At army boot camp, young recruits, like my Number Three son, aren’t given much free time, and what they are given is restricted to just a couple activities: writing letters home and reading the Bible.
The boy has never really read the Bible beyond anything he picked up in catechism instruction, so it was an experience. He never finished it cover-to-cover during recruit training, which he said was his goal, but he did write letters home. Incessantly, it seemed, but we were very glad to have them.
Several letters focused on his search through scripture. It was a hard slog. His mistake was starting with Genesis and trying to move forward from there. Natural enough; it is at the beginning. But I think reading the biblical books in order, beginning to end, is a doomed enterprise. First you have to get past a six-day creation with no mention of dinosaurs, and then suddenly you are trapped in Exodus and if you get through that, well, Leviticus surely will end it.
I’d start with the Gospel of Mark, and then read the genuine Pauline letters. After those I’d drop back to Acts. If I had any energy left, Kings and Chronicles followed by Isaiah’s servant songs, after that, mix-and-match the prophets. But he didn’t ask me and of course he floundered.
One of his notes, though, left me flustered. How, he asked after some days of biblical reading, does someone become religious? He isn’t what you’d call “religious,” but what with me being a pastor I guess he figured I’d know. He was asking the wrong fellow.
In the first place, pastors I suspect—I am merely extrapolating from my own experience, understand, and the experiences of a half dozen colleagues and even a couple professors of religion I know—are notoriously poor at raising “religious” offspring. If I am any kind of an average example, only three of my seven are regularly inclined to attend worship. Maybe three out of seven isn’t too bad these days.
That’s in the first place. In the second place, I don’t think of myself as a “religious” person. I dislike piety and piousness and whatever it is that makes a person “religious.” I didn’t have any advice for him.
Far from being a “religious” person, I think of myself primarily as an ex-atheist. But just as there’s no such thing as an ex-alcoholic—only an always recovering alcoholic—so I am, as a rule a recovering atheist. I can recall my conversion to atheism with the same clarity of a Born Again Christian, down to the date and the hour if I search my memory. It was a visceral incident, carried later by a stern intellectualism. My hunch is I was a better atheist than Hitchins or Dawkins or some in that crowd, but I haven’t read their arguments so I can’t really say; just a feeling. But I was a pretty darn good atheist if the topic came up, always ready with quick cogent argumentative slashes. And atheism had benefits I lack now; I could sleep late on Sundays.
Naturally I didn’t have to worry about being “religious.” I do now; have for years and feel badly sometimes that I am not especially religious. It’s as if I’m missing a certain spiritual spontaneity that would mark me out as a religious person. I can’t string together all the right words.
There’s a language, a jargon, but I’m not given to dropping religious words or sentiments on people. I know pastors and lay folks to whom it comes as naturally as sunshine. “Jesus” slips off their tongues without any awkwardness, even if it takes them three syllables to pronounce it, like they do down south. “God bless you,” “Have a blessed day,” or even a small murmured “Praise God” hardly ever, almost never, erupts from my mouth, unless it’s timed for irony or it’s written somewhere in the liturgy. Being Lutheran, trust me, none of that is in our liturgy. It simply isn’t me. My religion isn’t on my sleeve. Fact is I’m not always sure where it is.
A friend tells me for him his twenty-plus-year experiment with sobriety is a day-by-day thing. I know others who just stopped drinking and have hardly thought of it since.
My recovery from atheism is in the day-by-day category. Unlike my born again-like conversion to atheism, my re-conversion to faith was a gradual drift, drifting along to the gradual place where I was surprised to find myself a believer, and even more staggered to sense a call to pastoral ministry. It has been a hoot. Given my habits of laxity and procrastination, I suspect that God made me a pastor as his way of getting me up Sundays mornings for worship. I really do not know which is more improbable: my faith or my ordination.
My faith didn’t begin in religion; it came out of left field. I was doing work for a master’s degree in history at the University of Kansas. It seems, so I learned, that real history has real consequences. One may feel and sense and judge the results of real events. This is what makes reading “alternative” histories—“what if” speculations—fun, and occasionally disturbing. It is a chancy life, a “for want of a nail” arrangement.
Historical events are open to interpretation even while the event itself is undisputed. Was it really Harry Truman’s bellicosity that launched the Cold War? Maybe, maybe not, but there you go regardless; we had a Cold War. Unbidden, then, this question began rattling around: If there were no resurrection, how’d we end up with, you know, the Church?
This rising conviction that the disciples encountered something entirely inexplicable led to my belief that Jesus had been raised and the Church, such as she is, is the explosive residue of a real event. Ah, but what if the Church interpretation is wrong? Did the disciples figure things out accurately? I tested this frankly hoping to find something to shake it, reading The Passover Plot among other things. I still enjoy a good book focused on debunking the resurrection of Jesus—and maybe for the same reason—but the explanations typically end up more convoluted than the simplest account: A dead Jesus showed himself live before his followers.
That’s how I ended up worshiping “Whoever It Was Who Raised Our Lord Jesus from Death.” A rather long name, I know, so I’ll just go with God. Mine was not a particularly religious experience, to be sure. But maybe I shouldn’t worry so much about “getting” religion. Maybe being an ex-atheist—today—is enough.
A pastor of the North American Lutheran Church, Russell E. Saltzman lives in Kansas City, Missouri. His previous On the Square articles can be found here.
The Passover Plot