I’ve had an e-mail exchange with a blog reader, and like many who commented on recent posts about Christmas, this individual is wrestling with changes to their perspective on faith as a result of learning more through academic study of the Bible. I asked for and received permission to share their last e-mail here, in the hope that it might generate some discussion that will be useful not only to the writer of the e-mail, but also to other readers. I have made minor edits so as not to inadvertently reveal the person’s identity.
Thank you for suggesting both Dale Allison and Keith Ward for me to read. I really enjoyed Allison’s Jesus of Nazareth but struggled a bit with Ward. I kept thinking that maybe he is the actual author of the Gospel of John; lots of spiritualizing and me not sure what to make of it all! I have continued to enjoy reading your blog and learning what is the length and breadth of biblical studies.
I know you must be busy with responsibilities, along with blogging!, but I would like to ask you a few questions and share some thoughts with you in hopes that you might help me figure some things out, or even affirm some of my thinking. A little background on me first…
I come from a fundamental background. My father is a retired Southern Baptist preacher. I became involved with Campus Crusade for Christ as a college student and even joined the ministry as a staff member for nearly 7 years in the mid 80s. Left Crusade to teach English at a university in Japan. During my 10 years in Japan I began having some basic doubts about Christianity and the existence of god. After moving back to the United States my wife and I began attending a large mega-church and kind of fell back into the routine/culture of going to church. About this time I also began a journey of rebuilding my faith. I began studying the Bible, reading and listening to authors and speakers that I felt safe with, i.e. moderate fundamentalists. Before long though I was exploring the world of N.T.Wright and discovered that Jesus was a Jew, not a Christian! From Wright I ventured out into the unknown territory of Borg, Ehrman, Spong, some of the “emerging church” voices like Rob Bell and Brian McLaren, and a smattering of biblical scholars like Brueggemann and Moltmann.
Along the way many of my long held understandings have given way to new ideas and answers that seem to make much more sense and helped put more of the puzzle pieces together for me. This journey has been most intense the last 3 years or so. It has been an exciting time of learning though not without times of unease and uncertainty that I should even be doing this. Where was this leading to?
It has been difficult to find others that I could share my thoughts with and talk things through with because they weren’t familiar with these new ideas I had, hadn’t read the same books, even heard of the authors, and wouldn’t know what to think of them if I were able to clearly explain them. Fortunately, through the internet I have found bloggers and their readers that have shown me that I am not the only one with a new and ever-changing paradigm of belief. That’s how I came across your blog. I don’t remember exactly how, but it certainly must have been the result of a Google search of mine or following a link from some other blogger.
I have read Thom Stark’s book a couple of times already and continue to review sections of it. I feel it is one of the most important books I have read in the last 3 years. If the god of the O.T., as he shows, evolved over time from ‘simply’ being a tribal deity, then can’t we justifiably doubt the whole idea of the ‘God of the Bible’, including the message of the prophets, (including Jesus), who came as his representatives or messengers? This still leaves the existence of ‘god’ a possibility, but excuses him from the script of the text, if he were to so desire.
Is the O.T. basically the product of various authors, and editors, trying to make sense of the world, humanity, nature, history, good and bad fortune, and god(s) as they understood him? Trying to harmonize or theologize world/national events with their own identity? And possibly with more than a little propaganda thrown in to support those in power at the time of writing/editing, e.g. Josiah?
One of the issues that I have been troubled with has been how the concept of salvation appears to be so very different between the Old and New Testaments. In the O.T. salvation seems to be the restoration to, or the state of, well-being in terms of physical/material/human needs rather than the redemption of man’s spiritual condition and ‘going to heaven when you die’ as many interpret it in the N.T. The difference is so noticeable, that I wonder how the term has come to mean something so different. The whole idea that someone has to invite Jesus into his/her heart, accept Jesus as personal savior, get saved, seems to be a completely new concept that has little or no connection with scripture as it was read in the early part of the first century – before Paul’s letters.
This leads to another point. I frequently hear that the O.T. ‘points to’ Jesus and that it should be read and understood in light of his ministry, life, death, and resurrection. Personally, I have trouble with this idea because I think it discredits the O.T., not letting the text speak for itself. Did the O.T. authors really think their writings might be pointing towards something other than their plain message? Isn’t much, if not all, of supposedly ‘messianic prophecy’ simply taking scripture out of context and spiritualizing it to reconcile or harmonize with current events?
The question of Jesus’ divinity has also been an issue that I have contemplated a great deal. After reading Stark and Allison and considering the idea that Jesus was a failed prophet I am led to think that he was not divine. So does ‘being a Christian’ now simply mean that we believe ‘the way’ Jesus taught us to live, loving God and man, is ultimately the best way for mankind to live and experience abundant life? Can one be an agnostic Christian?
As you can see I have come a long way from being the 4-spiritual laws toting Campus Crusader! My wife has been supportive of my journey but doesn’t understand it all the way I do and explaining it to her is not something I’m very good at. I’m sure she wonders where I’m at sometimes. And to be honest, I wonder too sometimes. Am I on solid ground here or have I wandered off into dangerous territory? Am I the only one that has come to this point, not really knowing where I am, or what lies ahead, but knowing I don’t really want to go back?