The Easter Challenge

Dan Barker has issued a perennial challenge to Christians. In it, Dan asks, “tell me what happened on Easter. I am not asking for proof. My straightforward request is merely that Christians tell me exactly what happened on the day that their most important doctrine was born.” The terms of this challenge are to harmonize the gospel accounts from Easter morning until the end of each gospel, without omitting a single detail.

More than a decade ago, I decided to take up this challenge, simply to familiarize myself with the issues involved with this challenge, so that I may be better informed when discussing the gospel accounts with others. I intended to take as liberal a position as possible, including all non-redundant events under the assumption that differing details are omissions between the accounts. For convenience, when an event is recorded in two or more gospels, I included the text from the older source (assuming that Mark is the oldest account, followed by Matthew, Luke and John).

I did not include text from Mark 9-20, since it is not found in the original manuscripts, and most of its narrative content is a paraphrase of other gospels. I also did not include Acts 1:3-12, since the account in Luke ends with an ascension, and I will not be including Paul’s formula in 1 Corinthians 15:3-8, since it does not contribute any narrative details in a context which promotes harmonization.

My source text translation is the New American Standard Bible.

Mark 16

[verses 9-20 are later additions to Mark, and considered later interpolations from the other gospel accounts. Verses 17 and 18 are not found in any form in the other gospels, and may be an interpolation from Acts 28:3-5]

1   When the Sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome, bought spices, so that they might come and anoint Him.
2   Very early on the first day of the week, they came to the tomb when the sun had risen.
3   They were saying to one another, “Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance of the tomb?”
4   Looking up, they saw that the stone had been rolled away, although it was extremely large.
5   Entering the tomb, they saw a young man sitting at the right, wearing a white robe; and they were amazed.
6   And he said to them, “Do not be amazed; you are looking for Jesus the Nazarene, who has been crucified. He has risen; He is not here; behold, here is the place where they laid Him.
7   “But go, tell His disciples and Peter, ‘He is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see Him, just as He told you.'”
8   They went out and fled from the tomb, for trembling and astonishment had gripped them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.
9   Now after He had risen early on the first day of the week, He first appeared to Mary Magdalene, from whom He had cast out seven demons.
10   She went and reported to those who had been with Him, while they were mourning and weeping.
11   When they heard that He was alive and had been seen by her, they refused to believe it.
12   After that, He appeared in a different form to two of them while they were walking along on their way to the country.
13   They went away and reported it to the others, but they did not believe them either.
14   Afterward He appeared to the eleven themselves as they were reclining at the table; and He reproached them for their unbelief and hardness of heart, because they had not believed those who had seen Him after He had risen.
15   And He said to them, “Go into all the world and preach the gospel to all creation.
16   “He who has believed and has been baptized shall be saved; but he who has disbelieved shall be condemned.
17   “These signs will accompany those who have believed: in My name they will cast out demons, they will speak with new tongues;
18   they will pick up serpents, and if they drink any deadly poison, it will not hurt them; they will lay hands on the sick, and they will recover.”
19   So then, when the Lord Jesus had spoken to them, He was received up into heaven and sat down at the right hand of God.
20   And they went out and preached everywhere, while the Lord worked with them, and confirmed the word by the signs that followed. And they promptly reported all these instructions to Peter and his companions. And after that, Jesus Himself sent out through them from east to west the sacred and imperishable proclamation of eternal salvation.

 

Matthew 28

1   Now after the Sabbath, as it began to dawn toward the first day of the week, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary came to look at the grave.
2   And behold, a severe earthquake had occurred, for an angel of the Lord descended from heaven and came and rolled away the stone and sat upon it.
3   And his appearance was like lightning, and his clothing as white as snow.
4   The guards shook for fear of him and became like dead men.
5   The angel said to the women, “Do not be afraid; for I know that you are looking for Jesus who has been crucified.
6   “He is not here, for He has risen, just as He said. Come, see the place where He was lying.
7   “Go quickly and tell His disciples that He has risen from the dead; and behold, He is going ahead of you into Galilee, there you will see Him; behold, I have told you.”
8   And they left the tomb quickly with fear and great joy and ran to report it to His disciples.
9   And behold, Jesus met them and greeted them. And they came up and took hold of His feet and worshiped Him.
10   Then Jesus said to them, “Do not be afraid; go and take word to My brethren to leave for Galilee, and there they will see Me.”
11   Now while they were on their way, some of the guard came into the city and reported to the chief priests all that had happened.
12   And when they had assembled with the elders and consulted together, they gave a large sum of money to the soldiers,
13   and said, “You are to say, ‘His disciples came by night and stole Him away while we were asleep.’
14   “And if this should come to the governor’s ears, we will win him over and keep you out of trouble.”
15   And they took the money and did as they had been instructed; and this story was widely spread among the Jews, and is to this day.
16   But the eleven disciples proceeded to Galilee, to the mountain which Jesus had designated.
17   When they saw Him, they worshiped Him; but some were doubtful.
18   And Jesus came up and spoke to them, saying, “All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth.
19   “Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit,
20   teaching them to observe all that I commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.”

 

Luke 24

1   But on the first day of the week, at early dawn, they came to the tomb bringing the spices which they had prepared.
2   And they found the stone rolled away from the tomb,
3   but when they entered, they did not find the body of the Lord Jesus.
4   While they were perplexed about this, behold, two men suddenly stood near them in dazzling clothing;
5   and as the women were terrified and bowed their faces to the ground, the men said to them, “Why do you seek the living One among the dead?
6   “He is not here, but He has risen. Remember how He spoke to you while He was still in Galilee,
7   saying that the Son of Man must be delivered into the hands of sinful men, and be crucified, and the third day rise again.”
8   And they remembered His words,
9   and returned from the tomb and reported all these things to the eleven and to all the rest.
10   Now they were Mary Magdalene and Joanna and Mary the mother of James; also the other women with them were telling these things to the apostles.
11   But these words appeared to them as nonsense, and they would not believe them.
12   But Peter got up and ran to the tomb; stooping and looking in, he saw the linen wrappings only; and he went away to his home, marveling at what had happened.
13   And behold, two of them were going that very day to a village named Emmaus, which was about seven miles from Jerusalem.
14   And they were talking with each other about all these things which had taken place.
15   While they were talking and discussing, Jesus Himself approached and began traveling with them.
16   But their eyes were prevented from recognizing Him.
17   And He said to them, “What are these words that you are exchanging with one another as you are walking?” And they stood still, looking sad.
18   One of them, named Cleopas, answered and said to Him, “Are You the only one visiting Jerusalem and unaware of the things which have happened here in these days?”
19   And He said to them, “What things?” And they said to Him, “The things about Jesus the Nazarene, who was a prophet mighty in deed and word in the sight of God and all the people,
20   and how the chief priests and our rulers delivered Him to the sentence of death, and crucified Him.
21   “But we were hoping that it was He who was going to redeem Israel. Indeed, besides all this, it is the third day since these things happened.
22   “But also some women among us amazed us. When they were at the tomb early in the morning,
23   and did not find His body, they came, saying that they had also seen a vision of angels who said that He was alive.
24   “Some of those who were with us went to the tomb and found it just exactly as the women also had said; but Him they did not see.”
25   And He said to them, “O foolish men and slow of heart to believe in all that the prophets have spoken!
26   “Was it not necessary for the Christ to suffer these things and to enter into His glory?”
27   Then beginning with Moses and with all the prophets, He explained to them the things concerning Himself in all the Scriptures.
28   And they approached the village where they were going, and He acted as though He were going farther.
29   But they urged Him, saying, “Stay with us, for it is getting toward evening, and the day is now nearly over.” So He went in to stay with them.
30   When He had reclined at the table with them, He took the bread and blessed it, and breaking it, He began giving it to them.
31   Then their eyes were opened and they recognized Him; and He vanished from their sight.
32   They said to one another, “Were not our hearts burning within us while He was speaking to us on the road, while He was explaining the Scriptures to us?”
33   And they got up that very hour and returned to Jerusalem, and found gathered together the eleven and those who were with them,
34   saying, “The Lord has really risen and has appeared to Simon.”
35   They began to relate their experiences on the road and how He was recognized by them in the breaking of the bread.
36   While they were telling these things, He Himself stood in their midst and said to them, “Peace be to you.”
37   But they were startled and frightened and thought that they were seeing a spirit.
38   And He said to them, “Why are you troubled, and why do doubts arise in your hearts?
39   “See My hands and My feet, that it is I Myself; touch Me and see, for a spirit does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have.”
40   And when He had said this, He showed them His hands and His feet.
41   While they still could not believe it because of their joy and amazement, He said to them, “Have you anything here to eat?”
42   They gave Him a piece of a broiled fish;
43   and He took it and ate it before them.
44   Now He said to them, “These are My words which I spoke to you while I was still with you, that all things which are written about Me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled.”
45   Then He opened their minds to understand the Scriptures,
46   and He said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Christ would suffer and rise again from the dead the third day,
47   and that repentance for forgiveness of sins would be proclaimed in His name to all the nations, beginning from Jerusalem.
48   “You are witnesses of these things.
49   “And behold, I am sending forth the promise of My Father upon you; but you are to stay in the city until you are clothed with power from on high.”
50   And He led them out as far as Bethany, and He lifted up His hands and blessed them.
51   While He was blessing them, He parted from them and was carried up into heaven.
52   And they, after worshiping Him, returned to Jerusalem with great joy,
53   and were continually in the temple praising God.

 

John 20,21

1   Now on the first day of the week Mary Magdalene came early to the tomb, while it was still dark, and saw the stone already taken away from the tomb.
2   So she ran and came to Simon Peter and to the other disciple whom Jesus loved, and said to them, “They have taken away the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid Him.”
3   So Peter and the other disciple went forth, and they were going to the tomb.
4   The two were running together; and the other disciple ran ahead faster than Peter and came to the tomb first;
5   and stooping and looking in, he saw the linen wrappings lying there; but he did not go in.
6   And so Simon Peter also came, following him, and entered the tomb; and he saw the linen wrappings lying there,
7   and the face-cloth which had been on His head, not lying with the linen wrappings, but rolled up in a place by itself.
8   So the other disciple who had first come to the tomb then also entered, and he saw and believed.
9   For as yet they did not understand the Scripture, that He must rise again from the dead.
10   So the disciples went away again to their own homes.
11   But Mary was standing outside the tomb weeping; and so, as she wept, she stooped and looked into the tomb;
12   and she saw two angels in white sitting, one at the head and one at the feet, where the body of Jesus had been lying.
13   And they said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping?” She said to them, “Because they have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid Him.”
14   When she had said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, and did not know that it was Jesus.
15   Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you seeking?” Supposing Him to be the gardener, she said to Him, “Sir, if you have carried Him away, tell me where you have laid Him, and I will take Him away.”
16   Jesus said to her, “Mary!” She turned and said to Him in Hebrew, “Rabboni!” (which means, Teacher).
17   Jesus said to her, “Stop clinging to Me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father; but go to My brethren and say to them, ‘I ascend to My Father and your Father, and My God and your God.'”
18   Mary Magdalene came, announcing to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord,” and that He had said these things to her.
19   So when it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and when the doors were shut where the disciples were, for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood in their midst and said to them, “Peace be with you.”
20   And when He had said this, He showed them both His hands and His side. The disciples then rejoiced when they saw the Lord.
21   So Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you; as the Father has sent Me, I also send you.”
22   And when He had said this, He breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit.
23   “If you forgive the sins of any, their sins have been forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they have been retained.”
24   But Thomas, one of the twelve, called Didymus, was not with them when Jesus came.
25   So the other disciples were saying to him, “We have seen the Lord!” But he said to them, “Unless I see in His hands the imprint of the nails, and put my finger into the place of the nails, and put my hand into His side, I will not believe.”
26   After eight days His disciples were again inside, and Thomas with them. Jesus came, the doors having been shut, and stood in their midst and said, “Peace be with you.”
27   Then He said to Thomas, “Reach here with your finger, and see My hands; and reach here your hand and put it into My side; and do not be unbelieving, but believing.”
28   Thomas answered and said to Him, “My Lord and my God!”
29   Jesus said to him, “Because you have seen Me, have you believed? Blessed are they who did not see, and yet believed.”
30   Therefore many other signs Jesus also performed in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book;
31   but these have been written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing you may have life in His name.

 

1   After these things Jesus manifested Himself again to the disciples at the Sea of Tiberias, and He manifested Himself in this way.
2   Simon Peter, and Thomas called Didymus, and Nathanael of Cana in Galilee, and the sons of Zebedee, and two others of His disciples were together.
3   Simon Peter said to them, “I am going fishing.” They said to him, “We will also come with you.” They went out and got into the boat; and that night they caught nothing.
4   But when the day was now breaking, Jesus stood on the beach; yet the disciples did not know that it was Jesus.
5   So Jesus said to them, “Children, you do not have any fish, do you?” They answered Him, “No.”
6   And He said to them, “Cast the net on the right-hand side of the boat and you will find a catch.” So they cast, and then they were not able to haul it in because of the great number of fish.
7   Therefore that disciple whom Jesus loved said to Peter, “It is the Lord.” So when Simon Peter heard that it was the Lord, he put his outer garment on (for he was stripped for work), and threw himself into the sea.
8   But the other disciples came in the little boat, for they were not far from the land, but about one hundred yards away, dragging the net full of fish.
9   So when they got out on the land, they saw a charcoal fire already laid and fish placed on it, and bread.
10   Jesus said to them, “Bring some of the fish which you have now caught.”
11   Simon Peter went up and drew the net to land, full of large fish, a hundred and fifty-three; and although there were so many, the net was not torn.
12   Jesus said to them, “Come and have breakfast.” None of the disciples ventured to question Him, “Who are You?” knowing that it was the Lord.
13   Jesus came and took the bread and gave it to them, and the fish likewise.
14   This is now the third time that Jesus was manifested to the disciples, after He was raised from the dead.
15   So when they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon, son of John, do you love Me more than these?” He said to Him, “Yes, Lord; You know that I love You.” He said to him, “Tend My lambs.”
16   He said to him again a second time, “Simon, son of John, do you love Me?” He said to Him, “Yes, Lord; You know that I love You.” He said to him, “Shepherd My sheep.”
17   He said to him the third time, “Simon, son of John, do you love Me?” Peter was grieved because He said to him the third time, “Do you love Me?” And he said to Him, “Lord, You know all things; You know that I love You.” Jesus said to him, “Tend My sheep.
18   “Truly, truly, I say to you, when you were younger, you used to gird yourself and walk wherever you wished; but when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands and someone else will gird you, and bring you where you do not wish to go.”
19   Now this He said, signifying by what kind of death he would glorify God. And when He had spoken this, He said to him, “Follow Me!”
20   Peter, turning around, saw the disciple whom Jesus loved following them; the one who also had leaned back on His bosom at the supper and said, “Lord, who is the one who betrays You?”
21   So Peter seeing him said to Jesus, “Lord, and what about this man?”
22   Jesus said to him, “If I want him to remain until I come, what is that to you? You follow Me!”
23   Therefore this saying went out among the brethren that that disciple would not die; yet Jesus did not say to him that he would not die, but only, “If I want him to remain until I come, what is that to you?”
24   This is the disciple who is testifying to these things and wrote these things, and we know that his testimony is true.
25   And there are also many other things which Jesus did, which if they were written in detail, I suppose that even the world itself would not contain the books that would be written.

 

Harmonized Resurrection Narrative

When the Sabbath was over, as it began to dawn,1)Mark: when the sun had risen Luke: at early dawn  John: while it was still dark Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, Joanna, and Salome bought spices which they had prepared, [and] came to look at the grave so that they might come and anoint Him.

And behold, a severe earthquake had occurred,2)The tense of this event is debatable. For the convenience of this harmonization, I will assume the pluperfect. for an angel of the Lord descended from heaven and came and rolled away the stone and sat upon it. And his appearance was like lightning and his clothing as white as snow. The guards shook for fear of him and became like dead men.

[The women] were saying to one another, “Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance of the tomb?” Looking up, they saw that the stone had been rolled away, although it was extremely large. When they entered, they did not find the body of the Lord Jesus. While they were perplexed about this, behold, two men3)Matthew: an angel suddenly stood near them in dazzling white robe[s]; [one was] sitting at the right. They were amazed and terrified and bowed their faces to the ground. The men said to them:

“Do not be amazed [or] afraid; for I know that you are looking for Jesus the Nazarene, who has been crucified. Why do you seek the living One among the dead? He has risen; He is not here, just as He said; behold, here is the place where they laid Him. Remember how He spoke to you while He was still in Galilee, saying that the Son of Man must be delivered into the hands of sinful men, and be crucified, and the third day rise again. But go, tell His disciples and Peter that He has risen from the dead, ‘He is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see Him, just as He told you.'”

They went out and fled from the tomb4)Authentic Markan testimony ends here. with fear and great joy and ran to report it to Simon Peter and to the other disciple whom Jesus loved, to the eleven and to all the rest.5)Mark: for trembling and astonishment had gripped them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid. And behold, [on the way] Jesus met them and greeted them. And they came up and took hold of His feet and worshiped Him. Then Jesus said to them, “Do not be afraid; go and take word to My brethren to leave for Galilee, and there they will see Me.”

Now while they were on their way, some of the guard came into the city and reported to the chief priests all that had happened. And when they had assembled with the elders and consulted together, they gave a large sum of money to the soldiers, and said, “You are to say, ‘His disciples came by night and stole Him away while we were asleep.’ “And if this should come to the governor’s ears, we will win him over and keep you out of trouble.” And they took the money and did as they had been instructed; and this story was widely spread among the Jews, and is to this day.

[Upon reaching Jesus’ disciples, the women] said to them, “They have taken away the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid Him.” But these words appeared to them as nonsense, and they would not believe them. But Peter and the other disciple got up and ran to the tomb together; and the other disciple ran ahead faster than Peter and came to the tomb first; and stooping and looking in, he saw the linen wrappings lying there; but he did not go in. And so Simon Peter also came, following him, and entered the tomb stooping and looking in, he saw the linen wrappings only and the face-cloth which had been on His head, not lying with the linen wrappings, but rolled up in a place by itself. And he went away to his home, marveling at what had happened. So the other disciple who had first come to the tomb then also entered, and he saw and believed. For as yet they did not understand the Scripture, that He must rise again from the dead. So the disciples went away again to their own homes.

But Mary was standing outside the tomb weeping; and so, as she wept, she stooped and looked into the tomb; and she saw two angels in white sitting, one at the head and one at the feet, where the body of Jesus had been lying. And they said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping?” She said to them, “Because they have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid Him.” When she had said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, and did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you seeking?” Supposing Him to be the gardener, she said to Him, “Sir, if you have carried Him away, tell me where you have laid Him, and I will take Him away.” Jesus said to her, “Mary!” She turned and said to Him in Hebrew, “Rabboni!” (which means, Teacher). Jesus said to her, “Stop clinging to Me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father; but go to My brethren and say to them, ‘I ascend to My Father and your Father, and My God and your God.'” Mary Magdalene came, announcing to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord,” and that He had said these things to her.

And behold, two of them were going that very day to a village named Emmaus, which was about seven miles from Jerusalem. And they were talking with each other about all these things which had taken place. While they were talking and discussing, Jesus Himself approached and began traveling with them. But their eyes were prevented from recognizing Him. And He said to them, “What are these words that you are exchanging with one another as you are walking?” And they stood still, looking sad. One of them, named Cleopas, answered and said to Him, “Are You the only one visiting Jerusalem and unaware of the things which have happened here in these days?” And He said to them, “What things?” And they said to Him, “The things about Jesus the Nazarene, who was a prophet mighty in deed and word in the sight of God and all the people, and how the chief priests and our rulers delivered Him to the sentence of death, and crucified Him. “But we were hoping that it was He who was going to redeem Israel. Indeed, besides all this, it is the third day since these things happened. “But also some women among us amazed us. When they were at the tomb early in the morning, and did not find His body, they came, saying that they had also seen a vision of angels who said that He was alive. “Some of those who were with us went to the tomb and found it just exactly as the women also had said; but Him they did not see.” And He said to them, “O foolish men and slow of heart to believe in all that the prophets have spoken! “Was it not necessary for the Christ to suffer these things and to enter into His glory?” Then beginning with Moses and with all the prophets, He explained to them the things concerning Himself in all the Scriptures. And they approached the village where they were going, and He acted as though He were going farther. But they urged Him, saying, “Stay with us, for it is getting toward evening, and the day is now nearly over.” So He went in to stay with them. When He had reclined at the table with them, He took the bread and blessed it, and breaking it, He began giving it to them. Then their eyes were opened and they recognized Him; and He vanished from their sight. They said to one another, “Were not our hearts burning within us while He was speaking to us on the road, while He was explaining the Scriptures to us?”

And they got up that very hour and returned to Jerusalem, and found gathered together the eleven and those who were with them saying, “The Lord has really risen and has appeared to Simon.” They began to relate their experiences on the road and how He was recognized by them in the breaking of the bread. So when it was evening on that day while they were telling these things, the first day of the week, and when the doors were shut where the disciples were, for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood in their midst and said to them, “Peace be with you.” But they were startled and frightened and thought that they were seeing a spirit. And He said to them, “Why are you troubled, and why do doubts arise in your hearts? “See My hands and My feet, that it is I Myself; touch Me and see, for a spirit does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have.” And when He had said this, He showed them His hands and His feet and His side. While they still could not believe it because of their joy and amazement, He said to them, “Have you anything here to eat?” They gave Him a piece of a broiled fish; and He took it and ate it before them. The disciples then rejoiced when they saw the Lord.

So Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you; as the Father has sent Me, I also send you.” And when He had said this, He breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit.”If you forgive the sins of any, their sins have been forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they have been retained.” Now He said to them, “These are My words which I spoke to you while I was still with you, that all things which are written about Me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled.” Then He opened their minds to understand the Scriptures, and He said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Christ would suffer and rise again from the dead the third day, and that repentance for forgiveness of sins would be proclaimed in His name to all the nations, beginning from Jerusalem.”You are witnesses of these things. “And behold, I am sending forth the promise of My Father upon you; but you are to stay in the city until you are clothed with power from on high.”

But Thomas, one of the twelve, called Didymus, was not with them when Jesus came. So the other disciples were saying to him, “We have seen the Lord!” But he said to them, “Unless I see in His hands the imprint of the nails, and put my finger into the place of the nails, and put my hand into His side, I will not believe.” After eight days His disciples were again inside, and Thomas with them. Jesus came, the doors having been shut, and stood in their midst and said, “Peace be with you.” Then He said to Thomas, “Reach here with your finger, and see My hands; and reach here your hand and put it into My side; and do not be unbelieving, but believing.” Thomas answered and said to Him, “My Lord and my God!” Jesus said to him, “Because you have seen Me, have you believed? Blessed are they who did not see, and yet believed.”

Therefore many other signs Jesus also performed in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; but these have been written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing you may have life in His name.

After these things Jesus manifested Himself again to the disciples at the Sea of Tiberias, and He manifested Himself in this way. Simon Peter, and Thomas called Didymus, and Nathanael of Cana in Galilee, and the sons of Zebedee, and two others of His disciples were together. Simon Peter said to them, “I am going fishing.” They said to him, “We will also come with you.” They went out and got into the boat; and that night they caught nothing. But when the day was now breaking, Jesus stood on the beach; yet the disciples did not know that it was Jesus. So Jesus said to them, “Children, you do not have any fish, do you?” They answered Him, “No.” And He said to them, “Cast the net on the right-hand side of the boat and you will find a catch.” So they cast, and then they were not able to haul it in because of the great number of fish. Therefore that disciple whom Jesus loved said to Peter, “It is the Lord.” So when Simon Peter heard that it was the Lord, he put his outer garment on (for he was stripped for work), and threw himself into the sea. But the other disciples came in the little boat, for they were not far from the land, but about one hundred yards away, dragging the net full of fish. So when they got out on the land, they saw a charcoal fire already laid and fish placed on it, and bread. Jesus said to them, “Bring some of the fish which you have now caught.” Simon Peter went up and drew the net to land, full of large fish, a hundred and fifty-three; and although there were so many, the net was not torn. Jesus said to them, “Come and have breakfast.” None of the disciples ventured to question Him, “Who are You?” knowing that it was the Lord. Jesus came and took the bread and gave it to them, and the fish likewise. This is now the third time that Jesus was manifested to the disciples, after He was raised from the dead.

So when they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon, son of John, do you love Me more than these?” He said to Him, “Yes, Lord; You know that I love You.” He said to him, “Tend My lambs.” He said to him again a second time, “Simon, son of John, do you love Me?” He said to Him, “Yes, Lord; You know that I love You.” He said to him, “Shepherd My sheep.” He said to him the third time, “Simon, son of John, do you love Me?” Peter was grieved because He said to him the third time, “Do you love Me?” And he said to Him, “Lord, You know all things; You know that I love You.” Jesus said to him, “Tend My sheep. “Truly, truly, I say to you, when you were younger, you used to gird yourself and walk wherever you wished; but when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands and someone else will gird you, and bring you where you do not wish to go.” Now this He said, signifying by what kind of death he would glorify God. And when He had spoken this, He said to him, “Follow Me!” Peter, turning around, saw the disciple whom Jesus loved following them; the one who also had leaned back on His bosom at the supper and said, “Lord, who is the one who betrays You?” So Peter seeing him said to Jesus, “Lord, and what about this man?” Jesus said to him, “If I want him to remain until I come, what is that to you? You follow Me!” Therefore this saying went out among the brethren that that disciple would not die; yet Jesus did not say to him that he would not die, but only, “If I want him to remain until I come, what is that to you?” This is the disciple who is testifying to these things and wrote these things, and we know that his testimony is true. And there are also many other things which Jesus did, which if they were written in detail, I suppose that even the world itself would not contain the books that would be written.

But the eleven disciples proceeded to Galilee, to the mountain which Jesus had designated. When they saw Him, they worshiped Him; but some were doubtful. And Jesus came up and spoke to them, saying, “All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. “Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.”

And He led them out as far as Bethany, and He lifted up His hands and blessed them. While He was blessing them, He parted from them and was carried up into heaven. And they, after worshiping Him, returned to Jerusalem with great joy, and were continually in the temple praising God.

 

Conclusions

The first paragraph in my harmonization contains a sticky issue- the time at which the women arrived at the tomb. Mark indicates that it was “when the sun had risen,” Luke says that it was “at early dawn,” but John records that it was “while it was still dark.” I decided that Matthew’s version, “as it began to dawn,” was a good compromise between the admittedly minor differences in details.

The second paragraph comes solely from Matthew, and I have chosen a translation which indicates that the earthquake occurred in the pluperfect tense, that is, it happened in the past before the events described there. I understand that there is a great deal of debate about the choice of this tense, but I decided to err on the side of harmonization, for the benefit of this exercise.

The third paragraph also contains a contested issue- whether men or angels appear at the tomb. A common argument is that the authors who describe men intend for their readers to understand them to be angels. Since only one gospel explicitly calls them angels, I decided to use ‘men’ as the description in my harmonization.

The fifth paragraph also contains a troubling passage- that of Mark, who records that the women were afraid, and spoke to no one. This seems to be in direct contradiction to the other gospels, which record the women as going directly to the disciples and reporting what they had seen. In addition, Matthew characterizes them as joyful, not afraid. I have omitted the Markan characterization, since I can find no way to resolve it with the other accounts. I conclude this to be the first of the irresolvable contradictions between the accounts.

From the sixth paragraph onward the Markan account ends, and I see a wide disparity between the other gospels after this point. There is a small amount of overlap between Matthew and Luke, but for the most part the accounts are vastly different, shown by the large amount of monochromatic text. The gospel of John is completely separate from the other two gospels after that point, and there is absolutely no overlap between them. It has been suggested that this phenomenon is caused by the lack of a Markan narrative for the other three Evangelists to base their final narratives on. Without this common narrative, a wide disparity between details should be expected.

The major contradiction in this harmonization is evidenced by the tears of Mary Magdalene, derived from the text of John. In the eighth paragraph, Mary stands outside the empty tomb, weeping because she doesn’t know the location of Jesus’ body. She speaks with the same two angels that were mentioned previously as ‘men’, and even turns around to see the resurrected Jesus, but doesn’t recognize him. I find this behavior unbelivable, considering that in the fifth paragraph, she along with the other women see Jesus, recognize him, and worship at his feet. Why does Mary, having seen the risen Jesus so soon before (only the time required to run from the tomb to the disciples and back again), wonder about the location of his body, and even not recognize him when she sees him a second time?

The reason for this contradiction, I believe, is because the Synoptic gospels record the angel’s appearance and the appearance of Jesus before the disciples are told and visit the tomb, while John records the angels appearing only after the disciples visit the tomb. Because of this change in narrative chronology, a harmonization illustrates this glaring contradiction.

I decided to end this harmonization with the ascension in Luke. No other gospel account records an ascension; Matthew ends with the Great Commission, and John ends with the nebulous suggestion that Jesus’ ministry after his resurrection was productive enough to fill countless volumes with his deeds. The locations are also different between the three- John ends at the Sea of Tiberias, Matthew ends at a mountain in Galilee, and Luke ends in Bethany. I don’t consider this a contradiction in the context of this harmonization- just a lot of moving about by Jesus and the disciples.

In conclusion, I have found one external and one internal contradiction in my harmonization. I am certain that a more rigorous analysis could show more, but it was my intent to be as lenient as possible. However, despite my leniency, contradictions are apparent. I hope that this exercise will be as beneficial to others as it has been to me.

References   [ + ]

1. Mark: when the sun had risen Luke: at early dawn  John: while it was still dark
2. The tense of this event is debatable. For the convenience of this harmonization, I will assume the pluperfect.
3. Matthew: an angel
4. Authentic Markan testimony ends here.
5. Mark: for trembling and astonishment had gripped them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.

The Last Temptation

[Paul, to Jesus] “I don’t give a hoot about what’s true and what’s false, or whether I saw him or didn’t see him, or whether he was crucified or wasn’t crucified. I create the truth, create it out of obstinacy and longing and faith. I don’t struggle to find it—I build it. I build it taller than man and thus I make man grow. If the world is to be saved, it is necessary—do you hear—absolutely necessary for you to be crucified, and I shall crucify you, like it or not; it is necessary for you to be resurrected, and I shall resurrect you, like it or not.”

–Nikos Kazantzakis, “The Last Temptation of Christ”

The basket was nestled on the ground at the foot of a large painted sign; a dozen rocks, professionally smoothed, rested inside like a collection of petrified eggs. “Carry the rock with you as you navigate the labyrinth,” the sign advised, “as you bring your burden to lay at the feet of Jesus, who will join you in the middle.”

Dutifully, I started the path, stepping with moderate care between two rows of landscaping brick that traced a path, winding but never confusing, around the degrees of a circle laid out in a forgotten corner of the Methodist church. The center was directly ahead; I could see that a single transgression of the boundary would bring me to the Christ-filled center in a fraction of the time, but I followed the rules and continued the pantomime of theological confusion. “We walk by faith, not by sight,” the pastor had gently reminded us some twenty minute prior in the worship service. “Perhaps,” I thought, “but such a strategy might leave me with a broken ankle here among the stones.”

I find myself (even now, more than a decade into my apostasy) drawn to these sacred spaces, mesmerized by their spiritual significance and overwhelmed (at times) by the connectivity I still feel for them. During Holy Week the attraction sometimes is especially poignant. The world around me is bursting with new life and possibilities, and every thread of the biological tapestry that surrounds me reinforces the call of “renew, renew, renew.”

It is an odd thing, to be a Christian apostate. The Calvinists among whom I spent my youth decree that I could not be a Christian, and the Southern Baptists around whom I spend my adulthood proclaim that I could not be an apostate. I only know what I was, and what I am now; it is not my business to adjust my biography for the sake of someone’s theology.

The path of the labyrinth is designed to be repeated. It is not a maze—there is only one path possible—and thus there are no navigational choices to be made. It presents the walker with an existential illusion of ambiguous velocity. It’s more or less a two-dimensional roller coaster meant to evoke a kind of abrupt angular momentum of the spirit—a ten minute flirtation with apostasy that placates the supplicant with assurances that Christ is waiting for them when the ride comes to a full and complete stop.

At times such as these, the pull of the Church is strong. Come back, it says, and all is forgiven. There is no saint so bright in Heaven as a penitent apostate on his knees at the altar. My notoriety as a heretic would increase a hundred-fold overnight; the denominational publishers would anticipate my call with bated breath; the hidden heretics in the pews would lean forward to exorcize their doubts with the sheer humility and relatability of my testimony.

The voice on my shoulder gives me no end of encouragement: think of the pastors’ careers you could save, think of the families you could keep together, think of the children spared their parents’ condescension and disappointment.

If you really want to elevate man, the voice continues, you can’t build him a new tower to Heaven. You have to given him wings!

But I don’t want to give wings to man; if he was meant to have them, God would have given them. Life is hard enough here on Earth, and we don’t solve the problems that are endemic here on the ground by elevating man above them. We have to do the hard work, we have to walk the path laid out before us, and we have to keep our eyes open when we do so.

After walking the labyrinth, I found the center. I stood for a moment, expectantly. A sparrow flitted, excitedly, from one branch to the next in a nearby live oak tree. There were no other people around to note my accomplishment. The was no Christ, no other spirit around either. There was only a basket, same as at the entrance, filled with the same dozen professionally-polished stones. I dropped mine among them; I took some small comfort in the observation that mine had a slightly more greenish cast to it than the rest. Perhaps there was some chromium or manganese impurity in the mineral, I don’t know, but I was filled with a profound sense of irrelevance.

I walked the halls of the church again. The parishioners, flush with the excitement of a Palm Sunday service, were now busy availing themselves of the generous brunch buffet set before them. God’s tithes and offerings had sprung for Belgian waffles, French crêpes, and Russian blintzes. Not to mention eggs, bacon, sausage, and of course prime rib, roast chicken, and a variety of other gourmet items. It was most assuredly a communion fit for one of the wealthiest communities in the country, and so I begged a cup of coffee and abandoned my visit.

It would be so easy for me to evacuate the force of my apostasy and return with branches spread before me to rejoin the Bride of Christ. But to do so would be to deny not only myself, but my intellectual integrity. The greatest surprise of my young life was not discovering that I found Christianity to be false, but was discovering that truth mattered to me more than Christianity. To return to her willing arms would no doubt be a comfort, but it would be cold, and forced, and harmful to us both. And I’m not sure that, were we reunited, we would grow to question each other all over again.

More’s the pity.

The Undiscovered Country

StillLifeWithASkull

I’m often reminded of a Zen Buddhist parable.

As the story goes, there was a man being chased by a hungry tiger through a forest. As fast as he was able to run, the tiger was faster. It was only a matter of time before the beast caught and devoured the man, but he kept running, desperate for some means of escape.

Suddenly, the forest came to an end, and the man burst out of the trees to find himself on the edge of a cliff. The tiger roared behind him, and without thinking he leaped over the edge. His hand caught hold of a thick branch protruding from the cliff, and he grasped it tightly, clinging to the rock face. Looking down, he saw a sheer drop, with no chance of climbing down safely. One move to the right, or to the left, and he would surely fall to his death. Discouraged, he looked back up to see the tiger’s face looming down at him, its lips curled back in a snarl, teeth bright and shining.

The man closed his eyes, and when he opened them he discovered that there was a single strawberry plant growing out of the cliff just above him. Not more than a few feet away from his face hung a single plump, red strawberry. Moved as if by instinct, he shifted his weight on the branch to reach up, pluck the berry, and place it in his mouth. As his eyes closed again for the last time, the juices ran over his tongue and into his throat.

It was the single greatest experience of his life.

Living here in the Cosmos is an exercise in balance between the existential horror of our own mortality, and the sweetness of the meaning we find and make in it. We know that the very fact of our existence is the culmination of a genetic lottery won before our parents’ parents’ parents were born. Why us, why here, why now? We don’t know the answer.

What we do know is that we are all born to challenge. Our first breaths are forced on us unanticipated and unwanted, as we are pushed or pulled from the safety of the womb. We leave our warm home, the only home we’ve ever known, to enter the cold, bright chaos of the world. The boundary has been crossed, the hero has been chosen, and the adventure has begun.

This is an adventure tale that has been told and retold for thousands of years. In the Epic of Gilgamesh, we find death and grief encountered with bracing honesty. The god-man Gilgamesh finds his wild-man friend Enkidu facing death because of the whims of the gods. Distraught, Gilgamesh cannot understand why he should receive mercy while Enkidu is condemned to death. He begs the gods to save his friend, and promises to spare no expense in making sacrifice. But there is nothing he can do. Linked together in life, they cannot stop their separation at death. Both friends rail at the injustice and futility of it, and Enkidu wishes aloud that he had never been born, that he had never been introduced to the world. But then he reconsiders. If he had never come to be, he realizes, he would not have experienced the joy and love that he treasured in life. His bitterness washes away, and he blesses those who were his friends in life. In the final irony of the story, though Enkidu thinks that he dies in solitude, in reality his friend Gilgamesh is still by his side, weeping.

It is this connection we seek, as we journey together through life. Leaving our mother’s womb means losing the connection of blood, but it is exchanged for the connection of spirit. To the ancient Greeks, the word pneuma meant “spirit,” but it also meant “breath.” Thus, the first breath of a newborn baby is also its first spiritual act, establishing its connection with the world beyond the mother and father that birthed it. Sitting here, breathing together, we are participating in the same spiritual act. We are compelled to do so. We cannot help doing otherwise. As a species, we share this connection which runs so deeply, so strongly into the past that to inhale now is for us each to take into ourselves a molecule of air that was exhaled by Julius Caesar as he was being assassinated, or that was laughed by Alexander the Great in India as he contemplated his empire, or that was inhaled by Siddhartha Gautama as he sat underneath the bodhi tree and achieved enlightenment. As surely as we breathe, we are all connected.

We are connected to each other as fellow human beings, all of us the children of a common mother and common father, separated by continents and millennia. The blood that courses in my veins courses as well in yours. We are also connected to all manifestations of life, existing as but one of endless forms most beautiful on the branching and tangled tree of life. All of nature opens out before us, acknowledging us as family by virtue of our biology. We are also connected to the Earth itself, a rotating rock in space that provides our chemical identity, the very literal bonds of our existence. And finally, we are connected to the Cosmos that envelops and supports us, that birthed our Sun with billions of its stellar siblings, the cosmic foundry of our base substance. We are not just animated clay, we are sentient starstuff; we are the Cosmos made aware. We are atoms that feel love, and loss. We are remarkable.

But we exist not only in space, but time as well. And our time is limited. Thus we all have to learn to say good-bye, not just to the people who we mourn today, but to everyone we will ever know. How can we accomplish this impossible task?

The honest answer: I don’t know.

But here’s how we can try. Every person begins making connections the moment they’re born. Those connections do not simply end when they leave us, just as the air they breathed does not simply disappear. They may stop breathing, but we continue to breathe the air that they shared with us. We continue to value the connections, the secrets, and the memories that they gifted to us during their time alive. Of course we do. All of life is a complicated tapestry of connections made between us and our friends and family, and their friends and family, going back through the generations. Every step we take is one that was prepared for us by those who came before, and is made by us to prepare the way for those who will come after. The gods may be fickle, but we don’t have to be. We can honor the memory of those we love by revisiting our connection with them, here today and tomorrow, and then the next day and the next. Eventually that connection won’t be something we have to consciously touch on, it will be something that flows through us, just as we breathe while sleeping.

The great naturalist John Muir found great solace in the beautiful connections modeled by the natural world. His solution to the “impossible task” of confronting mortality was simple: “Let children walk with nature, let them see the beautiful blendings and communions of death and life, their joyous inseparable unity, as taught in woods and meadows, plains and mountains and streams of our blessed start, and they will learn that death is stingless indeed, and as beautiful as life, and that the grave has no victory, for it never fights. All is divine harmony.”

And perhaps that is the answer. Yes, the gods are capricious. Yes, our mortality is inevitable. Yes, we mourn the ones we lose. We are supposed to. Just as we are supposed to reach out, pluck the strawberry, and enjoy it.

Dear God

adamDear God,

I raised my arms for you to pick me up,
Naked and unafraid.
Hold me, daddy.
Love me.

You let me go.
And then you were gone.

You had the keys to my heart. You knew
Everything.
Whispered secrets.
Hidden hopes.
Adolescent desperations,
Shouted into the wind.

I crawled back to the Garden, God.
Broken and trembling, I
Collapsed at Eve’s feet.

I don’t know if she ever truly loved you, God.
But she loved me.

The apple pie cooled on her table.
Adam cut a piece for himself, and for me.
It tasted like love.

Adam had his faults, God, but he worked hard.
He fashioned me out of his clay.
He taught me everything he knew.

His back never broke,
But his heart did, God.

Together, their minds broke too.

As little children,
they returned to the dust
And left me to tend the Garden.

I went and sat at Mother Mary’s side.
Blessed was she among all women,
And blessed was the fruit of her womb.

But she had pain unimagined, God.

Slowly it grew,
A choking cough.
From a serpent coiled
Round her neck.

I wanted to chase it away, God.
Run away with her through golden fields.
But instead you squeezed her life out
Like toothpaste.

Mary’s eyes were calm as you did it, God.
She smiled and died.
I smiled and cried.

Jesus came to me with soothing words,
A stepfather’s son with a stepfather’s promises.

He had been forsaken too, God.
He was unreliable.
Unstable.

In the end, he was a
Scriptural suicide.
And I sympathized.

Weakness coursed through my veins, God.
My bones dripped out my shoes, God.

But I learned.
To be strong,
To be quick,
To be quiet.

And then I heard the most amazing thing, God.

I heard people, laughing and crying.
Jumping and flying.
Living and dying.

I heard myself, God.

I heard my heart, and it beat in another’s chest.
Naked and unafraid.
Hold me, daddy.
Love me.

And I did, God.

Dear God, I did.

The Humanist

for Ann Druyan
with apologies to John Piper

See her in the night,
Watching stars shine bright.
Furnace of the suns,
Place from whence she comes.

See her stoke the fire,
Safety her desire,
Round the hearth, a home,
Nevermore to roam.

See her with her love,
No one else above.
Lives intercalate:
Freely procreate.

See her with her child;
Mother meek and mild.
Strong and supple too:
Guide to all that’s true.

See her reading books;
Quiet halls and nooks.
Seeking to distill
Scholarship and skill.

See her with her pen:
Challenging all men.
No king could arrest;
Sovereignty transgressed.

See her in the square,
With the poor to share,
Mercy paramount;
Honor: no account.

See her on the street,
Merry and upbeat,
Kind and eager friend:
Constant to the end.

See her in dispute;
Confident refute.
Winsome and with grace;
Rivals learn their place.

See her at her trade.
Woman is self-made.
Purpose she declares;
Slavery foreswears.

See her at her meal,
Eucharist made real
Farmer to the plate,
Linkage celebrate.

See her stray from truth;
Brain’s imperfect sleuth.
Rescued she can be
By humility.

See her in lament
“For what is this meant?”
Substance set to pain:
Even loss is gain.

See her thanksgiving.
Words attempt to bring
Peace to family;
Soothing homily.

See her on the shore:
Our ambassador.
Cosmic signs point out
Starstuff’s final route.

See her now asleep.
Mind swims in the deep,
Future stewards sing;
Wonders they will bring.

See her nearing death.
Slowing, labored breath,
Light leaks out her eyes;
Joins with next sunrise.

Music by: Kai Engel, “Laceration”

The Privilege Paralysis

Zach SadI’ve never felt as small as on that day. Six pairs of eyes stared, angrily fixed on my pale face. I tried my best to maintain my composure and sense of calm as I furtively glanced back around the room, but I couldn’t bring myself to look any of the Black pastors in the eye very long. I sat there for what seemed like an eternity, unmoving, unsure of what to do next.

One thing was clear: I’d screwed up.

As a kid, I never could have guessed that I’d be in the center of such a racially-charged situation. My parents were both the products of a culture that affirmed the superiority of White Americans, but they took great pains to expose me and my brothers to diverse perspectives. Before I ever entered a classroom, I took daily lessons from Gordon, Maria, Susan, and Luis; with Fred Rogers, I enjoyed getting to meet Wynton Marsalis and Yo-Yo Ma; I learned to love reading with LeVar Burton. My father, a public school teacher, felt strongly about the negative impact of White Flight, and enrolled me in a predominantly Black school with an excellent magnet program. One of my first serious crushes there was a cute interracial girl who kissed me back during a movie that was being shown on a substitute day. And when our class gave reports on Black history, I jumped at the chance for extra credit by dressing up (no makeup) as Harriet Tubman to celebrate one of my heroes.

But, of course there was also an overwhelming Whiteness to my experience. In high school, we moved out from the city into a rural town that was so overwhelmingly monochromatic that the handful of Black people in the community were less token than they were sheer novelty. When I returned to the city for university, though the campus was surrounded by people of color, I was steeped in an academic culture that was also overwhelmingly White.

So when I found myself years later at the end of a process of apostasy, and entered the secular community, its Whiteness was not immediately distressing. It was comfortable, and it was forgettable, in the sense that you can lose awareness of the weird fact that you’re swimming in a ocean of (mostly) nitrogen gas. But there were reminders. When I tried to share a quote from Aaron MacGruder’s “The Boondocks,” I got no looks of recognition. When I pointed out that the panel of influential freethinkers on our wall was devoid of diversity, I got little sympathy. And when a young Black woman visited our community to ask if we knew any Black atheist men, I felt convicted.

Because I didn’t.

Several years later, we were interested in advertising our community with a new campaign. We felt strongly that atheist faces should be seen in the public sphere, and the organizers came up with a brilliant design that incorporated several dozen portraits of local members (myself included). Our community had slowly become more diverse in the intervening time, and we also wanted to showcase that, so we made sure to include as many faces of color as possible. We had previously run an advertising campaign using a highway billboard, and now wanted to try something different. One of the organizers suggested advertising on the public buses, where he had seen several religious organizations promote themselves in the past. We ran into some administrative hesitation (almost always the case with advertising atheist messages), but eventually a contract was signed and the campaign was launched.

The response from the Black community was almost immediate, and it took us completely by surprise. A coalition of Black pastors organized themselves from the earliest announcement of the campaign, and used their traditional tools of social justice activism to fight against us. As the media picked up the story, it became apparent that this criticism had a racial component; none of the White pastors who were invited to comment on the story had similar criticisms of our campaign. I was sure that there had to be some misunderstanding, and I was also sure that it wasn’t on our part.

So I called the lead protesting pastor, and asked to meet with him.

I was not expecting to meet his entire coalition, however, which is why I found myself seemingly six inches tall, sitting in his office and surrounded by furious Black faces, myself flustered and paralyzed. I knew in that moment that I had misjudged their response to our campaign, in large part because my privilege had disconnected me from their experience. It simply had not occurred to me (nor to any of the other White organizers) that the bus system primarily serves non-privileged communities, which meant here (as it does in most places) the Black community. And rather than console them, the inclusion of Black faces in our campaign only further antagonized them, and suggested that we were pushing our message specifically at the Black community. And this was not simply a philosophical disagreement: the function of the Black Church is as a supplementary social safety net, and for many the only safety net. Thus, we privileged White atheists who didn’t need the Church to survive, were being seen as using the token Blacks among us to launch a campaign with the goal of stripping a crucial resource away from a community that already lacked social privilege.

This absolutely horrified me. The clear implication, of course, was that I along with the other atheist organizers were acting out of some racist assumption, along the lines of “we White folks are so much better off than you poor Black folks that we don’t need the social support that religion provides, and now we’re going to take that away from you too.” It didn’t matter if we hadn’t intended the message to go over in that way, it was clear from the anger and hurt that was on the faces of the pastors surrounding me that this was the message they received.

I found myself unable to move, stuck between two unassailable convictions: on the one hand, that I was a life-long advocate of equality and opportunity who was disgusted by displays of racism whenever I saw them; on the other hand, that I was in some way, even if unintentionally, responsible for a racist message that had the effect of stigmatizing and offending a non-privileged community. This wasn’t supposed to happen. I was supposed to be one of the good White guys, someone that got it. But I didn’t get it, at least not until it was too late, and now here I was, the White oppressor once again trying to strip the Black community of its meager power, and more importantly, of its identity.

How dare you, their eyes said wordlessly. And they were right.

There is a ripe and necessary discussion that needs to happen in the Black community, that is happening in fact, about the relationship between race and religion and the relevance of the Black Church. There is a rich history of freethought and skepticism within the Black community that is too often overlooked and ignored to the benefit of the appointed clergy-heroes of American civil rights. There are incredibly important Black activists and organizations in the secular movement today who are doing vital work, each with a different story to tell and mission to advance.

But there are also lots of White atheists like me who, well-meaning though we think we’re being, end up on the wrong side of racism. Well-meaning perhaps, but also boneheaded enough to post pictures of shackled slaves on billboards, ignorant enough to publicly ask Black atheist activists why they’re not addressing “black-on-black” crime, and insensitive enough to make jokes about eating fried chicken and watermelon on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day.

We. Are. Not. Helping.

And our brothers and sisters in the Black secular community have taken notice. At one point there may have been grand designs about how the Big Tent of Atheism was going to be a massive polychromatic kumbaya, but that’s over now. Atheists of color are now finding supportive communities among groups like Black Nonbelievers, Black Skeptics, Black Freethinkers, Black Atheists, and many more. Whereas in the past, mainstream secular organizations could at least take comfort in the knowledge that Black members either had to work with them or not be active in the movement, now there’s real competition. Five years ago, I would hear White atheists ask, “how do we get more Black people to come?” and I would chuckle. Now, I hear them ask it, and I weep.

The sad fact is that the mainstream secular community is paralyzed by its own privilege. We know just enough to suspect that we may have done something racist, or at the very least are perpetuating a racist system. We glance quickly over the atheist conference speaker list, hoping there’s at least one Black face represented, and pat ourselves warmly on the back if there’s two. We listen to talks on molecular genetics, alternative medicine, and the idiocy of the god-concept and don’t notice that there’s no discussion of systemic poverty, educational imbalances, and the school-to-prison pipeline. We might pause to wonder why there are so few Black people in the audience, but then we see someone sporting a cool new T-shirt that says something really snarky about religion, and we hoof it back over to the vendor tables.

Hey, it’s easier that way. Right?

White atheists are not alone in this paralysis, to be sure. I’ve seen hip, young, White Christian pastors, currently building churches surrounded by trendy, gentrified, urban neighborhoods who are struggling with this as well. They’ve done a good job learning about privilege and power, about the diversity of experience, and about the intersectionality of race and religion. But they’re still limited by well-intentioned tokenism, bolstered by the earnest hope that Christ really can make everyone colorblind, even if he’s two millennia late in doing so. But perhaps they will break through before the mainstream secular community manages to do so, and make the connection with the Black community that we’re too scared, or lazy, or both, to make. Perhaps they’ll even partner with Black Nonbelievers or Black Skeptics on some critical project while the mainstream secular community sits, unmoving. Wouldn’t that be ironic?

Sitting in that room, surrounded by angry Black eyes, I did have a moment of clarity. I recognized my privilege, overcame my paralysis, and apologized profusely to the pastors gathered around me. I acknowledged their perspective, attempted to explain our misguided intentions, and admitted that it was still a mistake to choose this method of advertising without thinking through how it could be seen by others with different experiences. Instantly the mood lifted. We were still at odds philosophically and theologically, but by looking at the situation through their experience I gained some credibility, maybe not as an ally, but at least not as an enemy.

I think the mainstream secular community can do better than I did that day. I think we still have the potential to be allies to our Black brothers and sisters, but it’s going to take work. We can’t just pretend to be colorblind and call it a day. We first have to acknowledge that race plays a critical role in forming different experiences for people, and that these experiences lead to different missions and goals. We also have to give our Black friends the freedom to create the safe spaces for themselves that we, to put it frankly, have not done a great job of cultivating for them. And while they’re doing that important work, let’s listen to them whenever possible, let’s give them a platform (or three) to share their views with us, and let’s look for any opportunity to align our goals with theirs.

Maybe in the end we can’t have a Big Tent after all, but that doesn’t mean we have to be strangers in each others’ homes.

[EDIT: Alix Jules has written a counterpoint to this article, here.]

The Misplaced Magi

Photo by Zachary Moore. A typical nativity display.

One of the frequent scenes of the Christmas season is the mounting of nativity displays, both in macro scale out in public (often with live actors and animals), as well as in micro scale in one’s own home. In the United States, such displays on public property have often prompted legal challenges, leading to Supreme Court decisions that restrict such spectacles unless other traditions are given equal time and opportunity in the commons. This has led to various and questionable outcomes, such as the perennial display of the Winter Solstice plaque by the Freedom From Religion Foundation, as well as the “Merry Christmas Bill” which was signed into law here in Texas last year by outgoing Governor Rick Perry.

These nativity scenes are typically popular among Christian congregations; it’s not too difficult to find one or more churches in any neighborhood that have one up on their property. And it’s not difficult to see why; some of the best nativity scenes I’ve ever visited have been like a mini-fair, with hot cocoa and peppermint candies for the kids, lots of live animals to visit and pet, and throngs of the faithful singing Christmas hymns. As a young Christian, this was a wonderful and faith-affirming part of the holiday season, second only to midnight candlelight services on Christmas Eve.

But from the time when I was in high school, it had occurred to me that there was an odd peculiarity about these nativity scenes that I just couldn’t shake.

The concept itself was fundamentally flawed.

That’s not to say that I viewed the entire nativity narrative as false, but as I studied the Bible, I noticed something that had not caught my attention when I was younger. Namely, that the narratives of Jesus’ birth in Matthew and Luke (the only two Gospels that attempt to report on this aspect of his biography) are significantly different. In particular, there was one critical detail that stuck out to me as an irritating inconsistency.

The Magi shouldn’t be there.

In the Gospel attributed to Matthew, the first chapter presents a long genealogy of Jesus, after which follows a short pericope describing his birth, but with virtually no description of the event at all. There is no census, no pregnant woman on a donkey, no overstuffed inn. There’s not even a mention of where this is supposed to be happening. The account simply says that “[Joseph] knew [Mary] not until she had given birth to a son. And he called his name Jesus.”

The next chapter begins with a new pericope, placing the birth of Jesus in Bethlemen in the days of Herod the king (information that was omitted previously), and brings “wise men from the east” onto the stage. In the Greek, these are recorded as μάγος ἀπό ἀνατολή (magos apo anatolē), or literally “magicians from the [place of the] rising of the sun.” There is no more information provided about their countries of origin, or indeed if they came from the same or different countries. Surprisingly, there is also no number given to describe how many of these “Magi” arrived in Jerusalem, meaning that the concept that there were three of them is but the first of many unsupported inferences that have been incorporated into their substantial legendarium.

According to later myths and traditions, these three Magi are named: Caspar, Melchior, and Balthazar. An interpolation from Psalm 72 suggests that these three originated from Tarshish, Sheba, and Seba (ancient cities whose actual locations are under dispute, but could refer to Southern Arabia, East Africa, or Asia Minor). Some traditions identify Caspar as the oldest and Balthazar as the youngest, while others say that Melchior was the oldest, and Caspar was the youngest. Some traditions have Balthazar originating from Ethiopia, and depict him with black skin. Of course, outside the Western traditions, the names change significantly: the Syriac Church knows them as Larvandad, Hormisdas, and Gushnasaph; the Armenian Church knows them as Kagba, Badadilma, and Badadakharida; the Ethiopian Church knows them as Hor, Karsudan, and Basanater.

With so many names to choose from, why pick just three?

In fact, the number of the Magi in the Western tradition is normally set at three to correspond with the three gifts that are mentioned in Matthew’s Gospel (and referencing in part Isaiah 60): gold, frankincense, and myrrh. But aside from the expediency of myth (and adaptability for religious iconography), there’s no reason to assume that each Magus brought a single gift. And indeed, in the Eastern tradition the number of Magi is held to be twelve, such as in the apocryphal Syriac text “Revelation of the Magi.”

In this version of the Magi myth, they arrive in Jerusalem from the legendary country of “Shir,” transported magically with supernatural speed from one to the other. The “star” they report seeing is no ordinary astronomical body, but is in fact the celestial body of Christ himself in luminous display, a kind of “star-child.” (This astral Christ is also identified by Adam’s son Seth as having been positioned over the Tree of Life in the Garden of Eden, which had disappeared once Adam fell into sin.) After arriving in Bethlehem, the Magi find that the star-child descends into a cave, where he blesses them as apostles of the Gospel before sending them magically back to their homeland to evangelize their people.

Needless to say, Matthew’s story is far less exciting; after visiting the child Jesus at home in Bethlehem with his mother Mary, the Magi “departed to their own country,” avoiding Herod’s wrath and exiting the canon altogether.

So why do I say that the Magi have no place in the nativity scene? They’re clearly a part of the narrative, right? Well, they are, but the nativity scene as we know it doesn’t come to us from Matthew’s Gospel, it comes from Luke’s.

Luke’s Gospel has the most to tell us about the circumstances surrounding the birth of Jesus, going as far back as including the nativity of his cousin, John the Baptist. (Though if the other Gospel writers were aware of Jesus’ familial relationship with John, they don’t mention it.) In this story, Mary is visited by an angel (in Matthew’s story it’s Joseph who received an angelic message), a census decree is issued, and the Holy Family packs their things for the town of Bethlehem. In Luke’s account, Joseph and Mary live originally in Nazareth, and are only on their way to Bethlehem because of the requirement of the census (which makes very poor historical sense), rather than in Matthew’s account, in which Jesus is born in Bethlehem apparently because that’s where his parents lived.

This is a crucial point, because in Luke’s Gospel, Mary and Joseph are foreigners to the little town of Bethlehem, which is why they were dependent on hotel accommodations at the end of their journey. It’s precisely because they didn’t have a place of their own, and because there was “no room at the inn,” that Jesus is born in a manger. It’s also in this version of the story that we have the heavenly hosts breaking forth into praise for God, to the fear and amazement of the “shepherds out in the field.” This is where St. Linus finds his monologue to assuage the doubts of Charlie Brown:

And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid. And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord. And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger. And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.”

Luke 2:8-14, KJV

It’s marvelous stuff, and the shepherds immediately rush into Bethlehem to find this child, bringing us the classic nativity scene of the Holy Family, adoring shepherds, and the announcing angel clustered cozily in a barn-like diorama. But notice what ISN’T present in the scene: any indication of the visit of the Magi. Luke’s story moves immediately to Jesus’ circumcision, his presentation at the Temple in Jerusalem (no concern that he would be discovered by the bloodthirsty Herod, and likewise no terrified sojourn in Egypt!), and then finally a happy return to Nazareth.

Clearly, these two nativity accounts are at odds with each other. Even taken at face value, it seems impossible to reconcile the two: Matthew’s narrative is one of connected prophecies, in which every plot point is referenced back to some part of scripture (e.g., Mary being a virgin, Jesus being born in Bethlehem, the sojourn in Egypt, and the return to Nazareth). But in Luke’s narrative, we have a plot of connected proclamations, beginning with the angelic announcement of John’s birth, Jesus’ birth, the acknowledgement by the fetal John in the womb, followed by the massive celebration of the heavenly host and the modest recognition by the shepherds at the manger. In Matthew’s account, Jesus’ secretive birth echoes that of the Hebrew hero Moses (or possibly the Roman founder Romulus) who is an outlaw from birth, but in Luke’s account, Jesus is publicly acclaimed and comes from a law-abiding family that regularly participates in the religious establishment. In both versions, Jesus is the heir of David (legally or spiritually if not biologically) and a Galilean, born in Bethlehem and raised in Nazareth.

So why, then, does it matter if the nativity scenes we commonly see during the holiday season aren’t faithful to a literal reading of the Christian scriptures?

I would say that it doesn’t.

The nativity scene as we know it is flawed, to be sure. But the flaw itself is part of the beauty of the work, indeed, it’s the flaw that gives it the beauty. Rather than insist upon consistency for its own sake, I quite like the asymmetry of narrative elements from two competing stories crowding together, shoulder-to-shoulder, in a kind of posed, wabi-sabi display. Or, to put it another way, it’s the comfort of rusted gold in a reversal of the intent Chaucer’s parson gives his maxim:

To his sheep did he give this noble example, which he first set into action and afterward taught; these words he took out of the gospel, and this similitude he added also, that if gold will rust, what shall iron do?

Geoffrey Chaucer,  The Canterbury Tales, “The Prologue”

C2014Q2_Lovejoy_by_Paul_Stewart

Photo by Paul Stewart. https://www.flickr.com/photos/astrostew/15497693653/

That the grand and glorious traditions of the Church have managed to harmonize and synthesize two stories which are quite obviously at odds with each other on close inspection is itself a magnificent example of humanity’s capacity to find meaning in the mundane. Passing overhead as I write is the green comet Lovejoy, which will come closest to Earth tomorrow night (January 7th), not to return (if at all) for another 622 years. On the one hand, this is just another of many comets currently orbiting the Sun, a rather routine occurrence in our solar system. And yet this celestial traveller is also a reminder that there is more orbiting our moderately-sized star than just our own little rock, and indeed there is more to the Cosmos than we could ever hope to learn in our short lifetimes.

Like the “star-child” in “Revelation of the Magi,” this is also an ancient decoration on our tree of life, linked to the family of comets which supplied our ancient planet with the water necessary for biological development and evolution. There is magic in this, as what is simply and literally a frozen rock hissing steam into the vacuum becomes an emblem of our Cosmic inheritance pointing ahead into our future. This is not just a story of what has happened in the past, this is a story of what is happening and what will continue to happen to humanity. The Magi, misplaced though they may be in space and time, yet are a valuable reminder that the important events in our lives are all inexorably linked in the mythological tapestry common to all humanity; we look for signs in the stars because we see in them both our past and future.

So of course the Magi had to be there in the humble manger of David’s city; no matter where the individual storyteller places them, the myth demands that they be present to acknowledge the connection between Human and Cosmos. Indeed, the story is not meaningful to us despite the fluid mythology of its telling, it is meaningful to us because of it.

O Star of wonder, star of night
Star with royal beauty bright
Westward leading, still proceeding
Guide us to thy Perfect Light

John Henry Hopkins, Jr. “The Quest of the Magi”

The Thanksgiving Paradox

Tree“Yahweh gave, and Yahweh has taken away; blessed be the name of Yahweh.”

–Job 1:21

Several years ago, I was invited to represent the local atheist community at an interpath event held at the Unity Church of Dallas. There were all manners of religious traditions present, including several liberal forms of Christianity, Judaism, and Islam, as well as a few dozen or so eclectic individuals who had adopted a kind of a mix-n-match approach to their religious worldview, blending certain aspects of Hinduism with various other aspects of Paganism, for example. It was an interesting cohort, to be sure, and I felt unexpectedly comfortable among this metaphysical diversity.

As the event drew to a close, the organizers announced that there would be a circular prayer, in which each of the invited participants would give a culminating invocation to their respective gods or goddesses to bring the proceedings to a close. As the circle drew around to my seat, I briefly considered remaining silent, but then at the last minute offered this supplication:

“Dear God in Heaven, thank you for giving me the intellectual capacity to disbelieve in You.”

After the event had ended, one of the younger Ahmadiyya Muslims in attendance approached me with a wry grin. “That was a funny prayer you offered,” he said. “I totally got the joke.”

I flashed him a smile in return, and said, “Thanks. But I was also being quite serious.”


As a child, the religious character of the Thanksgiving holiday was an obvious example of the manifest destiny concept with which most American history is colloquially taught. And the narrative most of us absorbed is full of justification for such gratitude: after fleeing religious persecution in England, the Separatist Dissenters sailed across the Atlantic on the Mayflower, landed and founded Plymouth Colony, starved through their first winter, and then were contacted by Samoset of the Native Abenaki tribe, who introduced them to Squanto, the last of the Native Patuxet tribe. According to the English Separtists’ accounts, Squanto not only provided them with crucial guidance in survival techniques, but he also negotiated a political treaty between them and Massasoit of the Wampanoag, culminating in a Thanksgiving feast that we memorialize each year on the fourth Thursday in November.

Except that’s not exactly all there is to the story.

The Separatists or “Pilgrims” as we call them were not the last English settlers to come, but neither were they the first. Squanto, the Pilgrims’ benefactor, had previously been kidnapped and enslaved by English explorers, taught their language, and trained as an interpreter. Upon returning to his homeland, he was kidnapped and enslaved again, to eventually be set free by kindly Spanish monks. When he finally did return home a second time, he found that the entire population of his tribe had been wiped out by disease just the year before, leaving him as the sole survivor. Indeed, the very reason why the Pilgrims chose the Patuxet’s former territory for Plymouth Colony was because the land had obviously been cleared and tended but was abandoned, precisely because of this plague, part of the legacy of the introduction of European pathogens to the Americas.

And following the happy Thanksgiving feast, things did not go so well for the Wampanoag. More English settlers, primarily Puritans, arrived in what they were calling “New England,” to the point where the Native Americans were now in the minority. Not all of these settlers were as interested in cohabitation as the original Pilgrims had been, and between recurrent disease outbreaks, pressure to covert Natives to Christianity and English culture, and also the violent retribution against Native attempts to reassert their sovereignty, their participation in America’s history was reduced to a mere footnote.

So looking back at the history of the event we celebrate every year, I have to wonder… is the gratitude of the Pilgrims enough to make up for the calamity of the Wamapoag? To say nothing of the utter disaster that characterized European/Native relations over the following four centuries?

And I feel much the same way about expressing gratitude to the divine.

Author J. Daniel Sawyer has remarked, though he doesn’t believe in God, he’d “like to have someone to say thanks to.” And that desire resonates with me, especially in the middle of an autumn walk through some particularly spectacular foliage. “Wouldn’t it be nice,” I sometimes think to myself on these occasions, “to know that someone was responsible for all of this natural beauty, and be able to thank them for the joy that I feel in this moment.”

But it’s a sentiment with strict demarcation.

Because I know too much about the natural world, and I know that for every fiery leaf that catches my eye, there is an innocent creature caught in an inferno and turned to ash. For every streaming cataract that captures my imagination, there is a pool of deadly water that imprisons a drowned child. For every soft breeze that tousles my hair and caresses my cheeks, there is a person smashed into oblivion by a raging tempest.

Consider perhaps, a painting so beautifully transcendent that its subject seems to connect right through into the center of your being, its composition so balanced and harmonious that it evokes an immediate and deep sense of peace and satisfaction, its colors so brilliant and textures so ideal that real life is dull and hazy by comparison. Such a work of art would demand the highest degree of respect and appreciation for the artist, would it not?

But then consider that the canvas for this magnum opus was cut, slowly and with the maximum possible amount of suffering, from the skin of a still-living person. And the pigments used to create the artwork were cunningly crafted from blood, drawn slowly from the same person, while she looked on in full conscious horror. And the brushes used to apply the paints to the canvas were fashioned from bones, cracked and wrenched violently from that same person’s fingers.

Would you still be able to enjoy that painting as you had originally?


What pains me most about offering gratitude to God is not simply reconciling the good things that happen with the bad. Even in a Godless Cosmos, there will be things that humans regard as good and evil; there is no inconsistency there. Because in a world without God, the existence of evil is either a failing of humanity or a happenstance of the apathetic Cosmos; two sources which I have no trouble reconciling and accepting. Instead, what I find myself unable to morally assent to is the prevalence of evil acts which no God worth the name could be inconvenienced to prevent, and yet which occur nonetheless. It would, for example, have been trivial for God to have introduced a strong genetic resistance to the smallpox virus in the Native peoples of the Americas. Such a small change would have had tremendous ramifications on the European colonization of this continent, and would have reduced the death and suffering of Squanto’s people by several orders of magnitude.

Now, theistic philosophers explain why this incrementally better God is not possible, citing any number of theodicies which almost-but-not-quite cover the entire range of natural and human evils we observe. But the same range of evils are consistent with a Godless existence as well; theists and atheists alike can agree that the worst of all human traits would manifest with or without a personal deity, and an impersonal Cosmos would hurl just as many bolts of destruction. So the paradox is that, it is only upon invocation of God that prayers of thanksgiving have any sense, but the tendency of that same God to balance the ledgers with calamity renders that thanksgiving senseless. That is to say, for every event God allows which inspire tears of joy, He also allows those which cause tears of despair. It is not necessarily the case that God has to play a zero-sum game, but it happens nonetheless. Would the Pilgrims have had as much to be thankful for in 1621 if the Patuxet were still living on their land, and if the larger Wampanoag confederation had not been decimated by European disease? Would America have risen to its level of prominence without centuries of slavery bolstering its national economy? Would I be able to enjoy the current privilege and safety I now have without the dripping blood of countless soldiers who are sent into warfare on my behalf?

As long as the God of classical theism cannot resolve this paradox any better than He did for His suffering servant Job, He is no God worth believing in. And yet still I wonder, is there not a God who could accomplish everything that inspires our gratitude without also allowing everything that provokes our pain? Such a God would, if He existed, be much more likely to earn my admiration, and certainly a much different prayer.

The Simplified Christian

n.t. wright

The retired Anglican Bishop N. T. Wright is highly regarded in educated conservative Christian circles, lauded by Catholics and Protestants alike (such as Tim Keller, whose work I’ve reviewed previously). Wright’s work as a scholar and popularizer of Christianity evokes the legacy of C. S. Lewis, another Anglican who cast a long shadow on the American evangelical community, in particular. His opinions on sexual ethics in the Church (especially the acceptance of homosexuality) has placed him more than once in the middle of cultural conflicts, and he has defended his conservative views with vigor. His writings for the lay Christian audience have sought to make a convincing argument for his conservative beliefs, without sacrificing the theological weight of their implications.

In his book, “Simply Christian,” Bishop Wright seeks to create an abstract of sorts, which the unsophisticated but earnest Christian may use as a framework for her beliefs until further details are accessible, and which the curious unbeliever may approach for a rough but comprehensible sketch of the religion which has dominated Western thought and culture for the past two millennia. That being said, Wright readily admits that this work can in no way be taken as a comprehensive assessment of the Christian faith; it is no exercise in systematic theology.

What Wright has clearly not anticipated, however, is the wondering gaze of the Christian apostate. One might similarly experience some level of bemusement at reading the realtor’s description of one’s former domicile. “Convenient parking, breathtaking views, and new appliances,” reads the sales notice. Ah, but not mentioned are the faulty plumbing in the guest bathroom, the pervasive weeds in the ill-tended garden, and the HVAC system one or two seasons away from shutdown. There’s a reason the former tenant abandoned the premises, after all, but Wright seems blissfully unaware (or unconcerned) about such readers.

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Like C. S. Lewis before him (whose model he clearly emulates), Wright also makes every effort to ecumenize his portrait of Christianity. As he says, “the book isn’t ‘Anglican,’ ‘Catholic,’ ‘Protestant,’ or ‘Orthodox,’ but simply Christian.” Though attempting anything else would make the book a complicated mess, I worry that Wright with a wave of his hand brushes aside too many of the differences between the various forms of Christianity. The variances between Protestants and Catholics are not trivial, neither in their experiences of the faith nor in the particulars of their respective theologies. Further, the intense and continuous fracturing of the Christian tradition is an important consideration for anyone interested in exploring the religion, believer and unbeliever alike.

Bishop Wright builds his case for Christianity carefully, progressively, and with the practiced technique of someone who has been enthusiastically engaged in the evangelism of his faith for decades. Yet the bricks he uses are mortared with generous assumptions, not wholly inappropriate given his assumed audience, but taken without proof by the author nonetheless. Assumptions like the objective nature of moral claims, the existence of the immaterial supernatural, and the impossibility of beauty and complexity to exist in a purely materialistic world. Many times also, Wright stops himself from making overt assumptions, but merely raises a question and considers the various responses, before moving forward taking for granted that the explanation which best points the way to God and Christianity should be taken as the assumed conclusion.

For example, Wright attempts an entire chapter outlining the Christian conception of the deity, without actually explaining why Christians are Theists in the first place, nor why they have decided that the ancient semitic god Yahweh is their God the Father. Similarly, later in the book he brushes past the most central and integral doctrine about the nature of the Christian god, Trinitarianism:

“The church’s official “doctrine of the Trinity” wasn’t fully formulated until three or four centuries after the time of Paul. Yet when the later theologians eventually worked it all through, it turned out to consist, in effect, of detailed footnotes to Paul, John, Hebrews, and the other New Testament books, with explanations designed to help later generations grasp what was already there in principle in the earliest writings.”

This is, quite simply, promoting theological poverty among Christians. I can’t imagine how Bishop Wright (or his publishers) were able to to pass this off, but he continues:

“Indeed, some have suggested that one way of understanding the Spirit is to see the Spirit as the personal love which the Father has for the Son and the Son for the Father.”

Not the Spirit as Person, but the Spirit as “personal love.” I’ll grant that it’s a pretty thought, but the good Bishop travels too close to Binitarianism with this kind of talk. After this, Wright encourages his readers to celebrate the “divine Trinity” doctrine as fact, but one wonders if any reader has any better sense of this core doctrine (or indeed, Wright himself) after completing his book.

Wright’s rationale when it comes to his assumptions about sex and gender are similarly opaque. He seems to have no understanding of the sociological relationship between the two concepts, how fluid they have always been throughout human society, and indeed the mixed messages of the Bible with regard to human relationships. Instead, he appears to insist on precisely the kind of inflexible, undeviating, restrictive view of sex and gender that his generation of Christians grew up with, unaware (or uncaring) that this is precisely the kind of attitude that younger Christians are objecting to, and which has already succeeded in alienating many of this generation, if not outright evacuating them.

“At one end of the scale, some people try to pretend that for all practical purposes their gender is irrelevant, as though they were in fact neuter. At the other end, some people are always sizing others up as potential sexual partners, even if only in imagination. And, again, we know in our bones that both of these are distortions of reality.”

“Today’s parents, however impeccable their idealistic credentials, have discovered that most little boys like playing with guns and cars, and that a remarkable number of little girls like playing with dolls, dressing them up and nursing them.”

“The trouble is that the modern world, like much of the ancient one, has come to regard what is sometimes called an active sex life as not only the norm but something nobody in his or her right mind does without.”

However, for all these missteps, Wright does do justice to his explanation of the Bible and its composition. His conservative conclusions regarding authorship and historicity are fully on display, but his summary of the “Book God Breathed” is a fair account that is likely to surprise with new information the average “pew potato” Christian who only follows along with her pastor during the Sunday sermon. Likewise, his distinction between inerrancy and infallibility is made with a subtle yet careful assuredness that would likely assuage the most conservative and the most liberal readers, alike.

Where Wright succeeds best is in making plain the contrast between three different forms of god-belief, and how they might lead to different interpretations of Christian history. These are Pantheism, the belief in a god which is unified with the Cosmos throughout the fabric of space-time; Deism, the belief in a god which is separated from the Cosmos (though the Creator of it) and does not operate in space-time; and Theism, the belief in a god which intersects with the Cosmos at various points in space-time. Christianity, as a form of Theism, is put forward by Wright as the most satisfying explanation for various phenomena, such as the complex beauty of nature, as well as the particular themes and implications of Biblical stories.

This is a significant success for Wright because the popularity of Theism is on the wane, even among some Christians. The implications of a personal deity, as well as of the theological, behavioral, and cultural implications of Christianity’s truth are dulled significantly if God is not personally present and active in our world. A Pantheistic or Deistic interpretation of Christianity helps avoid some of the most troubling issues with their faith with which many Christians simply don’t want to engage. An absentee god cannot condemn, cannot distinguish between believer and heathen, and thus must provide for some kind of universal salvation or risk moral irrelevancy. An impersonal god cannot intervene to save a baby from being drowned in a flash flood, cannot stand between a young child and a diagnosis of terminal cancer. It is important for Wright to make the case that to be a consistent Christian requires a clear acceptance of Theism, and I believe that he manages this task.

Yet for all his promotion of Christianity, Bishop Wright takes an opportunity to criticize the modern church as someplace that for many “carr[ies] the overtones of large, dark buildings, pompous religious pronouncements, false solemnity, and rank hypocrisy.” And in his description of the best aspects of church, I feel that we can find some agreement:

“It’s a place of welcome and laughter, of healing and hope, of friends and family and justice and new life. It’s where the homeless drop in for a bowl of soup and the elderly stop by for a chat. It’s where one group is working to help drug addicts and another is campaigning for global justice.”

I’ll see you in that church on Sunday, Bishop.

The Missing Apostates

The “New Atheism” is a phenomenon that confuses and confounds, that is both over- and underplayed, and that represents one of the most significant threats to the modern American Church aside from its own shallowness and self-absorption. As such, it fascinates me to no end when I see Christians speaking authoritatively about the New Atheist phenomenon, which is usually an occurrence that sparks as much befuddlement and unintentional hilarity as I might imagine if Richard Dawkins were to deliver a lecture on systematic theology.

That being said, one of the most cogent and authentic attempts to communicate the phenomenon of the New Atheists was recently accomplished by Drs. Doug Blount and Glenn Kreider, with assistance from Dr. Darrell Bock in a chapel discussion at Dallas Theological Seminary:

 

 

I take it as no small point of pride that I had met and spoken with Drs. Blount and Bock previously to this discussion, and hopefully provided them with some amount of personal perspective, as someone who lived through the New Atheism phenomenon as a New Atheist himself.

But there are a few criticisms I have with this discussion, as fair as I thought it was.

Firstly, New Atheism is a much broader phenomenon than just a handful of popular authors. One could convert the remaining Horsemen (Harris, Dawkins, and Dennett) to orthodox Christianity today and it would make little difference to the trajectory of the New Atheist movement. The mainstream American Church needs this clarification made as soon as possible: the Horsemen are not the cause of the New Atheism, they are themselves a product of the same influences which brought it about. Christians who attempt to rebut the Horsemen and consider their assessment of and defense against New Atheism complete are woefully under-informed.

Similarly, this discussion presented an over-emphasis on so-called “militant” atheism. While people like David Silverman and Annie Laurie Gaylor are often the most publicly recognizable (and FOX News friendly), they (and the organizations they represent) are now a fraction of the New Atheist movement. Secular social groups and congregations (like the Fellowship of Freethought in Dallas, the Houston Oasis, and the Community Mission Chapel in Lake Charles) are much more indicative of the direction New Atheism is going.

Of course, any time that Stalin is mentioned when Christians talk about atheism, I die a little inside. That Dr. Blount here characterized Stalin’s acts as occurring “in the name of atheism” docks a great many fairness points from the final tally. Though morally repugnant, neither Stalin nor any similarly-cited tyrants engaged in acts of wickedness “in the name of atheism.” Their philosophies may have been incidentally atheistic, but they were not crusaders of nonbelief in the same way that David Silverman is, and certainly not in the same way that Jerry DeWitt is. By contrast, it is trivially easy to identify many acts of wickedness throughout history that were committed “in the name of” many different religions, including Christianity. I’m afraid Dr. Blount makes a category error when he suggests that Stalin and the New Atheism have any kind of equivalence.

However, one of the BIGGEST gaps in the discussion is any recognition at all that the New Atheists are overwhelmingly old theists. That is to say, 4 out of 5 organized atheists (at least here in Dallas–Fort Worth) are former Christians. Most of us apostatized because we took our Christianity seriously enough to question it without a safety net. Indeed, many of us took Christianity seriously enough to pursue apologetics, lead Bible studies, and even to attend seminaries (including Dallas Theological Seminary). This is not to ignore the fact that there are many incidental atheists (and even some philosophically sophisticated explicit atheists) who convert to various forms of theism, but consider the mathematics of the phenomenon. I would venture to say that there is at least an order of magnitude of difference between the percentage of explicit atheists who have rejected Christianity (and other religions) compared to the percentage of religious people who have rejected explicit atheism. At least, that has been my experience.

In fact, I’d wager that there was most likely a current or future New Atheist in the audience during this very chapel discussion (and I’d bet $20 that he was one of the questioners as well).

So I find it to be a real pity that whenever Christians gather to discuss (and question) the New Atheism, the one person whose opinion is most relevant is missing. I call it the Problem of the Missing Apostates. With the possible exception of myself, the apostates of Christianity disappear from the pews, vanish from Bible studies, and slip out the back door of seminaries. The apostate is no longer a questioning believer, no longer a brother or sister in the body of Christ, and no longer present in the life of the Church. There is, quite simply, no room in the Church, no opportunity for fellowship within the Church, and no possibility of understanding within the Church when it comes to the Missing Apostate.

I am perhaps one of the exceptions to this phenomenon. Though I went missing not long after my own apostasy, I’ve returned to the Church often, motivated in part by a hunger to realize Acts 13:15. I’ve since been invited to speak to Sunday School classes, Wednesday night meetings, and even entire congregations, all of which I thoroughly enjoy. Of course, I fully recognize that allowing an atheist into the sanctuary can be troublesome, especially for those at the top levels. But the Church is losing ground in popular culture, and it quite simply can’t compete. Much like the invention of the printing press gave the Protestant Reformation an informational edge against the traditions of the Catholic Church, the writings and activism of the New Atheism are spreading at the speed of the Internet beyond what the modern American Church can hope to contain.

In order to meet these challenges, the Church needs to seek first to understand the New Atheism, even better than was represented here in this discussion, and I submit that the key to this understanding remains in the experiences and perspectives of the Missing Apostates.