I am by principle and often spontaneously, as if by nature, a man of faith. But my reading of the Gospels, comforting and clarifying and instructive as they frequently are, deeply moving or exhilarating as they frequently are, has caused me to understand them also as a burden, sometimes raising the hardest of personal questions, sometimes bewildering, sometimes contradictory, sometimes apparently outrageous in their demands. This is the confession of an unconfident reader.
Brian Flemming is that most dangerous of religious creatures: the former fundamentalist. He is also a gifted satirical filmmaker. The two elements collide and create sparks in The God Who Wasn’t There: A Film Beyond Belief, which is playing at selected venues (see thegodmovie.com) and banking on Internet buzz and word of mouth to gain publicity.
Children living on the edges of time zones are the ones most aware of the arbitrary nature of timekeeping. On the Western edges, they whine about being called indoors on summer evenings when the sun is still shining. On the Eastern edges, they are rightly offended when the winter sun starts to go down at 4:30 in the afternoon.
When my parents bought their home in Marshall, Texas, in 1984, there were 96 mature trees on their one-acre lot, many of them towering pines that rise 75 feet or more from the ground, covering their house with a peaceful green canopy. These giant pines are beautiful but deadly.
How do Christians understand their faith in light of insights gained from history, social science, natural science and other modes of inquiry? How, for example, do Christians understand the book of Genesis in light of scientific investigations into the origin of the universe and of the species?
A rabbi noted recently that when Jews and Christians view Mel Gibson’s movie The Passion of the Christ, they tend to see two different stories—and neither seems to appreciate or understand the reactions of the other. A perceptive observer of Christianity, the rabbi pointed out that Christians don’t all see the same story either.
Although the images of shepherd and sheep wind their way through these lectionary texts, they are difficult images for the contemporary church to embrace. I recall many of the adults in one congregation cringing during a children’s time a few years ago, when a well-intentioned volunteer tried to teach the children a song that had them “baa-ing” for Jesus. What are we teaching our children, some of us wondered: To follow the crowd without question? To have no mind of one’s own? To expect someone else to take care of us?
When I was a small boy in Ireland my parents would take us to our grandfather’s farm near Castlecomer in County Kilkenny. On the farm there was a hired man whose name was John Brennan. John lived in a thatched cottage about half a mile away. In the evening after the cows were milked, he would sit on a large flat stone outside the stable door and smoke a stained clay pipe. Sometimes I would sit beside him and he would tell me stories.
At one of our church’s weekly staff meetings the youth minister said he had a problem and needed his colleagues’ advice. In the course of teaching the confirmation class, he had asked the young people to write their own statement of faith. The problem, he said, was that one of the students didn’t believe much of anything, though he was happily involved in the confirmation process.