New Year Resolutions for Christians

Would their faith survive? 

Let me share with you here a few of my fantasies about resolutions for 2022 that Christians could and should make. These have to do with religious practice itself, i.e., holding themselves accountable to some of the standards they themselves—we would have to assume—consider appropriate. These resolutions have to do with becoming better Christians


I have four in mind.


Resolution One:  Read the Bible


There are perhaps few ideas more cherished among Christian folk: that the Bible is the word of God. A splendid copy of the Bible is commonly on the altar at church, some devout believers have made sure that more than a billion copies of it have ended up in hotel rooms, presidents put their hands on it to take the oath of office. Hence the one thing that doesn’t make sense at all is that Christians don’t read it that much—as surveys have shown. If folks really believe that, in this famous book, we can find bona fide messages from the mysterious Ruler of the Universe, wouldn’t such believers be obsessed with reading it? 


We commonly hear Christians admit they binge watch favorite TV shows, and they can be fanatic devotees of sports—indeed, here the emotional investment is sometimes huge. But are these obsessions rivaled by Christian devotion to reading the Bible? Do we ever hear, “This weekend I binge-read the gospels—and next weekend I’ll do the same with the letters of the apostle Paul”? Wouldn’t this happen if the faithful really, truly believed that the Bible is God’s Word?


So that’s the reason for this Resolution Number One. Christians, please read your Bibles! Right now, in the absence of such discipline, if we were to ask the average church-goer, “What aspect of God’s wisdom do you cherish the most from the Book of Ezekiel?”—would we get anything other than blank stares? It would be the same if we asked, “How do you deal with the theological problems that we find in the gospel of Mark, chapters, four, five, nine, thirteen, and sixteen?” Above all, the faithful should know the gospels almost by heart—what else would qualify as the very heart of God’s Word?


It is vital, however, to avoid a few mistakes in Bible-reading. 


First: In my old version of the Revised Standard Version—the very one I read in my youth—there are almost 1,200 pages. That’s pretty daunting. One common approach to this task, i.e., “I’ll read a chapter a day,” isn’t nearly good enough. It wouldn’t be considered binge-watching a favorite TV series if you gave it only fifteen minutes a day. The most sacred part of the Old Testament is the Pentateuch (the first five books) and the chapter count is 187; the opening of the New Testament—the gospels and Acts—is 117 chapters. At the rate of just one chapter per day, it would take the better part of a year to read those sections. So Word-of-God Christians need to step up their game. Embrace this project with more gusto!


Second: downgrading the Old Testament isn’t allowed. When confronted with some of Yahweh’s bad behavior in this document, Christians might say, “Well, that’s the Old Testament.” But all of the folks who wrote the New Testament were sure that this god who vented so much anger was indeed the father of Jesus. These authors relied a good deal on the Old Testament for their ideas about Jesus. There is so much divine fury and rage in the pages of the New Testament because Yahweh was still in charge. 


Recall that Matthew provides Jesus script that blasts those who want to skip the Old Testament:


“Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.”  (Matthew 5:17-19)


Yes, that shining copy of the Bible on the church altar includes the Old Testament. There are a lot of Christians who take this Jesus quote seriously, and insist emphatically that this ancient document is divinely inspired—that’s why it’s included in the Bible.


Third: don’t wait for priests and preachers to encourage you to read the Bible. They know this is asking for trouble. Last week, Chris Farnet made this comment on the Debunking Christianity Blog:


“Looking back on my twelve years of Catholic school, it's now clear to me why the nuns and priests didn't encourage us to read the Bible on our own. In every religion class, at every Mass, in every priestly sermon, all I ever heard were carefully selected, sweet-sounding gospel passages that fed the myths they wanted to perpetuate. Knowing what I know now about the critical New Testament scholarship—information that surely must have been available to the clergy who taught me —it’s hard to believe their deceit wasn't intentional.”


I doubt that many preachers end their sermons with study suggestions: “Now I want you all to go home and carefully read Mark, chapter 4, and then tell me your thoughts about what Jesus said about the parables.” Or: “This week please study John, chapter 3, and let’s talk about its major theological problems.”  Below-the-surface analysis isn’t generally welcomed. 


Resolution Two: Focus on the Words of Jesus Especially


What could be more important than finding out what Jesus said? Yes, binge-read as much of the Bible as you can, but always allot daily time to review the supremely important words of Jesus. After all, Christians learn from childhood that he is Lord and Savior. He is considered the greatest ethical teacher ever—well, at least by those who so strongly promote belief in Jesus. There’s a handy tool for this specific exercise: find an edition of the Bible in which the words of Jesus are printed in red. And here’s a best practice: read Jesus’ words first in the gospel of Mark, since it was written first. Then move on to Matthew, Luke, and John, because they were probably written in that order. It’s important to carefully read ALL those words printed in red, for the reason that Chris Farnet stated: “…In every religion class, at every Mass, in every priestly sermon, all I ever heard were carefully selected, sweet-sounding gospel passages…” Maybe the clergy are trying to hide something? After all, worship is designed to enhance adoration of Jesus, with hymns, rituals, stained glass windows—and sweet-sounding gospel passages. 


Anyone who bothers to read all the words attributed to Jesus in the gospels soon discovers that everything is not sweet-sounding—far from it. Which is probably one reason that preachers don’t coax the laity to examine the gospels carefully. Naturally Christian apologists—who make their livings knocking off rough edges—have come up with rationalizations for bad, mediocre, alarming Jesus quotes. I’ll mention five of these quotes here, although there are many more. 


Luke 14:26“Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple.” Surely many Christians who come across this for the first time must be shocked. 


Mark 14:61-62“…the high priest asked him, ‘Are you the Messiah, the Son of the Blessed One?’ Jesus said, ‘I am; and you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of the Power, and coming with the clouds of heaven.’”  Jesus spoke these words at his trial: those who heard him there would see him coming with the clouds of heaven. This is a failed prediction. It didn’t happen. Awkward.

Matthew 10:34-36: “Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; and one’s foes will be members of one’s own household.” Why would the greatest ethical teacher of all time say such a thing?

Luke 14:33: “So therefore, none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions.” This comes just a few verses after the hate-your-family verse. Doesn’t this smack of extremism? 


Matthew 12:36: “ I tell you, on the day of judgment you will have to give an account for every careless word you utter.” Here Jesus endorses the revenge theology of his raging father Yahweh, whose Old Testament rampages are so shocking. This is severe, and smacks of extremism as well. Texts like these make it hard to accept that the god of the New Testament is an improved version of Yahweh.   


[A list of 292 bad, mediocre, alarming Jesus quotes can be found here.]


Most pastors I know—if confronted by these verses—will do their best to soften the message, offering a wide variety of excuses, mostly based on the theme, “Well, Jesus couldn’t have meant that.” But for careful readers, after a while these excuses wear thin. Many people are simply turned off, and seriously wonder if they’re following the wrong holy hero. The many negatives about Jesus are in full view in the gospels, but so many Christians can’t be bothered to look. So this is an important resolution: Christians, find out for yourselves what Jesus said—well, at least what the gospel writers report that he said. 


Resolution Three: Go to Church Every Sunday


But not just to your own church. Shop around; explore how other denominations behave on Sunday mornings. Try to find out why worship practices are so radically different. Does this confusion make any sense at all? Something is seriously wrong. Why aren’t devout believers horrified by how much Christians don’t agree on basics? How can it not be a scandal that the church has fractured and splintered endlessly? By one count a few years ago, there are now more than 30,000 different Christian brands. So make church attendance an exploration: Baptists should attend Catholic churches, Episcopalians should attend Pentecostal churches. Wealthy Christians should attend storefront churches in poor neighborhoods. 


Resolution Four: Flip the Curiosity Switch ON: Scrutinize Everything that Happens at Your Church

It’s so easy to breeze through familiar worship routines. Knowing what comes next, singing the hymns, reciting the ancient creeds, listening to the preacher. But curiosity should kick in: why are we doing it this way? How did these practices originate? Above all, where did our beliefs come from? For example, here is the opening of the Apostle’s Creed:

“I believe in God the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth. And in Jesus Christ, His only Son, our Lord; Who was conceived by the Holy Spirit; Born of the Virgin Mary…’ 

It’s appropriate to ask, about any fragment of this statement: where did this idea come from, who thought of it for the very first time? For example, that God should be identified as a “father” and that he is “almighty.” There had to have been someone who was the first to think, then proclaim, these concepts. Which prompts the question—or it certainly should—were these supposed insights about god the product of revelation, imagination, or hallucination? How would we find that out? Belief in something for thousands of years is no guarantee of truth. Worshippers who pursue these inquiries—if they’re honest—bump into this hard fact: reliable, verifiable data cannot be found to back up anything done in worship. Traditions can be comforting, but may have no basis whatever in fact. Priests and preachers make their livings promoting traditions.      


Christians, please appreciate that none of these New Year Resolutions include painful reading assignments. No, you don’t have to read Dawkins, Hitchens, Loftus (well, actually you should). Rather I suggest Christians look carefully at their own proudly affirmed belief systems. Are they sure the Bible is what they say it is? Does Jesus measure up…after you’ve taken a really close look at his words? And are your Sunday habits worth the effort? An awful lot goes on in church that doesn’t survive close scrutiny. 


Indeed, there’s not much in Christianity that does.



David Madison was a pastor in the Methodist Church for nine years, and has a PhD in Biblical Studies from Boston University. He is the author of two books, Ten Tough Problems in Christian Thought and Belief: a Minister-Turned-Atheist Shows Why You Should Ditch the Faith (2016; 2018 Foreword by John Loftus) and Ten Things Christians Wish Jesus Hadn’t Taught: And Other Reasons to Question His Words (2021). He has written for the Debunking Christian Blog since 2016.


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