Christians in the Headlights. Reading Time: 8-10 minutes.
As I begin, I need to explain something. I do not believe all evangelicals think or act alike. I try my best to steer away from stereotyping people before I even meet them. Like with every human population, evangelicals cover a wide spectrum. Many have been taught an unwavering trust in the literalness of the Bible, while others are open to different interpretations. Some were taught to distrust science because it supposedly clashes with scripture, while others, like Isaac Newton or Francis Collins, believe in science and evolution as ways to understand the creations of God.
Most of my life, I’d either attended mainstream churches or no church at all. I attended churches of many denominations, mainly because I relocated often with the military. I went to church mainly for the social aspects of gathering with other people and meeting new friends. Despite my many years of church attendance, and paying close attention to the sermons, I’ve never been able to buy into many of the Church’s doctrines. Although I tried, I was never able to force myself to believe what didn’t make sense to me.
My first encounters with evangelicals came later in life. In this post’s title, Christians in the Headlights, I’m referring to those encounters and the subsequent clashes of world-views. I came to realize there was a wide gulf between how we understood not only religion, but also science, and even history. It always seemed to stem from that literalism. Some of the people I talked to had minds that were locked down so tight no new information could seep in. These are some stories of those encounters.
Did you ever say something to someone that was so startling it caused their eyes to pop out of their sockets (figuratively of course). Your statement may have even caused them to back away a few steps as if you were toxic. I’ve sure been in that situation. Somehow it has often involved evangelical Christians who had that stunningly-different world view. I tried hard to fit in with what my religious peers expected of me, but I also couldn’t ignore what my rational mind informed me. Due to that, I kept seeing that look of incredulity.
Along the way, I had enough brief conversations with other church members with the deer in the headlights look to convince me to keep my opinions and questions to myself. I am also very familiar with the disapproving and pitying looks that followed when they realized that I just don’t “get it” like they did. But at this point in my life, I don’t want to buy a lot of what they’re selling.
Discussions when I saw “the look”
On an overseas mission trip with fellow Christians, we found ourselves discussing seashells that had been found in the nearby mountains. It was obvious to me that the shells were there because the mountains were a former sea floor that had been thrust above sea level by plate tectonics over a period of millions of years.
It didn’t take long for me to realize the person I was talking to seemed to think the shells were there because of the global flood–the one Noah rode out five thousand years ago. Since he may also have believed the Earth was only six thousand years old, we were thinking on entirely different wavelengths. Did he think the flood washed those shells ten thousand feet higher in elevation? I didn’t ask, and that conversation didn’t last much longer. It was getting too awkward.
I was a member of a church home group that was much more conservative than I realized when I joined. Since our group was all about Jesus, I thought any book about him would be worthy of discussion. My big mistake was telling the group I was reading a fictional book about Jesus written by Depok Chopra. Their eyes popped, and I was immediately stared down. I was informed that Depok’s book wasn’t the kind a “true” Christian should be reading. After all, it was written by a non-Christian.
At another of my evangelical group’s discussions I again ran into trouble because of a book I was reading. Sometimes I’m a slow learner. I’d previously heard one of our more liberal members mention the phrase “universal reconciliation”. I had no idea what the phrase meant so since I was exploring all aspects of Christianity I decided to read up on it . The book I chose was Thomas Talbott’s The Inescapable Love of God.
He used scriptural passages and historical writings to make his case that God would eventually reconcile every human to him because of his love for humanity. If anyone ended up in any version of Hell, it would only be because they rejected the love of God–even after they died. In the first few centuries of Christianity, that had been a popular idea, but later orthodox bishops judged universal reconciliation heretical. That was a time when the Church was evolving away from its kinder beginnings and becoming the religion of the world’s most powerful and militaristic empire.
Because I don’t believe in a literal Hell, I was so excited about the premise of the book that I wanted to share it with everyone. Again, I slipped up by telling my group about it. Holy mackerel, did the shit hit the fan! I was condemned from every direction. They seemed to have wanted me to apologize for uttering those words “universal reconciliation” in their presence. Maybe they even thought they’d have to fumigate the house after I desecrated it. One member of the group even suggested I make an appointment with our pastor for some much-needed counseling.
The wars of a “Christian nation”
Later, our group was discussing the forgiveness and pacifism of Jesus’s teachings. Based on all the sermons and Bible studies I’d been through, I still believed those were the traits that should set Christians apart from the rest of humanity. Since some in our group insisted that the US is a Christian nation, I brought up the war in Afghanistan. I said that if this truly is a Christian nation, and Jesus taught us to understand, and even love our enemies, why did we have a knee-jerk reaction and take brutal revenge on the Taliban? Why didn’t we instead try to work out our disagreements diplomatically and peacefully? My friend didn’t have an answer to that other than it was something to discuss at the next men’s fellowship.
Another time, we discussed George W. Bush’s unprovoked, preemptive invasion of Iraq. To his admirers, President Bush was a fine example of an evangelical, so obviously he was doing the Christ-like thing in eliminating evil from the planet. But he invaded the country basically because he didn’t like its leader. He destroyed an entire nation’s infrastructure and stability, and killed hundreds of thousands of Iraqis—all due to ideological differences and expediency. The Bush administration was already in wartime mode due to the September 11 attacks, so apparently they felt free to do whatever they thought was required “to protect our country”.
I think that invasion will always be one of our country’s great sins. To me, that war made no sense because it could only be legitimized by their using deceit.
My occasions in the biblically-literal evangelical headlights
On several occasions I was the Christian “deer” in the headlights. For example, one night our group was discussing the topic of the crucifixion of Jesus. One of our members smugly said something about knowing who killed Jesus, like he’d made a big discovery and wanted to let us in on it. I knew it was the Romans that did it, but Christians had blamed the Jews. I was interested in what he had to say. Instead of the truth, he burst out with “the Jews did it.” I was dumbfounded. He was parroting antisemitic nonsense that had been debunked by anyone who knew the history of first-century Palestine. He had bought into the same mentality that had caused Christians to persecute Jewish people for the last two thousand years. What that accomplished was horrible. Were we really about to have that discussion again?
After a brief flare-up we dropped the subject. Later, we found out that he was a holocaust denier. Our group was faced with a tough decision. Whereas we were open to almost anything people had to say, we had to draw the line at hatred and conspiracy theories.
One day in the early 1990s I was attending a new church as an uncommitted and skeptical Christian. The topic of the sermon was about what happens to non-Christians after they die. I thought to myself “this will be interesting; I suspect that doctrine must have become more reasonable and compassionate since the last time I heard someone preach it twenty years ago.”
Well, the sermon started out very sympathetic, but then the pastor trotted out all the Bible verses that “proved” that those who don’t accept Jesus as their savior will spend eternity in hell. “Sorry folks, you know that’s not what I want, it’s just what God has decided. If people go to hell, that’s their choice. All they have to do is give their life to Jesus to enjoy eternity with him in Heaven, blah, blah, blah.” I was filled with renewed disgust that certain groups of Christians could still be so arrogant or naïve to believe their religion was the only one that counted, and every other religion that ever existed was inferior.
What the hell?
Another eye-popping moment for me was one day when our daughter returned home from her Christian high school. She informed my wife and I that, although we might not have been aware, there were dinosaurs on the ark with Noah and his family. After my eyes sunk back into their sockets, I tried to talk geological sense to her and explained the sixty-million-year separation between dinosaurs and humans.
At that age, kids aren’t sure whether to take their parent’s word over that of a trusted teacher. They were much more likely to believe the teacher. I knew that, but still wanted to implant some skepticism in her mind about what to accept as truth. It may have taken twenty years, but now I don’t even think she believes Noah existed or there was an ark. She decided those things on her own because we allowed her to make up her own mind about what information to trust.
My “heresy trial”
I had one last encounter with my more literal Bible-interpreting group members before I had to bail out in order to keep my sanity. I finally realized that some of this group were way too indoctrinated (brainwashed) to listen to anything outside what their mentors had programmed them to believe.
This time, we were discussing the “non-role” of women in church and why they should be submissive to men. Two biblical references came up. One was 1 Corinthians 14:34-35. It stated that women were to keep quiet in church, which some of my group members interpreted as not to be involved in important church discussions or hold leadership roles. However, the commentary in one of our member’s Bible stated that those specific verses were probably added later and weren’t likely written by Paul. They just didn’t blend in with the surrounding text and contradicted some of Paul’s other statements about women.
The other well-quoted verse about women being silent and not holding authority over men is 1 Timothy 2:12, and no one knows who wrote that one either. Experts have concluded that it also probably wasn’t Paul. I applauded the person who wrote the commentary on 1 Corinthians for “his” honesty and told the group that I also understood the passage as one that had been added by someone at a later date. That ill-timed statement led to my inquisition.
My “subpoena” is delivered
The next week, the two guys who had taken the most offense from the idea that Paul may not have written those passages in 1 Corinthians or 1 Timothy, provided me with a twenty-page transcript of a debate between agnostic Bart Ehrman—who they considered the devil, and a Christian apologist, possibly James White. I think their debate topic was “Did the Bible Misquote Jesus?” It was based on Ehrman’s book, Misquoting Jesus, in which he referred to the multitude of copying errors and additions to scripture.
I supposed that defending Bart was the role they wanted me to play at my upcoming “trial”. On the other hand, they armed themselves with White’s arsenal of rebuttals. Since my accusers outnumbered me two to one, one of them knew a lot more about the Bible than I did, and both were dead set on proving me, Bart, and the writer of the Bible’s commentary wrong, it was a no-win situation. I did what little I could in my defense but had been set up to fail. The kangaroo court found me guilty as charged.
I learned a important lesson that evening. When someone is thoroughly indoctrinated into an ideology and it becomes part of their identity, there is no possibility of changing their minds with facts and rational explanations. Those just bounce off like antimatter.
After my trial
Following my inquisition, I had to leave the group. I didn’t exit in shame, but instead I left as quickly as I could and never looked back. I did metaphorical handsprings celebrating my new-found freedom. Remaining there would have been intellectually stifling and emotionally exhausting. I needed people who I could talk with about my concerns—people who would listen to me without instantly going into combat mode if I said something that contradicted their beliefs.
I would find them in my next home group, which brought together people from diverse backgrounds. There, twelve years later, we are still having wonderful discussions about important subjects. I still see the “headlights look” occasionally, but it’s satisfying to have discussions with people whose views are logical. We can go deeper into a discussions if we aren’t continuously finding things to argue about. Although it’s valuable to meet with people who think differently, I want to be in a discussion group, not a debate club.