E-Mail From A Reader

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.

Hi James!

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?

Best regards,

XXXXXXXXXXXXXX

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/14437736905217016441 Dan Wilkinson

    "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."N.T. Wright's "Surprised By Hope" addresses this issue. He argues that the New Testament authors and the early Christian church believed in the ultimate physical restoration of creation–that the message of the New Testament is not merely offering a spiritual hope of salvation in heaven, but rather presents a holistic hope of final spiritual and bodily restoration on earth.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/15775977854913362396 DoOrDoNot

    I am exactly where the writer of this letter is "not really knowing where I am, or what lies ahead, but knowing I don't really want to go back." I don't know if the term "agnostic Christian" makes any sense or not, but it's how I see myself. I, too, went from a fundamentalist background to questioning to reading authors with viewpoints I had never heard: Wright, Enns, Sparks, Ehrman, Crossan, etc. I am having a hard time holding on to anything pertaining to Christianity now. I don't know how much of this is because I once viewed scripture as inerrant, making it difficult to have any regard for a Bible clearly bearing human influence. I don't have any answers, but I'm interested in any discussion this post may provoke.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/09248241050776947372 Rev Tony B

    Like these folks, I started off nearly 40 years ago as a pretty hardline fundamentalist. Then I began studying to be a preacher, and go on to ordination. A year in an evangelical Bible college taught me to read the Bible in its historical contexts, but still affirming that somehow it is the word of God. An academic theology degree, years of reading and preaching, and further postgrad study, and I've walked a long way along that road.'Agnostic Christian' does make sense – 'agnostic' simply means "I don't know" and I don't; I believe, I trust that God knows what he's doing, that however much or little I understand, I'm feeling my way in the right direction. It's a bit like doing a jigsaw puzzle; I've got a good few clusters of picture together, and the sides are pretty much in place, and while I can't figure out how it all fits together and there are lots of pieces I can't fit in at all yet, there is enough for me to see roughly how it should look when it's done.I get impatient with doctrinaire statements, whether they come from the Bible-believers who haven't worked out how to distinguish what they think the Bible says from what it actually says, or the trad church which hasn't worked out how to unwrap historical theology from the cultures in whose worldviews and philosophies it is giftwrapped. I want to boil it down, and get to the real hardcore of what God was doing in Jesus, and what that means for me and us. I don't know what divinity really means, but I do believe God was in Christ. I think the resurrection happened – it seems to me to be the most probable explanation for the traditions. Every question I answer raises more questions, but that's the nature of faith, and the nature of trusting in the One I can't see, but without whom things make less sense than they do with him.Enjoy the journey, folks. There's a good crowd of us walking it with you.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/10563649474540441597 atimetorend

    I really appreciate this letter and the other comments above. It is always encouraging to see this is a well-worn path, and that when one is not alone when asking questions like these. As Rev Tony notes above, enjoy the journey! It is ultimately far more satisfying than the one with the 4 spiritual laws along the way. :^)

  • Robert

    Wow. I could have written this letter too. You should see my copy of Thom's book. Almost every page is marked and noted.Wouldn't a true revelation of God would need to distinguish itself from other so-called holy books which are not from God? I used to think the Bible was special in this way. Now I'm "enlightened". I know my conservative view of scripture was naive; The Bible is not as clear and consistent as I was taught in Sunday School. In fact, it contains all kinds of ideas about morality and the natural world that I thoroughly reject.Rev. Tony B says to enjoy the journey, but sometimes I want to get off the train. What I mean is that questioning the Bible has also led to a serious questioning of the validity of faith itself. Pray for me.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/11335631079939764763 Bob MacDonald

    Best advice I have is to really read closely your passion. But what's advice! At least we have the opportunity to read and critique. Many don't. But maybe that's part of your or my passion also. My passion to 'figure it out' or 'put the puzzle together' or just to refrain from pulling the emergency cord on the train led me into a close reading of the psalms. I have not been disappointed in what God does in the elect for the world through the psalms. Of course it is still working itself out in me.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/15991265512226039592 Like a Child

    Count me in as another agnostic christian, feeling alone (in real life) with my doubts, exhausted with the emotional consequences of doubts, the loss of friends after leaving a fundsmentalist church, and worried about whether i can even remain in the umbrella of christianity. I know i am not alone, from comments on my blog, here, and via my blog email. But it isn't quite enough to counteract the stifling i endure at church. I received an email from someone a few days ago that broke my heart, b/c she is facing the same battle i dealt with months ago…panic sttacks, loneliness, trying to figure out what church to switch to in the fundamentalist bible belt south. She should not feel so alone. There should be somewhere she can go locally, to find a welcoming christian community. I don't know how long i can retain this agnostic christianity label before i give up and settle for just agnosticism, but i dont want to be passive and loose christianity b/c of fundamentalism. As such, i have considered relinqiushing my blogging anonymity. I live near duke divinity school. Surely there must be someone else in this area questioning, doubting wondering????How do others out there handle the doubts? Anyone else have trouble people they can relate to?

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/01300256018441903185 Keika

    God wants us to question His own existence. It opens doorways that otherwise would never be entered.

  • openminded

    I had a discussion with a good friend of mine recently. During it, he wondered what would happen if ET life showed up to Earth, and they didn't even know about God.He said he figured many people would end up committing suicide over a huge loss of faith (which I doubted an alien showing up would be proof of God's non-existence, but I decided to take this somewhere anyways). We talked about what life would be like without God. My answer was more a reflection of what I'm having to do without the thought of an all-loving, all-knowing creator who was "there for me" in my hard times and made life so purposeful.I told him: I think there would have to be a change in the education system (or the former church?). We'd need to learn more about how to cope with life. And maybe instead of focusing our passions on God, we'd have to focus them more on our dreams and the things in life that have meaning to us.Personally, I had to think quick when I no longer believed that God "had my back". But I also realized that…well…I'm still intact.For my New Years Resolution (see the lack of apostrophe? ;) ), I've decided to immerse myself in my dreams like I did my religion. I want to make a big difference in life, and if I spent my time reflecting and acting on it as I did reflecting and acting on God, then I'd be my own Saint by now.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/02561146722461747647 James F. McGrath

    I've posted some more thoughts on this topic. I don't think what I wrote there can be considered my "answer" to the e-mail, but at the very least expresses my own view on some of the underlying issues, including in particular whether it is possible to be an "agnostic Christian."

  • Anonymous

    I can echo the sentiments of many of the posters who have gone through evolution in their beliefs. One of the things that is disappointing is how few christians know many basic facts about the bible. I still attend church, but it is difficult to listen to preachers make wild factual errors about historical matters.My evolution has taken me through phases. I once thought there was a "big picture" that enabled one to tie the various books together in a liberal sense. Now I think that there is no uniformity between authors (and I thought that well before I read Thom's book).In fact, I still do thing there is a big picture that can be summarized in a few words: the bible books reflect the customs and beliefs of the authors, nothing more or less. (No doubt some of you have read me say that in forums, but it really solves a lot of thorny issues.)In that sense, it seems perverse trying to garner moral direction today from people who thought it was OK to take a virgin as a spoil of war, or who thought bartering women was perfectly natural.pf

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/09248241050776947372 Rev Tony B

    Robert: "What I mean is that questioning the Bible has also led to a serious questioning of the validity of faith itself."A few years ago, I had a conversation with the great biblical scholar C K Barrett – he's a world-renowned NT scholar, retired professor, and retired Methodist minister. And a lovely, gentle and humble man. He said "You know, I'm really a historian by nature and a theologian by grace." I was blown away by this – in the first place, here was a man whose books are in every library worthy of note in the world, who doesn't have to prove anything to anybody, acknowledging that there is an area of thinking about God where he isn't that big; in the second place, he could have been describing me. I'm not that good at arguing ideas and philosophies about God; I like dealing with evidence and looking for what really happened.That's where my faith is fed. I don't understand it all, I don't know it all by any stretch, but there is enough historical truth in the Bible to suggest to me that I'm walking in the right direction. Robert, you will put your faith in something. Everybody does, because they build their lives on a foundation of some description. If the 'organised religion' trip doesn't do it for you, fair enough that's true for a lot of people (I can't escape, even if I wanted to, 'cos it pays my wages!). But as I said above, there is enough for me to know that Jesus really happened, that God was doing something there, and I can't ignore that.Keep on walking, keep following your nose. To those who can't find a local church which is in tune with you – thank God for the internet, and the blogs where people can feed each other. You might even find that you can find community in one place, and thinking in another. The vital thing is to keep on going. You can't stop, so you might as well enjoy the ride! Getting off this train only means getting on another. OK – let's see where we get – if we're really talking about truth, then whatever the Church thinks, that's where we'll find God.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/14870492079455572393 Mark

    I like the label agnostic Christian too. It captures the uncertainty and lack of true belief, but also captures the desire to keep on searching and knowing that Christianity is probably the best religious worldview out there.


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