I was in my mid-thirties when I finally broke up with Jesus (he never returned my calls), but that was far from the first time I found my faith thinning out to the point of translucence.
Nor was the phase of life six years earlier that inspired this journal entry my first time to seriously question the things that I once believed. As I’ve often explained, I have always lived with an inner skeptic. I simply did a better job at squelching him when I was still young enough to enjoy the luxury of putting off his protestations.
Probably my first serious brush with doubt came when I finally took up the formal study of the Bible and the world that produced it. I attended a conservative Baptist college in the heart of the Deep South, so you can imagine my surprise when I learned how relatively liberal my Bible professors were, especially compared to the rest of the school’s faculty, some of whom still didn’t like the idea of women teaching men in any capacity, religious or otherwise.
I learned while still in school there that a conservative takeover of my denomination during the late 70s and early 80s forced out all the theologically moderate seminary professors, kicking them down the road to the collegiate level where a lower profile would afford them a little bit more academic freedom. From that position of influence, my professors pushed and challenged all of us “preacher boys” to take up the tools of a serious Bible student, learning how to set aside our preconceived notions in order to critically examine the social and historical contexts in which the Bible was written.
It was a tough transition for many of us, accustomed as we were to shooting from the hip, allowing our own previous experience in the church to dictate what we would find there when we peeled apart those onion skin pages. Many of us young ministers-to-be flatly ignored what those liberal eggheads were trying to introduce into our already perfected theological frameworks. But not me. I listened, I read, I absorbed and I wrestled with the ideas to which they were exposing us and I found that doing so threw me for a loop.
My First Crisis of Faith
At some point during my first couple of years in college I realized that my particular understanding of the Christian faith rested precariously on the naive belief that the Bible could be without any flaws. I’ve written before why that idea was always faulty, and why in fact it was self-contradictory from the start.
[Read:” The Absurdity of Inerrancy“]
It didn’t take much digging into things like form criticism, source criticism, and redaction criticism to bring home to me that the Bible was a product of many more minds than we usually acknowledge. It soon began to sink in for me how much story development and editorializing went into producing the gospels, ultimately casting doubt on how much Jesus said and did that the Good Book says he said and did.
From there that logic spread for me to the rest of the book, leading me to ask just how much of the Bible really referred to real events that actually happened. Talk about standing at the edge of a scary cliff. For an evangelical Bible student, this line of questioning could lead down a very dangerous road taking you to a place you don’t want to be.
But I got past it, and my faith survived for many years to come. Want to know how?
My questions weren’t exactly answered. The objections my mind raised didn’t really ever get resolved, they simply faded off into the background. But how did that happen?
I re-read the Bible again in its entirety, cover-to-cover, and found that the beauty and thematic integrity of the story itself won me over.
And yeah, I know that’s the opposite of what happened with most atheists who, when you ask them what book most effectively convinced them they were atheists, will simply say “the Bible.”
Reading it is supposed to deconvert you, I am often told, but that’s not how it happened for me. On the contrary, I became even more convinced the book was true by reading it through again. My faith was strengthened by the exercise because reading it the way that I did left me with such a strong sense of narrative coherence and symbolic consistency that I was able to stuff my doubts back down again, effectively tranquilizing the inner skeptic for the next decade or so.
Take the parallels between Jesus and Moses for example. They both were born into oppressive regimes that responded to their births with infanticide. They both had to live in a wilderness for a period of 40 somethings (okay, years vs. days but you get the parallels).
Both men charged headlong into what looked like certain death (Red Sea vs. crucifixion) but turned out to be a deliverance in which the enemies of the people of God were neutralized (Pharaoh vs. Satan). And yes, I know these are hermeneutical stretches but that’s the way biblical thinking works, don’t you know?
The parallels keep coming. Just as Moses couldn’t enter the promised land, leaving it to Joshua to do the honors, and just as Elijah preached in the wilderness but had to yield his mantle to Elisha to finish his work, so did John the Baptist dwell in the Transjordan eating locusts and honey right up until the moment he could introduce to the world the real Messiah, whose sandals he said he wasn’t even qualified to lace.
Circumcision and baptism, Passover and Lord’s Supper, first Adam and second (that’s Christ), Tower of Babel and Day of Pentecost, on and on it goes. If one wants to see the parallels woven throughout the Bible they are everywhere and it’s more than enough to persuade the eager heart that these stories are legit. How else could the symbols all tie together so neatly, sometimes even centuries apart from one another?
I recall a preacher coming from Texas to give a sermon during a youth camp I attended called Centrifuge (ever been to one of those?). He told us about a statistic first proposed by Peter Stoner which boldly claims that even just eight fulfilled prophecies pulled from the Old Testament were so unlikely to occur together that you’d have a better chance of covering the state of Texas in 2 feet of silver dollars, having marked only one of them with a black dot, then blindfolding someone and asking him to find the dotted coin on his first attempt. Our high school brains buckled under the weight of its mathematical grandeur.
For another thing, Stoner’s astronomy students invented these probabilities themselves. He gave the exercise as an assignment in his undergrad class and that’s what they came up with. Super scientific, right? Do you have any idea how many preachers have used this illustration since then? I’m guessing enough to cover the state of Texas in 2 feet of preachers. But back to my point.
When you read the Bible all together as if it were intended to be a single work, the foreshadowing and parallels can be at once arresting and deeply satisfying to a mind hungry for confirmation that something special is happening in this book.
Dreamers, Every One of Us
Time and experience have provided me a different lens through which to view this phenomenon. Looking back through the development of these stories, I now see how easily things like this can be reverse engineered by minds that don’t even know that’s what they’re doing. It’s like what happens when you read a horoscope or a prognostication of Nostradamus: You start out with something vague like a single line or statement divorced from its original context, and you find a way for it to match up with what is happening around you. Somehow it will always fit.
But who would do such a thing? And why would anyone be willing to die for a set of stories that they themselves wove together in order to make them feel like they were a part of something historic?
It’s not as unusual as you might think. For one thing, you have to realize that the people who were doing this—finding contemporary fulfillment of ancient prophecies and parallels between events separated by centuries—had no idea they were fashioning the parallels themselves. Or even when they were aware, they felt they were only capturing something God himself had brought to pass, of which they were merely witnesses.
But how could illiterate fishermen* weave together a narrative tapestry so full of resounding images and sublime ideas that the rest of us could spend thousands of years unpacking them, finding in them inspiration sufficient enough to fuel centuries of worship by dozens of separate cultures? Also not as unusual as you might think.
Have you ever marveled at the immense creativity exhibited by even the simplest mind during sleep? How often do you remember your dreams? And do you find as often as I do that in your dreams you can weave together the most intricately connected stories as if it were nothing at all? I have composed entire songs in my sleep, and I don’t even write music. Surely they consisted of a patchwork of sounds and melodies I had already heard before, but then isn’t that true of songwriting that’s conscious as well?
My point is that we are all insanely brilliant once we go to sleep, which means we are all capable of inventing the most incredible stories and creatures whether we know it or not. Now imagine an entire nation of people steeped in centuries of retelling the same stories over and over again. How easily could such a context give birth to new stories that weave together bits and pieces of the old ones in mashup form?
In fact, isn’t that what most religions are in the first place? They are the collective dreams of large numbers of people finally codified into stories and illustrations that can be told and retold in order to help shape and guide the values of those people. It doesn’t have to be a conscious process. In fact, it’s probably more powerful when it’s not so conscious.
Converted by Beauty
During those touch-and-go college years and then again ten years later, I found my way back into trusting that the religion I had inherited from my parents was the right one out of all of them, conveniently. But I didn’t really reason my way back into that place of acceptance. I was won over by something less easy to define or analyze: I was won over by the inherent beauty of the religion’s metaphors, the deeply satisfying way that the images held together and pointed backward and forward toward each other as if to prove that something larger than life was happening here.
Granted, once you start to pick these things apart, they collapse immediately. But then lots of things in life are like that, aren’t they? Beauty itself doesn’t always withstand closer scrutiny, but it’s compelling anyway. That’s the way it was with faith for me. I started out with a strong need (call it a prior commitment) to find validation for my faith, and what I found was an intellectually stimulating tapestry of types and foreshadowing. It made my brain tingle to see it all flow together, and that kind of experience sticks with you, even when you can’t explain it well to someone else after the fact.
I think that’s the way it works for a lot of people. There is great beauty in the Christian story, particularly in the places where it takes something ugly and turns into something valuable. That’s a compelling trait, and it connects with us at a level far deeper than our rational brains can detect.
We like to tell ourselves that we are rational beings, but the truth is that our feelings dictate more of what we do than we realize. We are ultimately feelers all of us, even if we do cover our sentiments with an impressive array of rationalizations.
If you can make people feel something strongly, changing the way they think becomes a piece of cake.
And that’s what my study of the Bible did for me. I was won over by the literary beauty of a mosaic of stories that somehow held together and satisfied my mind at a level of which I wasn’t always entirely aware. I can see now how this illusion of coherence resulted from the collusion of my own need to validate my beliefs and the collective brilliance of ancient imaginations so thoroughly soaked in scripture that it bled its way into every story they told. It makes perfect sense to me now, but at the time it overwhelmed me with its profundity.
Maybe this all sounds very strange to you. Perhaps when you pick up the Bible you see only superstition, violence, and regressive social values codified into chapter and verse. This kind of talk probably sounds foreign to you, and quite possible reprehensible.
But it’s my best shot at explaining how, for some, reading the Bible doesn’t make them believe it less. It makes them believe even more. Take that for whatever that’s worth.
[Image Source: Unsplash]
* By the way, illiterate fishermen didn’t write the Bible. The stories themselves probably didn’t morph to their current form until many years later. In fact, were the people in those stories told the tales they ultimately became, they might not even recognize them. Collective memory, just like the individual kind, can be a creative process.