What role should God play in your life?

God on throne

So I wrote my first novel. It’s about a Mormon missionary who goes insane on his mission. And in the interest of research, when Mormon missionaries would knock on my door, I’d invite them in, every time. It usually didn’t end well. Invariably, they’d bear their testimony heatedly and storm off in a huff, insisting I had a “spirit of contention!”

They were probably right.

Anyway, this one missionary sticks in my mind. I named my novel’s protagonist after him.

Let me set the scene. Things were getting dicey. You know me—push, push, push. Elephants in pre-Columbia America. The Book of Abraham papyrus. Joseph Smith’s wandering wangdoodle. All that. Every time I’d push, they’d bear their testimony. This corn-fed missionary clearly had spied my book shelf, heavy with “anti-Mormon” books and DVDs. He glared at it with resolute menace.

“You and your frickin’ videos!” He barked. “You have no concern for the things of God!”

Are you a fool?

Frickin’. That’s really harsh for a Mormon missionary. Usually, the closest they get to an F Bomb is flippin’. It was righteous indignation, I guess. His was the biblical view: The fool hath said in his heart, “There is no God.” Fools aren’t just dumb. They’re evil. Morally fatuous, if you will—all because they won’t orbit their existence around God and are left with no recourse but self-centeredness. Stupid is as stupid does.

And I was one of them, in his mind: a frickin’ degenerate.

Little did he know. I was actually on a mission from God at the time. I was an Evangelical hell-bent on skewering Mormonism through my debut novel—every bit as zealous as himself. Joke was on him. I wasn’t godless. I was, I guess, god-ful. The difference was I was worshipping the right Jesus.

Joke was on me: I ended up losing my religion through the process of writing my novel. So it goes.

What’s the greatest commandment?

Still, though, I understand where he was coming from. I still have ready access to the religious worldview. In that worldview, unbelievers are fools, as noted above, morally crippled by their self-centeredness. Our salvation, as the corn-fed missionary believed, was in centering of lives on the Things of God. To be the humans God wants us to be we must focus on God.

That was Jesus’ view. Asked what the greatest commandment was, Jesus said it was To Love The Lord Your God With All Your Heart And All Your Soul And All Your Might. The second most important commandment was to Love Your Neighbor As Yourself. The only reason we can’t serve others is we have our eyes on ourselves and off God. We can’t be good without God. Everything must be done for the Glory of God. The Bible refers to the good deeds of the ungodly as filthy rags, unclean because of their essential selfishness. If you’re not focusing on God, you’re left with no other recourse but to focus on yourself. Vanity of vanities!

Which circle best describes your life?

When I was in college, I joined Campus Crusade for Christ. As a member of that organization, I was expected to “witness,” which consisted of approaching students on campus and sharing the gospel. (Yes, I was a missionary, I guess.) Specifically, we would come up to unsuspecting people sunning on the lawn in the quad or eating lunch in the student union building and ask them, “Have you heard of the Four Spiritual Laws?”

Law 1: God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life.

“However,” we’d ask, “why is it that most people are not experiencing God’s plan for their life?” That led to . . .

Law 2: All of us sin and our sin has separated us from God.

“We were created to have fellowship with God,” we’d say, “but because of our stubborn self-will, we chose to go our own independent way and fellowship with God was broken.” That led to . . .

Law 3: Jesus Christ is God’s only provision for our sin. Through Him we can know and experience God’s love and plan for our life.

“However,” we’d say, ‘it’s not enough just to know these three principles,” leading to . . .

Law 4: We must individually receive Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord. Then we can know and experience God’s love and plan for our lives.

“Receiving Christ involves turning to God from self and trusting Christ to come into our lives to forgive us and to make us what He wants us to be,” we’d say.

Then we would show them this diagram:

Four spritual laws

“Which circle best describes your life?” we’d ask. It was like asking somebody, “Have you stopped beating your wife?” No one wants to admit they’re selfish—and we were telling them the only alternative to selfishness was God-centeredness.

If they chose the Christ-directed circle, we’d lead them in The Sinner’s Prayer, the capstone of which is “Take control of the throne of my life and make me the kind of person You want me to be.”

In other words . . . we can’t be good without God, But what does that mean? How does one love God with one’s whole heart, practically speaking? How do you put Christ on the throne of your life on a daily basis? By reading the Bible? Please. You hear His voice? Call the folks from the Funny Farm. How can you focus on an invisible, silent being?

You can’t.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying God doesn’t exist. If you’ve raced to that conclusion, you’re mistaken. There is a thing called God that created space and time. He’s just not accessible.

Not to sell God short, but . . .

Religious folks cry, “Not true! God acts in my life.” Really? If you probe these religious folks about how God acts in their life you’ll find two things:

  • First off, most of the acts of God in a believer’s life are perceived in hindsight. God really taught me something through that trial or I can see there was a purpose to it all now. And so on.  If God does act in our life, we can’t recognize Him doing it, for the most part. It’s so incremental so as to imperceptible, like the continents sloughing off into the ocean.
  • Secondly, when they can point to God acting in the present it’s always through humans. God really touched me with that song or God brought you into my life or God spoke through you.

So what can we learn from that? I think God’s intention is clear. He knows we can’t focus on Him, so he wants us to focus on each other. That’s the whole point—the point of life. The second commandment is actually the first commandment. Jesus was wrong. Turns out, the Things Of God are the Things Of Men.

I don’t want to sell God short. Nothing would exist without God. We owe God not just for our creation but for every second of our existence. As the Bible says, “In Him we live and move and have our being.” (There is truth in the Bible.) We only keep on keeping on because God holds reality together. In fact, He’s the only Necessary Thing. Nothing has to be. We’re certainly not necessary. The fact that there’s something rather than nothing is a clue that there is a Necessary Being to bring all this unnecessary stuff into being and hold it together.

But God is totally unnecessary in crucial one sense—when it comes to how we lead our lives. Let me be more plain: We Don’t Need God. We don’t need Him to be good. We don’t need Him to be selfless. God doesn’t act in our lives. He can’t act in our lives. That’s not the way things work.

So what good is God? Well, as I said, He holds reality together—no small matter, that—but, past that, we’re pretty much on our own. That’s why we need each other. That’s why a life focused on self is . . . foolish. Not because we’re not focusing on God. Rather, because we’re not focusing on others. Therein lies our salvation.

Photo: Christ as Judge 3 by Waiting for the word CC BY 2.0

The Bible makes sense when you realize it’s nonsensical – Part 2

gods-barf

For hundreds of years, learned folks have struggled over the dichotomous picture of God presented in the Old and New testaments: Angry God, Loving God. Could you see the Prince of Peace leading the charge to exterminate the tick-ridden Canaanites? It strains credulity, hence the hundreds of years of struggle—and cockamamie explanations/rationalizations/allegories. Back when I was religious, I had a book titled Show Them no Mercy, Four Views on God and Canaanite Genocide—the four views being “Strong Discontinuity,” “Moderate Discontinuity, “Spiritual Continuity” and “Eschatological Continuity.” (Bullshit sounds more plausible when you use big words.) The most common cockamamie rationalization among biblical literalists is that the Israelites had to exterminate the Canaanites lest they be swayed to follow their gods. They had it coming. In his Encyclopedia of Bible Difficulties, Gleason Archer apologizes for the Israelites thusly:  “Just as the wise surgeon removes dangerous cancer from his patient’s body by use of the scalpel, so God employed the Israelites to remove such dangerous malignancies from human society.” In other words, the Canaanites weren’t just Israel’s enemy. They were God’s enemy.

Okay. . .  But what if we apply Occam’s Razor to this particular Bible Difficulty?

God Bless Israel

What if the first five books of the Bible were written as political propaganda, written out of a mixture of hubris and guilt? The hallmarks of said propaganda

  • God chose the Jews above all people upon the face of the earth (Deuteronomy 7:6)
  • God wants the state of Israel to rule the world (Deuteronomy 15:6)
  • God wants the Jewish state of Israel to commit genocide against the gentile people around them. (Deuteronomy 7:2)

It all seems so . . . likely. Governments do this kind of shit all the time. God is on our side! Remember when Congress stood together after 9/11 and sang God Bless America? (I wonder what tune the Jihadists had rolling through their brains before they drove those airplanes into those buildings.)

The men who wrote the Pentateuch didn’t care about the picture of God they were painting. They just wanted to show that Israel had God’s sanction. God Bless Israel. They were propagandists for the State—tools—just following orders. They didn’t believe any of that shit actually happened. Why would they? Their experience of God was the same as ours: He’s mainly uninvolved, off attending to something else more important perhaps, maybe cleaning His apartment—certainly not opening up chasms in the good earth to swallow up fifthly sinners.

Little did those Tools of the State know the Western world was going to erect an entire theology based on the apoplectic God from their political propaganda. Even Jesus—he, along his fellow Jews, believed that wrath was a perfectly good word to describe how God feels about sin.

Don’t blame God for the Bible

And, of course, men lie. (Bought anything off an infomercial lately? Kitchen Miracle, my ass!) Add that to the mix when you’re discussing the humanness of scripture. For example, archeology has shown the stories of the Canaanite conquest are, again, more Party Line than Gospel Truth. Battles that were supposed to have happened, clearly didn’t. On more than one occasion, the Old Testament has the Israelites laying siege to a city that didn’t exist at the time. Men lie. Archeology doesn’t.

And neither does God, one hopes, which is why He’s off the hook for the whole trainwreck we call Holy Writ. That’s on us.

The good news is that, on the whole, the backwards parts of the Bible don’t rear their heads often. Most people’s refrigerator magnets bear such affirmations as You Can Do All Things Through Jesus Who Strengthens You and He Works Out All Things For Good For Those Who Are Called By His Name. Stuff like that. People don’t use the Canaanite genocide as their model when they move into a neighborhood of unbelievers. They’re more neighborly, more Christian.

(Why didn’t the ancient Jews think of that? Send over a fruit basket. Have the Canaanites over for dinner. The Canaanites probably would have preferred those to the alternative, given the choice. When they throw the fruit basket back into our face—that’s when we attack!)

I think we’re stuck with the Bible. But can we admit that it’s a mixed bag, at best? Kudos to Jesus for telling us to love our enemies—not so much for the times he condemns people to hell. (Unless of course the people he’s sending to hell are someone else. Those bastards.) The Bible’s no more inspired than any other book, if God actually inspires people.

Better yet, let’s inspire ourselves to be kind. After all, if God empowers us to be kind, is it really kindness? It’s just God pulling our strings, isn’t it? Good news, though: We don’t need the Bible to tell us how to be good and we don’t need God to make us good.

All we need is ourselves—and each other.

 

Photo: IMG_5409 by Satanoid CC BY 2.0

 

The Bible makes sense when you realize it’s nonsensical — Part 1

Bible 2

Back when I was religious, I couldn’t get enough of the Bible. Its mysteries just prodded me to dig deeper. Soon enough, I found a series of books put out by one of the mega-Christian publishing houses devoted to the most well-worn doctrinal disputes. It was called the Counterpoints Collection and included such titles as “Five Views on Sanctification,” “Four Views on Eternal Security,” and “Four Views on the Lord’s Supper.”

And I read’ em all. Like I said, I couldn’t get enough.

The volume I want to talk about was “Five Views on Law and Gospel,” its existence engendered by the fact that the New Testament seems to speak with, at least, two voices about whether or not Christians must follow the Law of Moses. Sometimes the New Testament seems to say yes, sometimes no. The volume boasted the thoughts of five theologians:

  • One of whom posited a “non-theonomic reformed view of the use of the law.
  • One who argued for a “theonomic reformed approach.”
  • One who maintained that “the weightier issues of the law of Moses are binding on believers today”
  • One who advocated for “the dispensational view”
  • And one who proposed a “modified Lutheran approach with a clear antithesis between the Law and Gospel.”

(I’m still waiting to meet a Modified Lutheran. I suppose I’ll know him when I see him, won’t I?)

After reading this volume—and all the volumes in the Counterpoints Collection—one is left to fall back on some version of the familiar bulwark of the religious: “We’ll just have to ask God about this when we get to heaven.” Ah well. Makes sense. God is absolutely simple, yes, in that He is an undivided One, but he is mind-bogglingly complex. What were we thinking—assuming we could fathom scripture’s mysteries?

Or . . . maybe’s there’s another reason the Bible’s a mishmash. What if the Bible is all over the map on theological issues because it was written by men who were, literally and figuratively, all over the map? The riddles of the Bible suddenly make sense when you accept the fact that the book was written by hapless schlubs like ourselves, hopelessly prone to walking around with our flies open and being none the wiser—i.e. imprudent and clueless, just parading around with our wangs wobbling in the breeze and thinking we’re all that. Such folly. Stupid humans.

To wit:

The reason the New Testament speaks with varied voices on the issue of Law vs. Gospel is that different men with different opinions wrote different sections of scripture. For example, Jesus was all about obeying the Torah—hence his take on the final judgment:

A time is coming when all who are in their graves will hear his voice and come out—those who have done what is good will rise to live, and those who have done what is evil will rise to be condemned.

People who do good go to heaven. People who do bad go to hell. Jesus didn’t know anything about being washed of one’s sins by the blood of the lamb—amazing grace—as advocated 30 years later by the Apostle Paul.

Oh. . . so men wrote the Bible? That explains a lot!

Still, though, we’re stuck with the Bible, for better or worse. It’s a worldwide sacred and revered text, the Word of God, read in hundreds of languages and dialects, the number one bestselling book of all time, with billions of copies sold and a hundred million more sold each year. (In your face, Harry Potter.) The genie’s not going back into the bottle.

Look at the bright side. The Bible provides scant answers. But it makes us ask important questions.

We must view the Bible differently. The church that’s coming—and, make no mistake, the church will either spin a chrysalis about itself and reappear renewed or it will ossify like a McDonald’s French fry left under the passenger side seat—the church that’s coming will have a new view of the Bible. The Bible we have is not what God would have provided for us assuming He could have controlled everything. One hopes. He doesn’t, though—control everything.

That’s why Christendom is going to change or die. Believers must change the way they view God, doing away with outmoded ideas like omnipotence, change the way they view scripture, change the way they view the whole bloody undertaking we call religion. Change or die.

I blame the internet. More on that in a later post.

Photo: Bible by Lauri Rantala. CCBY 2.0

Can you be spiritual but not religious?

Lotus

More and more, when you ask Americans what creed they profess, they check the box that says “Spiritual But Not Religious.” I think what people mean when they say they’re Spiritual But Not Religious, is they have an inner sense of the divine that they’d prefer to keep to themselves, thank you. I have my spirituality. You have yours. Don’t harsh my vibe with your . . . religion. Spirituality’s all about the inward person, following one’s beatific impulses, one’s true self—all that stuff that Jiminy Cricket talked about. Religion, Religion’s all about rules—white men in robes with hair growing out of their ears forcing you to do something that doesn’t come naturally.

I don’t get it.

Spirituality—whatever that means, it must mean connecting with our best self. And our best self focuses outward. Trouble is, we’re selfish sons of bitches. I’ll take a leap: Original Sin—the focus on one’s self and one’s benefit—is the only Christian doctrine that is empirically verifiable. Consider history. It’s our self-interest that causes our woes. James 4:1-3: “What causes fights and quarrels among you? Don’t they come from your desires that battle within you? You desire but do not have, so you kill. You covet but you cannot get what you want, so you quarrel and fight. You do not have because you do not ask God.  When you ask, you do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, that you may spend what you get on your pleasures.” (Surprised I quote scripture? Don’t be. Nuggets exist amidst the dross—as much as one would expect in any document written by humans. See Does God Speak Through Scripture? Yes and No.)

I’d posit you are the most spiritual when you’re being the most religious—when you’re forcing yourself to do something you’d rather not. The spiritual person isn’t the person who is empowered by God. The spiritual person is the person who swears under his breath about the particular pain in the ass who is monopolizing his study time yet puts down his book and engages in an encouraging conversation, lends a hand. A spiritual person is not the person who is removed from the “cares of this world.” The spiritual person is the person is sees the need and attends to it when they’d prefer not to.

Really what alternative do we have? If God gave you the power to sacrifice, it wouldn’t be a sacrifice. A sacrifice has to cost you something. Turns out, being selfless requires an extreme exertion of the self.

Fittingly—providentially?—that’s the way the universe works. We’re on our own. God doesn’t interact with the world/humans in any meaningful way. Me, I think He doesn’t because He can’t. That’s the nature of God. He is wholly other.

We are left to deal with the pains in the ass that wander into our lives with naught but own wits and gumption. Spiritual forces—if they exist—are unavailable to humankind. We aren’t tuned to that frequency. We are machines made out of meat. You can’t run a material machine on something other than matter—corn flakes and bean sprouts. Supplications and rainbows won’t do the trick. Get off your ass.

So don’t worry about being spiritual. Worry about being more human. But consider yourself warned: It’s damn hard work and God is no help whatsoever.

John Draper is the author of the novel A Danger to God Himself

Photo: Meditating by Take back your health conference’s photostream CC BY 2.0

 

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John Draper is the author of the novel A Danger to God Himself