Religion: Who Cares?

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In my last blog post, I talked about how little thought people actually put into their religion, even as those same people claim religion is the most important thing in their lives. A recent article in The Christian Century confirms this problem in a longitudinal study of emerging adults and their beliefs. (Seven Spiritual Beliefs of Young Adults) What emerges from the study is that those studied have the sense that they can trust their own instincts about religion, morality, and spirituality without giving the matter any real thought.

I can’t help but see this same trust in personal instinct in the way Mr. Trump approaches…well, everything. He believes his own gut feelings have more validity than the word of experts in any given field. We see this clearly in his daily COVID-19 briefings. The current tendency to dismiss expert advice is not limited to Trump. Is this prioritizing of one’s own inner sense over evidence and expert testimony a symptom of our culture’s longtime conviction of American exceptionalism? Or is it a recent phenomenon?

With regard to emerging adults and their relation to religion, the fact that they trust their own instinct to form a personal belief system may be a sign of the fading importance of religion. As the article states, “[A]ttaining religious knowledge is no different from learning other things: it takes an explicit effort.” If people are unwilling to put in that effort, the result is an uninformed belief system. In a country that consistently gives privileged status to religion, we either need to take the time to formulate intelligent decisions about religion, or acknowledge that religion isn’t that important after all and take away its position of privilege.

Choosing My Religion

“Above all else, a god needs compassion.” – James T. Kirk

There are a lot of people pounding their Bibles, using it to justify whatever pet cause they have in mind, claiming they have the right to do whatever it is they want to do in the name of their Freedom of Religion. These people say God, the Bible, and their Faith are the most important things in the world for them—that their religion is, to borrow a phrase from Paul Tillich (although most of them wouldn’t know Paul Tillich from Kim Kardashian), the “ground of their being.” Most of these people put more thought into what color socks to wear than they do into their religion.

Stop and think for a moment: Did you choose your religion, or was it chosen for you? Go further: What do you really know about your own religion? About other religions? Why is it important to you? How is it informing your actions?

I’m not going to attempt to answer all of these questions in one short blog post. In fact, I’m not really able to answer them at all, because they are for you to answer. Too often, we—all of us—don’t want to do the heavy thinking. It’s hard. When someone, or some system, comes along that promises to do the thinking for us, it’s tempting to jump at the offer. I don’t mean we should ignore everyone and stick entirely to our own counsel; we have a president now who tends to do exactly that, and it’s not pretty. Absolutely we need to listen to experts. We need to learn from the words of the wise people who have come before us. We owe it to ourselves and to posterity to be broadly informed. BROADLY informed. Then we need to think.

This applies to politics, to our jobs, to how we manage our daily lives, and to our choice of religion. Because it is a choice. Choose wisely, because how we decide matters.

No One Is Alone

Psalm 139

“You know when I leave and when I get back;
I’m never out of your sight

I look behind me and you’re there,
Then up ahead and you’re there too—

Is there anyplace I can go to avoid your Spirit?
To be out of your sight?”
The Message

The words of the Psalmist are calming, but also cautionary. On the one hand, it’s nice to know I am not alone. What greater comfort could there possibly be than to be assured that an all-powerful God is by my side? It’s like having the ultimate bodyguard!

But there is a catch. This constant companion knows me and my secrets, even the ones I would rather remain unknown. No, there is nowhere I can go to avoid the Lord. I am never out of the Lord’s sight. Those little things I think will not be noticed? They are noticed! Little transgressions I think I can get away with—I can’t.

I am reminded of Stephen Sondheim’s brilliant musical, Into the Woods. As has been the case with me and many Sondheim shows, I didn’t care for Into the Woods the first time I saw it. (I’m talking about the stage production, not the movie, which I still haven’t seen.) But I knew from experience that Sondheim sometimes requires repeated watching-listening-reading-thinking. You could easily see Into the Woods and come away with little more than, “Well, that was a fun retelling of some classic fairy tales!” That’s not wrong, but that’s also not all there is.

Take these lyrics:

“No one is alone
Truly
No one is alone”

Nice, right? Yes, but…

“Careful the things you say,
Children will listen.
Careful the things you do,
Children will see.
And learn.”

We are not alone, and that comes with a responsibility. Our words and actions act as guides to those around us, so we must be careful. No one is alone. As Kurt Vonnegut wrote, “We are who we pretend to be, so we must be very careful about what we pretend to be.” Children see. The Lord sees.

No one is alone. Be comforted, but also be careful.

Old Testament

Israel Conquers Ai (Joshua 8), wood engraving, published in 1877

There are those who agree with Ned Flanders that the Bible is made up of two parts: the Old Testament, and the New AND BETTER Testament. There are people who would like to do away with the Old Testament altogether. But even though some of it is rough going, the Old Testament is worth keeping. And since nearly ¾ of the Christian Bible is devoted to it, plenty of other people must have thought so too.

There is no question that the Old Testament has its difficulties, or rather WE have difficulties with parts of the Old Testament. There’s the violence, which is seemingly everywhere, but here is one sample: “With their swords they killed everyone in the city, men and women, young and old. They also killed the cattle, sheep, and donkeys.” (Joshua 6:21). The mind-numbing strings of names (1 Chronicles devotes NINE chapters to this). There are the bits which are morally questionable in every way (Judges 19). And there are long sections that are comically repetitious. Numbers 7 gives a detailed list of the offerings brought by the tribe of Judah to the newly anointed Tent of the Lord’s presence, then follows it up with lists of the offerings from each of the other eleven tribes…even though all twelve of the lists are identical!

And everyone who has attempted to wade through Leviticus knows that it is sheer torture.
BLOFELD: “So you have decided not to cooperate, Mr. Bond. Well, read Leviticus in its entirety!”
JAMES BOND: “I’ll talk! I’ll talk!”

In spite of all this, we need to see the Old Testament as more than a lengthy introduction to the New Testament. The breadth and richness of the writing alone is staggering. The Bible has come down to us as a whole, and however messy the process of putting it all together most assuredly was, we need to accept it as a whole. It’s all there for a reason: the good, the bad, and the ugly. When confronted with a passage that seems pointless or just plain yucky, don’t skip over it Ask yourself why it’s there. What role does it play in the work as a whole? Who put it there and why? I come back again and again to the questions posed by Peter Enns and Jared Byas in their podcast, The Bible for Normal People:
What is the Bible, and what do we do with it?

The Old Testament is full of treasure—start digging!

Crystal Clear Bible!

crystal clear bible

“Are you tired of ambiguity? Sick of long passages of meaningless genealogies and obsolete laws? Embarrassed by sex scenes?

“Well, fear no more! The new Crystal Clear Bible is here! All the answers you seek to life’s problems and today’s hot button issues can be found in easy to digest, tweetable chunks. No more contractions! No more room for interpretation! It’s all crystal clear! In less than 300 pages!

“Your favorite stories are included, minus the nasty bits. Distracting tangents have been eliminated. Problematic wording has been glossed over with feel-good aphorisms. Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs, Ruth, and Job: Gone! Proverbs has been brought into alignment with current prosperity gospel thinking. Difficult foreign names have been Americanized because the Bible was written, after all, with the United States in mind.

“Take advantage of these helpful extras: Enjoy reading while you listen to your favorite contemporary Christian choruses using our handy praise tune concordance! Useful talking points are printed in red letters! Explanatory notes highlight allowable exceptions to the Ten Commandments. We have thoughtfully toned down Jesus’ anti-establishment rhetoric, and substituted family friendly quotes that we’re sure are what he actually meant to say.

“Buy now and receive a handy wallet card that puts the Bible’s main points at your fingertips. It’s all crystal clear!”
* * * * *
This was written after I attended a recent church meeting in which a contentious issue took center stage. One angry congregant rose to say, “Why are we even discussing this? The Bible is crystal clear!” This person went on to claim that opposing viewpoints were “dumbing down the Bible.” I would like to submit that dumbing down the Bible happens when we read it in a manner to make it appear crystal clear. To read it in such a simplistic manner is an insult to a tremendously complex and difficult book. It is also an insult to the reader. This is following sola scriptura to its logical and dangerous conclusion: that we set aside our brains whenever we open the Bible. This is, as Richard Rohr says, turning the Bible itself into an idol.

Bible study demands that we bring a lot to the table, including our experience, our knowledge, and our best thinking caps. To borrow a bit of advice from Peter Enns, we should ask ourselves two questions:

  1. What is the Bible?
  2. What do we do with it?

Those questions are tougher than they first appear (They are NOT crystal clear!), but we ignore them at our peril.

Calling: Ministry? (shhh!)

Bibles 2

While I’ve experienced nothing as dramatic as a burning bush, a blinding light, or a voice from God, lately I have been feeling a most unexpected calling: to the ministry. There’s something I didn’t expect! Though I’ve long been interested in religion and theology, and fascinated by the Bible in all its sprawling messiness, an actual career in ministry has never been on my radar. So why am I now feeling the urge to go to seminary? I’m not sure I believe in God, and don’t even like people all that much!

Well, the first thing to recognize is that seminaries have evolved beyond what they were when I first attended college back in the primeval past. (I’m so old we had to run from dinosaurs on the way to school, dodging around pools of molten lava where the Earth’s crust was still cooling.) It used to be that if you wanted to be a Methodist preacher, you went to a Methodist seminary; if you wanted to be a Baptist preacher, you went to a Baptist seminary, etc. Seminaries were there to make preachers in whatever denomination they worked with. These days, seminaries (at least some of them) are much more academic and much more diverse. A seminary may welcome students from a wide variety of religious and non-religious backgrounds. This phenomenon was highlighted in a 2015 New York Times article called Secular, but Feeling a Call to Divinity School.

In my own case, after many years of avoiding church like the plague, I have oozed my way back in, first as a substitute choir accompanist, and now as an actual church employee. Though I initially looked on the whole project as “just another gig,” the experience has rekindled my earlier passion for theology. I’ve been enjoying a whole new crop of books, podcasts, and YouTube channels that prove “religious” and “intelligent” can be compatible terms. I’m absorbing—sometimes in agreement, sometimes not—the words of Miroslav Volf, N. T. Wright, Richard Rohr, Frederick Buechner, Rachel Held Evans, Nicholas Wolterstorff, and others. And I’m wanting to dive deeper.

But seminary? At my age? Really?

At this point, everything about the endeavor feels like a long shot. Applying to school, being accepted, paying for it, juggling that along with job, family, and other commitments—these are all big hurdles. Not to mention navigating the many side-effects such a radical life change may bring. It feels, with only minor exaggeration, as dramatic as Ebeneezer Scrooge’s transformation. “I am as light as a feather, I am as happy as an angel, I am as merry as a schoolboy. I am as giddy as a drunken man.” I keep thinking of how Scrooge’s acquaintances and family reacted to the new Scrooge with shock and disbelief.

It’s too soon to think about any of that. For now, I am still in a period of exploration and contemplation. There will be much private meditation and many conversations ahead.

Stumbling Blocks

I recently read the book Inspired: Slaying Giants, Walking on Water, and Loving the Bible Again by Rachel Held Evans. As I did not know much about the author, I did a little online research on her. Among other things, I learned that Held Evans died tragically and unexpectedly at the young age of 37 from complications involving allergic reaction to medication. I also learned that I think I would have liked her, and am now curious to read more of her writing.

As is not surprising when looking up anything remotely involving religion online, I found widely polarized opinions about her. For example, an article from a conservative religious website claimed Held Evans was leading people to hell for daring to harbor and express doubt. (To put things into context: This same website condemned contemporary Christian singer Lauren Daigle for NOT condemning homosexuals.)

On Goodreads, reviews for Inspired tend to be raves or rants. In the latter category, one reviewer went on at length about what he or she considered Held Evans’s flawed theology, even putting the book on a “false teaching” shelf. (The possibility that this person’s own theology might be flawed is apparently out of the question.) Near the end of the scathing review, comes this line: “I advise readers to not eat up every book they read as true, but to examine everything with care and in light of the scripture.” In other words, scripture itself is not to be questioned nor is this person’s interpretation of it. I would like to advise the reviewer “to not eat up every book they read as true, but to examine everything with care,” INCLUDING scripture! (I opted not to engage in argument in the Goodreads comments.)

This highlights a very real problem for Christianity. How does a tolerant person deal with intolerance? How does someone willing to harbor doubts and ask questions confront someone who would never entertain the possibility of their own fallibility?

If you want to find ways to weaponize the Bible, it’s not hard. Want to keep women subjugated to men? Plenty of justification for it in scripture! Want to condemn homosexuality? Got it covered! Support for slavery? Too easy! Xenophobia, genocide, polygamy, incest? Check, check, check, check. Any pet prejudice can probably find support someone in the Bible, given the proper spin (sometimes requiring very little spin at all!)

For those of us who want to follow the Jesus we hear preaching the Sermon on the Mount (Mt. 5-7), this poses a stumbling block. It is hard to support the Christian church when so many of its loudest voices are those preaching intolerance, bigotry, and hate. It’s hard to admit to being a Christian when so often the church has come down on the wrong side of history. How does one stay inspired?