Monday, December 31, 2018


Dear God,

No pun intended . . . but you knew that. You and I go way back—all the way back to the big bang. With a masterful one-hand clap, there I was—a mess of unconscious scattered particles, yet to be assembled by time, gravity, chemical reactions, and a chain of unrealized trysts and love stories. I don’t know if you hunkered down over a drafting board to sketch out concepts for birds of paradise, or just propped your proverbial boots up for thirteen-billion years to watch what you set in motion unfold, but it sure turned out interesting. Thank you for the colorful diversity of life on Earth and our capacity to relish it.

The biblical worldview through which I grew up to understand you was predominantly literal. The Bible I read may well have dropped from the sky as Jesus ascended, my name etched into the leather, dictated by you and typed out in the King’s English by Gabriel himself. The versions generally accepted by Bible Belt Protestantism I’m familiar with included the KJV [some folks I know would stop the list right there], NKJV, NLT, ASV, NIV, and ESV. The edgiest evangelicals would even dare read Eugene Peterson’s controversial modern translation The Message.

I've learned a lot about the origins of the good book over the last ten years. English translations of the Bible have been around less than half as long as Christianity itself. For a long time literacy was a luxury of the elite. Hand-scribed books were prohibitively expensive. Full-time priests handled replication, digestion, interpretation, and distribution of scripture. Then the printing press came along, with the protestant reformation hot on its heels. The ability to read became an increasingly important life-skill as information increasingly went to the press. The mystic anthology grew cheaper and more available to the common man.

The common man had too much time on his hands, thanks to the same automation that brought him affordable books, and began to spend it reading the Bible for himself and questioning the interpretations of others. Many proud men were convinced they understood you best. Consequentially, new churches grew and split at a rapid pace over doctrinal disagreements.
New protestant fiefdoms popped up like fast food franchises and multiplied like rabbits. In Star Wars terms, Protestant assemblies became the Rebel Alliance—a force to be reckoned with. They had too many theological disagreements to be a fully united front, but they all viewed the Vatican as the Death Star, the pope as Emperor Palpatine.

Fast forward to actual science. Darwin’s ideas threw a shadow of doubt over the first books of Genesis. Adaptive, progressive-minded Christians were able to adjust with initiatives like the Social Gospel. That approach focused on applying biblical ethics to real-world problems in the here and now, without sweating too hard over the historical or scientific legitimacy of Dead Sea scrolls. Others, to whom a hint of doubt was leaven in the dough, doubled down with hard-core literalism, as if Lucifer traded his pitchfork for a lab coat. 

Speaking of Lucifer, for some reason, none of those Bible renditions we have to-date include Dante Alighieri's Divine Comedy. The first part, Inferno, has served as our primary reference to Hades for the last 700 or so years. The possibility of avoiding a 2nd life as a perpetual yule log in Satan’s bonfire was much more motivating than the idea of living on a gold-plated street, or having my seat reserved at a perpetual church service. It kept me out of a hell of a lot of trouble.

By the age of seven I internalized the Jesus narrative and became self-assured of my inherent corruption. Convinced I had a critical role to play in the activation of my vicarious entitlement to paradise, I walked down the isle, prayed the sinner's prayer, and was dunked in cold water (the baptistry heater had died) before friends and neighbors. After that, what kept me on the straight and narrow (mostly) was the fear of disappointing you. I imagined you as the omnipotent parent—as if Mama’s intuition wasn’t all-knowing enough. The fear of shame and burden of guilt were big motivators, quickly overtaking the power of the fear of being spanked or frying in hell as years passed.

Eternal guilt is a non-issue once we repent, say the prayer, and set out to pasture, but the collective fear of disappointing or withholding from you in the near-term buys private jets for some of the shepherds with the largest flocks. Not that the "give and ye shall receive" bit doesn't appeal to the more selfish sensibilities of the generous. Over the last 10 years I’ve come to believe that the gospel should be much simpler than PG-rated country clubs, a biblical self-help publishing industry, cash for miracles, and cultural assimilation quests. It should be a simple way of life centered on generously living out grace in community—like Jesus did. 

You saw how I got here. I dared read a few scholarly books instead of limiting myself to devotionals. I learned about the history of the protestant church, it’s perpetual splintering, and evolving legalism from Allister McGrath. Bart Ehrman opened my eyes to doctrinal inconsistencies, recent revisions, and additions to the book I'd been told was perfect. Dan Brown . . . no, just kidding. I enjoyed the DaVinci Code, but it's pure pulp-fiction. . . . I did learn that the whole idea of Biblical infallibility is a relatively recent development. I was fascinated by emergent ideas discussed on the Homebrewed Christianity and Nomad podcasts. I realized it’s not a sin to think, wonder, even doubt, or question the status quo. You know, like the big bad wolf of his time, Martin Luther.

Considering the wide and constantly adapting spectrum of belief under the banner of Christianity alone, not to mention the plethora of other belief systems across the globe, many of which have been around much longer, helped me realize how interminably small the odds are of any individual grasping unadulterated Truth. That forced me to condense and simplify my idea of you, boiling it down to the basics.

I believe that you, God, are the great I Am. In Paul Tillich’s words, the ground of being. You simply are, and without you nothing would be. You are the initiator of existence, life, and consciousness. You are the Way and the Truth that religion seeks through faith, but will never fully grasp. You are the Light at the end of the tunnel. You are unconditional, indiscriminate Love to which our transactional minds can only aspire.

I believe religion is mankind’s feeble attempt to throw a shroud over your head and give ourselves something tangible to focus on—a blend of history, poetry, mythology, facts, laws, principles, rituals, traditions, and assumptions to provide a framework of understanding amounting to only a well-intentioned stab at Truth. It can be beautiful. It can be ugly. Our fabrications can be a catalyst or a crutch, a tripline or distraction. Different cultures have very different patterns woven into their respective tapestries, but their overarching purpose is largely the same.

In the best cases, religion fosters community and charity, undergirding life with rhythm, structure, purpose, tradition, hope, and a sense of belonging. At their worst, they lead to war, genocide, corruption, tribalism, oppression, and attempts to enslave our better angels (or basest instincts) for selfish gain. I don’t think religion in itself is inherently good or bad. It’s just a very human construct. Our effort to understand you is as flawed and messy as we are.

Though I’m convinced that you are far beyond the capacity of any religion to fully comprehend, as human beings, all of us humans need a context more concrete than sheer wonder to provide a sense of purpose and avert despair. Science tries harder than any other discipline to make sense of everything and, consequently, serves as the cornerstone of the most ironic belief system in existence.

Atheism religiously opposes all other religions. Its shroud is an evolving blanket of studies and whitepapers. Unproven theories are its mysticism. That approach guarantees to mask the forest with its trees. With an ultra-progressive theology comfortably masked by postmodern linguistics, scientism is blinded by itself. It seeks exactly what it denies—you.

When it comes to my own religious framework, a personal reformation in light of revelation has been unavoidable. Large pieces of my shroud, that once felt like an iron curtain, just fell apart and blew away. No longer comfortable with pretending to know, I proceeded to tear down as much of the rest as humanly possible. The scope of your grace, as I attempt to understand it, has necessarily expanded as a result. I’m confident that it must cover much more egregious sins than doubt or misbelief if there’s any hope for the world that you created to love.

I prayed for wisdom. I trusted you. The realization of how little I actually knew was exciting, humbling, liberating, and scary—a bit disorienting. A great deal of comfort had come with the kind of faith that masqueraded as knowledge. It was also a lonely sea change at times. Just hinting at doubt in the presence of a loved one still committed to all-or-nothing evangelicalism can be taken as a personal attack on all that they hold sacred. It never feels good make someone wonder if you've had your halo revoked and are destined to be Satan's stogie.

If a faithful soldier tries to use the Bible to prove a point to someone no longer under its spell, or an emergent refers to a book that doesn’t quote scripture in an authoritative way, or isn’t at least sold in a LifeWay or CrossRoads, they often talk past one other. I wouldn't be surprised if, from a perspective or three, I've sounded like an arrogant bastard at points.

I've been in their shoes, fully committed and confident in my Bible-based "right belief," but they haven't been in mine, willing to tear off the blinders and question things. That makes it easy for me to be dismissive when they wield what is, to them, the finely-honed double-edged silver sword of truth. I might see a respectable lance, broomstick, bouquet of flowers, or a steaming pile of horse manure, depending on how they flash the blade. I call it like I see it, and try to be gracious. Thank you for the grace that they have shown me in those situations.

It’s ironic that we who defect from institutional Christianity and gather together, free from bureaucracy, hierarchy, and their inherent power struggles, often look more like the first century church than pews or stadium seating pointed at one man in the spotlight behind a pulpit under a steeple today. If not for the handful of close friends, jaded by their own glances behind the curtain of the church, my journey would be infinitely harder. Thank you for those precious souls.

I personally can’t buy into Elmer Gantry’s church anymore. If I ever join another organized body of believers, it will probably look a lot like the Quaker church. Quakers have a meditative approach to worship, and don’t have a presiding figurehead with a full time salary. For now, though, it’s just you, me, and sometimes a friend or two, doing church and communion in its most basic, decentralized, uncomplicated form. The bread and the wine come together nicely in a pint glass.

Thank you for the inspiration of others who have helped me see possibilities beyond the rigid view I once had. The interfaith relationships forged by Thomas Merton, who saw that loving and learning from other cultures was more valuable than conquering and converting them; the insights of Marcus J. Borg, helping to patch up my minimalist shroud of Christ-centered belief; Paul Tillich, his marriage of philosophy and theology; and Justin Lee’s fearless, compassionate engagement with the church.

Thank you for your patience with me, and the rest of humanity. Thank you for the grace you show us all in light of our selfishness, pride, bigotry, legalism, stubbornness, fear, and idolatry of narcissists and canonized literature. Thank you for everyone on my list who was part of Project Gratitude 2018, and for helping me sustain the fortitude to get all those letters written, and take a novel to press this year. Thank you for a hell of a 2018!




Faith consists in being vitally concerned with that ultimate reality to which I give the symbolical name of God. Whoever reflects earnestly on the meaning of life is on the verge of an act of faith. 
-Paul Tillich


Doubt is not the opposite of faith; it is one element of faith. 
-Paul Tillich


Man's ultimate concern [Religion] must be expressed symbolically, because symbolic language alone is able to express the ultimate. 
-Paul Tillich


“These two visions of Christianity—one emphasizing the next world and what we must believe and do in order to get there, the other emphasizing God’s passion for the transformation of this world—are very different. Yet they use the same language and share the same sacred scripture, the same Bible. What separates them is how the shared language is understood—whether within the framework of heaven-and-hell Christianity or within the framework of God’s passion for transformation in this world.” 

― Marcus J. Borg, Speaking Christian


“Fundamentalism itself—whether Christian, Jewish, or Muslim—is modern. It is a reaction to modern culture. Christian fundamentalism as an identifiable religious movement originated early in the twentieth century in the United States, with its immediate roots in the second half of the nineteenth century. It stressed the infallibility and inerrancy of the Bible in every respect, especially against Darwinism and what it called “the higher criticism” (by which it meant the scholarly study of the Bible as it had developed primarily in Germany in the nineteenth century). The roots of the evangelical understanding of the Bible are older, going back to the Protestant Reformation of the sixteenth century.

The Reformation replaced the authority of the church and church tradition with the sole authority of scripture. John Calvin and Martin Luther, the two most important leaders of the Reformation, both had a strong sense of biblical authority. But it was in the second and third generation of the Reformation that claims for the infallible truth of the Bible were made. “Plenary inspiration”—the notion that the words of the Bible were dictated by God and are therefore free from error—was emphasized by those later Reformers.

The realization that these developments are relatively recent is important. The explicit description of the Bible as inerrant and infallible by fundamentalists and some conservative-evangelicals cannot claim to be the ancient and traditional voice of the church. Yet both fundamentalism and the notion of the Bible as “God’s truth” (and thus without error) have their roots in an older, conventional way of seeing the Bible widely shared by most Christians for a long time.”

― Marcus J. Borg, Reading the Bible Again For the First Time: Taking the Bible Seriously But Not Literally

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