The following is from Christian Piatt’s new book, “Leaving A-Holiness Behind: From Pious Jerk to Not-SoPious Jerk, ” available in print and E-book formats everywhere July 20th.
When I was seventeen years old, I had a Bible thrown at my head and I was invited not to return to my church youth group. Suffice it to say I took them up on that offer.
The problems began when I started thinking for myself. For one, my parents sent me to this private school where we were taught to look at everything with a critical eye, not to take anything at face value, and to arrive at our own conclusions about things based on a thorough analysis of the evidence.
And then I’d go to church and have my youth leader tell me that, contrary to the cases made in my science textbooks, the earth actually was 5, 000 years old, and that people used to ride around on dinosaurs like the Lone Ranger or something. He even told me once that scientists were conspiring together to fabricate this so-called fossil record to convince the blind, unthinking masses that the planet was a byproduct of evolution and was much older than the Bible told us it was.
Yes, there literally were two people named Adam and Eve who got tricked by a talking snake. Okay, I’d say, but who did their kids marry? If they were the only ones on the planet, and assuming they had to have sex to keep the species going, doesn’t that mean we’re all descendants of incest?
Let’s just put a pin in that one and move on.
But I didn’t want to move on. It didn’t make sense, and I wanted answers. I couldn’t get over what a jerk God was made out to be in the Bible; smiting people, afflicting them with diseases, setting them up for tests of faith nobody should have to endure and – hello – how about the whole Garden of Eden story? I could see it happening like this:
“Okay kids, here’s the deal, ” says God, “all of this is yours. You don’t even have to work for it. But there’s just one thing…”
There’s always just one thing.
“See that tree in the middle of the garden?”
“Ooh, yeah, ” says Adam, licking his chops, “that looks awesome.”
“Yeah, ” says God, “it’s the best one here. Don’t touch it.”
“Well, because if you eat that fruit you’ll know everything, ” says God.
“Sounds like a good thing, ” says Eve.
“Well, it’s not, ” says God.
“Add that to the list of things you don’t need to know.”
“But wait, ” says Eve, “if we’re the only ones here and we can’t touch that tree, and if you made all of this, why bother making the tree?”
“Well, ” says God, “because I need an illustration for the nature of free will, and to point out that, no matter how much you humans ever have, and no matter how good your life is, there will always be something else you’ll want.”
“Do what?” says Adam.
“Never mind, ” says God. “Just don’t touch it, okay?”
Feels like a setup, if you ask me.
Then there’s Noah, the great-grandfather of Biblical do-over stories. He and his family were supposedly the only human beings spared the devastation of the great flood.
Obviously he had some serious leverage with the Big Guy, or maybe he just had some incredible carpentry skills, but it turns out Noah was quite the lush. After the family made their way back to dry land, he got his drink on and passed out in his tent with his junk hanging out.
So this is the best God could do? This is the one guy whose family wasn’t worth sending to a watery grave on the entire planet? And while we’re on the subject of the ark, there’s not enough fuzzy math in the world to explain how two of every single creature fit on this boat built by hand by one guy without power tools.
Well, God is magic, we argue. Maybe God gave Noah superhuman construction powers, or maybe he gave him some kind of holy shrink ray to miniaturize all the critters to pocket size. Maybe he dehydrated them and kept them in little baggies until they got back to land, and then sprinkled them back to their reconstituted selves.
Fine. But if God could do all that, why not just zap the boat into existence in the first place? And if there’s not normally enough water on the planet to flood everything, where did all the extra water come from? And where did it go when the flood receded? And did he actually have to trap all of the birds, or did they just fly around and land in the water?
What about the fish, whales, protozoa, land-dwelling bacteria…
Well, we’ll just have to get back to that.
I’m guessing that the bible college training my youth leaders had received hadn’t exactly prepared them for the onslaught of questions I had about pretty much every story we covered. Why would a loving God ask Abraham to kill his own child? Come to think of it, why would God do pretty much the same thing to his own son, setting up Jesus to be the ultimate fall guy for something he didn’t do? If Jesus could forgive peoples’ sins in the New Testament, why did he have to die for our sins? Was it a problem of volume? And what about the poor schmucks who died before Jesus came along? Or people who never heard about him?
How about my friends from school, half of whom were Jewish? Weren’t they worshipping the same God we were? Wasn’t Jesus a Jew? Would God seriously throw his Chosen People under the bus because they didn’t take some pledge of fidelity to Jesus as their lord and savior? And where in scripture is this oath we all take anyway?
What about my dad? Sure, he’s not perfect, and he never goes to church. Our relationship is hardly perfect; ‘Awesome Family’ magazine isn’t exactly panting to feature us on next month’s cover, but he loves me. I know it. And I love him.
Sorry kid, but your dad and all those other people are screwed.
So I started doing some thinking on my own about this God they were presenting to me. He made us imperfect, gave us free rein to make our own choices, seems to have set up a world where we’re doomed to fail, and then He tosses us into a pit of eternal fire (which God also made) if we don’t take some pledge that Christians invented some time after Jesus’ death and before I came along.
If that’s what this whole Christianity thing is about, and if the rest of my life is supposed to be committed to saving other people from this pit of despair created by the God we’re supposed to worship and love, then I’m not sure I want to have anything to do with it.
And that’s when my youth minister threw the Bible at me. I was impertinent and brash as a teenager (as teenagers tend to be), so it’s understandable that I annoyed him. But I was invited to leave the church for good after that, which then led to my absence from organized religion for a decade.
Why do we do this? Why do we alienate and push out people who don’t believe or claim the “right things?” When our ideologies are more important than the people we bring together in community, we risk all manner of damage. But the fact is, Jesus got in trouble all the time for reaching out to and being in community with, the “wrong people.”
He didn’t make them sign a statement of faith first.
He didn’t tell them they had to be baptized first.
He befriended them, welcomed them and even served them, regardless of who they were, what they had believed or done. We could learn a lot from that.
If we as followers of Jesus are intent on appearing more like the messiah we claim than the world sees us today, maybe it’s time to act like him.