Friday, April 13, 2007

Penn & Teller

Showtime has a program that I very much enjoy. It's the magician team of Penn & Teller running around debunking things that they view as wrong. It's called "Penn & Teller: Bullsh*t". I really enjoy it. It's not for the faint of heart, though. Penn Jillette is a connoisseur of profanity. Don't watch it with the kids around.

But I'm in a quandary. In 2004, they did an episode on the Bible. They presented testimony of inconsistencies and historical inaccuracies. And for the most part I can just interpret away the problems that they came up with. By this, I mean that they took a rather narrow interpretation and poked holes in it. A broader interpretation is harder to poke holes in. For example, the two creation stories in Genesis. I don't happen to believe in creationism. I happen to fall on the side of evolution as the mechanism of creation. Theistic evolution does a really good job of explaining my position. So the "conflicting" views in Genesis 1 & 2 are not that big of a problem. The main message of Genesis is that God did it. I don't seriously take the Genesis accounts as a reliable physical description of what happened.

And then there's the horror that Penn expresses when he retells the story of God killing all the first born sons in Egypt. Of course, that's a horrific event if you're convinced that this life is the only thing. It's also horrific if you think that the children are victims. But it's not so horrific if you believe that God loves those children more than their parents do. It's also not so horrific if you believe that God can call home any human at any time he pleases and that in doing so, God will treat them justly, fairly, and compassionately. Death is only the worst possible thing in the world if this is the only world there is.

I'm also reminded of Rob Bell's description of how to interpret the Bible, and what a "yoke" is. And of how we're to constantly re-evaluate the meaning of the Bible. We're to constantly say, "Hey, maybe I had that interpretation wrong." Especially when we're confronted with new truths that are blatant. All truth is God's truth. So if we see truth in the world that apparently conflicts with the Bible, it might just be that we didn't correctly interpret the Bible. It might also be that we didn't correctly evaluate the truth in the world. Nevertheless, it's freeing to realize that we're not forced to stick with Biblical interpretations that don't make sense. This is a somewhat controversial position amongst some Christians, but it really resonates with me. As a result, many of the inconsistencies presented by Penn & Teller fall under the umbrella of "You've heard it said, but I tell you..." new yoke interpretation.

Unfortunately, it gets harder to interpret away the heart of Christianity: the death and resurrection of Jesus. If that one didn't happen, then Christians everywhere can cry in their beers and go home. If Christ didn't rise, then how can we say that God defeated death? If God didn't defeat death, then how can Jesus be a savior who can take on for himself the wages of sin? How is he anything more than just a man? How can I be any better believing in his salvation for my life? In fact, if he's just a man, then I'm remarkably worse off believing this. I'll act like my eternal position is resolved when it's not.

The show does not do very much to debunk the resurrection. It simply says, that it's hard to prove. It doesn't provide any counter evidence to suggest that it's demonstrably false. But it does tell an analogous story about how, less than 3 decades after the death of Elvis, there are people insisting that they've seen him alive. And if the gospels in the Bible are all written 60-70 years after the death of Christ, it's pretty easy to see how this might just be part of the human condition that afflicts devotees of a hero.

On the other hand, I don't see any Elvis followers sticking with their stories so much so that they're willing to be executed instead of recanting, whereas most of the most influential early Christians did just that when it came to Jesus' resurrection. I also don't see anyone demanding the execution of the "Elvis lives" crowd. In any case, the Elvis analogy can only go so far.

Before I watched the episode, I whipped off a quick prayer: "Lord protect me from what might be coming. I want to watch this because I believe that all truth is your truth. Keep me focused on the truth and give me answers to Satan's intellectual temptations that I will almost certainly experience." I think He's done a pretty good job of answering that prayer. Most of this blog reports the answers that I got. But I'm still a little shaken by the experience. I find myself resonating with the comment Penn made that it's really not fair to pick and choose what you want to believe from the Bible. I wonder if all of my "interpretations" above are just fancy ways of doing that.

Still, the thought of returning to atheism holds only a minor pull with me. That pull being this: maybe it's true. The pull is slightly stronger now than it was before. But it's not nearly as strong as the pull of the community in which I now reside. It's not as strong as the realization of how much better my life is as a Christ follower than not. And that truth seems much more real to me than the possibility that atheism is true.

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