It’s been a long time since I read a novel and in the last two days I remembered why it has been so long. Good novels devour me. I’ve read hundreds (no doubt many, many hundreds if you add novels for children and adolescents that I devoured as a teacher-librarian) and when I’m hooked on one everything else — work, household, sleep — takes a backseat till I finish it. In recent years I’ve chosen to focus on nonfiction — sciences, history, current affairs and media, psychology, anthropology and biblical studies mostly. Reading novels at the same time will put a halt to all that and more, especially since I am a way too terribly slow reader for my liking.
Over the last two days I have read a novel by an American who is now living in Australia, Amy Espeseth, Sufficient Grace. I blogged on this novel a month ago after hearing a radio interview with the author — The Beauty and Pain of Fundamentalist Religion. Since then (partly in response to Amy herself who tweeted me to say she’d be interested to know what I myself thought of the novel) I found a second hand copy on eBay (if I paid full price for every book I own I’d be enslaved to multiple mortgages) and read it as soon as it arrived. I could scarcely resist making it a reading project of mine since I also, after leaving a conservative or fundamentalist type of religion, had often toyed with the idea of writing a novel about my experience, too. Several plot-lines ran through my head.
In some ways the first part of the novel was not quite what I had expected from what I heard on the radio interview. The interviewer, as I recalled, spoke of the church folk living a life of something akin to happy innocence, at least on the surface. The author was said to clearly feel a real sympathy for these people. Yes, I could feel the sympathy. How can we not feel sympathy for many loved ones we have left behind? But Amy Espeseth’s novel is, at least according to the way I read it, many metaphors within metaphors. The families thrive on hunting, and the animals and nature are, to my mind at least, clearly foils setting the stage for the theme that is to soon erupt in lava flows. I felt the hard and cruel signs that something was not quite right beneath the surface of the lives of these God-fearing and self-contained people. Perhaps that’s where my own experiences took over and prepared me well for the horrific tragedy to come. Continue reading “Christianity’s Impotence Before Real Guilt. (Reflections upon the novel “Sufficient Grace” by Amy Espeseth)”
One of the books I read while in the process of questioning my faith some years ago was The Mind of the Bible Believer by Edmund Cohen. I loved parts and hated much of it. My copy of the book is still pencilled through with many indignant notes I made at the time. Now I can look back and see these notes as indicators of how I was struggling at the time with leaving religion and how there was much I could not immediately bring myself to admit.
He begins a chapter on “The Evangelical Mind Control System” with a section headed the same as this post. I have seven pencilled marks in this two page section (pp. 170-1), questioning and disagreeing strongly with what he wrote. I read it now and see what a different person I was back then.
The best things in the Bible are superficial. . . .
What I mean by persona of the Bible . . . is an apparent relevancy of teaching and promise of benefit that finally turn out to have totally different from what the new inductee was led to think. . . . Little by little, newcomers are brought along to understand the teachings to mean something altogether different from what appeared on the surface — and oriented toward the next life, not this one. But one kind of promise, the kind that indicates a tranquilized, soporific, guilt-assuaging state of mind will be experienced, is kept, albeit by a means with a net detrimental effect on mental health.
This was written in 1988 before the advent of “prosperity gospel” fad. But then again, the idea that God blesses materially the righteous has been around ever since the Protestant Reformation. I recall living in dire economic straits through much of my religious life, and whenever a small blessing or boon, however temporary, came my way, I would be so thankful for such a small or momentary blessing, or slight relief. It mattered not that my basic condition was not substantially better. One learns to interpret the smallest and ephemeral chance lucky breaks as showers of blessings from heaven.
Cohen shows how the believer is weaned away from
the surface notion that ministry to assuage physical want and suffering is called for, toward the view that only ministry of the salvation message is proper, to bring the huddled masses of the world into bliss in the next life so as to make irrelevant whatever whatever they may have suffered in this one, and away from the notion that freedom in the Bible means political freedom, toward the “insight” that there is no such thing as freedom, except from bondage of sin.
This is surely one of the most pernicious of biblical/evangelistic teachings. How many wives endure beatings because they feel they must never let a sinful thought or feeling raise itself against their husbands. How many injustices are observed with an aloofness borne of one self-obsessed with the purity of one’s own thoughts and feelings. Or with a Pharisaical detachment that convinces oneself that nothing significant can be done in this life, so all one can do is pray for the next one to come. (I know, Pharisees weren’t historically like that as a group really. I’m using the term with the meaning it as comes to acquire from the gospel teaching.)
the believer must be weaned away from the come-on notion that healing of his own or his loved ones’ physical illness — or this-worldly personal success or prosperity — is in view, or else practical experience will conflict with the religious scheme and discredit it. . . .
Yup. Exactly how it was. And it’s deadly. Too many die in the process. Both from the administration of prayer instead of medical care and from poverty that is inevitably associated with a shorter life-span for a host of reasons.
the more deeply indoctrinated convert softens himself up to be sold some reactionary political teaching, and if he gets well enough indoctrinated to know that teaching to be unbiblical, he goes on doing his discipline relentlessly and ends up despising nothing so much (or so defensively) as genuine human spontaneity and cheerfulness.
And there are real innate radicals and lefties in such religions. But they keep it under wraps and manage to think in some kind of double-bind.
But that last sentence there brings to mind a brief discussion I once had with a Bishop, John Shelby Spong, whom I thanked for his book that helped me on my way to atheism! 🙂 He’s heard it all before, of course, because he remains disappointed that his own biblical studies mentor, Michael Goulder, became an atheist. I remarked how much more relaxed and “at peace” I felt since becoming an atheist, which was ironic because I always thought as a believer I was imbued with a real inner peace of God. (Recall, rather, Cohen’s more honest description above: “a tranquilized, soporific, guilt-assuaging state of mind“.) Spong replied that he has noticed this many times with those who leave the faith and become atheists, and noted how there really is “an uptightness” about so many (most, I think) believers. And that’s what came to mind when I re-read that last line of Cohen’s above, “despising nothing so much . . . as genuine human spontaneity . . .” That, thinks the believer, is the way to sin.
If a picture is worth a thousand words a joke is equal to the two pages I discussed here:
Sam and Joe are taking a walk, when they come upon a church. A sign says “CONVERT AND RECEIVE A THOUSAND DOLLARS”. Sam says “You stay here. I’m going in to convert. “Some time later, he comes back out. Joe says, “Well, did you get the thousand dollars? “Sam says, “What’s the matter? Is that all you people think about?”
Spong may not present the strongest arguments for the historicity of Jesus but who cares when he delivers such a clearheaded critique of the sins of religion and advances a wonderfully humane message for religious and nonreligious alike, as he does in his new book, Jesus for the Non Religious.
In explaining religious anger (does one need any examples here? Spong says of the 16 serious death threats he has received not one was from an atheist, Hindu, Buddhist, Moslem, leaving only you-know-who) Spong points the finger directly at the violent and angry god Christians worship. Christians are quick to deny this, saying they worship a God who sent his Son to die for our sins, who always extends his mercy to us. And that message, says Spong, was not the message of the earliest disciples and it contains the seeds of the most pernicious and destructive of attitudes. Continue reading “Thank (the non-theistic) God for Spong: Why religious violence”