Bourbon Cowboy

The adventures of an urbane bar-hopping transplant to New York.

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Location: New York, New York, United States

I'm a storyteller in the New York area who is a regular on NPR's "This American Life" and at shows around the city. Moved to New York in 2006 and am working on selling a memoir of my years as a greeting card writer, and (as a personal, noncommercial obsession) a nonfiction book called "How to Love God Without Being a Jerk." My agent is Adam Chromy at Artists and Artisans. If you came here after hearing about my book on "This American Life" and Googling my name, the "How to Love God" book itself isn't in print yet, and may not even see print in its current form (I'm focusing on humorous memoir), but here's a sample I've posted in case you're curious anyway: Sample How To Love God Introduction, Pt. 1 of 3. Or just look through the archives for September 18, 2007.) The book you should be expecting is the greeting card book, about which more information is pending. Keep checking back!

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Sample How To Love God Introduction, Pt. 3 of 3

Part 1 is here. Part 2 is here. And now I think we're done!

UPDATE: Chapter two has now been posted in two parts. It starts here.

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THE THEORY IN ACTION
This thinking of mine started many years ago as a result of the most amazing Sunday School lesson I ever had. It happened in 1991, when I was in the young adult group at the First Evangelical Free Church in Tucson, Arizona. Richard Ruiz, the only Democrat on our elder board, had been pressed into last-minute service, and he started by saying, "Today we're going to talk about Adam and Eve, and how God's law is different from man's law." Simple enough. Like most Sunday school lessons, this sounded like it didn't even need to be taught. We already knew that man's law was bad and crushing, and God's law was good and worth following. We had our Bibles open to Genesis before he had even finished his introduction.

"Now, you know the story. God creates Adam, and then tells him about the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge. What does God say?"

Someone raised a hand. "Don't eat the fruit."

"Right." And then Mr. Ruiz said, "Now what does that mean?"

We were quiet. Wasn't it obvious? Richard didn't think so.

"What if he licks the fruit? Has he eaten it then? What if he bites into it, but then spits out the pieces? What if he swallows, but regurgitates it? What if he squeezes it into a glass and just drinks the juice?"

Some people laughed, and so did Richard, but he said, "It sounds silly, but I'm serious. I just want you to notice that there's an obvious point at which God's law has been broken--when Adam chews and swallows an entire fruit--but there's also a wide range of activities that God did not specifically define. There's a big gray area where God trusted Adam to act within his conscience.

"So now Eve gets created. And Adam passes on God's law. What does he tell her?"

"Don't eat the fruit," someone said.

"No! Look at the verse. It's down in chapter 3, where Eve's telling the snake the way she heard the rule: 'You shall not eat it or even touch it, lest you die.' When Adam passed the word along, the rule changed from 'Don't eat the fruit' to 'Don't touch the fruit.' Do you see what's happened?"

"It's the same thing," someone said. "If you're eating the fruit, you're touching it."

"No. The difference is that touching is a discrete action. You can tell by looking whether or not someone is breaking the law. It's extremely easy to judge, and there's no gray area involved. Did she brush her arm against it? She touched the fruit. Did she trip and bump her head on it? She touched the fruit. When Adam passed the law on to Eve, he made his job a lot easier, by defining the sin in a way that minimized the number of interpretations he had to work through.

"But in the process, he also did something else. He told a lie and he misrepresented God. Immediately after she talks to the serpent, Eve takes the fruit to Adam. They eat, and then the scripture says, 'immediately their eyes were opened,' and the Fall occured. If touching the fruit was a sin, the Fall would have happened before she even made it back to Adam. The sin was eating the fruit, and touching it never mattered.

"And I submit to you that that is what human beings do all the time when they're given God's law. They turn around and make it harsher in order to make it easier to understand and follow. So whenever we're faced with a rule, we have to be sure to go back and ask, 'Is this what God originally intended, or has mankind been tampering with it?' Otherwise we'll wind up wasting time on issues that don't matter."

He went on to make other points, which I assume were about legalism, a popular topic in my church. When you're an evangelical, you're always kind of close to fundamentalism, so we spent a lot of time making sure we hadn't gone too far, assuring ourselves that we were right where they were wrong. Was dancing okay? Were R-rated movies? No doubt Richard was going to do the usual thing: distinguish between the real issues (love your neighbor, don't have sex, etc.) and these non-issues that mere humans construct. But I honestly don't remember anything else about that lesson. My own mind started playing with the implications of how he’d framed the argument in the first place; his rereading of Genesis. Could Richard be right? Was it possible that God is always giving his commandments with gray areas built in, and we're always trying to eliminate them?

Then I thought, "That's ridiculous! We all know that God has definite rules and he wants us to follow them. What else is religion if it's not a moral guide?"

And then I thought about Jesus, and I felt something like scales fall from my eyes. I suddenly remembered all the times that Jesus was asked a simple moral question by the Pharisees ("Who is my neighbor?" "What should we do with this adulterous woman?", "Should we pay taxes or not?") and he didn't provide the simple answer they were looking for. Instead, his responses wound up questioning the questioners and asking them to judge for themselves ("Who do you say was the neighbor?"). Wow! I thought. Suddenly I could understand why he had mercy on prostitutes and traitors, but hated the Pharisees with such great passion. After all, the Pharisees had rules for everything, from whether to heal on the sabbath, how much to tithe, which offering to deliver when. If you were a Pharisee, you could go your whole life and know exactly how to act in every situation and know God's stance on everything and...

...And then I looked around the room at my fellow evangelical Christians and almost gasped. My god, I thought. I am in the church of the Pharisees!

Suddenly it all made sense. I had always been a little bothered by the fact that my church had a tendency to deliver divine pronouncements on modern moral issues (such as genetic engineering) by appealing to verses in the Bible that were clearly not intended to answer these questions. Now I knew why: the Bible was being pressed into service to provide a solution. Everything we did needed to have an answer. But maybe that wasn't God's agenda! Maybe God was more interested in the process of facing the problem. The more I thought about it, the more it seemed like God might actually be interested in challenging us with moral questions, and it seemed like my church was determined to assassinate every question before it could cause problems and doubts.

And then, the biggest shock of all: I suddenly felt alive and excited, as if my heart had been waiting for this for years. I didn’t even have words to explain it at the time. But the way I see it now, it’s because that up till then, I’d been living as if the religious life was a morality play with a tightly fixed script, and my purpose was learning how to knock the rough edges off my own performance in order to fit the perfect part. But now, it was like I had suddenly left the stage, burst out of the studio and became part of an actual, real adventure, where I was free to be myself, free to fail, and success wasn’t even guaranteed. That’s excitement! That’s adventure! And that, I propose, is what life’s supposed to be.

But the main reason most evangelicals never read things this way is twofold: first, because they take Genesis literally, as if the Adam and Eve story could have been filmed, and human life really did begin in the Tigris-Euphrates valley (where presumably an angel with a flaming sword is still hanging out). But second, it’s because most evangelicals believe in something called absolute depravity. This teaches, as I heard it, that human beings are so very corrupt that we can’t even judge right and wrong without the Bible to help us. What seems good to us might actually be evil. Without the Bible, we could go in exactly the wrong way, in complete ignorance of our own tragic trajectory! (Fortunately, of course, we have the Bible. But how piteous for all those poor regular humans who don’t!)

As I examined this new perception I’d just gained, I went over it carefully, looking for a weakness, and I realized to my shock that absolute depravity is not actually taught in the Bible. Not only that, but it should have been obvious to me and to everyone else for years! After all, if people can’t judge right and wrong, why did Jesus say, “Which of these was a good neighbor?” and assume that he’d get the right answer? What had happened, I realized, was that I had brought my own belief in absolute depravity to my reading of scripture, so that when I read in Romans, “There is none righteous; not one,” I read it as if it was saying, “…and that’s why we can’t even know right from wrong without the Bible’s help. It’s a sin-nature thing.” And that’s clearly not the sense of the passage. Where had I gotten this bad idea?

Many of the bad ideas of evangelical Christianity—like the infallibility of scripture—are ideas like this: presuppositions that rule the Christian’s thinking as if each one is a top ten teaching, but that the Bible itself, on careful examination, doesn’t actually support. Others—like hell—are a little trickier to deal with, but I think I can show that they’re also capable of being handled less destructively while still holding a respectful view of the Bible. In any event, that’s the point of the first part of this book: to glean exactly which ideas are the bad ones, where they come from, and how they can be fixed. But since many of our beliefs are formed before we even get close to a Bible in the first place, my job in the next chapter is to describe something that very few authors have attempted: what kinds of kids devout people are; where Bible-thumpers come from.

Click here to see the Next Chapter's 2-part excerpt

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10 Comments:

Blogger Rhu/nmHz said...

First, a minor correction: You wrote "Abraham" in one spot instead of "Adam".

Second, a more substantive comment. I'm interested to see how you develop this, but I think your perspective on Pharaseeism is still framed by the (evangelical?) Christian model of what Jesus was opposing. (Of course, mine is framed by my observance of Judaism.)

That is, yes, the rabbis devote a lot of energy to exegesis, to understanding the parameters of the rules set forth in what is presumed to be God's Word. But in most cases, that does not end up with a single simplistic answer that everyone follows; the answers remain contextual and dependent on individual judgment -- both moral and technical.

I guess what I'm saying is that while "development of an expanded interpretation of the rules" and "simplifying the gray areas" are not always independent, neither are they necessarily identical. In fact, there are some rabbinical commentators who argue that Adam's first sin was in adding on to God's commandment when he related it to Eve. (The Hebrew term is bal tosif and it's a commandment given in Deuteronomy 4:2: "Do not add to what I have commanded you.")

10/11/2007 9:18 AM  
Blogger Cowboy Dave Dickerson said...

First, thanks for the note on the typo! I fixed it.

Second, you're absolutely correct that I'm buying into what might be called post-Christian propaganda about who the Pharisees were. But that makes sense, because I'm writing from the perspective of a guy who really only knew x much about the Pharisees at the time. You've convinced me to add a footnote to that effect. Thanks! That's why comments are so helpful!

10/11/2007 10:18 AM  
Blogger that atheist guy said...

Hi Dave,

I really enjoyed these three parts. I never realized how Adam played some Chinese Telephone with God's command. Very interesting! Here are my comments:

1. I also thought it was interesting how you showed the abortion question to be a shibboleth, and how the evangelical's ears closed up right after the word "complicated." It sounds like you want these evangelicals to keep reading your book so I wonder how you can prevent them from closing it if they come across a similar "show stopper". One point in particular I worry about is when you wrote "I was one of you..." The past tense there might be such a flag.

I have talked to many Christians and from what I gather if someone makes the claim that he or she is an ex-Christian, then they were never a Christian to begin with. I think they believe that when Jesus truly enters your heart, your heart is changed and there is no going back. So they say maybe these so called ex-Christians think they were Christians, but they weren't true Christians. (Look up the no true Scotsman fallacy for more in that department.)

Being an atheist myself, I don't buy it of course. If it walks and talks like a Christian, then it's a Christian. I could also play the same game with the old "I used to be an atheist" line many Christians use. If you really had a skeptical heart, there is no way you could become religious, so you never were a TRUE atheist. ;-)

It might be unavoidable though.

2. What is "Kirkstadt"? I may be revealing a gaping hole in my knowledge, but even Lord Google only gives me 132 hits. Most seem to be surnames.

3. I personally don't give a damn, but I think you might turn off some conservative religious folk if you use words like "fucking". It also reminded me of this fascinating Steven Pinker article I just read. Check it out:
http://www.tnr.com/doc.mhtml?i=20071008&s=pinker100807

10/12/2007 10:26 AM  
Blogger Cowboy Dave Dickerson said...

Thanks for the comments. After I started writing, I realized the only real way to guarantee not to frighten evangelicals was to never disagree with them at all. So instead I decided to target the kinds of evangelicals who would look at my case and wonder, "What went wrong?"--the sorts of people who would never swear themselves, but aren't going to faint at the occasional F-bomb. I may, however, have to write an opening statement warning about the cussing.

By the way, I just invented the word "Kirkstadt," which should mean "church-state."

Thanks for the Pinker link! Much fun indeed!

10/12/2007 1:18 PM  
Blogger Joshua Kosman said...

I'm reminded of an old joke that observant Jews tell (I'm sure Nmhz knows it).

God: You shall not boil a kid in its mother's milk.

Moses: OK, got it. No eating milk with meat — no cheeseburgers, no lasagna, no chicken parmigiana.

God: No, this is what I'm telling you: You shall not boil a kid in its mother's milk.

Moses: So you're talking about two sets of dishes, huh?

God: Moses, listen to me. You shall not boil a kid in its mother's milk.

Moses: OK, so we need to wait six hours after eating meat before —

God: OK, Moses, OK. Have it your way.

10/12/2007 8:26 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I heard your story on "This American Life" and then googled to find your blog. Being a "recovering" fundamentalist Baptist, I'm enjoying your spin on all things "Christian".

I'm especially eager to read the follow up to your statement "But since many of our beliefs are formed before we even get close to a Bible in the first place, my job in the next chapter is to describe something that very few authors have attempted: what kinds of kids devout people are; where Bible-thumpers come from."

I think personality plays a large part in the type of "faith" we have. Having a rather literal mind, it was very easy for me to swallow the fundy literal approach to the Bible I was raised to believe for a lot of years. I think it was that same literal mind that found that things didn't add up and caused me to walk, no RUN away from fundamentalism. Only problem is that I can't seem to find a way to have a balanced faith. My literalness keeps wanting to take the literal approach. So I'm curious to keep reading your posts (and book when published) to see what you come up.

10/14/2007 9:38 AM  
Blogger Rhu/nmHz said...

Trazom cites one of my favorites. One bit of background on that joke --- the Torah states in three different places, "Don't boil a kid in its mother's milk." (And of course every textual anomaly must have a good reason, right?)

10/15/2007 12:48 PM  
Blogger Stephen... said...

Dave,
Just moseyed over here from "This American Life".
You're a good story teller, and I look forward to purchasing this book: hopefully (God willing, knock on wood, stare into the Void, what-have-you).
I'll admit that I'm from an 'Evangelical' background. I'm 'at a place' where I am seeing the 'journey' aspect of grace and its 'creative acts' - and am hoping to continue to grow.
Just a side comment on the 'cussing' (love that word). I don't do it myself - but find it really quite humorous at the right time, though I'm sure some people would be turned off by the 'stronger' words.
Anyway, Good luck.

10/19/2007 12:22 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi Dave,

Good start! One suggestion about your intro:
Writing that Adam told a lie to Eve is a bit off. Eve does not attribute that to Adam, Ruiz attributes it to Adam, you may want to be more careful with that.

All the best,

Doug

5/06/2008 5:21 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I heard you on TAL and was very grateful that you shared a story about the well-intentioned but damaging impact being raise Evangelical has on sexuality. My observations on this have been troubling me for awhile and your viewpoint was refreshing. I wonder if you have done any research on this or whether you know of anyone trying to reverse the damage.

Your book looks intriguing and entertaining to me. Loved the Adam and Eve story. I wish you the best and will listen for you on The Moth podcast.

8/21/2008 7:13 PM  

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