists with sarcasm, indignation, and even rudeness. In some sense, he is playing the role of a modern Thomas Aquinas, the Angelic Doctor who is trying to find consensus between the religious and the secular world.

It does seem to me, especially toward the end of the book, that Epstein is attempting to find ways in which humanists can enjoy the worldly fruits of religion through culture and ritual, as if living a humanist life without the type of community that faith offers is empty or disconnected. No doubt, his Jewish heritage is coming into play here, which he fully discloses. Perhaps this perspective also comes out of his role as a humanist chaplain (still an odd title for a humanist in my opinion) at Harvard.

I get the sense that he thinks the creation of humanists organizations that look and function like churches, synagogues, or mosques will somehow make humanism more “competitive” or more attractive or perhaps even more palatable to the skeptics or the indecisive. It reminds me of vegetarians and vegans who eat foods that are considered meat substitutes because they crave meat but won’t eat it. I think humanists can find community and social interaction outside organizations that look and sound like religious ones. In fact, I would venture to say that plenty of believers find their most meaningful connections outside their religious circles.

This is a very accessible book that is well written, thoughtful, and completely unoffensive to left-leaning, progressive readers. Evangelicals and other orthodox or fundamentalist faithful will hate it. There is no doubt that Epstein was very encouraged by the election of Obama, which occurred one year before the book was published. For people who were raised in strong religious environments but now find themselves in the camp with agnostics or even atheists, Epstein’s conclusions can be reaffirming, perhaps even comforting.

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The Terrorist Name Game

I have understood all along why President Obama has resisted using terms like “Muslim extremists” or “radical Muslims” to identify terrorists who pervert Islam for evil purposes. Peaceful Muslims in this country are in a precarious state. However, his resistance to associate some terrorists acts with fundamentalist Muslims denies the very real danger presented by radical religious practice everywhere. Islam does not have a monopoly on terrorists who claim to be part of a religion. Peace-loving Christians have no trouble distinguishing the faith they practice from the hate-filled ideology of the Westboro Baptists or the KKKs of this country, but they rarely deny that these groups are identified with Christianity. They may call them fundamentalists, evangelicals, zealots, nutcases, or even ultra-conservatives, or they may use quotation marks to imply they are not truly “Christians” at all, but they don’t call them atheists or agnostics either. Bands of Hindu radicals have been responsible for murdering scores of Muslims and Christians. We need to accept the fact that evil people use religions — all religions — as excuses to carry out horrific acts of violence.

I tend to agree with some commentators lately who have started identifying ISIS as a cult, a term that typically has negative connotations for most people, especially people of faith. Just to clarify, I am thinking in terms of the ISIS organization. Even though the recent Orlando shooter apparently invoked the name of Allah in his 911 call, that doesn’t necessarily put him in the league with ISIS, and it certainly doesn’t qualify him to be a Muslim as it is defined by millions of members of that faith around the world. I am quite sure that assassins throughout history have shouted “God’s will be done” before committing similar acts of cowardliness and evil. Doing so did not make them Christians in my view. At the same time, the only real difference between a cult and a religion is the number of people who claim allegiance. I do think we need to recognize that some of these attacks on our soil are inspired by maniacs with a warped, perverted sense of religion. Sometimes it’s Christianity; other times it’s Islam. Ignoring that fact doesn’t help us understand the motivations any better and may actually hinder us from addressing this global problem.

I don’t really think that the labels the President or anyone else chooses to use to describe these monsters are going to diminish their zeal and their thirst for blood, but I do think understanding their identification with the religion can be helpful in combating them. Rather than marginalizing peaceful Muslims, perhaps we can get more of them to help us stamp out the “cult.” Peace-loving Christians sat in church with KKK members for decades, and probably still do now. The KKK certainly fits the description of a cult in my mind, and I would bet my next paycheck that a lot of people outside the Christian faith would identify the KKK as a Christian cult or a perverted Christian organization because of the language and symbols used by the organization. I have never heard anyone claim that the KKK was an independent cult that has no identification with Christianity. They would have said the same about Koresh’s clan. I can remember growing up in a Baptist church and being taught that Mormons were members of a cult, yet almost any scholarly treatment of Mormonism identifies it as a Protestant denomination. In other words, it is very difficult to define what a cult is, and most cults historically have had their roots in existing religions. We ignore what inspires young people to join radical, hateful groups at our peril, and a perverted affiliation with a major world religion is a strong incentive for a weak, impressionable mind.

The way many people distinguish violent religious fanatics from the mainstream practitioners is by claiming that the fanatics aren’t practicing the “true” faith. And yet, the pro-lifer who turns murderer by bombing an abortion clinic may embrace all the trappings of Christian practice: attending church regularly, giving to Christian charitable causes, praying every day, reading the Bible, etc. He believes that he is doing God’s will by sacrificing the evil doctor who, in his mind, is murdering the unborn. As twisted as he is in his thinking, he still identifies with fundamental Christian beliefs, many of which he will justify with the Bible. His friends and acquaintances will identify him as a Christian, and some of them will continue to do so after he commits murder, even though they may not condone his actions. They will say things like “his convictions were strong, but he went about it the wrong way.” The real irony is that the abortion doctor may actually believe many of the same tenants of the faith that his killer does. I think this same paradigm is sometimes at play with ISIS members and their sympathizers. Most peaceful Muslims are horrified by their actions and are in fact victims of their evil deeds. But I don’t think we can escape that a perverted interpretation of Islam is what drives ISIS and what attracts sympathizers.  Again, as peaceful people, we ignore that unavoidable truth at our own risk and by doing so hinder our ability to overcome terrorism in all its manifestations.

God is a Gambler. Who Knew? (Part 2)

(continued from January 29, 2016)

If you tell students that the Book of Job illustrates how human beings are easily dispensable to God, who is quite willing to use them to prove a point, they don’t exactly embrace this vision too comfortably.  Nevertheless, it is difficult to read this story and not come away with a less-than-flattering description of God’s nature.  When God turns Job over to Satan, the evil one goes to work quickly.  In short order, all of Job’s livestock and servants are killed, along with ten of his children.  Poor Job tears his clothes and shaves his head in mourning, but he still blesses God in his prayers, which prompts Satan to return to God to increase the stakes.  To further prove how strong Job’s faith really is, God allows Satan to inflict physical torment on the poor guy.  Afflicted with horrible skin sores, Job is in so much misery that his wife encourages him to curse God, give up the struggle, and die.  Still Job stands fast and continues to honor God.

You can push a person so far though, and Job comes close to reaching his limit.  His close friends offer him philosophical rhetoric to bring him comfort and to explain his horrible predicament, and they even try to convince him that he must have done something to anger God — repent and all will be well.  One of his pals, Elihu, explains that physical suffering helps the victim to comprehend God’s love and forgiveness when he finally is well again, knowing that God has rescued him from misery.  Again, what a disturbing view of God’s relationship to humanity!  Job doesn’t buy it.  He is confident in his righteousness and refuses to admit to uncommitted sins.  Still, he grows weary and finally gets a bit demanding of God, and goes so far as to express his wish that he had never been born.  From an ancient Hebrew perspective, this just may be where he crosses the line and prompts God to blast him with what could be the best poetry in the Bible, even though much is certainly lost in the translation.

Out of a mighty whirlwind, God poses a series of blistering, rhetorical questions to Job, most of which begin with the phrase “Where were you . . . ,” which are designed to show Job how ignorant he is of the majesty of creation and how magnificent God truly is.  After he picks himself up out of a heap, good old Job admits to the limitations of his human knowledge, a response that apparently pleases God.  According to many Biblical scholars, the original story (which is one of the oldest in the Bible) ends at this point.  However, in the Biblical narrative, the plot continues, and God returns Job’s health and even more property than he had before.  God blesses Job with new children and gives him an extremely long life as an added bonus.  Of course, one could argue that property can easily be replaced, but ten children?  In the end, God won the bet and proved Satan wrong, which is the most important thing to remember, right?  As I stated before, a tad disconcerting.

The reason that the Book of Job is so important in Hebrew literature, or any literature for that matter, is because it creatively explores the age-old question of why an omnipotent God allows good people to suffer.  After all, Job isn’t selected as the pawn in this contest between God and Satan because he is bad, but because he is the best.  For modern Christians, especially those who espouse the prosperity gospel so popular in America, Job’s story presents quite a quandary.  If you follow God’s commands and live a life of righteousness, you just may come to ruin as a reward for your faithfulness!  Somehow I doubt Joel Osteen preaches from Job very often — I could be wrong.

Considering that the ancient Hebrews had no concept of personal eternity and were convinced that, as God’s chosen people, they were fulfilling God’s plan for creation and living up to their side of the covenant with God, this story becomes somewhat more palatable for the modern reader.  The Hebrews were commanded by God to be fruitful and multiply, to spread across the land, and to bear witness to God’s preeminence among all other deities.  There is no room in this arrangement for the wish of never having been born.  The survival and well-being of the individual was vastly overshadowed by the importance of the survival and fruition of the Hebrew nation.  The suggestion is that human beings should not dare question God’s divine justice because they cannot possibly appreciate its complexity.

What I find particularly fascinating is how the Book of Job serves as an excellent foreshadow for the coming of Christ and his sacrificial death to save humanity.  Jesus wasn’t chosen to face horrible agony because he was a rotten sinner.  Jesus was sent by God to suffer because he was the spotless lamb.  With all respect and deference to the modern descendants of the Hebrew nation and culture, the story of the New Testament messiah conveniently “resurrects” the suffering servant, who even has his own moments of doubt and questioning in the garden.  This is the same Jesus who charges those who profess to love him to take up their cross and follow him.  I guess you could say that’s just part of the deal.

God is a Gambler. Who Knew? (Part 1)

For ten years, I taught a freshman course covering the first half of world history as an adjunct instructor at a small public liberal arts college.  I knew that a good portion of my students had been raised in Protestant homes, and most were probably very active in their home churches.  Because so much of early world history ends up being a class in comparative religions, I thought it only fair to give my students the following disclaimer on the first day of class: “I am the college teacher your preacher warned you about.”  I knew that much of what I was going to cover about the origins of the world’s major religions, including Christianity, was going to be met with some resistance.  A few students probably thought I was an agent of Satan.  Having come out of a fundamentalist Christian background (Southern Baptist), I could certainly sympathize with that position.

What I thought would be particularly helpful was to spend quality time talking about a book from the Old Testament in the Bible, the work that is raised to the level of idolatry by so many pastors and their congregants.  By looking at the book as both a work of literature and as holy scripture, I attempted to help them see some basic tenants of their faith from a different angle than what they were exposed to in church.  I hoped to offer a bit more historical context too, helping my students understand the genesis of three of the world’s religions: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.  The book I chose is my favorite of the wisdom literature from the Biblical Hebrew tradition and one that I think is most representative of that tradition.  This book does such a good job of exploring the complexity of the human condition, especially as it is impacted by faith.  The book I selected was Job.

The major reason that Job is such a good book to teach to students who are familiar with Bible stories from church is because it presents all kinds of challenges to the traditional image of God and the accepted nature of God’s relationship to humanity.  Here we have the story the takes off with a discussion between God and Satan about a man named Job.  God is obviously very proud of Job, who seems to be the model of human creation.  In a little chat with Satan, God says, “Have you considered my servant Job? There is no one on earth like him; he is blameless and upright, a man who fears God and shuns evil.”  Of course, this is taken as a direct challenge to God’s adversary, Satan, who claims that Job is such a swell guy only because God is taking very good care of him.  After all, Job is wealthy, has a large family, and performs purification rituals for his family even when he knows of nothing they have done wrong.  He is described as the greatest man among all the people of the region.

So Satan decides to make a little bet with God, just to prove God wrong.  Satan presents God with this challenge concerning Job’s welfare: “Stretch out your hand and strike everything he has, and he will surely curse you to your face.”  And how does the creator of all the universe, including Job but also Satan and his minions, respond to this challenge?  Does God dismiss it as petty?  Does God make clear to Satan that God doesn’t need to prove anything to anyone?  Well, no.  Essentially God’s response to Satan is, “Oh yea?  Is that what you think?  Fine then!  You’re on!!”  In verse twelve of the Book of Job, we read:  “The Lord said to Satan, ‘Very well, then, everything he has is in your power, but on the man himself do not lay a finger.’”  The deck may be stacked in God’s favor, but still, God apparently likes to play the game!  Who knew?  And, the events that unfold after this exchange between God and Satan present us with a view of the deity that is both unexpected and just a tad disconcerting.