Friday, October 13, 2017

Pilgrim’s Progress Redux

 The author lived more than 300 years ago and is arguably one of the most influential writers in world history. His best-known work has been called “the second best book in all the world.” It tops The Guardian’s (the respected British newspaper) list of the 100 best novels written in English. 

It has been translated into more than 200 languages and is second only to the Bible in the number of copies sold worldwide. Wikipedia calls it “one of the most significant works of religious English literature, and has never been out of print. It has also been cited as the first novel written in English.”

No, this is not a work by Shakespeare. It is John Bunyan’s 1678 Christian allegory Pilgrim’s Progress. It’s more complete title is The Pilgrim's Progress from This World, to That Which Is to Come. (Its original title would fill half this page!)

But the chances are you have never read it. In recent decades it has fallen out of fashion, even among devout Christians. I first read it when I was 18, when I spent a summer reading all the classics that my formal education did not see fit to assign me. That was the summer I also read Dante, Homer and Milton.

I fell in love with Pilgrim’s Progress again when I visited the John Bunyan Museum and Library in Bedford, while on sabbatical in England. It prompted me to read his other works and lead discussion groups on Pilgrim’s Progress in my church.

I have often wondered what Bunyan would have written if he were alive today. That led me to my most recent writing project, entitled The Seeker’s Journey, subtitled A Contemporary Retelling of Pilgrim’s Progress.

This is not your grandfather’s Pilgrim’s Progress! In my retelling of the beloved allegory, Seeker (who later changes his name to Pilgrim) meets Campus Crusader on his university campus. The evangelist instructs him to begin his journey by entering through a gate illuminated by a lamppost, which strangely resembles the one at the boundary of Narnia.

Instead of the Slough of Despond this modern Pilgrim falls into the Bog of Existential Angst, and then stays in the Town of Therapy for a while. Where Vanity Fair used to be, now there is Prosperity Gospel Ministries. Pilgrim visits the City of Megachurch where he meets people who suspiciously resemble Robert Schuller, Joel Osteen, Rick Warren, and Benny Hinn.

The allegorical characters are still here, but their names are more familiar to modern ears. There is Judgmental, Bored, and Spiritual But Not Religious. Pilgrim meets Tolerant and Intolerant, Psychologist, Evangelical, and the Dark Knight of the Soul. Calvin and Arminius live in a cave overlooking the Valley of Dry Bones. Billy Graham and the Dalai Lama make cameo appearances.

In the Theologian’s House he encounters many interpretations of the Bible and Christ, all of which are recognizable from the American religious landscape – from Creationism to Feminism. Pilgrim visits First Baptist Church where he stays at the home of a Fundamentalist family. He fights the dreaded Apollyon, travels through the Valley of the Shadow of Death, and encounters the Four Horsemen of the New Atheism.

These are just a few of the adventures that Pilgrim and his companions have on their journey from their home in the Shadowlands (shades of C. S. Lewis) to their Destination beyond the river. Along the way there are references to Harry Potter, Philip K. Dick, Talladega Nights, and Mark Twain. The ending will surprise you.

The Seeker’s Journey: A Contemporary Retelling of Pilgrim’s Progress is a humorous romp through the landscape of 21st century American Christianity, which I hope will get you thinking and laughing. It is available in both Kindle and paperback. I hope you enjoy it. I certainly enjoyed writing it.

Monday, July 3, 2017

The Sloppy Gardener

A man went to sow seeds in his vegetable garden, but he wasn’t very careful. He dropped some seeds along the path on the way to his garden. The birds quickly found those seeds and ate them. He also sowed seeds at the upper end of the garden where the soil was shallow. Bedrock was only a couple of inches below the surface. Those seeds did not last long. They germinated, but there was not enough soil for them to put down deep roots. When it got hot and dry, those plants withered and died, because they had no roots.

Other seeds were sown along the borders of the garden where grass and thorns encroached on the growing area. Weeds crowded out these vegetable plants, depriving them of nutrients, water and light, and they soon died. But other seeds were planted in rows where the soil was rototilled, fertilized, and weeded regularly. They got full sun and plenty of water. These plants produced a large harvest. There was enough for the gardener to eat all he wanted, freeze some, can some, and still have enough to share with friends and neighbors! Dig deeply into this story and reap the spiritual reward!

(Original translation of Matthew 13:3-9, commonly known as the Parable of the Sower. American Paraphrase Version, copyright 2017 by Marshall Davis. All rights reserved.)

Thursday, June 29, 2017

Story of the Spoiled Brat

Jesus said, “A certain man had two sons, who worked with him in the family business. The younger son could not stand working for his father any longer. He said to his father, “Dad, I need to get out of here! Give me my share of the business.” Without saying a word, the father liquidated half of the company’s assets and gave his son the money.

Within days of cashing the check, the younger son was gone. He hopped a plane and traveled to a Caribbean island where he lived large, hosting extravagant parties for other expats. Soon he had spent every cent … and more. He went deep into debt to the luxury hotel where he stayed. To make matters worse a hurricane hit, devastating the local economy. 

The young man found himself penniless and friendless in a foreign land. He tried to find work to support himself, but the only job he could find was collecting garbage at the same hotel where he had previously lived in luxury. Almost all his paycheck went to pay off his debts. Some weeks he found himself sifting through the garbage to find something to eat.

Then it dawned on him. He could go back home and work for his father! Even the lowest employee at the family firm lived better than he was living now. He would ask his father for a job. He would act humble and remorseful and say to his father, “Dad, I am so sorry for what I did. I see now that I was wrong, and I hurt your feelings. To make it up to you, please let me work for you as a regular employee.”

He found a cruise ship going in the right direction and signed on as a dishwasher. That got him to the mainland. Then he hitchhiked to the city. He rehearsed his speech as he walked the final blocks to the family company headquarters. His father happened to be looking out his office window and saw his son approaching. Overflowing with love, he ran to the elevator and met his son in the lobby. In front of all his employees he embraced his son with tears of joy flowing down his cheeks. 

The son immediately started in on his spiel, “Dad, I am so sorry for what I did. I see now that I was wrong. I hurt your feelings. To make it up to you, please let me work for you as a regular employee.” But his father interrupted him and shouted to his employees, who were standing around gawking, “Don’t just stand there! Can’t you see that my son is back? Joe, go to Armani and buy him a new suit, and some shoes, too. Lucy, go next door to the restaurant and get some food for us all. Spare no expense. We are going to have a party! For I thought my son had died in a hurricane, but now he shows up alive and safe. I thought I had lost him, but now I have found him again.’ So everyone partied.

Meanwhile the older son was down the street with a client. As he approached the building, he could hear music and laughing coming out of the company headquarters. He asked one of the employees near the entrance what was going on. He told him, “Your brother has come home, and your father is throwing a welcome home party for him.” 

When he heard this he fumed in anger, went into his office and slammed the door. When his father learned his older home was back, he went to his office and encouraged him to come out and join in the celebration. But the son replied, “I have served you faithfully for years, and you never once threw a party for me! But now this ingrate son of yours, who jeopardized our company and lost all our capital, comes home and you throw him a party!”

His father responded, “Son, you are with me all the time. This whole company will be yours one day. Be glad that your brother is home safe. Come out and make a toast to him. For I thought he was dead, but he is alive. He was lost to me, but now he is home.” 

(Original translation of Luke 15:11-32, commonly known as the Parable of the Prodigal Son. American Paraphrase Version, copyright 2017 by Marshall Davis. All rights reserved.)

Saturday, June 24, 2017

Story of the Lost Ring

What woman, having lost her diamond engagement ring, would not look for it? Of course she would! It wouldn’t matter if she had ten other rings in her jewelry box! She would turn the house upside down searching. She would turn on all the lights, get out a flashlight and search the dark corners. She would move the furniture and get down on her hands and knees looking for that ring. When she finally found it, she would immediately phone her best friend and tell her the whole story. And her friend would rejoice with her. In the same way the angels in heaven rejoice over one person who returns to God.

(Original translation of Luke 15:8-10, commonly known as the Parable of the Lost Coin. American Paraphrase Version, copyright 2017 by Marshall Davis, all rights reserved.)

Friday, June 23, 2017

The Parable of the Lost Dog (Luke 15:1-7)

All sorts of people were coming to hear Jesus. They included child molesters and Ponzi schemers, alt-rights and communists, neo-cons and neo-libs, white supremacists and jihadists, atheists and Religious Righters, drug dealers and drug abusers, corrupt CEOs and WikiLeakers. 

Democratic and Republican leaders were concerned. They warned the public, “This guy associates with hate groups and extremists!”

So Jesus told them a story. “Which of you, if your dog got loose and ran away, would not go looking for him? Of course you would! Even if you had a houseful of other animals, you would leave them and search the neighborhood and nearby woods tirelessly. You would put up posters and post photos on social media. When you found him, you would hug him tightly and carry him home. You would post on Facebook, “He was lost for 24 hours, but I finally found him!” and your friends would rejoice with you. They would “like” the post and leave congratulatory comments crowded with emoticons. But I tell you, there is more joy in heaven when one person returns to God than over all the ‘good’ people who never go astray.”   

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

The Parable of the Good Muslim (Luke 10:25-37)

A biblical scholar came up to Jesus and questioned him to see if he knew his stuff. “Preacher, what must I do to get to heaven?” Jesus replied, “What does the Bible say? How do you interpret it?” He replied, “The Bible tells us to love God with our whole being – with all our heart, soul, strength and mind. It also tells us to love other people as much as we love ourselves.” Jesus said, “You’re right. Do this, and you will surely get to heaven.”

But the scholar, trying to find a loophole, said to Jesus, “Whom exactly should I love?” So Jesus told him a story.

A man was traveling from Washington to Arlington. Before he had gotten out of DC he was carjacked, pulled out of his vehicle, robbed, and beaten. While he was laying bleeding on the sidewalk, a Baptist preacher drove by, having just returned from the President’s Prayer Breakfast. He saw the man but didn’t stop to help. Shortly later an Episcopal priest drove by, having just been to a service at the National Cathedral, but he did not stop either.  Then a Muslim imam drove by. He saw the man and stopped to help. He knew he couldn’t just leave him there to die. If he called 911 it might be too late for the man to survive. So he lifted the man into his car and drove him to the ER. At the hospital he told them that if the man did not have insurance, he would cover the bill. So he gave them his credit card number.

Jesus asked the biblical scholar, “Which of these three men loved the man who was mugged?” The scholar replied, “Clearly it was the one who stopped to help!” “Right!” Jesus replied. “Now go and do the same.” 

 (image is Good Samaritan by Elaine Schraader.

Friday, June 16, 2017

The Need for Civility

I have stopped watching the ABC Evening News. Neither do I watch CBS and NBC. Nor CNN or Fox (although I admit I have only watched Fox News a handful of times in my life.) I have even stopped listening to NPR. I stopped watching and listening because I could no longer stand the bias and the sensationalism.

It seems like there is no longer any news. There are only reports of who hates whom and for what reasons. That is not news. That is just hate. HATE TV. I cannot stand to even look at a national politician these days, much less listen to them rant about the other party.

I have always been an independent “undeclared” voter. I vote for persons and not their party affiliation. But I have gotten to the point where I hesitate to vote for anyone affiliated with either major political party. They have both turned into hate groups.

Republicans hate Democrats and all things liberal. Democrats hate the president and all things conservative. Both parties seem more concerned with thwarting the other party rather than advancing our nation. Instead of cooperation there is “the resistance,” which is the language of war. Even those who say they are against hate are livid in their hatred of haters. A couple of days ago a political activist shot a Republican congressman at a baseball practice because of his party affiliation!

Colleges and universities used to be bastions of reason, tolerance and learning. No longer. Now they are hotbeds of hate. If students do not agree with a guest speaker’s social agenda then he (or she) is booed off the dais before given a chance to speak, or students walk out in protest. No longer do students seek to listen and learn from people with different perspectives. As Epictetus said long ago, “It is impossible to begin to learn that which one thinks one already knows.”

Religion has not helped. When religions are not fostering hate themselves – from the far right or the far left – then they are silent, intent on navel-gazing or promoting their own version of the Elysian Fields. In America Christianity has become part of the problem. Liberal Christians are simply cheerleaders for the Democratic Party, and conservative Christians are chaplains for the GOP.

This is an opportunity for people of faith to lead by example. We need to champion the cause of civility in public discourse. Christians – of which I am one – need to look beyond our personal opinions and strive for something greater and higher. God is not a party loyalist. God is the Lord of all nations and peoples. A God of love, not hate.

Personally I reject the religions and politics of intolerance, and I will work for peace in a world of hate. Jesus called us to be peacemakers. He commanded us to love our enemies. The apostle Paul called us to be ministers of reconciliation. I will take my lead from them. And if I really need to watch television news, I will tune to BBC. 

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

Exploring Atheism

In 2014 Seventh Day Adventist pastor Ryan Bell embarked on a personal experiment to try on atheism for a year see if it fit. He announced in a Huffington Post blog: "For the next 12 months I will live as if there is no God. I will not pray, read the Bible for inspiration, refer to God as the cause of things or hope that God might intervene and change my own or someone else's circumstances."

During that year he regularly wrote a blog entitled “Year Without God,” which I read religiously. The end result of his “year off” from God was that he rejected any religious faith and fully embraced atheism. He now has a new blog and podcast "Life After God."

My experience has been longer, less radical, and the end result is different. For the past seven years I have been studying the New Atheism. Atheism is not new to me. I was a teenage atheist. During my high school years I considered myself an existentialist in the spirit of Camus and Sartre.

Then I experienced a religious conversion in my twenties and have considered myself a Christian ever since. My Christianity went through various stages over the years, from evangelical to progressive to conservative again. But my skeptical spirit remained intact throughout it all.

Then came the New Atheism. I mark the beginning of this movement a decade ago with Richard Dawkins’ book, The God Delusion, in 2006. I did not read this bestseller when it was first published. I was too immersed in my increasingly Calvinistic Christianity at that time. But I read it in late 2009, and I kept reading everything that this new breed of atheists published.

The result of my seven years in the Land of Skepticism is my recently published book entitled, Thank God for Atheists: What Christians Can Learn from the New Atheism. I rediscovered the skeptical spirit, and found that it is also the Christian spirit. As the apostle Paul put it, “Examine everything carefully; hold fast to that which is good.” (I Thessalonians 5:21 NASB)

My observation is that most Christians have not critically examined their faith. They certainly have not tested it in the fiery furnace of agnosticism. Christians reflexively defend, coddle and protect their faith, as if it were too delicate to endure intense scrutiny. Too many Christians accept their religion as the “one true faith” without really examining if this is true.

I examined my faith and religion as thoroughly and critically as I could for the past seven years. I came out the other side of this process still a Christian, but a much more rational and skeptical one. You might call me a Christian skeptic or a skeptical Christian. My Christianity morphed into a worldview much more in keeping with the realities of science and history. 

Gone is the supernaturalism and anthropomorphism of traditional theism. My faith is based on the scientific method, historical criticism and my personal experience of God. During these seven years my awareness of the Presence of God has increased even as my skepticism of traditional theism has also increased.

I never would have expected that. Yet that is the mystery of the spiritual life. Skepticism has made me a stronger Christian, even though my more conservative and traditional brethren and sistren may look askance at my present theology. Some may think I have abandoned “the faith once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 1:3) I have not. I have rediscovered it.

Sunday, May 7, 2017

I Wish Reincarnation Were True

I have been retired from full-time Christian ministry for nine months. People still ask me if I miss it. I respond honestly, “Not at all!” It is strange to feel this way. When I took a one year hiatus from ministry in 2010, I was not ready to retire. This time I am.

Whereas I do not miss being a pastor, I do miss all the other careers I could have had. I miss the “roads not taken.” The other day I remarked to my wife that I wish I had several more lifetimes. There are so many things I could do. 

I could have a career in science. That was my original plan when I entered college. Oceanography was my chosen field. I scuba dived and read Jacques Cousteau. By the time I was eighteen I had already narrowed down my career to geological oceanographer. 

I loved science, and I still do. But it was not to be. The spiritual quest captivated me, and I dove headfirst into the religious life instead.

I am glad I did. I have no regrets. I made a living at exploring spiritual truth full-time. I have spent my life seeking the ultimate truths of human existence. I was paid to ponder the deep philosophical and spiritual questions of life. I read many books and wrote a few.

And I helped some people along the way (I hope.) All that time, study, and effort paid off. I am more confident of my spiritual stance than at any other time in my life. But I still wonder who Marshall Davis, the scientist, would have been. 

Then there are other possibilities, such as teaching. That was my second career choice after science. In seminary my plan was to teach religion at the college or seminary level. I entered a PhD program with that in mind. But the pastorate called, and I answered.

I also imagine myself as a professional photographer. That was my dream in high school. I was photography editor of my school newspaper and yearbook. I was even offered a job on my hometown newspaper when I was a teenager. Now I enjoy that life vicariously through the beautiful photography of my wife, Jude.

There are a dozen more career paths I could mention. So many possibilities! That is why I wish reincarnation were true. Then I could do it all!

But, of course, reincarnation is not real. There is no evidence for it, in spite of the beliefs of billions of Hindus and Buddhists and the anecdotal accounts of past life regression. I need evidence, not faith, when it comes to afterlives.

We have one life to live. I still have years of my present life (I hope) to explore new things. And I plan to. But I am expecting no “midlife career change.” (To be in “midlife” would mean I would live to be 132.)

The truth is that I have not finished exploring this life path yet. I have more books to write and truths to uncover! I am just glad I have been granted the incredible blessing of this one human life. 

Friday, May 5, 2017

Outsider Test for Faith

One of the most helpful techniques for spiritual insight is John Loftus’ “Outsider Test for Faith”  explained in his book by that name. Loftus is an ex-pastor who encourages Christians to examine their own faith by the same standards that they would judge other faiths. In other words, evaluate your beliefs as if you were an outsider to your religion. 

This is the test in his own words: “The only way to rationally test one’s culturally adopted religious faith is from the perspective of an outsider, a nonbeliever, with the same level of reasonable skepticism believers already use when examining the other religious faiths they reject. This expresses the Outsider Test for Faith.” He describes it as a variation on the Golden Rule: "Do unto your own faith what you would do to other faiths.” 

This simple exercise opened my eyes. It was relatively easy for me to do intellectually, but very difficult for me to process emotionally. For much of my Christian ministry I have been a Christian apologist. I have debated Muslims, Buddhists, and Baha’is on live radio. I gave lectures and taught classes examining Mormonism, Transcendental Meditation, Scientology, and Jehovah’s Witnesses. I found it easy to identify the inconsistencies and fallacies of these belief systems.

But when it came to my own faith, it was a different matter. Christianity made perfect sense to me. Virgin births, people rising from the dead, axe heads floating, apostles walking on water, the sun standing still, talking animals – they all were completely believable. I was blessed with having the one truth faith!

Then I applied the “outsider test for faith” to my Christianity. I stepped out of my worldview and viewed my own religion from the outside. I mentally put myself in the positon of a non-Christian. I wanted to see what I would think of Christianity if I were not predisposed to accept it as God’s revealed truth. 

I looked at Christianity as if I was a Muslim or Jew. I looked at Evangelical Christianity as if I were a Mormon or a Buddhist. I looked at the Bible as if it were no more inspired than any other ancient book. I looked at the New Testament as if I believed the Quran were infallible. I looked at Christian doctrines like the Virgin Birth, the Trinity, the Incarnation, and the Second Coming as if I were a Taoist or Humanist.

When I looked at my faith as an outsider, what I saw made me very nervous. I was tempted to shut down the whole thought experiment. When viewed objectively Christianity does not look any more credible than any other religion. In fact when viewed from the outside, all religions look rather silly. I found myself laughing aloud at this new perspective. I suddenly understood why atheists think and speak the way they do.  

This doesn’t mean that I no longer hold Christianity to be true. It means that now I realize that I better have very good reasons for believing Christianity is true. I better have more credible reasons for believing that the apostle Paul received the gospel as a revelation directly from the risen Christ (Galatians 1:12) than that Muhammad received the Quran in a cave on Mount Hira, or that Joseph Smith discovered Golden Plates on the Hill Cumorah in upstate New York.  Try this test for yourself and see what happens. 

(This article is adapted from my new book, “Thank God for Atheists: What Christians Can Learn from the New Atheism” available on Amazon)