This is my very first non-writing post on this blog, so I’ve decided to tackle a nice easy topic: the nature of faith in a postmodern age. And of course, by “easy,” I mean controversial and complex.
Did you know Thomas Jefferson rewrote the Bible?
Well… that isn’t the politically correct story. Jefferson, himself a Deist of sorts who admired some of Jesus’ teachings, said that he was only attempting to sketch the character and philosophy of Jesus Christ as he expected Jesus would have been- minus the exaggerations and biases of the apostles. Because, obviously, an eighteenth-century man like him knows better about a first-century man than the guy’s actual first-century friends.
Jefferson cut-and-pasted verses from the real Bible and rearranged them in his own dissertation. The result? A beauty-pageant version of Jesus: no miraculous healings, no claims to divinity, and of course no resurrection. But of course, as far as Christians are concerned, Jefferson pretty much rewrote the whole story. (Here is a pretty fair article on the subject.)
Now I would have loved to meet the ingenius Jefferson and talk to him on a number of issues, like slavery, democracy, and possibly abortion. What history nerd wouldn’t? But most of all, I would want to know how much he had actually learned about the Bible. Did he in fact read the whole Bible, including the part where his favorite authors said that “All Scripture is breathed out by God” (2 Tim. 3:16) and that His Word “will never pass away” (Luke 21:33)? That’s just echoing the basic rules of logic: you can’t pick and choose different parts of a book and ignore the rest.
Most of all, though, I would want to know if Thomas Jefferson had paid due attention to 1 Corinthians 15:12-19. Everybody knows that the central point of Christian faith, the one that sets it apart from every other belief system, is the resurrection of Jesus. In this passage, Paul comes right out and states every atheist’s big complaint about Christianity: if Christ did not resurrect, then we are believing lies, and we are the most pitiable of all people.
Therefore, in eliminating the Resurrection from his telling of the life and morals of Jesus, Jefferson undermines his own “Christian” belief. He takes out the quintessence of the Christian life. He believed that Jesus was just a good man who died, that God is impersonal, that people only need to follow these moral teachings to achieve any hope of salvation… and you know what? Jefferson was more Muslim than anything else.
Now here is the big question: Why does it matter?
First of all, if we consider changing anything about a book that doesn’t belong to us, we ought to remember who gets to decide in the first place. If I write a book, I get to decide who dies, who falls in love with whom, and who wins. My readers don’t get to cut out that one chapter where the ship blows up. Textbooks are the same way: if you’re supposed to use a particular history book for your research project, you report on all the pertinent facts from the book, even if you don’t like the stories about slavery.
It’s the same way with God’s nonfiction book. Either you believe in the whole Bible, or you don’t believe in any of it. There is no build-your-own salad bar, no picking and choosing, no cut-and-paste. God doesn’t leave that option open. Some religions like Hinduism and neo-paganism will let you borrow deities or ideas from this or that religion, but Christianity is immutable.
Now, all that being said, certainly there are things in the Bible that some folks don’t like. Let’s face it: if you read some particular verses by themselves, sans context, it sounds pretty confusing. When Paul says that a woman ought not to speak in church, that sounds pretty sexist. When Moses lays out the laws for slaves and servants, it looks as if God didn’t create all people equal. When Jesus said He came to bring division and “fire” to the earth, that doesn’t remind us of the Prince of Peace.
But, as confusing as these verses seem, God put each one them in the Bible for good reasons. (Reading these verses in context, we see that they usually mean quite the opposite of what New Atheists wish they meant.) As Matt Chandler says, would a rational person step into a movie theater, watch LotR for two minutes, and then step out claiming to know all the intricacies of the plot? Neither would a rational person pull a few verses out of context and build a whole worldview upon them.
Now, the point is not that theology will dispel your every doubt. Even after you become a Christian, you will still ask questions that may or may not be answered this side of eternity. And God is okay with that- He made us that way, and He can handle it. The truth is that God has reasons for everything, no matter how absurd or scary it seems now, and He has revealed just enough of those reasons for us to know that we can trust Him with the rest.
Let’s put it in context.
Think back to when you were five years old. At that age, did your parents tell you exactly why you couldn’t accept a ride home in a stranger’s car? No. At least I hope not. When you were five, your parents only told you about the concept of “bad people.” That was all they really could tell you, because at that age you hadn’t even had the talk yet. You’d never seen any of those bad men. You didn’t know why they were bad. Your parents had chosen to protect you emotionally as well as physically because you were too young to understand the nature of the threat. All you knew was, My parents love me and have never steered me wrong before, so you obeyed without knowing the reasons.
But, now that you are older and understand the world better, do you wish you had ignored that advice and gotten in a stranger’s car? No, I didn’t think so. The fact that you didn’t know every one of your parents’ reasons didn’t mean the danger was made-up or that your parents were crazy. Saying so would only prove you were the crazy one.
When it comes to big scary questions that seem to have no answers, we need to remember that answers don’t all come at once. It may sound nice to say that people can just be “religious,” believing the things they like and ignoring the things they don’t, but that’s not true Christianity. That is called perpetual adolescence. Just like the teenager who chooses to sneak out after curfew but is on time for dinner if there’s cake: “I’ll do it because I want to, not because you told me to.” Sound familiar?
The essence of religious faith is, simply, faith. Just as wise people don’t blindly trust authority, faith doesn’t mean we blindly believe everything we hear. God gave us minds as well as revelation, and He wants us to use both. Faith means that the mature son or daughter remembers their parents’ wisdom in the past and decides to trust them on this one. Faith means that once we have tested something against what we do know and come to a conclusion, we run with that conclusion as long as it sticks, even if we still have questions about the details.
My favorite president once challenged a stubbornly skeptical friend: “You are wrong. Take all of this book upon reason that you can and the balance on faith, and you will live and die a happier and better man.”