Not long ago—perhaps ten months—my therapist handed me a book called “Came to Believe: A Guide to the Second Step” by Chet Meyers. The book refers to the Second Step of Alcoholics Anonymous (and other 12-Step programs). For those of you not familiar with the paradigm, the way it works is this. First you admit you’re powerless, that you’ve messed up your life beyond all recognition. It’s only once you’re pretty much completely broken that you can genuinely seek help.
To get an idea of what I’m talking about, check out this video of Rob Bell speaking at Vanderbilt University about his book What We Talk About When We Talk About God. The part you’re looking for is at 52:30, and runs for maybe 3 or 5 minutes (the entire thing is worth listening to, by the way).
What Rob Bell is talking about is a fairly simple concept that AA and other 12 Step programs figured out a long time ago. The place to find God isn’t at the pulpit, it’s amongst the completely broken.
In other words, amongst people like me.
Which takes me back to Chet Meyers’s book. One of the very first exercises in the book is very simple. It instructed me to draw a picture of my earliest conception of God. Here’s what I came up with:
My earliest conception of God was angry. This wasn’t just interesting to me, it was almost a revelation. Because no matter what your religion (or lack thereof) your beliefs about … life, the universe and everything, I guess … shapes what you do. It shapes decisions. It shapes values.
The God I had somehow come to understand was angry and vengeful. It was all about hell, who was going to hell, staying out of hell, punishment, fire, and shame. Shame so powerful that it twisted my perceptions about everything.
I even sort of knew it, though I didn’t. In my short story The Garden my main character’s wife tells him, “You believe in God, but your God is a heartless and cruel one.” I wrote that one when I was in the Saudi Arabian desert in the fall of 1990, roughly a year after I abandoned my time in Jerusalem. Roughly a year after I abandoned my own search for God. That’s what I believed. Because, after all, what sort of God would create untold billions of people, only to throw 99% of them into eternal torment? Not a God I wanted anything to do with. What sort of God would allow millions of children to starve, what sort of God would allow children to be raped or wars to be waged. In my heart, I believed in a God who was disinterested in what happened on earth.
It’s no wonder, really.
My perceptions of Christianity have been shaped by the Westboro Baptist Church.
I’m going to be really honest here. My perceptions of Christianity have been shaped by the Westboro Baptist Church. It’s been shaped by people who condemned people I love and claimed that God hated them too. It’s been shaped by the right-wing politicians who take every opportunity to pull the ladder up behind them. It’s been shaped by people whose idea of evangelism is walking up to complete strangers and telling them that they are going to hell.
Want to foster a culture of shame? Then tell people God hates them. Tell people they’re going to hell if they don’t do this, or don’t believe that.
That’s how you drive people away from God.
I vividly recall the months I spent in Jerusalem after I graduated high school. I worked briefly at the Tabasco Hostel, which was on the Via Dolorosa, and I recall standing in front, selling kebabs to tourists, and watching the crowds of Christian pilgrims walking up the trail. Sometimes the crowds would be led by men carrying huge crosses on their backs. They would stop by the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, which was somehow owned and operated by multiple factions of Christianity which squabbled over both theology and territory within the ancient church. To me, that became representative of religion–groups of people arguing over their own territory, be it spiritual, intellectual or geographical.
There are estimated to be 20,000 and 45,000 different denominations of Christianity alone. That’s not to mention other religions. Which presents a problem for someone who is looking for answers. Who is to say which denomination has the right theology? Churches have split, wars have been fought, people have died all arguing over these different belief systems.
As I’ve presented these questions and searched for answers, one of the most consistent answers I’ve heard and seen is just read the Bible. But even that is problematic. Which Bible? From its conception, the canon, (or official list of books included in the Bible), has been inconsistent. The Eastern church has a slightly different Canon than the Western. Catholics include different books than protestants. And then you get to the problem of translation. Translation of the Bible is often driven by theology, when it really ought to be the other way around. And these aren’t minor quibbles. The differences between Calvinists and Christian Universalists turn around the translation of a very few words in the New Testament–those few words result in dramatically different theology. And the differences between those people who believe in literal interpretation of the Bible and those who don’t–that makes an even bigger difference.
Translation of the Bible is often driven by theology, when it really ought to be the other way around.
You’re probably wondering where all this is leading to.
You see, at this point I take nothing for granted. I don’t know anything. So what I’m doing is listening. Paying attention to the world around me. Reading. A lot. Because the one thing I do know is that if I’m going to be able to transform my life, I can’t just depend on me. I need to lean on God. But I can’t lean on a God who hates me. I can’t lean on a God who is all about shame.
So what I’m doing is praying. For the first time in my life, I’m doing it consistently. That’s new–because until 2013, the last time I prayed was February 24, 1991–the day my unit crossed the border into Iraq. And I’m asking for guidance and strength, basically. I don’t really believe God can be waved around like a magic wand, granting wishes to people if only they are faithful enough or do enough good or believe the right things.
But I do believe that for me, it is a life and death matter to come to some kind of relationship with the divine. I’ve killed people. I’ve lied. I’ve struggled with sexual compulsion, with compulsive spending, with lies and secrets. I’ve done things which shrouded my life in shame. And I cannot live that way any more.
So God it is. I’m trying to dispel that image of the angry faced God and replace it with something real. Instead of asking people what they think of God, I’m asking God what he thinks about people.
So there it is… stay tuned.