Thursday, October 14, 2010

An Open Letter to Christopher Hitchens

 Note:  I don't actually know any way to get this letter to Mr. Hitchens, and I have no idea how he'd respond if he read it. But I think some of the following needs to be said...and maybe someone who needs to will read it.

Dear Mr. Hitchens,

I'm a Christian, and I'd like to apologize to you.

I heard the NPR interview with you and your brother Peter yesterday, and I understand that Christians are coming out of the woodwork to let you know they're praying for you, and to make a last-ditch effort to save your soul before the cancer gets you.  I wonder if you must be feeling like the vultures are circling, waiting to take a bite out of your carcass--although in your case the disquieting reality is that those buzzards want their bite of you BEFORE you die.  I wouldn't be too pleased with that either.  I regret the harrassment you're getting in the name of my God.

I'm sorry.

You have expressed before, and expressed again in the interview, some pretty harsh objections to Christianity.  Strange as it may seem, I think your criticisms have at times been spot-on.  You said that you found the notion of a human sacrifice vicariously atoning for your sin to be morally offensive, and I agree completely.  The funny thing is, if I'm reading my Bible at all correctly, God would agree too.  The penal-substitution so loudly proclaimed by most Christians is a complex theory that does not hold up to serious scrutiny of the source from which they claim to derive it--that is the Bible--and I regret you've been sold such a bill of goods, that you believe that teaching to be integral to faith in God.

I'm sorry.

You also have pointed out on repeated occasions, the horrors that have been done throughout history in the name of religion in general, and Christianity in particular.  Again I agree with you, and the way I read my Bible, I believe God would agree with you too.  The Inquisition and the Crusades, and right up to the wars of Bush, have at least partial roots in Christian institutions, and they were wrong and evil. 

Of course I do think you're making a category mistake by concluding those acts are the necessary outgrowth of religion.  Stalin, Pol Pot, and Mao Tse Tung also commited horrible atrocities--right up there in awfulness with the Christian ones--and they did it in the name of Communism.  I would submit that a careful comparison of these guys with the writing of Karl Marx makes it patently obvious that what they did had nothing to do with Marxism, and that an equally-careful comparison of the medieval popes' and crusaders' and Bush's actions with the Bible would lead to the identical conclusion:  in fact public Christianity has just about as much in common with the Jesus of the Bible, as the Soviet Union, the Khmer Rouge, and Communist China have with Marx and his Manifesto.  So I would submit to you that applying your journalistic chops to a comparison/contrast of the sacred texts of either group would be in order.  Nevertheless, you have been sold a bill of goods by a violent, hateful mob claiming the mantle of Christ, and I regret the mischaracterization of Jesus has left you so repulsed by him.

I'm sorry.

I'm not trying to convert you, Mr. Hitchens.  I know my powers of reasoning aren't that stunning, and furthermore, though reason can inform faith, I don't believe it can compel it.  Frankly, I do not know, were you to confront the reality of Jesus instead of the bad counterfeit that's been shoved in your face all these years, whether you'd like the real thing any better.  I only dare you to have a serious look at the Jesus the Gospels actually portray, without all the baggage Christians have loaded onto him--baggage which I say again, you have rightly rejected.

I hope you will indulge me if I say that I do pray you'll find peace--not only in an eternal sense (to the extent you may or may not feel you need it), but in the very earthly sense that the vultures will let you spend your last days, or months, or years unassaulted.  In this, perhaps, the real Jesus might intervene...for what it's worth, I'll ask him.


Dan Martin

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Christopher Hitchens Interview -- More evidence bad theology drives people away from Jesus

I heard a great feature this morning on NPR's show "Morning Edition," in which the brothers Christopher and Peter Hitchens were interviewed.  Christopher, as most of you likely know, is a world-famous atheist (I would describe him as an anti-theist fundamentalist) who rails against those who hold to faith, and who wrote the bestseller "God is Not Great."  What I did not know is that his brother Peter is an Anglican Christian, and their arguments for and against belief have been somewhat public as well.  Now Christopher is dying of cancer, so people are coming out of the woodwork to pray for him (good) and to "witness" to him (mostly bad, I'm guessing) before he cashes in.

I was struck by a statement Christopher made in the interview:
"Under no persuasion could I be made to believe that a human sacrifice several thousand years ago vicariously redeems me from sin," he says. "Nothing could persuade me that that was true — or moral, by the way. It's white noise to me."
Wow.  This sounds like exactly the frustration I expressed after reading Robert Heinlein's book Job: A Comedy of Justice.  As I described in my essay on the book,  I'm bothered that, having come to the conclusion that the classic doctrine of penal-substitutionary atonement is unbiblical, I keep on encountering evidence that people have been driven from faith in Jesus, at least in part, because they can't accept PSA.  It angers me that what I firmly believe to be bad theology, is being force-fed to people with such vigor that it's all they can see of Jesus.

Jesus himself had some pretty harsh things to say about those whose false teaching drives people from true faith.  We as believers need to take a long, hard look in the mirror.  I said it last week, and I'll repeat it today:  how can anyone be blamed for rejecting Jesus if we've never introduced them to anything but a bad caricature of him?

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

The Gospel According to Heinlein, or Why Christians are sometimes God's worst enemies...

Over the past few days I read Robert A. Heinlein's 1984 book Job: A Comedy of Justice.  For those who enjoy mind-bending adventures with an eternal twist, I recommend it as a fun story.  Be forewarned: if you only enjoy fiction that comports with your theology and cosmology,  and you consider yourself an orthodox Christian, this book is probably not for you.  But if you can stomach a book in which the character of Satan describes his brother Yahweh as a jerk (and given the narrative context, the reader will find himself agreeing with Satan), and if sexuality that is R-rated in content though only PG in description doesn't put you off, then you may well find Job a fun read.

But what I wanted to highlight with this post was the way in which Heinlein's book illustrates the damage that Christians have done--and, I'm sorry to say, continue to do--to the cause of Christ.  I don't know anything about Heinlein's own faith or philosophy, but I can tell you that he did his homework for this book.  The main character, Alexander Hergensheimer, starts out as a conservative, fundamentalist preacher who's head of an organization called Churches United for Decency (CUD), in an alternative-universe America with only 46 states and the kind of laws fundamentalist Americans in our universe would appreciate.  During a firewalking experience while on vacation in Papua New Guinea, our friend Alec finds himself in an parallel universe--the first of many--where his own morals and faith run headlong into those of cultures and Americas with decidedly different outlooks.

But although Heinlein could have resorted to the usual caricature of conservative Christians by those who are neither conservative nor Christian, he absolutely did not do so.  Alec's story is told in the first person, with frequent quotations from the Bible.  The character is portrayed in a completely sympathetic light, and whatever Heinlein's own predilections about faith may have been, there is not a hint of mocking or hostility toward this character.  At least twice within the narrative, Alec makes a heartfelt effort to lead other characters to Christ in the context of a premillenial rapture that he is convinced is imminent (turns out he's right), and each time, the message Alec conveys is straight out of an Evangelical Christian playbook, delivered without a hint of irony or ill motive.

And yet the arc of the story is clearly not one that resonates with Christian teaching.  Beyond the character's shift in his sexual standards and choice of beverages, the real issue at the climax of the story is that Yahweh doesn't play fair (a la Job), and never has.  Consider this section near the end of the book:

Alec, 'justice' is not a divine concept; it is a human illusion.  The very basis of the Judeo-Christian code is injustice, the scapegoat system.  The scapegoat sacrifice runs all through the Old Testament, then it reaches its height in the New Testament with the notion of the Martyred Redeemer.  How can justice possibly be served by loading your sins on another?  Whether it be a lamb having its throat cut ritually, or a Messiah nailed to a cross and 'dying for your sins.'  Somebody should tell all of Yahweh's followers, Jews and Christians, that there is no such thing as a free lunch.  "Or maybe there is.  Being in that catatonic condition called 'grace' at the exact moment of death--or at the Final Trump--will get you into Heaven.  Right?  You got to Heaven that way, did you not?"

"That's correct.  I hit it lucky.  For I had racked up quite a list of sins before then."

"A long and wicked life followed by five minutes of perfect grace gets you into Heaven.  An equally long life of decent living and good works followed by one outburst of taking the name of the Lord in vain--then have a heart attack at that moment and be damned for eternity..."

"...I've known Him too long.  It's His world, His rules, His doing.  His rules are exact and anyone can follow them and reap the reward.  But 'just' they are not." (Hardcover edition, pp.291-292)

OK, so first of all it's obvious in the next-to-last paragraph I quoted, that Heinlein's not referring to the "eternal security" brand of Christianity; however I doubt he'd have come out any differently in his conclusions if he were.  Heinlein forces the reader face-to-face with a painful fact:  the God that is portrayed by much of traditional Christian teaching is not just.  No amount of wordplay can change the obvious truth of this statement.  Genocide of the Canaanites, the angel of death slaughtering thousands in penalty for David's adultery, the infinite punishment of hell for the necessarily-finite violations of temporal sin, none of these is remotely akin to our basic, reasonable notion of making the punishment fit the crime.  Merely shouting "but God is just" in the face of such evidence beggars belief.

I know people will defend their doctrines to the nth degree, and some will accuse me of heresy or blasphemy, but here I have to side with Heinlein's assessment (as a character says elsewhere in the book, "anyone who can worship a trinity and insist that his religion is a monotheism can believe anything--just give him time to rationalize it."

My frustration, and the one that made me finish "Job" with some sadness,  is that, like so many before him and since, Heinlein may have rejected the Gospel precisely (only?) because he was fed a counterfeit "gospel!"  He clearly knew--even understood--the message that churches have trumpeted for centuries.  He knew all about the Old Testament sacrificial system as portrayed by Evangelicals.  Like a lot of Christians, he apparently did not know that the "scapegoat" in the Old Testament wasn't sacrificed.  Heinlein knew about Old Testament blood sacrifice too, again as Evangelicals teach it.  He did not know that blood sacrifice in the Old Testament represents cleansing or thanksgiving, but not payment for forgiveness of sin (go back and read Leviticus!).   He understood the Evangelical teaching that Jesus' death finally fulfilled the blood-for-sin paradigm upon which Penal-Substitutionary Atonement is based.   But he was not equipped to realize that the PSA theory of atonement is at best a tiny fraction of the work of Jesus' death and resurrection.

Heinlein had presumably met a lot of Christians, but he had never met Jesus.  How could he?  The "gospel" message preached by most Christians throughout the Twentieth Century (Heinlein died in 1988) had very little Jesus in it...a "four laws and then the rapture" gospel needs Jesus for his blood and for his second coming, but completely ignores his teachings and his life, and only gives a passing nod to his resurrection.  If Heinlein believed the God of Christians and Jews to be unjust, well, when did anyone in either group introduce him to the justice preached by Jesus and before him by the prophets?

And most importantly, of course, here and now and today, what portrait of God are you holding up to the world around you?  If people consider your testimony of Jesus and ultimately reject him (as some will), are they rejecting the real thing?