Colossal Deceptions to Protect the Faith

Christianity Thrives When Curiosity Doesn’t
The long-running Jesus Cult comes to mind when we recall this exchange from Alice in Wonderland:

"Alice laughed: ‘There's no use trying,’ she said, ‘one can't believe impossible things.’ ‘I daresay you haven't had much practice,’ said the Queen. ‘When I was younger, I always did it for half an hour a day. Why, sometimes I've believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.’"

Of course I thought of Christians. But to the credit of many of them today, they have dismissed beliefs that for centuries have been considered part of the Christian package—no questions asked, literally. An enlightened and informed view of the world doesn’t leave room for virgin births, turning water into wine, floating up to a heaven that is just beyond the clouds. Many believers are willing to separate the wheat from the chaff—and stick to the essentials.

But what are the essentials?

That depends on whom you ask…and good luck trying to find Christian consensus on beliefs that should never be tampered with. Hence my interest was piqued a few weeks ago when a book advertisement appeared on my Facebook newsfeed. A very successful United Methodist pastor, Martin Thielen, is the author of What’s the Least I Can Believe and Still be a Christian: A Guide to What Matters Most.

The suspense was killing me. I had the Kindle version in a matter of seconds, eager to see how far he would go in taking out the trash. Six of the impossible things? Or maybe even ten or twelve?

He Gets “A” for Effort, But…

In the first part of the book, Thielen discusses ten common beliefs or positions that can be abandoned; many mainstream moderate Christians would applaud his choices.

The first disposable item on his list is intended to exonerate God: Believers can chuck the mistaken idea that God “causes cancer, car wrecks, and other catastrophes.” This is his first stab at downplaying suffering as theism’s biggest problem; as is the case with all theodicy, his arguments really don’t work. But it’s not a bad point to make since some Christians argue that hurricanes and other natural disasters are God’s punishment for gay marriage and abortion. More about this later.

He also throws out the rejection of evolution, embracing what he calls theistic evolution. “…this view believes that God directed the process. This position claims that God created the universe but did so through the process of evolution.” (p. 18) Which means that Thielen doesn’t understand how evolution works; nor does he bother to cite his evidence that ‘God directed the process.’ If he wants to credit God for the mutations that drive evolution, does he really want to give God credit as well for genetic diseases?

“…for millions of Christians, theistic evolution is the only option that makes both spiritual and scientific sense.” (p. 19) This is the kind of thing preachers say when they’re trying to bend reality to conform to the theistic model. It isn’t necessary for evolution to make spiritual sense.

Thielen rejects biblical misogyny: yes, women can be preachers—and no, they don’t have to submit to men. He is confident that God loves gay people as much as straight people—so God-hates-fags is out. He acknowledges that even liberal churches are conflicted on whether to be welcoming or welcoming and affirming.

Christians don’t have to believe in hell, and they shouldn’t assume that Jews can’t make it to heaven. And it’s not okay for Christians to be “judgmental and obnoxious.” The Bible doesn’t have to be taken literally, but it should be taken seriously—and, trying to cover all bases, it seems to me, he confesses that he loves the Bible. Considering how much awful stuff is in the Bible, that’s really a stretch. He seems to want to reassure his readers that he’s a true Christian.

Still Under the Spell of Those Impossible Things

My reference at the outset to the ‘long-running Jesus cult’ may qualify as a wisecrack—or an example of vile ridicule I’ve been accused of—but the second half of Thielen’s book is Exhibit A in making the case that Christianity is a cult. Ten chapters in the second half of the book are an exultation of Jesus. No praise is high enough; no bows can be low enough. The chapter titles all begin with the word “Jesus”: his Identity, Priority, Grace, Work, Example, Death, Resurrection, Legacy, Promise, Vision.

On his initial list of things that Christians can now embrace is doubt (why not say it’s okay when absurd beliefs invite doubt?) and he admits that his “first struggles with religious doubt” happened in college: “I was also introduced to critical academic study of the Bible and advanced theology. My professors taught me things I never heard in Sunday school.” (p. 14)

But he seems to have skipped too many college classes. His thought shows major deficiencies in at least three areas; it sure looks like deception. Maybe there is no guile here, but shouldn’t he know better?

Colossal Deception Number One: No Hint of the Turmoil in Jesus Studies

Didn’t his professors teach him the basics of biblical criticism, including the major gospel problems? Even religious scholars admit that so much in the Jesus story is fiction. Maybe I’m too cynical, but Thielen seems to know that he can get away with superficial quotation of scripture: There is so little curiosity in his target market. The folks in the pews never seem to ask, Where did these stories come from? Can we trust the sources? Jesus is forever a figure preserved in stained glass, monumental canvases, and gospel quotations piously intoned from the pulpit. All this blunts curiosity.

No matter what he did or didn’t learn in seminary, how can Thielen be unaware now of that great agony in New Testament studies, The Quest for the Historical Jesus? Generations of devout Bible scholars have hit a brick wall trying to figure out the real Jesus because the gospels are anonymous, derivative, overpowered by theological agendas, and chock full of fantasy. No reliable method has been devised for picking out morsels of history that might be preserved in the gospels. And discerning the real words of Jesus is virtually impossible.

Yet Thielen doesn’t care to alert his readers to this problem, and the hard labor that Christian scholars have devoted to it. He quotes texts as if they can be taken at face value. In his chapter 13, “Jesus’ Grace,” he mentions the famous story in John 8 about the woman caught committing adultery (“Let whoever is without sin cast the first stone”). He is sure that we can discern Jesus’ thought from this story. “Rather than judge people,” Thielen says, “Jesus loved and accepted them.”

That’s all very nice, except that this story was not in John’s gospel originally. It was added later, and we have no idea where it came from—and without knowing that, there is no reason to trust it. Maybe it’s just another bit of creative fiction, and it’s no surprise that someone would add it to a gospel in which so much was just made up. It doesn’t take too much digging to find this out.

Why doesn’t Thielen mention this? And why does he exaggerate so blatantly? “Rather than judge people, Jesus loved and accepted them.” This is the ideal Jesus of his imagination. The Jesus who speaks in Matthew 25 isn’t such a nice guy: people who fail to show compassion are condemned to eternal punishment.

Every layperson should be coached to look critically at all texts. Surely, we are told, Jesus could not have meant you have to hate your family to be his disciple, as he said in Luke 14:26. Or did he say it? We do know for sure that this is what Luke wants his readers to think Jesus said. But why? What exactly was the agenda of the guy who wrote the gospel?

Thielen fails to touch on any of this. He ignores the immense problems that the gospels present, and he ignores the many negatives about Jesus that are in full view. All of this negligence to keep veneration of his Lord intact: “I knew enough about Jesus to know that I needed him in my life.” (p. 71) Under the spell of the apostle Paul’s magical thinking, Thielen cleanses the gospels to his liking.

Colossal Deception Number Two: His confident God-knowledge

The “advanced theology” that Thielen claims he learned in college probably included the arguments for God’s existence. And maybe on top of that, that God is good. But Thielen knows so much more:

• “God works full-time offering unconditional love to all human beings.”
• “God is bigger and more mysterious than any of us can comprehend. No doubt God works in the world in ways our puny minds cannot even begin to understand.” (p. 94)
• We don’t have all the answers about suffering, and at least in this life, we never will. So as we struggle with the problem of pain, we must admit our ignorance. One day God will make all things clear.”

Two categories of questions:

• Clear to whom? The 200,000 people who were crushed and drowned in the 2004 tsunami? How can “one day God will make all things clear” be any consolation to them? Would Thielen welcome the opportunity to be a chaplain at Auschwitz? “Don’t take all your suffering so seriously—it’s all part of God’s plan. He’ll make everything clear someday.”

• How in the world does Thielen know all this stuff about God? He never tells us. He fails to give his readers any clue that his epistemology should come first—and that all supposed sources of God-knowledge are problematic. He just puts his ideas about God out there as fact; it’s the big bluff that preachers are so good at.

Maybe his intended readers assume that the good reverend got the straight scoop on God in seminary, so what he says must be true. And he assumes he doesn’t have to explain.

Colossal Deception Number Three: So Much Suffering is a Mystery!

As we have seen, Thielen indulges in the common ruse that preachers use to keep God blameless for suffering: our puny minds can’t grasp the big picture, and someday it will all become clear. But he keeps trying to make sense of it. We find this gem of theological gerrymandering on page 111:

“Both tsunamis and earthquakes are caused by shifts in the crust of the earth. Our planet could not support life without such shifting. The floating plates of the earth’s crust ride on top of molten lava and have to slip past one another, or the planet would disintegrate. Like gravity, the shifting crust of the earth is a life-giving necessity, but it also causes suffering. In short, life as we know it on this planet cannot exist without pain. Suffering is the price tag we pay for the glorious gift of being alive.”

He wants his readers to keep their eye on the “glorious gift of being live”—but not on the 100,000 children drowned in the 2004 tsunami. That’s a pretty big horror, but hey, that can’t be helped, that’s just the way things are on a planet with shifting plates. Yet Thielen is the guy who tells us that “God works full-time offering unconditional love to all human beings.” That’s the God who allows tsunamis? Even the puniest minds can spot bullshit. He tries to read reality from a theistic perspective, and it can’t be done.

And, of course, his little discourse about floating plates and shifting crust only begs a bigger question: Why would an all-powerful good God have set things up this way? Since he ‘created through evolution,’ why not arrange for humans to evolve after the Earth had settled down a bit? Why make the planet a toxic hazmat zone for human beings whom he loves unconditionally? Thielen imagines a God crippled by contradictions.

But he goes on to his biggest con job:

“When children get leukemia, teenagers die in accidents, good Christian people contract Lou Gehrig’s disease, or communities are devastated by tornadoes, where is God? That’s a profoundly important question. The Christian answer to that question is clear. There’s no ambiguity here, no ‘seeing through the glass dimly.’ Instead the answer is straightforward. Where is God in the midst of suffering? God is right smack in the middle of it. We learn that from the cross of Jesus.”

Because God himself suffered on the cross—which is yet another fragment of mindless theology—we can infer that God is “with us” in our suffering? This is highly tuned theobabble (definition: ‘babbling on about God based on no evidence whatever’)—and if Christians actually buy it, our suspicion is confirmed that they aren’t all that curious. How does God’s suffering on the cross mean that our suffering is somehow bearable or okay? This doesn’t make sense, at all; it’s an attempt at slick deception. Why do Christians fall for flim-flam preacher-talk?

And, of course, blame can be pushed off on humans because of free will: “The vast majority of suffering in this world is the direct result of human sin.” (p. 110) When Christians come across this sentence, they should throw his book at him—or into the trash. Eons of animal suffering—some of the fallout from God’s planned evolution—genetic diseases, cancers that are not our fault (i.e., from smoking), all categories of natural disasters, pandemics, and the debilitating pains of old age; it would be hard to pin all these on human sin.

H.L. Mencken said, in his 1930 book, Treatise on the Gods: “The whole Christian system, like every other similar system, goes to pieces on the problem of evil.” It’s no wonder that Thielen works so hard on this third Colossal Deception.

Final Grade: D -

Yes, we can give Thielen some credit for trying to humanize Christianity, but he serves too many generous helpings of bad theology. He wants churches to use his book as a study guide, and he includes detailed instructions to help them along with that. But he doesn’t drive Christians to be curious about the big problems of the faith. He tries the cover-up approach instead, and guides his readers away from thoughtful due diligence. Christians, snap out of it: preachers are paid propagandists, and Thielen plays the role to perfection.

David Madison was a pastor in the Methodist Church for nine years, and has a PhD in Biblical Studies from Boston University. His book, Ten Tough Problems in Christian Thought and Belief: a Minister-Turned-Atheist Shows Why You Should Ditch the Faith, was published in 2016 by Tellectual Press.

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