Exodus: Chronology of an Apostate (Part 4)

It's funny what parts of the Bible fundamentalist Christians choose to take literally and which parts they don't. 

Most Christians will tell you they're just calling balls and strikes; doing their best to decipher the good book with as much intellectual honesty as they can, perhaps helped along the way by theologians & the Holy Spirit. But as a teenager some inconsistencies started to crop up for me.
And these signs shall follow them that believe; In my name shall they cast out devils; they shall speak with new tongues; They shall take up serpents; and if they drink any deadly thing, it shall not hurt them; they shall lay hands on the sick, and they shall recover. - Jesus

A Pentecostal preacher from Tennessee, George W. Hensley, was giving a sermon in 1910 when he decided it was time to take the Bible literally. He was preaching about the Bible verse above (Mark 16:17-18) and then in the middle of his sermon he proceeded to open a wooden crate and lift out a large rattlesnake. I assume normal preaching had become somewhat tedious for him. He helped popularize the snake handling Pentecostal movement in America and died 45 years later from a venomous snake bite, a result so predictable you almost don't need to state that it happened. It's like when you meet an alligator wrestler with missing fingers- just assume the obvious and move on to a different topic.

Crazy as George Hensley and his Medusa complex may seem, if Biblical literalists were as literal as they claim to be, there would be a lot more snake handlers twirling cottonmouths around today than there are. Mark 16:17-18 comes across as pretty literal. That's because it is. There's no reasonable interpretation of Jesus' words that doesn't include physically picking up a snake. And in case you're still on the metaphorical fence when it comes to manhandling mambas, the next book of the Bible, Luke, further instructs the reader that Christians enjoy special snake protections.
Behold, I give unto you power to tread on serpents and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy: and nothing shall by any means hurt you. - Jesus

Still not convinced? The Bible isn't done assuring its adherents that they should really, literally, truly have no fear of encountering physical snakes on this earth in this mortal life. Getting people and snakes together is a minor obsession for the New Testament, sort of like this now defunct snake-based dating site that actually existed.

The Bible offers an example from the travels of the snake-proof apostle Paul.
Once safely on shore, we found out that the island was called Malta. The islanders showed us unusual kindness. They built a fire and welcomed us all because it was raining and cold. Paul gathered a pile of brushwood and, as he put it on the fire, a viper, driven out by the heat, fastened itself on his hand. When the islanders saw the snake hanging from his hand, they said to each other, “This man must be a murderer; for though he escaped from the sea, the goddess Justice has not allowed him to live.” But Paul shook the snake off into the fire and suffered no ill effects. The people expected him to swell up or suddenly fall dead; but after waiting a long time and seeing nothing unusual happen to him, they changed their minds and said he was a god. - Acts 28:1-6

No, the snake handlers in Appalachia aren't crazy. If there is a God he spends most of his time looking down at us in disappointment, slamming his fist on the armrest of his throne and saying things like, "More snakes! Why aren't they picking up more snakes? What do I need to do to get it through their thick heads? How much more clearly can I possibly say it: S-N-A-K-E-S. Snakes! Venomous snakes! Pick them up. Wear them like scarves. Let them bite you, all over your faces. Every church should look like the Well of Souls in Raiders of the Lost Ark."

You can believe that God created the universe six thousand years ago, and that can have little to no practical impact on your day-to-day life. A career in biology could be tricky, but most of us can lead normal lives while simultaneously being radically mistaken about even the most fundamental realities of our universe. That's not to say young earth creationists can't be biologists. They can. And more of them should. It would be hilarious.

The stakes are a little higher when you take God up on his magical snake shield. You can't afford to be wrong about that one. It's estimated that over 100 faith-filled, born again Christians have lost that bet over the last hundred years. 

And by lost the bet I mean they died. Dead from snake bites. Bitten by snakes they picked up. At church. Just wanted to make that clear.

The truth is, biblical literalists decide what to take literally based on convenience and compatibility with modern life, not based upon careful study of the scriptures and a great ear for metaphor.

Ken Ham will tell you that the creation story needs to be literal for all sorts of theological reasons, but the truth is that making obtuse claims about the past is simply a lot easier than reaching your hand into a box full of snakes.

At the age of 14 or 15 I began to wonder why whimsical prose like the first 11 chapters of Genesis was the literal word of God while straightforward verses written in scientific Greek were explained away as being colloquial or only intended for those people reading 2000 years ago. It all began to look a little self-serving.

But the Bible makes other testable claims that fundamentalists do take literally.
And these signs shall follow them that believe; In my name shall they cast out devils; they shall speak with new tongues; They shall take up serpents; and if they drink any deadly thing, it shall not hurt them; they shall lay hands on the sick, and they shall recover. - Jesus

Everything before and after the snake & poison part, mainstream Pentecostal Christians do believe in. Funny how they leave that middle part out, huh?

The Bible doesn't demand as much faith as people think it does. God's Word states quite clearly what signs & wonders Christians should expect. Pentecostals claim to speak in heavenly languages, prophesy the future, be slain in the spirit, heal the sick, exorcise demons, & that God answers all manner of prayers and intercedes supernaturally on behalf of his children. As one of those children, I began to suspect God wasn't really holding up His end of the bargain.

Life in a Pentecostal church is filled with little miracles; emphasis on the "little." If I subscribed to my mother's low standard for the miraculous, my life would still be full of them. I'd probably also be one of those people who retweets pictures of baby feet cupped in an adult's hands held in the shape of a heart with a caption like, "Life is a series of tiny miracles. Notice them."

Last year my mother and I got into a discussion about whether miracles exist. Somehow, after more than a decade of knowing that I am an atheist, she was still flabbergasted to learn that I don't believe in supernatural events. So she reminded me of the time there was a gas leak at the church. Somebody opened the door one morning and smelled gas. They called the fire department and the fire trucks came and dealt with the situation. The end. The miraculous bit is supposed to be that the building didn't explode, even though the heating system's pilot lights were on. 

"But the church was a converted warehouse," I responded, "and the heating units were mounted to the ceiling in the main auditorium, pretty far away from where the gas leak was. Maybe it would have taken a really long time for that whole room to fill up with enough gas to ignite."

"Well all I know is that the firemen themselves said it was a miracle the building was still standing."

"Yeah," I continued, "but people say that as a figure of speech; it doesn't mean the firemen actually thought God must have exercised supernatural influence because no possible natural explanation could..."

"No, no, no. The firemen specifically said that God must have been watching over the church for that gas not to have exploded."

I admit I indulged in a bit of an eye roll here.

"These are firefighters, not chemists specialized in thermodynamics and the diffusion patterns of gases. There must be a thousand conceivable reasons why a gas leak in a separate room on the other side of the building might not build up enough in the auditorium to explode. Maybe the gas was heavier than air so it never built up to the ceiling. Maybe that old warehouse isn't well sealed or insulated so there was enough of an air flow to keep the gas from building up. Maybe the gas leak had just started thirty minutes before the person opened the door and smelled gas. I don't know what the explanation is, but David Hume wrote that when you..."

"Oh Sebastian, you just pick everything apart and find some reason to doubt it. It wouldn't matter what undeniable miracles God performed right in front of your face, you'd still find some excuse not to believe."

Maybe she's right.

I guess I expect my miracles to be a little more... miraculous.

Far from strengthening my faith, the signs and wonders at my childhood church... kind of embarrassed me.

Our church's youth group leader prayed over me and taught me to speak in tongues around the age of 13. I had grown up watching other people, my own parents included, babble in heavenly languages, deep in the throes of religious ecstasy. I had expected the experience of doing it myself to feel... inspired, illuminating, transcendent. Instead it just kind of felt like I was mumbling a quite terrestrial form of gibberish. They told me I should be proud to have received a gift of the spirit and prompted me to share the good news with my parents and everyone in the church. I did so reluctantly, a little disillusioned, and with some small part of me deep inside crying out, "You're a fraud!" At first I thought it was just me. I was ashamed that my experience didn't match up with what everyone else seemed to be feeling. It was years later before I began to wonder, "What if everyone else is faking it too?"

If our pastor was feeling particularly froggy on any given Sunday he might give out an alter call. How my gut used to twinge at those words. At first there wasn't much pressure. The slow worship music would come on to set the mood. He would ask anyone to come up to the stage who wanted to accept Jesus as their Lord and Savior. Invariably either no one or at most a person or two would make their way up front, so he's widen the net. Anyone who wanted to recommit their lives to Christ should come up to the stage. Now I had to start considering it. How was my relationship with Jesus, and just how committed was I already? If I felt I had been a good Christian as of late (doing my daily devotions, on my best behavior, not skipping my Bible reading before bed, feeling a connection to God during worship) then I should probably go up front to keep that gravy train rolling. If I felt I had been a bad Christian as of late, then I should probably make up for it by going up front. As was so often the case during my religious childhood, there was no line of reasoning that didn't result in me locked in a battle with my conscience, and feeling guilty for feeling embarrassed to stand in front of the congregation and have the pastor pray over me. And the pastor would be in the background the whole time during my mental struggle, continually lowering the bar. Anyone who's struggling with addiction should come up now. Seemed rather vague. Was I struggling with addiction? I had been playing a lot of Tony Hawk's Pro Skater recently. Anyone who's been looking for a fresh start, come forward to the alter. Oh boy; these are coming in hard and fast. The pastor isn't even waiting as long between calls. It's like when you're playing Battleship and all you have left is the aircraft carrier. He might miss a couple more times if you're lucky... but it's just a matter of time now. "Everybody who's been sitting on the fence, deciding whether to answer the call, now is your time." Hit and sunk. On the bright side, at least half of the congregation was already up there by this point, so that lowered the inhibition somewhat. 

What was going on at the front of the stage? The pastor, associate pastor, worship leader, and often youth pastor would be up there, exercising the gifts of the spirit on people. You'd stand there with your eyes closed, quite possibly your arms raised to God, and they'd place their hands upon your head and shoulders and prophesy over your life. I noticed after a while that the prophesies were always either high-likelihood events or extremely vague; or the whole prophecy was spoken in tongues, so even the person who said it couldn't tell you after the fact what had been prophesied much less whether it had come to pass or not. I remember one time a guest apostle from Ghana fucked up and made a very specific prediction. He prophesied that the church would grow so rapidly that within three years we would outgrow the new building we had just moved into. Last time I checked, that church is still in the same building, twenty years later. Maybe he was the one who started that gas leak. I haven't asked my mom, but I would be willing to bet that she and the other 200+ people who heard him make that prophecy all forgot about it except for me. And I'm equally sure that they would all have remembered it as clear as day if he had been right. Throw a lot of stuff at the wall. Remember the hits; forget the misses. That's prophesy in a nutshell.

The grand finale of the alter call was often getting slain in the spirit. This is where the pastor places his hand on your forehead (speaking in tongues is almost a prerequisite for this) and the power of the Holy Spirit sends you swooning backwards to the floor. There are normally two large men whose job it is to stand behind and catch people and they move in tandem with the pastor from person to person. The experience can be quite transcendent if you're in the right frame of mind for it. You almost don't notice the pastor's hand gradually pushing harder and harder against your forehead until your abdominal muscles surrender to what you assume is God's eternal love. But as I got older, I did notice.

Healing was also something we prayed for frequently in church. It worked a lot like the prophecies. We asked God to heal everyone. When the person got better then it was a miracle and when they didn't then it was just, "God had different plans. They're in heaven now, and isn't that better than being sick?" I remember very specifically a woman in our church named Sheryl Harden who got ovarian cancer when I was a kid. It's hard to judge people's ages when all you have is a memory you formed of them back when you were so young that everyone seemed old. But I think she was probably in her 40s when she was first diagnosed. We prayed for her. We prayed for her a lot. But instead of getting better we watched her face get thinner. And there were dark circles around her eyes and they sank back into her skull. And she started missing services on Sundays because she had been admitted to the hospital. Then after being gone for a while she showed up again with a floral-patterned headscarf and I remember the pastor taking me, Sheryl, and a couple other people bird watching. He was an avid birdwatcher. She seemed a little weak but she walked around with us through the forest and at least managed to feign enthusiasm. That was the last time I saw her. She had been with the church for a long time and had had a reputation for drinking a lot of diet Pepsi. She always had a bottle with her on Sundays. I remember my dad questioning whether her prodigious soda consumption had contributed to her cancer. To which I thought silently to myself, if the almighty creator of the universe can't save us from diet Pepsi, then how much is this whole healing and praying routine really worth?

Several years later my grandmother laid dying in the hospital after many years of illness. Her organs were failing. My parents sat me and my sister down. I was eleven. My sister was eight. They explained to us that grandma was dying and what that meant. Of course they conceptualized it in religious terms, but they encouraged us to make the best of the little time remaining and show grandma love and support before she went to heaven to be with God.

And then the next morning we went to church and everyone prayed for God to heal her. People made bold declarations of a miraculous recovery and asked God to intervene on her behalf. I was a little confused, because I thought we were supposed to be making our peace with the fact that grandma was dying. On the drive home from church my parents informed us that we would visit grandma in the hospital that afternoon and that it might be the last time we would see her. I thought to myself, "You guys didn't actually believe any of that prayer stuff we just did. You didn't expect it to work before we did it, and you obviously don't expect our intersession to have any impact now. So why did we do it? Why did we pretend for an hour that asking God to heal Grandma would actually change something?"

So whether it was prophecy, healing, speaking in tongues, or being slain in the spirit, the miracles I saw in my own Pentecostal church were pretty lame. But we were always hearing about better miracles somewhere else. A guest preacher from Africa told us about a pastor in Ghana who had two churches in two different remote villages, several hundred miles apart. Every Sunday morning he would preach at the one, then his congregation would watch him walk away into the wilderness, and a ten minutes later he would walk through the doors of the second church and deliver his sermon there. There was a revival going on in Brownsville, Florida, where gold from heaven was raining down on the congregation as they worshiped and the people were combing gold strands out of their hair afterwards. The blind and the deaf were being healed. Demons were being cast out. But it was always somewhere else. You always had to take someone's word for it.

When I was fifteen I went on a two-week mission trip to Haiti. Ostensibly we were there to help renovate a school, but as you might expect from a group of teenagers doing volunteer work, a lot of time was also spent tarantula hunting, playing basketball, shopping for souvenirs, and gnawing on sugar cane. At any rate, Haiti was one of these mysterious "other" places where crazy, supernatural shit was supposedly going down on a regular basis. The son of the pastor who ran the school told us that voodoo and black magic were practiced on the island and that it was quite common for people to transform themselves into animals. One night he had seen a man run up a palm tree, the top of the tree shook violently for a few seconds, and then a large, black cat climbed back down the tree. But God was also more active in Haiti. There was to be a community outreach and prayer service near the end of our two week stint and we were told to expect the miraculous. The deaf would hear, the blind would see. On occasion God even brought the dead back to life. I was very excited. Finally, after fifteen years of blind faith and lackluster miracles, my Christian beliefs would be affirmed. I would see unequivocal proof with my own two eyes that would not only confirm my faith in God, but the entire concept of the supernatural.

The night of the service finally came. Underneath the pale, hypnotic pallor of floodlights running on a generator, we performed some skits on stage while an interpreter translated our lines into French Creole. Then the pastor gave a short sermon, and finally it was time for some healing. We walked around among the Haitians in small groups, placing our hands on the sick and praying to God for him to send down his Holy Spirit and touch the lives and heal the bodies of the afflicted. I made my way back and forth eagerly between the knots of people who were praying and being prayed upon.

And then after an hour it was finished. The empty lot cleared out. A few Haitians hung around afterwards, talking to each other or with us in broken English. Members of our group started to pack up the sound equipment and tear down the stage. It was over. It was over and nothing had happened. No cloudy cataracts had gone crystal clear in the blink of an eye. No limbs had grown back. No corpses had stood up, pulling off their shrouds to reveal once cold, gray flesh now warm, soft, and flush with beating blood. Oh, there had been some healings, I was assured. Someone with malaria was cured. An old woman with arthritis now felt better. A deaf child could now hear, I was told. I must have missed that. I felt like I had kept a pretty close tab on the goings on that night, but somehow I had missed the healing of the deaf child. 

"None of us speak Creole," I said. "How did you know that the child was deaf?" It had been indicated with gestures I was told. "So not an ear ache? Couldn't it have been some other ear problem? Are we sure she was deaf?" Somehow they were sure.

I wasn't.

One winter when I was a boy I went on a weekend camping trip with the Royal Rangers. As soon as we got into the woods, the older boys told us about a rare and elusive creature called a snipe. All weekend long we prepared for a snipe hunt. We sat around the campfire on logs in the snow, sharpening sticks with pocket knives and discussing group hunting strategies. The older boys sketched pictures of snipes and shared their hunting stories from years past. The councilors mostly stayed out of it, but would smile slyly and nod if asked about snipe hunts from previous camping expeditions.

Finally the night of the big hunt came and we all set off into the woods with our weapons as soon as darkness fell. We would hear noises in the woods, and word of a snipe sighting would spread through the ranks as we marched single-file down the narrow forest trails. 

"I saw one run behind a tree!"

Three older boys would run off into the darkness and return with the point of one of their sticks broken off.

"I tried to stab it, but my spear shattered on its armor!"

Everyone heard something. Everyone saw something. And everyone had to decide for themselves when to admit to themselves that the snipe was a hoax and that they'd been fooled all weekend. And then as the night went on, one by one, we quietly defected from team innocent and joined the ranks of the pranksters, throwing rocks and trying to convince those few kids still gullible enough to believe in snipes that we were seeing them.

I think we were all in on the joke together by the end of the night. Then again, for all I know there could be some thirty-something year old men out there today who still think they barely survived an encounter with a herd of wild snipes one winter in the mid-90s. But it's hard to imagine anyone being that credulous.


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