Monday, August 24, 2009

My "Manifesto"--An Open Letter Written in 2005, on the Occasion of my Leaving the ELCA

What follows is an open letter, written in 2005 within days of officially leaving the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) for a congregation in the United Church of Christ. The move was in part an act of protest, a way of expressing my moral opposition to ELCA policies that, in my understanding, made God’s gay and lesbian children into second-class citizens within the life of the church. It was also made for a range of personal reasons, some of which are described in this letter. The letter was distributed via e-mail and I have really no idea how many have read it since 2005. I post it now in recognition of the historic votes that were made last week during the 2009 General Assembly of the ELCA, votes which overturned the policies that drove me into “exile.”

Dear Friends,

The other day, I officially became a Lutheran in exile. My family and I joined Fellowship Congregational Church in Tulsa, OK, making a commitment to drive one hour from home to attend a church that is open and affirming in its stance towards sexual minorities. Our experience at Fellowship has been wonderful, and I know that my family has found what is already proving to be a spiritually enriching church home.

Even so, my heart aches over this decision. In my heart and by my theology I am Lutheran. My heritage is half-Lutheran, and it is this heritage that I came to embrace in my adult faith journey. I have had and will always have a Lutheran identity and a personal commitment to the central Lutheran doctrine of justification by grace through faith, a doctrine which has been so beautifully and powerfully developed within the Lutheran tradition. I will always be committed to the future of the Lutheran Church. And yet I find that I must, for the sake of my conscience and the spiritual welfare of my family, worship elsewhere. I have resigned my position on the church council of my home congregation and said goodbye to a community that has been my church home since moving to Oklahoma in June of 2000. My heart aches, but I cannot see another way to proceed.

Why do I leave? There are many answers. Here is one: I leave because my wife and I cannot imagine raising our son in a denomination whose policies formally exclude non-celibate gays and lesbians from the ministry and withhold from same-sex couples the kind of sacramental recognition that heterosexual couples take for granted. We believe that such policies formally endorse the marginalization of human beings based on their unchosen sexuality, excluding some of God’s children from full participation in the life of the church. Our hopes that these policies might be change at the 2005 General Assembly were dashed, compromised from the start by timid recommendations from the ELCA Task Force on Sexuality, a procedural decision by the ELCA Church Council that would require a supermajority to effect any changes in current policies, and a clear indication that the majority within the ELCA stands on the side of perpetuating these policies. And so we left.

That is one answer. But it is superficial. It expresses controversial ideas as if they were matters of fact. It doesn’t explain why I think the current policies are wrong or why I think that the ELCA’s error is so significant that I, at least, must worship elsewhere. And so I offer a deeper answer in the hope that someone might hear, perhaps even be moved to fight for change.

Here are some things that I know: the sexual orientation of gays and lesbians is such that they can know fulfilling romantic intimacy only with those of the same sex. For most gays and lesbians, if not all, a change of sexual orientation is impossible—even for those of faith who for years fall on their knees and pray fervently for such change. If God miraculously transforms the sexuality of some, he is rather sparing with this so-called miracle. And, as Luther noted, celibacy is a gift given to few. As such, it is a gift given to few gays and lesbians.

How do I know these things? The social scientific research supports these views, but that is not the main reason why I believe them. I believe them because my gay and lesbian friends and neighbors have shared their stories with me, have told me what it is like to be gay and a Christian. I have tried to listen to them with the kind of compassion and attention that I think is demanded by a commitment to an ethic of love. I know that these things are true because my gay and lesbian friends have told me so, and I know them well enough to know they are not lying, that they have no reason to lie.

The ELCA’s policies relating to homosexuality are not nearly as offensive as those of other Christian denominations. The Southern Baptists, for example, declare with a confidence bordering on arrogance that “homosexual conduct is always a gross moral and spiritual abomination for any person, whether male or female, under any circumstance, without exception.” They hold that even the desire for same-sex relations is “always sinful, impure, degrading, shameful, unnatural, indecent and perverted.” For a time it seemed to me that it was enough that the ELCA’s stance was more nuanced than this, more fallibilistic. But it is not enough.

Historically, Christians have held that all forms of homosexual conduct are sinful. The implications of this teaching for gays and lesbians has been clear: they must suppress their sexuality. They must either enter into marriages with persons they cannot love, doing both themselves and their partners a profound injustice; or they must forego romantic intimacy whether they have the gift of celibacy or not. The current policies of the ELCA impose a requirement of celibacy on gay and lesbian clergy, a requirement that those fortunate enough to be straight need not observe. The ELCA imposes this requirement even though the Lutheran church has historically stood against clerical celibacy. Luther thought it was presumptuous to assume that God would call to ministry only those to whom He also gave the rare gift of celibacy. But the current policies of the ELCA formally declare that gays and lesbians in committed relationships shall not be ordained—declaring, in effect, that God would never call to ministry anyone who fits this description (as if we could know what God will or will not do).

The current policies of the ELCA also officially exclude gays and lesbians from participation in the only model of responsible sexuality that the Christian community has historically recognized: holy matrimony. As such, Christian gays and lesbians, as well as gays and lesbians more generally, grow up feeling fundamentally disconnected from their community, knowing that when they grow up, their dreams of life partnership and romantic intimacy will never receive the kind of social affirmation and support that their straight friends take for granted. Many feel like outsiders looking in a window at a feast they cannot join, like the little match girl in Hans Christian Anderson’s famous story. They feel cut off, and their sexuality is given no framework for its development and expression. Or, perhaps better, the only framework for understanding and expressing their sexuality that they are left with is the model offered by the secular world: media images that glorify objectification and reckless self-gratification, that say “do whatever feels good.”

These policies of exclusion are justified by two kinds of traditional appeals: appeals to Scripture interpreted in a conservative way, and appeals to inherited Christian theories about the nature and purpose of human sexuality. The ELCA, while acknowledging the controversy over traditional teachings, has chosen to err on the side of fidelity to these traditions rather than on the side of full inclusion. This choice strikes me as a dangerous mistake, in part because I think that commitment to a love ethic requires erring on the side of inclusion, but more significantly because I do not think that the justifications for the traditional views on homosexuality are very compelling.

The appeal to sparse biblical passages strikes me as a tragic misuse of Scripture, a misuse similar in kind to the historic use of Scripture to subordinate women. Yes, there are scriptural passages that put women in a subordinated place, that even preclude them from speaking in church. Yes, the subtext of Old Testament laws and stories is fundamentally patriarchal. But to treat these facts as sufficient to justify the subordination of women is to turn Scripture into a text suitable for the justification of moral horrors. And it is to ignore the broader themes of Scripture: themes of liberation, themes of compassion and love.

Any sincere holistic reading of Scripture reveals a clear commitment to an ethic of love. As such, it seems utterly clear to me that we must reject any approach to Scripture that leads to the endorsement of teachings that marginalize some of God’s children, that contribute to suicidal depression in gay teens, that stifle compassion and inspire otherwise good people not to hear the anguished cry of their gay and lesbian neighbors. Traditional teachings about homosexuality do all of these things. If our approach to understanding Scripture and its authority leads to these teachings, then it violates the ethic of love, and hence is a profound violation of the spirit of Scripture itself.

Scripture calls for us to love our gay and lesbian neighbors, to treat their needs as if they were those of Christ Himself. In other words, Scripture calls us to look beyond Scripture, to God and to our neighbor. If we attend to our gay and lesbian neighbors, we will hear stories of how traditional Christian teachings on homosexuality have crushed their souls. We will hear stories of how, rather than coming to them as a joyous chorus proclaiming the good news of reconciliation and redemption, the Christian church comes to them as a force of oppression and pain, as a life-deadening power. We will hear stories whose implications are more than clear: teaching that homosexuality is always a sin is itself a sin, because it poisons the lives of our gay and lesbian neighbors.

We do not hear these stories. While our gay and lesbian neighbors are crying out to be heard, to be received as full members in the life of the church, we ignore them in favor of discussing and debating the significance of Romans 1:26-27. This is a tragedy. We cannot afford to shout out Bible verses so loudly that we drown out the voice of Christ when He comes to us in the person of our neighbor. Any religion that, in the name of a high doctrine of Holy Scripture, cares more for isolated sentences on a page than it does about the anguished cry of our neighbors is, to borrow Martin Luther King’s language, a spiritually moribund religion only waiting for the day to be buried.

But what about tradition, some may ask? What about the historic witness of the church? For two thousand years the church has taught that homosexuality is a sin. Can we so lightly ignore two thousand years of Christian witness? Isn’t the acceptance of homosexuality nothing more than the act of abandoning traditional Christian values in response to current trends in secular culture?

To these questions, I respond with a question of my own: Isn’t it more loving to begin our reasoning about homosexuality with sustained sensitive attention to the lived experience of those most affected by our doctrines on the issue—gays and lesbians—than it is to rely on traditional teachings that were fashioned at a time when the social and historical realities made it impossible to have anything approaching an adequate concept of what it is like to be gay? The sexual mores we have inherited from our Christian forebears were formulated at a time in history when no one really knew anything at all about homosexuality. Those who had a homosexual orientation would not have had any name for their experience, no readily available concepts for describing it, and no opportunity to receive a fair hearing. The conditions under which it has become possible to understand the gay and lesbian experience have emerged only very recently in history. To simply assume that our inherited theories and doctrines adequately account for this new data, without careful critical reflection, goes beyond respect for tradition and treads headlong into blind dogmatism.

For these reasons, I cannot condone current policies in the ELCA. For these reasons, it is not enough for me and my family that the ELCA agrees (at the discretion of the local bishops) to deliberately turn a blind eye to violations of existing policies while keeping those policies in place. It is certainly not enough to have a few ELCA congregations defy the policy with the understanding that they won’t be prosecuted for it so long as they do it quietly and do not make a public stand for the cause of our gay and lesbian neighbors. And it is simply na├»ve to think that the needs of pastoral care for our gay and lesbian neighbors can be satisfied by a scattered and localized embrace of them, one that occurs in a context that officially denounces any kind of unqualified embrace of who they are.

These are the reasons why I cannot accept the current perspective of the ELCA. By themselves, however, these things do not explain why I leave. After all, there are many who share my views who have chosen to stay and fight. A part of me wants to do the same. A part of me fears that leaving will mean handing the ELCA over to those who, out of a misguided devotion to tradition or scriptural authority, perpetuate the oppression of sexual minorities. A part of me fears that if too many like me leave the church, ELCA congregations will become even more hostile to sexual minorities, and children who grow up gay in the ELCA will feel even more excluded, even more rejected. A part of me fears that, because of this choice, some child I might have lifted up will be beaten too far down by the messages of exclusion, and in a moment of despair will choose death.

So why do I leave? There are many reasons. I have two-year-old son. I do not know what his sexual orientation will be. But if he should turn out to be gay, I do not want him to be that child who is beaten down by messages of exclusion. I do not want him to be told that belief in God and Christianity requires us to make second-class citizens of our gay and lesbian neighbors. I do not want him to be fed an understanding of the nature of Scripture and its authority which has us exalt two sentences from Romans above the life stories of countless gay and lesbian people who have experienced those sentences as a strangling yoke.

Such practical injustice infects even the most beautiful theology, degrading and distorting its meaning. The Lutheran doctrines about Christ and our justification before God have, as their backdrop, a normative understanding of God as a creator whose essence is love. The normative centrality of love is fundamental to Lutheran theology, without which none of that theology makes sense. But it seems to me that current Lutheran practice with respect to our gay and lesbian neighbors lifts up certain beliefs about the sources of divine authority (Scripture and tradition) higher than the law of love, thereby fundamentally infecting the heart of Lutheran theology: its understanding of God and the justification wrought by Jesus of Nazareth.

I cannot help but believe that practice speaks louder than words, and that when a formally endorsed policy violates the law of love, the implications for how core theological principles are understood by the faith community—how they will be understood by my son—cannot help but be compromised. The fact that so many Lutherans today have no authentic understanding of the meaning and significance of Lutheran theology, that their theologies are often closer to those of moralistic televangelists even though their pastors preach traditional Lutheran theology from the pulpit, speaks powerfully to these dangers. It seems to me that my son is more likely to understand and appreciate the essence of Lutheran theology if I share that theology with him while attending a non-Lutheran faith community whose explicit teachings may be less powerful articulations of that theology but whose practices, worship life, and social commitments are fully consonant with it.

There are other reasons why we leave, reasons that have more to do with our emotional lives than with reasoned reflection. After a difficult, often emotionally trying process of going through the “Journey Together Faithfully” study at our church, my wife and I were drained and in need of spiritual renewal. What we received instead from the ELCA was a dashing of our hopes. Worship in our home congregation became tainted by those dashed hopes. It became increasingly difficult to find there the spiritual sustenance and rejuvenation that we so urgently needed as a family. We were worn out by the fight, and because the ELCA was the battleground it was not the place where we could find the spiritual food needed to fight on. And because the ELCA refused to provide so many of our loved ones with the kind of unqualified welcome and affirmation that makes a place feel like home, it could no longer feel like home to us.

I believe that it is possible for people to disagree vigorously about important issues and yet still be fully participating members of the same community of faith. But the “issue” of gay and lesbian ordination, of holy unions, is precisely about who gets to be a fully participating member of ELCA. The policies of the ELCA say that I have that privilege but my cousin Jake does not. My best friend John does not. Other people I love do not. Can I disagree and still be a fully participating member of the ELCA? Yes, but only because I have the good fortune to be straight.

And this is the final reason why I must leave. The ironic truth is this: Were I gay, I would stay and fight for change. I would clamor at the gate for full inclusion. Were I gay, to leave the church would be to embrace the message of exclusion that current ELCA policies convey. And so, as a way to protest that message, I would refuse to leave. But because I am straight, the only way I can clamor at the gate in solidarity with my gay and lesbian loved ones is to deliberately step outside. The ELCA policies are discriminatory, but they discriminate in my favor. They do not exclude me because of who I am. And so, because I am straight, I must leave under my own power. To fight for change alongside my gay and lesbian brothers and sisters, I must become an outsider with them. I must become a Lutheran in exile.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

ELCA Vote for Greater Inclusivity Stirs Up a Storm

In Minneapolis on Wednesday, the General Assembly of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America passed an important social statement. The statement acknowledges the lack of consensus within the ELCA concerning the ethics of homosexual relationships and essentially extends to individual congregations the right to decide for themselves whether and in what ways they will recognize or bless same-sex unions. The vote passed by precisely the two-thirds majority that was required. And when I say “precisely,” I mean exactly that. A single vote the other way, and the measure wouldn’t have passed.

At the time that deliberations on this agenda item were about to start, an unexpected tornadic storm passed through Minneapolis, causing significant damage in several parts of the city. A confirmed tornado went through an area south of downtown. The Electric Fetus record store had its windows blown out…and the storm also caused damage to the convention center where the General Assembly was being held as well as to the spire of nearby Central Lutheran Church.

Predictably, these last two facts have caused a number of conservative religious pundits such as John Piper to paint the storm as a divine warning: it was, they claim, God’s way of telling the ELCA General Assembly not to pass the social statement.

That’s one theory--a theory which inspires me to wonder what the First Baptist Church in Mena, AK did wrong to warrant a million dollars worth of tornado-related damage back in April. Since the tornado hit on Maundy Thursday (the day during Holy Week when churches around the world remember Jesus' Last Supper), maybe God was trying to urge the church to rethink its theory that Holy Communion is merely a symbolic memorial. How dare they deny the ancient Church's doctrine of transubstantiation on the very day when the event which instituted Holy Communion is commemorated? Outrageous! How could God not smite them?

Oh wait. Lots of churches treat Holy Communion as just a memorial, and most of them weren't hit by tornadoes on Maundy Thursday. Hmm. And then there's the fact that the General Convention of the Episcopal Church approved some even stronger measures towards gay and lesbian inclusion back in July, and even though the convention took place in Anaheim, CA, not a single earthquake shook up the proceedings.

So maybe Piper's theory isn't the best one. Here's another: The storm was God’s way of warning opponents of the ELCA social statement that He is not happy with those who stand in the way of expanding the scope of agapic love. Because He knew that the vote would be so close, God rattled the rafters of the convention center to put the fear of God in those assembly delegates who were thinking about blocking this move towards greater inclusion and compassion.

Then again, maybe the ELCA General Assembly wasn't God's target at all. Maybe God was furious with the Electric Fetus record store. Who knows why? Maybe He thought the name was in bad taste. Or, since the Electric Fetus has been described as "iconic," He may have been expressing His wrath against graven images. More likely, it was because one of its employees is a secret fan of Air Supply.

Or maybe one of the drivers on I-35W, where the tornado touched down, was actually listening to Air Supply, inspiring even greater divine outrage. Perhaps the Electric Fetus employee hooked him up with the CD.

Of course, it might be that God was mad at the trees that were knocked down at 42nd and Portland. There is some biblical support for this. Jesus did, after all, curse an olive tree. Then again, since the storm system spawned tornado touchdowns in other parts of Minnesota, as well as in Iowa and other states, it may be that there are Air Supply fans elsewhere who inspired God’s wrath.

Or perhaps we should conclude that since no one was harmed in the convention center, God was actually protecting the members of the assembly from the storm so that they might complete the important work they had before them. Since injuries would have been more likely to take out delegates who voted with the two-third majority in favor of the measure, and since the measure would have failed if even one of these delegates hadn’t been present for the vote (had the storm taken out a few of the opponents, it wouldn’t have changed the result), we might conclude that God’s protection ended up saving the day for the advocates of greater inclusion.

We might even suppose, given the precipitous and unexpected nature of the tornadic storm, that it was spawned by Satan in an attempt to preserve policies of exclusion in the ELCA. Thankfully, God protected the good delegates of the assembly. Satan, furious at having his malign will thwarted, petulantly swatted Central Lutheran’s steeple on his way out of town.

Then again, maybe it was just a storm.

Creative Insult Contest

I've decided to extend my newest facebook contest to my blog, so that when disagreements on this and other blogs get a bit testy, we can all look back on this post for alternatives to calling each other idiots.

So, here's the challenge: Devise an original insult that is more likely to cause perplexity than offense, and post it as a comment. For the purposes of the blog version of the contest, the insults should be worded as if they might be comments on a blog post.

Examples:

1. "Your comments sound like a parsnip quiche without the crust."
2. "Your recent post reminds me of what a lentil would be like if it were a dairy product rather than a legume."
3. "Your reasoning smells a bit like my mother's version of goulash, except that I don't detect any cinnamon."

Note: While all of these examples involve food, this is not strictly required. It is, however, recommended. Since insults involving food are intrinsically superior to insults not involving food, entries that eschew food references start off with an inherent handicap.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Considering the Effects of Spiritual Practices on the Brain

Since I’m starting up a new semester (but the kids haven’t started school yet), I’ve been dividing my time equally between course preparation and parenting (my son is in my office with me as I write this). Thus, I don’t have much time to work on the blog these days. And so, in lieu of something more time-consuming, such as the next (and likely final) chapter in my biblical inerrancy series, I invite readers to read and share their thoughts about a Reuters article that appeared yesterday: “Faith Rites Boost Brains, Even for Atheists.”

The article discusses a recent book by Andrew Newberg (How God Changes Your Brain) that addresses some current research into the impact that religious practices—meditation and meditative prayer in particular—have on the brain. The research discussed in this article isn’t totally new (I’ve read about similar findings off an on for a few years). But it is interesting and worth reflecting on. What follows are a few of the questions and ideas that reading the article generates for me (to the extent that I can express them clearly while a six-year old builds an elaborate tunnel system in my office using the packing boxes I haven’t yet filled with books for the impending office move).

The obvious lesson in this article is that science is able to discern, through its empirical methods, effects that certain religious practices have on the brain—effects that, at least in terms of their correlation with states of consciousness, most would judge to be positive. Beyond this obvious lesson, there is much that deserves reflection and debate.

One such issue relates to the positive value that is generally attributed to the psychological products of the spiritual practices in question: greater compassion, a deeper sense of connectedness with the world and other beings in that world, greater “peace of mind,” etc. Of course, these things are widely desired and valued. But is that all there is to it? Or are they things that ought to be valued? Is there a reason why they should be valued, even by those who, as a matter of contingent psychology, fail to value them? And if so, what are those reasons? More basic contingent desires? Then we can ask the same questions at a deeper level. If we think that some things ought to be valued apart from contingent desire (as I do), we need to look for an answer to the question, “What makes these psychological states categorically valuable?” The answer will not rest in empirical facts about the brain. As such, and insofar as the positive value of the states produced by spiritual practice is integral to what makes them significant, we cannot fully appreciate the fruits of spiritual practice through brain science alone.

A second issue relates to a point that some readers of this blog are likely to make: namely, this research demonstrates that the positive benefits of religious practices can be divorced from the metaphysical beliefs about reality which so often operate as both motivation and interpretative framework for these practices. I essentially agree with this. I don’t think you have to, say, believe in God or in a universal spirit or in the illusory nature of the world of ordinary experience in order to benefit from meditative practices. The same is true about a lot of things. Food nourishes you regardless of your specific beliefs about eating and what it does to your body. Drinking plenty of water is beneficial regardless of what beliefs you have about what happens to you when you drink water and why drinking it is good for you. The real question is not whether these practices impact the brain in discernible ways, ways that correlate with beneficial changes in consciousness, but what implications this fact has, if any, for the reasonableness of various metaphysical beliefs.

There is also the question of describing what is going on in the agent, at the level of consciousness. That is, what are we, as conscious agents, doing when we meditate? Simone Weil, whose provocative and challenging reflections on her own mystical experiences have been deeply influential on my own thinking, describes meditative prayer as an exercise in absolute attention—an attention that isn’t directed towards anything in the field of empirical experience nor to any construct of the imagination. In her view, it is a matter of opening up a place in consciousness that is free from all the things that usually vie for our attention—sense experiences as well as our inner thoughts and ideas and imaginings. Meditation is about paying absolute attention to that which is not these things, and as such is really a matter of opening up an empty space in consciousness, a space of quiet waiting.

Of course, Weil interprets what happens next in the following way: the “God” that transcends human concepts and categories, that transcends empirical experience, floods into the empty space that we have made. As such, she’d interpret the current brain science as offering a picture of how the brain responds to the inflow of the divine. By contrast, many naturalists will argue that current brain research belies this interpretation, because there is no reason to suppose that any such grand encounter with a mysterious and otherwise inaccessible order of reality is happening when we can just explain religious experience as nothing more than the by-product of a distinctive sort of brain activity.

My own view is that there is a reason to interpret religious experience in something falling within the broad family of interpretations to which Weil’s belongs (even if, all things considered, that reason may not prove decisive). The reason is provided by what the experience “feels like” from the inside, so to speak. It feels like a veridical encounter with something other than what we are connected to in ordinary experience.

The naturalist account of spiritual experience is, I think, inspired by a suspicion of taking such subjective “feelings” as having any evidentiary value worth attending to. On a more basic level, it seems to be rooted in the insistence that the same kinds of evidentiary standards that drive science should be followed in all domains of human inquiry—even when the questions we ask are ones to which such standards simply cannot be applied (and hence become questions that it is either pointless to ask, meaningless to ask, or about which the only answer we should ever give is silence). But this leads to yet another question: What is lost, and what is gained, by such an insistence?

In some ways, different answers to this question may lie at the root of the disagreement between metaphysical naturalists and those progressive supernaturalists who treat science as authoritative but not exhaustive in its account of the reality we inhabit.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

The Choice is Yours

While on vacation, I passed a billboard somewhere in rural Ohio that read, “The Choice is Yours: Heaven or Hell.” A toll free number was provided for those who wanted to learn more.

Fortunately (?) the idea for a crank call didn’t occur to me until it was too late to jot down the number. That didn’t stop me, however, from fantasizing about it for much of the remaining six hours on the road. Since I didn’t get around to any of the promised “lighter fare” on this blog while I was vacationing, I share with you now my crank call fantasies.

I should warn you that, in some circles, even having these fantasies would be viewed as grounds for damnation—and the same fate is most likely attributed to those who read them with a chuckle. So it’s probably best to remain grimly sober as you proceed.

(Note to readers: I manifestly do not think that every species of Christianity adopts all the views and ideas expressed by “Them,” especially as articulated in Fantasy 3. But some do. My aim in Fantasies 2 and 3 is not to offer any kind of serious philosophical critique of doctrines of hell, but to playfully gesture towards the absurdities of some of the less thought-out versions. Fantasy 1 is just what comes into your head when you’ve been driving a car for days on end.)

Fantasy 1: Probably Not What Carrie Underwood Intended.

Them: “Amazing Holiness Bible Church of the Redeemer, World Outreach and Evangelical Ministries Center. How may I help you?
Me: “Well, actually, I was hoping Jesus could help me. Is Jesus there?”
Them: “Jesus is always with you. All you need to do is turn your heart to Him and repent your sins.”
Me: “Yeah, well, I was looking for more, you know, practical help.”
Them: “Sorry? I’m afraid I don’t understand.”
Me: “Well, I saw your billboard, and it made me think of that song. You know, the one by that American Idol winner.”
Them: “Jesus Take the Wheel?”
Me: “Yeah! Well, you see, I was wondering if He could do that for me.”
Them: “Of course. Jesus is just waiting for you to open your heart, so that He may become the Lord of your life.”
Me: “Um, yeah, well, what about the Lord of my car?”
Them: “Excuse me?”
Me: “I’ve been driving for days and I’m getting pretty tired of it. I could use a break.”
Them: “Uh, Jesus doesn’t drive cars.”
Me: “Why not?”
Them: “Well...”
Me: “I mean, he was bodily resurrected, right?”
Them: “Yes...”
Me: “So He has arms to steer with, a foot for the gas pedal and brake, all of that. And surely He know how to drive, being omniscient and all.”
Them: “Of course. But that doesn’t mean he’s going to climb into your car and take over the driving.”
Me: “Why not?”
Them: “Well, for one thing, Jesus has more important work to do than to drive people around in their cars.”
Me: “But if He’s omnipotent, doesn’t that mean He can do that greater work and drive my car for me?”
Them: “He wants us to live our own lives. He’s not going to live it for us.”
Me: “Then what’s this ‘Jesus take the wheel’ stuff about? Anyway, I’m not asking Him to live my life for me. Just drive my car for an hour.”
Them: “What do you think Jesus is? He’s the Lord of Life, not your servant!”
Me: “Um, well...I don’t mean to contradict you or anything. I’m sure you know this Jesus guy better than I do and all...but, well, doesn’t the Bible say He is a servant? The suffering servant, or something like that?”
Them: “He served us by dying for our sins, not by doing our chores for us.”
Me: “Oh, wait. I think I get it. He doesn’t have a license, does He?”

Fantasy 2: Choices, choices

Them: “Grace for Life Bible Ministries, Center for Global Evangelism. How may I help you?”
Me: “I saw your billboard, the one about the choice being mine, and I had some questions.”
Them: “There is no more important question than your eternal destiny. God has led you to make this call.”
Me: “Yes, well, I was hoping you could tell me a little more about this heaven and hell, so that I know exactly what I’m choosing between.”
Them: “Of course. Heaven is the most wonderful and—”
Me: “You’ve been there?”
Them: “Well, no, but...”
Me: “So this is just hearsay, is that it?”
Them: “No. God has revealed to us—”
Me: “Can we just cut to the chase?”
Them: “What?”
Me: “I’m a masochist. You know what that means?”
Them: “Um...”
Me: “I get off on pain. Actually, what I like best is when an older woman beats me with a riding crop. So I’m wondering where I’m more likely to experience something like that.”
Them: “This is sick.”
Me: “Would I get to have that in heaven? Leather, manacles, bullwhips?”
Them: “Absolutely not!”
Me: “So, I guess my best bet is to go with hell, then?”
Them: “No! What you need is to invite Jesus into your life so that he may cure you of these perverse desires.”
Me: “So, my masochism is a bad thing?”
Them: “It is sick and evil! You must be cured of it!”
Me: “What if I’m not?”
Them: “Then you will roast forever in the unquenchable fires of hell!”
Me: “Mmm. Sounds nice.”
Them: “You don’t understand. It’s utter misery and suffering.”
Me: “But I already told you that I get off on—”
Them: “Not in hell, you won’t! Hell is a place of unmitigated suffering. It is existence stripped of anything that might redeem it. Even if you find pleasure in pain now, you won’t when you get to hell. It will be all and only pain, and you won’t even remotely enjoy any of it.”
Me: “So you're telling me, basically, that if God sends me to hell He’ll first cure me of my masochism so that I won’t enjoy any of it when the demons flog me?”
Them: “That’s right.”
Me: “And being cured of my masochism is a good thing, right? So hell isn’t all bad.”

Fantasy 3: Getting Serious

Them: “Church of Absolute and Indubitable Truth, Such That Any Who Doubt Are Obviously Delusional and Deserve What They Get. How may I help you?”
Me: “Can I get serious?”
Them: “About what?”
Me: “Do you really mean it when you say it’s my choice, heaven or hell?”
Them: “Oh. That. You saw our billboard. Yes, we mean it.”
Me: “Okay, then. Let’s see...heaven is eternal bliss and all that’s good, while hell is undying misery stripped of anything even remotely valuable. Have I got that right?
Them: “That’s about right, but there’s more to it. Demons with implements of torture are—”
Me: “Okay, okay. I don’t need the gory details. I choose heaven.”
Them: “Wonderful! Pray with me.”
Me: “Why?”
Them: “Why? Well, if you want to go to heaven you have to accept Jesus Christ as your personal Lord and Savior. Usually that’s done in a prayer.”
Me: “Oh. Well…to be honest, I really don’t know what to think about all this Jesus business. I mean, people have different ideas about who he was and what he said and did and what it all meant. So, I’ll take the heaven stuff, since it sounds pretty nice, but let’s leave Jesus out of it.”
Them: “That’s not possible. You won’t go to heaven unless you accept Jesus as your personal Lord and Savior.”
Me: “But I thought the choice was mine. If I choose heaven, I get heaven, right? So I choose heaven.”
Them: “It doesn’t work that way.”
Me: “Okay, so what you’re telling me is that even if I choose heaven, I’ll get hell unless I make the right choice about Jesus. That doesn’t sound like the choice about heaven or hell is mine at all.
Them: “It's your choice whether you welcome Jesus into your life or not.”
Me: “But since that choice is framed by a set of beliefs about who Jesus was and what he did, I first need to adopt the right framing beliefs. So, what you’re really telling me is that, from all the world’s religions, I have to decide that Christianity’s got it right. Only then can I enjoy heaven.”
Them: “What I’m telling you is that you need to accept Jesus Christ as your personal Lord and Savior if you want to get into heaven.”
Me: “So, if I’m really convinced that, say, Islam is true, and so become a faithful Muslim, I won’t get into heaven?”
Them: “That’s right. The only path to salvation is Jesus.”
Me: “So say you. But there are others I’ve talked to who have a really different view about this stuff. So I’m not sure what to believe. But wait…Oh, I think I get it. If salvation depends on getting my beliefs right, and since the truth isn't obvious in this life, then God’ll make the truth obvious after I die. Right? So I can make a fully informed choice then.”
Them: “No.”
Me: “No?”
Them: “You have to decide before you die. If you do not accept Jesus as your Lord and Savior before death, you will go to hell.”
Me: “Well, if that’s true, then God is pretty mean.”
Them: “God is not mean. He became human so that He might suffer and die for the salvation of the world. He’s love.”
Me: “But you’re telling me that if I sincerely try to figure out the truth about reality in this life and get it wrong, God slam-dunks me down into hell?
Them: “The truth has been made manifest to all, so that no one has any excuse. Says so in Romans.”
Me: “Well, it’s not manifest to me! The ultimate truth about reality seems to be one of the most mysterious and not obvious things of all. All the evidence indicates that sincere people who care about truth arrive at very different conclusions about the ultimate nature of reality, and so about religion. If guessing wrong about religion means that one is cast into hell, then the choice isn’t really up to me at all. I can choose heaven all day, but if I guess wrong about the nature of reality, it won’t matter. Isn’t that what you’re saying?”
Them: “It’s not a matter of guessing. The Truth is obvious to anyone with eyes to see.”
Me: “So, you’re telling me I’m blind?”
Them: “If you do not see that Jesus is the Way, then yes. You are blind.”
Me: “And because I’m blind I’m doomed to hell even if I choose heaven?”
Them: “I suppose you could say that.”
Me: “Well, then, I hate to tell you this, but…well, you guys may be in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act. I’m afraid I’m going to have to report you.”