Wednesday, August 6, 2008

My Musical Confession

After my last post I thought it would be appropriate to retell the story of my conversion from atheism to faith.

I love to sing. My mother sang to me when I was a little crawler back in Kentucky. I sang nursery rhymes in kindergarten on the swings. I sang along with the radio when Michael Jackson was part of the Jackson Five. When I was ten, I sang Englebert Humperdinck songs in the basement to a broomstick microphone. When no one was around.

When I was in college at Western Washington University I decided to get serious about music. I had been a starving art student for a time, but my minimalist professors, who alternately painted brown Xs across white canvases and white Xs across brown canvases didn’t inspire me much. So I switched to studying music, about which I knew next to nothing, but thought was really cool.

Despite my thorough lack of musical knowledge and skill, I somehow got admitted into the music department and became a jazz studies major. Music gave me purpose, direction and drive. After a couple of years I learned to play guitar and sing well enough to join a dance band and play in night clubs. I sang Chuck Berry, Ray Charles, and top-forty tunes. I also sang Handel’s Messiah in the university choir.

The choir director was a cute, young graduate assistant named Arden Steves, who called herself a Christian. I sang at her from the back of the bass section. I was an atheist, an unbeliever. I agreed with Karl Marx, who said that religion was an opiate for the masses. I thought Christians were weak-minded people who used religion as an intoxicating crutch. I didn’t like their songs much, either. I’d rather sing the blues than Amazing Grace. I didn’t really know what grace was anyway.

One day, when I was feeling like a miserable existentialist, I asked Arden about her religious beliefs. She told me about her faith in God and her desire to live a life of purity. Her sincerity stunned me. We had music in common, yet we were worlds apart.

I started to consider the possibility that God might really exist. It was exciting. Yet, if He had been paying attention to my immoral behavior during the past decade, I was in serious trouble. I decided to stop partying, just in case, which cost me most of my friends.

I prayed one night for God to give me the desire to seek Him if He was really out there. I’m glad my roommates weren't listening, because I felt like an idiot, talking to the ceiling. Yet soon I was reading books by C.S. Lewis, Josh McDowell and R.C. Sproul, which Arden recommended. I bought a Bible, and we read through the Book of John together. I went to church with her to “check things out.” I didn’t like the music much.

The more I read the Bible, the more convicted I felt about the sins of my youth. The idea of forgiveness in Christ sounded appealing. Still, I resisted conversion, because I wasn’t sure whether I was more attracted to Christ the Messiah or to His pretty little gospel messenger, Arden. We had been seeing a lot of each other as performers in the university’s production of Music Man, and had grown close enough to talk about hypothetical marriage, as if it was a thing apart from us that could be viewed objectively. I admired her sincerity of conviction, which included her refusal to marry a non-Christian. Since I was one of those, I gazed across a chasm, it seemed.

As things worked out, Arden flew out of town in August to take a teaching job, and I joined an international dance band (we played in Canada, just across the border, big whoop-dee-doo). We said we’d stay in touch.

With Arden gone, I wondered whether I might just blow the whole faith thing off and return to my former, existential party life. One weekend when I didn’t have any dance gigs, I decided to go to Arden’s church again. The brakes on my beater van were shot, and I could only stop by frantically pumping the brake pedal, so I had a good excuse to skip. Still, I felt I should go, to see if I was really serious about spiritual things independent of her. Five intersections with traffic signals stood between my rental house and the church. I prayed this goofy prayer: “God, if you want me to be at church today, I need green lights all the way there.”

Off I went, slow and steady through five green lights until I rolled safely into the church parking lot. Amazing. My skeptic’s mind told me it could have been dumb luck coincidence, but I had a sneaking suspicion that God had perfectly orchestrated the laws of physics, the flow of electricity, my choice of speed and time of departure, along with the choices of other drivers, to clear my path to that church and let me know He was in charge of such things. I remember thinking, “Nice, work, God.” “Hey, but can you do ten lights in a row?”

While I was at church I enjoyed myself a lot. With Arden not there I could stare at people when every head was supposed to be bowed and every eye was supposed to be closed, like an infidel spy. It didn’t seem like an opium den for the masses. I was impressed by the sincerity and joy of the people in the room. I don’t remember the sermon, but I know it gave me an appetite to hear more. It didn’t matter that I hit red lights on the way home and had to pump the brakes like I was trying to kick a hole through the floor board. I felt I had received a small blessing from God that day. I determined to go to church as often as I could. I would fix my brakes.

I’m not sure exactly when I entered the kingdom of God, but I think He arranged it like he did the green lights to church, and left me wondering how it had happened. I kept reading and questioning, examining my presuppositions, and grappling with the concept of grace. At some point in the fall of my 25th year of life, I simply surrendered, and trusted what I read in the Bible, even though I didn’t always understand it. I began to sing to God in my heart. I was a sinner saved by the blood of Jesus. I wrote to Arden about it and she said she thought I was a Christian. I was okay with the label. I was one of them, one of Christ’s.

Soon, I made a public profession of faith at church that I had accepted Jesus as my Savior and Lord (Romans 10:9). For me there was no recited sinner’s prayer, no dramatic moment of decision, just a confession. God had done everything. I was a recipient of grace. Amazing. I quit the dance band, married Arden, and moved to Alaska.

I went back to school to become a teacher, but continued to be an active musician. Arden and I began having children. We sang in church choirs. I performed special music in church and in the community. I was a professional soloist for weddings, funerals, fund raisers, and private parties, which were much better than the lousy night club gigs I’d played back in my dance band days. As our five children grew up, we taught them to sing parts so that we could perform as a family choir. Then, when they were old enough to play instruments, we formed a family band called Homemade Jam. We have produced an a cappella Christmas CD, which was recorded in our home studio. Our oldest daughter has since married and moved away, but the remaining four children help me lead worship at Coram Deo Church in Grants Pass.

I plan on singing and making music as long as I can. I think the Bible commands it. “Make a joyful noise to the LORD, all the earth; break forth into joyous song and sing praises!” (Psalm 98:4) My family has chosen Colossians 3:16 as our musical theme verse. “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God.”

I thank God for his wonderful redeeming work in my life. He, not music, has given me purpose, direction and drive. What a privilege it is to use music to glorify Him. I think the last psalm in the Bible (Psalm 150) says it well.

Praise the LORD!
Praise God in his sanctuary;
Praise him in his mighty heavens!
Praise him for his mighty deeds;
Praise him according to his excellent greatness!Praise him with trumpet sound;
Praise him with lute and harp!
Praise him with tambourine and dance;
Praise him with strings and pipe!Praise him with sounding cymbals;
Praise him with loud clashing cymbals!
Let everything that has breath praise the LORD!
Praise the LORD!

How I Lost My Atheism

I was once an atheist, or so I believed. I denied the existence of God and assumed that I was the measure of all things. I reasoned that it was my brain that processed all the data I observed in life. I was the one who thought my thoughts.

I considered myself an existentialist, too. I figured that since my existence preceded my perceptions of reality, I was in charge of determining what was real. I believed in man’s free will, which I translated my free will. I ruled as king over reality. Rene Descartes’ supposition, “I think, therefore I am” helped established my lordship.

One day the thought occurred to me that I was not entirely in control of my thoughts. I suspected that outside forces were at work, influencing me from a distance. This was a challenge to my sovereignty of mind. I realized that I thought much like my father.

Dad was a high school biology teacher, a Darwinian evolutionist, and a skeptic of religious faith. He was an atheist. Me too, I believed. Like father, like son. Dad felt that religion was a crutch for the weak minded, the insecure and the old fashioned. He once said that love was not a moral commitment, but a chemically based, physiological response to the evolutionary impulse toward reproduction. When Dad cheated on Mom he was only exercising his evolutionary impulses, I guess.

My parent’s divorce was very painful to me, though at the time, in my teen years, I played the stoic. I wondered if grief was just a physiological response to the evolutionary impulse toward parent attachment. Perhaps marital infidelity and family disintegration were part of the evolutionary process of self-actualization. After all, divorce rates were escalating throughout the nation like it was the latest, coolest social trend. Maybe the idea of long term, monogamous marriage was an outdated religious construct, due for disposal during the new age of enlightenment and individualism.

At some point after moving out on my own I grew to realize that in addition to my father’s influence, the culture around me had determined much of what I thought. I was not truly master and author of my own thoughts. The same was true of Dad, of course. I realized he had picked up his ideas from the culture around him, as well. His practice of multiple marriages was in step with the rest of the nation. No-fault divorce laws were being passed in state after state. I began to connect the dots between the beliefs and behaviors that derive from an atheistic worldview. My worldview. I wasn’t sure I liked the implications.

A bit of history. According to Albert Mohler’s book, Atheism Remix, a massive cultural, intellectual and epistemological shift resulted from the writings of Friedrich Nietzsche, Karl Marx, Charles Darwin, and Sigmund Freud. Nietzsche declared that, “God is dead.” He believed that Christianity was the worst enemy of human enlightenment and progress. Marx despised religion as the “opiate of the masses” and an obstacle to the community of man’s economic prosperity. Darwin posited that naturalistic explanations of life’s origin negate God’s supernatural creation. Evolution rendered God and religion unnecessary. Freud elevated the unconscious over the conscious. He believed that religion was an illusion that would eventually pass away. These four men contributed hugely to the worldview of secular humanism, another name for atheism. Remove a supernatural Creator God from the picture and you are left with humans calling all the shots on earth according to their own desires.

Thanks to secular humanism, I was taught in college that primitive man had created gods to help him cope with threatening, natural phenomena, such as thunderstorms, droughts and earthquakes. Organized religion arose as an attempt to appease these fabricated deities with rituals and sacrifices. It was popular to agree with the French philosopher, Voltaire who said, “If God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent him,” as if religious sentiments were not credible, but nonetheless quaint, attractive and socially useful for ignorant folk who don’t know much about the modern god of science. The secularists of modernity thought that as mankind climbed the evolutionary ladder out of the pit of ignorance, it would gradually discard God as the explanatory, causal factor in civilization’s intellectual framework. They predicted that life would become increasingly rationalized, and that belief in God, and participation in organized religion, would dissipate into oblivion.

The secularists had the demise of religion all planned out, too. According to John Sommerville, secularization would follow this pattern: 1) of land use and property, 2) of time and recreation, 3) of language and common speech, 4) of technology and work, 5) of art and entertainment, 6) of political and military power, 7) of personhood and association, 8) of scholarship and science. Secularists were confident that humanity was destined to grow up and leave the childish things of theistic belief behind.

The secularist game plan works like a charm at most colleges in America today. Overwhelming majorities of Christian students lose their religious faith by the end of their freshman year while away at college. At college I learned to mock people with religious views. I didn’t know many Christians personally, but I was content to join the consensus in caricaturing and slandering them as intolerant bigots. At one point, though, I felt guilty for my ad hominem attacks. I thought my criticism should be more substantive. Therefore I decided to learn more about their beliefs so that I might refute them. Also, I wanted to know what was true. It was my undoing.

I assumed that most Christians had been indoctrinated with a religious belief system, to which they agreed uncritically. But what about me? Was I unbiased? Hadn’t I been indoctrinated by an atheist father, and by many years of secular instruction in government schools? Dissecting the Christian theistic position meant dissecting my own atheistic position as fair play. Had I chosen atheism after careful thought, or had I merely accepted it as it was spoon fed to me? As I continued in this vain, I was disturbed to realize that my schools had censored virtually all religious information, as if the separation between church and state was a concrete barrier, never to be breached. Religion was relegated to the private, personal sphere. It was prohibited or marginalized in public institutions of learning. Only secular information had been allowed into my cage for regular feeding. Was that right?

Troubling questions arose within my belief system. "What preceded the Big Bang?" I wondered. "Why does the fossil record that is supposed to prove macro-evolution lack any quantity of evidence of transitional species? Why is the theory of geologic gradualism favored despite abundant evidence of catastrophism? Why is supernatural phenomena rejected just because materialistic empiricism cannot test it? Why are secular scientists so afraid of following the evidence of cosmic design to a cosmic designer?"

I lost track of my atheism when I found it could not answer my questions. Like a stray cat, it wandered away to go beg someone else’s attention. Since I was heavily invested in having rejected theism, though, I passed time like an aimless satellite orbiting a planet, unable to land. But not for long. A Christian acquaintance became a friend and counselor of truth. She spoke about God as if He were real, like a wise uncle back east, but supernatural and divine and almighty and eternal. She asked me to consider believing in Him too.

I stalled.

One night I spoke a prayer at the ceiling in my rooming house: “God, if you exist, you need to give me the desire to look for you.”

I found that I enjoyed reading all the books my friend kept passing on to me on theology and faith. I read sections of the Bible, too, until I felt like I was a pretty fair-minded skeptic. I grew to like both her and the scriptures very much.

One dark and beautiful evening the two of us walked under the stars, she a Christian, I an unbelieving, infidel friend. I thought of the vastness of space, the smallness of man, my ultimate purpose in life. Things like that. Was creation a myth? Was the story of Adam and Eve a cute fairy tale for toddlers? Then a thought struck me: If God exists, couldn't He control the things He created? It was as if I’d resolved a tricky syllogism that now seemed amazingly simple. God is God. He can do whatever He wants. A woman from a rib? Why not? God is God. If He created all the elements, then He can rearrange them in any order He chooses. He can leave His signature on His work, too so that we know He is Lord. God is God.

That night I felt as if I had received a long-distance call from heaven. I heard nothing audible, but I imagined God speaking from His infinite expanse to answer my question: “I Am.”

That’s how I lost my atheism. Atheism was a worldview of futility and despair. It was a shipwreck from which I was glad to escape. God, in His great mercy and love called me into His kingdom. I could not deny Him. Do you also hear Him calling?

“The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims his handiwork. Day to day pours out speech, and night to night reveals knowledge” Psalm 19:1-2

“When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars, which you have set in place, what is man that you are mindful of him, and the son of man that you care for him?” Psalm 8:3-4