It seems that wherever you find disaster you find Godsplainers - people ready to explain to you exactly why God made this terrible thing happen. No matter if it's a natural disaster like an earthquake or tsunami or a wholly man made one like a terrorist attack, the Godsplainers will tell you exactly which offense to the Almighty brought this about. Like the prophets of old, these good men and women help us make link the invisible cause to the tragic effect, links we would normally not have percieved - like the link between gays and terrorist attacks and 200 year old voodoo ceremonies and earthquakes for instance.
It's a wee bit baffling then that a recent disaster in Ohio is so absent of Godsplainers. Maybe no one is Godsplainin' this one because it's just a little too easy. I mean someone builds a 19 meter styrofoam and fibreglass image of God - thereby offending not only the Commandments but also good taste - and it then burns down after it gets struck by lightning it should be a bit of a no brainer right? Yet the good folks over Solid Rock Church seem completely baffled as to why their giant idol was burned to the ground. Is this perhaps a case of being blinded by a flash of the obvious?
We need some Godspainers out there STAT! They actually plan on rebuilding that monstrosity at the cost of $700 000 (it cost $250 000 to build originally). That's US dollars by the way, not Zimbabwean dollars. Is it just me or does that seem kinda excessive? For once it would seem like having some Godsplainers around would actually benefit the needy! On the other hand, who am I to judge? I'm sure the widows, orphans and homeless of Monroe will all feel better once the town has its giant plastic Jesus back!
Can you imagine being a fundamentalist in the days of Isaiah?
You live your life according to the rules of Scripture, you do the things it tells you to do and you shun the things it tells you to shun. Then all of a sudden along comes this guy and tells you that you are wrong. Worse, he claims that God is the one that thinks you are wrong! Just the other day you brought your sacrifices to the temple and now this guy proclaims:
""The multitude of your sacrifices – what are they to me?" says the LORD. "I have more than enough of burnt offerings, of rams and the fat of fattened animals; I have no pleasure in the blood of bulls and lambs and goats.
When you come to appear before me, who has asked this of you, this trampling of my courts?
Stop bringing meaningless offerings! Your incense is detestable to me. New Moons, Sabbaths and convocations – I cannot bear your evil assemblies.
Your New Moon festivals and your appointed feasts my soul hates. They have become a burden to me; I am weary of bearing them."
Doesn’t that just make you angry enough to stone the guy? How very dare he? God doesn’t want your sacrifices? Poppycock!! You know this Isaiah guy can’t possibly be speaking the Words of God because you know the Bible. You know that it was God who explicitly commanded those very things in the books of Moses. Sacrifices and incense and holy days weren’t your ideas, they were what God told you to do in the Bible! So where does this Isaiah get off claiming something different? Oh but wait, listen to what else he said:
"Learn to do right! Seek justice, encourage the oppressed. Defend the cause of the fatherless, plead the case of the widow."
Well now it all makes sense, doesn’t it? He is clearly one of those liberal socialist hippie types who care more about “social justice” than about the Truth of the Word of God.
Yeah, somehow I think the Jewish equivalent of a Bible Thumper at the time of Isaiah may be shocked to see how the Bible eventually turned out…
The point I’m trying to make here is that it is very possible to be doing what the Bible tells you while completely missing what the Bible is telling you. The reason I’m doing this is because I finally figured out what why the Manhattan Declaration bothered me so much.
See, from the moment I first heard about this document the wrongness of it made we want to blog about it and yet I had trouble pinning down exactly why it upset me the way it did. Here you have this document signed by thousands of Christians, including hundreds of the most prominent leaders of the Catholic, Evangelical and Orthodox churches and it basically states that the focus of Christianity should be the following 3 things:
Being against abortion,
Being against gay marriage and
Being for “Religious freedom” – which basically translates to the idea that Christians have the right to legislation against abortion and gay rights as well as the notion that they must fight all legislation supporting the legalization of abortion and gay marriage.
There is just so much wrong there that I had trouble knowing where to start! I finally get it now though. The big problem here is not the hypocrisy that characterizes so much of the “pro-life” and “sanctity of marriage” proponents. No, the problem here is the heartlessness of it all.
Basically, it tells Christians to be like my fictional Jewish Torah-thumper, to care more about bits of Biblical Law than about people who actually need our care. The Manhattan Declaration really shows its heartlessness by telling Christians not to care less about the heavyweight concerns of Scripture – the poor, the disenfranchised and the lost – and rather invest their energy in fighting against the featherweight concerns*. Claiming that sexual matters constitute a major theme in the Bible is like claiming Tom Bombadil is a major character in the Lord of the Rings trilogy. If you take every verse in the Bible even tangentially related to sexual matters and place it on one end of a scale and then drop every verse on poverty, money and social justice on the other end the sheer weight of those verses would launch the sex verses over the horizon like a catapult. How weird is it then that I can find large numbers of Christians who would happily condemn me for not condemning homosexuals but pretty much none who would condemn me for owning more than one warm jacket when there are people around me who have none?
I don’t know about you but I don’t have to try all that hard to imagine being a fundamentalist in the days of Isaiah – I already know because in many ways that’s exactly who I am. If Isaiah was here now, he would be pointing his finger at me and telling me that I am the one missing the will of God. He would be completely correct too, I am completely out of touch with the lion’s share of Biblical teaching – I don’t share with the poor, I’m not looking after the orphans and widows, not clothing the naked or feeding the hungry or seeking justice for the wronged. I have no defense, I’m guilty.
Its easy to make your religion be about following the parts you like with and only opposing those sins that actually offend you or set off your personal “ick” factor. Actually caring about people the way God commands on the other hand is really hard! Loving the unlovable doesn’t come naturally, at least it doesn’t for me.
I think we need more Isaiah’s. Or at least we need to listen more to the ones we already have.
* Think I’m exaggerating? Here is a quote from an interview with one of the men behind the Manhattan Declaration: “They say they also want to speak to younger Christians who have become engaged in issues like climate change and global poverty, and who are more accepting of homosexuality than their elders, the same source informs. They say they want to remind them that abortion, homosexuality and religious freedom are still paramount issues. “We argue that there is a hierarchy of issues,” said Charles Colson, a prominent evangelical who founded Prison Fellowship after serving time in prison for his role in the Watergate scandal. “A lot of the younger evangelicals say they’re all alike. We’re hoping to educate them that these are the three most important issues.””
See? He comes right out and says it, opposing the gays is more important than dealing with poverty.
To be against blasphemy one must be for it.
To oppose heresy one must allow it.
Does that seem contradictory to you? Hear me out.
To those who claim to love God and value His Word, things like blasphemy and heresy are perverse and destructive and therefore we keep them undiscussable, unmentionable, not up for debate. We consider such things taboo – they may not be talked about or even thought about. But I contend that blasphemy and heresy thrives in the dark, that it becomes stronger when it becomes untalkaboutable.
It is in our nature to build a fence around taboo ideas. Then to ensure that no one dwells to close to the fence we keep building wider and wider fences around the original offensive notion. Almost inevitably these fences will begin to include our pet peeves and prejudices. After a while, we start making more things taboo in the name of avoiding blasphemy and heresy when really it has become more about what we find offensive rather than what God may find offensive. This is the point when tradition starts to void the will of God. This is when people start to forget that “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath”. Over time, orthodoxy itself can become heresy. Religion itself can become blasphemous.
Think about it. Jesus and the Apostles were considered heretics by their theological peers. The first Christian martyr was executed as a blasphemer.
The Prophets weren’t persecuted by atheists.
What do we lose by engaging perceived heresy instead of silencing it? If we are right then we may gain a deeper understanding of our own position and we may win over either those who disagree with us or those who are undecided on the matter. At the very least it will give us a clearer understanding of the mind and motivation of those who disagree with us. There is of course also the chance that engaging that which we find offensive will bring us to new and different points of view. We may learn that we have been wrong all along and in these cases engagement offers us what silence never can – the opportunity for renewal. Is a religion that can live only in the silence of its critics really a religion worth following?
Regarding blasphemy, does the Bible not show God more than capable of either smiting or forgiving those who trespass against Him? Surely a deity who requires men to avenge offenses by other lowly men is not really deserving of the title?
So then I ask that you consider the following.
Which is the greater blasphemy? Is it to possibly offend a Being who is more than capable of vindicating Himself? Or is it to destroy – whether literally or figuratively – a man made in His Image?
Which is the greater heresy? Is it making a statement that goes against orthodoxy? Or is it being unwilling to even consider that not everything orthodox is right?
What is a Faith worth having? Is it something that crumbles when challenged or something that becomes purified by questioning?
Which is the more blasphemous act? To offend a Being great enough to forgive those who trespass against it or to presume to act on God’s behalf?
Which is the more heretical act? To question dogma when you could be mistaken or to enforce dogma when you could be mistaken?
Is it just me or does it really suck not to fit in? Now I know, there are many out there – mostly conspiracy theorists and emo teens – who revel in the fact that they are not one of the sheeple, going against the stream instead like someone in a whiskey ad. I don’t buy that though. If years of being a misfit have taught me anything it’s that most alleged non-conformists merely traded in one kind of herd mentality for another. If there is one thing a non-conformist hates even more than a conformist, it’s a non-conformist who fails to conform to the norms of non-conformity. Suffice it to say, I’ve been disabused of the notion that not fitting in is romantic in some way. It just sucks.
Besides, for me this isn’t about clothing or taste in music or even political views. If only my problems could be that trivial. Unfortunately the places I have trouble locating my place in just happen to be the very places human beings draw their sense of self and identity from, namely culture and religion. I can’t delude myself into believing that this somehow makes me special and enlightened because I suspect that I struggling with the same question that millions of my fellow human beings are struggling with. Culturally I know that it’s a rather confusing time to be a White Afrikaans South African, especially one who grew up in Apartheid South Africa. At this point you can’t really open a Sunday Newspaper without seeing some kind of debate in it regarding our place in this country (and whether we still have one). My cultural dilemma is slightly less academic though. Thing is, I was raised to be very patriotic and I grew up loving everything about my culture. But then 1994 came around and with it, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and I had to come to terms with the fact that not everything I believed about my culture was as true as I once believed. My dilemma therefore is that of a child learning suddenly that his parents are deeply flawed and imperfect human beings. I actually think that sums up my trouble with my faith as well. I used to be a True Believer, with unquestioning faith in God and the literal, infallible Truth of Scripture. Alas, just like my faith in the nobility of my culture had trouble surviving contact with the truth about Apartheid, my faith had trouble surviving contact with the Information Age.
So where does this leave me? I’ve noticed that most people seem to take one of two approaches. Some decide to shut their eyes and ears to all the questions and dissent and the nagging doubts and just hold on tighter. They find apologists who tell them what they need to hear, they distance themselves from all who disagree in even the slightest, they circle the wagons and they work at believing with all their might in the intrinsic rightness of their position. To combat doubt they become more patriotic, more fundamentalist and more separate. In other words, “My country/church/family/race right or wrong” (Cliché to be sure but we have those for a reason). This is not an option for me though, attractive as it may seem sometimes. While I envy the community and security these people seem to have I can’t pretend to not know what I know. I certainly can’t pretend that things I know are wrong are actually right. I definitely can’t pretend that any group can be free from wrongdoing (and wrongbeing).
On the other hand some people choose to distance themselves utterly and almost violently from their former identities. Just like I’ve seen some of my friends join Facebook groups where they can sit around all day telling each other what a magical happy time for everyone the Apartheid years were, I have friends that hardly even speak Afrikaans anymore. Seems that there is an entire generation out there of people who’s very identity rests on rejecting everything Afrikaans, Christian, Calvinist and Traditional. Now on the one hand, I don’t blame them since I agree that both culturally and religiously there are a lot of things worth rejecting. Heck if you’ve read a few posts on this blog you would be excused for thinking that’s what I’m all about too. You’d be excused, but you would be wrong.
See I can’t just take off my faith or my culture like an old pair of socks and pretend I never wore them. I did grow up as an Afrikaner and I did grow up as a fundamentalist, Pentecostal Christian. These things are part of me whether I like them or not. Yet while they may be part of me they are not me. Therein lies my sense of unbelonging. On the one hand I have to try and deal with the fact that not everything I once considered true and right is true or right. For this reason I can’t simply fit in and belong anymore. On the other hand I can’t pretend that nothing of what I once considered true and right was true or right. Whether we are talking about Charismatic Christians or Boere Afrikaners, these are people I spent most of my life with. As tempting as it would be, I can’t simply reduce these people to broad stereotypes in order to distance myself from them and all they stand for because I’ve known these people all my life. I’ve been “these people”. In some ways I guess I still am.
This leaves me stuck in the limbo of unbelonging. Worse, it leaves with in a world without certainty. I don’t get to live with the happy certainty of a true believer and I don’t get to live with the renewed certainty that comes with rejecting all that you believe is wrong. But I guess that gives me a reason to keep blogging. At least here I have room to keep searching, to keep asking questions. Maybe in time I will learn to ask the right questions. Maybe not though, maybe I’m just starting down a very long and uncertain road. I guess there is no way to know that right now and that too kinda sucks. I’m human after all, I crave certainty, I want to know I’m right, I long to believe in a group of my own. I’m often tempted to follow those who seem so certain of themselves, who seem to have it all worked out so much better than me. I just happen to be unable to do that right now.
But before I start sounding like the emo teens I disparaged not so long ago, I have to add that I am becoming more and more appreciative of one particular form of questioning certainty – satire. When someone questions and confronts the beliefs we hold dear it’s easy to become adversarial in return and not consider that some of that criticism may be valid. When properly done, humour seems to circumvent that response entirely and (when done right) may even cause us to pause and reconsider some of our most dearly held beliefs. In my previous blog you may remember one of the so called “New Mystics” pontificating about how their ridiculous “Tokin’ the Ghost” rituals are actually powerful tools to break down religious mindsets. It’s really not though, its just really stupid. Now compare the following video:
See? Now THAT is how you break down religious mindsets you air sipping, Bible sniffing, pretentious halfwits! Satire is an incredibly powerful weapon when used right. It can do more than just confront you with truth or questions. It can get you to honestly ask the really important questions yourself. Questions like: Do I really sound that silly? Do I really come across like that big a douche? Could I really be such a hypocrite? No matter if it’s political, cultural or religious, if it is that easy for people to make fun of you maybe its time to pause and ask yourself why.
Now I freely admit, I’m still a novice – which is why my attempts at satire may sometimes come across more like mocking. Oh who am I fooling, maybe sometimes it really is mocking instead of satire. Usually though in my own imperfect way, I’m just trying to tell my friends, my family, myself, my nation and my fellow Christians one thing:
You may crazy and ridiculous and sometimes you completely embarrass me but I still love you all. The only reason I mock you and make fun of you and challenge your ideas is because I think you are worth saving. You may be wrong about so much but I still think there are things worth keeping about you.
I spent most of my life as a fundamentalist and discovered Reason much later than I would have liked. I'm still dealing with the trauma and this blog is my therapy. So this is me: non-conformist, heretic, fan of delicious flavour and a man without a home. I’m a cynical optimist and a really angry zen master. I am just a man trying to make sense of it all. This is my life in juxtaposition.