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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My Year as a Tutor: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

Today marked my final session with the two students I have been tutoring since the beginning of the school year last September as a part-time gig while in classes. Rather than spending the day forcing them to work or practise their reading comprehension as I often do, I simply let the session pass giving my two students the choice to do whatever they felt like doing. Immediately, they chose to spend the session on the computers at the school’s library where our tutoring sessions take place. I had been depriving them of this privilege nearly the entire year feeling that it was a distraction from what they really should have been focussing on, namely their reading. This is primarily because my two students were enrolled in this program specifically due to the fact that they were far behind the literacy standards for their grade level and severely needed to play catchup lest the problem exacerbate itself in the coming years.

It’s a written law, however, that on the last day of anything school related, no one is to do what they’re actually there to do. The last day of school is usually reserved for “class parties” featuring a wide assortment of sugary snacks and soft drinks donated by the students (the parents, really). The class might watch a movie or play games, but no matter what there was to be no talk of actual school work (if you could call what we did in elementary school work). I only had two students under my charge and lacked the resources for doing anything extravagant. I knew, however, that a session on the computers would be more than sufficient to make them happy, so for the last day of tutoring, I didn’t resist their demands.

In some sense, this was the most meaningful session I’ve had with my students all year. As they used an art program that was around even when I was a kid, I got to engage in the most informal conversation I’ve had with them all year, and it’s these informal conversations which are always the most meaningful. They asked me about life as a university student and seemed easily amazed at the amount of work that was required of me. As they composed their artwork on the computer, I snuck in a few art history lessons just for the hell of it using my feeble knowledge of the subject. I gained more insights than I had all year about their likes and dislikes, their fears and the sense of humour they shared.

When our session came to an end, I left them with their simple parting gifts and was sure for the first time that I had made some breakthroughs with them during our time together. I  felt for the first time with some certainty that they looked up to me and were appreciative of what I did as a tutor. They repeated their pledge to spend the summer reading and why it was important to do so  told me that I was the “best tutor ever.” I’m pretty sure, however, that I am the only tutor they have ever had and this might have been an after-effect of the gifts I gave them, but it was a nice sentiment nonetheless and it’s always nice to know that you are appreciated for something. This entire venture has been, simply stated, a learning experience. As contrived as it may sound, I learned far more from my students that they probably learned from me. I may have taught them the basic mathematical operations and bolstered their literacy in whatever manner I could, but I emerged with a myriad of life lessons which will forever impact my worldview.

Here’s how I basically break down the whole experience.
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