Wednesday, February 22, 2012

How It's Done

Alright, these blogs are getting a little time consuming, requiring reading and stuff. This one will be off the cuff, no looking stuff up, more in the spirit of the Internet. That doesn’t mean I’m just making it up, but I will draw a little on personal experience.

A couple major players in the world of atheists helped me understand how theology works. One of them is Bart Ehrmann, who started out as a fundamentalist from the American South. Of fundamentalism, he now says, it is not much fun, too much damn and very little mental. When he went to seminary school, he went in knowing that there would be liberal professors that would try to teach him that the Bible was written by men and that it was not the inerrant word of God.

He was right, but it wasn’t until he got there that he found out how it’s done. Another great scholar, Daniel Dennett has also explained this from a different perspective. He never saw the Bible as anything but a collection of documents from history and says that the seminary schools are no longer able to find professors for Biblical history that are willing to lie. These professors do want to keep their jobs and to do so, they need to attract fundamentalist students and probably know better than to discuss the theological implications of Bible history in too much depth.

How is it done? Mainly by example. Because the questions have become incessant on the Internet, there are some examples of direct answers, addressing passages like the one about being happy to see babies’ heads smashed on the rocks, but that is not how it is usually done. More difficult to find would be one addressing the 3,000 people that God ordered Moses to kill because they broke the brand new covenant. The chief tool used to address these problems on Sunday, is not to address them at all. Sunday worship involves a few minutes of reading, carefully selected and approved at the highest levels. Stick to that and your battle is half over.

That doesn’t always work. The second time I agreed to give a sermon, I said in advance that I would commit to preaching from the lectionary. My luck, what comes up but the story of Abraham listening to God and almost sacrificing, i.e. killing, his own son, his only son, born at a late age for Abraham and his wife. I even made that part of the sermon; that this was a difficult passage to reconcile with the modern world. Pastors say that pretty often actually. In this case I danced around it and said something about commitment.

Later I realized I could have talked about mythology; that the story was written in a time when human sacrifice was common. This story says, your God is in charge, you must obey, but he isn’t going to ask for human sacrifice anymore. That wouldn’t really be a Christian sermon though, more of an academic lecture. Or I could have done what Penn Gillette does and challenge them to ask themselves, if your god asks you to kill your own son, would you refuse? If you answer yes, then you’re an atheist. But I was never into doing that.

Usually, it’s not as hard as human sacrifice. Most of the child murders and rapes are not in the lectionary, but everyone knows the Abraham story, so I guess they have to include it. Usually, the commonly known part of the story is easily separated from the killing parts. You may have heard of the “still soft voice” of God that Elijah hears in the wilderness. It’s a great little piece of poetry with lots of storms and wind and then a whisper, where he hears God. But what does God say? You won’t hear that in a sermon. God tells Elijah who to anoint for kings and prophets and who they are going to slay.

We do this with non-religious stories by the way. Think about the story of Helen Keller, a little girl who can’t hear or speak. She learns how to communicate then goes on to be a great speaker. But what does she speak about? I always assumed she talked about disabilities or just told her own story. Nope. She was a Socialist. She spoke about worker’s rights. Bet your teacher didn’t tell you that one.

Professors and pastors don’t come out and explain this like I am. So we learn by example. Pastors give us great cherry picked quotes. We look them up and see what immediately precedes or follows them. We learn not to mention those difficult parts. We learn not to talk about politics in polite company. We learn God is love and that’s all you need to know. 

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