Myths of Christianity

Gary Gocek bio

... the elephants in the Christian room

2013, gary@gocek.org, http://www.gocek.org/, all rights reserved. Hover for usage notes. Email a link to a friend. Other articles by Gary.

Contents

Introduction and acknowledgments.
Myth: The Bible texts are the literal words of God
Myth: "God" is supernatural
Myth: God is immutable and any statement to the contrary is heretical
Myth: The important stuff happened after the crucifixion
Myth: Only Christians are resurrected
Myth: Any proof about God
Myth: Conservative churches growing, liberal churches shrinking
Myth: Atheists are rational and I'm not
Summary
Appendices.
Bibliography.

Introduction

Revised 2013-07-21.

Since 2009, as a Christian layperson, I have been reading and writing extensively on Christian topics. I have read apologetic stuff, liberal stuff, secular philosophy stuff, and have viewed videos and countless web sites. Much of the content I have consumed, including from other Christians, disagrees with my beliefs although I consider myself a committed, educated Christian. I address many recurring themes in this article.

Acknowledgments

I received valuable assistance in the development of this article, but this article is my own work with the help of my god and I am the only person who should be held accountable.

The Polish Heritage Society of Rochester granted me a scholarship in recognition of my in-kind contributions. I used funds from that scholarship to develop this article. This article may not represent the perspective of the PHSR.

A few members of the clergy have guided me since around 1990. This article presents my own beliefs, and these priests may not agree with some points, and they did not review all my points, so I will use first names only: Deven, Julie, Peter, Bill and David.

Thanks to my lovely wife, Susan for her support, even when she doesn't know she's being supportive.

Scripture quotations are from New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989 National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved. See my bibliography for more information.

Technical and Grammar Notes

As a software developer, I have found the development of a long article for the web to be technically interesting. If you have any thoughts on the technical aspects of gocek.org, let me know. NRSV Bible verses do not capitalize "he" and "him" when referring to Jesus, but I otherwise conform to this tradition. Please report errors, misspellings, etc.

Myths

Myth: The Bible texts were literally inspired by God the Father Almighty and there is only one true, eternal interpretation. Christianity is meaningless if Jesus didn't literally walk out the tomb.

Each Bible writer undoubtedly asked for guidance from his (they were probably all men) god. However, there were no literal flashes of lightning leaving behind golden plates.

2 Timothy 3: 16All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness,

The texts were written by humans for specific human audiences wrestling with issues relevant for their cultural and historical contexts. The writers did not envision the texts surviving thousands of years and being interpreted to guide our lives. It's not wrong to use the Bible for guidance in the 21st century, but we must interpret the texts in the contexts of our own cultures. For example:

1 Timothy 2: 12I permit no woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she is to keep silent.

We can accept female pastors today in the face of 1 Timothy 2:12 because women today are not like the women of the first century. Today's women are educated and do the same work as men. Men and women are not the same, but the prohibitions in 1 Tim are culturally biased and we must interpret this against our own cultural context. Jesus could not have asked women to be among his twelve apostles, and if he did, women could not have accepted because the culture would not have allowed it. Interestingly, Jesus was radical when he often acted against the encompassing culture. Today it is radical to accept the encompassing culture and go against "conservative" Christianity.

This doesn't mean that all will accept female pastors. I'm fully supportive of female ordination and leadership, but in my opinion, Roman Catholics will not ordain women in my lifetime. Roman Catholic WomenPriests simultaneously rationalize their hatred for the misogyny of the Church while expressing teary-eyed love for the same Church they want to change from within. Roman Catholics are too busy wondering if exorcism is real to care about ordaining women.

But I digress. Back to Biblical interpretations, the emptiness of the tomb is not a myth. That's stated directly, but there is no story of the tomb becoming empty. The followers of Jesus experience the emptiness of the tomb, not the emptying of the tomb, and we must not fill in the blanks.

Myth: "God" is a supernatural, self-aware, omniscient, omnipotent, immutable being, separable at least in part from humans and the rest of the universe. At some point after we die, we become supernatural, self-aware beings.

Our god encompasses everything, is encompassed by everything and is greater than everything. Nothing is separable from the divine. Churches are no more holy than any other place because our god is no less present in one place than another. Our god "is", and that's all our human language is capable of saying without being grossly insufficient.

1 Thessalonians 4: 16For the Lord himself, with a cry of command, with the archangel's call and with the sound of God's trumpet, will descend from heaven, and the dead in Christ will rise first. 17Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up in the clouds together with them to meet the Lord in the air; and so we will be with the Lord for ever.

This is not a literal prediction. Resurrection is not about afterlife. If a person lives according to the example of Jesus, he or she will remain present for his or her survivors, as Jesus was present for his followers and is present for us now.

Myth: God is immutable and any statement to the contrary is heretical.

I separated this myth in order to address concerns about panentheism.

The divine encompasses an ever-changing humanity, so our relationships with the divine change constantly. It doesn't make sense to insist "God is unchanging" because we cannot describe the divine outside our ever-changing and imperfect humanity. It is not possible for a human to say "God" is the same now as before creation. It is meaningless to admit we can't really describe our god while simultaneously insisting we know our god is immutable. It doesn't matter if our god changes because whether our god likes it or not, we change, and our relationships with our god change.

Myth: The most important thing about the Gospels is what happened after the crucifixion.

The most important lessons concern Jesus' behavior while alive, not after he died. Jesus' life is an example of discernment and fulfillment. The Gospels begin, chronologically, with the birth narrative in which Mary discerns her purpose. In the story, she is helped by an angel to symbolize how her god helps in this discernment. From there, she uses her abilities, as great or limited as they are, to fulfill her purpose. She is a young woman in the first century; her purpose is to give birth and raise a child. The child grows to live a life we consider to be the perfect example of prayerful discernment while using his great gifts to fulfill his discerned purposes.

Hebrews 9: 6"I am the way, and the truth, and and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me." 24For Christ did not enter a sanctuary made by human hands, a mere copy of the true one, but he entered into heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God on our behalf. 25Nor was it to offer himself again and again, as the high priest enters the Holy Place year after year with blood that is not his own; 26for then he would have had to suffer again and again since the foundation of the world. But as it is, he has appeared once for all at the end of the age to remove sin by the sacrifice of himself.

It is a second millenium notion that God required Jesus to die for our sins. (By the way, atheists are particularly critical of the notion that a father would require the death of his son.) Author Marcus Borg says in Evolution of the Word, "...the language of Jesus as sacrifice is metaphorical. He was not literally a divine-human sacrifice planned and required by God [as Anselm taught around 1000], so that our sins can be paid for and we can be forgiven. In Hebrews (and in the New Testament generally when the language of sacrifice is used), what Jesus sacrificed was his life because of his passion for God. To sacrifice is to make a gift of one's life to God. That is what Jesus did - not because God required it, but because of his passion for God and God's will.

"Within its late first-century historical context, the language of Hebrews is thoroughly subversive. It subverts the foundation of temple theology - the claim that only through the temple is reconciliation with God possible. The author [of Hebrews] argues that what we see in Jesus means that the need for temple sacrifice is over with. 'Where there is forgiveness of these [sins], there is no longer any offering for sin.' (10.18). Hebrews is about the end of the system of sacrifice, not about its reestablishment in Christian doctrinal form.

"The metaphorical meaning of its presentation of Jesus as high priest and sacrifice is radical. God through Jesus has taken away whatever you thnk separates you from God. The 'one and for all' sacrifice has been made. The system of requirements is over with."

It is important that Jesus died because it shows how perfectly committed he was to his cause, but the critical point is that he was committed even when he knew it would get him killed. When all of us are that committed to this cause, we live into the kingdom of God.

Myth: Only Christians are resurrected.

John 14: 6"I am the way, and the truth, and and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me."

If Jesus is the perfect example of discernment and fulfillment, the embodiment of goodness, then anyone who does good is acting like Jesus. A person does not need to pray to Jesus to be good, but if he or she is good, then he or she is like Jesus. Most humans do not understand how sacrifice for the common good leads to the kingdom of God, and need a story like the New Testament to teach us. However, if you and your all-encompassing god can figure it out without the Bible, that's fine. The point of the Bible passage is not to damn those who haven't read the Bible; it is to provide an example of the way in which humanity lives into the kingdom. There is no other way, whether or not you learn it from the Bible.

Matthew 28: 19"Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age."

The Great Commission calls us to show the world how to live by living as Jesus taught us to live. Some people possess the gifts of preaching and teaching in ways that help others, and they should use their gifts by introducing Jesus to unbelievers. However, no specific gift is more common than any other gift. In other words, there is no particular reason for there to be lots of great proselytizers but only a few mechanics. Therefore, a Christian should prayerfully consider his or her gifts before trying to tell others they're damned to some sort of eternal suffering if they don't pray a certain way, because not every Christian possesses the gifts to be successful as a pastor.

Myth: Any proof of the existence or non-existence of God.

As the cynical proof goes, if God is all powerful, then God should be able to create a rock that God cannot lift. If God can't do that, then God is not all powerful (and does not exist).

The problem with this myth is not with the response, it's with the myth. Our human language allows all sorts of nonsensical statements. I can't go to the place where red is blue, because red is not blue; but, I can say I'm going to that place. It makes no sense to say I am going to that place, and I can't actually go there, but I can say it because my language is imperfect and allows nonsensical statements. This myth plays on the weakness of language and ultimately makes no sense. This myth also assumes a definition of "God" involving some sort of supernatural being intervening consciously in human time and space. If a thing defined in some assumed but mythical manner cannot do a thing that cannot even be sensibly described, well then, so what?

Myth: In the USA, evangelical/conservative churches are growing and progressive/liberal churches are shrinking.

One can find seemingly legitimate statistics to prove just about any point one wishes to make. Being a progressive Christian, I'd love to disprove this myth outright, but it's not fully mythical or fully true.

Some statistics in support of the myth are outdated, such as Dean Kelley's 1972 book, Why Conservative Churches Are Growing. The data on one of the most quoted religion statistic web sites, adherents.com, are also a decade old. Members of conservative churches have a higher fertility rate and retain more youths into adulthood, but religious affiliation and participation in the United States is declining for all denominations. Related statistics such as church construction projects indicate even fewer people participate than say so in the surveys.

Churches are generally local institutions, so churches grow when they serve a local need. Conservatism and liberalism and other -isms flourish and decline differently in different geographical areas. Cultural waves wash over each region differently, bringing different ideas about the role of women, abortion, homosexuality and religion itself. Conservatives make more noise than liberals. You can't open your car door without knocking over a conservative talkshow host.

Myth: Atheists are the only rational free-thinkers.

Although I see many examples of altruism in the secular world, I am wary of atheists. Jesus was a theistic humanist, so I respect humanists even if they approach humanism from a secular perspective. My concern is the non-spiritual approach places the human at the top of the pyramid, so secular humanism retains an element of selfishness. The atheist does nothing for the love of a god or anything else; he or she approaches humanism for some internal reason. However, internal reasons are not eternal. The atheist can change his or her mind any time. So can the theist, but only with the feeling that she or she is betraying something larger than life. Atheism is not evil, but I trust theists more than atheists.

Summary

1 Corinthians 13: 11When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways.

If I told you space aliens have visited my house, you'd say I was nuts. But, if I told you that after I die, my dead body will rise from the grave to exist in supernatural bliss for eternity, you'd say, "Of course, that's in the Bible."

Announce the kingdom of God today. Today is all we have.

Appendices

Biographical Notes

Here are some biographical notes on authors whose works were researched for this article.

Bibliography

Click to view the bibliography.