I got the feelin’
Why hello there, WordPress. It’s been awhile, but boy, do I have a story for you. You see,
Pastor Tom came to preach yesterday and today. The atheists came, and we brought our Bibles.
When I came home for dinner and laundry on Sunday night I had an awkward question for my parents. Well, the question wasn’t awkward: “Where are the Bibles I got for Confirmation?” The awkward part was what I intended to do with them. My more impressive Bible is a big, black Concordia Self-Study Bible (NIV) which is about 50% footnotes. My main ammunition the past two days has been dozens of page tabs, roughly color coded: pink for verses about women, green for the direct word of God, orange for acts of senseless violence, and so on. This Bible is a sight to see, especially when I wield it and preach the good news about why you should be stoned to death.
We won the crowd on Wednesday with preacher bingo. At times I took to the crowd to work it like a circus barker. If Tom says fabulous words like “homosexuality,” “Revelation,” and ”fornication,” or if he just waves the Bible at someone, mark off that space; five in a row gets you a packet of delicious heathen Skittles! On the back of the cards was found (oh-so-coincidentally), the text: “If you can’t believe this preacher…” and shameless plugs for SSA, CHaT, and a couple of atheist websites. Today, a deep quiet settled over the plaza as a bingo player talked to Tom. “Do you want to ask a serious question?” Tom said. The guy nodded. “Do you want me to pray with you?” “BINGO!” He got double Skittles, a tangible Earthly reward.
Although we’ve had much fun by yelling out questions and criticisms we know Tom will never address, and a healthy share of snarky comments, we did listen to one person who asked us earlier to tone it down. One of Tom’s followers had convinced a world religions teacher to come out and talk, and she brought her dozens of students with her. For 45 minutes Tom was actually respectful enough to take questions from this teacher — after all, his usual behavior would surely turn the class off. And quite often, Tom was stumped for a few seconds; she was a pro. “Students, speak up if you have any questions!” Tom called desperately at intervals. When she had to leave, many of her students stayed, and I was sure to walk up to her and thank her for what she’d done. I’d call her a model of the opposite approach from mine.
When Tom was taking a question from a student, an older woman at the back of the crowd started trying to shout him down, saying “No, stop confusing this boy! You must testify, tell your own story! Stop quoting the Bible, this is the only way to show him the truth!” Even Tom took a shot at her when he’d recovered the crowd’s attention: “I didn’t hear most of what he said; I’m afraid I was kind of distracted.”
Let’s see, what did Tom and I talk about today? Like yesterday he mostly ignored me, but today was different. Our group’s most versatile asset has been a set of whiteboards and dry-erase markers. I alternated between writing evil Bible verses and writing questions for Tom and the crowd to consider. In the mid-afternoon, someone suggested, “Why are we giving him so much space and prominence in the middle? Let’s close the circle.” I decided, okay. I refreshed my whiteboard and stood about a yard or two away from him. Tom looked at me, looked at the sign, was silent for a good five seconds, and finally declared, “This guy really needs some help. Can someone find him a psychiatrist?”
The others (props to Matt, Greg, and the sunglasses guy) helped me tighten the circle, and we kept up with the whiteboards constantly for a couple hours with Bible quotes and Old Testament memes. Every so often Tom would pause and look and shake his head — at one point three of us each had a fresh sign and his thought process quietly derailed as he read each one in turn. One of his “toadies” (as John is so fond of calling them) was video recording him the whole time, and I’m sure we rendered a lot of footage unpalatable by standing behind and aside of him — but never in front — with our inconvenient signs. But what I’m most proud of is when I noticed that each time I threw up a Bible citation with “God says…” a couple girls on his side would start intently paging through their Bible and give the chapter and verse a good read. The portion of the crowd most likely to actually have Bibles on them, the portion I most wanted to reach, hopefully found something to think about. Just seeing this reaction was incredibly validating.
At one point Tom took a few steps away to try to regain some distance. “I’m getting out of the way for when the lightning comes, I don’t want to get hit along with these guys.” “Have faith, Tom!” I implored. “If God’s perfect, can’t he hit a target without collateral damage?” another asked.
It was funny, the conflicting advice I got from Tom’s crowd when they tried to distract me from the Atheist God’s work. “You just have to read the Bible without adding your external interpretation to it.” And when I did, I was asked “Have you read the verses before and after that? You’re not interpreting it properly within the context!” Here is the golden example and the capstone of the afternoon. Tom, talking to a student about why unbelievers can’t go to Heaven, began to wax about Moses. I grabbed my Bible and began to page through, finally finding him at Exodus 32. If you don’t know, it’s the chapter where Moses comes down from the mountain, Ten Commandments in hand, and finds the Israelites worshiping a golden calf idol in his absence. Upon finding this, Tom reminds us, Moses tells the people, “Whoever is for the Lord, come to me.”
Right as Tom is about to begin expounding on the relation of that verse to his point, right as he himself stops short of the “proper context,” I raise my Bible and project my voice as from the pulpit:
Then he said to them, “This is what the Lord, the God of Israel, says: ‘Each man strap a sword to his side. Go back and forth through the camp from one end to the other, each killing his brother and friend and neighbor.’ The Levites did as Moses commanded, and that day about three thousand of the people died.” (Ex. 32:27-28, NIV)
Tom stared at me with such a look on his face. Seconds passed. Finally he mustered himself and said, “You know, you don’t have the right to read the Bible.” The crowd erupted! It was at this point that Tom, his facade cracking, decided it was time to close up shop with a prayer circle. He’d come at noon, and after I arrived at 1:30, my group of newfound friends stayed there with him and his group until just past 6 — twice as long as scheduled. As the rest of us chatted and they began to pray loudly, I snatched my Bible one more time and bounced up the stairs to preach over them the last verse I had saved:
And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by others. …But when you pray, go into your room, close the door… And when you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words. (Matt. 6:5-7, NIV)
What have we accomplished?
- UNO SSA/CHaT have gained massive campus exposure for taking on Tom. We thanked him (some more mockingly than others) for helping us gain probably a dozen members over the past couple days.
- Tom’s critics were shown they’re not alone. When some individual from the crowd came forward to ask Tom a question, the asker could expect backup when Tom employed slippery logic and topic-jumping. Better yet, Tom knows he can expect to endure this from us whenever he comes back.
- Tom got stumped, Tom got angry, and the crowd got to see it. Perhaps our best work was to compel him to discredit himself. This is only a rumor, buuuuut a friend of a friend heard him say he wanted to “draw his sword” while in his closing prayer circle. Wow, we’re good!
- We not only challenged his beliefs, but we got some people to begin to take that challenge. I saw people carrying our fliers, and besides the Exodus incident, nothing was more satisfying to me than seeing people from Tom’s section reach for their Bibles because of me. We didn’t argue for Tom’s sake; we argued for the undecideds in the audience — if not to convince them, to inoculate them against his particular god-virus by getting their minds working. That is the best and only reason to confront someone like Tom in a public forum.
I will be the first to admit: the past two days have been an astounding rush. I prepared for Pastor Tom’s arrival with no small amount of trepidation. Even thinking about a confrontation with someone will tend to send me into the shakes, so you can imagine how I felt about planning to directly engage Tom. But I was inspired, particularly by folks like the “mild-mannered” JT Eberhard who argue for the necessity and value of challenging believers about the beliefs they hold. There is no more appropriate time to do so than when someone like Tom comes around to get in everyone’s face. It was great to sharpen my skills on Tom and his folks, to see what works and what doesn’t (and to know when nothing more will help).
While I have much to improve, I urgently want to be able to convince everyone to start down the never-ending road to reason. And I intend to jump headlong into these situations again and again, because I know that no matter how badly I tremble beforehand, when I’m in my element, my voice is strong and my mind is as clear as a bell.