Two Gods

Some years ago, when I was teaching a required course in great books that we called “Humanities,” I was discussing with the class the assigned reading, the Book of Job. The discussion was going  well, I thought, but my repeated reference to the “God of the Old Testament” apparently riled one of the students who spoke out: “it’s the same God as in the New Testament, you know.” Well, I didn’t know. The student was a Born Again Christian and I had only been born once. From my apparently stunted perspective the two Gods seemed miles apart, the Old Testament God a vengeful and even vindictive God who would throw Adam and Eve out of the Garden of Eden for disobedience and punish Job for bragging rights. He’s the God who said to Eve: “I will greatly multiply thy sorrow and thy conception, in sorrow shall thou bring forth children; and thy desire shall be thy husband, and he shall rule over thee.” The God of the New Testament struck me as a forgiving God, a god of love and compassion. He is the God who said “Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which spitefully use you, and persecute you.” The two seemed, as I say, miles apart. But clearly I did not know what I was talking about.

In any event, in reading The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver, a novel recommended by a good friend, I came across the same concern I had expressed, to wit, the reflection by one of the main characters in the novel that the two Gods were very different. The novel raises a number of interesting questions and, while disturbing in many ways, is a good read, focusing on a very twisted Baptist preacher who decides to do a year of missionary work and hauls his wife and four girls to the Congo to drag the natives out of the utter darkness (where they appear to be quite happy, thank you very much) and into the light that apparently only he can see. Needless to say, he botches the job, alienating the natives entirely while abusing and doing untold damage to his children and making life a living hell for his poor wife. But such is the enthusiasm of the “true believer” who is convinced that he (or she) has the truth and everyone else should shut up and pay attention. Our hero is a hellfire and brimstone preacher who hopes to save souls by scaring the shit out of them. His mania can be found just this side of insanity. He bases his world view on a reading of the Old Testament having, apparently, never gotten as far as the New Testament — except for the Book of Revelation. Yet he insists that he is a devout Christian.

All of which raises the deeper question of the untold damage “Christians” have done over the centuries in direct defiance of the teachings of their Founder. How on earth the message of peace and love got translated into a message of intolerance and hate defies reason, though it would appear folks are simply more comfortable with the Old Testament God. But, then, many things we humans do defy reason. The sad thing in this case is that so much good has turned rotten and so many lives have been ruined by well-meaning zealots who think they know all that needs to be known. Just like my student who knew that the God of the Old Testament is the same God as the God of the New Testament, a conviction I knew better than to tamper with by trying to get her to think.

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10 thoughts on “Two Gods

  1. Hugh, there is a lot to comment on here, but you are on the mark in your observations. In no particular order:

    – About 45% of Christians do not believe that every word in the bible is true. They view it as a good teaching tool. I personally find that there is no way possible for it to be all true as even if divinely inspired, it was written, interpreted and translated by imperfect men along with all of their biases, misconceptions and lack of science knowledge.
    – As a result, the God in the old testament is portrayed differently than the God in the new testament. Your assessment is correct. There is an old saying that if you want to create an atheist, have them read the bible. Yet, in my view, if you want to teach them how to be a good person, have them start with the new testament.
    – My Humanities had the same experience with the Book of Job. When you look the book clinically, it portrays God in a bad light. I recall vividly a born again young lady covering her ears in class saying “I don’t want to listen to this.”
    – Then there is a good quote from one of the finest people ever to walk the earth, Gandhi. He noted in response to a question, “I like Jesus, I just am concerned with Christians.” I interpret this to mean, we should strive to be more like Jesus, but many usurp that quest and fall short of being “Christ-like.”
    – I come back to the overarching message that trumps all and can be found in other religious texts; treat others like you want to be treated. It is that simple.

    Well done sir. I have read about “The Poisonwood Bible” but have not read it. I think Emily January covered it in her blog. Take care. BTG

    • Well said, both Hugh and BTG. Hugh, I think you were pretty much correct in delineating the Gods of the two testaments, although there are hints at compassion and forgiveness on occasion in the Old Testament. But it’s a much, much different God in the New, obviously, hinging around the response by the writers of the New Testament to events on the cross and in some of Christ’s quotes in the Gospels.

      Christians, if they really are going to take Christ at his word, should see the OT as more or less obsolete, or maybe just a reference work. Christ at various points declares it as such. Yet, many Christians take so literally and elevate above Christ’s teaching many of the laws and instructions of the Old Testament, many of them quite violent or laced with hatred and bigotry. That is not the message of Christ. It’s indeed why Gandhi’s words ring so on point.

      I liked your summary and reaction to “The Poisonwood Bible,” too. The line about the minister/missionary’s dragging the native Congolese “into the light only he can see,” is a perfect description of the hypocrisy of the self-righteous who are so blinded by their interpretation of their faith they destroy not only other lives, but other ways of life. “The Poisonwood Bible” is fiction. Unfortunately, far too often, that kind of behavior is not.

  2. Read the book many years back, and really liked it. Hugh, you’ve said much that I’ve felt for years. Personally, those who take the bible as the word of god have to have a screw loose. And the devout christians we see today, particularly those who wear their christianity on their sleeve, who spout the bible chapter and verse, and who tell us how to live our lives according to their directives, are hypocrites at best. they wouldn’t recognize Jesus if he came up and slapped them upside the head, and secondly, certainly would not accept his love they neighbor directives. Proof? Just ask our christian brethren in Congress.

    Well done!

    • I believe you have it! Jesus should come back and hit them upside the head! That’s the solution. Those who call themselves “Christians” — especially those who speak loudly — are lost in abstractions. They love everyone and don’t like anyone.

      • Using some of Jesus’s actions reported in the bible, he would likely not be very fond of the messages of exclusion being taught inside some churches and would say so. These church leaders, like the one in his day, would deem him to be a false prophet to protect their turf. It would be like history repeating itself.

  3. Of course you made me chuckle several times, but you knew that, didn’t you? (“..save souls by scaring the shit out of them…”)

    I read this book when I was living in Costa Rica, so much of the disappointments and challenges they faced were some I had faced as well. Limited to what one can pack/take on the airline, it’s always interesting to see what people choose.

    Trying to tame the wildness of the earth, watching a vegetable garden sprout and then die, learning about different hours of daylight, and enduring torrential rains and the mud, oh the mud! And clothes that won’t dry…The family was surely ready to abort the mission, yet they were expected to honor not only the head of the household, but also their commitment to God and the village people.. There are so many layers of personal psyche in the story.

    I should read this book again – I’ll probably appreciate it more the second time.

    Enough babbling. Now let’s see if this will reach you!

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