Bill Maher Isn’t the Only One Who Misunderstands Religion –

Bill Maher Isn’t the Only One Who Misunderstands Religion –

Excellent op-ed by Reza Aslan: “It is a fallacy to believe that people of faith derive their values primarily from their Scriptures. The opposite is true. People of faith insert their values into their Scriptures, reading them through the lens of their own cultural, ethnic, nationalistic and even political perspectives.”

In the end, I would call out Maher for being simplistic and ignorant of the complexities of religion and culture. It’s his simplistic analysis and ignorance that fuel his hatred. Maher’s critiques can be used for more productive ends.

The comments section show that some people are missing Aslan’s point: Our critique has to be more precise and true than a generalization can be. The problem is not just one huge religion with violent scriptures and violent people. Eliminating 1 billion Muslims won’t stop religious extremism. If we pay better attention to why certain religious people (and non-religious people) become violent, we can better address the problem in its particular contexts. I can’t say it better than Aslan: “Considering that most of its victims are also Muslims — as are most of the forces fighting and condemning the Islamic State — the group’s self-ascribed Islamic identity cannot be used to make any logical statement about Islam as a global religion.”

If we can discern why certain people become violent extremists in their cultural and political contexts (and not try to over-generalize on this point), then we’ll actually be able to address the problem in those contexts. People are violent in Mississippi for different cultural reasons than violent people in Syria, who are violent for different reasons than those in the Ukraine. Over-generalizing hurts our ability to understand and address the problem.

My neighborhood Jehovah’s Witnesses

It’s Saturday morning. Naturally, I’m drinking coffee, catching up on The Daily Show, and someone knocks at the door. I need to be wearing a few more clothes to be decent, so I scurry around, throw on pants and a shirt, and answer. Two well-dressed African-American men, in their mid-30s, very kindly tell me they’re canvassing the neighborhood to distribute this flyer. I zip up my fly, happily receive the tract, and ask, “Are you Jehovah’s Witnesses?”

“Yes sir.”

“That’s great! Thank you,” and we part ways.

I love these tracts, especially the short ones. The Jehovah’s Witnesses clearly put a good bit of thought into them, and I’m actually friendly to many JW ideas, hermeneutical methods, and evangelistic practices. They take scripture seriously, including the Old Testament (which many Christians routinely ignore), and they are attempting to tackle big questions head on. I like big questions too.

  • Are the answers in… science? philosophy? the Bible?


I’d like to think these sources of knowledge and ethics are complimentary. They have been for thousands of years, with many of our famous church fathers trained in the natural philosophy and rhetoric of their day (e.g. Gregory of Nyssa). But the Jehovah’s Witnesses are wedded to the bible most of all, and they take it very seriously.

  • Which of these big questions concerns you most? What is the meaning of life? Is God to blame for our suffering? What happens when you die?


I immediately go to the website for the first question, because who doesn’t want to know the meaning of life? Some of their answers are great:

  • We fill our spiritual need by building a friendship with God. Although the idea of being God’s friend might seem far-fetched to some, the Bible gives us this encouragement: “Draw close to God, and he will draw close to you.”—James 4:8; 2:23.

Who can argue with that? And they quote James, one of my favorite books!

Even better, they quote a lot from Ecclesiastes, particularly in answering the third question on life after death:

  • The Bible says: “The living are conscious that they will die; but as for the dead, they are conscious of nothing at all.” (Ecclesiastes 9:5; Psalm 146:4)

But don’t worry, the JWs believe in a classically Christian life-beyond-the-grave, in a restored creation/paradise. JWs subscribe to a ransom-based atonement theory:

  • What is it that makes possible a righteous standing with God and the enjoying of everlasting life? … As a sinless human, Jesus could thus give himself as “a corresponding ransom”—his life corresponded to or was the  equivalent of the once perfect, sinless, first man.—1 Timothy 2:6. By this provision of the ransom, God made it possible for us to receive what the first Adam lost, namely, everlasting life in an earthly paradise. 

Here’s what I like about the Jehovah’s witnesses:

  • They call God by name, using “Jehovah” as the spoken form of the Hebrew YHWH. I prefer this (or “Yahveh”) to the English word “Lord” which is transcribed over YHWH in most English translations of the Bible. By not calling God by name, we forget how personal this relationship was, from the beginning, and we forget the meaningful mystery of this awesome name YHWH: “I will be what I will be.” The name of God is given so much importance in scripture, yet we forget this was a particular God for a particular people, who eventually (or perhaps originally) included all creation in God’s redemptive work.
  • JWs take scripture very seriously, trying not to ignore the various answers provided by different books (like Ecclesiastes), and yet trying also to reconcile these answers in a cohesive biblical theology. This results in Jehovah’s Witnesses not believing that Jesus is equal to God, and they can proof-text their lower Christology. JWs still believe Jesus is God’s son, created even before Adam: “As God’s firstborn Son, Jesus was a spirit creature in heaven before he was born as a human on earth. Jesus himself said: “I have come down from heaven.”—John 6:38; 8:23.”

Though I’m not persuaded by all of JW doctrine or ethics, I think they are trying to be biblically faithful and theologically coherent. It’s true that the early Christians did not believe Jesus was equal to God in every way. Today’s “orthodox” understanding of the Trinity was a later theological construction, stating that Jesus and the Holy Spirit are “of the same substance” as God-the-Father.

As a Methodist, I believe “The Holy Scripture containeth all things necessary to salvation; so that whatsoever is not read therein, nor may be proved thereby, is not to be required of any man that it should be believed as an article of faith, or be thought requisite or necessary to salvation.” I love this particular Article of Religion, because it attempts to keep us humble: If you can’t absolutely prove it with scripture, it’s not necessary for salvation. If we stay humble, we can agree that a high Christology is not a incontrovertible outcome of scriptural fidelity, though it’s a possible outcome, in my estimation. My JW brothers and sisters may disagree, but in some cases, differing interpretations of scripture are equally faithful. In one interaction with a Jehovah’s Witness a few years ago, my conversation partner did not seem friendly to the idea of “multiple interpretations,” but I am.

Of course, we may disagree on the essentials, and so perhaps we’re back to square one, but in my pastoral work, I find that some Christians (particular those at Court Street UMC, where I serve) value, maybe more than anything else, the sustaining of a beloved community. This value, of being a part of the Kingdom-Household of God, brings us to respect a wide range of differences among the people who share this basic value. In other words, as long as you place ultimate importance on a safe and supportive community of faith, then we can sustain many different ideas about God, day-to-day ethics, and even the divinity of Christ.

I’m not sure if my brothers and sisters in the Jehovah’s Witnesses consider me under the umbrella of God’s salvific work, but I trust that they are.

My ancestry, all the way back to the gods

I get addicted to genealogy. It’s odd. Even as I immerse myself, once every few months, I still think people who are interested in genealogy are strange. But my brain is made to love this stuff.

Today I found, the free genealogy website maintained by the Church of Latter-Day Saints. I plugged in a few generations of information I already knew, and after cross-checking a few details, I feel confident the website is reliable (at least as much as all the others). So there’s my endorsement. You connect to your family tree, which hopefully your 5th cousin has already worked on, and together you connect to others, and so on it goes.

And then… then you keep pressing the “Expand Tree” tab, going back in time. You hit a lot of dead ends. The records are sparse. But your ancestors double in number every generation back, and so your chances are good. Back up, try again, down another road. When I got to the 1500s, I was so excited. And I kept clicking.

Then… it gets a little wild. I get back so far that certain ancestors are on Wikipedia. Charles “the Bald,” who was… oh heavens… the grandson of Charlemagne. At this point in the search, I decide that we all must be descended from Charlemagne. Another road takes me to… Maximinus Thrax? Roman Emperor from 235 to 238? He sounds like a villain in a Transformers movie. His parents are unknown. A dead end with a short-lived Roman Emperor, whose individual “dead end” is not one to emulate.

At this point, the historians are doing all the heavy lifting. I back up, keep clicking, move through the Kings of the Franks, stumble upon the Sicambrians (who?), and finally land at King Laomedon of Troy (1176-1235 BC), who, according to Greek legend, was the great-great-great grandson of Zeus. So there’s that.

Surely there are leaps and conjecture once we pass through the Dark Ages, but today’s jaunt through my ancestry leaves me grateful. I have such good records of the past two hundred years in my family. Not everyone is so fortunate. And though I’m not proud of what some of these ancestors did (specifically when it comes to owning slaves), I’m inspired by the connections in which I’m immersed.

The human population dwindles as we go back in time, but our ancestors double every generation back. This means that we start overlapping quite quickly, and if the records were kept, you’d begin noticing a few people on both sides of your family tree. I once read a report saying that, statistically, it’s almost certain that all humans currently alive share a common ancestor who lived as recently as two thousand years ago. There’s one single person in everyone’s family tree. And they may have lived during the time of Jesus.

The Lord brought Abram outside and said, “Look up at the sky and count the stars if you think you can count them… This is how many children you will have.”

So, to all my cousins out there, I say hello.

A Simple Form of Prayer – plus the Lord’s Prayer

For any and all of you: Below is a PDF of “A simple form of prayer, plus the Lord’s prayer” which I created for our Intergenerational Family Night at church. You can print it on both sides of a legal sheet of paper, and cut it into 10 cards.

A simple form of prayer:

Tell God what you are thankful for.

Tell God what you want. (Even if you don’t expect God to give you whatever you want, it’s good to confess our needs and desires.)

The Gospel of Matthew 6:9-13: [From the Common English Bible translation]

Pray like this:

Our Father, who is in heaven, uphold the holiness of your name.

Bring in your kingdom, so that your will is done on earth as it’s done in heaven. Give us the bread we need for today. Forgive us for the ways we have wronged you, just as we also forgive those who have wronged us. And don’t lead us into temptation, but rescue us from the evil one. [Amen.]

Access the PDF here: A simple form of prayer – plus the Lord’s prayer