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Letter: In defense of (some) Christians

From Nathan Marone, Chicago, IL:

I am an evangelical Christian from Chicago. I've been very interested in your blogs concerning "The Da Vinci Code" (naturally). Much of what you say is true. There are many Christians who don't really read the Bible much, or for that matter any literature that seriously deals with their faith. The subject of Church history eludes most Christians, and the complexities of academic theology can often be too much for them (and me sometimes, for that matter). I wish that this weren't true, but sadly it is.

But I want to take the opportunity to defend some Christians.

If the Church were to reach my ideal, we'd all know Greek and Hebrew, know Church history pretty well, understand the various opinions on theology and philosophy... and then make sense of it all. But there are a few reasons that this does not happen. 1) People are lazy. It's easier to be ignorant and believe. Much easier. Even the Bible acknowledges in Ecclesiasties that "with much knowledge comes much pain." 2) I'm not sure that everyone has even the time to know all of the things that we ideally would have them know. Many Christians have jobs, families, and other obligations in life.

You know a s--tload about movies. It is easy, though, because it's your job to know s--tloads about movies. We can't all be scholars and academics. Having said that, I do think that point #1 factors in more than #2. Your articles also take some nastly little potshots. You call belief in Intelligent Design "preposterous," complain that Christians don't know enough about history, and then on the other hand say that faith alone should be enough for a Christian. Christians seem damned if they do and damned if they don't here. Should we just ignore history, and believe in Jesus? Should we scour history to validate what we believe?

What troubles me even more than any of this is that I don't think you have a detailed concept of Church history, how the Biblical canon came into existence, what non-Biblical evidence there is for the existence of Jesus. And yet you fearlessly, and dogmatically comment on all of these issues with the assurance of one who has studied these issues his whole life.

Sometimes I think the real reason that so many people are a bit uneasy about Christianity has nothing to do with creation/evolution, violence in church history, or other political issues that come with associating yourself closely with the Bible. I think that the real reason is that Christianity claims to be the one true religion. It claims superiority over Islam, Judaism, Hinduism, or any other religion you'd like to throw in. In a world that is increasingly concerned with tolerance and political correctness, Christianity is a real party pooper.

I know that this letter has been long, and that you may dismiss it as gibberish. The issues, however, are important to me, and it'd difficult to watch a movie critic pontificate so ruthlessly on issues he is not so deeply educated on. I love movies. I love them to death (I'm proud to say that there's only a couple of movies on the 102 list I haven't seen). I know that in order to comment on movies you must comment on the rest of the world, but please be careful.

Dear Nathan:

Thanks for a most thought-provoking letter. To be honest, I don't think it's at all easy to get to know a s--tload about anything (even if it is one's job... and, let's face it, an awful lot of people are not very good at their jobs!). And faith is not -- and should not be -- easy. But I should say that, although I am by no means a religious scholar or academic, I've been reading and studying religion seriously on my own for even longer than I've been studying movies. (The two are closely related in my mind, art and religion.) And I know I can get grumpy and snarky and dogmatic -- but I promise it's motivated by passion and enthusiasm, not just derision.

As I said in response to an earlier letter, I hope I made it clear that I was writing specifically about those Christians who claim their faith determines the fate of their immortal souls, and who also say that faith is based on the inerrant word of the bible -- but who nevertheless haven't bothered to find out much about the bible, what it says, or how it was written, edited, compiled. In which case, I say: If you don't have the time or inclination to study something you claim determines the fate of your soul for all eternity, then you really shouldn't go around blithely professing to believe in it.

According to the bible, as you know, Jesus says repeatedly that the other worldly concerns you mention -- job, family, children -- are absolutely unimportant compared to following him, and that faith itself is the only true family. Now, I don't think the writer(s) of this passage really intended to have Jesus commanding his followers to hate their parents and renounce their children and spouses and siblings and everthing else in their lives, but that's what the King James translation literally says: "If any man come to me, and hate not his father, and mother, and wife, and children,and brethren, and sisters, yea, and his own life also, he cannot be my disciple." (Luke, 14:26) Seems to me those words ought to be read with a little poetic license, as a suggestion that faith ultimately transcends worldly concerns. Especially if you believe there is anything beyond this world.

If somebody proclaims, "My relationship with God (or Jesus) is the most important thing in my life, and I base my faith in, and understanding of, God (or Jesus) on the bible" -- then I think it's only right to consider how much that person has studied and understood the bible and its history. (By "history" I mean the history of the bible and how it developed, not the limited version of human history presented in the bible, which is another issue.)

While science and history are not necessarily incompatible with Christian faith, a literal reading of the bible is absolutely incompatible with what we know about history and science -- and Christianity. People who claim to take the bible literally are, therefore, either: 1) ignorant of the bible, except in bits and pieces (and therefore not even attempting to swallow the whole thing literally at all); 2) using it selectively to justify pre-existing beliefs; 3) using it to justify beliefs they don't even know if they hold, but figure they ought to because they think the bible says to; and/or 4) otherwise using the bible in ways it was never intended.

As Max von Sydow says in Woody Allen's "Hannah and Her Sisters": "If Jesus came back and saw what is being done in his name, he would never stop throwing up." Likewise, Moses and Muhammad. We see a lot of fundamentalists of all stripes today using their sacred texts to justify an array of beliefs and behavior that have nothing whatsoever to do with spirituality or compassion or faith in God. I keep thinking that if Moses were to appear in the 21st century, he would recognize how many allegedly "faithful" people have turned sacred texts themselves into the false idols (or "graven images") warned against in Exodus and Deuteronomy. (Yes, if you believe in biblical prophecy, the recent creation of the "literal bible" may well be the symbolic incarnation of the "golden calf" that the Israelis falsely worship, causing Moses to smash the first set of tablets he was given by God on Mt. Sinai in a fit of pique.) By distorting, misunderstanding, and/or misusing these texts, the blind-leading-the-blind are drawing away not only from the secular world, but from many of the core values and traditions of their own faiths. What kind of "fundamentalism" is that? It's not a return to the roots of faith, but a denial of those roots.

So, the main point I wanted to make was that religious faith does not in any way require the concrete validation of historical accuracy (e.g., whether the physical existence of Jesus of Nazareth can be conclusively determined) or science (e.g., the "Intelligent Design" creation scenario, which isn't science at all). It's not that "Christians can't win, either way" -- but I think it's a mistake to look to history and science for confirmation of faith, just as we should not look to religion to confirm history or science. Instead, an understanding of history and science should keep you from developing a false faith. (Which is why, as I said, any faith that can be overturned or undermined by pulp fiction like "The Da Vinci Code" isn't much of a faith to begin with.)

It's an unprecedented misuse of religion, history and science to attempt to invoke the latter two to prop up the former. On the other hand, any Christian who understands the bible as a complex book of parables and metaphors, or who acknowledges that mortal institutions and man-made documents (like churches and governments and sacred manuscripts) are by definition fallible, or who says they're primarily interested in aspects of the of philosophy of Jesus that come through in the New Testament (like Thomas Jefferson, who edited his own version by stripping away all the other stuff), has no reason to feel defensive in the face of my arguments -- or the slick fiction of "The Da Vinci Code."

I hope you'll check out the Salon.com interview with religious scholar Karen Armstrong (author of "A History of God" and several other great studies) that I cited in answer to another letter. Here's something else she says in the same interview that I think speaks to some of your concerns:

KA: If you look at the healing miracles attributed to Jesus, they generally had some kind of symbolic aspect about healing the soul rather than showing off a supernatural power. Western people think the supernatural is the essence of religion, but that's rather like the idea of an external god. That's a minority view worldwide....

Q: ... You know, religion used to explain all kinds of things about the world. But science for the most part does that now. And people who are not religious say they can be just as morally upright.

They can. I fully endorse that. I don't think you need to believe in an external god to obey the Golden Rule. In the Axial Age, when people started to concentrate too much on what they're transcending to -- that is, God -- and neglected what they're transcending from -- their greed, pompous egotism, cruelty -- then they lost the plot, religiously. That's why God is a difficult religious concept. I think God is often used by religious people to give egotism a sacred seal of divine approval, rather than to take you beyond the ego.

As for scientists, they can explain a tremendous amount. But they can't talk about meaning so much....

So would you say religion addresses those questions through the stories and myths?

Yes. In the pre-modern world, there were two ways of arriving at truth. Plato, for example, called them mythos and logos. Myth and reason or science. We've always needed both of them. It was very important in the pre-modern world to realize these two things, myth and science, were complementary. One didn't cancel the other out....

... Religion is hard work. It's an art form. It's a way of finding meaning, like art, like painting, like poetry, in a world that is violent and cruel and often seems meaningless. And art is hard work. You don't just dash off a painting. It takes years of study. I think we expect religious knowledge to be instant. But religious knowledge comes incrementally and slowly. And religion is like any other activity. It's like cooking or sex or science. You have good art, sex and science, and bad art, sex and science. It's not easy to do it well.

So how should we approach the sacred texts? How should we read them?

Sacred texts have traditionally been a bridge to the divine. They're all difficult. They're not a simple manual -- a how-to book that will tell you how to gain enlightenment by next week, like how to lose weight on the Atkins diet. This is a slow process. I think the best image for reading scripture occurs in the story of Jacob, who wrestles with a stranger all night long. And in the morning, the stranger seems to have been his God. That's when Jacob is given the name Israel -- "one who fights with God." And he goes away limping as he walks into the sunrise. Scriptures are a struggle.

Is faith a struggle?

Well, faith is not a matter of believing things. That's again a modern Western notion. It's only been current since the 18th century. Believing things is neither here nor there, despite what some religious people say and what some secularists say. That is a very eccentric religious position, current really only in the Western Christian world. You don't have it much in Judaism, for example.

But it's not surprising that religion has become equated with belief because these are the messages we hear as we grow up, regardless of our faiths.

We hear it from some of them. And I think we've become rather stupid in our scientific age about religion. If you'd presented some of these literalistic readings of the Bible to people in the pre-modern age, they would have found it rather obtuse. They'd have found it incomprehensible that people really believe the first chapter of Genesis is an account of the origins of life.

So how should we read the story of creation in Genesis?

Well, it's not a literal account because it's put right next door to another account in Chapter 2, which completely contradicts it. Then there are other creation stories in the Bible that show Yahweh like a Middle Eastern god killing a sea monster to create the world. Cosmogony in the ancient world was not an account of the physical origins of life. Cosmogony was usually used therapeutically. When people were sick or in times of vulnerability, they would read a cosmogony in order to get an influx of the divine, to tap into those extraordinary energies that had created something out of nothing.

That seems to be a question that scientists are struggling with now. Did the big bang come out of nothing?

Exactly. And I think some scientists are writing a new kind of religious discourse, teaching us to pit ourselves against the dark world of uncreated reality and pushing us back to the mysterious. They're resorting to mythological imagery: Big Bang, black hole. They have all kinds of resonances because this is beyond our ken....

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