When I was a kid, I used to enjoy imagining that life was a movie in which I was the protagonist and everyone else was the supporting cast. I distinctly recall hopping on my bike to head over to a friend’s house and imagining the whole scene as if it were the opening shot of a film.
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You know the kind I mean: It starts out with a close-up of me jumping onto my trusty red-and-blue Huffy Pro Thunder, peeling out of the driveway so fast you could almost smell the burnt rubber. Then the camera pulls back for a wide establishing shot, revealing the neat little rows of houses lining either side of the quaint little cul-de-sac. As I stand up on the pedals to accelerate, the camera gradually pulls upward for a bird’s eye view of the morning sun gently waking the rest of the neighborhood. The musical score sounds optimistic and playful, almost certainly composed by either John Williams or Alan Silvestri since it’s probably around 1984, letting you know that ultimately everything will turn out okay because that’s just the way movies were when I was a kid.
[Incidentally it’s still a life goal for me to find a way to convince John Williams to write theme music for me so that I can have it played whenever I enter a room. Because who wouldn’t want that, amirite? I still maintain that life would be so much more enjoyable if it came with a score. If it did, you could always know when something bad is getting ready to happen, because the music would always warn you, and every villain would be accompanied by his or her own sinister sounding motif. But I digress.]
This life-as-a-movie idea appealed to me, not so much because it made me the center of this imaginary cinematic universe, but because it charged every mundane moment of my life with meaning. Nothing was superfluous, and every conversation somehow factored into the overall plot and character development. There were no useless moments, and even the most challenging of circumstances would somehow serve a greater purpose which would only become evident at a later point in the film.
This boyhood fantasy perfectly conditioned me to accept and internalize the Christian faith, which ultimately situated me and my own struggles within a larger story that I could be assured would turn out alright in the end, probably tied up neatly with a bow and a satisfying denouement.
A God in Charge, Yet Not
The Bible is full of quotable assurances that your life (yes, yours…specifically) fits neatly into a meticulously choreographed grand narrative, replete with myriad subplots and episodic side stories, all serving a single unified purpose according to the plan of a Master Director who, quite conveniently, cares a great deal about what happens to you.*
“‘For I know the plans I have for you,’ declares the Lord, ‘plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.'” (Jeremiah 29:11)
“We know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.” (Romans 8:28)
“In [Christ] we were also chosen, having been predestined according to the plan of him who works out everything in conformity with the purpose of his will.” (Ephesians 1:11)
Mind you, the Bible doesn’t speak with one single voice about this, but any serious student of the Bible should already know this is true for pretty much any subject you can think up. As a former minister friend and mentor of mine always says, “You can’t construct a biblical view about anything without ignoring at least two verses.” This is because the Bible isn’t so much a single book as much as it is an anthology, a miniature library comprised of many different genres and opinion pieces written by people from wildly different times, places, and subcultures.
It’s almost as if there are multiple “Gods” presented throughout the Bible. I’ve already written before that the plural language in the first chapter of Genesis hints at the polytheistic roots of ancient Hebrew religion. Sure, they eventually became convinced that there is only one God (it’s kind of a key feature of the Abrahamic religions), but they probably didn’t start out that way. So as you can imagine, few other descriptive details about the God of the Bible will remain consistent on every page of the text.
Sometimes the God of the Bible seems like he has limitations, and sometimes he doesn’t. In one place it will sound like Yahweh is in complete charge of everything and in the next chapter it will sound like he’s not. In Genesis 6 it says that at one point the human beings God created disappointed him so thoroughly that he regretted having made them at all. Only Noah found favor in his eyes, it says, so God wiped out every living thing on the planet except for between two and seven representatives of each species (let’s not get sidetracked about the impossibility of that right now).
Not only was this God unable to get human beings right the first time, but his humanity reboot carried over a great many bugs from the previous installment, disproving once again the old saying that God “can hit straight licks with crooked sticks.” But somehow it’s always the creature’s fault, never the Creator’s. Go figure.
Another ambivalent issue in the Bible is whether or not God can change his mind about something. On the one hand, you have stories and passages that make God sound immutable, beyond advising by anyone, least of all by his own fallible creatures. But then you’ll see clear instances of people changing God’s mind through pleading with him to do so.
Moses successfully did so twice, in Exodus 32 and again in Numbers 14, each time convincing Yahweh not to wipe out every man, woman, and child for failing to believe he could empower them to survive the wilderness and forcefully take over the land of Canaan. Years before, Abraham had to play chief negotiator as well, haggling with God over how many righteous people it would take in order to exempt the city of Sodom from being wiped out by fire and brimstone.
It seems people in the Bible are always begging God to be more merciful than he’s inclined to be, which in retrospect should have made us all worry a bit more than it did. In a way, even Jesus eventually gets in on this good cop/bad cop routine, but it’s ultimately disconcerting when you realize that in this case the “bad cop” is the commissioner of the entire police force, or maybe more like the Attorney General, or maybe the Commander-in-Chief. But then that goes back to the question of how much authority and power this person really has, doesn’t it?
You can still see layers of earlier, less powerful versions of Yahweh embedded in the text of certain passages. The most famous example of all would be the place in the first chapter of Judges where it says that Yahweh was able to take the highlands, where the opposing armies still employed Bronze Age weapons, but he was unable to take the lowlands because their weapons were superior to those of the armies of Israel:
“And the LORD was with Judah, and he took possession of the hill country, but he could not drive out the inhabitants of the plain because they had chariots of iron.” (Judges 1:19)
Note that “Judah” wasn’t the singular antecedent to the pronoun “he” in this passage, Yahweh was. The man named Judah was long gone by now, so the text refers to his descendants with the plural “they.” But it was Yahweh who drove out the inhabitants of the hill country yet who failed to do so in the plains, because iron weapons are hard, you know? Yahweh was good, but he wasn’t that good.
You Get the God You Want
Christians today tend to hold to the more powerful version of God found in the Bible, even if they keep qualifying it with caveats about what he will and won’t “allow himself” to do. Depending on where you look, the Good Book doesn’t always share their commitment to such qualifications.
“I form the light, and create darkness: I make peace, and create evil: I the LORD do all these things.” (Isaiah 45:7)
“Does disaster come to a city, unless the Lord has done it?” (Amos 3:6b, Pat Robertson’s favorite verse)
“Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? And not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father. But even the hairs of your head are all numbered.” (Matthew 10:29-30)
The Bible is full of statements like this which indicate that everything that happens is according to the will of God. Note that in these passages there is no arbitrary distinction between God’s “perfect will” and his “permissive will,” as if he responds to every moment with both a Plan A and a Plan B. In fact, it doesn’t portray a God who merely responds to events as they develop at all; he controls them. By the time the God of the Bible is finished evolving, we find a deity who predetermines every decision made by human beings, free will be damned.
“You will say to me then, ‘Why does He still find fault? For who resists His will?’ On the contrary, who are you, O man, who answers back to God? The thing molded will not say to the molder, ‘Why did you make me like this,’ will it? Or does not the potter have a right over the clay, to make from the same lump one vessel for honorable use and another for common use?” (Romans 9:19-21)
The big fuss modern Christians make over humans having free will would sound utterly foreign to the early Church. In the minds of the earliest Christians, God does whatever he wants and the rest of us are entirely at his mercy.
Except you should also pray to him, asking him to do things. Because doing so may get him to do things he wasn’t already going to do in the first place. Wait, what?
Leaving that glaring inconsistency aside, I want to get to my ultimate point in today’s hop, skip, and jump around the Bible: The point is that a book as diverse as the Bible has something for everyone, a prooftext for pretty much any view of God or the world or humanity you please. The book’s most ardent champions may insist it speaks with one voice about everything because of course it had to be the product of one divine mind (never mind the imperfect human vessels he enlisted to communicate his message), but the reality is nothing like that at all.
In the end it will be the psychological needs of the reader which determine how this book is interpreted, whether we admit it or not. Most read it as a daily horoscope, oops I mean devotional, opening its pages each morning in hopes of finding a message from God for their individual needs today. It’s a magic book, you see, and God will use it to speak to each of us individually, giving us exactly what we need for the day.
I remember thinking like this, and I remember how much comfort it brought me at the time. I learned to read the Bible as if it were God speaking to me personally, as if the whole book were in some way written out in order for me to know what to do from day to day. And sure, I knew that wasn’t really true, ultimately. I knew it was written for other people at other times and places, but I believed God could still do both: speak to them and speak to me at the same time. That was the kind of God I believed in.
And you know what? That really met a deep psychological need. If you’ve never been inside that world, you may not appreciate how powerful that can be.
It’s Hard to Let Go Sometimes
Some people have never known what it’s like to believe the Creator of the Universe is personally invested in their own daily life. To them, this all sounds like a bunch of hooey, and many of them cannot see their way to respecting anyone who could ever think this way. I suppose it must be hard to imagine thinking that way, it seems so silly.
But make no mistake, this is a powerful narrative, and it speaks deep comfort to people, especially after they’ve had a hard knock or two in their lives. When tragedy strikes, or you lose a loved one, or you get that word you feared from your doctor, a belief in a benevolent Creator can go a long way toward soothing a wounded psyche. It really can.
And when you grew up with that mindset only to leave it behind one day, you can really feel the lack of it.
Just last week, the “movement atheism” subculture felt a wave of shock and disappointment to learn that one of their own, Teresa MacBain, had returned to the church in order to resume ministry. Much has already been said of her transitions in and out of the Christian faith, but all that matters for my purposes today is this: You can really miss God sometimes, even after you’ve decided you made him up. I seem to recall her writing about that very thing not too long ago.
Remember how hard Tom Hanks sobbed in the movie Castaway after “Wilson” floated away? He knew good and well it was just a volleyball. But that figment of his imagination was his closest and best friend. Real or not, that “person” was all he had, and the loss of him was as emotionally devastating as it would have been to have lost a living breathing human being.
This is such a perfect picture of losing your faith. Even after deciding that none of it was true or real, you still have to learn how to face life without the things that once brought you comfort, like the belief that no matter how chaotic or scary the world may seem, there is an all-knowing, all-powerful Being behind it all, and he cares a great deal for you in particular.
It turns out that all those years I was imagining my life as a scripted movie set me up perfectly to accept and internalize the Christian worldview. In my teen years, I began reading the Bible in earnest and I gravitated toward those verses which portrayed God as fully in charge of every detail of my life. I learned to see every moment as if it were planned out by a single Intelligence, set in front of me in order to elicit whatever it was that he wanted to coax out of me.
I’m not gonna lie, that was a charmed way of looking at life. It was pure fantasy, but it made life far more enchanted. Every single moment became charged with potential significance, and even the worst things that anyone ever did to me could be viewed as an opportunity for my own personal character to manifest itself for whatever audience was watching.
Ever heard of the “great cloud of witnesses” mentioned in the Bible? How about the “angels longing to look into these things?” There is even a verse in the Bible that says the challenges the Church faces today exist as an opportunity for God to demonstrate his own wisdom before an audience of invisible principalities and powers. My movie daydream wasn’t that far off from this at all.
Why am I telling you all this? Because I want you to understand that religion meets a human need, and I want you to appreciate just what it is that people give up when they finally come to the conclusion that this whole thing exists only inside our heads. You may think it would be easy to let go of it all, but you’d be wrong. It can be immeasurably comforting to believe that a single all-powerful benevolent being controls everything around you, and it can be an equally immeasurable loss to give it up.
We can try to replace this kind of narrative by saying we’re “star stuff,” and maybe that does it for some people. But we’re up against a far more tantalizing narrative, one which most people cannot seem to let go of. It fits the human psyche a little too well.
So please be patient with people will you? Letting go of God may be a lot harder for others than it was for you.
[Image Source: Unsplash]
* Some will be quick to point out that in those passages in which the Bible seems to speak of God tending to the specific needs of individuals, they are really speaking to the nation of Israel or else the church, not to individuals like you or me. They have a point, and in fact during my devout years I wrote an entire book about that very thing, tracing the collective aspect of the gospel in order to correct what I saw as a myopic evangelical fixation on the self rather than on the people of God as a community. It’s a valid point to make, but in this post I’m speaking phenomenologically, as it were, addressing the form of the faith as we find it today, not as people would have viewed it back when it was first developed thousands of years ago.