An Atheist Reads the Bible – Part 3 (Rocky Road to Redemption)

Part 3 of my series An Atheist Reads the Bible. This piece covers the first half of Acts of the Apostles. Other pieces in this series can be read here.

1. Preaching to the Converted

The most iconic story in the Book of Acts is the transformation of Saul of Tarsus into Paul the Apostle, brought about by his pledge to accept the teachings of Christ and begin preaching to Jew and Gentile alike. This sudden turnaround, and it is quite sudden, comes for Paul after a career persecuting the early followers of Jesus.

The story is familiar. On the road to Damascus, Paul is met with a vision of the resurrected Jesus who says, “Saul, Saul, why persecutest thou me (Acts, 9:4)?” An awestruck Paul asks what he must do, to which the vision replies, “Arise, and go into the city, and it shall be told thee what thou must do (Acts, 9:6).”

Paul is left blind for three days before being cured by Ananias, a recent disciple who was commanded by a vision of Jesus to find Paul and restore his sight. Jesus informs Ananias that Paul is “…a chosen vessel unto me, to bear my name before the Gentiles and kings, and the children of Israel (Acts, 9:15).”

When Ananias reaches Paul and lays his hand upon the latter, the scales that blinded Paul fall from his eyes, restoring his sight, and “straightway in the synagogues he proclaimed Jesus, that he is the Son of God (Acts, 9:20).”

Saul of Tarsus, who previously “laid waste the church, entering into every house, and dragging men and women committed them to prison (Acts, 8:3),” is now Paul the Apostle, to whom a significant chunk of the New Testament has often been attributed, and the founder of Christianity’s first established churches.

Paul’s work dominates much of Acts and so too does the theme of conversion. The number of disciples increases throughout the text, beginning when the Apostles choose seven men to take up the responsibility of preaching Christ. Among them is Stephen, “a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit (Acts, 6:5),” who, “full of grace and power, wrought great wonders and signs among the people (Acts, 6:8).” Those within the synagogues who engage in disputes with Stephen over his preachings are “not able to withstand the wisdom and the Spirit by which he spake (Acts, 6:10).”

Stephen becomes the first martyr of Christianity, stoned to death for what at the time were heretical beliefs.  Stephen, however, is ultimately the victor. Though he dies, he is willing to die. The Apostles as a collective are willing to defy the authorities in the synagogues. They are the conveyors of a truth received directly from on high and will not be silenced. They are at all costs to bring the teachings of Jesus to the masses.

This is very much a text for the faithful. It may seem silly to say such a thing about a section of the Bible, a book dedicated entirely to faith, but Acts is without question the most religious section of the Bible that I have read so far. Here, Christianity is becoming a religion, transforming a collection of fragmented teachings of a single preacher from Nazareth into a cohesive movement that is rebelling against existing institutions and in the very early stages of becoming its own institution.

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An Atheist Reads the Bible – Part 2 (Radical Love)

This piece is part of an ongoing series that I have been writing called An Atheist Reads the Bible. The title explains the concept. I, an atheist, attempt to read the Bible and then I write about it. Everything that I write as part of this series will be collected here.

1. Reform

Common throughout the Gospels is a sense that something new and radical is happening as Jesus begins to preach. Running through the most famous speeches of these texts is the notion that Jesus is overthrowing an old order and bringing new wisdom that is to henceforth be taken as truth. The man himself asserts the “newness” of his philosophy most forcefully in the Sermon on the Mount, the constant refrain of which is, “Ye have heard that it hath been said…”

The rest is quite familiar even to those who have never read the text. Though we have heard to take an eye for an eye, we are now to turn the other cheek. Just as we have heard that we are to hate our enemies, now we must love them. The rules and commandments of the ages before the Gospels, at least according to their authors, are for the most part no longer in play. Jesus’ commandments now reign supreme and according to him, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me (Mark, 14:6).”

It’s certainly not new for a religious text to claim that it holds a monopoly on truth and the way to salvation. This is and forever has been the domain of supposed prophets. Indeed, these sections of the text, those in which angels descend to foretell of a coming messiah and in which authors go to painstaking lengths to trace Jesus’ genealogy to Old Testament prophets – I am looking at you, Matthew – feel tedious and empty, perhaps because I lack any inclination to a belief in the supernatural.

I wrote previously of how seemingly irrational the tenets of Jesus’ teaching can seem, namely his abandon in embracing the sick and those deemed dangerous outcasts. This theme strikes me again and again as I work my way through the Gospels. The demands that Jesus makes of individuals, the things he asks them to sacrifice, are shocking. This is the real fruit of the Gospels.

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An Atheist Reads the Bible – Part 1 (Becoming a Miracle Worker)

Last year, I decided that I was going to read the Bible. The whole thing. I don’t know why. Just as I’ve decided that I am going to run a full marathon and teach myself a whole new language, over the last year or so I seem to have shunned the idea of small goals that were challenging but achievable.

Reading an excerpt from the Bible each day should have been the easiest of these goals, yet I’ve made far more progress toward my goal of running a full marathon despite starting 2012 in the worst shape of my life and learning a new language despite trying to do so several times before and failing miserably.

I own a copy of the Bible, as does pretty much anyone. I’ve read many portions of it before and of course have heard the stories again and again. Yet somehow I couldn’t maintain the discipline to stick to my reading schedule and often lost interest for lengthy periods of time before giving up altogether.

In January of this year I tried again. I lasted about a week. I tried several different reading plans and none were working for me. Thankfully, a dear friend stepped in with a sensible and almost too obvious strategy. Read one psalm, or half it it’s long, and a chapter of one of the Gospels each day. This approach allows me to take on small portions at a time, provides continuity in reading, and sets no target dates for finishing, which I had been doing previously. This is my new starting point.

Currently, other than the Psalms, I am working my way through Mark. This, I hope, will be the first of many reflections that I offer readers.

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Practice Makes Perfect (On Surviving Christmas)

This piece is inspired by The Atheist’s Guide to Christmas , a superb collection of essays on the Holiday season written by atheist scientists, writers, comedians, and thinkers. The book offers funny, thoughtful, and practical advice for surviving Christmas and appreciating its finer aspects, regardless of one’s belief system. I’ve also dropped in some of my favourite Christmas tunes throughout.

Christmas comes but once a year, and an often hellish time it is. It’s easy to understand why. Gathering together a massive collection of your insane relatives, your insane drunk relatives, your insane racist relatives, your insane homophobic relatives, your insane judgemental relatives, all of whom you have little contact with throughout the year and thus really mean very little to you, all for the sake of engaging in an orgy of smalltalk and gluttony that often leaves one feeling unwell and guilty by the time it’s all done really isn’t a brilliant idea.

Almost everything about Christmas is irrational and would make no sense at any other time of year and even in mid to late December can only really be justified with the qualification of “Come on, it’s Christmas!” This is how we justify spending an ungodly amount on gifts that are usually impractical both in terms of cost and usefulness, horrid food and beverages like Christmas pudding and eggnog, extremely wasteful Christmas lights and displays on our front lawns, and the absolutely insufferable musical stylings of Michael Bublé.

Exactly how can the existence of eggnog, something that goes bad faster than you can drink it, is loaded with fat, can only be made tolerable with alcohol, and makes you (or at least me) sick almost immediately upon consumption, be rationally justified? Any other time of the year, we would see it for what it is, an inexplicably expensive health hazard that cannot be relied as a source of nutrition or enjoyment. But, of course, come the day after Halloween – we’re lucky if Christmas starts that late – we fall in line with the Holiday spirit and make our customary visits to “friends” and “love ones,” who offer us a festive drink that we do not dare turn down for fear of being rude. As the Christmas Industrial Complex has expanded beyond limits, the Nog is also now available in latte form, coffee form, tea form, etc.

But I digress. My objective here is not to write another curmudgeonly rant against the Christmas season laced with snark, the type of which is now as clichéd and liable to make you roll your eyes as the most saccharine and overdone of Christmas customs. I do believe, however, that Christmas asks us to do so much that we’re not used to doing, and such is the source of our greatest anxieties at this time of year.

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The Fruits of Silence (My Unlikely Kinship with Thomas Merton)

As a man, especially as one whose vocation was monasticism, Thomas Merton was something of a contradiction. The Cistercian is without doubt one of the most well-known and revered religious figures of the twentieth century. Merton’s autobiography The Seven Storey Mountain is, according to the back cover of my own edition, “one of the most famous books ever written about a man’s search for faith and peace,” and one that draws sincere comparisons to Augustine’s Confessions.

This fame comes despite the fact that for many, Merton was hardly a shining example of a Trappist. I learned this on a recent visit to the doctor’s office to which I carried the Seven Storey Mountain under my arm to help pass time in the waiting room. The gentleman sitting next to me recognized the book and informed me that it was a banned book at the seminary where he had spent four years during the late 50s.

Certainly, Merton was unconventional. When he entered the Abbey of Gethsemani, he established his own hermitage separate from the other monks, devoting himself to writing and correspondence with many other religious figures, particularly in the East. His unconventionality as a monk reached its peak when Merton left the abbey in 1968 for a tour of Asia to meet with a series of religious figures and leaders, including the Dalai Lama. It was on this trip that Merton died from accidental electrocution.

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