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By David Madison on 02/10/23
Psalm 23, the Lord’s Prayer & John 3:16
Sunday School and Catechism exist because the clergy know that certain articles of faith must be established as early as possible: capture young minds and hold them forever—at least that’s the hope. One of these articles of faith is that the clergy are custodians of truth about the god/gods they proclaim, so just accept what they tell you. A second article is that if certain scripture texts are recited frequently, endlessly, from the earliest years, they become part of life, fundamental truths not to be questioned. Remembering them, reciting them, are sources of comfort. Hence it would never cross the minds of many adult churchgoers to question—to critically examine—the Bible texts they’ve known and loved from an early age. They are disinclined to ask: Do these texts make sense? Do they fit with what we know about our world after a few hundred years of science and discovery?
This certainly qualifies as escape-from-reality scripture. Christians cherish it especially because Jesus is presented in John’s gospel as The Good Shepherd: so, the shepherd presented in the 23rd Psalm is the way they want their Jesus to be. One of the tricks that Bible translators have pulled is the camouflaging of the divine name. In the ancient world gods had names, and the god of the Hebrew Bible was named Yahweh. But not too many Christians go around proclaiming their love for Yahweh; that would sound just too strange. So translators have spared them this embarrassment: be on the lookout, in the Old Testament, for Lord spelled with all-caps: LORD. This is a replacement for Yahweh.
So “the LORD is my shepherd” is actually, “Yahweh is my shepherd.” And although this is an escape-from-reality text, we do have to admire the author for expressing a dissenting opinion about Yahweh. For the most part in the Old Testament, Yahweh is depicted as a rampaging, angry deity, a demanding bully of a god. We see this full strength in the Noah flood story—a horrifying tale of genocide; also in Yahweh’s targeted murder of children in his epic struggle with Egypt’s pharaoh. Anyone who ventures through the Old Testament can only be shocked at this god’s murderous behavior (see especially, Steve Wells, Drunk with Blood: God’s Killings in the Bible).
The author of Psalm 23 envisioned a kinder, gentler theology. I won’t quote the entire psalm here, since it’s so easy to find, but here are three key sentiments that the devout today find so appealing:
“The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want. He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters. He restoreth my soul…”
Churchgoers want continual assurance that the god who runs the Cosmos knows about them, cares about them; is looking out for their well-being. It’s a calming thought that a god walks with us near “still waters,” and restores our souls. But I do wonder if this escape-from-reality text really does help ordinary folks as they grapple with what life throws at them. Do they experience serenity any more than people who don’t know/believe in the theology behind this text? In the midst of personal pain and tragedy, does this text come to the rescue? This is theology designed to divert attention from what the real world throws at us: Yahweh and Jesus love you: hold on to that thought!
“Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.”
The image here is of the shepherd protecting his flock, equipped with rod and staff, to scare off predators. But is it the case that devout Christian folks don’t fear evil? As they face dangers that evoke this image of the “valley of the shadow of death,” are they certain that Jesus is their constant, reliable protector? No: life happens, and everyone—no matter their religious beliefs—gets smacked by horrible, even deadly events. Hence this is an escape-from-reality text. Some believers refuse to accept the grim truth, e.g., there’s been a serious house fire, killing a member of the family, but…the Bible was untouched by the flames: praise god…or rather, Yahweh!
The shallow theology—it sounds nice, but that’s about all—continues: “Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the LORD forever.” When I looked at the news today, the death toll from the Turkey/Syria earthquake has surpassed 21,000. Where were god’s goodness and mercy? It seems he was behaving in mysterious ways once again.
The Lord’s Prayer
“Our Father which art in heaven, hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come, thy will be done in earth, as it is in heaven.Give us this day our daily bread. And forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil: For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, forever. Amen.” (Matthew 6:9-13, KJV)
The very first sentence captures so much of the narrow, superstitious ancient world view, tainted with patriarchal bias. Our father: So much damage has been caused by identifying god as male, but this derives from the old god Yahweh being modeled on tribal chieftains. Surely, upon reflection, it cannot possibly be argued that a creator-god in charge of billions of galaxies possesses gender as understood by our species. Which art in heaven: thought to be a few miles overhead, which meant that holy men could get closer to god by going to mountaintops. And the story of Jesus ascending to heaven (Acts 1) made perfectly good sense at the time. Even my devout mother had figured out that heaven couldn’t be up there. She told me it is a state of being in the presence of god. But the Lord’s Prayer is rooted in the ancient cosmology.
Hallowed be thy name. Why would a god need to be reminded, assured by humans, that its name is holy? Has god benefitted from being given this ego boost for hundreds of years? If god is already all-powerful, how does this make sense? Moreover, assuming that a name is holy is an aspect of magical thinking. The name has to be protected, hence the warning: “You shall not make wrongful use of the name of Yahweh your God, for Yahweh will not acquit anyone who misuses his name.” (Exodus 20:7) This, above all, is an example of laypeople being disinclined to ask: Do these texts make sense?
Thy kingdom come, thy will be done in earth, as it is in heaven. This line seems to derive from the primary message of Mark’s gospel that the kingdom of god was imminent—there is an any-day-now feel to it—hence in this Jesus-script, the faithful are urged to keep reminding god to get the job done. Does he ever get annoyed with this continual pestering? Here’s a another issue: Do those who routinely recite these words today give any thought to what the arrival of the kingdom supposedly will entail? In other Jesus-script we find the prediction that it will bring as much suffering as happened in the time of Noah, i.e., most of the people on earth were killed. Thy kingdom come, in fact, reflects the naïve apocalypticism that the early church accepted—and that was simply wrong. For more on this see John Loftus’ essay, “At
Best Jesus Was a Failed Apocalyptic Prophet,” in his 2010 anthology, The Christian Delusion: Why Faith Fails. There is so much in the New Testament that is absolutely awful.
Those of us raised in Christianity know it by heart: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” Anyone who has read the Bible—and studied history—knows that this claim, god so loves the world, has been falsified. Consider just the problem of horrendous human and animal suffering—and there has been plenty written about that here on this blog. Chalk this claim up to John’s tedious habit of theological exaggeration—what I sometimes have called theology inflation. But John immediately undermines this claim with what can be called the exclusionary clauses. The overwhelming majority of people who have ever lived have not believed in Jesus—so they’re out of luck. And this is stated bluntly in John 3:18: “Those who believe in him are not condemned, but those who do not believe are condemned already because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God.” John 3:36 is even meaner: “Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life; whoever disobeys the Son will not see life but must endure God’s wrath.” This theology is a mark of cult fanaticism: if you’re not a member of our in-group, god will smash you. Notice as well the magical thinking here: it’s important to believe in the name.
We can be suspect that the folks who rave about John 3:16 pay little heed to John 3:14-15: “And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.”
What’s that about? The serpent in the wilderness? The god who so loves the world was in a nasty mood, as mentioned in Numbers 21:5-9, which is worth quoting in full:
“The people spoke against God and against Moses, ‘Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water, and we detest this miserable food.’Then Yahweh sent poisonous serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many Israelites died. The people came to Moses and said, ‘We have sinned by speaking against Yahweh and against you; pray to Yahweh to take away the serpents from us.’ So Moses prayed for the people. And Yahweh said to Moses, ‘Make a poisonous serpent and set it on a pole, and everyone who is bitten shall look at it and live.’ So Moses made a serpent of bronze and put it upon a pole, and whenever a serpent bit someone, that person would look at the serpent of bronze and live.”
Pay attention: This god arranged for snakes to bite people? And John is comparing Jesus on the cross to a bronze serpent hanging on a pole. If you’ve been bitten by a poisonous serpent, but look at the serpent on the pole, you won’t die. And if you’ve been bitten by sin, you will get eternal life if you believe in Yahweh’s son hanging on the cross. These are both examples of naïve magical thinking: look at something, believe in something: you’ll be cured. Do the devout ever bother to analyze such goofiness? People who have walked away from Christianity have commonly done so because there is so much in the Bible, especially the gospels, that defies a sane and healthy approach to the world.
It doesn’t require too much effort to see that Psalm 23 is delusional, shallow piety; that key elements in the Lord’s Prayer make sense only in the context of ancient cosmology and superstitions about gods; that the faulty sentiment of John 3:16 is embedded in a chapter crippled by vindictive theology. Sad to say, these texts are honored and celebrated in Christian ritual—pushed by the clergy who don’t want them to be scrutinized.
But the advice still stands: Pay attention, question everything.
David Madison was a pastor in the Methodist Church for nine years, and has a PhD in Biblical Studies from Boston University. He is the author of two books, Ten Tough Problems in Christian Thought and Belief: a Minister-Turned-Atheist Shows Why You Should Ditch the Faith (2016; 2018 Foreword by John Loftus) and Ten Things Christians Wish Jesus Hadn’t Taught: And Other Reasons to Question His Words (2021). The Spanish translation of this book is also now available.
His YouTube channel is here. He has written for the Debunking Christianity Blog since 2016.
The Cure-for-Christianity Library©, now with more than 500 titles, is here. A brief video explanation of the Library is here.