Thursday, December 20, 2012

Conversions and De-conversions – The Filtered Bible

Rosemary had never really read the Bible.  Her Catholic background never encouraged her to read the raw, unfiltered Biblical text.  She only read from selected readings and portions chosen for her by some anonymous men in Rome.  But she managed to bluff her way through our Baptist led home Bible studies.  There was one particularly uncomfortable evening at our home Bible study where we fervent Evangelicals were discussing our favorite portions of the Holy Scriptures.

For instance, my favorites have long been John chapter 10 and Paul’s epistle to the Ephesians.  Other people expressed their favorites, and we all nodded with fond agreement.  “Ah yes!  I love Romans as well!  So deep…”  It was finally Rosemary’s turn to speak and somebody asked her to gush over her favorite part of the Bible.  She stumbled.  I knew she was in trouble, but the singer and choir performer in her pulled something out.  “I have always loved the Psalms.  I love the singing and poetry.”  “Ah yes!  The Psalms…” our Bible study group again nodded in approval.

In private, I knew that Rosemary only knew the basics of the Bible.  She could list off the most elementary bullet points, like Paul’s letters and the four Gospels.  But if given a Bible she could never find them without first consulting the table of contents in the front.  What is a sure way to spot a true Bible believing Fundamentalist?  Easy.  They can instantly find obscure books like Haggai or Philemon with a mere flip of a few pages in their Bibles.  But what Rosemary lacked in Biblical knowledge, she made up for in sincere devotion to her beloved Deity.  She loved prayer during our home Bible studies, and she felt free to dispense of the Catholic prayer regimen of repeating the Rosary.  She relished the Baptist tradition of bypassing the endless cycles and intermediary prayers to the Saints and instead boldly approaching the throne of God for a direct talk with her all-loving Deity.  Rosemary loved this devotional prayer time, and she always prayed with much enthusiasm during our Bible studies.  At the time, she seemed to enjoy the Rick Warren 40 Days of Purpose videos that our home Bible study was watching.  But her weak spot was the actual Bible readings.  I think she felt a little embarrassed by her ignorance when surrounded by fervent, Bible believing Baptists.

She once asked me if we could have a private Bible study session at home, just for the two of us.  My heart leapt.  My Catholic girlfriend was interested in the fountainhead of my religious beliefs.  Maybe she would come around to my side after all, and leave Catholicism as a cultural vestige.  Maybe we could at least meet halfway, with my growing, but not complete, interest in her Catholic Faith. 

I had previously read the entire Bible twice, both times while attending Calvary Chapel nearly a decade before.  At the time, I read the Bible as one would read a novel, with the only difference being that it was preceded by much prayer to the supposed Author.  I had a tendency to read the Bible only to retain an over-arching idea of what was actually in the text.  I rarely dug into details.  I did not compare and crosscheck one text with another.  If there was a gap left in the life of Jesus as presented in the Gospel of Matthew, it could easily be filled with something I found in the Gospel of Mark.  If the long list of requirements for the Tabernacle or Priestly garments in Exodus became tedious, I just had to remember that the details all somehow acted as pointers to the person of Jesus Christ, who was being miraculously pre-figured by Moses centuries before the fact.

But I had not read the Bible, the Source, the Wellspring of my Faith, in around ten years.  I laid great hope in our home Bible studies, but I felt famished after being coerced into watching Rick Warren’s 40 Days of Purpose videos during Bible study time.  I felt the Holy Ghost convicting me to again ‘dig into the Word’, which us Fundamentalists used as code for reading the Bible.  I picked up my New King James Bible.  I started in Genesis.  “In the beginning….”

My attitude in reading was different than it was ten years previously.  I no longer read it with the same attitude that I did in Calvary Chapel.  By this time, I had been conditioned with several years of reading textbooks and scientific papers.  I knew how to study.  I did not read the Bible in the bathtub or in bed, as I had before.  I instead sat at the table, with pen and pad in hand, and after a short prayer for guidance, I did my best to actually study the text as I would study any other text worthy of intense scrutiny.  This time when I read the Bible, I took copious notes.  I highlighted.  I crosschecked one passage to see how it compared with another.  I paid attention to details.  I tried to detach myself emotionally from my revered text, and tried to understand what cultural context could produce a Deity that suddenly seemed alien to everything I had been led to believe in Calvary Chapel.

I made it up to 1 Samuel.  I could not go any further.  The Bible felt like a different book when I read it critically as opposed to devotionally.  When I crosschecked the text, many things seemed out of place.  I noticed stories that repeated, sometimes with a couple of details or names changed, but nevertheless repeated.  I noticed characters doing things that seemed to have no motivation, non-sequiturs, or events that would be repeated.  I tried keeping track of how many times Moses climbed Mount Sinai to retrieve his laws, and it became so confusing that in the end I could never fully sort it out.  Abram, Abraham and Jacob all had stories of visiting a foreign king, and telling that king that their beautiful wives were actually their sisters.  Moses curses the land of Egypt with plagues that kill all the livestock, but the livestock is suddenly present again just in time for the next curse that kills them again.  Isaac appears out of nowhere 20 years after he was shown on his deathbed, blind, and tricked into giving his birthright to the wrong son.  The exiled Moses repeats the same itinerary as the exiled Jacob.  King Saul hunts for his young protégé David then forgives him after David spared his life.  Then with no explanation, Saul is shown hunting for him again.  Jacob scolds his son Joseph, and claims that he and his mother will not bow to him, years after Joseph’s mother had already died in labor.  Samuel pronounces Saul king at least twice, the first by anointing him with oil in a private ceremony, then again by drawing lots amongst all the tribes of Israel.  After David killed Goliath, King Saul needs to be introduced to the valiant young warrior as if he did not know him, even though King Saul had earlier specifically requested the services of David, by name, for his harp playing skills. 

Saul loved David so much that he became his armor bearer, and then he suddenly forgot about him after he killed Goliath?  What is going on?  Early in the book of 1Samuel it is said that God prevented the Philistines from attacking Israel while Samuel, his prophet, was alive.  But the rest of 1Samuel is a record of nothing but Philistine invasions.  What happened? 

Deuteronomy claims to be a record of the repeating of the Mosaic laws to the new generation of Hebrews before they possess their Promised Land.  Yet when I compared the Deuteronomy laws with the laws of Exodus and Leviticus, they were almost never the same, and in some cases flatly contradicted.  Events in Deuteronomy are described as occurring in different locations, and for different reasons than they do in the other Mosaic books, especially Numbers.  Deuteronomy claims that Moses was given two sets of the Ten Commandments, and that the second was like the first.  But a simple comparison of the two sets of the Ten Commandments as given in Exodus shows that they were almost entirely different.  The firstborn of people and livestock are treated differently in different portions of Scripture.  There seemed to me to be some confusion about what to do with firstborn male children.  In some texts, they are to be ‘redeemed’ to God, along with the firstborn of all the livestock.  But in other texts, humans do not have to dedicate their first born, but can redeem them for money.  Still other texts specify that firstborns do not have to be redeemed at all, but that the job goes to Levites.  Specific priestly rules often differed, even just slightly.  Priests may eat different parts of livestock dedicated for sacrifice, but those body parts differ depending on which text is referenced.

These were all things I noticed and which I am referencing from the notes I took at the time.  But none of these strange signs of textual tampering, the duplication and alternate versions of stories, the changing and abnegation of laws, or other anomalies caused me to doubt the veracity of the Bible.  It was still the Word of God.  After reading it a bit more critically than I had in my Fundamentalist past, I just seemed a lot more unsure in its foundations than I had once believed.  The Bible was not as clear in its interpretation as Calvary Chapel made me think it was.  It would take much more study to plumb its depths than I had earlier imagined. 

For the first time in my life, I noticed the morally embarrassing character of the Deity in the first books of the Bible.  Today, I would call the Deity’s character monstrous, abominable, loathsome and unworthy of any human respect, much less worship.  But at the time I was reading these passages, at a time when I was doing my best to be a good Christian, I was just embarrassed.  I did not know what to think when I read these passages as they were written and without trying to explain it away at any cost.  I once justified the reprehensible character of the Deity as a product of the ancient cultural context in which He was depicted.  I once told myself that the slavery that the Deity regulated in the Bible was actually better treatment than the barbaric and godless slavery as practiced in neighboring cultures.  When God commanded Moses to dispossess the land he was conquering, and when he commanded Moses to kill all Amorites, I reasoned it was because the Amorites had long before earned their destruction by rejecting the True God, by turning instead to false idols and sacrificing their little Amorite babies to those idols.  Everybody in Calvary Chapel reads the Bible in this way.  When church pastors encourage believers to read the Bible, believers have no choice but to excuse all of their Deity’s abhorrent behavior and instruction by any means possible.  But instead of making excuses by inserting things in the Bible that were not already there, I just read the Bible as it was printed, and wrote down troublesome passages in my notes.

I think what bothered me most of all, more than the contradictions, multiple versions of the same stories, more than the questionable morals of the Deity, was the sometimes childish, petulant, dare I say, even immature character of the Deity.  He would throw crippling plagues on Egypt, and then consciously and willfully harden the Pharaoh to unrepentance, which would justify more crippling plagues.  His temper sometimes resembled the tantrums of a spoiled all-powerful toddler, cursing or killing anybody who broke the slightest of His commandments.  I tried to imagine the horror of fire falling from the skies and the earth opening to swallow 250 rebellious Levite priests.  I tried to picture the scene in which Moses ordered the Levite priests to massacre 3000 of their rebellious Hebrews brothers.  When the Hebrews complained about the lack of meat in their diets, the Deity responded by dumping a plague of quail on the camp of ‘day’s journey’ wide on each side and two cubits high.  The Deity seemed proud of stuffing the Hebrews with quail because they dared complain of their lack of meat.  It all reminded me of an impatient father who stuffed his rebellious teenager’s mouth full of cigarettes because he dared sneak a puff.  The Deity commands his followers to stone with stones anybody they suspect of tempting others to stray from the Faith.  Even if that person be a brother or a wife, they are to be stoned.  I tried to imagine the punishment of stoning – hurling rocks at a victim and the fatal infliction of one injury upon the next by the pounding impact of rocks.  Such a torturously painful execution for any reason seemed like nothing short of barbarism.  Could we even do a quick decapitation or something?

Blessings are promised on the Hebrews if they obey the Deity, but they almost seem an afterthought compared to the numerous curses promised on the disobedient.  The amount of curses threatened by the constantly angered Deity in Deuteronomy 28 bordered on the absurd and laughable.  It just seemed over the top.  Sometimes no reason at all was given for the unbelievable temper and wrath of this Deity who was supposedly the center of my Christian beliefs. 

This type of behavior and moral structure was not the rare anomalies of a few isolated passages.  The first few books of the Bible was not a record of a loving and generous Deity occasionally interrupted with descriptions of his punishment of unfaithful followers.  The pages seemed soaked with barbarism and petty behavior from the Deity from beginning to end, and I simply could not ignore it any more.  I never made it past 1Samuel on that reading of my New King James translation of the Bible.  I stopped reading the Bible after I read of the Prophet Samuel’s rejection of Saul as King.  The only rationale given for this rejection was that King Saul disobeyed the Deity.  How did King Saul disobey the Deity and earn His disfavor?  By warring with the Amalekites and sparing the life of the best livestock and Agag, the Amalekite king.  The disobedience came, not in the war, but in the sparing of life.  King Saul was under orders from the Deity to slaughter every living thing among the Amalekites - man, woman, child and animal.  The order from God was explicit.  King Saul was to destroy everybody and everything, and spare nobody, not a single man, woman, infant, sheep, camel or donkey.  Saul did kill everything; he did obey orders, with the sole exception of the Amalekite king, whom he kept imprisoned, and some choice livestock which he intended for sacrifice.  But this was not enough for the Deity.  Saul was to slaughter everything, and for not precisely and savagely following the letter of this command, Saul was cursed from that day onward.  By the time Samuel, the Prophet of God, took a sword and personally killed the imprisoned Amalekite king by hacking him to pieces, I had had enough.  I simply could read no further.  How in the world had I missed all this sludge when I had previously read the Bible?  How could I have simply prayed, read about morally reprehensible behavior from the God that I worshipped, then closed the Bible and thanked God for the precious jewel of His Word?  How could I have done that?  How?

The problems ran even deeper than this.  I had been promised by Pastors Skip and Chuck of Calvary Chapel, that every detail of the Scriptures was there by the design of the Holy Ghost.  The details of the Old Testament, I was told, pointed to or prefigured the person of Jesus Christ in the New Covenant.  Calvary Chapel prided itself on devotional reading from the entire Bible, both New and Old Testaments.  But on this reading, I could no longer read these ancient Scriptures with a sense of devotion, or of applying some kind of relevance to my own life.  What did any of this ancient history, these meandering stories of patriarchs, judges, kings and lawgivers, these minutias of alien purity laws and tabernacle regulations, these detailed accounts of Divinely commanded genocide - what did any of this have to do with my Christian life?  I felt separated from these Scriptures by the continents of distance and the millennia of time that stood between us.  The problem was that I was trying to put my faith in the Christian religion as a follower of my Savior Jesus.  I did not want to worship the Bible as an idol, as I once did.  I acknowledged that it had its share of legend and myth, and I was still willing to place my Faith in it as a source of my Christian beliefs.  But Rosemary and I were getting married very soon.  I wanted nothing more than to be a good husband for my future wife.  I wanted a basis for my morality, and I believed that the only way to gain that moral basis was through my faith in Jesus Christ as expressed by my religion.  In this case, my religion was Christianity.  So I turned to the Bible to learn about Jesus, to follow the example set by my Savior, and to be a good Christian.  To a good husband.  To be a good person.  That is all I wanted.  But in the process, I was forced to read the divinely inspired Source of my Faith, and I discovered that it was saturated with embarrassing, irrelevant crap that I did not know what to do with.  What did any of these culturally alien texts have to do with my Christian walk and my desire to be a good husband?  Sure, I could pull a life lesson for my marriage from analogous readings of portions of Scripture, for instance from the marriage of Isaac and Rebecca.  But I figured a Divine oracle, inspired by the all-wise creator of my soul could be more explicit.  I could pull life lessons from analogous readings of any man made product of literature.  Aesop’s Fables contained more explicit lessons for my life than my attempts to dredge some kind of personal meaning from the stories I was reading in the Bible.

I still did not lack Faith in my Christian faith.  This shocking reading of the Bible did not destroy my Faith.  I just no longer knew what to do with the Bible any more.  At the time, I found it more of an embarrassment than as truly morally wrong.  I was confused.  I did not know what to think.

I was initially excited when Rosemary asked me to lead her through private study of the Bible.  But after my own reading, this excitement did not last long.  I knew what the Bible contained.  I knew there were good things to be found, but I suddenly felt like I had to wade through a sewer to get to them.  I was embarrassed.  So I ended up doing the same thing that her Catholic Church had done for her.  I intentionally steered her away from the embarrassment.  I stuck with pre-selected readings, just like her Catholic priests.  We stuck with the safe and neutered territory of the Gospels.  We read well-worn portions of Paul’s Epistles.  The first 3/4 of her big, fat, thick Bible was ignored for the comfortable, familiar and tepid readings in the last 1/4.  I filtered her Bible.  I was as guilty as her Catholic church in pre-selecting readings and trying to keep everything sterile and sanitized.  I was afraid of embarrassing myself by letting her read the bulk of what I knew the Bible contained.  I knew there was a problem, but I did not yet know what to do about it except pray, and ask for guidance.

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... Zoe ~ said...

Wow. I loved reading this but feel the weight of remembrance of my own struggle with that nasty Old Testament. No wonder so many Christians today don't want to talk about it or read it, preferring to lean more towards the New Testament.

On a lighter note. You read your Bible in the bathtub?! *giggle*

HeIsSailing said...

Yes Zoe, I did read the Bible in the bathtub. I can lounge and read the the ol' tub all day if you let me. Yeah, reading the Bible in there was pretty bad, but what is worse, in one of my earlier chapters, I described reading Asimov's "Understanding Physics" in the bathtub.

What is amazing about filtering the Bible to only focus on the New Testament is that these days, I find the New Testament to be just as morally reprehensible as the Old Testament. I did not think this at the time, it was just that the New Testament was more familiar, and believers are more desensitized to the barbarism. I remember a prized family photo of Rosemary's family. It was taken outside a monestary in Philippines, and the family is posing by a giant crucifix. There is the family, smiling happily, and they are oblivious that there is a life-size statue of a man nailed to a torture device just right next to them. You only notice that kind of barbarism when you remove yourself from that mindset.

Thanks again for your continued interest, Zoe. More to come soon.

DoOrDoNot said...

My horror of Bible passages actually began in the NT with hell. I guess you can arrive there starting at either end of the Bible. But I have since that time become sensitized to many of the OT stories too. I remember being in a Bible class with elderly women who were discussing (rationalizing) one of these stories, I think the one of Jepthah's daughter, and I was struck at the incongruity of these sweet women matter of factly supporting the murder of the innocent. Bizarre.

unkleE said...

For me as a christian, the NT is where my faith is based, and the OT has to fit in. I reckon the Bible should start with the NT than have the OT as a kind of appendix.

HeIsSailing said...

DoOrDoNot, I had long since dispensed with HELL as a boogie man. I had not believed in Hell since the early 1990s. The New Testament still stood upright and virtuous in my mind. It was not until after I had removed myself quite a bit from Christian beliefs that I was able to see just how barbarous the New Testament was too. I can also understand your experience of meeting perfectly sweet people who can turn right around and defend slavery, genocide, you name it, as long as it is sanctioned by God. I had plenty of those encounters - I will be describing a bit of that in a future chapter of this never ending de-conversion story. Thanks again for your interest.

UnkleE, I had believed that the Bible was an integrated whole of 66 books for my entire life. At the time I am writing about, I was just noticing how barbaric the Old Testament was, and its description of the Deity. I had by this time accepted many of the stories as legend and myth, but I did not know what I was supposed to do with its descriptions of the character and actions of the Deity. I mostly ignored it if I could. It was an embarrassment. Thanks again for reading.

Anonymous said...

Physics in the tub! If it helped me understand it all I'd read in the tub too. ;-) Actually, I use to read in the tub too. :-) I did a lot of praying in the tub. Even after leaving the faith it was the most difficult thing to let go of, praying in the tub.

No picnic. That's how I see the New Testament. "Desensitized" is a great term to describle how we don't see "the barbarism."

About three years ago, Biker Dude and I were out for a nice car ride to enjoy the countryside when suddenly we drove by a Catholic cemetery. There was a huge crucifix at the front of the cemetery that I could not divert my eyes from - soon enough. I started to viscerally react and was triggered by the sight. It was awful.

... Zoe ~ said...

Anonymous is me Zoe. I forgot to fill in my name.

HeIsSailing said...

Zoe, two years ago I was visiting Philippines with my in-laws. We went to a Catholic monastery and took some pictures of the family. I have a picture of photo of my in-laws posing and smiling happily, and they are oblivious to the eight foot tall statue just behind them of a man nailed and dying on a torture device. The gruesome symbols of Catholic mythology have so permeated their culture that they just seem unaware of how gruesome it all is. It only stands out to me now long after I have dropped the belief.

... Zoe ~ said...

I do relate HIS. This Jesus was a giant skinny/emaciated sickly creature. I've seen others like this and I wonder, you know, the images are ghastly, almost demonic-like and I wonder, What are the Catholics thinking?

I do know that any image of a human on a cross will be ghastly but why does he so often on these crosses look inhuman? *sigh*

Alice said...

I made it up to 1 Samuel.

Me too! Once I became a Universalist, I tried reading the bible cover to cover again without taking it "literally". By the time I got to 1 Samuel, I felt like I needed a shower.