Saturday, April 28, 2012

Conversions and De-Conversions - The Circle of the Earth

The last several entries in my de-conversion story have found themselves stuck between the years 1988-1992. These were the years of my greatest religious Christian fervor. I was on fire for Jesus as a member of Calvary Chapel of Albuquerque, at the time, billed as the fastest growing church in the United States. I find reliving these years to be distasteful, and I admit that I am growing weary of writing about it. It is so easy for me to write bitterly and angrily about my years at Calvary Chapel, and to continue on and on and on, charging the Church with the countless bogus lies they told me in support of their religion. It is easy to do, and I have spent the last couple of weeks writing page after page of anecdotes. It is too easy for me to become angry as I type, and I am trying my best not to let that anger affect my writing. The whole thing is becoming tiresome. The bad apologetics. The doubts I had after reading the Bible. The street preaching I embarrassed myself with over and over again. My singles Bible study group who regularly visited city parks and lured children with boxes of pizza, but not handing it out until they heard our quick sermons. The never-ending sexual frustration and guilt. The constant cycle of sin-repentance-sin-repentance-sin-repentance and sin again. Trying to convince myself that my prayers were being answered when in fact nothing was really happening. More fears of the unpardonable sin. The constant crying and self-loathing. The desire to be a strong Christian and to live my life for the Lord, being overwhelmed with the uncompromising need to believe impossible and ridiculous claims about the nature of reality. Thanking Jesus for the internal and overwhelming peace that I never really had.

Looking back on those years is like remembering hundreds of little, unrelated fragments of memories, and it is hard to tie them together into any theme. This is a story about my conversions and de-conversions. I wrote about what got me into Calvary Chapel and Fundamentalist Christianity. I wrote a bit about what kept me in it. Now I need to write about what finally chased me out of Calvary Chapel. As much as I dislike revisiting those years in this much detail, I must write at least two more articles about those five crucial years. This article will be a summary of all the disjointed notes and anecdotes that I have written thus far. The next article will describe what finally pushed me out of Calvary Chapel forever.

Since Calvary Chapel dogma relied on a Personal Relationship with an invisible and silent deity as the essence of belief, there was no aesthetic appeal to the senses. Instead of Mary, the Saints, statues, icons, incense, rosaries, rituals and creeds, we had The Bible. Calvary Chapel was not interested in aesthetics, rituals, hymns, or any kind of art that would transcend the worshipper into a state of the numinous Holy. It relied instead on a veneer of rationalism; lectures instead of sermons, Bible studies instead of creedal recitations and apologetics instead of faith. Calvary Chapel taught me to worship the Bible. The Bible was a paper idol. Chuck Missler placed so much emphasis on the text of the Bible that he believed, as he put it, “the Bible is an integrated message system. It is not just that the Bible has a unified message. No, it is more than that. This book is supernaturally engineered. Every number, every place name, every detail is there by the design of the Holy Spirit. When Jesus comes, every word, every letter, even the spaces between the letters, will be explained to us. It is our privilege to discover and unravel all its marvelous secrets”. So we would read the Bible with the intent of searching for the hidden clues, puzzles, codes and symbols that were hidden in the text by the Holy Spirit, as validation of its Supernatural origin.

At Calvary Chapel we worshipped the Bible. Of course, they would never put it that way, but I believe that is exactly what it was. The Bible was viewed as the ‘Owner’s Manual’, the only sufficient source of Supernatural knowledge and wisdom that we would ever need in life. Having trouble in your marriage? Malachi 2:14-16 definitely has God’s message for you, but take a look at Matthew 19:3-9 if you are tempted to divorce. Having trouble keeping trust in God? Meditate on Hosea 4:1-11. Wondering why there is so much evil in the world? Remember the Fall in the Garden, Genesis chapter three. The Wisdom of the World is foolishness next to the Wisdom of the Almighty.

Calvary Chapel emphasized the Bible, in its original text, was an inspired and inerrant record of God’s message for humanity, and if we were to understand God, and his desires for us, we had to read and understand the Bible. I had read portions of the Bible before, especially in my childhood, and I had a good idea of what was in it. Since I figured that the only way God was going to speak to me was through his Word, I figured that I had better start reading. I kept my King James Thompson Chain Reference for deep study, but I picked up a NIV Student Bible and read the Bible through in its entirety.

I was not a critical reader. I read it like a novel. I simply started at page 1 and worked my way through to the end. Every day after work, I lay on the couch with my small NIV Student Bible, and read for several hours at a stretch. Pastor Skip told me that the Bible was consistent in all its teachings. Whether we read from the Old Testament or the New, from Numbers, Chronicles, Psalms, Galatians or the Gospel of John, the Bible’s message about sin, salvation, human suffering, Heaven and Hell were all consistent and uniform. The Bible contained perfect uniformity in teaching, albeit in different dispensations. Chuck Missler told me that the Old Testament was a pre-figuring of the New, and that Jesus Christ could be found on every page of the Hebrew Scriptures. Jesus fulfilled hundreds of direct prophecies and thousands of indirect pre-figurings and allusions to the expected Messiah. So as I read, I paid close attention to find Jesus in every detail of the construction of the Tabernacle, the Psalms of worship, and the lives of the Patriarchs.

I was taught that there were absolutely no contradictions in Scripture. If some non-believer were to claim to me that there were contradictions in the Bible, all I would have to do would be to whip out my pocket Bible and ask them to point some out. Since there were no contradictions, they would usually walk away in shame. Admittedly there were, to the discerning reader, apparent contradictions, but Christian scholars had always figured out the correct way of interpreting these puzzles so that the seeming contradictions disappeared. For instance, the different genealogies of Jesus in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, gave the father (as was supposed) of Jesus as Joseph. But The Gospel of Matthew says that Joseph’s father was Jacob, while the Gospel of Luke says it was some guy named Heli. But I knew that the Bible was without error and with no contradictions, because this was what my Church told me was true. So I read inconsistencies like this through that filter. The Gospel of Luke said that Joseph’s father was Heli, but what it really meant to say was that Mary’s father was Heli. Luke the Evangelist wanted to use the name Mary, so I was told by Pastor Skip, but the culture at the time did not allow for female names in genealogies. Never mind that no other ancient genealogies were cited as evidence that women were systematically ignored, never mind that the genealogy in the Gospel of Matthew contained several women in direct contradiction to the proposed harmonization, an explanation was given to smooth over the inconsistency, and any explanation, no matter how contrived, was good enough for me. I knew that Pastor Skip, Chuck Missler and Chuck Smith were men to be trusted. The only reliable interpreter of Scripture, the Holy Spirit, was indwelt within them. I could trust what they said.

To bolster my faith, I bought a two volume set of books written by Josh McDowell called Evidence that Demands a Verdict. The first volume was stuffed to the brim with evidences for the Christian Faith. I had never heard of any of these evidences, or even of the desire to provide evidence, before I attended Calvary Chapel, and the whole apologetic edifice excited and challenged me. I did not have to rely just in emotional preaching to convince my friends that Jesus was the only Way, I had real sound evidence that I could present. Apologetics also made me feel secure that there were real reasons for believing that Jesus was the only way to Salvation, and that I was not relying on mere blind faith. Apologetics also demonstrated that I did have the unquestionable Truth, and if my friends rejected it after being presented with evidences for the Faith, then I could confidently assert that they rejected Christianity, not because there was no evidence, but because their own sinful and rebellious natures would not allow them to accept the Truth. As Pastor Skip often said, it was not a matter of the mind, but of the will. God ultimately gave us the destiny that we chose, be it Damnation or Salvation.

For many apostates and former Christians, it was the discovery of contradictions in the Bible that lead them to doubt their Christian Faith. I knew of them, and I was aware of them, but for some reason they did not shake my Faith at this time. I always figured that God’s ways were just unknowable and too complex for us puny humans to figure out. I figured it was like the intellect of an ant trying to comprehend the vastly more complex mind of a human. I would expect there to be many things in divinely inspired, God-Breathed scriptures that I would find confusing or even contradictory. If I found something mystifying or contradictory, it just meant it was another mystery of wisdom for me to try and discover. So I would dig deeper into the problem to learn the deeper truths of God. I did not know it at the time, but all this was just an unwitting way of looking for any excuse to justify the problem away. God regulates slavery? Slavery really meant ‘a hired hand’. They were treated justly and fairly. God commanded genocide? But the nations whom the Hebrews slaughtered were pagans, heathens and God haters! They sacrificed their children on the glowing hot arms of Moloch! The Bible describes Earth as a round circle? Just declare from the pulpit that the word ‘Circle’ really means ‘Sphere’, and presto-chango, the Bible agrees with modern science.

I read the Bible a second time, this time in the New King James translation. The four Gospels, I was told, were either written by, or based on the reliable witness of the Apostles. Great emphasis was laid on the historical nature of the Gospels, and the witness of the Apostles was frequently called ‘Eyewitness Testimony’, as if they were reporting on the six-oclock news. The Apostles Matthew and John, who were there with Jesus when he walked the earth, wrote the Gospels that bore their names. Luke admitted that he investigated and interviewed everybody he could find to get a reliable account of what happened. I could picture him interviewing Mary the mother of Jesus, so that he could write his beautiful account of the Nativity. Mark was a young disciple of Peter, and he wrote down the account of Jesus as given to him by Peter the Apostle. I had no trouble believing any of this, and I learned seemingly endless apologetic arguments to defend the testimony of the eyewitnesses of Jesus’ life. The Gospels were defended as history because of it. But I also noticed that historicity was also claimed of most of the rest of the Bible. Moses wrote the first five books of the Bible. Everybody knew that. But he was not around to witness events that he wrote about, like the Creation, Adam and Eve, Noah’s Flood or the Tower of Babel. How could Moses possibly know about these events, some of which occurred thousands of years before he was alive? Moses wrote, just as David wrote his Psalms, Solomon wrote his proverbs, by Divine inspiration. No apologetic arguments were given for Divine inspiration, yet Old Testament was to be taken as just as reliable as the Gospels. If Divine Inspiration was enough for us to believe claims in the Old Testament, why did we need these constant apologetics to believe the new? Wasn’t Divine Inspiration good enough any more?

This was one of my first clues that apologetic arguments for the Christian Faith were meaningless. There were many things I was required to believe that there was no way to verify with apologetic arguments: the existence of Heaven, Hell, Demons and Guardian Angles. At some point I realized that arguing over and defending many of these theological positions was just a matter of semantics and defining terms. I had read enough Fantasy literature in my youth to understand that the ancient pagans had countless gods and goddesses. Pastor Skip used to laugh at Hinduism with their “billions” of gods, which anybody with any sense knew was ridiculous. Christianity was a religion with only One God, One Deity, albeit in three Persons. I was not yet taught how to think critically, so I could not precisely formulate a proper reason why Christianity’s claim to monotheism seemed so dubious. But I do remember thinking that somewhere proper and consistent definitions for these terms needed to be made in order to defend these positions . For instance, if Christianity had One God, but Greek religion was ridiculed for their pantheon of hundreds of gods, and Hinduism their billions, what exactly was meant by ‘god’? Didn’t Christianity have its own pantheon of demons, devils, arch-angels, seraphim, teraphim and nephelim? The deities in pagan religions were not necessarily all-powerful, they all lived in a spiritual nether world, they sometimes visited the world of mortals to interfere with the affairs of humans. These beings were all called gods. Yet the Christian pantheon of angels and demons shared all these same traits, and they were – not gods?

This kind of inconsistency bothered me, but I began to see more inconsistencies wherever I looked . Much was made of the Trinity being composed of three Divine Persons. These three Persons were each God and the three made up the Triune God. It must be that way because we know that there is only one God. That is a contradiction, and to get around this I noticed that the formula is rephrased, but only slightly. The three Divine Persons make up, not a Triune God, but a Triune Godhead. I guess that sounds better. But nobody could define God or Godhead or Person as terms distinct from one another. Again, I understood and expected that I would never be able to discern the mysteries of the Almighty. But that was not my problem. My problem was that these did not seem like mysteries as much as they seemed like mere wordplay. Words were left undefined, and their definitions changed and shifted depending on how they were needed. Hades, Loki and Bacchus? They were gods. Lucifer and Michael? Not gods. And on that mere assertion, monotheism was defended. It grew increasingly obvious to me, that many of these theological defenses were just arguments over semantics. We were making up words, making up definitions for these words, then defending those as dogma.

There were plenty of apologetic arguments that I did find convincing though, and these helped convince me that I dare not stray from the True Faith. For instance, I found C.S. Lewis’ famous Lord, Liar and Lunatic argument to be very powerful, and Pastor Skip also made great use of it. It was originally aimed at liberal Christians, or as I would have said at the time, liberals who merely called themselves Christians, who denied the supernatural aspects of Jesus’ life and ministry. Do not patronize Jesus by saying that he is a wise man, a great leader, or a revolutionary social reformer. Jesus claimed that he was God. Jesus claimed that he was the Way. The Truth. The Life. Jesus said that He and the Father were one. No man claims these things for himself without being called a madman, or just a blatant liar. So call him mad. Call him a liar. Call him a poached egg if you must, but do not call him a mere teacher. He is either any of these things, or he is Lord. Pastor Skip would often add that we are left to face with and deal with his claims.

There was no getting out of the logic behind this argument. This made too much sense. How my friends and family could hear this argument, either as presented by myself, or from Pastor Skip him self on audio cassette, and ignore it or laugh it off simply astounded me! These people, good people in all other respects, people who I knew to be otherwise perfectly rational and reasonable, were so blinded by their sin and pride, so deceived by Satan, that they dared look at Jesus and purposefully reject all that he did for lost humanity. Such unbelievable temerity! The nerve and audacity that pride instilled into the lost human race! I thanked Jesus every day that he allowed me to see his truth, and that he gave me the discernment to recognize and reject the temptations of this lustful world.

I was concerned about Pastor Skip’s constant harangues against the Theory of Evolution. As I have already written about, I was taught the Theory of Evolution as a youngster, and it has always made sense to me. I could see it in action during my frequent hikes in the desert. None of these Calvary Chapel pastors seemed to understand what the Theory of Evolution really was, and they were constantly misrepresenting it. I understood why they did it, because a literal reading of Genesis directly contradicted Darwin’s theory, but I just figured that was a problem with how we understood Scripture, not a matter of denying science. Calvary Chapel taught me otherwise. Pastor Skip told us that there was no scientific evidence to support the Theory of Evolution, but even if there were, it would be outweighed by the evidence of Scripture. The fact that Genesis declared that God made man in His own image out of the dust of the earth, by default, debunked the Theory of Evolution. Evolution taught that mankind descended from apes and monkeys, and ultimately from primordial ooze. The Theory of Evolution taught that the complexity of mankind formed by itself from a chemical soup, which was less likely to occur than a 747 forming itself from a tornado rolling through a junkyard. Hitler and Stalin, I was told, were confirmed and committed Darwinists, who killed millions in order to fulfill Darwinism’s ultimate conclusion, the Survival of the Fittest.

These misconceptions about the theory of Evolution were just as prevalent in 1990 as they are today. Pastor Skip and his fellow Evangelical pastors were relentless in their bogus misrepresentations of the theory. I had learned about the Theory of Evolution via natural selection at a very young age, through books, television programs, and just my own observations of nature during my frequent desert hikes. I understood that it had nothing to do with me descending from a monkey. I understood that likening Evolution to a tornado in a junkyard was a terrible analogy, despite that analogy being extremely popular. Maybe Pastor Skip was just mistaken. Maybe neither he nor my Calvary Chapel friends understood what the Theory really was. Maybe they were misrepresenting out of their own ignorance. Surely they would not purposely misrepresent. No, they would never willfully lie to us. They were filled with the Holy Spirit after all. But I dared not tell or attempt to educate anybody what the Theory of Evolution really was. It was heresy, and I believed it. My secret heresy, all through my Calvary Chapel years, was that I secretly believed the Theory of Evolution to be true, based on the evidence that I had seen and read about. My burden was trying desperately to reconcile Evolution with the Book of Genesis, which I also believed to be unquestionably true. I never told anybody about my secret heresy.

Calvary Chapel prided itself on being non-denominational, that is, it did not rely on formal creeds and traditions like Lutherans, Methodists or Presbyterians. We occasionally had guest pastors speak from various other Calvary Chapel churches from across the country. I noticed long ago, that for a non-denominational church, which did not rely on creeds or formulas, all the guest pastors were surprisingly similar. They were all young, all handsome and charismatic men, all about the same age, and all spoke exactly the same way and about the same things as Pastor Skip. As I wrote about in previous articles in my story, I have always been good at picking up on patterns and regularities in my surroundings. I could tell, even as a fervent believer, that all these Calvary Chapel pastors were in lockstep with each other. It was as if there was no independent thought among them. They all spoke as a collective. Calvary Chapel, the church started by Chuck Smith in Calvary Chapel, the church that spread across the country during the hippie Jesus Movement in the early 1970s, was by 1990 a brand name. Calvary Chapel is a denomination.

Calvary Chapel, after about 5 years of attendance, was becoming too crowded for me. It was growing at an alarming rate. I already felt old attending the singles services, which were filled with beautiful young women in their late teens. I got uncomfortable and left the singles group when it also began to fill up with balding, middle-aged men. I was no mind reader, but I knew why those older men were there. This in turn made me, a 25 year old, question what I was doing there! Calvary Chapel was bursting at the seams. It was becoming a mega-church, before I had ever heard the term. I began to itch for a smaller congregation.

I wanted to attend Sunday Evening service at a small Assembly of God church near my apartment. I asked several friends of mine if they would go with me, just to visit and check the place out. They all refused. They all told me that it was probably not a very good idea to go shopping for another church congregation because there were so many heretical churches out there. Presbyterians and Methodists were too carnal and worldly. Catholics were no better than pagans and were certainly not Christians. My friends told me that they would feel better just sticking with Calvary Chapel. Their closed minds and lack of curiosity dumbfounded me. I just wanted to visit another Christian church for a single evening, and nobody was willing to leave the safety of Calvary Chapel with me. I discovered that my friends had a very cultist mentality. But they were still my friends, and I could not help but let their opinions influence me. So I stayed at Calvary Chapel.

Small home groups, Bible studies and prayer meetings were very important to Calvary Chapel, and Pastor Skip encouraged everybody to join one. My group of about 20 young people met weekly. We prayed for our lost and deceived friends and family who had not received Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior. We took turns reading Bible verses and discussing them. “What does this verse mean to you?” Free ideas and opinions were ostensibly allowed, but in reality, no deviations from received Calvary Chapel dogma were tolerated. Once somebody suggested that we could loose our Salvation if we backslid far enough, and committed the unpardonable sin. The Unpardonable Sin, the Blasphemy of the Holy Ghost that terrorized me as a child was redefined in Calvary Chapel as simply not receiving Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior. Although this interpretation of the Blasphemy of the Holy Ghost never made any sense to me, I accepted it, because I knew that meant I never had to worry again about committing it. But one person in our small group questioned that idea. We quickly objected and laughed him off. No deviations from received Calvary Chapel dogma was permitted. Our interpretations of the Bible and Christian Dogma were becoming just as lockstep and uniform as they were with the numerous Calvary Chapel pastors.

I believed that God performed miracles. I believed the Bible when it said that we could perform miracles with just the faith of a mustard seed. I also believed that angels existed, and that they occasionally walked among humans unawares. I always imagined that one of the homeless men that I often witnessed to was actually an angel, present on Earth to test our hospitality and perhaps even protect us from harm. We were told that these creatures existed, both from the Bible and from the pulpit. I had witnessed plenty of healing miracles when visiting traveling tent revival meetings when I was a boy. But I could not honestly say that I saw a true miracle while I was an adult. True, we prayed to God constantly, and expected answers to our prayers. I prayed mostly for the salvation of my friends and family and for the strength and guidance of the Holy Ghost before witnessing to friends. I knew some people in church had real problems with their health, sometimes even cancer, and we often prayed to the Great Physician for them to receive a full recovery. I prayed for divine intervention whenever I occasionally had a terrible head cold. There was another man who attended our small group meetings who suffered from ALS. He was wheelchair bound, needed constant supervision, and always struggled mightily just to speak a simple sentence. I did not notice it at the time, but nobody ever thought to pray for him. Nobody asked the Great Physician to heal the poor sufferer of ALS and petition the Lord for his miraculous recovery.

I doubt I ever truly believed in the miraculous power of prayer, but then again, I am not sure anybody else I knew did either. When we had trouble believing some fabulous tale from the Bible, like the talking ass of Balaam or the floating ax-head of Elisha, Pastor Skip would always remind us that God could do absolutely anything. “That is God you are talking about! GOD!” And of course, I most definitely believed that Jesus Christ had died for my sins. I figured that it took great Faith to perform any miracle, and the further removed one was from Jesus, the less likely that Jesus would honor a request that would require miraculous power. After all, Jesus himself who had infinite Faith could do practically anything he wished. The Apostles, once removed from him, could also perform mighty deeds, like healing via anointed handkerchiefs, their shadows, or even raising the dead. But our modern believers were so far removed from Jesus that empowering Faith was a constant struggle, so miracles were extremely rare. I also figured that most of God’s miraculous power came in the form of changed lives. I was Exhibit A. God had saved me from a life of Sin, misery and hopelessness, to one of purpose, meaning and overflowing joy. Or so I was told.

One evening, in a small prayer meeting that was held after the main service, Pastor Skip lead a group of about 50 of us in prayer. He then asked for testimonies of Faith. He wanted to hear some of the good news of answered prayer that God had blessed us with. A smattering of hands went up. One lady had painful back spasms vanish. Thank you Jesus! One man’s mother had cancer that had suddenly gone into remission. Praise the Lord! One man, whom I will call Mac, told us that he was a veteran of the recent Gulf War. A buddy of Mac’s had his hand blown off by some kind of explosive device. Mac told the Calvary Chapel congregation how he had prayed for his buddy’s hand, out there in the deserts of Iraq, and he saw the hand grow back, right there before his own two eyes! It was a true miracle, an instant regeneration of a severed limb! Mac was emphatic and excited, and he wanted to tell us about some more miracles he had witnessed….

…Pastor Skip interrupted and smiled, “OK, well we are running out of time for the evening…” and immediately stopped taking testimonies from the congregation. There were plenty of hands still up, willing to tell of God’s power in their lives, but after listening to a breathless story about a regenerated limb, Pastor Skip decided to end. I never heard any of my friends speak of that evening, but I never forgot it. I confess, I did not believe Mac’s story, and it was immediately obvious to me that Pastor Skip did not believe him either, and decided to end the proceedings before the testimonies turned into a mockery. That was one of my first realizations that neither I, the congregation, nor Pastor Skip really believed in miracles. I could discern it from my reaction and from Pastor Skip’s. Why was it that we could only believe in the most mundane of miracles, and could not believe in genuine miracles that required a true leap of logic?

Those tiny hairbreadths of doubt were piling on each other. At the time, I did not even consider them doubts. I was just becoming dissatisfied with Calvary Chapel. I longed to serve Jesus, to serve my fellow human. I wanted to be a mighty servant for Jesus, and while I found apologetic arguments fascinating, they also left me cold. I did not want to enroll in Calvary Chapel’s new school of ministry, just learn yet more ways the Tabernacle pre-figured Jesus. I wanted to serve. I wanted the meat of the Word, and I figured if I wanted the Meat, I would have to hit the Street.

The perfect opportunity came in August of 1992. God, in His providence, sent a Category 5 Hurricane to southern Florida. In the wake of that disaster, He had provided my opportunity to serve. I felt that my prayers were finally answered and that my calling had finally come.

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Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Conversions and De-conversions - Brutus, thou sleepest...

The articles about my years as a Fundamentalist Christian are particularly difficult for me to write about. I think I cold write dozens of articles describing my years of attending Calvary Chapel, and consolidating all those disparate memories into only a few short articles is a bit of a challenge. Ultimately, my purpose in writing about these years is, not just to describe the stress and guilt I felt as a Christian, not just about the humorless ignorance that Calvary Chapel encouraged me to live in, and not just about the bogus apologetics they taught me to believe or the hypocritical behavior they engaged in. My purpose in writing this series is to explore why I converted into religious faith, and why I left religious faith. By 1990, simultaneous with my most fervent years as a Christian, I began to crack out of the ignorance that Calvary Chapel imposed on me. It took years, but the real beginning of my de-conversion from Christianity began out of necessity. I needed to learn a real trade in order to escape my life as a short order cook. My real education and my escape from Christianity finally began, slowly and tentatively, in 1990.

I can summarize my years as a Fundamentalist Christian in Calvary Chapel this way:

I was convinced that I had the exclusive truth about the nature of reality. Us Christians, especially those of us who did not rely on mere religion, but on our personal relationships with Jesus Christ, were the only humans on earth who had the unmerited favor of the Almighty, and had exclusive rights to eternal paradise through the Blood of Jesus Christ. All other humans were self-deceived or liars. Knowing their backgrounds or their stories was irrelevant. It did not matter what other religion or religious tradition they followed, and it did not matter why. It did not matter why they did not worship God as he One True God. The bottom line was that every single one of them was no better than Lucifer. Like Lucifer the fallen angel, they were prideful enough in the face of God Himself, to want to set themselves up as their own god. Non-Christians were guilty of the most heinous sin of all, that of pride, and they wanted to set themselves up above the heights of the clouds, to be like the Most High, and rely on their own wretched strength for their salvation. Anybody who did not take Jesus Christ as their own personal Lord and Savior was, in effect, spitting in the face of Jesus Christ as He hung on the cross. They were telling Jesus that they were good enough, and they did not need His blood to atone for their sins as the wrathful God demanded, but could face God clothed only in their own, pathetic, fleshly righteousness, which was no better than filthy rags before the Almighty.

This is what I truly believed while attending Calvary Chapel. I had confessed and repented of my sins there because I was miserable and unhappy, and I wanted to make something better of my life. It had nothing to do with Salvation. When I initially converted, I was not fearful of Hell. I just wanted to finally find peace and contentment in my life, and give it a sense of meaning and purpose. Calvary Chapel took these inner desires and piled on the baggage of Christian dogma. I was suddenly to believe that I would attain Heaven because of my Faith in Jesus. All others who did not believe as I did were damned, not due to God, but due to their own prideful lusts. The Truth was self-evident, but they were too deluded to accept it.

Believing this dogma was like hanging a millstone about my neck. I told myself that I was finally happy and at peace, but the truth was that I never felt more guilt in my entire life than when I attended Calvary Chapel. Most crucial of all, I lost my sense of humor. Christianity, as taught by Calvary Chapel, forced me to view nearly every human I came into contact with as a lost sinner, bound for eternal flames. It did not matter if they attended church, or even if they professed to be a Christian. I met many who claimed they were a Christian, but if I asked them about the specifics of salvation, sin, who Jesus was, or any other crucial matter of dogma, it was obvious to me that they were not really saved. They professed to know Jesus, but Jesus did not know them. They did not have a true relationship with Jesus, but were relying on their religious affiliation to do the saving for them.

I did not ponder too long on the uncomfortable questions that this dogma brought up. What about those who have never heard of Jesus? Crazy, I thought. I was certain that everyone in our modern world had heard of Jesus. What about those who were not raised in a Christian cultural backdrop? Pastor Skip once told us about his visit to India where he met a group of Sikhs. “They were still Sikhing,” he would chuckle. But seriously, what about people like them who were not from our Christian-saturated culture? I did not think too much about these questions. They were uncomfortable to me. Besides, God knew what was best, and He was a compassionate Father and all-knowing Judge. I had faith that He would ultimately do the right thing in determining their eternal destiny.

Questions like these became increasingly uncomfortable when I decided to enroll in the local community college. By 1990, I realized there was no future in odd cooking and dishwashing jobs. I needed to learn a trade, so on a whim I enrolled in a course in basic electronics. I finally had my foot in the door of higher education, and I started to meet people outside of my own social circle. At the age of 26, for the first time in my life, I met somebody who was not raised in the familiar traditions of Western Christendom. Trinh was from Vietnam, and everything about her was alien to me. Her thick accent was almost impenetrable, but we somehow managed to understand each other. I think I naively found her to be wild and exotic, since she was the first Asian I had ever really met. My curiosity got the better of me, and we became fast friends. One afternoon, over lunch outside the classroom, I asked her about Jesus. She did not understand what I was talking about. That was startling to me! Everybody whom I ever met, when asked about Jesus or God, gave some kind of opinion. They may not have been a true Christian, but they had an opinion about who Jesus was, or who God was. Everybody knew who Jesus was! But this girl from Vietnam, while she had heard the name, had no opinion about Jesus. She had as much opinion about Jesus as I had about the Buddha. That is, none. This Jesus character was not part of her culture, and she was not raised with this tradition, so why should she have an opinion?

Should I tell Trinh more about Jesus? I could tell a neighbor, a friend, a homeless guy on the streets about the salvation from sin that the death of Jesus gave us, and everybody would already have some basic idea of what I was talking about. Our culture was that of Christianity. Trinh was Buddhist. Since she did not share my cultural religious identity, I would have to describe to her, from first principles, about who Jesus was, why she was a sinner, and why she needed Jesus as her Savior! How could I possibly cross that cultural divide? It would be like her telling me about the Buddha – a name I had heard, but one that I knew nothing about. I was slowly learning how to view things from the point of view of over a billion humans whom I had never met. That was just a tiny step, just a tiny crack into viewing my Christian beliefs form another point of view, but it was a start.

“Are you going to talk to me about religion?” She showed her distaste by squeezing her eyes shut as if she bit a sour lemon.

“No.” I never brought up the subject again. I don’t think the thought that she was doomed for Hell ever crossed my mind.

Trinh was a whiz at math. I was terrified of math, and had never passed basic algebra in high school. I realized that I had to enroll in a basic math course if I wanted to continue studying electronics. My education began, but it was still tentative. I was still unsure of what I wanted to do, or how education was going to benefit me. Electronics did not really interest me, but the school catalog started to intrigue me. I could have a night course in Mexican archeology! American History! Creative Writing! Even as a lousy cook, I could afford these courses in the trade school! So one by one, on nothing but a whim and a newfound curiosity, I started taking night courses at Albuquerque TVI. I suddenly found that I missed all the reading that I had done in high school. After high school, I found one addiction in alcohol, then I found another addiction in Jesus. I did little of my own reading during this time, except for the Bible and John MacArthur biblical commentaries. The night classes in Albuquerque TVI taught me to be curious again. They taught me to be curious about dangerous subjects like history and sociology.

Back in Calvary Chapel, Pastor Skip taught me that curiosity in worldly wisdom was to be viewed with suspicion. Pastor Skip often spoke of his personal distrust of secular philosophy and psychology. He said that even Christian psychiatrists often had to do studies and readings of how the human mind works from secular labs and universities. “Why would I need to read these books of human wisdom,” Pastor Skip would preach, holding up his Bible, “when I have the Owner’s Manual right here?” Philosophy could be a good thing, Pastor Skip would say, since it literally means ‘the love of wisdom’. But true wisdom only comes from one source, again referencing the Bible, and secular philosophy leads to nothing but despair and sinful pride. Pastor Skip sometimes told us about his brother who once majored in philosophy. “He read all the philosophers, and came out more lost and confused then ever!” Well there you go. What more evidence did we need than Pastor Skip’s word on the matter?

Pastor Skip openly admitted that when it came to his Christian beliefs, his goal was to remain as ignorant and close-minded as possible. He did use those very words, and that really amazed me at a time when I was just discovering night classes at Albuquerque TVI. Pastor Skip implored us to read, study, and rely on nothing but the Bible. We did not need to bother ourselves with pseudo-intellectuals who studied the Bible as literature. We did not need to read about church history, religious thought or those Catholic church fathers. We did not need to entertain other ideas or points of view. All we needed was the Bible and the inspiration of the Holy Ghost to guide and teach us.

So for a short period of time, I alternated between two different ways of attaining knowledge and wisdom. Calvary Chapel insisted that it was by the Word of God alone, but at the same time my natural curiosity was being reawakened, thanks to some night classes at the local vocational school. I discovered that I was actually good at studying. I had an extremely long attention span, and I could sit for hours on end, doing nothing but reading, writing and taking notes. I followed Pastor Skip’s advice and read the Bible in its entirely. Then I read it again, cover to cover, in a different translation.

But I could also go to the library to check out some books assigned by my American history teacher. I particularly remember a shocking book written by escaped slave Frederick Douglass. My history teacher told us about how the Bible was used by Christians to justify slavery. “He certainly hates Christianity,” I would muse about my teacher. But I did not quit the class. As offensive as I often found American History, particularly my teacher’s condemnation of the role of religion, I did not drop the class. Instead, I went to the library in the attempt to verify some of the shocking things he said. Time and again, I found he was correct. He once described the horrors that the Spanish perpetrated on the southwestern natives in the name of Christ. I had never heard any of this information before! He told his shocked class, “Look, this is not a Disney movie. This is history.” I should have been offended, and I was. But I was addicted to learning more. If it were true, then I would have to deal with it. If I was to be honest with my Faith, I had to learn to reconcile this suppressed history, as shocking and offensive as some of it was, with my Christian beliefs.

It was a bit of a dichotomy. Pastor Skip, Calvary Chapel and my Christian beliefs on the one hand, and my burgeoning curiosity on the other. My high school education was next to useless. I had spent my entire high school career trying to avoid bullies and getting into a fair share of trouble. I had somehow squeaked through graduation after repeating my entire senior year and barely avoided repeating it a second time. I was given no educational direction from my parents, whom I don’t blame, because they did not know any better. I don’t think I was ever taught to appreciate the joys of education, or the thrill of discovery. I shuffled from class to class for five years at Albuquerque TVI, still with no direction, and with no intention of gaining a degree in anything. Some classes I excelled in, others I failed. I learned to face my fear of math. I enrolled in basic algebra, the same dreaded class that I had repeated and failed multiple times while in high school, and discovered that I had a natural affinity for it. I shocked even myself! I had come to believe that I was a failure at math, and that I would never understand it. It was a true self-fulfilling prophecy. I believed that I would never understand it, so I did not understand it. But I had no idea how talented I was in math, given a little confidence, discipline and attention. I learned to view the math problems as entertaining puzzles, much like crossword puzzles – and after much work, study and practice, I excelled. I was finally, after years of failure and self-loathing, learning to have some self-confidence.

Pastor Skip told me that confidence in my own strength was not pleasing to the Lord. I learned to repeat the wish of John the Baptist in reference to Jesus: He must increase, while I must decrease. Life was not about me. I was weak in my own flesh. I could do nothing on my own, without Christ who strengthened me. Of course Pastor Skip was right! I could see how lost we were when relying on our own strength! But when I pondered my own fleshly nature, and our lost and sinful state, I would sink into despair, guilt and self-loathing. There was nothing good about me, Pastor Skip taught, and I was wretched and wicked from my mother’s womb. Self-confidence only came when I was allowed to rely on my own strength, yet this confidence in my own power was offensive to God.

I was torn. Calvary Chapel taught me that I could not do anything. I was worthless without God. I had no power. I had to give it all to Jesus. Doing the seemingly impossible, by finally passing my dreaded math classes, and passing them after overcoming much self-imposed fear, was a tremendous victory for me. I was beginning to believe in, dare I say, myself. Just a little.

Despite my newfound love of learning, I was being pulled in two different directions. I could learn about the Bible, about Jesus and delve deeper into the meat of my beliefs, or I could rely on my own strength, develop some kind of discipline, and learn things in school, hopefully to lead to a better job, but ultimately just for the joy of it. I knew I wanted to study what I loved. And I loved Jesus. That love, I swore to myself, would never die.

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Thursday, April 5, 2012

Conversions and De-conversions – my damned parents

By 1990, I was 26 years old and I was thoroughly immersed in the world of Fundamentalist Christianity. I was convinced that I had a “personal relationship with Jesus Christ”, that is I could talk to Jesus every day, at any time I wanted, and that Jesus was listening intently to every word that I said. Jesus was concerned when I brought my troubles and worries at the foot of the altar. Jesus was pleased when I witnessed his Gospel to my friends and family. Jesus showered me with his blessings when it was his good pleasure to do so. Jesus was scolding and correcting when I fell into Sin (“Correcting” was the term that my church used. We never actually used the Biblical terms of a “jealous” or “angry” god unless we were actually reading it from Scripture).

I talked to Jesus constantly. Of course, he never talked back. I never expected him to, because nobody I knew ever actually expected to have Jesus audibly speak to them. So it was a constant struggle for me to discover what the Will of God was for me. Apparently, from the way Pastor Skip used to preach, Jesus had a special and unique plan for me and my life. I would talk to Jesus, and talk, and talk, and talk, and talk some more. He never said anything back, so instead I had to try and decipher seemingly random events in my life as if they were clues that he was sending to me. In other words, my relationship with Jesus was essentially a game of charades.

I found special and insightful meaning in that Psalm I read this morning. I wonder what God is trying to tell me with that?

My friends at work were especially receptive to that Chuck Missler cassette I played in the prep room today. God must want me to play some more of that tomorrow.

That checkout girl at the grocery store sure is cute. I wonder if God placed her in my life so that I could ask her out on a lunch date, and share the Gospel?

Jesus, when I bought this bicycle, I dedicated it to you for your glory. As I ride it today, lead me to a place where I can be an effective witness for your Kingdom.

Yes. I said all these things to myself – and much, much more. I went to the sermon cassette library and checked out all the messages I could find on the topic of God’s Will for the Christians’ life. “Discovering God’s Will for Your Life”. For the life of me, I don’t remember what any of them specifically said, but they all boiled down to, pray, be patient, live in the Spirit, and God will guide you to where He wishes you.

I took my Christian Faith very, very seriously. I figured I was not a powerful Bible pastor like Pastor Skip or Chuck Missler, but I could do my tiny part for the Kingdom working and spreading His message in the restaurant kitchen where I worked. I was happy with my small part in God’s giant plan.

But was I happy at that time? Looking back on that time over 20 years later, I don’t really know. I was certainly well liked at church and at work. My workmates put up with my constant witnessing and proselytizing, but while they loved spirited debate their constant pounding of my Faith really wore me down and tired me out. But I gained satisfaction from that by knowing that I was doing the will of God in spreading Gospel seeds among receptive unbelievers. Those seeds would surely germinate when they hit the ready and responsive ears of a willing heathen. I felt, probably for the first time in my life, that I was on a correct and constructive path. I felt like I had finally found my moral bearing. I had quit smoking and drinking, and abandoned almost every secular activity and pleasure from my life. I also felt like I was a tiny part of something much bigger, and that I had exciting, secret inside information concerning the spiritual realm of God and His coming Kingdom, that only those few of us who had genuine relationships with Jesus were privileged to. Those were exciting times for me.

But on the other hand, Christian beliefs could fill me with terror, uncertainty, anguish and moral disappointments. I sometimes felt as if I was constantly struggling to maintain Faith, fighting off guilt for not witnessing to a person I met in the streets, or keeping too much money when I knew I could always give more to Calvary Chapel’s coffers. I struggled to find the balance of being pious enough to be a good Christian witness for my friends, and not pious enough that I was making a disgusting show of myself. I struggled not to privately judge those who did not take their Faith as seriously as I did. I once gave a sermon to the singles youth group about how much Satan hated us, and wanted to take all of us down with him. I shuddered when I spoke, and I know I had the attention of everybody in that room, and several commented favorably on my powerful message. But it was a message that pulled from deep in my heart. I was convinced that Satan hated me, and that he hated everybody that I loved, and that my entire family was going straight to Hell. When I contemplated on that fact, I was terrified.

Sometime in the midst of my years of Christian fanaticism, my dad converted to Mormonism. My hard-scrabble lumberjack father finally put the booze down and devoted himself to the teachings of Joseph Smith. To this day I don’t know why he converted, but I am certain that it gave him a community, and allowed him to clean up his life a bit. But at the time, all I knew was that he was following heresy – a heretical temptation placed before him by Satan, the Father of Lies, and that the deception would land my dad into an unquenchable lake of fire. As I mentioned in a previous entry to this series, I have never been close to my dad. Especially during this time of my life, the blows of his fists were still fresh in my memory, and even though he lived several hundred miles from me, he still intimidated me. But he was my dad. He was the only dad that I would ever have, and I forced myself to love him because Jesus commanded it. I still remember the night where I, along with some other Christian friends, prayed for the salvation of Dad’s soul. I presented a photo of my bearded and smiling dad to my Christian friends, and told them about his damnable state as a Mormon convert. I asked my friends to pray with me. So we put the photo on the floor, and we sat on our knees, and out of habit, formed a circle around dad’s photo. I still remember that prayer. Everyone chanted and prayed all at once, while I cried. I cried and cried. I cried until my eyes swelled and my sinuses hurt. I distinctly remember staring at dad’s smiling face while imagining that smile burning in the flames of Hell. I remember that photo becoming wet with the tears that dripped from my face.

Mom was more difficult for me to figure out. She had long since moved back to my childhood home in San Ysidro. I knew she no longer attended any kind of church, but she did not appear to me to have joined any heretical cult, like dad did. She had clearly backslidden though. At best, she was the type of Christian that Pastor Skip warned us about. He called the type of Christian who had lost the passion and fire of their First Love, and now wandered about in Christian apathy, as a Carnal Christian. I did not know if mom had lost her Faith or her Salvation, but I saw enough disturbing signs from her, that I had become concerned. First, she did not attend any church that I could tell. I remember her mentioning that she believed that God does not care what you believe, but he does care if you are sincere in your beliefs. I felt that was a sure sign the mom rejected the belief in the exclusive salvation through Jesus Christ alone, and just not a very smart position to hold. My concern for her had nothing to do with her actions or morals. It had only to do with her beliefs.

I once got her to accept an invitation to attend Calvary Chapel with me. It was a Sunday evening service, which was the night that Pastor Skip typically did his expositional studies. I was very excited. I could not wait to get mom into the sanctuary of that church, and let her listen to the magic words of Pastor Skip as he presented the Gospel to her. I wanted her to see for herself how attractive my kind of Christianity was! It was not the half-crazed Pentecostalism of my youth that I knew that she was familiar with. No! This was the contemporary, modern and reasonable faith – a true, non-judgmental and genuine relationship with Jesus Christ, without all the baggage of religion!

When she accepted my invitation to attend Calvary Chapel, I decided to do a little early prep work. I had no doubt that mom was once a born again Christian but had abandoned her faith sometime after her divorce from my step-dad Michael. So I spent the afternoon praying. “Dear Jesus, I ask that you open mom’s heart to your message, and that the Holy Spirit gently, lovingly but ably convicts her of her Sin. I ask that you put power into the Pastor Skip’s sermon, so that he will say those words which will affect mom. Dear Jesus, I want mom to join me in having a loving relationship with you”.

I rode my bike to Calvary Chapel about an hour or so before mom was to meet me there for the evening service. I went to the back room behind the stage, which was the prayer chamber where I had given my life to Jesus a couple of years before. I told the assistant there that my mom was attending Calvary Chapel for the first time, that she was a Christian but had fallen away, and that I would like them to pray with me.

Out of habit, we joined hands in a circle and prayed. As we blessed Pastor Skip’s upcoming sermon, one of the assistants thought that maybe we could go into Pastor Skip’s office and ask him to personally pray with us. My heart leapt! Surely, this was going to be an anointed message from Pastor Skip!

We walked down the hall towards the pastor’s office and one of the assistants gently knocked, walked inside and told the pastor that he had a visitor. Pastor Skip was busy preparing for the evening’s message, but he graciously invited us all in. I told Pastor Skip that my mom was coming in for the evening’s service, and that she was a Christian in the early 1970’s, but had fallen away.

“Is your mom saved?”

“I don’t know. But I want her to meet Jesus”

Pastor Skip stood and joined us in front of his desk. Out of habit, we joined hands in a circle and he prayed. “Dear Jesus, I bring Joe’s mom before your throne of grace….”

After his prayer, he beamed a broad smile as he always did, and I thanked him and the pastoral assistants for their time. I sat in the lobby and waited for mom. When she entered the building, she was amazed at the size and beauty of the sanctuary. “Such a big, beautiful church! I can tell wonderful things are happening here!”

The worship band rocked as usual. Mom really got into it, and clapped along. She no doubt remembered the guitar-based music from her Jesus Freak days. Following their usual pattern of two up-tempo songs, the band slowed down and performed a more contemplative and praise-worthy song. The hands started to rise in worship. What would mom do? I watched her nervously. She kept her hands clasped in front of her, her mouth stopped singing and she watched.

Pastor Skip began to preach. I remember nothing about the message in particular, but I do remember when he began to wrap it up for the evening. Pastor Skip rarely gave altar calls. It was just not his style. But this particular evening, with my mom in the back of his mind, he got as close as he ever got to giving one. The piano played a few quiet chords under Pastor Skip’s exhortation:

“Perhaps you are not a Christian. Perhaps you do not know God. Maybe you have a lot of questions and doubts, but Jesus will meet you where your doubts are. Maybe you think you are not good enough to be saved by Jesus and that you can never be forgiven, but Jesus will take you just as you are. Perhaps you were once a Christian but have fallen away…

He looked immediately, with laser precision, directly at my mother.

“…but somebody who loves you very much dragged you here kicking and screaming. Jesus loves you. He wants to save you. Will you accept his invitation?”

The service ended. As people filed out the door towards the foyer, mom silently rose and slowly walked to the front of the auditorium. She stood at the foot of the stage, all alone, head bowed. I did not follow her. I just stayed at my seat and prayed fervently. What was she thinking? Was she giving her life to Jesus? Was she crying? Was she repenting of her sins? To tell you the truth, I will never know. She stood up there for at least 10 minutes, and refused all offers of help from the assistant pastors. She just needed time alone with Jesus.

She finally walked back to collect her things, told me she enjoyed the service, and without a word of explanation, she left.

I never spoke to her again of that evening. The next week she came again to Calvary Chapel to watch special guest musician Darrell Mansfield perform some Gospel blues. And that was it. She never returned. As far as I am aware, that was the last time mom ever attended church.

I was afraid to talk to mom about that evening. Watching her at the stage, deep in contemplation with her head bowed seemed like such a private and intimate moment for her, that I did not want to spoil it. She asked the assistant pastors for privacy, so I thought I would give her the same privacy by not intruding on her thoughts. But I finally figured that she was up there deciding if she wanted to return to Jesus or not, and in that tense moment of decision, with all her memories of religious belief to reflect on in that moment, she made the crucial choice to reject her religious beliefs.

Mom was teetering over the edge. She nearly gave her life to Jesus. We had circles of prayer warriors asking God for his salvation upon her! But in that crucial moment of decision she walked away. My heart sank.

One evening, several months later, I was visiting her in her home. My heart was sick knowing that she had known a taste of Christianity, but had decided to ultimately reject Jesus. She was deceived, lost and damned. For several months, I was very uncomfortable when visiting mom. How could I convince her? How could I tell her what she did not already know? How could I make her accept Jesus again?

She asked me what was wrong. I mumbled something about her not being a Christian, and that I could not get over it. I still remember her forcefully asking me:

“Joe! Do you think I am going to Hell!?”

“Yes!” I remember crying again. I remember that familiar feeling of snot clogging my nose, and tears running down my flushed hot cheeks. I cried out of terror and fear of my god. I cried because nobody seemed to understand the damnable fate that awaited them! I cried in frustration that nobody that I talked to, not even my own family, not even my parents, would accept Jesus as their Savior and accept a home in paradise. Nobody listened to me but a lousy street bum!

I cried and cried and cried. My god I cried so much when I was a Christian. I cried until I could not see from tears. I cried until my face hurt. I cried until I hiccupped from interrupted breathing. I had no time for God’s promised Peace that passeth understanding. I was too busy crying over the miserable survivor’s guilt that I felt. I was saved. Everybody that I loved was damned.

Mom, as usual, told me that there was a lot that I did not understand. But she asked me what kind of Heaven I could expect if everybody I knew was burning in Hell. How could Heaven be joyful, she asked, when everyone you know and love is burning forever? How much will you enjoy heaven with that in the back of your mind?

I never witnessed to my mom again. I never once witnessed to dad. The burden of guilt was unbearable. I could not hold myself responsible for their rejection of God, but I could not help feeling guilt whenever I was with them. So I just left them alone. I loved my Jesus, but I was terrified of the awesome power he held over us mortals. He held us from a thread that hovered over the fires of Hell. Why couldn’t anybody understand this obvious truth?

I was happy as a Christian. Sometimes. But I remember mostly the fear, the guilt and the tears.

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Sunday, April 1, 2012

The Omnipotent Mr Softie

Christian pop culture has changed immensely since I was a fervent Christian. I had never heard of many things that are common with today’s Christians. I always feel a bit strange when I feel the need to criticize some harmless aspect of Christian culture. It is not up to me, a non-believer, to decide what is theologically correct and what is not. It is not up to me to decide if Christians are acting in an edifying manner. It should not concern me in the slightest if Christians want to ask themselves, “what would Jesus do?” If it helps them with their own moral reflection and contemplation, then I wish more power to them.

But sometimes I see something that seems so juvenile, so asinine, that it makes wonder what the Christian is actually imagining their god to be. It makes me wonder if they are actually doing any thinking or reflecting on their Faith at all. Check out the photo that I just took of Skyline Baptist Church's front marquee.

A couple of years ago, I asked a Christian work-mate of mine what she thought of Christians who attributed direct quotes to their god. The one I was specifically thinking of at the time was, “Meet me at my house before the big football game – God” or something like that. I told her that when I was a Christian, I would have considered putting words into the mouth of God to be the exclusive work of a prophet, and any so-called false prophets were to be punished with death by stoning. She replied, “Well, it sounds like something God would say. It is not inconsistent with the Bible.”

Still, I cannot help but think this demonstrates a few things about the Christian. First, obviously, I believe that it merely reflects the words of the person who installed the letters in the marquee. This is something that critics, or anybody outside the Christian religion can easily recognize. The believer’s thoughts and actions often become God’s thoughts and actions. But a Christian who places a direct quote onto a billboard and attributes it directly to God should make this projection obvious, even to a thinking Christian. Since the only criteria for a correct citation to God is anything that sounds like something he would say and is not inconsistent with the Bible, and since what sounds like a divine citation is purely up to personal interpretation, then anything goes. Any Christian can put pretty much any inspirational message that they imagine on the marquee and attribute it to God. By attributing quotes to God on marquees and billboards, the obvious projection of the believer’s words as God’s words is no longer implicit. The Christian is taking an explicit message that comes from their own imagination, and explicitly placing it as a quote from the Almighty. It is the blatant projection of the believer’s thoughts onto an invisible and impotent deity. It should be obvious to anybody who sees it from their car as they drive by.

Suppose for a second that when President Obama begins his campaign for reelection, a member of his campaign committee rents a billboard with the following message: “I have created 4 million jobs with the Recovery Act, and I promise to create more” – Barrack Obama. Now even the most morally upright Christian can see the problem with this. It may reflect reality. President Obama may have created this many jobs by signing the right bills into law. I am certain that no matter what, he will promise to create more jobs upon reelection. It is not inconsistent with any of his policies. It might even accurately reflect his thoughts and sound like something he would say on the campaign trail. But none of that matters, because he never actually said what his supporter attributed to him. He never said it. Here we have a quote, directly and explicitly attributed to the President of the United States, done in good faith with the intention of inspiring voters to support him. But none of that matters, because if this scenario did in fact ever occur, I imagine the small army of lawyers at the President’s disposal will threaten enough lawsuits, that the erroneous quote on the billboard will immediately vanish. The citation is simply wrong, and it will be removed because it can be used, not only for inspiration, but for mockery and ridicule by Republicans. They would immediately scream, “Obama never said any such thing – he is just trying to pad his own record!” But since he never put the billboard up in the first place, it might as well be slanderous.

We cannot falsely attribute sayings to any human authority, but for some reason, these Christians feel free to do so with their Ultimate Authority. And for the same reason, it makes God seem an object of ridicule to those of us outside the Christian Faith. From the looks of the marquee, Skyline Baptist Church must view their god as the Big Sentimental Softie in the sky. Such saccharine piety always made me nauseous as a Christian. If the Christian is doing anything that would make their god peer down through the clouds at them and smile in loving approval, then the Christian god is a doddering, old fool. When Christians describe their god to others, they are quick to point out that God is not an old man in the sky with robes and a beard who sits on a heavenly throne in the clouds. God is not like a person in the sky like the great medieval paintings often portray him. Yet these same Christians don’t seem to understand that these sentimental quotes turn their god into exactly that person! God is he who smiles down at his Faithful flock when they obey and do what pleases him. This type of deity must be attractive to those who want their God to be like the loving old grandparents who doted on them when they were children.

But I shouldn’t care. I am not a Christian. Why should I care? Really, I shouldn’t. I guess the fact that I was in that culture for so many years makes it all seem so surreal to me.