Tuesday 22 November 2005

Crisis of Faith

Let me set the stage for you.

It's right around Passover in the year 7 or 8 CE, a nice spring day in Nazareth. There's going to be wedding the next day; all the preparations are ready. There are three characters in our little scene:

  • Levi, who is called Biff: the protagonist, and narrator. A Jewish boy, apprenticed to his father as a stonecutter, about 13 years old. Funny, irreverant. (Hopelessly) in (hopeless) love.

  • Joshua: another young boy, again around 13. Very philosophical, and incredibly wise for his age. Kind and honest. Biff is his best friend.

  • Maggie: a young Jewish woman, also about the same age. She's the bride in this wedding, betrothed to Jakan, the son of Iban, a Pharisee and important member of the Sanhedrin. As appalling as at might seem to us, remember that 13 or 14 was a routine age for marriage in the Promised Land in those times.

Right. So, to contine, Maggie is (not-so) secretly in love with Joshua, and Biff is (not-so) secretly in love with Maggie. Biff is also in love with Joshua's mother, Mary, but only in a sort of mainly joking "she's my backup wife" sort-of way. So anyway, it's the day before Maggie's wedding, and she asks Biff to get Joshua to meet her that evening. Joshua knows it's so Maggie can profess her feelings for him. He knows he can't carry through on anything he might feel for her, so he asks Biff to go in his place, and pretend to be him, so Maggie's feelings won't be hurt.

I fell backward on the ground and there was in my head a bright light, and the rest of the world existed in the senses of touch and smell and God. There, on the ground beside the synagogue, Maggie and I indulged desires we had carried for years, mine for her, and hers for Joshua. That neither of us knew what we were doing made no difference. It was pure and it happened and it was marvelous. And when we finished we lay there holding each other, and Maggie said, "I love you, Joshua."

"I love you, Maggie," I said. And ever so slightly she loosened her embrace.

"I couldn't mary Jakan without—I couldn't let you go without—without letting you know."

"He knows, Maggie."


I thought she might scream, that she might leap up and run away, that she might do any one of a hundred things to take me from Heaven to Hell, but after only a second she nuzzled close to me again.

"Thank you for being here," she said.

- excerpted from Lamb, by Christopher Moore

If you haven't figured it out already, Maggie is better known today as Mary Magdala, or sometimes Mary Magdalene. She is the one, scripture says, who found Jesus' tomb empty the first Easter morning. She was with him in his last days, and one can assume, through much of his ministry as well. Joshua is just Greek for Jesus, so it's not that much of a stretch. And Levi, who is called Biff is Jesus' childhood best friend.

Purists would complain that the character of Biff completely fictional, and that including Jesus as a character in a story with extra-marital relationships (for which he is in part responsible) is nothing short of blasphemy. I think they're wrong. Though very little is written about it, it's very likely that Jesus lived a largely normal childhood, had friends, played, and did everything else a normal child did in the first century.

There's something about the humanity in this portrayal of Christ that I like, that he was one of us. The book as a whole is, of course, wickedly funny, and I recommend you find a copy of it at your local public library, and read it just as soon as possible.

But that brings me to my recent crisis of faith. Did Jesus' humanity appeal to me in this portrayal because I already think of him as a person? Am I so unsure in my faith that I can't even say for sure that Jesus was the Son of God? Was Jesus anything more than a worker of miracles, a man of wisdom and kindness and acceptance, and a prophet of God?

I've puzzled over these questions for a little bit, and haven't come any closer to finding answers that work for me. I still find church (when I go) to be a place where I feel at home. I'm surrounded there by by a love largely rooted in a God that maybe none of us is understanding correctly, speaking about and listening to fallible scriptures written by people with biases and prejudices just like us, singing hymns of praise with memorable tunes, and words of questionable accuracy. It's a comfortable place, but having said what I just have, my presence there feels almost quasi-apostate.

It's not that I have a problem in my relationship with God. He or She, and I, are doing just fine, thank you very much. We even talk once in a while, though it's not as often as I feel I should. My trouble is, the belief system to which I allegedly adhere places the divinity of his Son front and centre. While I can accept and believe (without proof, I might add) that God exists and that he loves me, the precise nature of his son seems... insignificant.

When I was still discerning for ministry just a year ago, one question I was asked was to describe what I believed God was. And I said, "I believe that God loves me, and all the rest is crap." It just doesn't matter. It would seem that Christian doctrine disagrees with me.

How do I put Christian doctrine as it exists, and my fractured, shattered belief system back together?


  1. You have to be careful when reading (re)fictionalized accounts of the Jesus story. For example, "The da Vinci Code" is extremely seductive in its interpretations of religious text and dogma. The RC church went so far as to ask people not to read it because it was "a pack of lies." Well, fiction usually is.

    But whether you believe in the divinity of the Christ, that doesn't make you any less faithful to God. I'm sure tons of Christians will disagree with me.

    So, if you're not sure about the Christ's divinity, where do you stand on Atonement?

  2. You're quite right. I'm very aware that most of Lamb is little more than very effective storytelling. Still, it's central character has a humanity that's appealing to me. The focus of my writing was supposed on my feelings of disconnection with the doctrine of the faith tradition I seem to have adopted.

    The point of the quoted text was not to codify my belief system as I see it, but to serve as an example of some of the ideas with which I do connect. Also, to share with you a snippet from a really excellent book that I think you should read.

    Before I go on, I should add, I'm not necessarily wild about the use of the male pronoun here, but it's the best we've got. You know I don't actually think God is some old white guy with a beard....

    Irrespective of Christ's divinity, atonement is a load of BS. Just can't reconcile it in my mind. On one hand, God loves us so much that He'll forgive us no matter what we do. At the same time, He apparently has such a need to punish someone — He's so hell-bent on making someone pay for defiling the world He created for us — that He needs to find one person to carry all those sins, and then to die for them. And would it be good enough for any old person to do that? No. He has to concieve a Son, because this salvation business ain't nothin' but a Family Thing.

    Finally, you're quite right that my uncertainly about the Christ doesn't tarnish my faith in God. My point was that one of the foundational points of the label I adapt for myself – Christian – is Jesus as the Son of God. And if I'm not sure about that, what label should I really be applying to myself? And where should I be looking?

  3. I like the non-descript "spiritual" or "agnostic".

    But remember, labels are more important for other people than they are for you. Why pigeon-hole yourself, when there are plenty of people out there more than willing to do it for you?

    PS; Was RENT amazing? Don't tell me. I'm just so anxious.