I had the oddest experience today. I was walking down the street and there was a group of Christians standing in front of a boxcar nicely painted with their logo and website. They had brought loudspeakers and mixing system, and were playing some loud semi-techno stuff while they were dancing like crazy (literally, there was an old guy jumping around with an umbrella doing a Rolling Stones impersonation).
I did the only sensible thing and stopped to see what was going on and take a picture. After a short while the guy who was singing jumped up on a table and began to preach; he went full born-again, we learned he had lived a sinful life where he had travelled the world and tried drug and sex, but now he had found God and God was so happy because our sins were forgiven (I don’t really get if God was happy with himself for taking that decision), then something about churches being bad, then something about god loving us, then something else and finally he slipped in the usual line that unbelievers will be punished, presumably also to Gods happiness.
While this was going on a guy in his 30s walk over to me and ask me what I thought. Though I didn’t see him dance, I immediately know he is with the group.
So I said I thought it was very special, there was a lot of positive energy, and joked we didn’t have that sort of Christians from where I am from. After a bit more chat he asked me what I thought about what I had heard. I answered what I was just thinking from the sermon: Well, I guess I am a bit ambivalent about some of it. For instance he said God loves us and I think that’s a very positive message, but at the same time he also just said God was going to punish us. And I can’t help thinking how I would feel about a person who felt that way. I mean, if I met a person who at the same time said he loved me and at the same time that he might punish me severely”. He didn’t become defensive but said something like: “How God judge us and love us at the same time is also a hard thing to understand from a human perspective”. He then asked me if I was a Christian and I said no, I am not convinced. He then asked if I was open to the possibility God existed and I said: “Yes sure. I mean, anything is possible. I mean, in the same way I am open to all religions being true”. I then asked him: “I guess what I am really curious about is why you have arrived at the conclusion this is true, I mean, It’s quite a lot to believe. How do you go about concluding something like that?”
He then went into something he had clearly thought about before. He said: “There are 3 reasons why I believe the bible is the word of god. One is historical, that I do not believe the new testimony (!) could have been written by man. When I read it I think it must have been written by eye-witness and it has the ring of truth. Secondly there is the miracles that have happened through history and are also happening today, some of which I have experienced. Thirdly there is the witness of the holy ghost, that I can feel God in my heart”, only his phrasing was more polished than my attempt to reproduce it here. I thought I should go with the first. I deliberately paused for a bit and asked him: “okay.. well, I guess what I’m the most curious about is how one goes from reading the book, I mean the bible, to concluding it must be inspired by God”. He then made a number of the usual points. Like when he read the book, he felt what it spoke about had the ring of truth and sounded like history, that the stories weren’t something that one would make up and some other arguments I do not recall now. I said: “Yes, but I mean suppose I was skeptical.. suppose I read the bible and I thought it sounded like history but I wanted to know if I could really trust that was what happened. I mean there are many books that are written like history it does not necessarily mean what they say is true. How do we determine if we can trust the bible?” (I didn’t make the point very clearly). He then mentioned he was studying for his PhD in theology, which was a bit random but I guess he wanted to let me know he knew what he was talking about. He then said some of the sources for the bible were very early and gave Pauls first letter of timothy as an example. He quoted a part where Paul mentioned some of the events. He also gave the letters of Peter as examples. I partly asked partly stated: “I know Paul wrote very near to the events, but didn’t Paul report on what others told him?” He agreed and quite moved on to say we also had the four gospels and indicated these were the primary information to the events. I asked him who he thought wrote the gospels. His answer was a bit surprising. He said he thought Luke wrote Luke, and he thought John might have written John, and elaborated a bit. I then said:
“okay.. but let me try to see if I understand this. I mean, what I wonder is how we can know the stories of miracles and so on in the Gospels really took place like that (pause). What we have are the gospels, but It does not seem like we have a lot of ways to confirm what they say are true. Take for instance the question if they were written by eye-witness. You said yourself Luke might have written it, but I mean that’s also saying we can’t really know. I think there is a lot of difference in saying: ‘This text might have been written by an eye-witness but we can’t really know’, and having a letter saying: ‘my friend Luke worked like crazy for a month writing down some really exceptional stories about someone called Jesus’. In the latter case there is a whole lot more evidence, but as it is now … this is something that happened 2000 years ago, there just doesn’t seem to be that many concrete things to base ones beliefs on”. He then said we had early fragments of the gospels.
I was a bit cheeky and said: “how early are the earliest fragments? Isn’t it like second half of the first century” (I bloody well knew better). He then answered a bit reluctant that it was second century but: “they agree a lot with the later texts we have”. I said: “well, but that’s still quite a lot of time right? It’s like (long pause) 50 years between the time they turn up into history and they were written, how much can we really know for sure based on that?”.
He then quite clearly tried to change the conversation to miracles. He said: Yes, but miracles are also happening today. I asked him if he thought miracles could happen in other religions and (surprisingly) he explained that might be the case. I remembered he had talked about himself experiencing a miracle so I basically knew this was going to end with his personal experience. I think I should add he was a pretty scruffy looking fellow. He had started Movember sometimes in early October, and he spoke with his lips back so you could see his teeth and they were *not* looking good. Some of them had large brown spots and his gums were bleeding some places and had an odd grayish tone. The other preacher said he had lived a hard life before Christ but I decided this was the real deal; either that or they ride their dphils hard at theology. At any rate, I didn’t really want to stand there and tell him he had not experienced the miracles himself, or the holy ghost was not really calling.
I said: “I think miracles are very interesting. What I guess is hard is to know when a story about a miracle is true and when it’s not. I mean, I guess we both know of some miracles that people say happen but do not happen. For instance there is the placebo effect. Like someone might pray over someone who is in pain, and the other person get so fired up with good energy (I looked at the people who was dancing) that he might not feel the pain. So then its hard to know if it was the prayer. Or in mega-churches, we hear about healings and so on all the time, but I guess none of us believe that’s really happening”. He then said yes but gave some concrete examples of miracles, like a blind man who could see again, someone with a limb who could walk and so on. He made a point in saying he had experienced miracles himself. I asked him what, and he said he once prayed over a friends strained foot and it healed itself so he didn’t feel the pain (I could tell he was aware this was entirely covered by the placebo effect). He also gave another example, but I couldn’t quite hear it over the noise.
What happened next was really odd. He then said: Do you want to experience a miracle? I was a bit taken back and murmured yes. He then said: I can pray over you and ask God (or jesus, cant remember) to tell me something about you as a sign. I swear a miracle occurred. I must have channeled Christopher Hitchens, because I can’t think this quick but I didn’t miss a beat and immediately said: Yes! I would really like to try that if you want to do it. But if you are willing to do that, then let’s say I write a number on a note, and if God tell you the number I will know for sure he exist and you are correct”.
Poor bloke did not expect that!
He then said slowly: …I don’t know if I have that much faith… I said: I am thinking, there are properly a lot of things a person can tell about me just by looking at me (I gave some examples) . What I want to make sure is if God will give you a sign about me, I don’t want to be able to fool myself and say afterwards: Well, he might have been lucky or had a very good subconscious intuition. I am completely honest, if God tell you the number in prayer, I will change my life from this moment on and become a Christian. He then said something to the effect that God usually told him other things about people and it was clear he intended we only tried with the “other things” part. I said: If God can tell you other things about people to show them signs of how prayer work, surely he could also tell a number. How about we just try both and see what happens if you feel it is okay? He agreed. I asked him what I should do, if it was okay if I just folded my hands and closed my eyes and opened myself. He said yes. I thought: Holy crap this this guy is for real, otherwise he would have given some lame ass excuse (*cough*, Tammy, *cough*). He really think he will now talk to jesus and jesus will try to save me by revealing something personal about me.
So I went two meters away and began to write a number on a lap of paper. Then it occurred to me what if he gets it right? I really did think that thought, and I made up my mind that the only honest thing to do was to write a long number, make sure to cover it with my hand and if he got it right I would damn better sell my stuff, pick up my cross and umbrella and practice my Mick Jagger.
So he prayed, for about a minute. After he was done, he said: “I asked God to reveal something about you. I see you are missing home, and I see your mom might be ill, I saw she might have something with her wrists, perhaps from typing too much (pause). I also saw a number, it was 10 and perhaps a 69.. perhaps 169 or 1069. I think there might have been a four before the 6.
I then said: “you are partly correct, I do miss home (this was one of the examples I had given which one could easily infer). About my mom, I don’t think she is unwell. I certainly haven’t heard her say anything about her wrists.”. “What about the number?”. “it was not the one sorry”. “Can I see it?”. I gave him the piece of paper. I said: “I deliberately choose a long number. If God is willing to tell you a small thing about me, he could also tell something like the number – and I had to make a long number so I knew it was not by chance. If you had guessed it I would have known I should become a Christian”. I didnt say the obvious stuff.
He had been very aware of his body-language while we spoke. He had looked me directly in my eyes all the time and I am very sure he had given thought about how he used his hands while he spoke. He really did take a step back and his eyes flickered a bit back and forth to the stage and me. I felt bad for him and said: “well, I really appreciate you tried it, that tells me you are sincere in what you believe, I don’t think many would have done that [*COUGH*]”, then I thought that was properly not helping. The poor guy didn’t seem to know what to do and I said I had to get going. We shook hands and off I went.