Andrew Hamm: the Bipolar Express

Ruminations on theatre, music, and just about anything else that crosses my bipolar brain.

Friday, April 06, 2007

Looking for God in All the Wrong Places

It’s an annual religious tradition. Every year during Holy Week, Americans gather at their site of worship to hear the re-telling of the ancient story. That’s right, we gather on the couch and turn on the TV to watch the annual network, CNN, and History Channel specials about that famous and controversial historical figure: Jesus.

Every year, it seems that we hear more and more about modern historians’ speculations about Jesus’ wife (or wives) and children. Every year, we hear more about modern scientists’ theories about the "swoon" theory, apostolic bodysnatching, or other explanations for Jesus’ apparent "resurrection." And every year, the Bible is reduced more and more to an increasingly dubious historical document, its inconsistencies making its spiritual value more and more questionable.

Nothing interferes with the understanding of the actual Jesus more than rigid examination of the "historical Jesus," particularly in today’s scientific-intellectual environment where nothing immaterial is even permitted to enter the discourse. C.S. Lewis wrote beautifully about the subject in The Screwtape Letters. Lewis' insights in the 1940s are frighteningly prophetic when read in 2007. Letter XXIII reads, in part: "Their 'historical Jesus'... has to be a 'great man' in the modern sense of the word--one standing at the terminus of some centrifugal and unbalanced line of thought--a crank vending a panacea. We [devils] thus distract men's minds from Who He is and what He did." Materialist thinkers who deny the resurrection because it has no verifiable, repeatable, scientific explanation are considered to trump theologians who argue that the verifiable, repeatable and scientific seldom has any transcendent value in actual human experience. Intellectual discussion is restricted to things material, with all things of a spiritual nature placed in a remote location and bound inside a box labeled "irrelevant."

I suppose I shouldn’t complain about this as if it’s some kind of a new phenomenon. Paul, Peter and the first Christians faced skepticism of all kinds in the early days of the church. In his first letter to the Corinthians, Paul wrote: "Jews demanded miraculous signs and Greeks look for wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than man's wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than man's strength." (1 Corinthians 1:22-25, NIV)

The apostles' inability to "prove" the facts of Jesus’ transcendent sacrificial death and resurrection was the least of their problems. It simultaneously amuses and infuriates me when modern thinkers dismiss the early church founders as having established Christianity in order to gain power for themselves and their heirs. It's amazing to me how often I hear this argument. Assigning later abuses of individuals and eras to the institution of "church," these high-minded "progressives" conveniently ignore the facts that the earliest believers were one of the most persecuted minorities in world history, that every apostle (save John, who was exiled) died a horrible, tormented death, and that people simply do not allow themselves to be tortured and killed for something they know to be a lie if denying it will save their skins. The fact is, Christians had no political power whatsoever for the first several centuries of the church's existence. The people founding this faith had absolutely nothing to gain in establishing a church based on a lie.

So it’s Good Friday as I write this, perhaps the first directly theological piece I’ve ever posted to this blog. I have avoided writing about faith for the same reasons I avoided politics for so long: because discussions of politics and faith seem to drive friends apart much more often than they bring them together. But the discussions of politics here have really opened my eyes, so I’m less afraid to bring the subject to faith than I used to be. If I profess to believe we can all gain from an open, respectful discussion of our disagreements, I should absolutely be open to talking about the central fact of my life: my belief in Jesus Christ.

But the defining moment was actually a silly little MySpace bulletin from Scott Wichmann entitled "And knowing is half the battle." The point was to ask your friends to answer questions about you, ranging from "What is my middle name?" to "What is your favorite memory of me?" and so on. What moved me was Scott’s answer to my question: "Who is my best friend?" Scott wrote about me: "Jesus (I'm not being sarcastic--I think your faith runs that deep)."

When I read that, I started to cry.

I think this is the best thing anyone has ever said to me ever.

One of the central prayers of my life is "St. Patrick’s Breastplate," a prayer-poem attributed to the famous Irish evangelist. It reads, in part: "Christ in the heart of every man who thinks of me, Christ in the mouth of everyone who speaks of me, Christ in every eye that sees me, Christ in every ear that hears me." The fact that Jesus was in the eyes of someone who saw me, someone who has not heard me talk much about the details of my faith, was absolutely one of the defining moments of my life.

Having come out of the closet as a conservative (albeit an atypical, occasionally liberal one), it’s time to be a whole lot freer about my Christianity.

So back where I started: It’s Good Friday, and the news networks are flooding the airwaves with the story of Jesus as they see it (and as they are permitted by their paymasters to present it). It’s the story of a social revolutionary who spoke amazing words, who challenged long-standing beliefs about how people should behave toward each other, and whose charisma founded one of the world’s great religions. (He just may have performed some amazing works along the way, but science has explanations for pretty much all of them by now.) Having aroused the ire of the local government, Jesus’ movement was brutally suppressed and its charismatic leader was tried, convicted, tortured, and then executed by crucifixion. (Legend has it that his body disappeared three days later, but this has been widely discredited by modern scholars, doctors and historians.)

The thing is, there’s no way to tell the story without some element of ridiculousness. If we Christians really look in the mirror and honestly evaluate the foundations of our faith, it’s impossible to avoid the fact that it’s awfully hard to swallow. There is, in fact, a segment of theologians who profess that the very act of believing in the extremely improbable facts of the Gospel is in itself a miracle. It’s a kind of divine circle wherein we believe enough to pray for the belief to believe in more.

And that’s where the study of the "historical Jesus" must always fail. If Jesus was the Son of God, as Christians profess, then restricting investigation of Him to only the material and the historically verifiable is a fruitless endeavor. Of course, God is God of the material and historical as well as the spiritual, and examination of the material world is very instructive in learning about the nature of God. But omitting the spiritual from investigation of the nature of Jesus is like omitting physical sensation from investigation of the nature of the Sun. You can learn a lot about the Sun from looking at it and by reading thermometers, but if you don’t feel the warmth of sunlight on your face, you’re missing out on perhaps the most sublime detail. In short, you can’t learn jack about a spiritual figure while omitting the spiritual from the investigation.

Not that there isn’t a lot of history backing the Christian tradition up. There are simply no ancient texts with as many consistent copies as the books of the New Testament, and none for which we have copies as close to the date of original writing. And it’s not that I don’t care about that stuff; my faith is strengthened by works of historical Christian apologists, like Lewis' works and Lee Strobel’s The Case for Christ (a highly recommended read for anyone who wants to know more about the foundations of Christianity). But the foundation of faith is belief, not history.

Faith is a spiritual suspension of disbelief, and like theatre your spiritual life can only have any depth when you allow yourself to believe in something beyond what you can wrap your senses around. Faith doesn’t just happen; you have to decide to have it, work at it, exercise it, and pray for it. In the words of Firefly's Shepherd Book: "You don't 'fix' the Bible.... It's not about making sense. It's about believing in something, and letting that belief be real enough to change your life. It's about faith. You don't fix faith, River. It fixes you."

I’m going to be talking about spiritual matters around here much more from now on.

So this Easter, I invite you to remember that the story of Jesus is more than the story of a man who was killed for his radical beliefs. I invite you to remember that the totality of the story of God’s plan for our salvation, your personal salvation and mine, is so very much more than the sum of its parts. And I invite you to join me in a prayer for the faith to believe in greater, deeper, and more improbable things. The stuff on the surface can only take you so deep.



  • At 4/07/2007 12:31 AM , Blogger Joey Fanelli said...

    The hardest thing about discussing faith is disagreeing with something that someone is so deeply emotional and passionate about.

    I've always had faith in God. I wouldn't say that I am completely passionate about it, but I do believe and I do have a great deal of faith.

    I don't, however, have faith in religion. I define religion as a set of stories, rules and rituals built up around a higher being, but religion through the ages has also been the reversal of what its intent has been: most religions revolve around the familiar image of a just, kind and loving god, yet has been one of the biggest sources of violence and hate. I'm not saying that everyone religious is closed minded and violent, that's just plain untrue and I know it, but there are and have been many who are, and many of a high influence who have been responsible for conflicts such as the Crusades, the Thirty Years' War, the French Wars of Religion, among others. It also inspires hate, pride and prejudice among some passionately faithful.

    I accept the fact that a few bad apples really isn't a very justifiable reason to oppose religion, but it's more of a personal issue really: I just can't be involved with something that praises peace and love while holding a prideful grudge and committing unspeakable acts of hate driven violence, even if it only is a few bad apples, and even if most of it is in the past.

    I can't really bring myself to have faith in the bible either, or any religious text, although I use the bible as example because it is the religious book I know the most about: there have been many cases of leaders editing or simply tearing out bits and pieces from the bible, and who's to say that parts weren’t added into the bible simply as a method of controlling the people? "Don't be homosexual! Why? Well, uh, God says so!" The word of God can be used to strike fear into people's hearts, and although it may be pure speculation, with the records of people changing the bible I think it's absolutely possible. I do agree that the bible is more of a historical text than a spiritual one, although I'm sure that not all of it is purely history, there's bound to be many nuggets of pure spirituality and truth in it, but once again it's a personal issue: I can't bring myself to believe that someone written and changed by man is entirely the word of God, especially considering the power and opportunities it could give to anyone willing to misuse it.

    I have always believed that the bible started out as a true representation of God and his will, defining both historical and spiritual aspects of everything God related, but by the power-hungry man was so spiritually distorted by man that it has lead to many inconsistencies and has been misused as a political tool through the ages.

    I guess a combination of these things has led me to disagree with just about every religion. What I believe is taken from the central point of most major monotheistic religions: there is a God, and he is good.

  • At 4/07/2007 3:08 AM , Blogger Joey Fanelli said...

    This comment has been removed by the author.

  • At 4/07/2007 3:09 AM , Blogger Joey Fanelli said...

    And another point: once in class, you made refrence to Shakespearian scholars who did research on the types of jars that the groundlings would pee in (or something of that nature) because since Shakespeare is so intensly studied and written about, people have to find new things to write about so they can aqquire funding (at least I think it's funding, or something as valuable). This forces them to split hairs and focus on the smallest and most obscure details like, as I said, what kind of jars people pissed in.

    Now, Elizabethan piss-jars may not be the best comparrision to Jesus Christ, but my point is this: all this talk of Jesus' wives and children resurrection might spawn from the same motive: the need for origional material.

    It's not a theroy that I nessecarly agree with, but it does make some sort of sense.

  • At 4/07/2007 10:15 AM , Blogger Andrew Hamm said...


    I'll tell you what. Let's follow your allegory a bit: because of the actions of the idiots at Columbine High School, I'm going to treat all high school students as if they are serial killers from now on. My class is going to be so much fun!

    You should read a book called Church History in Plain Language by Bruce L. Shelley. It's a definitive work, often used in college History of Christianity classes.

    You should also bear in mind that religions and religious organizations throughout history have fed the hungry, clothed the naked, cared for the sick, and sheltered the poor more than all world governments combined.

  • At 4/07/2007 11:27 AM , Blogger Joey Fanelli said...

    Religion has done a lot of good, maybe more good than bad, but once again it's a personal issue: I just can't be a part of something I disagree with, especially when it comes to God.

    And I'm not trying to treat all religious people as power-hungry and evil, in fact I went to great pains to cement the point that it was only a few bad apples. I have nothing against religion or religious people, its the theory behind it that bothers me: separating people who believe in the same god simply because they worship in different ways or believe a little differently, which would be fine if it didn't have the potential for prejudice, hate and murder. Without religion, we can still have all the good things about it while eliminating the evil involved with it, regardless of how obscured the evil may be by the

  • At 4/08/2007 8:44 PM , Blogger Brent Levy said...

    Andrew, thank you for sharing that. Most of all, Happy Easter!!!


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