What defines a Christian? Are you one? Take a moment right now and jot down a sentence or two, or simply gather some thoughts what this means to you. Done yet? For many the answer is the party line “I’ve accepted Jesus Christ as my savior”. This common answer is shortcoming. What does it mean?
I was raised in the ‘Bible Belt’ and was sent to a variety of Christian summer camps, bible schools, and attended some churches. The ‘Protestant work ethic’ was prevalent in the culture that I was submerged in. I did not know any Catholics or Jews or Muslims. And I certainly did not know any Atheists or any other religious followers such as Hindu, Shinto, Taoist, Buddhist, or Pagan. Anything other than the variety of Protestants around me in Southern Arkansas in the 70’s and 80’s was completely unknown. It never made the news, radio, t.v., and were only featured comically in the odd movie (For example Hare Krishna’s in the movie Airplane). This near total immersion in this Protestant culture, whether Pentecostal or Baptist or Methodist, helped to permeate another belief system of a fear of a place called Hell. The only church services that I can remember are those that played upon fears of the unknown, the hereafter, and Hell.
During my deployment to Desert Storm I saw a culture that was also totally immersed within a religion, only this time it was Islam. The parallels were striking to my young mind. I had always been looking for that deeper connection with the Source, Creator, God, whatever… and seeing this Islamic culture helped me get through the notion that perhaps our views on God were cultural. I could see that if you take ANY fervent believer in Christianity in America and have that person born in the Arab world, chances are that they would have grown up a fervent Muslim. This is not a claim against the beliefs of the religions, just illustrating the incredible gravitational pull of a culture’s total immersion within a religion.
I eventually found myself able to rid my mind of the shackles of the hellfire and brimstone fears. It has been two decades and I am free of the abusive manipulation of a belief in Hell. The Bible is not a singular document, or a single book as we tend to think of one. That is to say that it is not a book where a single author started to tell a story from start to finish. It is filled with a very large number of not just inconsistencies but also outright contradictions. It is, simply put, a collection of writings by a variety of people in a time when the great majority of the planet was illiterate (including the authors of some of the books of the Bible) and stories were passed down orally. In the first hundred to two hundred years of the Christian history almost all Christians were illiterate and, in the Roman Empire, met in houses and did not own any of the texts that would become the Bible at all and relied on orally transmitted stories and passages. The Christians were, at first, another offshoot of the Jews, which had several where some would consider themselves ‘more holy and devout’ than others and disagreements were rampant. The Christians, however, began to consider themselves NOT Jewish at all. A variety of beliefs and interpretations concerning the Christian cosmology were growing here and there, some at odds with others, and there would be large fights between the sects. Riots would break out at times and the Roman Army would step in to quell the fighting. Diocletian, one of the last Roman Emperors, had gotten tired of the Christians always fighting, meeting in groups, and their refusal to follow Roman custom of the Imperial Cult, along with simply being good neighbor to other religious temples as the Christians tended to decry other religions as false and evil. Not good for civic peace and stability, so he regularly sent in the troops and proclaimed Christianity illegal. Dying as a martyr was an instant way to Heaven and Christians were subjecting themselves to such a fate at alarming rates. So much so that many ‘Bishops’ (a term for a wealthy Christian who had a lot of pull, the Roman Catholics were not in power as of yet) started to spread a new belief that trumped the martyr belief, lest the fledgling religion lose all of its followers and die out.
It wasn’t until Constantine, the celebrated first Christian Emperor (though he was more a Pagan that was playing a political game than a ‘believer’) called a council of all the Bishops and others around the Roman world. There they would hash out their beliefs, as some believed in the divinity of Mary, others did not, some that Jesus was God, others that he was a prophet, some that there were 3 aspects of God, others that there were 1, others that there were infinite, some that we had sin, others that we didn’t, and so on. Simply put, there was simply NO consistency in Christian belief in the slightest from the very beginning at all. Constantine, tired of all of the fighting and failure to agree at the council, finally put down his foot and said “This is how it’s going to be” (I’m paraphrasing) and the documents that were gathered at the time for the Bible were in, those that were not on the table were out. There are versions of the Bible that have entirely different and extra books added to it, a fact that was interesting to me when I first discovered this as I was raised with only the King James Version (itself a re-write in a very, very long line of re-writes). It seems as if this contradictory history of Christianity, and the irregularities within the Bible, help to foster a strong reaction in many Christians. To better understand this one needs an introduction to what is called Cognitive Dissonance. That is, if a person believes A and finds out that A is not true, this creates a dissonance, two tones that are out of tune with other. It is a mental discomfort that doesn’t sit well. The person must then either live with the dissonance, nearly impossible, or adapt by disregarding the belief or disregarding the evidence and whichever is disregarded is then attacked and whatever is kept is elevated.
The story of Noah’s Arc is impossible. There is no vessel large enough to carry two of each animal, not enough supplies for food, logistical support, manpower to build such a vessel, and there is not enough hydrogen and oxygen to create enough water to cover the entire planet. If there was that much hydrogen in the atmosphere we’d be crushed under the weight.
But what was your first thought when you read that Noah’s Arc was impossible? If you are going on the offensive, feeling your blood pressure rise, then you are experiencing a side effect of your coping with cognitive dissonance.
This sounds incredibly harsh and mean and arrogant and attacking against Christians! Yes it is. Why? Because many so-called Christians have been incredibly arrogant and mean and harsh against everybody else and continually to push their agendas in all areas. Whether they clearcut a forest, drill for oil, destroy a wetland, or stripmine a hillside, they claim that their God gives them the right to do so. When a hurricane ravishes a coastline that is without its barrier wetlands and flooding reaches yet another level, when sickness spreads among the poor, they claim it is God’s judgment on the wicked. They claim that all life is sacred and will kill (or express sympathy for the killer) of abortion clinic workers, and support death row executions, while cutting funding and crying foul at every social service aimed to aid the poor avoid those situations. They will cry that they are persecuted and aren’t allowed to have ‘prayer in school’ while they continual push for Dominion (Christian based government… a lot like Sharia law if you ask me). Everywhere in the military we have Christian prayer at events, before ceremonies and award ceremonies, and yet it takes a long legal fight to get a simple headstone recognition for Pagan soldiers (Christians say that Paganism is evil, a falsehood, and devil-worshipping). Every now and then a news story comes up where someone might have lost a job because he or she was a Christian and the story is picked up and sensationalized, yet the harassment of non-Christians trying to practice their religion goes unnoticed and they are told to deal with it and not make a fuss. Pagans have lost child custody, their jobs, been imprisoned by jurors because they were ‘devil worshippers’, and been attacked. I know from experience that it is not at all easy to be a pagan in Southern Arkansas. Thankfully for me, not many people want to tangle with a former Marine over the matter, so I got a lot of mean stares and harassing phone calls.
But let us stop for a second and take a drive. It is a nice day and the sun is shining. We come around the bend and see a Christian church off to the side. It has a wooden cross atop its roof. We go inside to investigate. Since it is a weekday there is no service at the moment, but the doors are still open and the door creaks a little, echoing through the large room filled with pews. Stained glass windows of various scenes line the room and the sun’s brilliant rays shine through, painting the room with a variety of colors. It is very peaceful here.
Out walks the local ‘Shepherd’, call him a priest or a preacher, but he is still a shepherd. He has a warm smile and welcomes us. He has oven mitts on and he explains that he was helping some of the church youth with their bake sale. They are in the back kitchen baking a variety of breads and cookies they intend to sell in the community to raise funds for the homeless that come to their afternoon service. Every afternoon they have a short service preaching love and hope and giving out food to the homeless in the community. Amazed, we ask them how many are drug users looking for free food? We ask because another church we know of had a once a week service for the homeless but quit it (and the free food) because of the drug use occurring in the parking lot and that some of the participants were simply taking the handouts without ever trying to get better (lazy). The preacher looks at us and smiles and says that this church were followers of Christ. For some, he explained, this means to subject oneself obedient to some dogma and a fundamentalist version of the Bible, always living in the fears of a Hell, and viewing with paranoia the world around. Yet for his church they instead looked at the example that Christ lived. The preacher said that Christ said that “he was the way”. This is interpreted by some to mean obeying the dogmas of churches, but instead it means that the way to a happy and fulfilling life, a life that must included justice, he says, is to live a life ‘in the way of Christ’. That is, to love your neighbor as you would love Christ himself (look it up in the Bible), and that as psychology research shows, when we give of ourselves to those around us, we are happier than when we live purely for our own desires. It was true, he said, that there were drug use among those that came to the homeless outreach, and that some of the ones who came might be considered lazy by some. He reminds us that Christ loved all, no exceptions, and that the church did so as well. Charity, he said, sees the need… not the cause and that they exercised their faith through their actions. It wasn’t the role of the church, he said, to dictate the actions of others, but to be an immovable foundation of love that others, no matter how lost in self hate, abuse, or disease they might find themselves, can always… always turn to.
We were amazed. Such a rare message it seems. The preacher, reading our mind it seems, turns and points to the cross at the end of the chapel. The Christ, he said, was taken and crucified upon a cross in a horrific fashion. This story has been taken and melded with other belief systems and influences into one big story of fear about hell and a price of sin form Adam and Eve that someone had to pay lest all of mankind go into Hell, as though there is a price-tag that even God must pay (when he was the one who made and own the store, it seems). Instead of this interpretation, the preacher says, this church follows an alternate view in that instead of paying for sins it was an example of the ultimate love. Not for all of humanity to come, but instead love regarding those who vilified him, arrested him, and crucified him. Throughout it all, Christ showed the way to love everyone. There will always be someone who offends us or attacks us or seeks to do us harm. Yet it is possible to still love throughout all of this. The Church is the embodiment of this principle. Though people will attack it, take advantage of its programs and food and shelter, the church will continue to provide, to give assistance when it can, and to always… always love.