IS THIS ALL THERE IS?
The story goes something like this. Two guys are conversing on a plane. One of them is a Christian. After discussing the issue of faith for a few minutes the non-Christian asks, “What if all of that stuff you believe isn’t true? What if we’re just riding on this ball in space and when it’s over, we’re over?”
The Christian pauses; responds, “If it’s not true, I believe I have at least become a better person and have contributed something worthwhile to the world. If it is true, all the better for me, but not so much for you.”
Amusing to some, rude, to others; nevertheless, the trigger question is the primal query that haunts every human being in the still hours, to whit: is this all there is?
I was reminded of this anecdote after reading a thirty-something’s review of her “Jesus years” as a teen and young adult, her subsequent abandonment of her experiences, and her lingering existential angst. As she puts it, “Socially, I sometimes miss Christianity. Intellectually, I’m OK being rid of it. Spiritually? To be honest, in a tiny crack in my soul, I’m still figuring that out” . She’s still, like the non-Christian on the plane, wondering…
A stint studying religion in Yale graduate school apparently scraped the veneer off of this young woman’s concept of Christianity and, apparently, her zeal as well. Studying from the vantage point of historical critical methodology (only one of several schools of literary criticism through which to “view” a text, by the way, but very popular in this so-called “post modern” era ), she came to critical doubt (as well as some embarrassment, she admits). The weight of it was, apparently, too much.
When I was in my twenties and, like the writer, a relatively new believer, I was also exposed to a tightly focused study of the Bible presented in the historical critical viewfinder. However, my reaction was quite different.
To back up a bit. In addition to our differing responses to lit crit as applied to the Bible, the author and I differed in several other key ways in our twenties.
Unlike her, I did have a religious background, the same Roman Catholicism of her parents. But I was nearly all of the way out of the door of that system by the time I picked up a religious text again. Additionally, I was far, far too cynical to have fallen for or even listened to any polished-faced, hyped-up, slicked-back, suit-and-tie-clad guru (of any faith) trying to stop my critical thinking process via some contrived emotional razz-matazz. (See what I mean?)
I’d had enough of church and rules and Hell and Purgatory and frustration and a grueling sense of my own corruption instilled in me from a very young age precluding any sense of the concept that someone named Jesus, no matter what He did for me, could possibly “love” me. Incense, stained glass windows, confessional booths notwithstanding.
I don’t know that even now, some forty years later, I could tell you I have ever had the kind of emotional experience the author says she experienced in the heady Jesus culture she clung to in her more recent past. (For me, I think this has to do with bits of pieces of “cynicism-shrapnel” that still surface from time to time more so than any judgment against emotional religious experiences.)
Indeed, my moment of turning to God occurred one relatively quiet evening alone in my apartment while scanning the contents of my bookshelf and realizing I hadn’t found the answer to that primal question, either. Not in all those books. Not in higher education. I hadn’t found it in my relationships, among my peers, certainly not in Roman Catholicism, or anywhere else human beings looks for answers.
Then my eyes fell on a Bible I had recently borrowed from my sister-in-law.
What follows is bad news, good news, and a never-ending story.
WARNING: the next paragraph is not for the spiritually faint of heart. But it quickly gets better.
I opened the Bible to the text on “eating my flesh and drinking my blood” (John 6:53) and was immediately grossed out. I’d heard the passage innumerable times at “Mass” when the priest prayed over the bit of bread to allegedly change it to Christ’s body and blood. I had never, however, viewed it objectively. Cannibalism! And at that moment, I found it truly disgusting. I threw the book across the room.
Just then, a scrap of Scripture floated past my mind’s eye” “No one knows the day nor the hour…” (Matthew 24:36)
Now, what little I knew from past, priest-approved Bible sound bytes was that this referred somehow to the end of the world, but to me at that moment in time, mid-twenties, mid-century, Mid-America, it meant one thing: this was my time. To what? Make a choice. Was all I knew. For sure.
Sans evangelical mumbo-jumbo, sans pontifications, sans smart people with a lot of letters after their names and a claim to fame in the world of scholarly publications, this was simply and profoundly my time to choose: God or no God?
Something else surfaced, too: despite my cynicism, disappointment with religion, and utter lack of un-sponsored interpretation of the Bible I understood that this text was a chronicle of “what else there is.”
“I choose you, God,” I said, slowly…
No bells and whistles, no emotional riffs, no sound of the Hallelujah Chorus filled the apartment. A little Cecil B. DeMille-esque rushing wind or Charlton Heston waving his Moses staff would have been appropriate, however. Well, maybe not. I would have immediately rejected the hype. Charlton Heston notwithstanding.
I knew, however, Things Were Different for me. The Real Adventure was about to begin.
I gingerly opened the Bible and re-read the previously “offensive verse.” Curiously, the few lines didn’t run on and on dripping in blood and gore which was my previous impression. They were simple, metaphorical. I love metaphor. I got it.
All I can say of truth and surety from then on is that the Hound of Heaven hasn’t let me go—nor I, the Hound of Heaven.
Now, fast forward to my historical critical methodological study of the scriptures a few years later.
WHICH COMES FIRST?
I was pretty sure I had it figured out: if you wanted to learn something, you found a class with a smart teacher, bought the books and paid attention. I found a Bible study through, ironically, the local Catholic church. I wasn’t ready yet to trust First Anathema Protestant (see: Council of Trent).
The leader was actually a priest who was a contributing scholar to historical critical methodology although I, as of yet, had no idea about various and sundry, non-pope-approved study guides. I was just hungry, that’s all. I wanted hope not hype. I longed for truth. I wanted to know how people could actually believe God loved them. I wanted the “what’s next” in my fledgling walk with the Lord. I wondered what the expression “walk with the Lord” meant. And this guy, although controversial, I had heard, seemed to offer more than just the Sunday-feel-good kind of Bible lesson.
A year or so into the heady classes, however, I began to feel the “crack in my (own) soul.” And it widened as my hunger for truth increased in spite of all this effort. Despite the intellectual satisfaction and challenge of meaty messages, at least in the literary sense, with some Greek and Hebrew thrown in for good measure, my spirit still thirsted. Worse, cynicism was trying to wedge its jack-booted foot back in the door.
And so of another evening it was back to me and God.
“This isn’t quite cutting it,” I confessed out loud. ”In spite of all of this, God, I still seem to be missing something. What about the joy? What about that ‘peace that passes understanding’ business? What am I supposed to even be asking, here?”
Even before the question mark on the end of my rant dried, this thought surfaced: “You are going to books to find Me; come to Me, and I will reveal the Word to you.”
Whoa. Okay, then.
I had heard Jesus was the Word Made Flesh, the text in the skin, the “showing” of God’s salvation, not just the “telling.”
I did know this much: that God so loved the world that He sent His only Son, not just jots and tittles on papyrus, not just learned scholars laboring to cipher codes, not just psalms and narratives, discourses and histories, but God sent Flesh of His Flesh, as it were, to die in our stead as the one time perfect sacrifice for sins.
I had a cursory understanding, much added to since, that all that ink on paper referred to a Man, also God, Who slipped through the seam separating heaven and earth to spend time here walking, talking, laughing, loving, weeping with us and dying for us. He literally lived all those nouns and verbs and sorrows and triumphs in the Book. Jesus was The Story, 3-D version, in living color, joy, and pain, the raison d’etre all those prophets of old and monks in dank cells worked so methodically scribing the story, 2-D…
I got it.
And I realized just then that I had, as the aphorism goes, put the cart before the horse, started at the wrong end of things. God was right.
Which is how, several years into my “choice,” I began the “walk,” i.e., aligning with the Way, Truth, and Life professed by the One Who also walked here.
My faith in Christ may have begun a few years’ prior in the middle of a puddle of existential angst, but at this time I understood “where to next.” More importantly, “how.”
To the same place God invites all: the feet of His Son, not some Millennial Jesus Hype-Man (or the equivalent back in my day: the Hippie Messiah of the Jesus Movement) but the Savior.
I understood the way to start this journey was by putting faith in Him.
When some time later I entered my own graduate studies in the California State University system (subject, humanities; focus, literature) wherein I, too, was challenged intellectually every which way from Sunday (figuratively and literally), I then had Someone to help me perceive when and what and if to speak and when to remain silent; to discern when and how to insert the diverse Christian worldview in classroom discourse and when to merely pose a suggestion, causing maybe a faint little fissure in somebody’s literary worldview.
With all due respect.
Just maybe the teensiest little crack.
The kind of annoyance that might keep her up several minutes past self-satisfaction, that might come to mind in the middle of some existential muddle of his own, that might prompt each to not give up completely on the primal question, the answer–or the journey.
I hope the article author keeps working that “crack” in her soul. In my view, through it and beyond is as wild a ride on this ball in space as one could want—not to mention in the place hereafter.
And we get a Tour Guide, to boot.
Here’s a little traveling music from back in the day, courtesy of Reba Rambo:
 This article was brought to my attention here: http://endtimesprophecyreport.wordpress.com/2014/05/22/end-times-prophecy-headlines-may-22-2014/
 For a brief overview of this genre of literary criticism, see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Higher_criticism
For a more scholarly view, see http://users.wfu.edu/horton/r102/hc-method.html
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And thank you for stopping by!
As I read the article I am responding to in this post, I found myself wanting to shout, “Don’t give up!”
I think non-believers and newcomers sometimes think the sound byte hype, emotional buzz, and bumper-sticker slogans are all there is to Christianity. And working in the academic arena, I know a certain portion of the population also thinks that you have to check your intellect at the door should you convert while another segment thinks it a sin to query God with gut-honest questions that might not sound too nice in the pew or at the pot luck.
At any rate, I’m glad we are allowed to be real, and I love the freedom of thought and emotion and creativity we have in Christ Jesus.
I am so refreshed by the way you tackle “The Question” no one is asking out loud. Tackling the pachyderm in the room so to speak :). (Insert here a humorous image of you flying horizontal, in mid air to tackle a creature ten times your size! 🙂 … Couldn’t find a graphic for that, you’ll just have to use your imagination, which in my case was much funnier!
What a wonderful testimony. I think many of us can relate. I too found God (or better, He was simply waiting for me to acknowledge Him), then I went to church, lost my love for God, left the church and found Him again. Our Lord may be found in the church, but the church is a very poor substitute for a heart-to-heart relationship with Him.
I loved your story. Raw and real and intriguing. As always, thank you for sharing.