Friday, April 29, 2011

Doubting it

    This week President Obama released the long form of his birth certificate. As all but a handful of disingenuous propagandists have known all along, it proves that he was born August 4, 1961 at 7:24 p.m. in Honolulu.
    That's interesting but it won't satisfy "birthers" who have their own reasons for defying fact and logic. But even if their straw-grasping efforts to undermine the president continue, I hope we can dispense with the temptation to call them "doubting Thomases." Thomas the Doubter may have been a lot of things, but he was not a crazy opportunist.
    The anecdote that made Thomas famous will be read in thousands of Christian churches this week. It's from John 20:24-25, one of the accounts of Jesus' appearances after his resurrection.
    "But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, ‘We have seen the Lord.’ But he said to them, ‘Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.’" (NRSV)
    So Thomas didn't believe dead people get up and walk. That's not a hard position to defend. It's impossible to believe.
    A lot of things are impossible to believe. Thomas would have been appalled by the approach conceived 1800 years later by Lewis Carroll in Alice in Wonderland.
    "Sometimes," Alice says after interacting comfortably with a talking white rabbit, a disappearing cat and a mad hatter, "I've believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast."
    What an admirable trait: establishing a quota for the number of impossible things you will believe. I don't know where Baptists would be without it – and how American it is. We all know people who can believe just about anything. What a blessing that is. Doubt is so dark and lonely, while belief is so comforting, so blissful.
     What's your personal record for believing impossible things?
    If you haven't eaten breakfast yet, here are some impossible things that thousands of people devoutly believe and insist on convincing their family and friends.
    One, NASA scientists have discovered a "missing day" in time which corresponds to biblical accounts of the sun standing still for a day.
    (Actually, the "missing day" discovery goes back to a book written by Harry Rimmer in 1890, titled, The Harmony of Science and Scripture. The discovery has been particularly popular since at least 1936, when it began to be reported by radio preachers. I can't begin to understand the math that would reveal a missing day in history, but perhaps that is not important.
    Second, Scientists drilling in Siberia went too far and ended up punching a hole through to Hell, where the screams of the damned drifted up to them.
    Accompanying this report are possibly contradictory, possibly plausible stories that the scientists (a) ran screaming from the hole, shouting, "I can't listen to the agony," or (b) promptly accepted Jesus Christ as their personal savior, or (c) both.
    Third, a group known as "The Second Coming Project" is seeking to clone Jesus from the DNA of holy relics, such as the Shroud of Turin.
    It's hard to tell from these reports whether the project was inspired by Jurassic Park, the novel and movie in which long extinct dinosaurs are cloned when scientists retrieve their DNA from mosquitoes trapped in prehistoric tree sap, or whether the scientists knew that carbon dating of the Shroud of Turin reveals it to be 1500 years too young to have been Jesus' burial garment. The curious thing is that no one from the Second Coming Project has been interviewed by Fox News.
    Fourth, airlines will not pair Christian pilots and co-pilots out of fear that the rapture will snatch away both crew members capable of landing the flight.
     I can't remember when I first heard this report, and there are several versions of it. It may be the reason the Wright brothers didn't fly together at Kitty Hawk in 1903.
    Fifth, a Christian woman dies leaping through her car's sunroof when events convince her that Jesus has returned.
    The rest of this story involves 13 people being injured in a 20-car pile-up that occurred when drivers on an interstate swerved their cars to miss the woman, who had jumped out of her car screaming, "He's back, he's back." She got this impression when 12 life-sized helium-filled human sex dolls escaped from a delivery truck and floated sublimely into the air. This story was later used in a script written for an HBO series about funeral directors, Six Feet Under.
    Finally, sixth, and one of my favorites, atheist Madalyn Murray O'Hare is circulating a petition to the FCC to have religious programming banned from broadcasting.
    O'Hare, as you may recall, is best known for the Murray v. Curlett lawsuit, which led to a landmark Supreme Court ruling ending government sponsored prayer in U.S. public schools. O'Hair later founded American Atheists and became so controversial that in 1964 Life magazine referred to her as "the most hated woman in America.
    All of these six impossible things to believe have one thing in common: none of them are true. All of them have been debunked by reputable journalists, and you can read the truth about them at, a website that debunks urban legends. (Just be cautious if you use Snopes to prove to people that their dumb ass ideas have no basis in reality. I've learned on several occasions that people are happiest when left alone with their delusions.)
    The O'Hare legend is one I encountered frequently when I worked for American Baptist communications. Thousands of well-intentioned American Baptists called upon their denominational leaders to publically disavow O'Hare's petition to end religious programming on television. Literally millions wrote to the Federal Communication Commission demanding that the O'Hare petition be summarily rejected. The FCC, despite being a federal bureaucracy, did not have the means of telling everyone that there was no such petition, so the rumor persisted for years. Although it has slowed down some, it still pops up in the email and telephone voicemail of church communicators - despite the fact that Madalyn Murray O'Hare died in 1995 when she was kidnapped and murdered, along with her son and granddaughter, by a member of her organization. (That was a shock because one expects better from atheists.)
    So chalk up all these impossible things to believe as belonging in the same category as
    Barack Obama was born in Kenya or Indonesia or some place outside of the United States,
    and, perhaps most implausible of all,
   Jesus Christ was raised from the dead.
    Thomas will be remembered as "Thomas the Doubter" until the end of time, and many Christians reserve a special place of scorn for him. How, we ask ourselves, could this ingrate doubt that his Lord has been raised from the dead?
    Despite our derision, it seems likely that we would have been in the same place as Thomas. If there is one thing we have learned about life, one thing we have seen with our own eyes, one thing we have experienced as irrefutable and irreversible truth, it is that death is the end.
    The dead do not rise.
    As soon as life leaves the body, the body's inner parasites multiply exponentially and the body begins its inevitable return to dust. "I will not believe," Thomas says. And when you come right down to it: why would he? Would you?
    Let's give Thomas credit: he says what he means and he isn't trying to deceive anybody. You don't often encounter that kind of integrity in the church.
    I have a social media friend who tells about an experience she had while visiting a church. The pastor – no doubt one of those chubby guys who brandishes his broadly beaming mug on his webpage and on Facebook – told the congregation: "If you don't have a smile on your face, you shouldn't be here. Christianity is a religion of joy."
    The woman, whose daughter is seriously ill, fled the service in tears. She did not come to church to smile. She was looking for comfort and she was told that God dismissed her because she was not smiling.
    When Jesus appeared to his disciples, they were in no mood to smile, either. They had every reason to expect that their fate would be the same as Jesus' fate – in fact, Jesus had predicted that would come to pass. In days following Jesus' arrest and crucifixion, they had abandoned him and hid themselves in shame, tortured by a gnawing sense of failure. But when Jesus found them in hiding, all he said was, "Peace be with you."
    Thomas, as we all know, responded to the offering of peace with an unequivocal declaration: "My Lord, and my God."
    Thomas was a doubter and he said so. What a great model he was for the rest of us doubters. We may come under some social pressure to falsify our testimony, and we may be told we are Judases if every day with Jesus is not sweeter than the day before. But Jesus never wears a happy face, and I suspect he doesn't expect us to wear one, either.
    As many people know, Thomas was very busy following his final appearances in scripture. After he had embraced Jesus as "my Lord and my God," he embarked on a missionary journey that rivaled Paul's. He traveled thousands of miles to South Asia, and founded two of the world's oldest Christian churches - the Malankara Orthodox Syrian Church and the Mar Thoma Church of India. The testimony of these two churches thrives today, and their message is the same Jesus brought to the disciples, and the same we are compelled to bring to our neighbors everywhere: Peace be with you.

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