Thursday, February 26, 2015

First Contact – Part 23 – Assemblies of God

The Assemblies of God Church is a Pentecostal denomination that came out of a Pentecostal movement in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. They officially organized in 1914. Apparently they are one of the largest Pentecostal denominations in the United States.

There is an Assembly of God Church less than 3 miles from my home. I can remember when the building was erected. I have not been to any regular services at the church, but many years ago my wife and I attended a Passion Play there. They have this each year near Easter. It was quite a good show.

Occasionally the church hosted Christian rock bands for the youth in a small area inside the back of the church building. I can remember taking my son Andrew to it once before he started driving. They were serving snacks and soft drinks as very loud live music was playing. Most of it was what I called alternative music, which I didn’t care for.

The most memorable event I participated in at the Assembly of God Church was an Independence Day celebration in their parking lot on July 3, 2004. It was quite a big deal. Andrew and I attended the event together. The church had a large stage set up with a huge flag hanging behind it. A lot of local and some national musical performers were there.

    The Boatwright Sisters (Local Singers) With Andrew

     The Stage

In the middle of the program some ominous clouds began to form and people began to get a bit skittish. Andrew and I were about to leave, but then someone from the church went to the microphone and announced that he had been tracking the weather from inside the church building. Apparently a bad storm had been headed straight towards us, but it had split and was going around us to either side. The handiwork of God, no doubt. Several people in the audience said, “Praise God”, and the show continued. However, God must have just been messing with us because all of a sudden the storm began to roll in as evidenced by the high winds hitting us. It happened just as the headliner for the show, Jody McBrayer, came on stage. You may remember Jody as being a member of the contemporary Christian music group Avalon. He had recently launched a solo career. He seemed genuinely dismayed by the situation. He was ready to perform, but his audience was packing up their chairs and heading toward their cars. My son as I were among them. We got to our car and got inside just before the floodgates of heaven opened above us. Torrents of rain came down as we slowly drove the short distance home.

     The Storm Rolling In

Given the timing, was this storm God’s way of telling Jody to abandon his solo career or was it purely a chance event? The answer to that question is highly dependent on your personal worldview.

Monday, February 23, 2015

First Contact – Part 22 – United Methodist

The first time I remember going to a United Methodist Church was in the mid 1980’s. A young female cooperative student at work—also the daughter of a friend and coworker—invited me to her church across the river in Tuscumbia. It wasn’t a Sunday morning service, but rather a Christmas program. Her sister was going to be performing, so my wife and I decided to attend. It was a good show, and we enjoyed it.

My next time in a United Methodist Church was for a wedding. A daughter of some good friends in the Church of Christ was having her wedding at the First United Methodist Church in Florence. She wanted my friend Ron and me to videotape it. At that time Ron and I shared duties in the sound booth at Chisholm Hills Church of Christ. We were happy to oblige, so we set up a couple of video cameras and microphones at the church and recorded the wedding.

It would not be until 1993 that I would attend an actual worship service at a UM church, and the story behind that visit is quite interesting. Kathy and I were members at the Chisholm Hills Church of Christ (CHCC). Our preacher was Joe VanDyke. In the early 1990’s Joe began to occasionally speak about other denominations in a more positive light than usual. He talked about how as a child his family would visit churches of other denominations when they were having revivals and such. While many in the Church of Christ believed that they were the only ones interpreting the Scriptures correctly and thus the only ones going to heaven, Joe began questioning that belief. This was fine by my wife and me since we had never believed we had a lock on the truth anyway. Joe spoke this way so frequently that I just assumed the elders of the church were on board with him. However, one Wednesday evening I found out differently. The elders fired Joe. I was out of town with my job and found out about it from my wife on the phone. I was shocked.

Apparently the elders were not very forthcoming about the reason for the firing, asking the congregation to just trust them. At Joe’s request they did tell everyone it was not over an issue of morality. But other than that no other information was put forth. This did not set well with many of the congregants. Eventually a Sunday afternoon meeting was held to hopefully clear the air, but it still left many dissatisfied. Interestingly, Joe and his family continued to attend CHCC. I asked him one day why he was still coming there given he was fired. He answered, “Where else am I going to go?” In other words, this congregation had been his home for many years. Where else would be a better fit?

Over time the dissatisfaction with the situation increased. A meeting was held at one of the church members’ home. The house was overflowing with people, my wife and I being two of them. We all pretty much agreed that the elders should have been more open with us about the firing so we could decide for ourselves whether or not the right decision had been made. But as it was, we simply did not have enough information to make that judgment. Ultimately the dissenting group decided to have a separate worship service one Sunday. It was held in the Magnolia Room at a local hotel. Joe VanDyke was invited to speak at that service. Long story short, we ultimately decided to break away from CHCC and form a new congregation. Members were asked to submit their suggestions for the new congregation’s name. Someone suggested Magnolia Church of Christ (MCC) since our first meeting had been in the Magnolia Room at the hotel. That was the one selected. Joe was hired as the preacher.

We knew we couldn’t stay in the hotel forever, so we later made arrangements to start meeting at the Little Angel Day School building. This school was just a short distance from North Wood United Methodist Church (NWUMC). The school had limited parking, so NWUMC graciously offered to let us use their parking lot for overflow. Now having a connection with NWUMC, our churches eventually planned a joint service. It had to be held at NWUMC’s building for space reasons.

The big event took place on the evening of September 19, 1993. MCC members converged along with NWUMC members to participate in the joint service. Some of the music that evening had instruments, some didn’t. Our local newspaper called it a historic event. But to me it just seemed like people trying to get along. At one point during the service I had to use the restroom. When I emerged from the sanctuary I noticed a good friend that had stayed with CHCC after the split. Apparently he was there “spying” on the meeting so he could report back to his church. I found it a bit amusing. As it turned out, this friend became ashamed of what he had done and now regrets ever having done it.

Our historic meeting sent shock waves throughout the Church of Christ community. MCC was being chastised in a number of publications. Several local congregations even took out a full page ad in our local newspaper to let people know that they did not approve of MCC’s actions. I found a couple of lingering writings about the evening on the Internet: Truth Magazine and Seek The Old Paths. There are probably more.

Later MCC found an old building in downtown Florence to meet at. Lots of renovations had to be done first. Once settled, MCC invited NWUMC to a joint service at our building. This ultimately led to having alternating annual joint meetings on the anniversary of that first joint meeting.

By the time of the CHCC split, I had already declared myself an agnostic although most people didn’t know it. Given Joe VanDyke’s willingness to take heat over his “liberal” position regarding people in other denominations, I decided I needed to confide in him about my deconversion. I set up a meeting with him one Sunday afternoon at his home. I explained to him my newfound beliefs and how I came about acquiring them. He was a bit surprised and of course didn’t agree with me. But he remained cordial throughout our conversation.

The only other times I have attended a United Methodist Church was for those joint services with NWUMC. That wasn’t very often since it was just a few years later that my wife began going to a Baptist Church and I followed along as I reported in my previous post.

The CHCC split and the supposed falling away of MCC by meeting with the NWUMC was my first major exposure to how divisive religion can be. Of course, I was viewing the events as an outsider, but from within. I was already an agnostic, but I was still involved with the church. It reminded me of a line spoken by Deanna Troi in a 1989 episode of “Star Trek: The Next Generation” entitled “Who Watches the Watchers”. She says, “Are you sure you know what he wants? That's the problem with believing in a supernatural being - trying to determine what he wants.”

Throughout the world there are people with widely varying beliefs. Many think that they are right and others are wrong. Even within the same religion, say Christianity, many different beliefs about God, the Bible, Jesus, and so forth are prevalent. Hey, even within a single church building you can find people who disagree about what is pleasing to God and what is not. If you have to be exactly right about everything in order for God to save you, then I would say that at most one person will make it, but more likely none. The way I look at it is this. We have all been put here on this Earth through no choice of our own. We have a limited time to live in our fallible human bodies. We’re all trying to make sense of our situation. How we got here. What our purpose is. Where we are headed. How we should live, and why. Given our differences in DNA, personal experiences, and learning backgrounds, it seems highly unlikely that there will ever be widespread agreement on these matters. We need to grant each other a lot of leeway in our search. And as long as others are not using force to impede our search, we should follow Idina’s and Demi’s recommendation: “Let It Go!”

Sunday, February 22, 2015

First Contact – Part 21 – Baptists

The Baptist Church is the church I was first exposed to and with which I have had the longest contact. When my parents were young, it was common for people to have a home church yet visit churches of different denominations whenever they had revivals or gospel meetings or whatever. My mother grew up primarily in the Baptist church. I never heard my dad speak of having a home church. I believe that was because he really didn’t attend church very much. You see, he only had a 4th grade education and couldn’t speak very well. As he got older, he became more and more embarrassed about it and therefore didn’t feel comfortable in a group setting, especially if it was likely someone might call on him to speak or lead a prayer. Even so, I know that he did attend church services on occasion.

As I was growing up in Louisville, Kentucky, I do not recall a single time that my dad attended a class or worship service at a church.  He would go to a church building for a funeral or a party or whatnot, but not for a service. My mom didn’t drive, so she was dependent on someone taking her to church. My dad mostly worked evening shift at his place of employment, so was used to sleeping late in the mornings. Fortunately, Mom had a cousin that drove herself to church, so she started picking my mom up to go with her. As a young child I attended with them. I went to Sunday School, but I don’t remember anything about it other than being in a Christmas play one year. We performed the play in a room, the stage being in one corner. I recall it being my turn to talk and totally forgetting my lines. My SS teacher started prompting me from offstage by saying the first few words. I repeated the words and was able to finish.

My mom had a fear of putting her head under water. So, although she had attended church for years, she had never been baptized. It took a lot of courage on her part, but she finally decided she needed to be baptized. I remember going to that service. I was sitting about halfway back in the sanctuary and watched the event unfold. I was concerned about what she might do upon being dunked under the water. She came out of the water floundering a bit and wiping her face, but nothing too embarrassing. I was proud of her for overcoming her fears for the sake of doing something she really believed in and had wanted to do for many years.

I believe I was in junior high school when a good friend of mine invited me to go to church with him. He attended a Baptist Church not too far from my home. A young man was teaching our Sunday School class, and somehow he got onto the topic of marriage. He asked the class what we thought about interracial marriage. I guess he felt the need to address this topic since it was becoming a societal issue after the civil rights movement. Being young whippersnappers with keen insight, we all sat there like bumps on a log. Hey, how was a bunch of dumb youth supposed to answer a deep philosophical and religious question like that? Well, I actually had some thoughts on the matter, but feared they might not be the right ones, so I kept my mouth shut. He went on to explain how he thought the Bible taught us to keep the races pure. He may have made a point about the Jews in the Old Testament being commanded to not intermarry with other nations, but I don’t recall for sure. He did say something about how the birds of a feather flock together and how the natural thing to do was to only marry your own kind. I have not been able to find this justification for same-race marriages in the New Testament, so I guess he was trying to make his point by observing nature. But apparently he somehow overlooked dogs during those observations. As he was making his argument for same-race marriages, something just didn’t feel right about it. Why would God care what race of person someone married? It just seemed like a non-issue to me, but I didn’t say anything. After all, who was I to question an adult? I wasn’t yet aware of the story in the New Testament about the 12-year-old Jesus questioning the teachers of his day.

When I was in high school, I had several friends who attended Hazelwood Baptist Church, which was near the school. As it turned out, it was the same church that my future mother-in-law and father-in-law would join when they left the United Church of Christ. Occasionally, these friends would invite me to participate in their youth group activities. One day we went to a Putt-Putt miniature golf course. In the middle of a game, a large thunderstorm started approaching, so the youth pastor decided we needed to leave early so we could get back to the church building before the storm actually hit. We all piled into the vehicles and headed back. When the vehicle I was in came to a stop at the back of the church building, I opened the passenger door, got out, and then closed the door. Just as it slammed shut there was a loud explosion. I froze, thinking, “The Lord has returned.” But I soon realized that I was still standing next to the car in the church parking lot. I looked up and saw purple smoke wafting away from a transformer on a nearby power pole. “Okay,” I thought, “it was just lightning hitting a transformer.” But then I realized that the lightning was right overhead, so I hightailed it to safety inside the church building.

I don’t recall ever attending an actual youth group meeting or a Sunday School class or a worship service at my friends’ church. I just remember doing things with the youth group or a few of the people in that group. I remember one girl from this church that apparently wanted to be a race car driver and proved it on the streets. One night I went out with a group when she was driving. She drove as fast as she could down the street, slowed some at red lights, and then ran them when she didn’t see any cars coming her way. Needless to say, I was a bit terrified. I promised myself that I would never again get in a car that she was driving. I kept that promise.

Speaking of driving, there was a two lane winding hilly road just outside of Louisville that was affectionately referred to as The Devil’s Backbone. It was a good test of one’s driving skill if you could make it all the way along this road at an elevated speed. One evening I was out with some friends, including Lester from Hazelwood. He was driving his Pinto and decided he wanted to try out his skills on The Devil’s Backbone. Although he had never driven it before, meaning he wasn’t familiar with where the sharpest turns were located, he decided to drive it at an elevated speed. He was navigating the turns pretty well until he came to a sharp 90 degree left-hand turn. As he was about to attempt the turn, he realized there was no way he could make the turn at the speed he was driving. Fortunately, there was a gravel driveway near the turn and Lester was able to hit his brakes and skid to a halt in the driveway. Wheeeeew!

After joining the Church of Christ, but before I was married, I hung out with a group of Christian friends consisting of both girls and boys. We did a number of things together such as taking a trip to Gatlinburg one winter. One thing we did occasionally was play volleyball. Ken was an avid runner and a member of Woodmont Baptist Church (WBC). At that time WBC had a gymnasium that doubled as their worship center. They also had a volleyball net and ball. Ken would reserve the gym for us and we’d set up everything to play volleyball. It was always a blast. I recall being at Ken’s house one time and our conversation turning to the topic of salvation and whether or not it could be lost. As you may know, most Baptists believe in “Once saved, always saved”. This basically means that once you have gotten right with God and have been saved, you can’t lose that salvation under any circumstances. But what about a person who was saved, but comes to reject his faith? What happens to him? Some skirt the issue by saying that that person was never saved to begin with. Others say that he will still be saved. Ken was one of these latter people. I remember asking him, “What if a person comes to a point where he totally rejects his belief that Jesus is the Savior and shakes his fist to the heavens telling God he doesn’t want to be saved? What happens to him?” Ken’s response was, “He’ll still go to heaven.” I was dumbfounded. At that time I was a member of the Church of Christ and believed that a person’s salvation could be lost. I wanted to get into the Bible with Ken and discuss it further, but Ken said he had studied this issue in depth years before and was totally convinced of his position, so didn’t want to study it further. There was nothing more for me to do.

When Kathy and I first married, we would attend Camden Ave Christian Church whenever we visited her parents in Louisville, Kentucky. This was the church where Kathy had been a member and where we were married. However, this church eventually disbanded. Afterwards we started attending Hazelwood Baptist Church, which I mentioned earlier. It’s where a number of high school friends attended and where Kathy’s mother and father moved to from the United Church of Christ. One of my good friends from high school, John, was still a member there along with his wife and kids. John is the person who got me interested in playing classical guitar. He is still very interested in music, playing a number of different instruments. He would lead some of the worship at the church and eventually became its music minister even though he had a fulltime job as a veterinarian. Hazelwood was a pretty traditional Baptist Church and I enjoyed attending there when we were in town. John always did a good job leading the music.

Kathy had quit her teaching job when our son, Andrew, was born in the early 1990’s. When he was about to enter K-5, we had decided to put him in an all-day program at Woodmont Christian School, which was a part of Woodmont Baptist Church (WBC). As it so happened, the school was about to expand their top grade from the sixth to the ninth and needed a new math teacher. Kathy applied and got the job. As a result of teaching there, she made friends with several other teachers who attended WBC. She decided to attend there to see how she liked it. She liked it so much that she decided to switch her membership. Before she did, however, she asked me if I minded her switching. I was not attending church much at the time so I told her it was totally her decision.

Shortly after Kathy started attending WBC, someone told her that I might like attending a Sunday School class taught by a local lawyer named Jess. I decided to try it out. One Sunday Jess started off the class by having us read some verses about people having demons driven out of them by Jesus. Then he started discussing homosexuality. At first I wasn’t quite sure the point he was trying to make, but eventually it became clear. He was attempting to blame homosexuality on demon possession. As the discussion progressed, I could feel my insides about to burst. I wanted to respond to what he was saying, but was unsure if I should. I eventually could not stand it any longer. I raised my hand and said, “Could I express an opinion from a non-Christian perspective?” I was told I could. So, I began expressing my opinion that homosexuality was not caused by demon possession. I told them that I did not necessarily agree with every agenda item in the homosexual movement, but I had no problem with homosexuality itself. Anyway, the rest of the class time ended up centering on me and my religious background. A discussion ensued as to whether or not I was still saved since I had once confessed the name of Jesus and had joined the church. Opinions varied. Anyway, the discussion was very cordial, and no one attempted to throw me out of class. In fact, one lady came up to me after class and told me how impressed she was with my courage to speak out given the venue. She said that she didn’t know if she would speak out in an opposite situation or not. She encouraged me to come back to class, and I intended to. However, the following Saturday morning I received a call from Jess asking me to meet him at a local restaurant for lunch. I did. He told me that he could not continue to have his class disrupted as it was the previous Sunday. I told him I understood and that I never intended for it to go the way it went in the last class. He told me that I could attend his class as often as I wanted, but I couldn’t speak during it. I told him that I totally understood since it was his class and he could set the ground rules anyway he wanted. At first I planned to attend again, but then I realized how difficult it was for me to keep my mouth shut when I really needed to say something. So, I never returned.

Later, someone suggested I attend a Sunday School class taught by a friend of mine from work named Bill. I was hesitant at first, but decided I would tell Bill about my experience in Jess’ class and see what he thought. Bill told me that his class was pretty tolerant of other ideas and that I should fit in just fine. So, I started attending. I was greatly impressed. The class members were very tolerant of my speaking my mind and even engaged in conversation about my positions. There was really only one conflict to speak of. It was Easter and of course we were discussing Jesus’ resurrection. I made a few comments about the possibility that Jesus was not really resurrected. One of the regular class members then said to me, “But he’s resurrected nonetheless, right?” I said I didn’t think so. “Then where’s the body?” he asked. I answered, “We don’t know. It could have been buried in a pauper’s grave. Just because we don’t know where a body is doesn’t mean that it was resurrected.” I said this off the cuff because I had just read this as a possibility in a book I had been reading. It was the end of the class, so the conversation ended that way. The next week my wife was in class but I was not. I heard Kathy getting home early and soon after the doorbell ringing. I found out later that the fellow I’d had the discussion with the previous week had been offended by my comment and thought I was intentionally trying to provoke him. My comments had ruined Easter for him. He apparently wanted Bill to chastise me over it. Kathy defended me by saying that I was just speaking what I believed and was not trying to provoke anyone. After all, he had asked me a question. I answered it honestly. The conversation apparently got a bit heated. Kathy got very upset and came home rather than go to worship service. The doorbell was the SS teacher, Bill, coming to check on her. Upon talking to Bill later, he did not think I had been out of line and had no intention of chastising me in class. When I showed up in class the next week, the fellow brought it up again, but Bill refused to rebuke me. This impressed me very much. I told Bill that I would gladly quit attending his class if my presence was going to cause problems. But Bill was insistent that I had done nothing wrong and encouraged me to keep attending. I did.

We were attending WBC when Andrew decided to become a Christian. The pastor at the time was Bill Trapp, and he baptized Andrew. I can still remember going with Andrew to the back of the baptistery and helping him prepare for this event. Unfortunately, Bill later came down with Lou Gehrig’s disease (ALS) and eventually had to relinquish his pulpit ministry. He ended up dying from this disease despite an around-the-clock prayer vigil. While Brother Bill was sick a visiting evangelist was speaking at a WBC revival meeting. He said that he had been talking to the Lord on his way to our city and He had told him something. But he was hesitant to say what it was. He then relented and said that the Lord had told him that Brother Bill was going to be healed. I was stunned. This preacher was really going out on a limb with that prediction. But then he clarified that the Lord had told him that Bill would either be healed in this lifetime or the next. My jaw dropped. Even though a number of people in the audience were Amen-ing him, I considered this statement to be an insult. He basically was saying that the Lord had revealed to him that Brother Bill was going to either live or die. I could have told the audience that without consulting the Lord.

You might be wondering what my thoughts and feelings were about Andrew being baptized when I had just a few years before converted from Christianity to agnosticism. Well, when I fell away from Christianity, Kathy and I had a serious discussion about how we would raise any children we had. We both agreed that our children would have to determine their own faith themselves; else it would not truly be their faith. Thus we were both okay with having children. As it turned out we only had one child. Over the years Andrew has delved into a number of different religions and asked his mom and me about our beliefs. We never pushed him into any particular belief, letting him decide what he personally believed based on his own search.

I often hear atheists and agnostics talk about the narrow-mindedness of religious people. However, my experience at Woodmont Baptist Church does not reflect that at all. Everybody knows I am an agnostic, yet they are all very warm and inviting. In fact, one time when I was attending a discipleship class on Sunday afternoons, the teacher actually asked me to conduct the class one week when he was going to be out of town. I was friends with Bill Trapp, the pastor who was there when we first started attending. I was also friends with the interim pastors after his passing. The current pastor, Jerry, is a friend also. Occasionally I run into him at the YMCA. It rarely fails that we end up having a 1-2 hour theological discussion. When I was completing my “God Is” book, he actually read part of it and discussed it with me in his office. I love it when people with differing beliefs can discuss their differences in a calm and rational way. Nothing can be learned by shutting others out and not allowing them to speak.

Saturday, February 14, 2015

First Contact – Part 20 – TV Evangelists

When I was growing up, I watched a lot of evangelists on TV. Originally it was because one or both of my parents watched them and I was a captive since we only had one TV in the house. Of course we only had five channels to watch, so it wasn’t as if I had a lot of other choices. However, as I got into my middle to late teen years, I found that there were actually some TV evangelists that I enjoyed watching.

Some of the TV preachers I have watched, such as Joel Osteen, Ernest Angley, and Garner Ted Armstrong, I have already mentioned in earlier posts. Others I have watched at one point or another include Billy Graham, Oral Roberts, Jack Van Impe, Jim Bakker, Jimmy Swaggart, Kenneth Copeland, John Ankerberg, Creflo Dollar, Jesse Duplantis, Jerry Falwell, John Hagee, Benny Hinn, Gene Scott, Rex Humbard, T.D. Jakes, David Jeremiah, D. James Kennedy, Pat Robertson, Ben Kinchlow, Hal Lindsey, James Robison, Adrian Rogers, Robert Schuller, Charles Stanley, and Robert Tilton. Some of these evangelists grated on my nerves while others were quite enjoyable to listen to. As you might expect, I tended to like the more calm preachers that attempted to approach the Bible in a logical way rather than exuding emotion. I didn’t mind them being passionate, but the “Glory be to God!” happy feet ones turned me off. I also liked listening to the ones that concentrated on Biblical prophecy.

While I was still living at home with my parents, I listened mostly to people like Ernest Angley, Garner Ted Armstrong, Oral Roberts, Jim Bakker, Kenneth Copeland, and Jack Van Impe. As I mentioned in an earlier post, I actually went to see Ernest Angley in person.

My mother was a big fan of Oral Roberts and used to receive lots of literature from his ministry. After Mom’s death I found a few photos of the Roberts family that she had received and stored away. I always thought of Roberts as a decent preacher, but was skeptical of the healings he performed. He pretty much lost any confidence I had in him when in 1987 he famously announced that God had told him He would call him home if he didn’t raise $8 million by a certain date.

While on vacation with my parents one year, we visited my dad’s brother in Oklahoma and actually got to go to Oral Roberts University (ORU), home of the famous Prayer Tower, in Tulsa, Oklahoma. I remember the day we were heading over to ORU. It was sweltering hot and we didn’t have air conditioning in our car. So we relied on the old method of cooling, which was to roll the windows down. But hot humid air is not conducive to cooling. Thus, all three of us were a bit irritable. Dad pulled into a gas station to refuel and get us something to drink. While Mom and I were waiting in the car, she opened her door slightly to let more air in while the car was stationary. Once Dad finished, he got back in the car and pulled out to turn left on a four lane road. Mom had forgotten she had her door ajar, so as Dad turned left the door swung open to the right and Mom’s purse, which had been sitting in the floor bed, tumbled onto the pavement in the middle of the road.  Mom said, “There went my purse.” But still being irritable from the heat she said, “Just leave it. Just go on and leave it.” Dad, even though frustrated, soldiered onward with his belief in “No Purse Left Behind”. He pulled off the side of the road, waited for traffic to clear, quickly ran to the middle of the road, retrieved the purse, and ran back to the car. Fortunately, the purse required no medical attention as no other cars had crushed it. Anyway, after this incident we were tempted to just leave town without visiting ORU, but we didn’t. Once we got to ORU and began walking around the campus, we all calmed down.

Back in the late 1980’s, while on vacation, my wife and I visited Heritage USA in Fort Mill, South Carolina. You may remember this as being the theme park started by Jim Bakker and his wife Tammy Faye. Our visit there was after the infamous Jim Bakker sex scandal and cover-up. With the Bakker ministry on the fritz, Heritage USA had greatly deteriorated; a sad sight to see. Jim and Tammy Faye were some of my mother’s favorites. She ordered literature from them as well as albums by Tammy Faye, who had become quite successful as a Christian singer despite all that makeup. I inherited those Tammy Faye albums, but have since either sold them in a yard sale or donated them to charity. Needless to say, I wasn’t a big fan.

Kenneth Copeland was another TV preacher that I listened to frequently. He occasionally put on his “Glory be to God!” happy feet, but not enough to drive me away. Copeland was one of those speakers that could almost convince you to give him your coat and then turn around and sell it back to you. He always spoke with such confidence and certitude that it was hard to question if he really knew what he was talking about. I’m the type of person that will still have doubts even when I have studied an issue and am 100% certain that I am right. I guess I just really took to heart the admonition of Han Solo to Luke Skywalker in the original Star Wars movie. When Luke successfully blew up an attacking ship, Han said, “Great, kid. Don’t get cocky.” Throughout history you can see people with great certitude being shamed by new knowledge contrary to their beliefs. So, I always season my certitude with a pinch of doubt. In other words, I try not to get cocky.

Of all the prophecy interpreting TV evangelists, Jack Van Impe, along with his wife Rexella, was one of my favorites. He too had an air of confidence about him. He usually attempted to connect Biblical prophecy to current events. It was amazing to me how much Bible prophecy was coming true during my lifetime. Well, it was until I learned that many of the same prophecies had been fulfilled many times before. In other words, people are always finding current events that seem to match Bible prophecy. Ultimately, I came to believe that the preterist view of prophecy made the most sense. I discuss this in more detail in my “God Is” book.

One day I was watching Robert Tilton on TV, and he was offering to send viewers some miracle water. I decided to take him up on his offer just to see what it was all about. Upon receiving it, I discovered it was a small quantity of water sealed in square plastic pouch about one inch on a side. Just a few days afterwards I won $1000 in a local radio contest. I was stunned! A few days after that I learned that a friend of mine was sick and running a high fever. I went to his house and laid the water pouch on his forehead. Instantly the fever disappeared and he was back at work the next day. After 35 years, that pouch of water still stays with me everywhere I go. Just kidding. I threw the pouch away soon after receiving it. The plastic is probably still in a landfill somewhere slowly deteriorating. I once heard a funny story about Tilton. A former preacher from the church where my wife is a member was at our house for dinner one evening. He told us that when he was in seminary one of the students showed him and others a video of TV footage of Tilton. Tilton made intense expressions when he talked, and the video had farting noises added right when he was making those expressions. I did not realize that this video was a national sensation until I read about it on Wikipedia. Then I found the video on YouTube. It’s definitely worth watching; it’s hilarious.

Back in the early 1980’s, believe it or not, my wife and I got into selling life insurance. A.L. Williams was a former high school football coach that became disenchanted with life insurance after his mother died. After looking into the market, he eventually began selling term life insurance. You see, apparently whole life insurance, which was part insurance and part investment, had been a pretty good deal until the inflationary period of the 1970’s. Interest rates in most investments soared, but not for whole life insurance. Williams recognized this and started promoting the idea of “buy term, invest the difference”. This idea and a lot of hard work turned Williams into a multi-millionaire. He started a multi-level company that Kathy and I became a part of. I was shocked when one day I was listening to Jerry Falwell on TV and he mentioned A.L. Williams. He told the story about how Williams was visiting the campus of Liberty University. While touring the campus, they ran into the sports director for the school. Falwell introduced them. Williams, having been a football coach, asked the director what he needed for the school’s athletic program. The answer was a football field. So there on the spot Williams agreed to donate millions of dollars towards the building of a stadium. It’s still there and is called Williams Stadium.

I have watched Pat Robertson on his 700 Club show a fair amount. Robertson is quite a controversial person because of some of his radical political stances. Sometimes it appears that he even embarrasses his co-hosts. I always enjoyed listening to the stories the show presented of how a person was listening to the 700 Club and was healed of an illness. The stories seemed so legitimate, but I was always skeptical of their veracity. One interesting connection I have with Robertson is that he mentioned a friend of mine, Drew Jamieson, in his 1993 book “The Turning Tide”. More recently one of my wife’s former students married Robertson’s granddaughter. Small world, huh?

Although I have seen David Jeremiah on TV, I have mostly heard him on the radio. In fact, at one time my wife and I had our radio alarm set to play a local Christian station each weekday morning. David Jeremiah’s show was just coming on when the alarm went off. So, I heard a lot of his sermons, although a number of them were during an early morning sleep fog. Jeremiah is another one of those preachers that seem very confident in their message. However, it seemed to me that he often embellished the Biblical text with made up information. I was surprised when I was talking to the preacher at my wife’s church and discovered that he didn’t care for Jeremiah very much because of those embellishments.

Another TV evangelist worth mentioning is Peter Popoff. I never watched him on TV. In fact, I had never heard of him until I read James Randi’s book “Flim Flam”. James Randi is a magician (stage name of The Amazing Randi) who has spent a large portion of his life exposing frauds who claim they have some sort of supernatural or mystical powers. In fact, Randi has for many years offered a large sum of money to anyone who can demonstrate special powers without him being able to spot the trickery being used. So far no one has collected. Back in 1986, Randi set out to expose Peter Popoff. It seemed that Popoff had the ability to walk through an audience and tell people information about themselves including what ailments they had. Randi suspected that Popoff’s wife and the ushers were gathering information before a show and feeding it to Popoff via a transmitter. Randi was able to find the frequency they used and recorded what Popoff’s wife was saying to her husband. He later combined that recording with the video of the show so that anyone could see how he was using his wife’s information when speaking to audience members. Randi then appeared on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson and showed the merged video and audio.  Sixteen months later Popoff declared bankruptcy. Don’t you just love stories like that? But it seems that no matter how many of these shysters get exposed there are people willing to fall for yet another one. In many cases the ones who have been exposed make a comeback. Simply unbelievable.

One TV evangelist that I used to really enjoy was John Ankerberg. He was usually quite controversial, exposing what he considered to be fraudulent Christian teachers and groups. After I married Kathy I discovered that my father-in-law didn’t like Ankerberg at all. Why? Because Ankerberg was vehemently anti-Mason. I saw one of his shows where he exposed the supposed pagan rituals the Masons engaged in. But you see, my father-in-law was a Mason. And later one of his sons, my brother-in-law, became a Mason, and even became the Master of his local lodge. I was at the ceremony where he was inducted. So, here was yet once again an example of two people having a radically different view of what is Christian and what is not. Disconcerting to say the least.

I guess the most famous and most revered of the TV evangelists is Billy Graham. Who hasn’t seen one of his crusades on TV with George Beverly Shea singing “How Great Thou Art”, Cliff Barrows belting out tunes, Billy preaching the Gospel, and “Just As I Am” being sung as thousands of people made their way to the stage from far away seats? Graham is one of those rare people who were able to reach icon status in his field of endeavor. And he’s one of those clean honest guys that break the stereotypical mold of the greedy crooked evangelist that preys on the gullible.

Thursday, February 12, 2015

First Contact – Part 19 – Objectivism

Hal and I shared an office and lab in graduate school. One day the topic of Social Security came up. Hal said, “I don’t like Social Security.”

I was dumbfounded. How could anyone be opposed to a program to help old people? (Well, old to me then, but now not so much.) My father was a big fan of the program, having told me how many older people had a tough time before Social Security.

I queried Hal. “Why?”

“Because of that first word in its name: Social.”

“Why are you against Social?”

“Because of what it represents. It’s a government mandated program of wealth transfer from the young to the old. I don’t like socialism.”

Well, I was opposed to socialism also because I associated it with communism. I had just never thought of Social Security as being a socialistic program. The reason was that I just didn’t think about such things very much in those days. I knew I lived in a free democratic republic with a capitalistic economy that didn’t believe in socialism. How could our country have a national socialistic program when it didn’t even believe in socialism?

This short exchange of words with my friend Hal made me realize that I couldn’t just assume certain things were true. I needed to analyze and decide for myself what was actually true.

A few years after becoming a Christian, I met a fellow believer named Larry who was heavily involved in what I call the Freedom Movement. He challenged not only Social Security, but also things like the fractional reserve banking system that is ubiquitous throughout our nation. To help me understand freedom more, Larry gave me a copy of a small book entitled “The Law” by a 19th century French assemblyman, political economist, and classical liberal theorist by the name of Frédéric Basiat. I loved it. It laid out the case for freedom and a limited government in a very convincing way. After seeing my enthusiasm for “The Law”, Larry convinced me to share in the cost of 100 copies to give away to our friends and family. Thus began my mission to spread the idea of real freedom to the world.

Reading “The Law” whetted my appetite for more freedom literature. Somewhere I ran across the name Ayn Rand. It sounded familiar, but I couldn’t quite place where I had heard it. After reading about her novels, I thought I remembered having read one. I pulled out my old paperback books and discovered that I actually had a copy of Ayn’s novella “Anthem”. I immediately reread it. The book is about a dystopian future where people have reverted to living primitively, and new technology is severely limited. I was a fan of dystopian future novels, having also read George Orwell’s “1984” and Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World”, as well as haven seen the movies “THX 1138” and “Logan’s Run”.

Upon reading “Anthem” I decided I wanted to read some of Ayn Rand’s non-fiction. The first book I purchased was “The Voice of Reason”. It was a collection of essays by Ayn Rand and her protégé Leonard Peikoff. I soon discovered that she was not just a writer, but also a philosopher, having developed her own secular philosophy called Objectivism. Much of what I read in that book hit home with me. It was as if the writers had plucked my unorganized thoughts on the subject of freedom from my brain, logically reordered them, and then edited them for clarity. I was astounded; so much so I started buying more and more books on Objectivism and actually became an adherent. I read more of Rand’s non-fiction and fiction books including her magnus opus “Atlas Shrugged”.

I began sharing some of Ayn Rand’s ideas with a friend of mine from work named Mike. Interestingly, I considered myself a conservative while Mike considered himself a liberal. Yet Rand’s ideas changed us both into Objectivists. We did not agree with everything Rand taught, but in its essentials, we both agreed with the principles of Objectivism.

In case you are unfamiliar with Objectivism, I will present a short synopsis. Ayn Rand was once asked to define her philosophy on one leg, meaning in as few words as possible. She answered this way, “In Metaphysics, Objective Reality. In Epistemology, Reason. In Ethics, Self-Interest. In Politics, Capitalism.” Her expanded explanation was this:

1. Reality exists as an objective absolute—facts are facts, independent of man’s feelings, wishes, hopes or fears.

2. Reason (the faculty which identifies and integrates the material provided by man’s senses) is man’s only means of perceiving reality, his only source of knowledge, his only guide to action, and his basic means of survival.

3. Man—every man—is an end in himself, not the means to the ends of others. He must exist for his own sake, neither sacrificing himself to others nor sacrificing others to himself. The pursuit of his own rational self-interest and of his own happiness is the highest moral purpose of his life.

4. The ideal political-economic system is laissez-faire capitalism. It is a system where men deal with one another, not as victims and executioners, nor as masters and slaves, but as traders, by free, voluntary exchange to mutual benefit. It is a system where no man may obtain any values from others by resorting to physical force, and no man may initiate the use of physical force against others. The government acts only as a policeman that protects man’s rights; it uses physical force only in retaliation and only against those who initiate its use, such as criminals or foreign invaders. In a system of full capitalism, there should be (but, historically, has not yet been) a complete separation of state and economics, in the same way and for the same reasons as the separation of state and church.

Most people don’t have a problem with number 1. We understand that the Universe exists apart from ourselves and operates independent of our wishes and desires. We have to learn to work with it to be successful.

Most people agree with number 2 except for the part that says that reason is man’s only means to knowledge. Everyone gains knowledge by reasoning about their observations of the world around them. However, religious people also believe that one type of knowledge, spiritual knowledge, comes by revelation, which is a direct transfer of knowledge from God or the spiritual realm to men’s minds.

The great majority of people live by number 3, but a large number of them don’t seem to like it and perhaps even deny it. Many people have an altruistic mindset, believing we should put others before ourselves. But if you examine those people’s lives, the vast majority will be found coming up short. Most people are generous and want to help others in need, but the people they help the most are themselves and their immediate families. Rand simply recognized that fact and said there was nothing wrong with it. In fact, it was a good and moral thing. And even if you have an altruistic bent, remember the emergency instructions given by flight attendants on a plane. Put the mask over your own face first so you will be in a better position to put the mask over your child’s face.

Number 4 is a whole other matter. It seems that most people have a big problem with pure capitalism. I admit that I have a bit of a problem with it also. But I also understand that if implemented properly, it truly is the only moral political system. That is because it is a completely voluntary system. Businesses are allowed to freely create their products and potential customers are allowed to freely decide whether they want to purchase them or not. In other political systems, like socialism or fascism, force is used. This typically manifests itself as the government telling businesses how to operate and telling customers what they can and cannot buy, or even what they must buy.

Yet, to have a pure capitalist society requires a huge majority of good and moral people in leadership positions both in the businesses and in the government. Otherwise, corruption occurs. Businesses support candidates in their election bids, and in return the winning candidate skews the laws in favor of the supporting business. It may be for this reason that an economics professor I had in college said, “Capitalist systems never last. They always ultimately lead to communism.”

Anyway, as I said, I came to consider myself an Objectivist, and so did my friend Mike. Later we discovered that a lady that worked with us, Susanna, and her husband Charles, were Objectivists. Or rather, they discovered we were Objectivists. Charles and Susanna invited Mike and me and our spouses to dinner to discuss our beliefs. It was interesting to find out that Charles and Susanna had been heavily involved in the early years of the Objectivist movement, having gotten training, I believe by audio tape, from Ayn Rand and her original protégé Nathaniel Branden.

At a later date Charles and Susanna invited several Objectivist friends from around the country to our corner of Alabama for a party. When I found out that one of my favorite Objectivist authors, Robert Bidinotto, was going to be there, I knew I had to attend.

It was quite an interesting evening, but started out badly. It had been raining heavily that day, so when I arrived there were pools of water and mud in the yard. I got out of my car and headed towards the cabin, carefully avoiding the muddy areas. Suddenly I noticed a big dog heading straight towards me, and from the look in his eyes I knew he wanted to greet me by pouncing on me. I couldn’t let that happen given his muddy paws and all. When he got close, I raised my leg and swiped at him yelling, “Get away!” Well, he did indeed get away, but my knee popped out of joint and I plummeted to the ground. Great! Just great! My knee quickly self-corrected, but I was in pain. Nonetheless, I picked myself up and hobbled to the cabin; wet muddy clothes and all.  I explained to my hosts what had happened, and they showed me the bathroom where I could tidy up as much as possible. During the party my knee pain subsided some allowing me to have a good time. I was excited to meet Robert. I had taken some of his articles with me to be autographed.

Objectivism has seen some rocky roads along its way. Early in the movement large numbers of people became interested in it. Nathaniel Branden even established an institute for the study of Rand’s new philosophy. However, as is often the case, the philosophers don’t always follow their own philosophy. Ayn Rand had an affair with her protégé Nathaniel which ultimately led to a big split between the two. Rand seemed to become more dogmatic about her beliefs over time even though she originally said that her philosophy was about individualism, thus requiring each individual to draw philosophical conclusions on his own.

In 1985, three years after Ayn Rand’s death, the Ayn Rand Institute was established by her philosophical heir Leonard Peikoff to carry forward Rand’s philosophy of Objectivism. In 1990, philosopher David Kelley had a falling out with the Ayn Rand Institute over whether or not the philosophy was an open or closed system. Kelley believed Objectivism should be open, meaning that it should be willing to change as new information became available. Peikoff, on the other hand, believed that the philosophy was closed and that any changes made to the Objectivism that Rand had laid out would necessarily have to be considered a different philosophy and should not be called Objectivism. Kelley went on to form a new group named the Institute for Objectivist Studies. It is now known as The Atlas Society.

Yet, despite all the turmoil in the Objectivist community, Rand has continued to influence many people with her ideas. Her novel “Atlas Shrugged” still sells well today almost 60 years after its release. In recent years a three part movie of “Atlas Shrugged” was produced. It did not do very well at the box office, but I saw all three and thought they were well done and captured the essence of the novel quite well.

Back in 1988 I began writing some philosophical articles of my own and continued to do so for many years. None were published until 1997. At that time a group called The Objectivist Club of Michigan published a well known newsletter entitled “Full Context: An International Objectivist Publication”. I submitted one of my articles and it was published in their December 1997 issue. I had two other articles published in this name newsletter in 1998 and 2000. You can read them along with other unpublished articles on my personal Web site. The published articles were “Virtues and Meta-Values”, “The Truman Show: A Review”, and “Truth and Happiness”.

Most of my philosophical articles were serious in nature. However, my life has always been a balance of serious and humorous. In fact, as much as I enjoy a serious discussion, I think I would go nuts without my humorous side. So, to balance out my serious philosophical articles, I wrote a humorous philosophical book entitled “Beginnings to Endings: Philosophical Ramblings for Avoiding Global Destruction”. It was initially published as a paperback book in 2001, but was also released as a Kindle book in 2011.

While I continue to agree with Objectivism to a great extent, over time I have become a bit jaded. There seem to be too many people in the world who simply don’t want to be free. Perhaps it is because freedom is hard work. In a free society you are on your own. You must provide for your own welfare or convince others to help you out. Sure, there will be volunteer groups to help the less fortunate, but most people seem to believe that those would not be enough. They believe the government must step in to fill the gap. But government uses force to accomplish its mission. To fund its programs, it forces citizens to turn over their earnings via taxes. It heavily regulates businesses. It tells citizens what they can, cannot, and must do. It colludes with businesses, passing laws that benefit some and hurt others. And on and on it goes. Coercion is the name of the game.

So, yes, my hopes that our world might move more towards reason and freedom have been greatly dashed. Of course the occasional ray of sunshine burns through, but I despair that there will be a mighty movement in that direction. But alas, I am getting older now. I suppose I will leave these matters to the next generation.

In closing I would like to present an interesting fact. I was born on February 2, 1955. Ayn Rand was born on February 2, 1905, exactly 50 years before me. Also, notice that the name Ayn Rand can be created with just the letters in my first name (if the “a” and “n” are used twice). I’m sure there is some type of mystical connection here, but after many years of searching I still don’t know what it is.

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

First Contact – Part 18 – Atheism

Growing up I was surrounded by family and friends that were Christians of one sort or another. Well, at least I think I was. There might have been a few nonbelievers amongst them who were afraid to come out of the closet for fear of retribution. Even my Uncle JD, my mom’s brother, believed in God despite not living like it. I can recall him saying to me when I was a teenager, “I’m going to hell.” I was taken aback and asked him why. He said, “Well, everyone knows the Bible is true, but I don’t live by it. So, I’m going to hell.” I queried him as to why he wouldn’t live by it if he really believed it was true and thought he was going to hell. He responded simply, “Because I don’t want to.”

As a young person I was somewhat fearful of atheists. I think it was because I associated anyone who was opposed to God as a supporter of Satan. However, when I got older I came to realize that atheism simply meant not believing in God. It didn’t mean the person was a follower of Satan. In fact, most atheists are in reality asupernatural, meaning they don’t believe in any supernatural beings, including Satan.

Speaking of Satan, as an adult I decided to read the definitive book on Satanism by Anton LaVey, “The Satanic Bible”. As it turns out, LaVey’s brand of Satanism doesn’t even believe in Satan. They just believe that Satan best personifies man’s true nature, that of a carnal beast. They celebrate that rather than condemn it. I can remember sitting in the upstairs bedroom of my in-laws house reading “The Satanic Bible”. Suddenly a thunderstorm came up with high winds, bright flashes of lightning, and booming thunder. I became a bit fearful, thinking that God was letting me know I shouldn’t be reading that book. But deep down I knew it was just a coincidence. The storm passed quickly and I continued to read the book without incident.

I suppose my first true brush with atheism was when I began reading books by Ayn Rand. Ayn was the founder of a philosophy known as Objectivism (which I will cover in my next post) and a declared atheist. However, she was not like many of the so-called militant atheists that wanted to deconvert the religious world. She just considered atheism to be a default belief given the lack of evidence for God. Her primary thrust was to develop a philosophy of life that was suitable to mankind.

Upon becoming more comfortable with the idea of atheism, I began reading other books by atheists such as Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, David Mills, Robert Ingersoll, Paul Kurtz, and others. But there was one book I read that really struck me. It was “Losing Faith in Faith” by Dan Barker. Dan was a preacher of the Gospel for 19 years, but eventually came to believe that the Bible was not the Word of God. His story concerning his transition was very similar to mine. However, his transition was much more difficult than mine since his whole life and livelihood was wrapped up in the Christian world. His change cost him his job, a number of friends, and his marriage. He later married Annie Laurie Gaylor, whose mother had founded the Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF). Currently Dan and Annie Laurie are co-presidents of the FFRF.

I mentioned in my previous First Contact post that my former Email pal, Rachel Ramer, sent me a copy of “Finding Faith” by Brian McLaren for Christmas 2000. Well, I sent Rachel a copy of “Losing Faith in Faith” by Dan Barker that same Christmas. Just as I opened an Email dialog with Brian, I also opened an Email dialog with Dan. I soon discovered that Dan was going to be debating Rubel Shelly at the upcoming Atheist Alliance convention on Easter weekend in Atlanta, Georgia. At that time Rubel Shelly was the preacher at Woodmont Hills in Nashville, Tennessee, which was originally known as the Woodmont Hills Church of Christ. I knew I had to attend this convention. I informed Dan that I would be there and we arranged a time on Easter Sunday morning to get together for a private conversation.

On my solo drive to Atlanta, I was delayed by a bad wreck on the Interstate. I barely made it to the opening dinner on time. The entire weekend was very fascinating. I recall a conversation I had with a man at the opening dinner. I informed him that I was not an atheist, but rather an agnostic. In other words, I wasn’t convinced there was no God, but I also wasn’t convinced there was one either. The man asked why I thought there might be a God. I told him that one thing was the existence of the Universe. Science teaches that the Universe had a beginning and apparently will have an end. Yet, we cannot account for how this vast Universe could have come into existence from nothing. The man responded that there were some exciting advances in the field of cosmology that could potentially explain how this could have happened. I told him that made no sense to me.

He said, “Well, you see, there were these zero fields…”

I interrupted. “Wait. You have already violated your premise that everything started from nothing.”

He countered, “No, you see, these were ZERO fields.”

I responded, “I don’t care what kind of fields they were. They were something. Nothing means no mass, no energy, no fields of any kind, no potentials, no laws, and not even any space or time. Nada! Nothing!”

Anyway, the conversation never really went anywhere. We each had differing views about what constitutes NOTHING.

Another memorable event was one of the breakout talks by an atheist who was somewhat of an activist in that he was willing to challenge religious people to public debates. He told of one debate he had with a preacher. The preacher, speaking on the topic of the importance of Jesus from a moral standpoint, said, “If it weren’t for Jesus, I might cheat on my wife.”

The atheist responded, “So you are saying that you would be willing to have an affair if you didn’t follow Jesus?”

“Yes, I might.”

“Personally, I don’t cheat on my wife because I love her.”

Excellent point.

Many more interesting talks and conversations ensued. The highlight, of course, was the debate between Dan Barker and Rubel Shelly. The host for the debate was from Alabama and was quite the comedian. Throughout the debate he was interjecting bits of humor that cracked me up. Here's one example. Dan told the story of talking to his parents after converting to atheism. They asked him to fly back to California to talk to them about it. After Dan finished, the host said that after he became an atheist his parents asked him to fly to California also, but his parents were in Alabama at the time.

One person who spoke before the debate really made me think. He said that a Christian once asked him, “What is it like not believing in God?” The atheist responded, “I assume you know what it’s like not believing in Zeus, correct? Well, it’s like that. You see, you and I are not that different. There are thousands of Gods that people have believed in that you don’t believe in. Well, I just believe in one less than you do.” I had not looked at it like that before. Everyone is an atheist as concerns all Gods except their own.

The audience was asked to submit one question for each debater beforehand on an index card. My question to Dan was, “What would it take for you to become a believer in the Bible once again?” My question to Rubel was, “What would it take for you to give up your belief in the Bible?” Surprisingly, both my questions were presented to the debaters.

Dan’s answer was something like this, “Well, if the Bible had some precise predictions about the future such as ‘On August 15, 2001, at noon, a meteor will strike the Holiday Inn in downtown Philadelphia’, and then it actually happened, that would really get my attention.” Me too, Dan. Me too.

Rubel’s answer was something like this, “If someone could point out an obvious irrefutable contradiction in the Bible, that would give me pause.” I seriously doubted this statement. There are contradictions in the Bible, but there seems to always be a way to rationalize them such that they disappear. For example, talking about the same point in history, 2 Samuel 24:1 says, “Again the anger of the Lord burned against Israel, and he incited David against them, saying, ‘Go and take a census of Israel and Judah.’”, and 1 Chronicles 21:1 says, “Satan rose up against Israel and incited David to take a census of Israel.” You can’t get much more contradictory than to have one person claim that God did something while another person claims that Satan did it. Yet, these types of contradictions get explained away all the time. For a New Testament example, see one of my earlier posts.

On the Sunday morning after the debate I met with Dan Barker as planned. I got him to sign my copy of his book “Losing Faith in Faith” and gave him a copy of my book “Beginnings to Endings”. We had a nice conversation about a number of different topics.

So where do I currently stand on the issue of atheism? Well, pretty much where I stood almost 30 years ago upon my deconversion. I’m a theistic-leaning agnostic. I don’t know one way or the other whether God exists, but a number of things about the Universe lead me to think that some kind of power beyond our natural realm must exist. But then again, it may be that we just simply don’t understand enough about the cosmos to at this point in time to provide natural answers to our questions. After all, at one time people thought lightning was caused by angry Gods, but upon learning more about it, we discovered there was a perfectly natural explanation that did not require even one God.

One thing that bothers me about some atheists is the way they talk about religious people. They make fun of them and say things that basically boil down to, “How can anyone be so stupid as to believe in the existence of a God?”  But I have also met Christians that talk about atheists in such a way as to basically boil down to, “How can anyone be so stupid as to not believe in the existence of a God?” Rubel Shelly mentioned during the debate that one thing that broke his heart while attending some of the breakout sessions was the derogatory way some of the attendees talked about Christians. But, he also said that he was aware of Christians that spoke in a similar way about atheists. He said that that animosity between Christians and atheists broke his heart because he felt it hampered conversation between the two groups. I suppose his willingness to miss Easter weekend with his church to attend a meeting of atheists was his attempt at trying to break through that barrier.

I have observed both sides of the fence I straddle, being involved with both atheists and Christians. In reality all these people have much more in common than not. Both atheists and theists have hopes and aspirations, find meaning in their work and families and friends, watch TV and go to movie theaters, read books, eat food, breathe air, go to school, play and watch sports, and so on. In other words, we are all human. If it weren’t for these common human traits and our willingness to concentrate on these rather than our differences, I suppose my wife’s and my marriage would not have lasted after my deconversion. But, my personal experience tells me that if we can look past our differences and see our common human desires and even foibles, we can still love one another. The trouble begins when we start viewing “others” as being sub-human for one reason or another.

One day after my change to agnosticism my wife told me that one of the things that bothered her about my new beliefs was that I must no longer consider her to be a rational person as far as her Christian beliefs went.

I said, “You are correct, I do consider your belief that the Bible is the Word of God to be irrational. But overall I know you are a rational person. You have to be to be a math teacher. But I also don’t think you would believe anything that you thought was irrational. Therefore, you must think that I am irrational for being an unbeliever.”

She thought about it a bit and said, “Yes, I guess that’s true.”

Here's the way I look at it. We are all humans, which mean we are not omniscient. We are all struggling to make sense of our existence in this vast Universe we find ourselves a part of. Our DNAs are different. Our brains are different. We have all had different experiences that have influenced the way we think about things and how we understand the world around us. Let’s give each other the benefit of a doubt when we find ourselves disagreeing over something. In other words, let’s recognize each other’s humanity rather than demonizing each other.

Sunday, February 1, 2015

First Contact – Part 17 – Community Church

If you travel much at all, you have probably seen many Community Churches in different locations. I often wondered what exactly the name meant. Apparently, these churches are often a collection of Christians from many other denominations that felt that their churches were not sufficiently reaching out and meeting the needs of their local community. These people often come together to form a new church – a community church – with a mission to reach out to their community.

The first time I visited a Community Church was in Maryland. How I ended up there is an interesting story.

Perhaps you have heard of The Bible Answer Man. This is a radio program hosted by Hank Hanegraaff. You may know Hank from the many books he has written. Hank is also known for his ministry, The Christian Research Institute. This group publishes a magazine called Christian Research Journal. I used to purchase this magazine occasionally at our local LifeWay store. In Volume 22 Number 3 there was an article written by a lady named Rachel Ramer. I wrote a letter to the editor about this article and surprisingly received a response from the author. I then responded to her response. This led to Rachel and me exchanging Emails over the course of about a year, discussing many Biblical topics. Rachel lived in Indiana, and for a while I worked on a project near her hometown. During one of my trips I was able to meet her in person over dinner.

For Christmas 2000, Rachel mailed me a copy of a book that she really liked and asked that I read it. The book was Finding Faith by Brian McLaren. After reading the book I exchanged a few Emails with the author. At that time Brian was the pastor of Cedar Ridge Community Church in Spencerville, Maryland. In fact, he was the founding pastor.

In the summer of 2001 my employer sent me to Rockville, Maryland, to attend a week long class. When I found out that Spencerville was just a short distance from my hotel, I contacted Brian and told him we would be at his church the Sunday morning after my class was over. We made arrangements to have lunch together afterwards.

All went according to plan. Kathy, Andrew, and I went to the church. We attended a Sunday School class and then the worship service. Brian spoke on the topic of the Apostles’ Creed. After the service was over, we met up with Brian. As it turned out his wife and kids were out of town for various reasons. So, it was just him joining us for lunch. He told us how to get to a Mexican restaurant he liked, and we followed him there.

At lunch we talked about family, Christianity, and his book Finding Faith. I had my copy for him to autograph. I also gave him an autographed copy of my first book (the only one I had written at the time), Beginnings to Endings. The lunch and conversation were quite enjoyable.

Over time, Brian wrote more books and became more involved with leaders and churches from around the world. This led him to leave his pastoral ministry at the church and become, according to some, a leader in the Emerging Church. Brian has become a somewhat controversial person in the Christian community. Some really like his ideas, but others think he has gotten off the Biblical track and more into what some call the social gospel. You can see what he is currently up to on his Web site.

To me, the Cedar Ridge Community Church seemed very typical of an evangelical church. Of course, it’s hard to gain a complete understanding of what a church is all about with just one visit.

If you’d like to read a more complete story about Rachel Ramer’s and my Email exchanges, you can read it in an earlier post. A famous atheist is involved.