Going Soul-o: one young atheist’s week at Christian camp (Day Six)
Today will be my last day at Soul Survivor. Having witnessed the main meetings at this festival, with their cheering, praying and orgies of guitar-led worship, I’ve decided I don’t need to see tonight’s – and perhaps I’d enjoy the Where’s Wally-themed party if I’d come with friends, but as it is I’d likely end up a wallflower. My train is booked to leave in late afternoon, but not before I’ve heard one and a half more seminars.
At half past two I file into the first one, rucksack and all. The half hour process of emptying my tent and packing it with its contents into a backpack has somehow been cathartic, and I listen with refreshed attention; the speaker is Andrew Smith, an evangelical but also founder of a Christian-Muslim interfaith group, The Feast. He mentions in the course of the talk that he was previously a Christian youth worker in schools, and there are certain oneliners that seem overly rehearsed and might be read as condescending, but from the off I like the guy. Some other speakers here have an air of polish, but Andrew seems genuine and unassuming, so when he invites us at the start to tweet him our comments, I decide I will.
The seminar’s title is ‘What does God think of other faiths?’ and Andrew opens by asking what we think the Bible says. My mind runs to John 14:6 (‘I am the way and the truth and the life’) and ‘Thou shalt have no other gods before me'; it was always my position as a churchgoer that Jesus-belief was necessary to get into Heaven, and that still seems to me the best reading of scripture. So when Andrew notes that non-Jews in the Old Testament experience God’s miracles too, I’m rather surprised, and the ex-Christian in me considers changing his mind. This is the first time at Soul Survivor that I’ve rethought my stance on something, and I’m grateful to the speaker for making me think, though when he says that ‘God so loved the world’ implies other belief groups can also be saved – because it doesn’t just say ‘God so loved Christians’ – his exegesis seems tenuous.
Other things are unsatisfying, too. I’m pleased to hear him tear down the silly idea, too often voiced, that secular society has its own ‘gods’ in football and expensive cars, but then frustrated when he says a god is something we turn to for hope – like, to quote his examples, family, pensions, government handouts, alcohol and drugs. (A god is a deity. It’s that simple.) Andrew claims God ‘hates child sacrifice’ as practiced by non-Jews in the Old Testament, and once again I want to bring up Jephthah, who exchanges his virgin daughter via burnt offering for God’s help killing the neighbouring Ammonites. Since it’s been suggested people never exposed to the Bible might be able to enter Heaven, and since Andrew has stated the current ‘spiritual battle’ is not with other faiths ‘drawing people away from God’ but with secularity, I ask in the Q&A if God’s gates will be open to those who encounter scripture but find it unconvincing.
If you ‘reject it’ you won’t be there, he says, but why would you want to be? Spending all eternity with Jesus surely isn’t very appealing to atheists or skeptics. It’s a response which makes me smile – I have to give him credit, as an interfaith worker, for understanding my perspective. But if we won’t be in Heaven, where will we be? Either in Hell or annihilated, depending on your theology, which regardless of our preference is construed quite clearly in the Bible as a punishment. That doesn’t seem fair. And why say ‘reject’, as if I can believe at will that Jesus died for me? My doubting that is no more a choice than my doubting Bigfoot, and surely an omniscient creator of Christian scripture would have known that? There are other things Andrew says that I think are flawed, which given he’s a theist seems unavoidable, but I get the sense I’d enjoy talking to him more, and I’m sad to leave the session without doing so.
Seminar number two, the last one at the festival, is Andy Croft again on why we should trust the Bible. As with his last talk, I feel as if I’m watching a professional apologist; his delivery is confident, replete with academic references and intellectual smoke and mirrors. He begins by saying we need the Bible as something to ‘live off’, and that its authoritative source makes it important – an emotional appeal and a circular argument, respectively – and tells us he’ll defend the Bible (a) from the charge of being inaccurate and (b) from the charge of being immoral, with its comments about slavery and women (he doesn’t mention people who aren’t straight) divisive at best. I decide I’ll leave half way through, since I have a train to catch and the latter is irrelevant to how trustworthy the book’s claims are.
It turns out it’s only the gospels’ reliability Andy’s going to defend, because since Jesus clearly believed the Old Testament’s statements, he does too. Note that this already requires you see Jesus as infallible, an incarnation of the god from Genesis, so again the logic’s circular: the Old Testament must be reliable because Jesus said so, and Jesus was the god we know about from the Old Testament.
Some arguments are offered for the books being accurate historically, though none of them establish Jesus as divine. (They also sound like they may have been lifted from Tim Keller’s The Reason for God.)
- The gospels were written too early to be false: people mentioned in them, like Simon of Cyrene’s sons, would have still have been around to contradict false accounts. As with the 500 witnesses to the risen Jesus Paul claims, what is there to suggest these are more than characters? I’d point out, too, that this happens in propagandistic medieval writings – Anglo-Saxon accounts of saints, for example – which we readily accept as fictionalised. (Moreover, this could be applied to lots of accounts Christians see as legend.)
- The gospels were too counterproductive to be false, since Jesus doesn’t weigh in on disputes the church fathers had e.g. about circumcision. This suggests the Jesus story isn’t fictional without exception, or fabricated ex nihilo by spin doctors in the church; it doesn’t suggest it’s true without exception or should be deemed ‘trustworthy’ as Andy suggests. It’s entirely plausible the gospels had some basis in fact, but that events like Jesus meeting the adulteress are embellishments.
- The gospels have been copied too much, and too consistently, to have been tampered with. Is this evidence our versions of the gospel today are fairly true to the originals? Yes. It certainly makes Da Vinci Code conspiracy theories hard to believe. But is it evidence the originals are wholly accurate? No. One doesn’t have to believe the first four books of the New Testament were doctored and re-engineered for centuries to think they sometimes claim unevidenced things.
- The gospels are too consistent with history to be false: archaeologists have found Nazareth’s remains, historians know Pontius Pilate existed, etc etc. This might be true, but to say it proves their detailed claims about Jesus and his life is a non-sequitur. In the recent series of Doctor Who, it’s been established the title character had sex with Elizabeth I; this contradicts nothing we know about her life or early modern England, but that doesn’t mean it’s a reality.
As I hitch up my rucksack and leave to catch my train mid-seminar, I realise how uncomfortable I’ve felt throughout this talk. I might question Mike P.’s methods, but that he generally speaks plainly is admirable, and I positively liked listening to Andrew Smith and Patrick Regan, even though I thought both of them were wrong. The cultivated rhetoric of Andy’s arguments is, by comparison, slippery.
My time at Soul Survivor has come to an end for better or worse, and on my way out, I’m surprised at how forcefully I tear the wristband from my arm.