Monday, November 26, 2012

The Revelations...

This is a mirror posting of an article from my other blog. But it is more than relevant on this blog too... I read this book after hearing the author on the Unbelievable Radio Show some months ago.

The RevelationsThe Revelations by Alex Preston
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

If you think that all Christians are hypocrites and the Alpha Course is a cult, then this is the book for you. However, if you are more realistic in your outlook then the shortcomings of this book will probably annoy you as much as they annoyed me.

The book follows the lives of four young (late 20s) Christians who are helping run 'The Course' for the first time. They are all musicians and the band they play in (at The Course) is known as 'The Revelations', hence the title of the book. The Course itself is clearly a fictionalised and exaggerated version of the Alpha Course, a popular introduction to Christianity course run by many churches in the UK and beyond. However, in the book, 'The Course' is clearly much more of a cult-like entity rather than being merely an entry point into mainstream evangelical Christianity. Indeed, one of the characters in the book refers to The Course as being a cult.

The book is clearly written by someone who is not a Christian and has issues with Christianity. I've been through an Alpha Course, and been involved with leadership in other similar courses, and as a consequence, the behind-the-scenes bits in this book simply do not ring true at all. Course leaders do not behave like this, talk like that, pray like that or sing worship songs like that. Basically, the Course in the book is so much of a caricature that it is unreal.

I know that not all Christians are perfect and honourable, but I can't believe in the scenario given here where all four characters leading the Course are hypocrites, liars, sexually promiscuous (with course attendees) and get drunk (again with course attendees) all the time. While you do get people like that in Churches, generally they are not invited to lead worship or evangelism groups.

The book is split into three sections, the first relates to the 'normal' weekly workings of the Course, the second relates to the weekend retreat, which anyone familiar with Alpha will be familiar with, and the third relates to the unraveling of the lives of the characters following the events of the retreat weekend. I'll not give spoilers.

Given what I've said above, I found section 1 to be unrealistic. I didn't like the characters, I didn't believe the scenarios, I didn't care what happened. But I'd paid for the book so I kept reading...

Section 2 was more interesting, and you do start to care a little for some of the characters. Particularly Lee, who is clearly a fragile character with various complicated needs, which obviously is going to start things spiraling out of control in the third section. But the prevalent sexual promiscuity and drunken debauchery through the weekend retreat is so far from believable for anyone who's ever been on one, that the thing is simply unrealistic. Half of it I could relate to, half of it would never happen like that. This is a book written by an external viewer imagining what might happen on such courses, not someone who's actually been there.

But. By the third section I was caring for the characters and genuinely wanted to find out how all this was going to resolve. There are a couple of twists that send the story heading off in directions you don't expect and it is a fun ride. Then the story ends, but there is still 10% of the book left... The final bit drags as a few final 'revelations' come out, some which are expected, some less so, and you realise that all that has gone before is not exactly as you thought. And at the end you realise that none of the characters are honorable, even the ones you thought were basically good people. Its all about money, sex and power. None of the characters has any other driving motivation. Which is a crap way to end the book.

I'm disappointed. The author could have filled his book with a variety of characters with different wants and desires, but actually no. As far as he is concerned, all Christians are drunken, promiscuous, hypocrites.

Given how far from reality that belief is, the ending is a huge let down.

Oh, and by the way, there is quite a lot of unnecessary sex in this book. With quite a few scenes with details which we really didn't need to know, and only serve to underline the hypocrisy of the characters further. We got the message, OK?

Bottom line is that I know a lot of Christians and I don't know any people like these. Sure, I know Christians who have had affairs, sure I know Christians who drink too much occasionally, sure I know Christians who are motivated by greed, sure I know Christians who lie and cheat. But on the whole, the vast majority of Christians I know are not like this all the time. So in the end, I simply don't believe this story.

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Jesus wept?

I've been slowly working my way through (the Librivox audio recording of) "The Life of Jesus Critically Examined" by D.F. Strauss. Its a classic work of biblical criticism from the 19th Century. There's been much to think about so far, and plenty of scope for future blog posts. But anyway, I've just made it through the bit where he discusses the raising of Lazarus.

Seen through Strauss's take on the events, the story of Lazarus simply doesn't stand up to scrutiny whichever way you slice it. The events as described in John 11, are basically these:
  1. Lazarus is sick and word is sent to Jesus to tell him this.
  2. Jesus waits two days before setting out.
  3. Jesus says that Lazarus is sleeping but he is going to wake him up.
  4. The dumb discilpes don't get the inference.
  5. Jesus says that Lazarus is dead and that he was glad he was not there when Lazarus died for the sake of the disciples.
  6. Jesus arrives in Bethany, by which time Lazarus has been dead for four days.
  7. Jesus has a conversation with Martha about resurrection.
  8. Jesus meets Mary and they talk briefly (she says the same as Martha did).
  9. Jesus wept.
  10. Jesus commands that the tomb be opened. It is.
  11. Jesus commands Lazarus to come out. He does.
  12. Lazarus vanishes from the story.
The two oddest details in there are the two days delay and Jesus crying. Why are either of them there?

The story presents Jesus as having supernatural knowledge. He knows that Lazarus has died even though he is many miles away. It is unclear whether he knew anything before the word came that Lazarus was ill, but somehow he knew that this was not merely an illness, it was fatal.

Knowing this, Jesus does nothing for two days. Then sets out for Bethany, presumably a few days journey. When he gets there Lazarus has been dead for four days. I guess if he set out straight away, Lazarus would only have been dead for two days when he got there. Although, armed with supernatural knowledge, we can only assume that he could have known when to set out in time to get there and stop Lazarus from dying, or at the very least raise him instantly.

So it is clear that it was Jesus's own choice to let Lazarus be dead for four days before he raised him. Presumably he could have raised him earlier or later if he had wished. I've heard it said that there was some belief about the soul departing the body after three days, or some such, but that's largely irrelevant to my point here.

So Jesus allowed a man to die and allowed his sisters to go through four days of grieving so he could use them as an object lesson for his disciples. The text makes this plain (verse 15).

Hang on, let me state that again in a blunt manner. Here Jesus is depicted as manipulating the lives and feelings of people as an object lesson for his disciples. 

Is there any other way to read this passage? He basically says 'if I'd have been there I'd have healed him, but I'm glad I wasn't, so that you (the disciples) can see my power more clearly.' This is not the 'Son of Man' speaking, this is the voice of a God who plays with the destinies of people, much like the Greek gods were often portrayed as doing.

So it is clear from the story that Jesus goes to Bethany with the intention of restoring Lazarus to life, and is confident of his ability to do it. Yet when he gets there he cries. Why? It is entirely his inaction which has caused the death, and his actions are about to bring joy, so why does he cry? Out of sympathy for Mary? He could have prevented her pain. Because Lazarus is dead? Why is that a reason to cry if you are certain that the deceased is about to come back to life? Death is only a cause for mourning because we fundamentally do not know if we will ever see the deceased again, we may have hope, we may have belief, but we do not know. If you knew, with absolute certainty, that you would see the deceased in a few minutes time, alive and well, then there is no reason to cry.

It seems to me that the only reason Jesus is described as crying here is that the author (or a later redactor) of the story wants Jesus to appear to be at least partially human. For the rest of the story he walks as a God among men, and this appears to be an attempt to ground him and make him one of us.

The final odd thing about the story is that once Lazarus has been raised, Jesus does not interact with him at all. Doesn't touch him, doesn't talk to him, only instructs others to do things for him.

However, the problems with this story don't actually end there, there are at least two others.

One is the conversation between Jesus and Martha. Reading the implications in what Martha says, the conversation really seems to go like this:

M: If you had been here he wouldn't have died, but even now I believe you can restore his life.
J: He will be resurrected.
M: I know he will be resurrected at the end of time like everyone else, but he's dead now.
J: Silly woman, I mean I can do anything, I can resurrect him now.
M: Yes, I know that. You are the Son of God, Messiah.

The odd thing about this interchange is how Martha's second statement contradicts the first and third ones. The second statement is implicitly skeptical, while the other two seem to imply she believes Jesus can do anything, literally anything, including raising the dead to life. Real conversations don't work like this. This comes across as being fictional. Especially as Jesus starts having the exact same conversation with Mary just a couple of verses later.

The final issue I want to raise with this story is the prayer Jesus says in verses 41 and 42. This is a non-prayer. Jesus basically says 'I don't need to pray to God, but I am doing it only because people are listening and they do need to pray to God, so I'm setting a good example.'

Nobody prays like that. You can be sure that Jesus never uttered such a prayer. These are words put fictively into his mouth.

So it seems that a critical look at this story shows its fictional nature. These events could not have happened as described. Not because we presuppose that supernatural healings or resurrections can't happen, but because the characters in the story don't behave in any realistic ways. The story appears to have started out as a simple story of a demi-God walking amongst men and playing with their destinies, but it also appears to have been softened and humanised by a rewrite.

The final questions are these, if Jesus could raise the dead, why did he hardly ever do it? And if this story is true, why do the other gospel writers know nothing of it? (Except possibly a parable about a dead man called Lazarus whom someone requests to be resurrected...)

Monday, November 05, 2012

The God of Christian experience vs. the God of the Bible

A recurring struggle I have faced over the past few years as I wrestle with (my) faith is the apparent discrepancy between the claims the bible makes about God and the reality I have experienced and observed as a Christian for over twenty years. 

You see, the God of Christian experience (GCE) seems considerably different from the God described in the bible (GTB). So much so that I have to wonder if the God of the bible is an amplified and exaggerated version of the 'real God' as distorted through the rose tinted lens of faith. Of course it is equally possible that the characteristics of the 'real God' are distorted by experience too. Taking a skeptical position, we might also have to consider the possibility that GCE is purely an illusion based on misunderstood experience.

But anyway, here are a few of the characteristics of the God of Christian experience, based on my experiences and observations of others:
  • GCE seems to be a source of comfort for many.
  • GCE seems to provide some form of guidance sometimes, though this is often ambiguous.
  • GCE seems to answer certain prayer requests, sometimes.
  • GCE seems able to perform a range of mostly minor healings, sometimes.
  • GCE seems to be able to strengthen and embolden people, sometimes.
  • GCE seems to be a source of joy, even in otherwise joyless circumstances.
Most, if not all, of these characteristics appear to be sporadic; sometimes being in evidence while at other times being seemingly absent. The characteristics which most commonly appear active are also those in which it is hardest to be sure that there is any real external influence, such as the comfort, joy and emboldenings. The skeptic could write all of these off as being 'purely psychological' and having no supernatural source. It could be that God provides genuine comfort to the believer, or it could be that believing in God - in itself - is the source of comfort.

But what of the others? Answered prayers are common, but rarely does a believer calculate the probabilities of the things they ask for happening 'by chance'. Indeed, for many believers there is no such thing as chance, so if what they prayed for actually happened, then it must have been God at work. And if the thing prayed for does not happen, then it must have been against the will of God, so he didn't do it. I've commented before about the positive feedback loop here - if the prayed-for thing happens, the believer's faith is boosted, if it doesn't happen, their faith is not lessened, so as long as prayed-for things happen occasionally, the net effect is a boost of faith. If the believer prays for lots of possible things on a regular basis, they will see answered prayers fairly frequently, whether or not there is a God involved.

Surely if there is a real God then it should be possible to observe his actions consistently? The GTB is frequently portrayed as consistent, unchanging, and so on, yet GCE seems to act with no consistency, except perhaps in influencing the feelings of his followers.

Before I started taking a properly critical look at (my own) faith, I would have made the claim (had I thought to express it this way) that the real God was broadly the same as GTB and the reasons that GCE appears to be smaller and less powerful than GTB were that something (either the devil, my puny faith, or some unrepented sin in my life) was blocking the full experience of God from breaking through. I guess this is pretty standard Evangelical belief. Its certainly consistent with the picture of reality expressed by most of the evangelism programmes that I've seen or been part of. The problem is sin, our sin gets in the way. In other words, most of the time, the reason GCE appears so small is my fault. The picture would be something like this:
But when you look at the holiest people you know (and, having been in some good churches for many years, I have known a good many truly godly people) you will see that they have exactly the same experiences as you. Something seems to block God from getting through, so GCE is so much smaller than GTB, even for those spiritual giants. Of course, they would never say it in those terms, but this is my observation.

I eventually, through observations like the above, and through a critical reading of certain bible passages, came to view things a bit differently. While still convinced that the real God was there, I considered that GTB was an exaggeration. The real God, while still powerful, wasn't omni-anything. But I never really reconsidered the presupposition that something in me was also blocking the full reality of the real God, so for many years I guess I believed that the real god was somewhere in between GTB and GCE. Like so:
But then I came to wonder whether there was any actual evidence that the real God was any more powerful than GCE. The claims in the bible are simply that, claims. The more I looked into the evidence for things claimed in the bible, the more I found that the bible itself is the only evidence for all the miracles up to and including the resurrection of Jesus. I've recently posted several thoughts on the so called 'evidence' for God [see here, or here] and it all eventually boils down to assuming that the reporting of events as presented in the bible is fundamentally accurate and true. Without that assumption, all arguments defending biblical miracles, including the resurrection, fall apart.

For several years two things kept me believing that the real God was greater in power than GCE (though less than GTB). These were the firm belief that Jesus had been resurrected from the dead, and the belief/observation that 'miraculous' healings continue to happen today. Let's look at both of these:

Firstly, contemporary miraculous healings. I've been through this issue recently on the blog. The issues here for me remain that while healings undoubtedly and indisputably happen in the world today, these don't appear (as far as I can tell) to happen more in a Christian context than in contexts associated with any other religion or belief system. The other issue is that almost all of the healing claims I have heard of are well within the realms of possible natural occurrences. That is, if someone experiences a remission from cancer, how do we know if this was due to God's healing power or was 'just one of those things' that happen? What we observe is that healings happen, and that the claimed power of these healings comes from some supernatural source, for which there is usually little or no other evidence. What if there is some other explanation other than the involvement of a God? Which is more likely - that some people have some inherent 'magical' healing ability, or that some God chooses to channel his 'magical' healing ability through some people? Given that we don't know the mechanism in either case, Occam's razor would tend to prefer the former option; invoking a God is not required as a source of the unknown ability, that only multiplies the entities involved.

Of course, if this is true, then we are attributing 'natural' healing ability to God which doesn't come from him. Thus actually CGE is greater in power than the real God:

That's an uncomfortable thought, but one we must face if we're really serious about examining the validity of (our) faith. Even if there is a God, if we attribute things to him which he has no part of, then our picture of God ends up positively skewed and we imagine him to be bigger than he actually is.

And so, all that remains is the resurrection of Jesus. If this happened then it would fundamentally endorse the things he taught and go much of the way to proving the existence of God, and not merely any god, but specifically the Christian God. For me, this was the last remaining support holding up my faith. But, like all the other things, I found that this belief didn't really stand up to scrutiny. The evidence for the resurrection is simply not strong enough. All that we can really be sure of is that there were folk who came to be known as Christians who believed that Jesus died and rose again. We can be sure these people believed this a couple of generations after the time of the alleged events. What we can't do is bridge the gap between the beliefs in the late 1st and early 2nd centuries and the supposed events of about 30AD. Nobody wrote anything for at least a generation, and the things written by the first generation of writers were rewritten by subsequent generations.

You can see where I'm going with this. Eventually, I have come to the conclusion that as we can't be sure if the resurrection actually happened, we can't use this as anything remotely like evidence for the existence of God, whether we're talking about GTB, GCE or the real God.

I'm still open to the possibility that there is a 'real' God. But the more I consider the evidence of Christian experience, the smaller he appears to become. Is this really a God worth believing in? Or, more crucially, is this really a God worth trusting, following, or committing your life to? All the truly important aspects of God, which would make him worthy of praise and commitment, are those aspects which are claimed in the bible, but are not evident in Christian experience. These evaporate as we look critically at God.