Thoughts of a former evangelical Christian

Archive for April, 2010|Monthly archive page

Crucifying the Self

In Christianity as Tribalism: Cultivating a Tribal Identity on April 28, 2010 at 6:22 pm

Through conversion, however, one achieves an absolutely new beginning. One’s life is divided in half. Split between B.C. and A.D. Everything one once was is washed away. Everything one now is is its antithesis….  One could say that conversion transforms the self, but it would be more appropriate to say that it annihilates it. That is in fact its function….  Here, then, is the real truth of conversion. Fear and hatred of the psyche and a desperate desire to be rid of it….

Walter A. Davis, “The Psychology of Christian Fundamentalism”

      In my mid-teens, I fervently meditated on the renunciate passages of the Bible.  One of the most profound verses of the whole Bible to my adolescent mind was John 3:30, where John the Baptist said this of Jesus and himself:

 “He must increase, but I must decrease.” (KJV)

This crisply spoken verse summed up the self-renunciation theology at the heart of Christian discipleship.

Jesus said that “[w]hoever tries to keep his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life will preserve it.”  (Luke 17:33).  The concepts of “decreasing” and “losing” one’s life for Christ, however, didn’t completely express how thorough this renunciation had to be.

To really “lose” my life in order to follow Christ, I needed to hate my life:

“The man who loves his life will lose it, while the man who hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life.”  (John 12:25)

“If anyone comes to me and does not hate his father and mother, his wife and children, his brothers and sisters—yes, even his own life—he cannot be my disciple.” (Luke 14:26)

And so I learned to hate myself.  And why shouldn’t I?  From an early age, countless Good News Club bible stories and Sunday School curriculum lessons had relentlessly pressed the dogma that God hated sin so much that it had to be punished with death.   I already knew I was by nature bad, so I had already internalized some self-hatred.  As a teenager, I contemplated passages like this: “If anyone thinks he is something when he is nothing, he deceives himself.”  (Galatians 6:3).  “I know that nothing good lives in me, that is, in my sinful nature.”  (Romans 7:18).  My natural self was so abhorrent that I had “become worthless” (Romans 2:12).  I was, “by nature [an] object[] of wrath” (Ephesians 2:3).

Next, I began to crucify myself.  This, I learned, was an essential part of the process of “sanctification.”  Although I didn’t practice physical self-mutilation, I practiced a mental self-mutilation that was just as damaging.

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Child Evangelism Fellowship’s “Life of David” Flannel Graph Series

In Child Evangelism Fellowship, Christianity as Tribalism: Initiation, Good News Club on April 22, 2010 at 5:09 am

Believers with whom I have shared my long-going crisis of faith and more recent deconversion tell me that I dwelled too much on sin and God’s justice and not enough on God’s grace and love.

Many believers don’t know – or refuse to acknowledge – how relentlessly and obsessively sin, shame, obedience, and eternal punishment are stressed in evangelical Sunday School and Bible Club curriculums.

Child Evangelism Fellowship’s Good News Club bible lesson books are particularly egregious.  As a child between the tender ages of 7 and 10, I must have gone to at least 50 Good News Club bible lessons.  I remember learning flannel graph stories from almost every one of the 12 different Old Testament lesson books (6 lessons each) available on Child Evangelism Fellowship’s online store.

Over the past week, I have looked over several Good News Club flannel graph bible lesson books handed down to us for the purpose of instructing our son.  We have six of them:

  • The Life of the Prophet Elijah, by Ruth Overholtzer (Child Evangelism Fellowship 1967)
  • Life of David, Vol. One, by Katherine Hershey (Child Evangelism Fellowship 1972)
  • Life of David, Vol. Two, by Katherine Hershey (Child Evangelism Fellowship 1973)
  • Ruth: The Story of Redemption, by Matilda Alexander (Child Evangelism Fellowship 1972)
  • The Life of the Prophet Daniel, by Ruth Overholtzer (Child Evangelism Fellowship 1974)
  • Esther, by Beatrice Holenbeck (Child Evangelism Fellowship 1964)

These lesson books are utterly disturbing.  The moral of almost every lesson is that complete and unconditional obedience is the highest good.  Every lesson relentlessly presses the concept that every little boy and girl is utterly sinful, unable unless saved to resist any sin, how much God hates sin, how sin must be punished, and how the punishment for sin is death and eternal separation from God.  These concepts are emphatically, repeatedly, and inappropriately stuffed into the explanation of every Old Testament Bible story.  Each lesson also aggressively emphasizes that to avoid eternal death, the child must believe he or she is a sinner and that Jesus died for his or her sins.

To illustrate, I share some excerpts from the twelve lessons – in two volumes – on the Life of David in CEF’s flannel graph series.

Lesson One discusses how Israel disappointed God by wanting a king (Saul), and admonishes children that to want their own way is sin, that the wages of sin is death, and that Jesus had to die for their sins (page 4):

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The Freedom to Search

In Christianity as Tribalism: Leaving the Tribe on April 21, 2010 at 5:18 am

“From one man he made every nation of men, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he determined the times set for them and the exact places where they should live.  God did this so that men would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from each one of us. ‘For in him we live and move and have our being.’ As some of your own poets have said, ‘We are his offspring.’”  Acts 17:26-28.

Imagine growing up without the Bible, without Christianity, without a creedal dogmatism that demanded your submission, and without its threat of hell.

Imagine being free to search for meaning, value, and purpose in life.  Imagine being free to ponder your temporally and spatially limited existence in the context of the vast universe and the vastness of time.

Freed from the dictates of your parent’s or your culture’s theology, what would you reach for?  What might you find?

Confronting the profound silence of the universe, would you imagine – or expect to find – Yahweh?  The jealous, violent, and mercurial war deity of an ancient Bronze Age tribe that commanded the slaughter of Amalekite infants and children (I Samuel 15), who burned with lethal anger against Uzzah for reflexively touching the ark in an effort to steady it (2 Samuel 6), who commanded Israelites to stone a man to death for gathering sticks on the Sabbath (Numbers 15:32-36), and whom the Bible documents with either carrying out, or approving, 154 separate killings?

Would you expect to discover a Creator of our vast universe that demanded a human sacrifice to atone for sin and placate his wrath?  Would you expect to find a deity that created billions in “His image and likeness,” but “prepared” most of them “for destruction” and “wrath” in a place of eternal conscious torment in order “to make the riches of his glory known” (Rom. 9:22-24)? 

Would you reach out for that deity, worship it, surrender your whole life to it, and explain away all that violence and madness as a manifestation of the deity’s “holiness” and “higher” and “mysterious” ways?

Well, I did, for decades.  And most evangelical Christians do too.  But even the Biblical God – according to Acts – deliberately placed some people in circumstances where they would not be exposed to his sacred text, because he wanted them to seek God in their own way (Acts 17:26-28; see also Acts 14:16).  Even the Biblical God gave them that freedom.

As a believer, I pondered Acts 17:26-28 and grew increasingly jealous of their freedom.  I never had that freedom.  I was relentlessly taught, from an early age, a gospel of salvation by creedal commitment.  I was forcefully taught that the Biblical God would condemn me to eternal conscious torment if I did not believe.

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“Good News Club” on the Slaughter of the Amalekites

In Child Evangelism Fellowship, Christianity as Tribalism: Initiation, Good News Club on April 19, 2010 at 2:09 am

One of the most horrifying narratives in all of the Bible — a blasphemy if there be a good God in heaven — is in I Samuel 15, where God is credited with commanding the Israelites to slaughter the Amalekites completely, including “women, children, and infants.”

Samuel said to Saul, “I am the one the LORD sent to anoint you king over his people Israel; so listen now to the message from the LORD.   This is what the LORD Almighty says: ‘I will punish the Amalekites for what they did to Israel when they waylaid them as they came up from Egypt.  Now go, attack the Amalekites and totally destroy everything that belongs to them. Do not spare them; put to death men and women, children and infants, cattle and sheep, camels and donkeys.’ “

The I Samuel narrative continues with how Saul carried out the genocide — “all his people he totally destroyed with the sword” (v. 8′) — but disobeyed God by sparing king Agag and some animals.  The prophet Samuel rebuked Saul for sparing even one person: “The LORD anointed you king over Israel.  And he sent you on a mission, saying, ‘Go and completely destroy those wicked people, the Amalekites; make war on them until you have wiped them out.’  Why did you not obey the LORD ?”  (v. 17-19).

Ranked one of God’s Top 50 Killings, you might be surprised to know that the story has been illustrated on flannelgraph to thousands (if not hundreds of thousands) of impressionable boys and girls.  I was one of them.  I was 8 or 9 years old.

You should find it disturbing that the flannelgraph story is published by none other than Child Evangelism Fellowship (CEF) — an enormous evangelical organization with 700 full-time workers and 40,000 volunteers and the developer of the Good News Clubs.  Yes, CEF regards the story of the Amalekite slaughter (and Saul’s incomplete execution of it) as an important children’s Bible lesson on how important it is to completely obey God.

It’s at the very heart of Lesson 2 of “David: A Man After God’s Heart,” a series of Bible lessons published by CEF.  Although I quote from a 1972 edition of the Bible lesson guide, CEF’s website description of lesson 2 doesn’t suggest any changes:

Lesson 2 – Saul’s Disobedience (1 Sam. 12:1-25; 13:1-14; 15:1-35): Seek God’s strength when you’re tempted to disobey. Memory verse: James 4:17

So let’s take a look inside the CEF teacher’s manual.  Below is an excerpt directly from text teachers are encouraged to tell the young:

The CEF manual continues: “Soon afterward Saul and his army met the Amalekites on the battlefield.  The Amalekites were completely defeated.  But all was not well…”  because Saul spared king Agag, the animals, and erected a monument of the battle.  Several paragraphs later, the lesson describes Samuel’s rebuke of Saul:

 “The Lord chose you to be king over Israel when you didn’t think you were so important.”  Samuel must have been thinking about that monument that Saul had built to honor himself.  He continued, “The Lord sent you out under His orders.  He said ‘Completely destroy the Amalekites, those evil doers.’  Now why haven’t you done it?”

Proud Saul refused to admit the sin of disobedience.  Not only was he disobedient, he also was dishonest.  He lied when he said he did all that God told him to do.  It is a very serious thing not to agree that we are wrong when the Lord points it out to us.  The Lord can neither save nor bless us if we do not admit our sins….

That’s right.  This CEF children’s Bible lesson stresses how sinful and disobedient Saul was for failing to “completely destroy the Amalekites, those evil doers.”  This is followed by a long lecture on sin, repentance, and the need for “complete obedience”:

When Saul heard again that he was to be rejected as king, he was sad.  But he was not sorry about his sin.  If we truly want God to forgive us our sins, we must not only admit that we have sinned, but we must be sorry about sin and turn from it….

How dreadful to refuse God’s way for our own proud way.  God is not satisfied with anything but complete obedience.  But you cannot obey the Lord until you’ve trusted Him as your Savior from sin.

And then — of course — the teacher follows this up by leading the children, as he/she is supposed to do every week, in a sinner’s prayer that reminds them that they deserve to die for their sins, but that Jesus died in their place:

If you have never received the Lord Jeus you can do it right now.  Tell God that you know you have sinned — you have done wrong things.  Tell Him that you believe His Son, the Lord Jesus Christ, died and rose again for your sins.  (Death is the punishment for sin.  He was punished for your sins when He shed His blood on the cross.)  If you would like to receive the Lord Jesus as your Saviour from sin, would you raise your hand just now?

P.S.:  Ken Pulliam, Ph.D., provides an extensive critique, in over a dozen blog posts, of the various apologetics Christians put forward to justify this divinely inspired genocide.

God’s Righteous Wrath

In Christianity as Tribalism: Initiation on April 16, 2010 at 4:19 am

 “God is perfect in love, on the one hand, and He is equally perfect in hate, on the other hand. Just as totally as He loves, so totally does He hate….  [W]e will never understand at all the profound reality of God’s love until we comprehend His hate.” 

John MacArthur, Jr., “The Wrath of God”

                 As a child, I was immersed in an evangelical Christianity that emphasized the holiness, awesome power and majesty of God.  I will never forget the weekly children’s bible lessons — based on a Child Evangelism Fellowship curriculum — I attended between the ages of 7 and 10. 

                There, the teacher used Bible felt sets (aka flannelgraphs) to illustrate stories like the Noahic Flood (Gen. 6:5-7:24); the destruction of Sodom & Gomorrah (Gen. 19:1-29) including God’s turning Lot’s wife to salt (Gen. 19:26); the ten plagues including the killing of every firstborn Egyptian child (Ex. 12:29-30); Samson’s murders of 30 men for their clothes and another 1000 with the jawbone of an ass (Jg 14:19; 15:14-17); the earthquake and plague to punish Korah’s rebellion (Num. 16:1-49); God’s sending bears to rip apart forty-two boys for making fun of Elijah’s bald head (2 Kings 2:23-24); God’s killing of Uzzah for his “irreverence” in reflexively steadying the ark of the covenant when the ox pulling its cart stumbled (2 Sam. 6:1-7); and God’s disappointment in having appointed Saul king because Saul spared King Agag when he killed all the other Amalekites (I Samuel 15), among other stories.  As intended, and in the way they were taught, these stories instilled the authoritarian virtues of fear, reverence, and obedience.

                 Any honest Biblically literate person must agree that God’s wrath is a prominent Biblical theme.  The evangelical culture in which I was raised firmly believed that “[t]he fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, but fools despise wisdom and instruction.” (Prov. 1:7).  That culture didn’t shy away from teaching stories about God’s wrath, as they were a critical part of one’s introduction to the Christian faith.

                 In the next few blog posts, I intend to elaborate on the following wrath-related subtopics, and discuss the devastating implications that the Biblical theme of God’s wrath has on the notion of intrinsic dignity:

  • The Biblical Prominence of God’s Wrath
  • The Pedagogical Purposes of God’s Wrath
  • Christian Meditation on God’s Wrath… and its Relation to the Atonement

Sin Explains Everything

In Christianity as Tribalism: Initiation on April 16, 2010 at 3:14 am

            Sin is the central and all-reducing theme of Christianity, the prominent plotline of almost every Biblical story, and the theological scaffolding that holds the Christian worldview together.  Sin explains the beginning (the Fall) and the end (the coming Judgment) of history.  Likewise, sin explains each perons’s beginning (conceived in sin and with Adam’s sin nature) and end (physical death and spiritual death). 

            Sin also frames every interaction between God and Man.  Sin is the reason for the most dramatic divine interventions in the Bible, from the many Old Testament narratives of God’s wrath and vengeance to the Incarnation and Death of Christ to the Apocalypse of John (the Book of Revelation). 

            Sin also purportedly explains God’s absence from, and the suffering in, the world.  Sin is what separates and alienates mankind from God.   Sin even explains the natural disasters and tragedies suffered by humanity.  Natural evil is, at best, the result of “the Fall” — under the curse of which creation still groans — or, at worst, God’s divinely intended punishment for sin. 

            Sin also defines one’s eternal destiny.   A person’s status as being (lovingly?) created in God’s image and likeness — and you would think that would mean God would cherish us all — is utterly eclipsed by even the slightest sin.  Christianity teaches that apart from Christ’s atoning work, even the slightest sin utterly condemns and makes one worthy of eternal conscious torment.  Sin is so terrible to Christian theology that God could not have simply forgiven us of our sins.  Rather, to placate God’s wrath, a ransom of blood had to be paid, and by no less than a perfect God-man.  And only by believing in Jesus’s divine nature and atoning work — that is, only be joining and belonging to a creedal tribe called Christianity — can one escape such judgment.

            But relief doesn’t come simply from surrendering to Christianity’s creedal demands.  The Book of Romans presents a narrative of life as a constant, agonizing struggle with sin. It’s a terrible thing; it separates you from God; it demands the shedding of blood for its remission; and even after you get saved, you struggle (”Oh what wretched man I am….”) with it.   The only way to mature as a sanctified Christian is to keep warring with that sinful nature, crucifying it again, over and over.  Yet no Christian can ever succeed – short of actual physical death – in crucifying it once and for all (1 John 1:8).

            So, from conception (we were each conceived in sin) to death (the consequence of sin), life’s whole narrative, its purpose, its meaning, and its ultimate fate is found in original bondage to, elusive freedom from (by identifying with and crucifying the sinful self with Christ), and continuing struggle with sin.

            The obsession of Biblical theology and evangelical culture is on sin: much on the believer’s own sin; and even moreso on the sins of the surrounding culture.  And when it comes to sin, the Bible is least concerned with one’s sins against other people.  The greatest sins are sins against God, sins against authority, the sins of the flesh, and sins of the thought life. 

            This deeply authoritarian obsession with sin forcefully frames the Christian’s view of God, himself/herself, and all of humanity.  And what — as forthcoming posts will show — a melancholy obsession that is.

            But diminish sin in any signficant way (e.g., by more narrowly defining sin as violations of another’s intrinsic dignity), and the scaffolding on which the Christian worldview (and all of its theology) is based collapses.

A Series of Coming Posts

In Christianity as Tribalism on April 7, 2010 at 3:34 pm

Over the next many months, I plan to write on the topic of Christianity as a form of tribalism.  Into this broad theme I will weave the argument that “Biblical” Christianity (Christianity that treats the Bible as its sacred authoritative text), overall and in its core beliefs, disaffirms the intrinsic dignity (i.e., value and worth in one’s original — created, if you will — and “unredeemed” state) of being human. 

Yes, one can cite multiple Bible passages that are universal in their embrace of humanity, but these passages — frankly — don’t fit in very well with the Bible’s predominant themes (e.g., original sin, divine justice, and atonement) and the Bible’s thorough dualism.

I have begun constructing a rough outline (see the Outline tab) of the topics and subtopics I plan to cover under this theme.  I plan to update and reorganize this outline from time to time.