Saturday, August 25, 2012

God and Cigarettes: Why So Sad?

I am glad to have the opportunity to share with you a guest post by Joe (Ojo) Taylor.  I grew up listening to Ojo's band, Undercover, and I appreciate his present insights on religion.  He left the life of faith a few years ago and his path is one to which many of us can relate.  Joe is a professor in the music department at James Madison University. More of his excellent writing can be found at  Ojo Taylor - Lovism. Music. Freethought.

I felt like I had lost my best friend.  Some of my friends had told me the same thing happened to them when they went through it.  It didn’t stop me though.  I knew what I had to do and there comes a point where enough is enough. I rolled down the window and felt the instant blast of the desert heat somewhere between Baker, CA and the Nevada border on the way to Las Vegas with my band mates to celebrate a birthday weekend and simply threw my cigarettes out.  I hadn’t planned it, but I had reached bottom. I had been waking up with my throat hurting, raw and gritty.  I had fears that I was surely headed towards one of those tricorder-looking things that smokers have to hold up to their throats to talk after they’ve had their vocal chords cut out.   I had had other such tantrum moments where I tried to quit but this one stuck and I have not inhaled anything since May 4, 1990.  For a while it truly was like mourning.

“God, please forgive me while I work through this, while I work through these irritating but persistent sticky questions that have a direct impact on whether you can even really exist or not.” 

Dismissing faith was like losing a best friend all over again.  I had had practice.  My prayer was sincere, even as I knew it was completely absurd right at that moment too.  If God isn't real, then there is no there there, and if God is real, I felt I probably needed to be terrified.  He was slipping away at an intellectual level (significant because the bible makes a great number of claims about the world and time-space events that should be verifiable), not at an emotional level (I was not bitter, disenchanted, empty, or anything like that).  The sense of attachment to all things Christian, including the fear of the consequences of heresy was still potent.  There comes a time though when you have to do what you have to do and in the same way I realized that cigarettes were not any kind of friend at all, neither was a God I had to fear while sincerely working through difficult questions and doubts. For the first time I was able to look that fear right back in the face and cut myself some slack anyway, even if God could not.  I was still afraid and still felt like I had lost some kind of tether – to something, I’m not sure what, but a tether, a lifeline, an anchor, or perhaps a best friend. Any number of metaphors might work.

When I consider reactions to my dismissal of faith, I first have to remember my own reaction, and it was a reaction.  I was very much an observer of my own process as much as a participant.  None of it was easy.  I was eventually able to consider the idea that, “I may just be an unbeliever,” (although I felt I could never adopt the label of “atheist”).  What was it like to be an unbeliever, maybe an atheist whether I wanted to be one or not, as outrageous an idea as that sounded?  What would that mean? What are the implications for my friends, family and especially my children, for those who knew me as the guy in Undercover, an outspoken Christian songwriter, performer, producer and evangelist who had led altar calls and worship from the stage, started a bible study and became the figurehead for a Christian record label?  What would that mean for my fate and destiny, an excruciating question because it can never be answered definitively, which is enough to drive many to avoid it altogether? 

My identity had been so wrapped up in my faith that I now felt dissociated, without a rooted sense of recognizable self, even though in a strange way I felt I was more myself than I had been in years.  I had no context for what life would be like without religious belief anymore than I had a context for a daily routine without cigarettes.  Smokers and former smokers know what I mean. Former believers know what I mean too. Many people simply live on in their dissonance between what they feel they need to believe and what we know makes sense because they cannot imagine a context or an identity without faith. Richard Dawkins, hinted at this when he was asked if he had any friends who are believers.  He answered, “I’m friendly with some bishops and vicars who kind of believe in something and enjoy the music and the stained glass.” 

Of course religion runs much deeper than cigarettes and this helps me understand the surprising reactions of others to my dismissal of faith. The range of those reactions and their intensity never ceases to surprise me.  There are too many to list here, but I do keep a collection of the more interesting ones.  There is one that keeps coming up in different forms much more than any other, from the somewhat reasonable and generous to the more judgmental, and that’s the one I want to address - not so much to answer, but to try to understand it.


So many artists from earlier days in the Christian scene who have since abandoned or radically altered their former belief system tend to be far more bitter and antagonistic towards Christians who have "stayed the course," for lack of a better phrase, and I appreciate your gentleness and civility in being the opposing side to the discussion, though I confess you'll have to forgive me for being saddened at where your journey has thus far led you. I still appreciate you, and your body of work that was such a source of inspiration to us as young adults.

But for me, to think of anyone being without the Jesus of Scripture as a living Presence in their lives is not just sad, it is a tragedy. And for someone to have once known that Presence and not know it any longer... can you see how I would think that is not just a tragedy, but a horrific tragedy?  As someone who appreciates reason, Ojo, I think you'll see the reasonableness of this: If the Jesus Story as recorded by Scripture is true, and you reject it, your story is a tragedy. If the Jesus Story is false, and I embrace it, that too is a tragedy... esp. because truth in my life was the mainspring behind my intense search for (or subverting of) belief in God.


I would no sooner read leftist propaganda from the Huffington Post than you would Truth from God's Word. Still can't believe I'm talking to "Ojo" from Undercover. (name withheld) had warned me, but It's just very sad to me. I'm pretty sure you won't want me to, but I'm going to make it a point to pray that God will soften your heart and draw you back to Himself. You obviously have a dysfunctional relationship with your Father (whose gifts and callings are without repentance)."


They were once the favorite band of my 86 y/o mother. When I let her read some of Ojoes [sic] essays about atheism and agnostism [sic], she broke down and cried.


And so it goes. There are simply too many people who have this response to call it an anomaly.  But notice that while they all express sadness, nobody explains why they are sad, what they are actually sad for.  I have asked and asked without result.  I can only come up with a few possibilities. 

First is the belief that I have fallen or have been harmed somehow.  Maybe they are sad for me personally.  But I have not lost a limb or been diagnosed with cancer, I have not lost a loved one (recently) or anything like that. Most people don’t realize what they’re really suggesting is that I am, contrary to my own assessment of my own life, somehow worse off as a result of my journey! What is there to be saddened about? I’ve said many times that my life is better in every way since I have left orthodoxy - every single way, including my mission as a music professor and artist. Some religious people just cannot bring themselves to imagine that possibility, because of what that might mean. But for me it’s absolutely true. In what sense has my life been harmed, or is it now being squandered, or wasted?

Second is the possibility that the sadness is not about my life here, but about other-worldly stuff like forgiveness of sins, life or torment in the hereafter, spiritual warfare, relationships with heavenly hosts of one kind or another, basically all things which, once alleged, end the conversation. As Delos McKown says, “The invisible and the non-existent look very much alike,” and there is just nowhere to go with all that stuff. If the supernatural has no observable effect on the natural world, the only world we know, then why even talk about it?   Even still though, what would there be to possibly be sad about?  

This is the angle the second comment above seems to be making, an over-simplified variation of Pascal’s wager.  If the Jesus story of the Bible is true and I do not accept it, it is a tragedy (for some reason, presumably eternal damnation because in this life his is no richer than mine), just as it would be for him if it was not true.  Life is wasted in either case.  But the same could be said of any of the world’s religions!  If the Allah story of the Quran is true, is it not also a tragedy as well for those who do not believe it?  Or if the Jesus story of the Westboro Baptists is true, is that also a tragedy for those who do not embrace it?  Most American Christians have no problem dismissing these out of hand, but are genuinely dismayed when their own Jesus story and all that goes with it are similarly dismissed. I understand that everyone thinks only their own religion is unequivocally true and the others heretical or worse, but none are any more convincing than another on the merits of evidence. 

Again I have to ask though, where is the cause for sadness?  Is it because I will be going to hell?  If so, the conversation ends there.  Hell, even though it is alleged to be real and thus should be detectable exists only in the realm of faith.  Even if I concede that point, why so sad that I am going to hell but not equally or even more sad that certainly members of one’s own family, certain friends, or billions of the world’s children of God are going there too?  Why not then live in perpetual and infinite sadness for the loss of all those souls? How can anyone even manage to get out of bed every morning under this heavy weight without being skeptical or apathetic?

Perhaps this sadness is on behalf of Jesus. Some have suggested that to move away from Orthodoxy is to break the heart of God. There is no need for sadness! To any living, loving deities that may exist, Jesus, any, I am a resounding and unequivocal “Yes!” I call out to love, cry out with open arms for any way I can know and relate as intimately as I can! I hold no ill will or malice against any possible benevolent deity and mean no harm at all. Even physicist and renowned atheist Victor Stenger writes that the honest unbeliever must acknowledge the possibility of God’s existence if real evidence ever shows up.  Heaven has kept its secrets well, so while I am open, I am left in the absence of any evidence to stumble along on my own, doing the best I can imperfectly with what I have at my disposal. I simply will not and cannot just take on faith what I know is not true or what I even suspect is not true, what we have learned is not true.  If there is “sin” it is that, the denial of my conscience, my heart, and yes, my intellect too.  

Instead, maybe the most likely and also the most dangerous explanation for sadness might be the idea that I am no longer “part of the team.”  All that stuff I mentioned earlier, a founder of Undercover, Christian songwriter, performer, producer and evangelist who had led altar calls and worship from the stage, bible study leader and Christian record label figurehead and owner, has now all been tossed aside apparently; or not.

My band has been my closest community and in many ways it still is.  It has been the platform and chronicle for so much of my personal journey as an artist and a man.  Some of the music I’ve written, especially in the early years is immature, but lots of it still has deep meaning for me.  The band, the music, the songs and concerts have been meaningful for our audience as well, a sort of rite of passage for us all and the basis of magnificent relationships with many people.  How many great artists have I been able to produce as owner of a label, providing a channel for their music and to have their own voices heard!  What grounds are there to be sad about any of this, and what is there to be sad about, exactly?  

Is my dismissal of faith sad because I am no longer doing that stuff anymore, or actively working to fulfill my part of the Great Commission and build the kingdom of God?  If so, is life really that utilitarian?  Is that the source of meaning for a human life? Is it like a sporting event where once people cheered but now they mourn because this is somehow a hit to the team; one of the players has been traded? In what way is my life now, as a father, a musician, and a professor any less useful in real and observable ways to the lives I come in contact with?

Let’s look at it another way.  What does it really mean to be “part of the team” anyway?  What team am I no longer part of that requires sadness? If it means I no longer share the same beliefs and the worldview that comes with them, then you’ve got me there. Is that really a reason to be sad?  In what observable way does that have any negative impact at all?

Instead, how about the idea that “the team” consists of all human beings and that our highest mission and calling is to learn and practice love and kindness to all?  What if that was the over-arching taxonomy by which we classify people and the measure of their lives rather than by their profession of faith? Wouldn’t sadness vanish instantly?  Does faith prevent this worldview? What is sad to me is that it often does!  Are love and kindness exclusively realized or perhaps fully realized only by believers, through your faith and creed?  Are you able to entertain the idea that there are people who hold wildly different views than yours or no supernatural views at all and still enjoy the exact same status before your God as you, perhaps even a higher status?  If not, please ponder what that means for a moment, especially regarding the way you esteem others and ultimately treat them. 

So you see, I have asked myself many questions trying to understand the idea that somehow because I am no longer a Christian that there is a reasonable basis for sadness that is rooted in some kind of virtuous fortitude. This is not about me.  Most of these people do not know me or the intimate circumstances of my life.  It is about their own worldview and outlook on humanity and the way their own faith responds, and that is what my questions here are meant to explore. The answers have more to say about the mourners and their beliefs than it does the disposition of my life and soul. 

It is not easy taking a hard look at our own beliefs.  Changing them is even harder.  It’s like losing a best friend. There is no need to be sad.  Rejoice!  For behold I bring you good tidings of great joy! We can grow past the obstacles that religion so often throws in our paths. We can know some things about the world and not worry about what it does to our doctrine. We can transcend ideological positions and the requirement for correct beliefs and thought policing, becoming better human beings, more loving and less divisive. We can learn to see the connectedness of all peoples of any creed or station.  We can know the fullness of the human experience and realize our full potential, unfettered and unencumbered with having to run things through a religious filter!

Our identity truly does depend on our beliefs.  We struggle for context when we consider our own doubts and what it might mean if our doubts have teeth.  Coming to terms with that would indeed be much harder than redefining a life without cigarettes. Smokers, former smokers and former believers know what I mean.  I wrote this a while ago:

I also want to show people, especially people who believe there is no alternative, that there is in fact a very robust, beautiful and whole alternative to faith. For me that alternative has made all the difference in my life. I am happier, things make much more sense, I feel I have a better moral foundation, I feel life is much more meaningful, I love more fully and deeply.

That is certainly nothing to be sad about.  Have I missed other possibilities?  If you are one who has the same reaction of sadness to others leaving the faith, what is it exactly that you are sad about? 

Sunday, August 19, 2012

You're Going To Hell

I literally heard two Christian friends of mine from opposing sects say this to each other once:

"You're going to hell!"

"No, I'm not! You are!"  

I was waiting for one of them to pull out the "I'm rubber, you're glue" defense.

Once that card has been played, it's game over....

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Iphone Lady Is An Amateur

A number of my Conservative Christian friends have been posting this on Facebook lately.  A commonality amongst many of these folks is a frustration with the possibility that there are poor people who are getting something for nothing.... something they don't deserve.

This is an example of when the Conservative over-rides the Christian; which is something that has been happening in the Christian world for decades.  Let's forget for a moment that their frustration is based on presumption and outliers; let's pretend it is the norm.

The entirety of Christian theology is based on getting something you don't deserve.  Yet, while taking something they don't deserve for themselves.... they can't abide it happening for someone else.

Jesus recognized this personality flaw and our tendency toward hypocrisy, so he told a little story in hopes of getting a proper perspective to sink in:

Therefore, the kingdom of heaven is like a king who wanted to settle accounts with his servants.  As he began the settlement, a man who owed him ten thousand bags of gold was brought to him. Since he was not able to pay, the master ordered that he and his wife and his children and all that he had be sold to repay the debt.

At this the servant fell on his knees before him. ‘Be patient with me,’ he begged, ‘and I will pay back everything.’  The servant’s master took pity on him, canceled the debt and let him go.

But when that servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred silver coins. He grabbed him and began to choke him. ‘Pay back what you owe me!’ he demanded.

His fellow servant fell to his knees and begged him, ‘Be patient with me, and I will pay it back.’

But he refused. Instead, he went off and had the man thrown into prison until he could pay the debt.  When the other servants saw what had happened, they were outraged and went and told their master everything that had happened.

Then the master called the servant in. ‘You wicked servant,’ he said, ‘I canceled all that debt of yours because you begged me to. Shouldn't you have had mercy on your fellow servant just as I had on you?’ In anger his master handed him over to the jailers to be tortured, until he should pay back all he owed.

In the same way, I keep seeing wealthy suburbanites begrudging a fictitious poor woman one luxury, amidst her otherwise meager existence.  In this, they align themselves with the attitude of the wicked servant.

On a side-note, our fictitious Iphone owner is not doing anything illegal.  At worst, she is making use of a loophole that works in her favor.

Again, my Conservative Christian friends practically pop a blood vessel at the thought of this woman getting away with an Iphone, yet shrug as Romney makes off with millions using much more profitable loopholes.

I believe this is why Romney has been hiding his taxes.  He states again and again that he has done nothing illegal.  He probably hasn't, but those tax forms will likely show that he has used every loophole to milk the system; loopholes only available to the wealthy.  Compared to him, our fictitious Iphone woman is an amateur.  Yet, Conservative Christians defend Romney's behavior, while being outraged with hers.

But you have insulted the poor. Is it not the rich who are exploiting you? ~ James 2:6

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Serving Two Masters

I saw this picture on Facebook today.  I don't know too much about Ryan yet (other than he seems to be a darling of the Tea Party crowd), so his picture here is superfluous to me.

However, these two statements (if you haven't read them, read them first) are very telling.  Much of the Religious Right fervor presently sounds more like the text of Ayan Rand than St. Paul.  If I were asked which rulebook is the Religious Right following, I would have to say it is that of Rand.  The rhetoric of Fox and AM talk radio and a lot of what I see coming from the Right on Facebook is antithetical to Paul. I would venture to guess that Ayan Rand would feel perfectly comfortable listening to the stump speeches from the Right...  I think St. Paul would feel like an outsider.

I am curious how many scriptural edicts you can politically oppose before it occurs to you that you have moved to the outside of your religion.

Tuesday, August 07, 2012

It's Not Just An Opinion

Over the past week, I have been involved in countless Facebook debates over the whole Dan Cathy / Chick-Fil-A fiasco.  Time and again his defenders say he is being skewered for his opinion, while those opposing Mr. Cathy point out that they simply don't want to fund his causes through their purchasing.

However, I want to clarify that Mr. Cathy does not SIMPLY have an opinion.  What he does goes far beyond a mere opinion.

Here is an example of a conversation concerning opinions:

Dan Cathy:  I like Diet Coke.

Me:  I like Diet Pepsi.

Dan Cathy:  Really?  That always tastes to me like a flat Pepsi.

Me:  I occasionally get a decent Diet Coke, but most of the time it has a funky after taste.

Dan Cathy:  Well, all the more Diet Pepsi for you; I won't touch the stuff.

Me:  Works for me.... cheers!

Dan Cathy:  Cheers!  (Glasses clink, and we each happily drink our respective drinks)

But here is how it really goes down.

Me:  I like Diet Pepsi.


Me:  ...........???  ......???  ..... What the $#%^??

See the difference?

Add to that, I keep getting people who insist that my choosing to go to another store to get my Diet Pepsi is a violation of Dan Cathy's rights.

First they tell me I have the right to not go to his store.

Then they get mad when I don't.

It has been a fascinating week.

Sunday, August 05, 2012

Winning And Losing On Chick-fil-A Day

I read a blog on August 2nd that made me think the whole Chick-fil-a event on August 1st was perhaps bigger than I suspected. Lots of people have stated that this happening was a mere flash in the pan. Though it had a lot of energy, it boiled down to a day where liberals and conservatives flip each other off... and then everything would go back to normal.

I don't think it will... go back to normal, that is. I think a bigger shift happened on August 1st than any of us realize.

A few months back, I was having breakfast with an LDS friend of mine, and he started asking me about what had lead me away from a life of faith. I told him about questions and concerns with which I had wrestled. I told him about things I learned. But there was one story that stood out. As I heard myself telling the story, I realized how pivotal it was. Before the notion solidified in my mind, my friend said "All those other things mattered, but it was that event that tipped the balance, wasn't it?"

He was right, it was that day that my world shifted. It was the day my faith and my community embarrassed me. It was the day I became ashamed of my faith.

I continued to go through the motions of religion for a while, but it was over. All the words, all the practices, all the people with their faithful confessions ... it was hollow now.

On August 2nd, I read a blog by Rachel Held Evans that reminded me of that event. Rachel is an author and speaker of some renown in the Christian community and one whom I respect. August 1st affected her. She said:

"Is this what following Jesus is supposed to be about? ...Is this what mobilizes the people of God?

Suddenly, my religion is alien to me—small, petty, reactive. My faith has lost its bearings. I don’t feel like praying anymore, not even for the mom who begged me to pray for her gay son who vowed yesterday never to return to church again.

Can I blame him? Perhaps it is better if he stays away."

I recognize these sentiments. When you realize that your friends outside the faith are probably going to be healthier and happier if they stay that way.... you are entering the first stages of your faith shutting down.

On August 1st, scores of Christians poured in to Chick-fil-A to give their collective middle finger to all the liberals and homosexuals who irk them so. They could have taken the path of Jesus... but it felt sooo much better to stick it to the opposition.

In doing so, they embarrassed many of their brothers and sisters in the Faith. Fellow believers watched the television, read the tweets, followed the news feeds... and they were ashamed.

It may be a few years before we start to see the real toll of August 1st, but I suspect it will be large. People will return to their churches tomorrow, but for many it won't be the same. Sermons on the "Love of God" won't stir them like it did before. The songs won't seem so sacred. The faithful confessions of fellow congregants will sound vapid.

No more will they invite friends into their faith; instead they will want to protect them from it.

I believe in the years to come, many atheists and agnostics will look back and realize August 1, 2012 was a tipping point. It was then that their life began its shift out of faith.

Friday, August 03, 2012

Netflix: It's A Trap!!!

I took Jake to the library today.  I bought 5 books.  One was Rob Bell's Velvet Elvis... which I have been meaning to get around to....  But am I really going to read these books?  There is a rather large shelf in my basement that is full of books I have been meaning to get to.

Part of the problem is Netflix... it has so much TV goodness.  I just got done watching 7 years of Star Trek DS9, in about 10 weeks.

When you think about it... that is really problematic.

Summer is usually my cram time for reading... what have I read this summer?  Mmmm, I think I read part of a John Shelby Spong book... or was that before summer started??

See!!... not remembering clearly what book I read last... or when I read it... is really freaking me out!!

It's that damnable....  wonderful Netflix!

Did I stop at DS9?  NooOOOooooo.... I went right into Enterprise without missing a beat.

I actually fear that I could like Dr. Who or X-files.  What if I do?!  I would be glued to a screen til Christmas!!

Not sure what to do about this... part of me thinks I should make reading a daily routine... 30 minutes a day!  But now I am making it sound like exercise, or the guilt trip I used to put on myself to get up before dawn to pray.  I enjoy reading!  Why is it so distant from me now?!

Maybe it's just a phase I am going through...

Yeah, yeah... that's it.... a phase....  everything is going to be just fine....

... now what's next in my queue......

Thursday, August 02, 2012

Which Christian Are You?

When people speak of Christianity, they often do so as if it were one large monolithic entity. In reality though, there are as many kinds of Christianity as there are people... though Christians of like thought tend to travel in groups.

For example, yesterday was an important day for one group of Christians. This was the day they got to thumb their nose at all the gays and liberals out there. This was a chance for their voice to be heard.  I watched as snide and unkind words were trumpeted on my Facebook newsfeed by people buying their chicken sandwiches and posting pictures to show the world how many of them there were.

This is the Christianity of Mike Huckabee.  It is a political Christianity.  It is the Christianity of being right.

There is another Christianity. It is a quieter Christianity. It is the Christianity of my friend, Wes.

He encouraged his fellow believers to take a pass on yesterday's events:

"Jesus invites us to be a different kind of people. People who are not positioned as one group against another, but people who are positioned to love and "salute" those we're expected to reject. The world expects the church to turn out and rally together against the gays on August 1st. I believe that Jesus' sermon on the mount includes an invitation to surprise the world by speaking out to the gay community, "we support YOU! YOU matter to us! YOU are loved!'"

Voices like his would have been a downer amidst the celebratory atmosphere at Chick-fil-a yesterday. The ways of Jesus aren't nearly as much fun as sticking it to the opposition.

I was actually getting a little depressed as I started to see young children being encouraged in this behavior. Parents had their innocents repeat spiteful words into the camera; to be posted for the world to see.

Then I saw a ray of hope. Randy Roberts Potts, grandson of Oral Roberts, was being interviewed by a local station. As a gay man, father, and husband, his opinion was sought about the day's events. Amidst his commentary, he offered a measure of grace to his persecutors. If anyone had a right to be angry, Randy did; but he chose a different path. He chose to believe that Mr. Cathy only attacked him because to Cathy, this issue exists in the abstract.

The gay man turns the other cheek when struck by the Christian.

Are you a Christian?  Which one were you yesterday?

Wednesday, August 01, 2012

Christians I Like

Every week or so, I get a "fan" letter from a Christian who just wishes I would die and go to hell and get it over with. They are not always that severe, often they are just venting anger on some level. Take this week's:

"How can you be so critical of Christians? You do realize that there are other religions that deserve more criticism. Namely islam. Do you deliberately ignore the world around you, or are you that ignorant? Try to criticize islam and see what happens. Better yet criticize islam in the middle east and see what happens. You are targeting the wrong religion if you are concerned about how it treats people. I suggest you do some self evaluation before you turn completely into an arrogant anti-theist/anti-Christian like most of your followers. Start acting and thinking like an adult. Fix yourself."

Whew!  Really, don't hold back... tell me how you really feel. :)

Part of my response back to this gentleman was an explanation that the reason I focus on Christianity is that I was a Christian for about 30 years.  I am not Muslim, nor do I really know any (for a critique of Islam, I would suggest Ayaan Hirsi Ali).  However, if I have been unbalanced in any way, allow me to offer some names of Christians whom I think are really great.  This does not mean I agree with them on all points, but I think they are a force for positive good in this world.  I would love to sit down and have a beer with any of them.  This is not a complete list, but these are folks I have read, listened to, or seen recently:

Richard Rohr is a Roman Catholic Monk of the Franciscan order.  He has had a profound effect on the way I view the world.  His book Everything Belongs is impactful on me even now as an unbeliever.  Richard's teachings spur one on to be a better human being.

"Judgment is not, by and large, a search for Truth. It is certainly not a path toward Love. What it is, is a search for control - a way that the Ego positions itself as better, righter, above, correct, in charge, in control. Once you see that... judgment starts losing its fascination. My great disappointment in so much of institutional religion is that it actually trains us to be judgmental."

Walter Brueggemann is an Old Testament scholar and theologian.  He is brutally honest about the Old Testament and doesn't let "God" off the hook for anything.  I have found him to be a hard read (he is very academic in his writing) but an engaging speaker.

"When serious people of good faith disagree, they've got to go back into the narratives and come at it again. One of the problems in the church is that people are not willing to do that. People have arrived at a place where they think they have got the answer."

Marcus Borg is a New Testament scholar and theologian.  Marcus has a calm and peaceful approach when confronting fundamentalist religion that I genuinely aspire to.  He can get you attracted to the teachings of Jesus even if you have no desire to be a Christian.

"People who think of God as a warrior may become warriors themselves, whether in a Christian crusade, a Muslim jihad, or an apocalyptically oriented militia. People who think of God as righteous are likely to emphasize righteousness themselves, just as those who think of God as compassionate are likely to emphasize compassion. People who think God is angry at the world are likely to be angry at the world themselves."

John Spong is a theologian and retired bishop of the Episcopal church.  If you don't like my critique of Christianity, you wouldn't want to go to one of his lectures.  For all of his critiques, he desperately wants Christianity to flourish and as such works relentlessly to steer it away from the fundamentalist cliff it is heading towards.

"All religion seems to need to prove that it's the only truth. And that's where it turns demonic. Because that's when you get religious wars and persecutions and burning heretics at the stake."

Rob Bell is a pastor and author.  I think Bell has done wonderful work in moving Christianity away from a theology of Hell and towards a theology of Grace.  His style is a little too "celebrity" for my tastes, but what he has to say gives me hope that Christianity can one day move from a religion that is derided by unbelievers to one that can be respected.  Though I no longer call myself Christian, this video still moves me.

The Choir is a band I started listening to back when I was a teenager.  Through my many stages of Faith and non-Faith I was able to bring them along for the ride.  I went back to church some months ago to catch them in concert and enjoyed them as much as ever.  They have an honest and non-preachy style that I think few Christian bands can even understand.  Mystery and uncertainty are travelling companions on this road of life.

Wes Ellis, John Shore, and Rachel Held Evans are a few of the many bloggers I follow who add a positive note to the discussion of religion in the public square.  Again, it is voices like theirs that makes me think that Christianity may still have brighter days ahead.

I have many friends and family I could add to this list, particularly in the Mormon community where I reside.  I know many people who are a credit to their faith.

Being a Christian does not default you to being a good or a bad person. I think in many ways Christianity works as Bill Cosby described alcohol - it intensifies your personality.  If you are compassionate, you will read your scriptures and find encouragement toward compassion.  If you are a bigot, you will find divine justification for your bigotry.

As always, the responsibility of how you behave in this life is yours.
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