When I started writing Dark Debts (a novel about Good and Evil and the nature of faith) I was a devout agnostic. When I finished writing it, five years later, I had returned to my Christian roots. By the time I'm done with reading and answering E-mail I'm now receiving from other Christians, I may very well be an agnostic again.
In addition to Dark Debts, which is rife with theological controversy, I also wrote an article for the September 1996 issue of Cosmopolitan, entitled "Would Jesus Belong to the Christian Coalition?" (Obviously, had my answer been "yes", the article would have appeared in a magazine whose cover featured Ralph Reed or Kathie Lee Gifford, instead of a half-naked anorexic model.) The book and the article have caused my E-mailbox to be flooded by letters from members of the organization I think Jesus wouldn't belong to. The letters have only deepened my conviction.
The negative reactions to Dark Debts are generally limited to hard-core fundamentalists who think it is blasphemous for Jesus to be depicted wearing jeans and a flannel shirt. To which I respond "Oh, please", and then I give them the internet address for the "Get a Life" web site.
The people who are upset about the article have expressed great displeasure at several declarations I made therein: (1) That I do not believe the title page should read The Bible: A Flawless Work of Nonfiction -- by God. (2) That I think the apostle Paul could have benefited from several years of Jungian therapy. (3) That I don1t understand the mechanics of atonement, but I'm almost certain that God is not going to send Ghandi or George Burns to hell.
Beyond all that, Christian E-mailers are upset for the same reason that some African-Americans were upset with Christopher Darden during the O.J. Simpson trial. You do not, they tell me, get up in front of "the enemy" and badmouth one (or more) of your own. One woman wrote, "This is why they (they being the dreaded hoards of 'unsaved' out there corrupting the moral fabric of America) think we're divided into factions and fighting among ourselves."
Well...no. The reason they think we're divided into factions and fighting among ourselves is that we are divided into factions and fighting among ourselves. As we have been for two thousand years. (Which a lot of conservative Christians don't realize, since they tend to ignore everything between the resurrection and the 1980 presidential election.)
I'm also told that we should not discuss our areas of contention in public because it doesn1t concern "them". And yet, large organized herds of "us" seem to be determined to ram "our" values down "their" throats, and to force "their" Jewish and Buddhist and Hindu and Moslem and non-believing kids to pray to "our" God. I kinda feel like "they" have a right to hear anything that "we" have to say. After all, "they" seem to be paying a lot of taxes to support the public schools that "we" are trying to take over.
Then, as conservative Christians are wont to do, she quoted the Bible to me. (No matter how many times I declare that I don't believe in Biblical inerrancy, I cannot get them to stop quoting scripture at me. They quote the Bible to explain that I am obligated to believe that it is inerrant. I mean...huh?) This particular lady quoted James 4:11. "Do not speak against one another, brethren." (Based on their literal and inerrant interpretation of the Bible, I could point out that he didn't say anything about sisteren.)
Yes, that's what James is alleged to have said in about 20 or 30 A.D. However, I'd like to know what James would have said during the Crusades, the Inquisition, the McCarthy era, or any of the other times when factions of Christians were killing or imprisoning or otherwise destroying the lives of innocent people in the name of Jesus.
Obviously the Christian Coalition hasn't reached those extremes. (Not yet, anyway.) But many other Christians see what they are doing as highly insensitive, and destructive to the spirit and image of something and someone that we cherish.
The strange thing about all of this nasty E-mail from fundamentalists is that none of them are criticizing my lifestyle. (This is only because none of them know anything about my lifestyle, but that's beside the point.) They are "deeply disturbed" that I don't think Ghandi and/or George Burns are going to hell. To them I quote the French saint, Abbé Athur Mugnier. When asked if he believed in hell, he replied, "Yes, because it is a dogma of the Church. But I don't believe there is anyone in it."
My take on hell is similar. I think that hell is reserved for people like Hitler and Stalin and Mussolini. Purgatory is for Ty Cobb and the guy who invented those styrofoam peanuts. Heaven, whatever it is, is for the rest of us.
Since I do believe in the divinity of Jesus, I wouldn't argue with the possibility that Christians will have the prime corner of Heaven, closest to God and the best restaurants and shopping. However, if I get to Heaven and discover that my next-door neighbor was an atheist until God presented two photo I.D.s, I won't have any problem with that, as long as he mows his grass and doesn1t play Rap music.
As I tried to point out in the Cosmo article, there are a lot of liberal Christians out there who agree with me. (I know. I get nice E-mail from them.) They don't have talk shows, mailing lists, political lobbyists or slick, highly-trained spokespeople. If I could find an organized group of them anywhere, I would throw myself at their feet and write them a blank check.
The only collection of liberal Christians I've managed to find is about half a dozen of us who have landed in a chat room for agnostics and atheists. Every one of us has been chased out of Christian chat rooms and informed that we aren't Christians. Ironically, while the cyber Christians are busy pecking each other1s eyes out over two thousand year-old punctuation marks, the godless heathens in the agnostic/atheist room are acting like...well...Christians.
For example: recently the section leader, an atheist and single mother, bought a house. Half of the chat room -- atheists and theists alike -- flew across the country to help her paint it. When another woman's husband died, several members of our gang traveled to go to the funeral. Those who couldn1t sent money to start a trust fund for the woman1s three small children.
In the Christianity room, they all have screen names like "1ofHis" and "Died4me". and the most intimate thing each knows about the other is whether he/she believes in a pre or post millennium Rapture. (This is an oft-discussed matter, as it is the one area where difference of opinion is tolerated.)
I spent fifteen years in self-imposed exile from Christianity. I never have to look far to remember why. Sometimes it is hard to remember why I came back. For the record, I came back because of the principles and ideals that I treasure: the call to dignity, to love, to forgiveness and redemption, to service of fellow man. I came back because -- for no reason that I can fathom -- I have a deep emotional attachment to a man who lived two thousand years ago. And because I was too depressed by the thought of another secular Christmas Eve.
Christianity is a strenuously challenging way of life. (I often explain to my Unitarian therapist that trying to "see Christ" in people who cut me off on the freeway is taking years off my life.) It would be tough enough to be a Christian without vitriolic E-mail from fellow Christians, explaining to me that I'm not one. I remind myself constantly that Jesus was always in hot water for the same reason I am: He believed that the Kingdom of God was open to more than an elite few who fanatically obey the rules. People were always quoting scripture at him and telling him that he wasn't doing it right. And ultimately, it took years off his life, too.
There is a line in the rock opera Jesus Christ Superstar that questions Jesus' choice of place and time to be born: "If you'd lived today you could have reached the whole nation/Israel in 4 B.C. had no mass communication." But Jesus knew exactly what he was doing. He knew what the future looked like. And he knew that with everything else he was going to suffer, he sure as hell didn't want E-mail.