And the LORD was with Judah; and he drave out the inhabitants of the mountain; but could not drive out the inhabitants of the valley, because they had chariots of iron.
Judges 1:19, King James Version
I’m sure Christians are getting tired of being reminded about their god’s singular weakness, iron chariots, as revealed in the Book of Judges (1:19). But we’re not going to stop talking about it. This ancient story is way too potent of a reminder to Christians that their omnipotent god isn’t even a close second to the most powerful being in the universe even in his own mythology. Of course, we need not go so far as the Old Testament to see that simple truth. The regular failure of Christians’ wishes and plans could easily tell us that.
The Problem of Omniscience.
I agree with Adam Lee of Daylight Atheism in his assertion that this little story is likely part of an older, deeper-magic mythology in Judaism: a conceptualization of the Hebrew god as one among a great many, and hardly the most powerful one at that. As the Old Testament progresses, we can easily see a narrative forming of a standard-issue polytheistic god who eventually assumes a major role within a very localized tribal religion–which then inspires an offshoot cult that starts thinking of this god as the only god in existence and omnimax to boot (that means all of the omnis, like omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent, omnibenevolent, etc., like a divine Everything Bagel).
Gods in that older kind of mythology were simply really powerful beings, like extensions of humans. They were usually immortal, but could be born of mortal women. They had great power, but also limits on that power. They were sometimes very clever, but not always; they could be tricked and bargained with–and even defeated in various ways. They could typically fly or teleport or otherwise move around quickly, but couldn’t be everywhere at once or see everything. They had very human weaknesses: lust, anger, sorrow, overweening ambition, and also very human strengths: artistic inclinations, a desire to see justice happen, loyalty, kindness. If a human wasn’t paying very strict attention (and maybe even then), he or she might mistake a god for a regular person. And just as they could be born as mortals are, gods could even be killed–sometimes permanently.
And those kinds of gods make a lot more sense to most folks. A lot of the problems we have with Christianity vanish when omnimax qualities are removed from the picture (of course, a lot of the impetus to worship these beings vanishes as well, but hey, you can’t have everything–even if you’re a god).
Well, yes, of course the Bible’s deity got defeated by the preeminent war machine of the ancient world. Of course he had to call out for Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden after they’d eaten the wrong fruit, since he probably didn’t actually know where they were. Of course he could be bargained down by Abraham when he wanted to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah in a fit of rage. Of course he felt regret about having created humans before the Flood, and of course he had to make a promise to himself never to murder the whole planet again–until the very end, naturally–and mark that promise with a symbol that he could see (the rainbow) to remind him of his promise.
All of that stuff makes perfect sense when we view the god of the Bible through a non-omnimax lens. But when we put that lens over our eyes, suddenly we have quite a lot of work ahead of us trying to square those stories with the idea of a god who knows everything, is everywhere at once, is the most powerful supernatural being in the cosmos, and is supremely just, merciful, forgiving, and loving. (Well, Calvinists perhaps skip that last part, but yeah, generally Christians think this of their god.)
That contortion act is, unfortunately, the lot of most Christians. The further right-wing they are, the more they think that not only is their god omni-everything, but that every single verse of every single myth in the Bible is literally true and accurately retold. Where more liberal Christians can sit fairly easily with the idea of those myths being allegorical or nationalistic in nature, more conservative ones must struggle with the hobbling of literalism around their feet. I’ve heard so, so much hand-waving around these stories from those sorts of Christians, but none of it makes more sense than the idea that the Bible’s god was not originally omnimax.
It’s quite clear that, if he exists at all, he’s not omnimax now either.
Just as we were talking last time about Christians wanting all kinds of stuff both ways, often one runs into Christians who want this situation both ways too: they want an omnimax god who can literally do anything he wants (even if they don’t like talking about big rocks in this situation), but they also want to have an excuse to see this god’s plans totally fail on the regular.
So Easily Thwarted.
John Thomas is the self-confessed “‘failed’ church planter” we looked at last time we met up. A church planter, just to quickly recap, is someone who goes into an area that is not currently served by the correct kind of TRUE CHRISTIAN™ church and starts one up from the ground floor. The idea is that a church can be grown from a very few members into a thriving group just like a little seed can turn into a prolific and thriving plant.
As Christianity declines, these church planters are turning into a real cottage industry–to the point where the Southern Baptist Convention is literally opening more SBC churches than are closing each year, although their total membership has been declining for decades now (in 2015 they saw their largest decline in over 130 years). Our pal Ed Stetzer did a research paper of some sort (link is to the PDF, which will want to download to your device) examining the “launch large” mindset and ended by thinking it’s a good idea, though church planters need to remember that if the church succeeds (ie, is still operational four years after it’s started), then it’ll probably stay small for a very long time–and that if it does succeed, chances are it’ll do so by poaching actively-practicing Christians from other churches.
It’s quite a thoroughly-researched piece, really, though I’m not sure how accurate or reliable its findings are given that its conclusion is the time-honored fundagelical tactic of do more of what we told you to do except more of it and harder. Ed Stetzer seriously concludes that if a church planter is hardcore enough and well-funded and -supported enough, then the church will succeed if of course his god ordered the planter to go forth and make the new church. He, like his fundagelical peers, takes totally for granted that if that calling doesn’t exist in the first place, then the venture will fail miserably. That’s why he offers (along with a number of other outfits) a test people can pay money to take to tell if “God” has really called them to be church planters. We’ll talk more about that test later because… damn.
Walking Back Divine Declarations.
These tests sound as subjective as anything else within Christianity, however. That’s really the biggest flaw in worldviews that aren’t tethered to reality. They rely on personal revelations, and there’s literally nothing stopping any Christian from claiming to have had one straight from their god–and even less to prevent some other Christian from gainsaying that person with some other supposedly-divine revelation.
As long as the Christian claiming that revelation succeeds at whatever they said they wanted to succeed at, everything’s okay. But if the venture fails, then the Christian can’t really walk back a declaration of divine calling. That’d call into question every other time a Christian makes that claim, after all!
So when Christians fail at something they loudly proclaimed was their god’s plan, there’s really only one way to go: they must declare that they have done something drastically wrong that totally thwarted their god’s intentions, and thereby blame themselves for the failure.
It’s a bit like how, if you told your kid to go to the store and the kid decided to take your money and go to the arcade for a few hours instead (or wherever kids go nowadays in these situations), then it’s not your fault that the store trip didn’t happen. You gave the task to someone and they didn’t do it. Not your fault.
Except it is, in this case.
If you happen to be totally omniscient and have a bit of yourself actually inhabiting that kid to influence him and you still somehow didn’t realize that the kid would run off with your money and go to the arcade instead of where you sent him, then isn’t it kinda your fault if you don’t get your errand done?
And if you also happen to be omnipresent and can physically see the kid running in the general direction of the arcade and you have the ability to tell him to stop being naughty and do as he’s told, but for some reason don’t tell him this information in a way he can hear and understand clearly, then isn’t that doubly on you?
And if the kid actually sincerely wants to do your errand but doesn’t know where the store is, so he wanders aimlessly for 18 months and spends tons of his own money trying to find the store, and finally ends up back home broke, alone, and completely demoralized because any messages you might have tried to send him were ones he couldn’t correctly interpret and understand, then sorry, this is utterly and completely on you.
Granted, the kid still didn’t get the errand run, but if you say that you have that much power at your command and still can’t manage to get a simple errand run out of a kid who really wants to run that errand, then sorry, I’ve got some doubts about the matter. Either you aren’t as all-powerful and wise as you think you are, or … well, no, that’s the only option I can see here.
Unfortunately, that’s what Christians have created for themselves: an omnimax god who still regularly gets thwarted by his own children.
When Christians Don’t Think Through Their Excuses.
For a while, John Thomas worked for a fundagelical megachurch outfit called the Vineyard as an actual church planter. He wrote a tell-all “confession” for Ed Stetzer (goddammit, there’s that guy again) detailing why he thought he failed miserably at his task after 18 months and quite a lot of money and time invested in his church plant.
We talked extensively last week about the first point of his confession, that he didn’t think at the ceiling hard enough or often enough, since that’s the boilerplate standard excuse for Christians to offer any time they outline why they failed at anything they think their god told them to do.
It seems strange to non-Christians that the Christians’ god would need them to pray for to him for anything regarding his plans. I mean, he’s omniscient, right? Shouldn’t he know that the kids he chose to run his errand can actually do it? Why do they need to fawn over him and prostrate themselves before his feet in order to complete the task he’s given them? In the “confession,” John Thomas says that he needed to pray to get “the answers to my unasked questions, let alone the immediate needs of the day,” but why didn’t his god ensure that he knew those answers already–or give the task to someone who already knew basically how to start a new church?
Seriously, this god sounds absolutely incompetent to me. Are automobiles really iron chariots? That’s the only explanation there is for how poorly his children are performing.
Except for the obvious one, of course.
John Thomas’ second point in his “confession” isn’t any better. His next excuse was that he didn’t think he was focused hard enough on the task–but he hasn’t thought this one through either.
He was “too spread out” in his roles as “husband, father, Ph.D. student, Bible college professor, [and] church planter.” But he was presumably all (or at least most) of those things when his god personally told him to go start a new church. Surely this god wouldn’t hand the task to someone who was “too spread out” do it. Right?
But his “confession” of this point doubtless plays well to the overdramatic fundagelicals he’s writing for. He breathlessly informs his audience that “this calling requires everything. It cannot be dabbled with.” My very fervent then-husband Biff used to talk a lot like this; this kind of all-or-nothing blather makes fundagelicals all giddy but it doesn’t mean much.
John Thomas had a life, basically, and that was too much for a church planter, apparently.
So which of those roles was he willing to forego for his new church? Surely tons of converted souls are worth him not getting his Ph.D.? Surely he could quit his job as a Bible college professor if it meant thousands upon thousands of conversions, a task which his god had personally given to him to accomplish? Why didn’t his god tell him which role to give up beforehand, if he knew it’d be too much going in? Or did he not know, despite his supposed omniscience?
Ed Stetzer carefully and specifically tells wannabe church planters that they’re not allowed to dump their wife and kids to go start new churches, but one cannot help but note that Jesus told his followers to do exactly that to properly follow him. So is Ed Stetzer’s advice correct or should Biblical literalists like him look to what Jesus said on this matter?
Why wouldn’t John Thomas have sacrificed anything else he had going on, even his family, to start a new church if his god had told him to do it? I mean, he allowed Job’s family to be murdered and then gave the guy an all-new and arguably better life and family after winning his cheap bet with Satan/Lucifer, so why wouldn’t John Thomas have trusted his god if he’d ordered him to quit one of his various roles to be able to concentrate better on his new church?
After this scene, Winthorpe got a higher-status fiancee, a higher-paying job, and a nicer townhouse. The Dukes couldn’t improve on the butler so that part of his life just went back to normal.
How to Pander to Fundagelicals.
John Thomas’ third “confession” is that he didn’t preach the Gospel enough. By this he means that sometimes he had to talk about money and the church’s launch and strategies and how to get equipment into the church site, and all those practical things. He didn’t manage to make the Gospel “permeate all things,” as he puts it. “Sure,” he did “mention” the Gospel, but “only as a means to an end.” He didn’t “center the work on the Gospel.”
I’d like to know how someone manages to permeate the Gospel into hauling equipment into the building. In the name of Jesus, put those eppies over there! Jesus Saves, and our soundboard needs to go here! Marriage is for straight people only, so you should make sure to have enough bottles of Pompeiian olive oil on hand for magical healings! Do some more stuff you hate! Fasting builds character!*
It just sounds beyond ridiculous to me. John Thomas is a fundagelical’s fundagelical, or at least he was at the time he tried to start a new church. Obviously a lot of nuts-and-bolts planning has to go into that process. I’m sure he injected as much Jesus Aura as he could into that process. But the nuts-and-bolts stuff still has to happen. Like any business, that first year is one of the hardest in a venture’s undertaking. If stuff doesn’t happen when it needs to happen and if it’s not done correctly and completely, then the business will suffer–possibly even coming to an early death. And the guy at the top is where the buck stops in a new church–he doesn’t really have a lot of people to delegate those essential tasks to. (A guy I knew personally in the UPCI who planted a new church had himself, his wife, and, um, Biff running the show. The church failed utterly.)
And, um, not to put too fine a point on it, but his god would have known that, if he existed and really was omnimax.
This third point is really just more of that pandering that fundagelicals love to hear: he failed because he wasn’t hardcore about Jesus enough.
The last two are also pandering attempts, both related to the earlier one. Remember, Ed Stetzer literally wrote a paper about how a church planter could best succeed (linked in that PDF above). And one of his major findings was that a church planter needed accountabilibuddies and advisors like tons lots. So by declaring that he failed because he didn’t have those sorts of people helping him, John Thomas is reinforcing Ed Stetzer’s findings (and increasing sales of his stupid self-assessment test and other training materials, one assumes).
About all this poor guy’s “confession” did was remind me of how similar to a multi-level marketing scam Christianity really is. I might not ever have run a successful business outside of that experimental puppetry troupe I was in during college, but I think I’m on solid ground when I say that no effective entrepreneur training involves this sort of reliance on magical thinking. There’s nothing in it that’s really actionable except for “pray more than you already do,” “get mentors and peers who can steer you right,” and “be way more Jesus-y about everything,” and as we’ve seen honest Christians noting, lots of failed churches do all of this stuff–so those steps aren’t really as necessary as John Thomas (and by extension Ed “Magical Thinking’s Lizard King” Stetzer) thinks they are.
As for the mentors and peers angle, they’re only useful when they’re offering valid observations and useful advice–and I don’t think many fundagelicals can rip themselves free of their party lines to do either of those things.
They’d rather have the party lines than a cohesive worldview or an appealing product to sell, in the end.
Least Likely to Succeed.
It’s hard to imagine why Christians keep leaning on these excuses and yet also declaring with every breath that their god personally gave them these tasks and really wanted them to get done.
Every single time one of them fails utterly, they’ve got to have a proper excuse for why they failed–and that excuse will always center on how they didn’t do something essential correctly. But the excuses, like the glurge stories they love so much (TVTropes Walkabout Warning!), offers some insights into their religion that they really shouldn’t want to admit out loud:
That their god deliberately sets people up to fail at stuff, even stuff that, having failed, really negatively impacts his desired dominance over the world,
Or that their god is so amazingly incompetent that he can’t figure out who to send to do these tasks–or offer them meaningful help or advice that is within their abilities and time constraints to heed,
Or that their god doesn’t actually exist. Their supernatural claims are totally untrue. Christianity’s just a bunch of people who are generally doing the best they know how with the information they have, and doing it in a world that is increasingly losing patience with their simple universal message of threats, horrific violence, exclusion, pain, bigotry, and sanctimonious preening.
I know which I think is most likely, given the evidence I observe daily coming out of Christian ranks.
We’ll be talking more about stuff Christians don’t realize they’re saying next time — see you then!
* “I’ll admit the voice was a little funny, but that is one darn sarcastic Christian we’re raising.” — Yahweh