The book that made me doubt my Christian faith
Many doubting Christians and apostate former Christians seem to enjoy the recent publications of anti-Christian polemics. Most of us are by now aware of the storm of debate caused by books from the likes of Daniel Dennett, Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens. I have not read any of these books. My tastes tend toward older, academic, lesser known books that I can check out free from the library or find in dusty corners of a used book store. And most of my Christian doubt was fueled by some very unlikely sources.
My slide away from Christianity began in large part to this seemingly innocent book, Let the Trumpet Sound – A Life of Martin Luther King, by Stephen Oates. I have always had questions and doubts about my faith, as most honest Christians do, but this book forced me to confront those doubts head-on, to take them from under the rug, and to seriously re-evaluate my beliefs in Christianity.
Early last year, I was convicted by my ignorance of some practical aspects of the world around me. I am educated, yet I knew next to nothing about the civil rights movement of the 50s and 60s. So I picked up this 500 page biography of Martin Luther King, published in 1982. I was immediately struck by the very recent history of this country, the history we have all heard a little about, but I think may not have studied in much detail. Black Americans were treated like animals in the Southern US as recently as the 1960s, and this book makes that point clear. King was a brilliant young minister from Atlanta who held his first pastoral duties in Birmingham, Alabama. Holding a PhD in systematic theology, King was highly academic, and initially approached his sermons in an intellectual manner. But the racism and segregation of Birmingham could not be long ignored by Rev. King. It seems he really struggled to keep is church and ideology focused on Jesus, heaven, salvation of souls and the afterlife. But he was forced to concede that a church which does no good for humanity while on this earth is not a church at all. He went full throttle into social activism and civil rights and never looked back.
King’s life and activism is too full to summarize beyond this point. Pick up the book at the library, and read it for yourself.
At about the time I read this book, I was content with my Christian beliefs, and holding small group Bible studies in my home. I had good Christian friends who attended. We shared life experiences together, talked and prayed about showing Christian love to the world, then .. talked and prayed about it some more. I went to a Baptist church which focused its energies on strengthening families and relationships. But I was a little unsettled. It all seemed too secure and comfortable. Rallying our small group to go give aid to the elderly, or visit the retirement home (one of my favorite things to do) became a real chore. We would plan, organize and plan and plan until we had planned things to death, and never do much of anything. And I am not trashing my old church-goers, because I was just as guilty of apathy as anyone in our group. I had the best of intentions, but in the end it cost too much time. Time is a precious resource, and in many ways more difficult to give than money.
Reading about MLK was seriously convicting to my Christian faith on that basis. This was a man who gave up everything for what he believed, even to the point of neglecting his family (which I could never do – nor intend to do). My brand of Christianity seemed tepid and too easy. King, and many others gave their lives to make the world aware of the injustices of the world, and to protest for change. King was a huge admirer and follower of Mahatma Gandhi, who lived as Christ-like a life as anyone who ever walked the face of the earth. But Gandhi was most definitely not filled with the Holy Spirit, according to my long held beliefs. So, I wondered, just how is Christ working in my life to make the world better? No, I am not talking about being another MLK – that is just silly. Just doing my share to help the desperately poor who live just across the border from me, to help the handicapped children ministry, or visit the elderly and sick? Is the Holy Spirit really empowering me or any of my other Christian friends with the Fruits of the Spirit any more than my good and respectable, but non-believing neighbors?
It seemed like a simple question but it was unsolvable to me. Christians are capable of great charity, but no more, it seemed, than any other charitable heathen. It certainly was not evident in my life, even though I had a heart for giving. A Christian friend even suggested to me that people cannot truly love unless the Holy Spirit resides in them. Absurd statements like these from my fellow Christians did not help the situation any.
In 1963, MLK was arrested (again) for peacefully protesting segregation in Birmingham, Alabama. While he was in jail, eight white pastors from around the state wrote the local newspaper, and editorialized against King’s activism. They figured he should be a good preacher, stay behind the pulpit, and keep his nose out of trouble. In response, King wrote what came to be known as “Letter from Birmingham Jail” on scraps of paper, and smuggled out by his lawyer bit by bit while he was in solitary confinement. This section from Letter from Birmingham Jail will stay with me always:
There was a time when the church was very powerful in the time when the early Christians rejoiced at being deemed worthy to suffer for what they believed. In those days the church was not merely a thermometer that recorded the ideas and principles of popular opinion; it was a thermostat that transformed the mores of society. Whenever the early Christians entered a town, the people in power became disturbed and immediately sought to convict the Christians for being “disturbers of the peace” and “outside agitators”‘ But the Christians pressed on, in the conviction that they were “a colony of heaven,” called to obey God rather than man. Small in number, they were big in commitment. They were too God intoxicated to be “astronomically intimidated.” By their effort and example they brought an end to such ancient evils as infanticide and gladiatorial contests.
Things are different now. So often the contemporary church is a weak, ineffectual voice with an uncertain sound. So often it is an archdefender of the status quo. Far from being disturbed by the presence of the church, the power structure of the average community is consoled by the church’s silent and often even vocal sanction of things as they are.
But the judgment of God is upon the church as never before. If today’s church does not recapture the sacrificial spirit of the early church, it will lose its authenticity, forfeit the loyalty of millions, and be dismissed as an irrelevant social club with no meaning for the twentieth century. Every day I meet young people whose disappointment with the church has turned into outright disgust.
Wow. An irrelevant social club. That hurt. I read this powerful letter as though it were written directly to my Baptist Church, to my friends and to myself. It really stung. I even brought it to my small group and read the above passage to my friends before Bible Study. I wanted to motivate them into some kind of conviction of our condition, but it was met by my Spirit Empowered friends with general apathy. After this passage from Letter from Birmingham Jail was received with a few condescending nods of agreement, we again fell into our routine, and read a couple of verses from the end of James about loving and praying for the sick among us.
After that, I could no longer go back to my old Baptist church. I viewed my brand of Christianity to be empty, nearly vacuous, and not doing myself nor anyone else much good. The Holy Spirit, I felt, was not empowering me nor anyone else to do anything, despite my prayerful and devotional lifestyle. I came to realize that if I wanted to do good for my neighbors, I needed to just stop praying, reading Bible passages and being a pious piss-ant and JUST DO IT. Funny thing is, my wife agreed with me without even reading the book. Some of us have natural insights that others do not.
That was the crack in the door, and I could not go back from there. I felt if there was something missing from my Christian faith, I had better do a little reading, contemplating, praying, and get to the bottom of it. The faith story goes on from there, and it continues to unwind to this day. It has evolved to the point that … well, it has evolved to the point that I am now writing articles on a blogsite named ‘agnostic atheism’. But that was the beginning. I used to think that is a strange way to begin questioning my own beliefs, but now I don’t think so. I think everyone who seriously contemplates their faith, no matter what the outcome, is fueled by an unlikely catalyst
As a loving and charitable old friend of mine once said, “I would love to be a nun, if it were not for all that religion and belief in God that comes with it”.