If you’ve ever heard a Christian talking with an ex-Christian they don’t know who has recently lost the faith, you’ve heard the believer say something like this: “I’m sorry you had a bad experience with that church. They really weren’t showing you the love of Christ at all. I know Jesus, and he’s about love. He would never approve of (insert odious thing the church was doing).”
I’ve been surprised to realize recently that I no longer believe this. A big part of the problem I have with faith doesn’t seem to be with the church. It is with the Bible itself.
It’s the opposite of what I always heard as a Christian. All my life I believed the Bible was the holy, inspired Word of God. Churches try their best, but they are full of fallible people. They make mistakes. They are hypocritical. There are false prophets and false witnesses.
The church people may let you down, but the Word of God will not; it is a solid rock.
It’s a common enough theme. Gandhi famously said, “I like your Christ; I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ.”
Christ was a force for peace and justice and righteousness, and it’s the Christians who sometimes get it wrong, right?
That’s how they explained all the failings of Christians throughout history. Christians fought the Crusades and slaughtered people; but that was people just getting it wrong. Christians fought other Christians, burning them at the stake for heresy when there was a doctrinal difference. Christians justified slavery with the Bible, and oppression against women.
I tried to keep believing this even as I became an atheist (Jesus good; Christians sometimes bad.) Yet what do you think inspires me more: the Bible, or the teachings of good Christians?
When I was in Africa, I began to feel burned out and tired. It was hard to tell if we were making a positive difference or not. I read my Bible every day there, sometimes spending hours reading, meditating and journaling on the word. But I was beginning to lose my inspiration.
Then I read a book by Shane Claiborne. He’s an author I was familiar with already. The story in this book is one of the most inspirational things I’ve ever heard about Christianity.
He and a group of Christians began helping the poor in unconventional ways a few years back in Pittsburg. They camped overnight in an abandoned church, because homeless people were living there, and the church leaders wanted to throw them back out on the street. With Claiborne’s crew in place, the church couldn’t throw them out without everyone seeing them throwing homeless people out, and it made a difference. Claiborne fought new laws that were essentially designed to criminalize being homeless. He later started up a center for poor youth in the inner city. He traveled to Iraq while the U.S. was bombing it and wrote about the horrors suffered by Iraqi Christians at our hands.
I read him and I felt filled with fire again, to serve God and the poor and live radically and be an agent of change in the world. But even at the time, I wondered: the Bible is supposed to be the word of God, and Claiborne claims he’s just following the Bible. So why am I so much more inspired by reading Claiborne than the Bible?
I’m inspired by the good done in the name of Jesus by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. I love to hear about the Christian Peacemaker Teams working for peace, or the Heifer Project where Christians help the poor develop sustainable farming. I’m inspired by what I see Christians do.
Coming out of college, I couldn’t understand why so many Christian religious people seemed obsessed with sex, with patriarchy, with Israeli politics — when caring for the poor was clearly what Jesus wanted.
Then I started reading the Bible regularly in Africa, and I noticed a theme. The over-obsession on what I thought were less important matters were actually a central focus for the biblical writers. Over and over they preached about purity, fleeing from sexual sin and the desires of the flesh. They talked about how women should submit, not just once or twice, but over and over in many of the epistles. They talked about peace and justice, but as a secondary issue, and only rarely.
The issues that I thought were central and paramount to the Good News were not actually in focus as much.
I hadn’t been following the “true” Bible; I had just seen what I wanted to in the Bible.
It’s not just that some Christians today misread the Bible and twist it; it’s that the Bible itself contains things that are twisted.
If people find the good or bad that they want to do by picking and choosing from the Bible, that means they are appealing to a moral standard higher than the Bible. They have a sense of right and wrong apart from the Bible, that they then apply to the Bible.