Suspension of Disbelief

You can read in the Bible where it says ‘The fool says in his heart there is no God.’ There is another kind of fool that says, ‘There is a God, and it’s the one I worship.’

~Joseph Campbell, Lecture Series I.5.4 – History of the Gods

 

We practice something when we watch a movie called suspension of disbelief. We accept the storyteller’s concocted premise–mutants, superheroes, aliens–and sit back to enjoy the ride. Rules of logic and physics, generally speaking, need not apply. I contend in many respects that is what faith is–suspension of disbelief. For, while in practice one doesn’t, generally speaking, believe in talking animals or a staff turning into a snake, throw a talking ass or such into an ancient tome and then it becomes quite real. Where one would be inclined to scoff and doubt, and often use their reasoning capacity to demolish other faiths and miracles outside their preferred book, when it comes to their own it’s the exception. A miracle. A more creative person might claim some of that other stuff happened, but it was of the devil or evil spirits, not a  holy godly miracle. Each person has their personal line of incredulity.

Of course believers would never blindly accept their faith. They may not have *proof* in a scientific sense, but they do often have intricately woven theses to support their belief, and there’s just no way their book, the universe, and all just came together in this perfect way without their belief being true. Where once the movie is over, and perhaps we’ve taken away a poignant point or understanding if it was particularly moving, we return to our reality, faith keeps going. The church isn’t content to teach a metaphorical lesson. No, it grabs you from cradle to grave, its own nanny state (and please pay your 10%–or more if the spirit moves you). It is dogma. Thus Christians have all sorts of hoops to jump through in order to harmonize the four irreconcilable gospels accounts, Mormons get a pre-Jesus “lost” tribe of Israel over to the Americas (where also lies the Garden of Eden, in my home state of MO as a matter of fact. I never knew I was so close to paradise), Muslims insist the Quaran predicts and “verifies” modern science, and Jehovah’s Witnesses just have to keep on explaining why the world didn’t end with their previous predictions.
Life wasn’t always this hard for these institutions. Before this age of information explosion, before the printing press, the supplicant was left at the mercy of the priest/shaman/witch doctor. It was a hell of a lot easier on the spiritual leaders to keep people in accordance when most everybody couldn’t read and they were the only ones with insight into the mystery. Ah, yes, the good ‘ol days.
No, a simple “because I said so” just doesn’t go as far in the metaphysical as it did back when. Religious leaders must be more circumspect than ever. But religion has never been a purely logical thing, and church services intuitively know this. Logic has little to do with one’s initial acceptance of the divine. They’ll serve a pitch framed within a reasonable sounding hypothesis, but there is always, always, an emotional reach around. They are going to tap into something, be it guilt, hate, regret–something. Else why follow? I’ve seen this change culturally from my youth, as many Christian services have grown from relatively simplistic affairs to full blown productions and “mega” churches.
One of the last church services I attended was Andy Stanley’s North Point Church in Alpharetta, GA. It’s aimed at a younger, thirty-something crowd in general terms, because marketing to the elder generation isn’t what keeps churches alive. This church beams its service into downtown Atlanta’s affluent Buckhead area by satellite, and those attending who were unfamiliar with the production sometimes wouldn’t even realize Andy wasn’t in the building. Its warm-up service is a praise and worship band worthy of recording (and was). They use video from modern movies on huge screens and other thematic elements to try and connect a 2000 year old book with today’s audience. Andy dressed casually in jeans and shirt. Energy is high. And while the speaker was not always Andy, they all shared this in common: they were excellent at delivering their lines. It is a production. It’s about hitting your marks to make an impact, just like an actor in a movie. (At a John Maxwell conference once, I heard some of his staff talk during one of John’s speeches about “and hear comes the tears.”) It is entertaining. Hell, I’d go back. I don’t see any religious epiphany coming my way, but I love it when my theology is entertaining, too. And after you’ve been made to feel good, or feel whatever it is you may need, it’s a lot easier to suspend that disbelief. I’m not saying that all of these people like Andy are insincere, but I am saying it is contrived. It’s designed and rehearsed. They’re going to tug at the heart strings, and failing that, some may resort to fear (once upon a time fear was the go to tactic, but less so in this modern era). Because church isn’t about logic and reason, it’s about feelings.
That’s a high dollar, slick production North Point has going. Or had. It’s been years since I was there, but I assume it proceeds apace. But the basic principles don’t change at your smaller churches. It was no different for me as a child in my small town Southern Baptist church. Most every service ends with a call to come forward and give yourself to Jesus and I guarantee the music they play during this final come-to-god moment is not anything upbeat. As I recall a church favorite in my church was “Just As I Am.” You know, one of those songs that makes you feel sad, pathetic and embattled with the world as you listen but hey, god still loves you. Without this emotional musical lift, most people would just stand there and not move. Music is a powerful, wonderful tool. What you listen to changes the way you think. It can throw you into another state. The point being that logic and reason has less to do with it than this emotional grab. The trick is maintaining that grab. That’s hard and getting harder. And while I speak about Christianity, because those are my roots and familiarity, the tool works across the board. We’re all people, after all. The emotional grab may not always use music. I imagine in some cultures what they utilize is quite angry and brutal. The believer is then faced with the continual struggle of maintaining that emotional commitment, and the arduous road of rationalizing and keeping the loose strings tied together in the face of self doubt and criticism. That’s when reason steps in attempt to justify belief. It’s a solid axiom and true: belief precedes reason.
The explosion of information and education has resulted in another phenomenon–lots of individual ‘experts.’ What the church at large once feared became even more of a reality. Any twit can take an idea or concept from the Bible and have a heyday with it. Somebody is bound to fall in line with you if you’re charismatic enough. People look for answers, and belief is how many reconcile their existence with the universe. We are pattern seeking, looking for that something that will fit with us and make sense of the chaos. Generally speaking, that’s going to be the religion of the culture in which you were raised. For instance, not too many Buddhists or Islamists came out of my small, rural MO home town. Belief, getting to the heart of it, the absolute core, is not, can not, be based on anything substantial or real. It’s based on what feels good/right to the person, what’s pressed upon them from family and friends to conform, with circumstantial evidence at best used to weave a background no more real than the backgrounds that get inserted onto a blue screen for your kid’s school pic. It’s suspension of disbelief in favor of something perceived to be better, to give meaning and purpose. There’s nothing mysterious at all about it. But because it feels “true in the heart” doesn’t mean it’s true outside the heart. Happiness and feelings aren’t truth meters. It’s just what people often respond to the most.

Advertisements

Sending Up Prayers

He hoped and prayed that there wasn’t an afterlife. Then he realized there was a contradiction involved here and merely hoped that there wasn’t an afterlife. ~Douglas Adams, Life, The Universe, and Everything

One of the mainstays of Christian faith is prayer, which is an admixture of meditation, wishful favor seeking, and port in a storm.
Does God always answer prayer? No. Do Christians seem to pray about most everything? Yes. Are there alternative explanations from distorted memory (research shows everybody’s brain alters their recollection of events) to lack of knowledge? Yes. God is often just a god of What are the Odds of That?? Sending up and interpreting answers to prayer is a bit like finding personal meaning in your horoscope.
A person’s response to prayer is invariably a form of equivocation. When prayer isn’t answered, it’s because one didn’t wait, or waited too long, or the petitioner did it “my way” and not God’s way. Or one asked for the wrong thing, it wasn’t God’s timing, or God had something better planned. Or, when it really gets ugly, God is just mysterious that way and you’ll have to wait until you get to heaven to find out the reason why that infant died, or your spouse succumbed to brain cancer at 24 years old. Just trust it was the Right Thing. God never screws up; it’s all part of The Plan. And, of course, you can never show something isn’t part of The Plan. There is nothing reliable here, there are only the rationalizations that make us comfortable.

And by logical extension, if God intervenes and answers prayer for some, by definition he ignores others. Christians pray for children to be born safe and with all their fingers and toes. But miscarriage is a thing, even for the faithful. This seems like something God should deliver on, given all the pro-life argumentation. But it’s not like God was beneath taking a child sacrifice, even one made foolishly. When Jephthah says, “Hey, if you’ll just deliver the enemy into my hands, I’ll sacrifice the first thing that walks out of my house as a burnt offering to you when I get back,” God has nothing to say about that thing being his daughter (Judges 11:31). God doesn’t step out and say, “Well, I hope you’ve learned your lesson. You shouldn’t promise stupid shit.” I’m aware of the alternative interpretation here, that Jephthah’s daughter was merely “set aside” and could never marry or know a man, but the surrounding text and reactions sound more serious than that. But even grant that for a moment. “Sorry, sweety. See, daddy said something idiotic, and now you get to pay for it by never getting to marry or be with your family. Real sorry.” Nor is God above visiting the sins of the father upon their children because, you know, God is just that way. There is nothing about any of this that we, today, would consider moral. I mean, it’s a great story, fitting for the age and culture that put it to scroll. We don’t do that because it’s barbaric. On the other hand, we do have parents who refuse their children medical care because of the bible’s promise of healing in answer to prayer.

Prayer seems to serves two practical functions in time of crisis–to let those who can’t do anything believe they are helping, and to let those who can do something do nothing while thinking they are (although I find the former more prevalent). Regardless, the efficacy of prayer in either instance is no better than hoping for the best. A Harvard prayer study, the largest conducted, found no correlation between intercessory prayer and recovery after coronary surgery, and other studies have followed the same vein. If there is no reliable, consistent measure from throwing prayer up to the Cloud Overlord, then how can it be regarded as a trustworthy endeavor? Not only that, how does one differentiate the truth of their “answered prayer” from someone whose prayers were answered by a different god? That’s where faith comes in, one might say. But that’s just the other white meat without evidence.

 

The Power of Evil

 

How come you never see a headline like “Psychic Wins Lottery?” ~Jay Leno

When confidential information leaks out of an organization, people suspect a spy, not a psychic. ~John Allen Paulos, Innumeracy

Here we are back again to continue the examination of some common Christian beliefs, using Paul Hale’s An Ordinary Life, An Extraordinary God: Is Anybody Really Listening? as a sounding board. Here we’ll look at the monsters in the closet.

You see, like many not only is Paul a big God believer, he’s also a genuine believer in the powers of darkness to use mediums, spiritists and so forth. This tends to be a less explored area when it comes to critiques of the Christian religion, but such thinking is not uncommon. For many believers unseen dark forces are all around us, tempting us, and fighting over our very souls. In his book, one of the Hale’s first orders of business upon buying a house was exorcising it with prayer and praise songs, “claiming it for God.” People had been killed in it and stashed in the basement even while they were in the process of purchase, which is one of the more interesting tales in Paul’s book. So it’s understandable that the young couple had a case of the heebie-jeebies going in and wanted to “cleanse” the house. Alas, that is where that tale tapers off, so we’ll move on to Paul’s other tales of the occult.

Paul describes being asked by a co-worker to write what ails him on a card, in his own handwriting, to hand over to some readers at a psychic fair. Paul says he wouldn’t normally play along, but he decides to be ever so gracious and let the all-powerful God of the universe show his hand and work this out for His own purposes, because apparently God needs lots of help and can’t decide to do that on his own. So Paul prays over his card that it will be unreadable or otherwise blocked from the forces of Evil. This serves as a de facto admission by Paul that he believes psychics can tap into forces to perform supernatural acts. Paul did not attend the event where the people tried to ‘sense’ his card, but recounts his co-worker friend phones and says that two people shook while reading it, and declared the person “must be on drugs” or something. Is that evidence of divine protection? Paul, of course, thinks so. Again, as with other tales, Paul is passing along hearsay. He did not witness his card being read, nor can he report on how the readers reacted to any other cards. Was his the only one they shook at? Were all the other card readings 100% dead-bang accurate? Was his coworker friend so cagey not to tip off the psychic “readers?”  Would the readers have reacted differently if Paul had been there? Paul has no way of knowing.

Here’s what we do know: psychic powers and tarot readings and related shenanigans have never been shown to be reliable or scientifically validated. Paul can appreciate science at least some, because he’s tried to use it to corroborate the Genesis account. But, apparently, he doesn’t need it to evaluate what goes on at a psychic fair.

Tarot cards, Ouija boards, and other so-called occult practices are a lot like religion–you get out of it what you put into it. It’s quid pro quo. Want to piss off a professed psychic? Walk in and ask them, “What’s my name?” See, that’s not how the game is played. And like Paul’s rationalization for his God, psychics have their own mumbo jumbo for why this is so. Astrology didn’t work on Paul for the same reasons it won’t work on me. Neither of us are willing to play along, albeit for different reasons. What’s for certain is that you don’t need prayer for psychic powers to not work.

The Dark Powers would never subject themselves to scientific scrutiny, though, now would they? But why not? Because then we would know “evil” was real? Or dangerous? Why would one think that? Given that the goal of Evil/Satan is to pull as many people into hell as possible, wouldn’t subjecting itself to show that it scientifically works–meaning it repeatedly yields positive results in testing–draw even more people into it? It’s a cunning plan that cannot fail. But thus far Evil Powers have been strangely mute under scientific rigor.

Ah….but maybe God suppresses it so it can’t work. Well, wait. Then you’re saying evil only works when God permits it to work, as if God has his finger on the Evil Power light switch turning it on/off. But then that’s really God doing the evil, right? If I have a poisonous spider in a box, then I open the box so it can crawl out and bite you, knowing with perfect certainty that it will bite you, then I’m as culpable as the spider which, after all, is just being a spider.

Paul wasn’t finished with tales of the astrological merry-go-round. Another co-worker, Susan, who rode into work with him was always trying to get him to play along with the Zodiac game, too. But Paul always refused to give her his birthday so she could do a reading. Paul tells her if she can correctly guess his Zodiac sign, he’ll tell her when his birthday is (all the while silently praying she will guess wrong). She tells him, “One thing’s for sure, you’re not a Scorpio!” based on his personality not matching what astrology has to say about this sign. Naturally, that is exactly what Paul is. The co-worker continues to insist that it works, to which Paul replies, “Susan, the question isn’t whether or not it works, the question is why it works.”

Well, hold on here a sec. Why would anyone come out of that encounter thinking astrology works? Weren’t we just offered a first hand account that what astrology has to say about Paul’s personality, according to Susan at least, is way off base? Why is failure to guess Paul’s birth sign left to be assumed as God’s protection, rather than a sign that psychic predictions and other reading is, at best, unreliable? Because that’s not the story Paul wants to tell. He just expects the reader to suspend their disbelief and assume God did it. But Susan didn’t need to tap into any powers to take a stab at Paul’s sign that prayer could shield her from. It was based on the knowledge she already possessed based on her previous astrological study.

If you’d like to learn more about how so-called psychics ply their trade, I recommend reading Psychic Blues: Confessions of a Conflicted Medium by Mark Edward, who was one of the top “psychics” in the business. It’s a good read.

Asking For Proof

 

In science, an observer states his results along with the “probable error”; but who ever heard of a theologian or a politician stating the probable error in his dogmas, or even admitting that any error is conceivable? That is because in science, where we approach nearest to real knowledge, a man can safely rely on the strength of his case, whereas, where nothing is known, blatant assertion and hypnotism are the usual ways of causing others to share our beliefs. If the fundamentalist thought they had a good case against evolution, they would not make the teaching of it illegal. ~Bertrand Russell

This blog entry is the continuation of a series using Paul C. Hale’s book An Ordinary Life, An Extraordinary God as something of a sounding board. Some may wonder why utilize a book written by an obscure, uncredentialed author. For in all probability readers have never heard of Paul Hale, much less read his book. Why not single out the stodgy William Lane Craig or that crazed Kirk Cameron? Those are interesting people, to be sure, but they aren’t the kind of people I encounter on a daily basis. At work, at the store, on Facebook, it’s the Paul C. Hale’s of the world that surround me.

Skeptics often ask for proof, or evidence, and the newbie Christian version of Paul Hale wanted that, too. But his brother was there to steer him right. Paul quotes his brother as saying, “We are not to be as Doubting Thomas, who insisted, ‘I will only believe if I see myself!’ Rather, the apostle Paul tells us in Romans, ‘Faith comes from hearing the message, and the message is heard through the word of Christ.'” Paul then concludes, “I understood that my faith would not and could not depend on what I saw.” But never fear, for Paul’s book is nonetheless chock full of experiences to share which he believes validate his faith despite his insistence that it can’t depend on that. (Plus then there really would be no reason to write the book.) Because it’s only after he “no longer needed a sign to know God is real” that God stops hiding in the bushes to come out and play. God is cagey that way. Kind of like that clichéd story of the rich person pretending to be poor so they get someone who loves them for who they are and not their money. Sure God loves you, but he wants you to fall in line first before he just starts doling out miracles seems to  be Paul’s position. But is this what the Bible teaches? Not surprisingly, you don’t have to go very far to find where the Bible contradicts Paul’s take on the matter.

Perhaps the most oft quoted verse when it comes to skeptics asking for evidence is Matthew 16:4, where Jesus tells the Pharisees and Sadducees “A wicked and adulterous generation seeketh after a sign; and there shall no sign be given unto it, but the sign of the prophet Jonas.” When it came to the Jewish leaders, that Jesus fella just wasn’t very cooperative. But, after all, if he’d convinced them, then there might not have been a crucifixion, and God would have to come up with a whole new plan. But moving away from those wicked and adulterous leaders, Jesus goes out of his way to provide signs for unbelievers. In the book of John, Jesus hears about Lazarus and lets him die and rot for four days for the express purpose of raising him from the dead so that the people standing around would believe God sent him. At the end of Mark 16, Jesus says, “And these signs will accompany those who believe: in My name they will drive out demons; they will speak in new languages; they will pick up snakes; if they should drink anything deadly, it will never harm them; they will lay hands on the sick, and they will get well.” Mark concludes, “And they went out and preached everywhere, the Lord working with them and confirming the word by the accompanying signs.”

In Acts 14:3, Paul and Barnabas testified with signs and wonders. Hebrews 2:4 says God also testified by signs and wonders, various miracles, and distribution of the Holy Spirit. And, least it be forgotten, Jesus didn’t rise from the dead without a trace, he showed himself. So, really, expecting a sign prior to belief doesn’t seem all that much of an unreasonable expectation.

Now, if God really wanted to save the max number of people, why hide? Has this all-powerful, all-knowing,  long-suffering loving God really done all he can do to ensure that “none might perish?” No, according to Paul, faith has to come first. Only after refusing to trust in what you can see will God grant his favor. Let him into your heart and, once you agree with Paul’s view, that should be proof enough to know you’re right. Does it go without saying that if you already believe in UFOs you are more likely to believe the fuzzy picture is really an alien spacecraft, or that alien visitors helped build ancient civilizations? And isn’t an exhortation that one should not require proof to believe exactly what one would expect to hear from someone who has no proof?

 

It’s a solid axiom that belief precedes reason. The result is a perilous, subjective approach prone to personal bias and prejudicial confirmation; instead of following where the evidence leads, one tries to take the evidence where they want to go. I did it for years. By Paul’s standard–belief independent of what is seen and testable–one can validate any position. It makes for an unfalsifiable claim and, thus, is worthless. And I seriously doubt Paul would lend credit to such a statement coming from, say, a Mormon. And yet they’re just as sincere in their belief. So why would he think such should be a valid position for him? But the more you talk with people, the more you realize how much they rationalize their position, and what little credence they give to contrary ideas. I subtitled my blog “no one is ever as reasonable as we imagine ourselves to be” for this very reason. It’s a reminder to myself that I can be wrong. But truly, truly, I say unto you: an omniscient God who thinks that unverifiable miracles delivered through a superstitious people thousands of years ago by questionable transmission should serve as a sufficient tool to convince people of His existence hasn’t put a lot of thought into the matter. Or just really doesn’t want to reach that many people.

Lunar Apocalypse

I was dreamin’ when I wrote this, forgive me if it goes astray. But when I woke up this morning I could have sworn it was judgement day. The sky was all purple there were people running everywhere. Tryin’ to run from the destruction and you know I didn’t even care. ~Prince, 1999

The lunar eclipse is nearly upon us, and thousands of Americans are armed with their special glasses to witness this once in a life time event. That is, if those pesky clouds don’t get in their way. But, you can’t have an astronomical event like this without some doom and gloom, too. The grand misanthropic ancient tradition of interpreting the workings of the universe as impending human peril for their trespasses and sins is alive and well to this day.

As Anne Graham Lotz writes, referencing Joel 2:31, “I knew with hair-raising certainty that God’s severe judgment was coming on America!” Anne says she felt compelled to repeat this warning she had given earlier due to the upcoming eclipse. You see, in the bible Babylonian King Belshazzar was partying the night before the Persians sneaked in and overthrew the empire. Well, a lot of people are throwing eclipse parties and, well, you can see the obvious connection here. Anne finishes hoping that “in the midst of His coming wrath, God would remember mercy.” Because, given his advanced age, we all know he’s been known to be the forgetful sort.

And I just don’t understand this kind of constant fear mongering, whether it’s a lunar eclipse, a Mayan calendar, or whatever happened last week in the Middle East. When people didn’t comprehend how or why things like earthquakes, comets, and solar eclipses happened, sure. But most of these things today are understood, and when it comes to something like an eclipse we can predict with precise calculations, not only far into the future but eons into the past. Which means that, if we are to use Anne’s interpretation of an eclipse as a “warning from God,” we have a pretty good idea of when he’s going to be pissed on our calendars for years to come. And the thing is, even if we all repented right away, the eclipse is still going to happen no matter what. It would seem a more attention grabbing tactic for God would be if the eclipse didn’t happen. Like if the moon took a detour and went around the sun instead of passing over it like we all know is supposed to happen.

Taking an event like this seems to me no different than when my pastor’s told me God had a plan for my life. There’s no way to show there is a plan, but you just interpret the events in your life as if there is one. Likewise, if something terrible does happen, people like Anne can tell us that “God warned us with that eclipse” that was totally going to happen anyway.  Or if nothing happens then God has suspended his judgement (but he’s probably still stewing over how awful we are).

Anne is tame, though, compared to some others. Christian numerologist Dave Meade claims the August 21st eclipse is a harbinger of the planet Nibiru (aka Planet X) colliding with Earth around September 23rd. Of course, this isn’t the first time Nibiru conspiracy theorists predicted this collision.

Party on, friends.

The End Cometh Not

 

“The End is Nigh!” the man shouted.
“Is there still time for hot chocolate?” Riley asked.
The-End-is-Nigh guy blinked. “Ah, maybe, I don’t know.”
― Jana Oliver, Forbidden

I’ve written about this before, and I’ve just learned to live with the disappointment. The End didn’t come. Again. I post this because it is such a constant recurring subject, and it’s good to get it out of the way up front. Take for example Harold Camping’s prediction The End would come October 21st, 2011  (after a previous prediction the Rapture would come in May of that same year failed), which received more ridicule than not. That is, when it received attention at all. He’s far from alone in his failure. And when it comes to failed prophesy, contrary to what one might expect, the end result tends to be strengthened belief as reasons for the failure are explained away. Unfortunately Camping won’t be teasing us anymore with his eschatological buggery, since his own end came on December 15, 2013.

But most End Timers are a bit more circumspect in their approach. There’s a plethora of Christians who are savvy enough not to peg The End with a specific date other than “real soon.” Events in the Middle East are oft presented as Exhibit A, with last week’s natural disaster being Exhibit B, C, D, and so on. These folks aren’t quite brave enough to peg a date, or even year, but the impression is that it’s right around the corner. Often, depending on the age of the given individual, within their life time. They’re really hoping for that Rapture Get-Out-Of-Death-Free card.

Popular Christian end times eschatology today is primarily driven by dispensational premillenialism. Its roots are most often attributed to one John Darby in 1830 (making the position as a coherent whole less than 200 years old) who made sharp distinctions between grace and the law, earthly and heavenly people of God (Israel and the church), and went by “literal” interpretation of the fulfillment of prophecy. Under dispensationalism, history is divided into a number of epochs, or dispensations, in which God works out his plan and exercises his authority and relationship to man in distinctive ways, like a restaurant changing up its menu to keep it fresh. This is not what the position is known for, however, and not too many people seem to care about this aspect. It is the End Times scenario that captures and fires the imagination, with a pretribulational rapture, the rise of the Antichrist, and seven torturous years of tribulation (often especially bad for the Jews). Tim LaHaye’s and Jerry Jenkins’s prolific Left Behind fictional series are based upon this theological framework. LaHaye is one of those who has been cagey enough not to peg a date, either, but in considering how “close” we may be it’s worth noting the authors found it not untimely to include the now deceased Mother Teresa, who is raptured in the first book ( published 1995). Even though she was Catholic and all.

All predictions that the world will end, regardless of faith or origination, share one thing in common: failure. A small fact the Chosen don’t like to be reminded about. This may be said of them: they are very forward-looking. Just because the flavor of the month/year didn’t turn out doesn’t mean it won’t be a hit the next. More facts will line up, and there will be more reasons to believe than ever before. And thus they’ll say, “The chances now are greater than ever before.” Which goes without saying, given the failure of all previous predictions. Any chance is greater than no chance. The very life blood of modern prophecy is “adapt your view and move on.”

It’s natural for people to want to live at the conclusion of things. To be in the movie’s climax. Some segment of every generation has believed they were living in The End. Not only are we living at the end, things are always Worse Than They’ve Ever Been, contrary to evidence against. And the world keeps spinning.

I was still just a pup when Hal Lindsay’s (some say the godfather of modern prophecy) book The Late Great Planet Earth was released, followed in 1980 by The 1980s: Countdown to Armageddon.  The later book warned of something called the “Jupiter Effect,” which amounted to all the planets lining up in 1982 in a straight line perpendicular to the sun (in itself an inaccurate description). This alignment would cause the earth to slow ever so slightly, causing stress to fault lines which would result in tumultuous earthquakes. There would be fiery storms on the sun’s surface, calamity and chaos, dogs and cats living together…typical end of the world stuff. Even after the scientists who had postulated this stretch of imagination said “no way,” Lindsay continued to push it. Yeah, none of that happened. 1982 came and went like most any other year. That does not end the Hal Lindsay story.

The Late Great Planet Earth had made it clear, if not precise, that Christ was to return in 1988. The reason being that a biblical generation is often equated to 40 years, and that Israel had been reestablished as a state in 1948 (the restoration of Israel is a critical component for fulfillment of prophecy in most dispensational circles). The whole “this generation will not pass away until all these things take place” (Matt. 24:34) is crucial here (ignoring the obvious context that the verse was talking about way back when). 48 + 40…you get the math. Meaning believers (subtracting 7 years for the tribulation) should have been raptured in 1981, leaving the unbelievers and misguided Jews behind to suffer. And while 1988 was quite enjoyable to me on a personal level, it also came and went like most any other year. And again, not the end of the Hal Lindsay story.

Lindsay adjusted his obviously wrong predictions in the 1990s to start in 1967 with the capture of Jerusalem by the Jews. That would put Jesus back…mental math…hey, around 2007. Ooops. But Lindsay’s constant revisionism, of which you might guess there has been a lot, has not dampened his popularity. In a 2007 video he said he would “look at the prophetic trends of 2007…Those events are now occurring at breakneck speed and the pages are flying off God’s prophetic calendar” followed closely by “I am not a prophet. I am, however, a careful interpreter of what God’s word predicts will be happening in the world just before Christ’s return to earth.” Honestly, I don’t know why anybody would think this about him.

And remember the Y2K crisis? When thousands of people were sure they’d be living in the dark and planes would fall from the sky at the tic of midnight? It was a tempting doomsday scenario that sucked in many bible pundits, whether they believed it or saw a quick buck. Grant Jeffries was sucked in by it (but poor Jeffries is sucked into just about every new cock-eyed thing that comes along, after which he promptly writes a misinformed book–or, assuming the worse, he just takes advantage). Jeffries, being not only a bible pundit but also a financial type of guy, was not only predicting doom and gloom, but was also willing to offer his financial cunning to help you through it. But a blurb at the beginning of the book reads “The author and publisher cannot be held responsible for any loss incurred as a result of applying any of the information in this book.” Which is the hallmark of every great Prophet–listen to me, but don’t expect me to take any responsibility for being wrong! Hal Lindsay was right there with them, slinging out a video titled Facing Millennial Midnight: The Y2K Crisis Confronting America and the World. The back read “Y2K is a logic bomb that could do to our civilization what the iceberg did to the Titanic. Are you safe? Is anybody safe? What are the experts saying? Are you ready for Millennial Midnight?” And Christians wonder why they are called naive.

It’s interesting to have a collection of prophesy books spanning time just to see how they change. Some prove amusing after the years have passed. My favorite by far, and the only one I make sure to keep, I found in a bargain bin in 2001 or early 2002. It was entitled 50 Remarkable Events Pointing to the End: Why Jesus Could Return by A.D. 2000 by one Ed Dobson. It has a yellow sticker in the upper right hand corner that reads “Sale $7.97 (reg. $12.99),” and right above the sale price it says “Slightly Imperfect.” That was, of course, referring to the condition of the book, but it gave me enough of a cynical giggle to buy it for 99 cents.

Certainly Christians aren’t the only ones to fail miserably at predicting The End, but they do seem to make an ungodly amount of money perpetuating said fears. It was pushed to new publishing heights with the Left Behind series, and every news-making headline in the Middle East seems to warrant another book (often a “revised and updated” one). Saddam Hussein graced many of the apocalyptic book covers for a time, but he was found hiding in a hole and is dead now. Scratch that. And I think it is the constant rearranging and bargaining that bothers me the most. I don’t really care if people want to predict when The End will be, but you should only get one crack at it. After that, you have to shut the hell up. We’ll shuffle you off to some nice quiet job where you can genuflect on your bad timing.

I’m sure the years to come will be just as entertaining from The End standpoint, and the History Channel (remember when they used to talk about history?) is sure to keep me informed on all Nostradamus has to say…again. Perhaps not as exciting as the anti-climaticism of those interpreting the Mayan calendar in 2012, but like bubble gum stuck to the bottom of your shoe, The End follows us around wherever we go. The aggressive actions of Russia of late are sure to spark the Gog and Magog interpretation (again). Maybe even as a nation the United States is grinding to an end. We are, after all, past the expiration date for a civilization based on our freedoms. But nations come and go. The world keeps spinning.

Beware Those Other Christians

It has happened that all the answers which I have seen to the former part of the Age of Reason have been written by priests; and these pious men, like their predecessors, contend and wrangle, and pretend to understand the Bible; each understands it differently, but each understands it best; and they have agreed in nothing but in telling their readers that Thomas Paine understands it not. ~Thomas Paine, Age of Reason, Part Two

So if you’re an atheist, freethinker, skeptic, secularist, or igtheist such as myself and think Christians judge you harshly, don’t feel bad. They judge each other too. In fact, the vibe is some of them probably shouldn’t even be calling themselves Christians, the way they treat God’s infallible Word. Kind of a “no true Scotsman” argument. I keep a diverse range of friends and acquaintances because I don’t want to live a closed off existence, and therefore ideas are not closed off either. And so pearls such as this sometimes hit my media walls:

Beware!

That doesn’t seem full of hubris nor a begging the question fallacy at all, right? And you know, those Christians, dem dere are the ones you have to look out for. Those with their own ideas and feelings, because we all know how dangerous ideas and feelings can be (presumably the person who posted is serving only as a God conduit with no thought or feeling of their own put into this). So even though I am no longer one of “those Christians” or any other faith bearer, that didn’t stop me from jumping in. It was a short conversation and went something like this:

Me: Interesting. Can you objectively demonstrate your interpretation of scripture is not based on your ideas and feelings as opposed to other Christians?

Xn: I believe one can.

Me: Based on your own ideas and feelings?

Xn: No…

Xn: I believe the Bible is the infallible word of GOD. Scripture does not need anyone to add or take away from it.

Me: Okay.  If your belief isn’t based on your own ideas and feelings, where does it come from?

Xn: From the word of God. Do you believe the Bible is the infallible word of GOD? [Notice the shift in trying to place the burden on me?]

Me: I have no evidence to support such a claim, but if you have objective evidence to the contrary, I’m happy to listen. So you believe your thoughts and feelings on this matter are imported into you from an outside source? How does one reliably differentiate your word of God from the word of God of those thinking/feeling Christians your meme warns us about?

Xn: If you don’t believe the bible is the infallible word of GOD then we really have no foundation to continue this discussion. The bible is clear on casting pearls. It is something you just don’t do.

For those of you not so familiar with the bible, that’s a reference to Matthew 7:6, which reads “Do not give what is holy to dogs, and do not throw your pearls before swine, or they will trample them under their feet, and turn and tear you to pieces.” So, basically, the conversation ended with this Christian calling me a pig, which is probably not the best diplomatic approach to reaching an unbelieving world. In fact, it is quite at odds with what the bible says elsewhere: “Always be prepared to articulate a defense to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But respond with gentleness and respect, keeping a clear conscience, so that those who slander you will be put to shame by your good behavior in Christ.…” (1 Peter 3:15 -16). Not so much in this case.

A point of disagreement seems a good starting point for a discussion to me. And the infallibility of the bible was irrelevant to the question at hand. Even if one grants that for the moment, the real question in this matter would be, “Is your interpretation of the bible infallible?” So much so that you can say those Christians who disagree with you are wrong and should be avoided? That was something this Christian wouldn’t face. And with good reason it seems to me, as I know no way to objectively show that one’s reasoning bypasses one’s own ideas and/or feelings. Perhaps this Christian should have paid more attention to the verses immediately preceding the one he quoted, Matthew 7:3-5, “Why do you look at the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye? Or how can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ and behold, the log is in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye.” No doubt this Christian believes their vision to be log free. But, again, how does one know that with objective certainty? Just as Thomas Paine says, “each understands it differently, but each understands it best.”

Not every Christian uses such undiplomatic tact, and others try to be genuinely helpful, even if while doing it they are looking at you as a potential convert. This bothers some unbelievers, but not myself, as I don’t see a way to talk to somebody about their faith and them not try to be persuasive about it. And, truly, I can be persuaded, given evidence. But faith doesn’t operate on evidence, or at least not so far as I have been shown. As Joseph Campbell once quipped in a lecture, “They call it ‘make believe’ for a reason.”

I’ve been told that faith operates on more than intellectualism and, indeed, Proverbs 3:5 urges the faithful “Trust in the LORD with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding” and other verses also exhort followers to not trust in the wisdom of man. But when you get down to the nuts and bolts, everybody uses their intellect and reasoning to come to conclusions. Experience and emotion all have to pass through the brain before one can interpret it into cogent ideas and feelings to be passed along. It is impossible to “lean on the Lord” with anything but your own understanding. Of course, our beliefs can be greatly influenced by society and familial influence, which all exert tremendous pressure to conform. It’s not surprising that most of the kids I grew up with in small town America are today Christians and not, say, Hindus. Almost all of them that are of faith, hands down, would reject accepting the message the nice Mormon boys, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and Islamists (if they went door to door) have to deliver if told they shouldn’t “lean on their own understanding” but just trust in this other religion. Just, you know, all those people telling you what to believe growing up couldn’t possibly be wrong, right? And they’ve had their own life experiences interpreted through this indoctrinated lens, so that blessings are attributed to Jesus instead of, say, Vishnu.

I’ve also been told to just pray to the Holy Spirit about it. If I pretend hard enough, I’ll come to think God is real I guess is the angle? That is, unless you’re a Calvinist. Then it’s all on God. But here’s the deal on that either way: an omnipotent, omniscient God knows exactly what it would take to make me believe, and if he hasn’t done that he’s not trying very hard. Such a god should have no trouble convincing me they exist. Christians often say atheists don’t want to believe in God so they can do what they want. This is a non sequitur. There’s no reason why belief would necessarily entail obedience. After all, that Lucifer fellow totally believed and he rebelled, right? Thus I can’t believe this God is all that interested in saving me from his own eternal torment that’s been percolating lo these many millenia. What makes belief in something that can’t be demonstrated to be true such a virtue that God (who wants to save us really, really bad) doesn’t just reveal himself? Show me another area in life where such belief would be considered virtuous.

Then I’ll be told that the bible is self-authenticating. This is like Crest telling us it’s the best toothpaste ever. That’s exactly what we’d expect Crest to say. This leads unavoidably to circular reasoning. The bible is the claim. A claim can’t authenticate itself. We run into the same situation when Christians tell us God can’t lie. How do they know God can’t lie? Because the book that same God wrote says so! D’oh! Or “it’s all part of God’s plan.” Meaningless statement. How would you show something is not part of God’s plan? And, by the way, when the vast majority of the creation it is claimed God loves so much is going to a fiery hell, that seems like a real crappy plan.

Failing all else, I will be given lists of books as appeals to authority or, more likely, due to the fact many people feel inadequate in their ability to convince others by their own testimony. Or they’re just lazy–“Go read this book by so-and-so and if that won’t convince you, too bad, but my personal effort ends here. I can’t be bothered with your pesky nay-saying.” For starters, and what most don’t realize, is that I worked in Christian retail for a number of years. Even if I haven’t read the particular book suggested, I’ve certainly read one similar to it. I was especially fond of books presenting multiple points of view: Four Views on Revelation, Five Views on the Law and the Gospels.  Many are at complete loggerheads with each other; for example, preterism and dispensationalism, the former of which proclaims most (and in the case of full preterism, all) prophecy in the bible has been fulfilled, and the later that the Second Coming is yet to happen.

Ah, well, those Christians, I suppose.