Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Aromatherapy or death; or The Emerging Church Movement makes me a Christian agnostic

Seven out of ten kids who are churchgoing at age 18 aren't by age 30.

I could mention oodles of ways in which the church is 'irrelevant' to today's culture, but other people are better at complaining about that than I am.

The cliché response from the church to culture losing interest is to become more fundamentalist. Some churches see that the kids have quit going to church and started square dancing on Saturday night, so they start teaching that square dancing is sinful, it must be, because why else would kids stop going to church?

I've seen a more nuanced response in movements like the contemporary church, emergent church, and seeker-sensitive movements. These movements make it harder for me to believe that God exists.

I suppose these movements have diverse roots, but it seems that the theory behind all of them is that people aren't interested in Christianity because they're not aware of how it relates to their lives.

The phrase 'felt needs' pops up a lot. Back in the sixties, it was more common in evangelism to start the sales job with explaining to marks that they are sinners and are thus damned, and finish with a message about how Jesus will save them from hell if they become Christians.

These newer movements drop the first part of the sales job, because most sinners evidently don't feel like sin is their top problem. The modern strategy is to figure out if someone's looking for community, or healing, or entertainment, or financial stability, and then show them how Jesus can give them that.

If we can make Christianity look more like Pacific Northwest hipster spirituality with yoga mats and candles and incense and craft beer, so much the better.

This doesn't work as well as you'd think.

If you have a non-Christian friend you're trying to convert, and he drinks fair-trade coffee and is militant about recycling, the new strategy is to tell this friend about how Jesus is a militant environmentalist and social justice guru, which is true, but telling people about what Jesus likes isn't the same as encountering Jesus.

There's not a lot of magic to meeting felt needs. Christianity has to give a better sort of peace than can be had from meditation or aromatherapy. Christianity can't just meet a human need for community; people make clubs about tea and model railroads and knitting, we socialize based on who we're related to and where we live. Christianity must lead to an altogether different kind of community. Christians should use knowledge from psychology to heal people's souls, but Christianity has to provide a healing that psychology can't explain.

Relative to Jesus, things like aromatherapy, the Rotary Club, and talking cures are smaller and safer and more believable. Jesus is impossibly hard to believe in and he requires extreme things of us. If you're looking for fulfillment or esteem or peace, Christianity is probably not the shortest path to those things; at least, Jesus didn't seem to think so.

When a non-Christian finds their felt needs met in the church rather than in Jesus, this is a tragedy. If the church makes it too easy for outsiders by fulfilling their felt needs, they might stop short of a dangerous and real relationship with God.

Grandma doesn't have a good marketing department, she doesn't wear cool clothes, she doesn't listen to indie music, she doesn't have a trendy haircut, she's afraid of computers. She used her microwave as a breadbox. I wouldn't have it any other way, because Grandma and I love each other. Movements in Christianity that respond to culture's indifference to the church by trying to make Christianity more relevant scare me, because the church's job isn't relevance, its job is to be God's house, and God is content with living in a tent. The church's job isn't to make God exist, that's God's job. If God is real, our response to culture's loss of interest in the church ought to be faithful reliance on God to demonstrate himself on his own terms. It isn't.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Belief in God is impossible in two ways

When I was a believing Christian, I wondered why it was that it wasn't obvious to nonbelievers that God is real. I figured that it must be that they were biased and dishonest. For some reason, they didn't want to believe in God. I thought of Romans 1, where Paul talks about how the people who don't follow God deny that God is obvious because they 'became futile in their thinking, and their senseless minds were darkened'.

From Boğaziçi, Asia, New Year

When I stopped believing in God, many of my believing friends thought that there were only bad reasons for not believing in God, that people who don't believe in God don't believe because they are dishonest and biased. These friends had different theories as to why I doubted. Some thought that I was confused and going through a phase and figuring things out, but, at this point, my doubt doesn't look like a mere phase. Some thought I just didn't have enough information, but I've read stacks of books. Some thought it was in response to some suffering that I'd experienced that I was blaming God for, but I can imagine a good God that allows hangnails and horrible professors to exist (I have a big imagination).

This is doubly painful. I feel pain because I want God to be real but he doesn't seem real. Hurt is piled on top of that when my believing friends think that I don't believe in God because, at my core, I don't want to.

One reason why people don't believe in God is because people are small, in a petty sort of way. Another reason is that God is big, in a perplexing sort of way.

Five words into the Bible, 'In the beginning, God created', good theologians give up theology as a job and become truck drivers or moms or professors. If God is perfect, why did he create something imperfect? If God is perfect, why would he create anything at all? Christianity teaches that creation is under God and in God, but it is not God, and that's a flat logical contradiction. It's not a seeming paradox, such that if we attain some sort of heavenly enlightenment, the doctrine of creation will make logical sense; we might believe it more easily with more enlightenment, but it won't ever make sense.

For things that are very impossible, very strong evidence of very impossible things is required. I need more than second-hand stories about someone thinking that God told them something or cancer going into remission or a bag of groceries being left on a doorstep in a time of need. These things might be unlikely, but God existing is less likely, if we're talking about the sort of God that's worth believing in at all.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009


I hear more about the Ten Commandments than the Ten Plagues. Why?

Monday, May 4, 2009

Mike Mike Mike and Bible numerology

When I was in high school, my two best friends at school were both named Mike. Both were upwards of six feet tall and somewhere in the neighborhood of 200 pounds. I was five foot five and three-quarters and skinny enough to crawl through air conditioner vents. We were all conservative Christians. We'd eat lunch together at the loser table in the cafeteria.

One Mike and I were in most of the same classes. We fought for the top grades, and he generally beat me. We sat next to each other on the bus. We had been in the same gym class in middle school, and had been partners in badminton.

We were in Mr Little's Earth Science class together. The first unit was on geology, and Mr Little talked a lot about how the earth was billions of years old and how we could know that.

Of course, Mike and I knew better than to trust things like radiometric dating; we were both young earth creationists.

I had been homeschooled from second through seventh grade. My seventh-grade science curriculum was supposed to be on 'Matter and Motion', that is, physics and chemistry. Every science book in that curriculum had a unit on birds and a unit on creationism. The key quotes that I remember are, 'Evolutionists date the fossils by the rocks, and they date the rocks by the fossils. This is circular reasoning.' and 'There was no entropy before the fall.'*.

So, on the bus ride home, on the first day that Mr Little lectured on the age of the earth, Mike and I talked about how we knew that that's just not true. I told him about how the earth's rotational speed was decreasing; if we were to back-extrapolate the earth's rotational speed to five billion years ago, the earth would have been flat as a pancake because of the centrifugal force.

In government class, Mike sat on my right and Jason sat on my left. On Halloween, Jason wore yellow pants that lit up like Christmas lights. Dan set in front of me. We made fun of Dan a lot, but I forget what we said that was amusing. Riley sat behind me.

Halfway through schoolyear, it came out somehow that Mike was a Jehovah's Witness. So were Jason, Dan, and that girl in English class. Mike said, 'We've got you surrounded!', jokingly. Riley was not a Jehovah's witness.

When I got home and told Mom and Dad, they showed me how to use the book, The Kingdom of the Cults, and they rented some videos from the Christian bookstore about the Jehovah's Witnesses, so that I would know how to defend my faith. I charted out on a napkin my main arguments, like how God's real name is Yahweh.

Later that week, the other Mike told me he was moving to North Carolina. I had lost both Mikes.

I was scared that I would succumb to Mike's propaganda and accidentally become a Jehovah's Witness; even though I am a good Calvinist, I was afraid that I would lose my salvation. I don't think I was particularly concerned about Mike's eternal soul.

Mike and I spent the rest of the school year trying to convert each other. We each put in a lot of time digging up the perfect Bible verse that would prove the other guy wrong. Mike gave me sticky notes with Bible verses to look up. A lot of his arguments required that I use his Bible, which translated John 1:1 as 'In [the] beginning the Word was, and the Word was with God, and the Word was a god.'

Our attempts at mutual evangelism were friendly and I eventually lost my fear of accidental conversion.

One of Mike's strangest arguments involved a verse from Revelation about a pregnant woman going into the desert for 'time, times, and half a time' (Revelation 12:14). Mike read this as 3.5 times; with one time being one thousand years (II Peter 3:8), for a total of 3500 years from the prophecy (585 BC) until the last judgment. Given that Jesus will reign for a millennium before the last judgment, Jesus was predicted to return in 1914. He did so invisibly, Mike said.

Also, it turned out that the other Mike wasn't actually planning on moving to North Carolina; he was just pranking us.


I was going to the hip contemporary church at this point; our youth leader was named Mike. He talked about grace a lot; he said that it is the thing that makes Christianity different from any other religion in the world. Mike talked a lot about his problems with road rage, and he was quick to confess how this was a consistent problem with him. He was free to talk about his shortcomings, though, because he believed in grace; he believed that repenting was more important than his reputation. He also taught us about the social gospel.

Mike told us about how he used to have a Jesus fish on his car, but he scraped it off because he didn't want Christians to look bad whenever he would cut somebody off.

There was a Christian video that Mike showed us a couple of times. It was made in the late seventies. It started with a college student waking up from a recurring dream in which he saw an old man wearing bib overalls, cutting down wheat with a scythe. This student was taking some college class in which he was told that religion isn't intellectually valid.

He started to doubt his faith, but, then, he came across an article that predicted Jesus' return to be imminent. The reasoning in the article was that, since a thousand years is as a day to the Lord, and Jesus was in the ground two days and rose on the third, and Jesus lived two thousand years ago, Jesus return must be soon, to usher in his millennial reign, the 'third day'. Also, the earth is six thousand years old, and it was made in six days, and the sabbath is the seventh day, so the earth is ready for a thousand-year sabbath, the millennial reign of Jesus.

The student got all set to make a big speech on campus based on the content of the paper. He then chickened out, and went to talk to the wife of the author of the article; on this visit, he saw a picture of her late husband, who was the man in bib overalls in his dream.

The student returned to campus. The student told the gathered crowd of skeptics that maybe the article isn't entirely sound, but we have lots of other reasons to think that Jesus is coming back soon; for example, Israel was re-formed as a state a mere thirty years ago. Even if Jesus isn't coming back soon, you never know when you will die, so you should go ahead and convert to Christianity, just in case.

After the movie ended, we talked about it, and Mike agreed that the Bible numerology was kind of hokum and that the story was kind of manipulative, but, he said, 'It makes a good point.'.

I was angry.


*If there was no entropy before the fall, then Adam and Eve must have been perfect crystalline solids.