Give Me That Old Time Religion

     Many of us can remember the words to the Gospel Song with which our first lesson is named.  The song can be sung by many happy people as they proclaim that since
old time religion was good for Paul and Silas, “it is good enough for me.”  Millions of Christians have given their lives to Jesus Christ and have grown content with the mantra concerning the Scriptures, “God said it. I believe it.”  What a number of people often fail to consider in their zeal to believe is that there were no New Testament Scriptures during the days of Paul and Silas.

     On what do we base our orientation toward God?  How do we choose to interpret the experiences we encounter?  Should we base the answers to such questions on what others have discovered and written about in our past?  Or, is there a consciousness within each one of us when we are born, a consciousness that gave rise to all the religions in the world as people began to engage their environment with more creative responses?  Where did these responses come from initially since there were few teachers and a very limited amount of material that was written when religious thought began to flourish?

     In considering your response, remember that John Wesley developed his faith from what he described as a quadrilateral: Scripture, Experience, Tradition and Reason.  As we discuss the origins of our personal faith journey, consider the following letter that was created to suggest a different point of view to those who base their religious  orientation only on what they consider the Word of God.

Hi Tim,

I do not want to be overly cynical about your biblical approach to explaining theological issues, but as I have contended before, people can do whatever they wish with the Scriptures and pretty much get away with it.  Everything depends on how we interpret the words and some evangelists can be very charismatic and persuasive in their interpretation of those words.    

We have been so indoctrinated by past teachers that we seldom do any original thinking. We don’t feel secure enough to debate anything or confront anything in the Bible after the Council of Trent in 1546 made the proclamation that the Bible is The Word of God.  This was done politically to give priests the power to interpret what God has to say.  The common people could do nothing more than believe the priests.  In those days no one could read the Scriptures and thus for centuries the Latin Vulgate was all there was.  

I am going to play The Devil’s Advocate for a moment to illustrate knowing how and why the Bible was created is central to our understanding of what we have.  When we know the history and the primitive beliefs handed down in oral tradition, these were the ancestral stories about which ancient authors wrote.

For example, before God matured, he was very short tempered with very little understanding and forgiveness.  According to God's Word, he killed people indiscriminately because they displeased him.  (Gen. 38:7, 10)  And even though he called Moses to lead his chosen people out of Egypt, God once became so provoked with him that he tried to kill him.  (Exodus 4:24) 

The Bible teaches that there were times when God chose sides and fought against some of his children.  (Exodus 14: 25-27) God occasionally used his power to spread disease to kill people.  (Exodus 15:26) God once ordered Moses to execute the leaders of Israel in order for God to manage his own anger. (Numbers 25:4)  On another occasion, God’s anger was kindled once again and in response, God unleashed poisonous snakes to kill the Israelites.  Many died. (Numbers 21:6).  As sinister as it may seem, God unleashed a plague among his people (Numbers 16:45) and God killed 14,700  people (16:48).  On a number of occasions, Moses ordered people to be murdered (Num. 25:5)  When Israelite men were having sex with Moabite women, again God was angered and was only pleased when Phinehas, the grandson of Aaron, drove a spear into a couple as they were making love, killing both of them.  (Num. 25:10)

In God's infinite wisdom and to show his faithfulness and love to his chosen people, he ordered the Israelites into a land that he had promised to give to their ancestors and during their invasion, God invited them to destroy everyone who lived there.  (Joshua 1:3, Joshua 3:9-11)  Was God an advocate of genocide?  Just look at his loathing of the Amalekites where he wanted everyone, including infants and children, and every animal murdered.  (I Samuel 15:3) 

There was a time when Moses used his own astute wisdom on God and it prevailed over God's intention to kill the Israelites for their disobedience.  (Exodus 32:10-14)  It is absolutely amazing how the compassion of Moses helped God to remember his. 

Somehow along the way, God grew up emotionally and learned that it is far wiser to send his Son to deal with people whom God failed to perfect at creation (Gen. 1:31) and Jesus taught that it is best to radiate forgiveness 70 times 7, a trait that God apparently did not possess himself until he matured in his understanding.

Yet even Jesus often could not refrain from his often frustrated and  judgmental attitudes toward the righteous even though he taught his disciples not to judge.  His teaching should have been, "Do as I say, not as I think."  Was the entire chapter of Matthew 23 dedicated to what was truly inside of Jesus' heart?  

Well, enough of this.  You get my point.  Anyone can put together a thesis that is counter to what many of us believe.  They can thoroughly ground it in Scripture and defend it with dozens of references that are not taken out of context. What I've learned about the Scriptures is that more often than not, they reveal the spirit of the scholar, student or pastor who is interpreting them.  

People are beaten up enough in the world and they do not need to come to church to hear appeals to their fears in order for them to shape up or remain lost.  I would prefer my children love me because they want to, not because they are afraid of what will happen to them if they do not.  God is the same way.  God gave us free will and that does not mean “my way or the highway.”   

So many Christians have made the Scriptures an idol that they worship rather then understanding that many of these images of God come from the minds of primitive authors who were only doing the best they could with what they knew and had been taught at the time.

Today, our understanding of God and the potential of humankind is far greater, but few will let go of the interpretation of God’s Word that they cling to. That is truly a pity and freezes them from continuing their growth spiritually, a growth that implies taking risks. They prefer to stay with what they know rather than risk being wrong.  They simply do not understand that God does not possess the emotions of our species.  Until they achieve that understanding within them, they will live in fear of our Creator.

There clearly will be an end-time, Tim, but to spend even one moment worrying about it is also to go against another teaching of Jesus. (Matt. 6:34) 

People who are overly concerned about the state of their soul have just a tad of self-interest at the heart in their desire to serve God.  What I would prefer that people do is trust that God's will is unfolding in God's time not theirs.  There is peace when we trust God for the outcome of all things.  Quality of life and living with joy is all about God's grace and not about what we think, believe or do.  We cannot earn anything by our beliefs.  (John 6:63)

Yes, the end-times will come – perhaps by a nuclear holocaust, perhaps a major polar shift, perhaps the sun will nova -- who among our species knows?   My belief is that love will trump fear any day of the week (I John 4:18).   My end-time will come when I transition from my solid form. 

If you want to have your faith challenged, read two books by Bart D. Erhman.  (1)  Misquoting Jesus, (2) Jesus Interrupted.  Bart is the Chair of the Religious Studies Department at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.  His books are very readable and provide an excellent background for anyone wanting to understand the Bible in far more depth than what they may have.

Blessings on you, Tim.