(This is gonna be a long one. Grab an adult beverage of your choice and maybe a snack… Also I am not a bible scholar, but I do read many books about the bible and ancient history. I will include some links at the end of the article.)
Before I start, I want you to know that I am an Agnostic. By that I mean I do believe in a higher power, not necessarily a sentient being, but a creator of sorts. It may be the Judaeo/Christian God (YHWH, Jehovah, Elohim or just God). It may be the Muslim Allah. It may have no name, gender or form. I really don’t know. But I do believe that this universe didn’t happen by chance. That’s just too many coincidences for me.
When I was a little kid my parents (mom specifically) would drop me off at church every Sunday morning whether I wanted to go or not. My older siblings, nor my parents had to go but I did. I would attend Sunday School and then meet with my age appropriate group afterwards. As I’ve said before, I’m rather introverted so this was very difficult for me, especially during those all important middle and high school years.
During these times, I had much trouble with the usual bible stories. A man swallowed by a fish and lives for three days? A “loving” god drowns the entire earth except for one family, that just happened to build a boat big enough to hold an enormous cargo of all types of animals? And why are there two different creation stories? If this bible is inerrant it doesn’t live up to its billing. And what’s up with heaven and hell? Again, how could a loving god condemn the majority of planet earth to hell just because they didn’t believe or understand a message? If god’s grace is unconditional, then it just doesn’t make sense to me. And there are many more questions where that came from.
The little UMC church I was forced into, early on was more on the liberal side than most. The pastor was well-known in the community as an outspoken critic of Vietnam, and when his daughter came out as gay he immediately started marching for gay rights. (He also had a very pretty wife that I admit I had a school boy crush on). He welcomed my questions and doubts and answered them as best he could. But unfortunately, his activism cost him his position in our church and he was moved elsewhere as Methodists tend to do.
But I continued to ask my questions. And by the age of 17 I was basically told that I don’t belong here, please leave before you corrupt any of the other youth. By then my parents didn’t seem to care if I went or not, so I stopped going.
Fast forward to 2001. My wife was attending a CBF Baptist church (mostly to appease her parents) but I didn’t go (she was raised in a very fundamental SBC church). The music minister and I somehow became acquainted and knowing that had I been a former radio DJ, asked me if I could help run the sound board for worship services. And for whatever reason I agreed.
Then we were asked to go on a retreat of sorts. This particular one was “The Walk To Emmaus” (other denominations have the same basic retreat under different names such as Tres Dias and Cursillo). I found the walk interesting and more what I thought a church (the people not the building) were supposed to be like. My wife and I got heavily involved in the local group.
Until (there’s always an “until” isn’t there? My wife posted a poem on Facebook that was attributed to Brigid of Ireland (before the Catholics took her out of pagan lore and made her a saint).
I should like a great lake of beer to give to God.
I should like the angels of Heaven to be tippling there for all eternity.
I should like the men of Heaven to live with me, to dance and sing.
If they wanted I’d put at their disposal vats of suffering
White cups of love I’d give them with a heart and a half.
Sweet pitchers of mercy I’d offer to every man.
I’d make heaven a cheerful spot,
Because the happy heart is true.
I’d make men happy for their own sakes.
I should like Jesus to be there too.
I’d like the people of heaven to gather from all the parishes around.
I’d give a special welcome to the women,
the three Marys of great renown.
I’d sit with the men, the women of God,
There by the great lake of beer
We’d be drinking good health forever,
And every drop would be a prayer.
Next thing you know my wife is getting assailed from a member of the community (a pastor’s son no less) about “heathen” posts. You know when a post starts out “Don’t take this the wrong way…” you’re going to take it the wrong way. That started the decline. (Wifey wrote a very polite rebuttal that basically told him to mind his own business. My reply would have been much more crude.)
Right around this time I was laid off from my job. At 50 years of age, with no real IT certifications (but 20+ years of experience) to my name it was very difficult to find a job. In fact I was out of regular work for about three and half years. During this time, no one in the community ever offered any kind of help for us. Although they were planning all kinds of fund-raising activities for other folks (including the person that was against the Brigid post). But all we received were well wishes, good luck!
“If one of you says to them, “Go In peace; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it? ~ James 2:16 NIV
By this time I was pretty much done with this organization. I no longer attended the monthly gatherings, and politely turned down any requests to serve on the weekend teams. My faith was quickly returning the 17-year-old me.
So now, the Jesus and Me part (sorry it took so long – but I did warn you).
There are enough extra-biblical sources to convince me that there was a historical man named Jesus that lived in first century Palestine and was crucified by the Romans under orders from Pontius Pilate. Was this man the “son of god”? I don’t think so. I’ve read several books on the historical Jesus, authors such as Bart D. Ehrman, Marcus J. Borg and John Dominic Crossan. All have different views as to the divinity of Jesus (I tend to think Ehrman is closest to my beliefs).
I also don’t believe that the words attributed to Jesus can be considered actual “quotes”. Scholars today agree that the first gospel written was “Mark” (the names on the gospels are not believed to be the actual authors of the writings. They were given these names centuries later). Mark’s gospel was written about 50 – 60 CE. Almost 25 – 30 years after the crucifixion of Jesus. I seriously doubt anyone could remember the exact words that were said that long ago. Hell, I have trouble remembering what anyone told me yesterday! Not to mention that the trial before Pilate, there was nobody else in the room! So how did the dialog come about? If Jesus’ disciples (and probably himself) were from a backwater town like Nazareth it is highly doubtful they were literate. Considering the gospels were written in Greek, and a very “formal” version of Greek, it’s a long shot that any of the gospels were actually written by a follower of Jesus.
Now that doesn’t mean I don’t think the bible is a falsehood. As another of my favorite authors, Pete Enns says, you have to take the bible in context of a first century Jew. Remember who they were writing for and why.
To me the words of Jesus (the “red-letter” words) may not by historical, but they are important. The gospel writers got the gist behind the stories and parables that Jesus may have said, that’s whats important. I think the teaching of Jesus, as recorded in the bible are relevant for today as much as they were for when they were written.
A pastor once slammed his bible on a table, pointed at it and said:
“This can be summed up as such: “Love your God with all your heart, with all your soul and with all your heart. And love your neighbor as yourself”.
That still resonates with me, even as I struggle to define “God”.
So all this to say, I believe in a creator (close to a pagan/Native American belief), a “Mother Earth and Father Sky” if you will. Jesus was historical, but not divine. But he was very in tune with this “creator” and was a very moral and wise teacher. His teachings have impact on the world today as much as they did some 2,000 years ago.
Maybe it’s my Pict roots that are calling me back to nature god/goddess pattern, I don’t know. But I will continue to search and learn.
Hope you will too. And please leave a comment. Let me know your thoughts and if you agree or disagree with me. I do believe we’re all in this together, and we need to be here for each other.
Links (in no particular order) go to the authors page on Amazon.
Bart D. Ehrman I especially liked his “Did Jesus Exist”, “Misquoting Jesus” and “Lost Christianities” but I have several others as well.
Rob Bell His “Love Wins” is an exceptionable book on why there is no Hell. “Velvet Elvis” was the first of his books I read.
Pete Enns “The Sin of Certanity” and “The Bible Tells Me So” really sparked my interest in going deeper into the history of the Bible.
John Shelby Sprong “The Fourth Gospel: Tales Of A Jewish Mystic” and “Biblical Literalism: A Gentile Heresy” are both excellent reads.
Brian D. McLaren “A Generous Orthodoxy” – probably the book that started it all for me.
“Brigid: History, Mystery and Magick of the Celtic Goddess” by Courtney Weber
“Our Great Big American God: A Short History Of Our Ever Growing Deity” by Matthew Paul Turner