The Portable Atheist: Evangelical Teaching

I’m reading through Hitchens’ anthology The Portable Atheist right now and thought this, from Chapter 10, page 75, by George Elliot, was interesting:

Given a man with moderate intellect, a moral standard not higher than the average, some rhetorical affluence and great glibness of speech, what is the career in which, without the aid of birth or money, he may most easily attain power and reputation in English society?  Where is the Goshen of mediocrity in which a smattering of science and learning will pass for profound instruction, where platitudes will be accepted as wisdom, bigoted narrowness as holy zeal, unctuous egoism as God-given piety?  Let such a man become an evangelical preacher; he will find it possible to reconcile small ability with great ambition, superficial knowledge with the prestige of erudition, a middling morale with a high reputation for sanctity.

This paragraph hit me hard because I think it describes me from about the age of 17 until I gave up the idea of being a preacher when I was around 25.  During that time I had thrown away what I was most interested in, science, and had been pursuing a “calling” to go into the ministry.  And when I really look back to those years I think a part of me, maybe not consciously, or at least not a major part of me, was looking at the pastorate as was to attain reputation and respect.  After all, the New Testament does say that the wisdom of this world is foolishness to those who believe, and the wisdom of God is foolishness to those who don’t believe.  At that time I was firmly committed to God and wanted to attain true wisdom.  So I gave up “earthly” pursuits of a career in science and pursued the ministry. 

As I approached my mid-twenties I began to see the truth in the above quote from Elliot.  Not only in myself but in other pastors that I had looked up to.  I attended many pastor’s conferences, men’s retreats and other trainings for pastors and grew increasingly disillusioned with what I saw and heard.  These conferences were nothing more than competitions between pastors over who had the highest Sunday School attendance, the most baptisms for the month or who had the most bible verses memorized.  There is nothing more painfully boring, uncomfortable and idiotic than sitting in a prayer circle, full of pastors, holding hands with a man you only met five minutes ago listening to them try to out-pontificate each other,  unless it is having to sit in a bible study full of pastors trying to out-quote, out-smart and out-spritualize the most tedious aspects of life.  Sermons by these pastors really were nothing more than platitudes, with a little quote from a famous historical figure or reference to some factoid of science or other field of learning, sprinkled in here or there to make it sound like the pastor was a widely read scholar. 

I was also struck hard  by how the author defined holy zeal as bigoted narrowness and God-given piety as egoism.  When my wife and I were still dating, I was 19, we went to one her friend’s apartment for dinner.  This girl had been raped as a teen, which was not long ago at the time, and was bitter and angry with God for allowing the assault to happen to her.  The conversation eventually turned to her anger with God and in what I justified as “telling her the truth in love out of concern for her eternal soul” I proceeded to further abuse her verbally.  I whipped out my little travel sized New Testament and assaulted her with all the scripture that I thought she needed to hear.  I told her she was sinning against God by her anger with him.  I told her she has no right to be angry with God and that her anger and bitterness was what was keeping her from finding healing.  I told her that she needed to forgive the rapist and let go of the bitterness she had toward him or it would eat her up on the inside and that God would not bless her with that kind of unforgiveness in her heart.   I didn’t care about her.  I only cared that I was doing what I thought God wanted me to do.  I believed I had done the right thing by confronting her with the truth and exposing the lies she was believing.  I was a fool.  Unfortunately it took me quite a few years to realize that.  I still cringe to this today thinking how horrible I must have hurt her, at how insensitive, uncaring and unloving I was.  I was nothing more than a dangerous religious zealot.

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