Friday, June 5, 2009
So my old acquaintance from high school, now a Jesus freak, had provoked me into searching the Bible for contradictions and, beyond that, to attempt to determine whether this Jesus these people claimed to love was some sort of con man, a lunatic, or was who he claimed to be--if he'd ever existed at all. I felt I needed to determine these things by my own investigation so I could tell myself, and others in the future, that I had made an honest inquiry into the matter and had come to an informed decision. What I was not setting out to do was to explore all the world's religions, or to compare them all with Christianity. I was only interested in doing an adequate enough study of the Christian documents--the New Testament--which would intellectually entitle me to then reject them on the basis of my own first-hand study. This way, when confronted again sometime in the future by a Christian, whether a Jesus freak like my buddy or some high-church suit-and-tie type, I would be perfectly comfortable in asserting, "Yes, I have read the Bible myself and have found it completely unbelievable and utterly unconvincing. It has quite a number of contradictions and logical fallacies in it, such as..." and here I would toss my evidence on the conversational table like slapping down a pair of aces.
Reading the Bible might prove an unpleasant task, but the chore would be well worth doing if--as I was sure it would--it bolstered my reasons for rejecting the Christian message. "Hmmm," I thought to myself, "this Bible reading project might just turn out to be as rewarding as my reading of Bertrand Russell's book, Why I Am Not a Christian, a few years back." That was the book I had used to great effect--or so I imagined--in high school when confronted by Jesus People handing me a gospel tract like The Four Spiritual Laws, or when they were so bold as to "witness" to me with something like, "Do you know God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life?" I'd reply by saying with a little sneer, "Do you know the Spanish Inquisition killed thousands of Jews and Muslims? Don't talk to me about your so-called "loving" God!" If that didn't do the trick and shut them up, I'd brush them off with the "crutch" charge. They might begin, "The Bible says that God so loved the world he sent..." and I'd cut in with, "Yeah, yeah, all that religion stuff is just a crutch for the ignorant, to keep them compliant. But if it makes you feel good to think about Jesus and God's love, go right ahead--whatever turns you on."
With this less-than-receptive frame of mind, I set out to actually read the gospel stories for the very first time. It's not that I didn't know what was in them--in a vague and general sort of way. I knew they claimed for Jesus a virgin birth, that there was John the Baptist, the disciples, John 3:16, some guy named Pontius Pilate, and, of course, a crucifixion and resurrection. These things I'd learned from Episcopal Sunday school and liturgy in addition to being enrolled in Vacation Bible School by my Baptist grandmother each summer. There, between craft projects (leather wallet, Indian beaded bracelet, pounded copper picture, wood-burning) we would be treated to felt board presentations depicting Bible stories. Compared to watching Bonanza in color on the neighbor's TV, the felt board was rather boring. Nonetheless, the most basic elements of the Jesus story were duly planted in my developing brain--and soul.
I now don't even know who gave me the Bible I first read back then, back in the summer of 1971. I know it was a paperback, contemporary version, done by J.B. Phillips. This smoothed the way for me to confront the story and teachings of Jesus plainly, without the "Thees and Thous" of the King James distracting me. In addition to beginning to read the Bible, I decided I would add to my "research" a weekly visit to the Sunday evening gathering of the Jesus people there at All Saints Episcopal Church. It was not until later I learned that Lonnie Frisbee and his Jesus-freak followers were only borrowing the building and were not a part of that church. They were Hippies-turned-Jesus-People evangelists sent from Calvary Chapel in Costa Mesa by Chuck Smith. My motives for meeting with the Jesus People were very mixed. On the one hand, the beautiful Jesus girl was going there and I could give her a ride each week. For that I was willing to sit and listen to a hippy preacher. On the other hand, I could observe the Jesus freaks and try to find an answer to the question in my mind, "What could have so influenced all these peers of mine as to make them give up pot and free love in exchange for some crazy rule-infested Jesus lifestyle?" It made no sense to me. I, however, was an intellectual. I'd get to the bottom of it: a mass psychological malady of some kind no doubt.