Sermon: Prophets, Presbyterians & Testimonies – by Kevin Curtis

Thank you to Kevin Curtis for filling in for Rev. Oak on short notice.

This morning, our readings remind us that when Biblical prophets were called, they
were encouraged to travel light, share their wisdom, drive out demons, heal the sick
and not bother to linger where they were not welcome. Good advice.
We Presbyterians don’t do much demon driving, but everyone in this church family
works to relieve suffering in one way or another. We metaphorically drive 21st century
demons away.
Many of you personally volunteer, you support our congregation’s outreach efforts and
you financially contribute to a range of organizations that do healing work. We take the
Sunday service message of compassion, forgiveness, patience, humility and love into
the week and try to be more decent and caring through the daily challenges of our lives.
It’s not easy some weeks. We strive for justice, compassion, fairness and inclusion in
the policies of our community and our country while the daily news cycle makes us
sometimes feel like things are coming apart.
As Presbyterians, we are not a denomination that focuses on dramatic personal
Christian testimonies as part of our weekly worship or sharing our faith with others. But,
dramatic testimonies are part of many Christian worship services.
Recently, I came across a column with an atheist’s view of Christian testimonies and
ended up writing a reply to the author. That’s not something I usually do, but I thought
the atheist’s perspectives and my response might be an interesting share given the
context of our readings this morning. At a time in history, when miracles in the biblical
sense are rare, what is the evidence that proves our faith is well founded to those who
reject it?
An Atheist’s View of Christian Testimonies, Edited
Christian leaders encourage their flocks to create short sales pitches based upon their
own personal experiences with Christianity. These pitches are called testimonies. Entire
books, seminars, and websites exist to help Christians create compelling, convincing
These pitches typically follow three acts. In Act 1, the Christian recounts their life before
conversion. The more dramatic that life sounds, the better. The Christian describes their
conversion in Act 2, hopefully working in a miracle if at all possible. In Act 3, the
Christian talks up how happy they are since they converted and demands that the
listeners convert too, if they’re not Christian already.
But some Christians don’t have an enthralling, fascinating conversion story to tell. They
grew up Christian, decided to get baptized at a fairly young age, then simply remained
in the faith. They’ve never done anything really bad, and they’ve never seen anything
they could rightly call an impressive miracle.
Thanks to the Cult of “Before” Stories, they don’t have to keep feeling left out! In order
to join, a Christian must carefully consider the current major tribal enemies of their
religion. An opportunistic testimony ages incredibly poorly, because tribal enemies shift
from year to year.
The kinds of Christians who put great store by testimonies as sales tools also buy into
an astonishing range of conspiracy theories. Choosing an old, dated conspiracy theory
will alienate Christians who’ve moved on to the new testimonies.
Try listening to Mike Warnke’s. His testimony is woefully dated. He’s a product of the
Satanic Panic, so his testimony bogs down amid orgies, drugs, Satanists, black magic,
and a monstrous Illuminati-style cabal of Satanist Wiccans that controls everything and
seeks to subvert young people from the One True Faith. It sounds absolutely ridiculous
now. Decades after he faced a humiliating expose of his almost completely untrue story,
he still peddles it.
For the last few years, Christians have been swearing by testimonies containing pasts
steeped in atheism. Those testimonies perfectly fit the parameters for a “Before” Story.
In Act 1, the Christian relates how they were totally atheistic. Then, in Act 2, they totally
got gobsmacked by some Christian. In Act 3, they share how they are totally happy
now, as well as content that they have found a faith that is intellectually defensible,
demonstrably reality-based, and morally-superior to all other worldviews–are you totally
convinced yet?
Many Christians are so kneejerk hostile to atheists that they automatically assume that
any and all pushback is coming from one. Their various sales pitches are usually written
with an atheist audience front and center in their minds. All of this happens despite the
relatively low percentage of atheists in America.
Most atheists embrace a worldview that involves a simple lack of belief in any gods.
Some atheists are hard atheists. They’ll say outright that gods don’t exist. Others
content themselves with concluding that no evidence supports the notion of deities.
By contrast, many Christians believe that atheism is simply a childish desire to rebel
against a god that atheists totally still believe in. In reality, atheists often offer extremely
robust responses to Christian apologists. Atheist bible frequently outshines the
Christians’ own. With the advent of the internet and mobile access, that knowledge went
into hyperdrive.
By reducing atheists down to pathetic whiners who just can’t cope with the idea of a god
who rules everything, even themselves, Christians defang their mortal enemies. By
making their objections to Christian overreach and claims into childish tantrum-throwing,
Christians assert dominance and superiority over those enemies.
But, often all it takes for a Christian to escape their religion is to realize that one claim is
absolutely, categorically false. The genie escapes the bottle at that moment–and cannot
be returned to it ever again. At that point, they’ll know that their thought leaders can be
dishonest–or at least hugely wrong–about something important. That realization will
cascade into wondering what else their leaders are wrong or dishonest about.
I’m an ex-Christian who was deeply immersed in the right-wing religious world. I was
born and raised Catholic, but converted to a Southern Baptist Convention church in my
teens and quickly moved on to a Pentecostal church, where I spent the next ten years. I
even married a guy who wanted to be a preacher! I deconverted in my mid-20s (the
mid-1990s), left the wannabe-preacher, and moved abroad.
It took a lot of time to really process my deconversion. I had a lot of time to think about
what had happened and how I’d gotten wrapped up in that stuff. I began hanging out on
a forum for ex-Christians and discovered that I had a lot to say and share. I’d been out
of the country for a good part of my post-deconversion life, so I was especially alarmed
after returning to America and seeing what right-wing Christian people in my home
country were doing.
This is someone who learned about God in what might be termed somewhat
absolutist religious environments. My reply:
I happened on your article this morning. You absolutely nailed the Christian Testimony
cycle, in my opinion. I have cringed at some of the dramatic conversion testimonies that
I’ve heard where the Christian convert seems to revel in topping others in their pre-belief
sinfulness. Or, the very young Christians getting immersion baptized after reciting the
magic words of accepting Jesus as their Lord and Savior which someone else gently (or
not) encouraged them to say. They really are too young to have an understanding of
what is happening.
My wife and I have traveled a curvey faith walk. We grew up in fairly progressive
Presbyterian congregations in small churches, where we were taught that God loves
everyone. There wasn’t much focus on sin. More of a “be a decent human being”
perspective and know that God loves you and that Jesus was a human example of
God’s love. Yes, maybe there is some kind of next life that nobody really knows any
details about. Hell probably doesn’t exist at all. No loving God would make anyone
suffer for eternity.
We questioned our religious tradition and religion in general after being exposed to
more conservative Christian perspectives of other believers. The Bible has no errors.
Hell is real. The devil is real. Angels exist. Demons, too. Miracles happen all the time.
The earth was created in seven days. God hears every prayer and it always works.
Ahh, for the church of true miracles where lost limbs of war damaged believers are
regrown via fervent prayer! There is no such house of worship. Or, why vaccinate
anyone if praying for good health is enough? If God’s miracles are anywhere, His
purpose is to keep them between the lines and believer dependent.
We attended a Unitarian church where the motto was that the questions are as
important as the answers. We liked that. No absolutes. No saviors. But, no Christmas
carols. We missed those. Children were not born sinful and did not need to be
baptized. Our oldest son was “recognized” in the Unitarian Church we attended.
Basically, welcomed into existence. Much good work was done by the liberal
congregation, but we also felt that an idea of God was almost absent. It was more of a
social organization. Maybe we just missed some of the familiar hymns and Jesus’
parables that we grew up with.
We moved and eventually drifted away from organized religion entirely. Our two sons
were not raised with any specific religious perspective. We told them that when they
were older they could explore religion, faith and whether they believe in God for
themselves. We figured that little kids can be indoctrinated to believe anything and
since we weren’t sure, we didn’t want to infuse them with beliefs we weren’t 100% sure
of. The downside, is that they were left to deal with proselytizing, conservative Christian
friends who offered answers to questions that our kids weren’t asking.
At a rocky point in our lives, we were invited to an Evangelical Christian church by
friends. The first visit felt a bit cultish with the trendy musical verses about Jesus’s
saving grace sung over and over following a projection of words on the wall. But,
everyone was welcoming and friendly. The Pastor was a good speaker and explained
Christian perspectives logically. We got involved in a small group of caring,
compassionate, devoted believers. The church was doing good things in the
community and beyond. The service was informal. It was a nice place, but we also
realized, after attending for years, that the message did not match our understanding of
God’s inclusiveness.
Official dogma was that gays were sinners and we should “love the sinner but hate the
sin.” We felt this was cruel, utter nonsense on so many levels. The view of
homosexuality at this church was on a par with pedophilia. Women could not be elders
or lead pastors due to following one bit of biblical verse stating that leaders should be
“sober, married men.”
Views on abortion were that it is murder, even if we are talking about terminating a
pregnancy when the fetus is a blastula of undifferentiated cells. Planned Parenthood
was evil. We tried to change these perspectives, but were unable and could not bring
ourselves to support an institution that we felt did not mirror our understanding of God’s
love for all.
We church shopped. Went to an AOG church with the altar call and some tongues
speaking. The intensity of belief was incredible, but the dogma was very conservative
and we felt folks were seeing what they wanted to see versus what was actually there.
We visited a Catholic Church where friends worshipped. The church had gone through
dramatic change. The Priest had been defrocked by the church for performing gay
marriages. After losing his church, he continued doing services at another institution
and the attendance grew to hundreds every Sunday. They have a female Priest. The
service is Catholic in tradition, but gays are married and lesbian couples adopt children
who are welcomed into the faith during services. Communion is offered to all who
“follow after Jesus with their hearts.” This was progressive, inclusive Catholicism.
Wonderful to experience.
Oddly, we ended up back about where we started. We visited a traditional looking
Presbyterian church in the small town where we live. Upon entering, we were greeted
by a woman wearing a “Got Choice?” button. We heard a sermon where his first words
were, “The Bible is a book of many stories and some of them are true.” Wow, this was
refreshing. We found that the place was welcoming, but low key.
Dramatic testimonies were rare and not expected. Doubt and unanswerable questions
were accepted. The Pastor was OK with saying, “I don’t know.” The atmosphere and
messages were repeatedly along the lines of love one another and work to relieve
suffering. It was a caring community much more than a rules oriented behavior system.
The core Christian message was that Jesus example and existence was to show
that God loves everyone and nobody has to do anything to earn God’s love.
So, we join others in worship, but admit that what we believe is not provable and that we
probably believe differently on different questions than many people we share pews
with. We accept that people can behave morally or immorally whether they believe in
God or not. We are not obsessed with scripture. If God wanted Jesus to give us a holy
rule book, He would have written down the rules Himself versus Jesus telling stories
and leaving it to others to write down.
My wife and I have both had some spiritual experiences that are beyond explanation.
Did we really hear or see what we did or did we just want to badly enough? We
question our own experiences and realize others have the right to question ours and
everyone else’s. Doubt and questioning are not bad things. Progress in all areas from
medicine and physics to government and geology comes from questioning, doubt and
exploration of different approaches. Shouldn’t it be the same with faith and religion?
Most of us stick with whatever belief system our parents gave us. If we wander away,
it’s generally to a similar form. We don’t really rebel in a big way. Dramatic conversions
from one faith to another are rare. The Virgin Mary doesn’t appear to Muslims or
Buddhists because they aren’t conditioned to look for her. Generally, in our experience,
those who have dumped faith entirely were often brought up in a religious situation that
was very dogmatic and emphasized a black and white, dualistic view of everything.
God is waiting for us to trip, sin, violate the scriptural rules and make a wrong decision.
Then, we are then condemned to the devil. It’s almost child abuse to load such a belief
system on children and pretty understandable when those kids eventually read some
science books, learn about other faith perspectives and decide that what they were
taught was nonsense. But, it’s really hard to step away from that steaming pile of guilt
that was part of their childhood religious experience and still have a core faith. Much
more likely to be done with all of it. Very understandable.
If there is any consistency to belief in God from any religious or philosophical
perspective, it is that God’s existence is not provable. We support a progressive,
inclusive and loving Christian faith perspective because that is what speaks to
our hearts and our hopes for God’s nature. That said, it just isn’t worth arguing
about because all a believer can ever say is that he or she believes in something
unseen and not necessarily experienced by others. It can’t be shared, even with a
dramatic personal conversion testimony.
The best testimony is living a caring, compassionate, kind life. Leave the drama to
Enjoyed your writing. Keep poking the religious absolutists.
Kind Regards, Kevin Curtis
I haven’t heard back, but hope that the author might yet explore Christian faith
perspectives beyond the three that failed to open her heart to belief. The most true,
provable and beautiful miracles are changed hearts. They surround us.
Let us pray: Dear God, there are so many different approaches to knowing your
purpose and sharing your intentions. Help us to find the right path. Open our hearts to
help us to humbly share your love and mirror Christ’s example in our thoughts, words
and actions. Guide us to be faithful servants and bridge builders where there is discord
and indifference. Help us to be peacemakers where there is violence. Encourage us to
act and to speak out for what is just, honorable and kind in Your eyes. We ask that your
spirit act upon our nation’s leaders to find healing solutions to the many challenges
before them. We ask this for leaders of all nations. Holy One, we ask that You give
comfort to all who are struggling in whatever way, wherever that is happening. Help us
to have the strength to help others. We ask all this in Jesus’ name. Amen.
7.13.18 Update. Reply from Cassidy:
I just saw this in the depths of my inbox and I’m sorry that I missed it! It’s incredible!
Thank you for writing this. I’m glad you and your wife have had so many wonderful
years together, and so many more still to come, and that you’ve walked this path
together. That one thing right there makes such a huge difference in life. I’m so happy to
have read this today. Thank you.
If you keep readin’ ’em, I’ll keep writin’ ’em, to borrow a phrase 🙂
Yours very sincerely,
Reply to Cassidy:
Thanks, Cassidy.
Best to you on your faith journey.
It is wonderful to be on roughly the same belief page as my partner. Kristin and I are still
turning those pages. 😉
Someday, you may find a faith family of enlightened believers who embrace science,
hope, doubt, wonder, love, community and compassion.
Ditch the holy rule books. Follow your heart. There may be something more than this
ancient, spinning rock we all live on, but it’s not provable and our existence here on
earth is damn amazing, with or without a Creator.
Enjoy the ride!
Kind Regards,