I decided to go down to Mill Ave. to see what was playing at the Valley Art Theater. This theater was the place where Dan Harkins, the man who runs the Harkins Theaters network, was conceived and raised in. The theater is unique in the realm of moviehousedom in that it plays all kinds of obscure and esoteric films, without regard for commercial concerns (I was one of but three audients in the house). They don't follow any prescribed format. They might show old releases, things from years ago—I thankfully had the opportunity to watch The Graduate and Apocalypse Now on the widescreen there—or they might show some video-tractate like What The Bleep Do We Know? —for endless weeks they ran this film, something I found really annoying, having little tolerance of new-agey pseudo-mysticism. They've even hosted live music at times, though it's been a while since they've done that. Among the most memorable performances there were Tori Amos with just a piano and Jeff Buckley's band right after Grace had been released. It's been preserved as a kind of shrine, always clean and well-maintained, a Tempe phenomenon, an anomaly. It's one of only two artsy theaters in the whole metro area (the other being the Camelview in Scottsdale) in which to catch "independent" films. On this occasion, it was Manda Bala, a Brazilian documentary about the lucrative kidnapping industry in Sao Paulo.
I was walking south on Mill, trying to kill some time before the next showing of the film, when this painting in the window of the post office caught my eye. Through the years this post office has always displayed arts of all kinds. I wonder how unique that is within the realm of post-ofiicedom.
At the very moment this foto was snapped, from my right re-came the good news. I and a shaven bald man whom I learned was named Mark, had the following discussion:
Mark - (from my right, after the foto) Hello, how are you?
Ó - I'm okay, thanks. (I put my camera back in its case and into my backpack)
Mark - Do you know the "gospel"? (he places tract on the ledge next to me)
Ó - The "gospel"? Do you mean that in the pauline sense or do you mean one of the gospels? Which one? (I look down and see the tract's title, "The Atheist Test")
Mark - I mean the gospel.
Ó - Okay . . . I guess it's a "yes" on both, then. (pointing, smiling impishly) Is this a test to determine whether one is an atheist or not?
Mark - Not really, it's just a tract.
Ó - A Chik Tract?
Mark - No.
Ó - Okay. (pause) What about the gospel, then?
Mark - Do you believe in the Bible?
Ó - (jokingly) Believe in it??!!?? Hell, I've seen it with my own eyes!!
Why . . . there's one right now!! (pointing to his Bible on the opposite ledge—I laugh)
Mark - No, no. I mean, do you believe that the Bible is true?
Ó - "True"? In what sense?
Mark - Do you believe the Bible is infallible?
Ó - Good heavens, no!! Don't you mean "inerrant", though?
Mark - Yeah. You don't think the Bible is inerrant? Why not?
Ó - Well, I don't have any reason for thinking that it is . . . and so I don't. It's actually very simple.
Mark - What about all of the prophecies that have come true? Things that were foretold.
Ó - What prophecies?
Mark - Books like Daniel that foretold the coming of Jesus.
Ó - Wait, you think that prophetic clairvoyance makes for inerrancy? Why ain't you worshipping that Russian dude? . . . Nostradamus.
Mark - Nostradamus actually was very inaccurate, though. The Messianic prophecies about Jesus are very accurate.
Ó - Not really, they are just as vague. I'm glad you brought that word up, though. What's a messiah?
Mark - You know ... the Messiah . . . Jesus!
Ó - I realize you think Jesus is the Messiah—that's not what I'm asking, though. I just want to describe what a messiah is, as you understand it. What's a messiah for?
Mark - The Messiah . . . . "Meshiah" is the Hebrew word for "savior".
Ó - Actually . . . no, it isn't. That's not what "meshiah" means at all.
Mark - Well, it means a messenger, a savior.
Ó - No, it doesn't. The word "meshiah" means "annointed". A messenger is an angel. Annointing was a ceremonious commemoration of attaining some position of high authority, a literal ritual annointing with oil. Kings were annointed. Many people in the Hebrew scriptures were annointed.
Mark - So, you've read the Bible, then?
Ó - Yeah. I have fourteen different translations, in fact.
Mark - So, you've pretty much read it front-to-back a few times.
Ó - Well, there are certain sections, like the opening geneologies in the book of Numbers that I can't get through without falling asleep, so I skip over those long boring sections when I can. But yeah, I've been studying it for about ten years now. I'm mostly interested in just the New Testament and the history of the early Jesus Movement, though.
Mark - Do you believe in Jesus?
Ó - He probably existed. We have no way of really knowing, though, if you ask me.
Mark - Do you believe that Caesar existed?
Ó - Sure.
Mark - Do you know that there's more historical information about Jesus than there is about Caesar?
Ó - No there isn't. Only someone who thinks that the New Testament is a historical account would think that. We have plenty of contemporaneous corroborating data regarding the caesars. We have coins, edicts, statues.
Mark - The Gospels are history.What do you base saying that it's not on?
Ó - I base it on my understanding of the respective genres involved. I base it on the concept of analogy. I base it on the fact that no contemporaneous textual evidence exists to corroborate the events they narrate.
Mark - What about Josephus?
Ó - Josephus is hardly contemporaneous. Josephus didn't write until from about 70 to about 100.
Mark - Forty years is not that long.
Ó - Actually, it's more like sixty years; His mention of Jesus (if even genuine which most scholars think it's not) is in his "Antiquities", which was completed in 93 C.E. Jesus had been dead 'bout sixty years by then —if he even existed —(I add playfully).
Mark - If you don't believe in it, then why do you study it?
Ó - Well, it's part of my cultural inheritance. No? I was born into it, so I try to learn what it is and where it came from.
Mark - So, what do you think the Bible is?
Ó - The Bible is a collection of books, a self-contained library, you might say. It is the collected anthology of a desert people, a book that gives us insight into their wrestling with the concept of a divine reality transcending our mundane existence.
Mark - And you don't think it's worthy of being worshipped?
Ó - No. I don't think it is worthy of worship, or idolatry, or veneration, or deification. I think it is worthy of study. Like I said before, I have no reason to see it as somehow "divine" . . . and so I simply don't.
Mark - What about Pascal's Wager?
Ó - (curtly) I'm not a betting man.
Mark - But don't you think he's got a point?
Ó - Sure, but it's irrelevant. You know what's wrong with Pascal's Wager? It assumes that one can just all of a sudden change one's mind, as if by flipping a switch. Besides, a conversion argued from his wager can lead straight to a textbook case of cognitive dissonate, i.e. our sense of logic tells us one thing, but our need for religious adherence requires us to suspend the logical side. Think about it. Psychological needs subjugate our perception. That's some weird scary shit I want nothing to do with.
Pascal's wager is just a story that apologists tell each other in order to support that which they already subscribe to.
Mark - But aren't you afraid of what happens after you die?
Ó - Yeah, but that's just my ego, it has nothing to do with what will happen.
Mark - What do you think will happen.
Ó - I have absolutely no idea.
I'd go further and say that it's none of my business what happens afterward.
Mark - (kinda shocked) It's none of your business?? Don't you want to know what will happen for eternity?
Ó - Sure, we would all love to know, but wishing that something be true is not the same thing as something being true. Is it? And, personally, I think that any insistent yearning for a continued existence above and beyond our alloted terrestrial time is just an expression of our own vanity. Eternity?
It 's ego-driven; that much is obvious to me.
Mark - Are you a Buddhist?
Ó - No, I'm not. I like their teachings too, but I am not one.
Mark - (pauses) Why do you think God gave us the law?
Ó - We figured out a long time ago that if we have no laws, justice is not possible. We seem to hold to justice as important, it's characteristic of our species' gregariousness. I don't know, why did god give us Hammurabi's law? Why did god give us the U.S Constitution? The answer is ultimately, "God helps those that help themselves", I think.
Mark - Why do you think this whole thing started then.
Ó - That's a very good question. Not just "why", but "how" too. It's why I keep studying.
Mark - So why do you think they canonized the book at the Council of Nicea?
Ó - Wow, Nicea had nothing to do with establishing the canon, dude.
Mark - Yes, it did.
Ó - No it didn't. Nicea was convened to counter the teaching of Arius regarding the relationship between God and Jesus (e.g. whether he was "created" or "begotten"). It had absolutely nothing to do with setting the canon.
Mark - (what I'm telling him rings a bell in his mind—he realizes I'm right—I'm a puzzle to him—it goes on for about a half hour longer) . . . . . .
We spoke some more about a bunch of issues. Eventually he had to go and I had to go catch my movie. I thought I'd record some of it just as a passing anecdote. Mark was really surprised to see someone who is actually informed about the history of Christianity yet does not subscribe to any of its dogmatic tenets.
Just a warning to would-be missionaries. Be careful that you are not de-converted in the process by he whom you wish to convert in the first place. At least have your story straight, Be factual; don't just pull facts out of vaguely remembered theological assertions, out of thin air.
Be accurate, lest you find yourself uttering blatant untruths in the name of the lord.