When Faith and Skepticism Intertwine

I believe in God, and everyday, I aspire for a Christlike state of mind and being. I intentionally try to put my hand where my mouth is. Some days I get it right, some days I’m barely getting things done. I pride myself as a lifelong student of the Scriptures; perhaps I’m more deeply-engaged than average bible learners and occasional readers. I facilitate Bible studies and discussions and have been to countless group studies as a student. However, I’m also a skeptic, a thinker, and a solicitor of truth. So, in the so-called world of Christianity, where do I fit? Where do I get labeled? Should I be labeled?

Before you say anything, you have to know, concerning the Bible’s narrative, after seeing it in its entirety and finished form; I started to question the integrity of certain seemingly forced additions in between the writings. I have misgivings about textual construction and potential literary implications and traditional ascriptions in some parts of the Bible.

For instance, I don’t support the Christian ascription of baptism by water. Regardless of how this practice is explained; it carries with it a tradition-base, prescriptive call for proof of faith—faith loosely defined as a declaration of belief and acceptance of the Lordship of Christ. Baptism, maybe, is emotionally relevant to the baptized person and related people or church, but it has no relevance or symbolical importance whatsoever to bearing Christ’s image and one’s relationship with God. Christ was baptized by his relative John, a prophet and a life-long Nazarite, as a one-time, symbolical observance and not as a physical act to imitate. There is nothing in the Gospel, according to Jesus Christ, that supports the endorsement and practice of water baptism.

In fact, this ritual adapted by John the Baptist has long been the practice since much earlier times. Water baptism has been ascribed in Egyptian paganism to symbolize unification with the sun-god Ra. It’s also a cleansing ritual to prepare the person to receive the divinity within the said individual. We have actual historical proofs that in ancient Sumerian times, which predates the Egyptian civilization, water consecration was practiced.

About the Reliefs and Inscriptions Ancient Egypt

The Ritual of Water-Consecration in Sumerian Texts

If the practice of baptism by water bore any bearing at all, Christ should have included water baptism, too, in his public ministry. He didn’t—at all. But, Jesus endorses to his disciples and now Apostles the act of baptism by the Holy Spirit. If you looked closely in the text of the Bible and studied ancient history, unfortunately, still under bondage by a need for tangible connections, you will recognize that the Apostles regressed slightly to a tradition-based expression of faith—by this I mean paganistic leanings. (Some scholars and author scholar-wannabes refer to this proclivities as Greco-Roman. SMH)

This is where I will interject that intellectual discernment does play a role in understanding the Bible and in preventing biblical fanaticism. It’s imperative to know which of the reading requires a literal approach and which one needs a literary breakdown. Here’s the thing, if the justification for water baptism is because Christ models it (literal understanding of the text), why stop there? Why not experience the pain of flogging and crucifixion, too? Oh, but wait, certain cultures practice that already. But don’t we cringe and consider the observance of these self-inflicted painful rituals as disdainful?

And yet, we expect others to bear the burden of proving their Christianity through so-called sacred rites. The funny thing is, we in the Christian church also don’t make baptism easy. First, we qualify the baptism-candidates’ worth by making sure they have enough understanding of the Word before they’re given the go-ahead for the ritual. This is a standard process for many Christian churches.

Let’s also not forget the observance of communions. I have known of people who were offended because the ritual of communion is not weekly observed at my home church. The communion that we know now and practiced in many Catholic and Bible-based churches bear no theological resonance to the imaging presented in the Last Supper by which the communion was supposed to have been depicted from for remembrance.

With traditions and rituals being used as institutional patterns to display Christlikeness supposedly, and these being a ticket to acceptance to an exclusive tribe of common believers, I ask, how much did these beliefs cost us in terms of our humanity, our relationship with each other, and God, and the perception of God by others? More to point, how has what I will call instituted fanaticism inspired and encouraged the proliferation of abuses within the church?

Customs and traditions in and by themselves are not bad. It’s the devotion to these that incites division. Ritualistic predilections, most often than not, isolate people and turn even good and well-intended individuals against those who don’t share their theological predeposition.

If we were to reflect fully, do the institutional traditions, we firmly adhere to turn away people from seeking God and enjoying their faith with us? Does our strict observance of religious customs prevent us from forming peaceful and meaningful relationships with everyone everywhere? Including Muslims, Jews, Buddhists, Hinduists, Atheists, Zoroastrians (Zoroastrianism is a religion which includes a monotheistic theology that predates that of the Hebrew belief system and Islam), LGBTQ+, people of different races or political beliefs, refugees, and many more.

And if we in the ascribed Christian churches are deeply tied to the adapted sanctimonious ritual practices, shouldn’t it be fitting to also respect the observance of similar rites by other religions and faith-based institutions?

Notwithstanding my stance on the practice of water baptism, I do get why churches and leaders offer it and why the members buy into it. If anyone truly desires a ceremony of water baptism, I respect that. I hope we can also be open to the conversation that this devotional practice has likewise disconnected if not shamed many God and people loving people in the process.

Here is a good spot for you to take a pause or altogether stop reading. If the above pronouncements aren’t potentially ”heretical” yet, the following may be it for you.

People look for the tangibles to give them hope. Rituals and traditions are seen as tangibles in the religious world. While in the Old and New Testaments of the Bible, the monotheistic groups of people condemn the idolatrous practice of paganism, the ironic part is, the monotheistic worshippers are also idolaters. True, the Temple didn’t have an object to worship, unlike the temples of the Babylonians, Persians, Greeks, and Romans. Primarily because the Hebrews and the Jews didn’t need one. Not in the poetic concept of the narrative you expect in your selective reading. The Hebrews’ belief became their God, and the Temple was their consecrated idol. Just like in today’s Christianity. For many Christians, Christianity has become a god and the Bible, an idol.

For a long time, I have not been convinced that the Bible is perfect in the sense that it contains no textual errors or weakness of any kind. I contend the Bible is a book, no more, no less. To a particular degree, I acknowledge that the Bible is God-breathed—albeit, my acknowledgment is highly restricted and only relates to its authors and not the Bible per se. I believe that their understanding of God inspired the authors of the Bible to write stories and depictions of their faith to pass along the future generations. And some of the stories it tells also exists in the ancient literature much older than the Bible itself.

Will you scream, ”Blasphemy!” if I brought to your attention that the monotheistic theology espoused by the Bible wasn’t an original concept? Will you consider that, perhaps, we’d been lied to or were theologically manipulated to submission?

I reasonably believe that the Bible, as it exists and how it is institutionally being presented, is a byproduct of contextual twisting— a deliberate form of manipulative control.

Biblical people who see the Bible for its prescriptive value don’t have an intrinsic understanding of its literature, history, and theology, let alone, the textual knowledge of the book. The truth is, the Christian world is riddled with Bible quoters with a minimal background of the book’s content that’s learned in its totality and finished form. Most theological education in early and modern Christianity depends on somebody’s truncated version of somebody’s truncated knowledge of the Scripture. And truth be known, the Scripture has been transcribed, perhaps authored and doctored to fit a specific moral paradigm.

Considering all of the preceding, I ask again. In the so-called world of Christianity, where do I fit? Do I fit? Or maybe the more important and relevant question is, why should I care? And should I? Still, my heart for service and my deep faith of God or whatever name we give an Almighty Being, remain. If anything, my skepticism is leading me to a better understanding of forgiveness and how it is to love everyone everywhere while I also mindfully gauge my cynicism towards institutionalized Christianity or any religious organizations and entity. Institutionally-drawn divisiveness, hatred, racial and gender discriminations, and abuses of all kinds, must not only be called out; these also have to be condemned definitively. The only purpose I provide for cynicism is so I could change course, be more encouraged to learn and seek the truth and be steered to where my service will work best. I wonder how many people out there share my sentiments.

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Bible Study Group and Role of Women in Church Ministry

One of the very primary goals of being in adult group studies is for the members to strengthen the grasp of their communal relationship relevant to their relationship with God so they as individuals can be better chief teachers to their respective family members. If you are part of Bible talk or study group for some time now, know that love manifested by unfailing grace is an essential component to the growth and maturity of the group.

If we were to acquire and develop and fully understand the scope and meaning of love according to the Gospel, there’s got to be a disciplined desire to learn. Let’s be clear; it’s not uncommon, every once in a while, to not be in a learning mood. I get that too, sometimes. Surely, there are a few unavoidable and considerable considerations, and that’s alright. The problem is if the behavioral and cognitive disengagement is purposeful, ill-direct, and constant. How do you know that they are? You’ll see it when accommodations and adjustments are provided, and still, the negative attitude persists. The thing is, there are a gazillion minute excuses not to engage, and practically you find all of these irrationalities are inclined to relate blame on either one or all of the following: 1. on others, 2. the situation, 3. the learning platform, 4. and the topic. Sadly, we likely blame everyone and everything else before we even begin to own our shortcomings and commit to getting better.

If you’re a part of a Bible study group for a while —I’m not sure how much more diplomatic I should say this, but by now, you should know because it’s a given that you’re expected to read, review, study and conduct yourself in a manner that’s representative of the Gospel.

If we intend to understand what the Scriptures precisely say, then we have to commit to a joint-learning of studying the foundational truths of the Bible together. We have to be willing to open ourselves to graciously civil conversations —to cultivating friendships based on the well-understood concept of love while sifting together through an array of information in search of understanding. We purposely have to disengage from any potential polarizing debates to make room for frank but wholehearted and respectful conversations. As individuals, we must be willing to allow the spirit of transformative grace in us to flow gently into our relationships and broadening interactions.

Unfortunately, some of the foremost deterrents to successful group studies may be related to hidden biases based on Bible misreadings, and doctrinal hardliners brought about by a combination of overexposure to outside influences and the lack of opportunity to grow one’s critical thinking skills.

One of the contentious and divisive doctrinal misconceptions in the church is the leadership and pastoral role of women. In Bible studies, there are husbands and maybe wives who are opposed to the very idea of a female spiritual leader so much so that you see an undeniable intermittent show of passive aversion not only in their lack of engagement but also in their apparent push back. When you’re at church, it’s disheartening to see people walk out because of their long-held hardline belief that a woman can’t and shouldn’t be a preacher. Sometimes I scratch my head in utter amazement how professed Christians could claim that they stand by the love of Jesus and then, at the same time, be not only clueless on the gist and specifics of His commandment on love but also be unapologetically uncouth in their demeanor.

In the grand and divine scheme of things, why would gender matter when the Gospel is taught and preached anyway? Why should it matter in the encompassing scope of unity and oneness in Christ if women would lead all genders in the march towards love, kindness, mercy, and justice to everyone everywhere?

Institutionally, for most churches that claimed leniency and openness, consent to women leadership and mentorship are allowed as long as the women are relegated only to teaching and leading fellow women and children. In no way, even when there are a need and an opening, would any well-qualified and spiritually-sound woman be allowed to lead and preach over men by these patriarchally-managed religious hierarchies. I stumble on N.T. Wright’s hour-long speech about the subject. And I thought about sharing it. N.T. Wright is a famous writer, renowned Bible scholar, and the former Anglican Bishop of Durham, teacher, and preacher of the Bible. Here’s the full manuscript of his speech.

N.T. Wright wrote a comprehensive biography on the life of Apostle Paul. I’m almost done with the book. And I highly recommend others to read it. Wright is known for his stance on the resurrection. He explains that through a misreading of the passages and attempts to self-translate rather than allow the text to convey its meaning, many have misappropriated the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ.

N. T. Wright: The Church Continues the Revolution Jesus Started

Even a prolific and intellectual author and Bible scholar such as Bishop N.T. Wright is susceptible to a passage misreading. In all fairness, when he was invited to speak on the subject of women’s ministry role, he was frank enough to say that he isn’t an expert on the topic. In his speech, he got into 1 Timothy 2 and reiterated part of his translation based on Genesis 3: Although I believe he had a blind spot in his re-interpretation of 1 Timothy 2:13-15 relative to the Bible’s overall thematic approach and Paul’s universal messaging, I still see all the significant points he argued in his speech:

1. The Bible and its passages are often misread. ✅

2. There’s a basic need to change our traditional pictures both of what men and women are and how they relate to one another within the church and indeed of what the Bible says on this subject. ✅✅

3. We have an opportunity to take a significant step back in the right direction. ✅

Make no mistake; Wright was unmistakable in his speech that men and women are leaders, teachers, and preachers in the Biblical sense.

Just so I am clear to why I say Wright has a blindside in his attempt to translate the widely fought about 1 Timothy 2 passage on gender roles, check the passage in Genesis 3 and see what the narrative truly says about what’s touted as the first sin commission. It’s not correct to say in any way that it was Eve who was the only one or the first one tempted. It’s also wrong to imply that she’s Adam’s temptress. Pay close attention to this statement, ”She also gave some to her husband, WHO WAS WITH HER, and he ate it.” There’s no way to miss this critical narrative detail except when maybe we’ve been brainwashed to believe otherwise? Raise your hand if you are one of the people who first heard about the Story of Adam and Eve through other people’s accounts or interpretations. Raise your hand if you spent the time to investigate and read the corresponding passages from the source, which is the Bible.

“When the woman saw that the fruit of the tree was good for food and pleasing to the eye, and also desirable for gaining wisdom, she took some and ate it. She also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate it.” Genesis‬ ‭3:6‬ ‭NIV‬‬

If we were to analyze it in terms of philosophical and moral rationalization, then Adam bears the full burden of accountability (Read entire Genesis 3). After all, he was created first, and the commandment was directed to him first. He could have rebuked the serpent, protected Eve, and prevented that act of disobedience from happening, but he didn’t. He made his choice. He stood there and watched, then took a good bite of the fruit, and when confronted, he denied any wrongdoing —even implying that it’s God’s fault, too, while blaming his partner for his part of the problem. To put it bluntly, Adam lied and then threw Eve under the bus. While general readers tend to focus on the blaming game that’s happening here, what’s missed out is that although Eve surely directed the blame on the Serpent, she did not at all point a finger to her husband. She could have very well asserted to Adam,

”If you knew better, why didn’t you say anything? You were there when this was all happening. And I didn’t have to convince you into doing anything.”

But Eve didn’t. She matter-of-factly answered that she was tricked and she ate. She accounted for her misdeed. Likewise, if you are for the first time tasting say, an exotic fruit, and you thought it was good, and your husband is with you, would you not offer it to him, too? Will, your husband, not do the same thing (let you taste it also)?

The story of the first temptation tells us of the first time a man would fail to protect the sanctity of the union between a man and a woman. My characterization of the event may be a controversial dissection of the passage, but let it sink in for a bit.

Now, let’s bring this home. God’s response in the story of Adam and Eve was one of kindness, mercy, and justice. We in society are so single-mindedly focused on misogynistic leanings disguised under gender-roles or complementary partnership blah-blahs, when the story itself doesn’t at all depict a divine message of separation, especially on gender roles.

Bottom line, how are we people engaged in group studies examine the passage in 1 Timothy 2 about the role of women in the ministry and reconcile it with the overall Biblical theme of bringing together what shouldn’t have been pulled apart? How does our individual and collective response align with God’s desire for us to worship solely by acting justly towards each other and demonstrating our love for kindness and humility? Let’s consider these questions whenever we engage in Biblical deconstructions of passages and books.

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Moments That Matter, Giving Heroism Another Look

Let’s get on to part two of Rancho Community Church (Murrieta) three-part series on the Book of Esther smartly billed as Moments that Matter. I was super excited to see Lauralyn Vasquez visit, teach, and preach in Murrieta campus for the first time. Although I wouldn’t describe Lauralyn as a humor-based, tongue-in-cheek presenter, a small aspect of her style very much reminds me of Anne Lamott. They both have a wholehearted, deep and practical sense of social needs and justice awareness —and it’s highly recognizable in the content of their messages. Lauralyn includes cleverly set digressions in her message. Her anecdotes are rich and evoking. She has a subtly dominant and yet endearing technique of reaching the audience. I hope she visits and preaches more in Murrieta.

Part 1 Moments That Matter, Book of Esther

The Book of Esther reveals what would look like the first recorded plan of the Jewish holocaust. If we are to follow this assertion, then Haman’s character parallels that of you know who.

Haman was an Agagite and the right hand to Xerxes the King of Persia. Later in the story’s twist, Mordecai would be elevated to the said position by the King himself. Persia was the conquering empire to the exiled people of Israel. Esther is the last book in the Bible that follows a linear narrative (Chronological storytelling). It is important to note that the setting of the book is in Susa, the capital of Persia. Also necessary to understand is that both protagonists in the book were not born or raised in the land of Israel.

In the series, we talk about Moments that Matter. Although the storyline primarily shines on Esther and Mordecai, there’s also a secondary story of female heroism in the book, Queen Vashti’s. Please understand that in ancient literature, heroism is regarded as something done that is bigger than expected and it’s not necessarily an act of sacrifice or giving your own life to benefit others.

Others may call Queen Vashti’s refusal of the King’s order as a display of prideful arrogance of a woman who doesn’t recognize her spousal and societal duty. Contextually, this isn’t the case. She actually acted boldly and fearlessly, and evidently punished for standing up for her conviction. What’s lost in most discussions is that her action paved an opening for Ester and her own display of boldness.

Queen Vashti’s bravery is a juxtaposition to Ester’s brand of courage. Queen Vashti is a full-grown woman while Esther is a young inexperienced teenage girl. Ester’s is conspiring and deceivingly passive. Queen Vashti chose her moment she would stand for even if it meant losing a crown, or potentially, her life. The individual stories of Queen Esther and the dislodged Queen Vashti teach us that heroism comes in various forms.

The ”when to speak” part simply means to choose for the moments to stand for. Frankly, it’s a tall order for such a young girl. Given the times Ester was exposed to, she had to grow up fast. She didn’t just have to learn to navigate through and around despicable moments but she also had to do terrible things to survive and be the heroine her adoptive parent expected her to be. Speaking of him, it is easy to judge Mordecai as complicit to the pimping of his adoptive daughter. In a world where you are held as captive people, what would you have done? Mordecai and Esther will both choose which moments to stand for.

Lauralyn touched a little bit on social justice, on adoption and its life-changing moments, and the response to social needs. She puts out a call to be a consistent champion for someone needing of championing. Like how she sees Mordecai was for Ester.

One of the major things that Mordecai impressed upon Esther was the importance of having the proficiency to gauge when to speak and when to be silent. Lauralyn brought up a clear distinction on the type of silence Mordecai refers to in his mentorship of Esther—when to be silent. I will expound a little on this. The skill of knowing when to be silent is strategic. And it pertains to the gift of shrewdness, not of indifference or subservient quietude. The silence Mordecai taught to Esther, in a narrative and logical perspective should be understood in a tactical sense. In the story, we see not just Esther but also Mordecai choosing their moments of fortuitous silence.

If it were for the critics of the Book of Esther, this book wouldn’t have been included in the Bible because God wasn’t mentioned in it. There were no allusions to prayers and faithful devotion to God. Many have looked at the character of God (Yahweh or Lord) as silent, meaning absent, in the Book of Esther. But is this really the case? Was God truly absent in the narrative? Was this writing technique deliberate on the part of the author? What was the author’s intention? Who wrote Esther? What do we know of the Hebrew literary style of writing?

If we were to count on the thematic elements used by Esther’s author to convey important points, then we have to follow where the storytelling bounces.

In case you may be interested in pursuing an in-depth study of Hebrew literary style of writing, here’s a link to the 411-page dissertation prepared by a Ph.D. candidate in Biblical Languages, David Mark Health, https://core.ac.uk/download/pdf/37326772.pdf

IMPORTANT ELEMENTS TO BIBLE READING

The Bible cannot be approached in a one-dimensional reading direction. Recognizing the genres, techniques used in the passage, and the connection of the part to the totality of the narrative is a must.

The Bible is a three-genre story. It’s a collection and redaction of ancient scrolls designed to fit as a single-construct novel of 66 books that were written by over 44 authors in three continents over a span of 1500 years. It is God-inspired, not a God. The Bible is not a Holy Book. It is a book, although it’s one of a kind in its assembly. It is history, theology, and literature combined.

1. Historical Writing (it depicts the journey of the exiled Hebrew people in search of its national identity and its land),

2. Theology (it describes the relationship between God and humans), and

3. Literature (it commits to period-writing styles and inspirations, and employs writing devices such as characterization, imageries, symbols, invented speeches, culturally-evoked stories, monologues, and epical depictions).

It’s important to point out that the Bible is NOT a story of the battle between God’s providential nature and humankind’s free will. In the study and reading, you will find that the Bible evokes paradoxical narration. It has both the action of the Divine Providence and the Freewill of humans present in the storytelling.

Another important learning mechanism that I encourage readers to employ in their study of the Bible is developing the skill to properly distinguish between historicized literature and actual historical writing. Think of it as watching a movie or a theatrical play. Historicized literature or historical fiction narrates a story in a historical narrative style for a believable effect. It’s a reconstruction of past events or inclusion of a historical figure in a made-up anecdote, scenes, and overall plot to present an interesting and credible reading effect to the audience. Although there may be details or characters that are probably real, it doesn’t mean that the entirety of the passage itself conveys an actual historical truth. The narrative goal isn’t about historical accuracy. Rather, the author’s intention is to evoke an emotional and intellectual reaction from the audience about a particular theme or discussion point.

As informed and learned readers, we should be able to, at the very least, examine the prose for its narrative intentions. Remember, the Bible’s world is a close narrative, operating only within three continents and selected races of people. Any critical and mindful learner would know that the ancient world expands wider than just three continents. From just leaning on basic knowledge of high school history, anybody would know that neither one of the conquering empires in the Bible invaded the Shang Dynasty or that of the Inca and Mayan civilizations. These three weren’t in the storytelling of the Bible but the races of people from these civilizations existed in humankind’s history. I lay all these informative facts for us to mindfully consider and reflect as we individually and collectively learn about the Scriptures.

Ignoring facts puts the reader and learner in a path towards a false understanding of the passages.

This work is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License. To view a copy of this license, visit http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/3.0/us/ or send a letter to Creative Commons, 171 Second Street, Suite 300, San Francisco, California, 94105, USA.
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