Prophet and Loss

by John Wyatt
copyright 2002

After high school I thought that attending church on my own was a sign of adulthood -- showing how well I conformed to the expectations of others. A part of me rebelled at the thought of conformance, but church promised to rid me of these sinful ideas. My English teacher had talked about critical thinking, which is like listening to a description of strawberry ice cream -- just words until you taste it. The sermon I am writing about gave me my first real taste of critical thinking.

The sermon began as usual. The minister spoke about the ideal love ethic that Jesus taught -- loving one another as we love ourselves. Comparing myself to ideal love always helped me to see my unworthiness, and the initial dose of guilt this produced always made the rest of the sermon uplifting. He spoke briefly about turning the other cheek; however, today he deviated from his usual message of forgiveness and salvation. Instead he switched to the Old Testament and concentrated on the commandment to keep the Sabbath day holy. He spent some time on the question of working on Sunday, saying that it was sinful because it meant we were thinking about our work and not about God. He then took his argument a step further and said that causing another person to work on the Sabbath was just as sinful. He drove his point home with this illustration: “If it was Sunday and my wife was sick, and if I knew that she would die unless I went to the store to buy medicine, I would let her die! Better that she die in the grace of God than that I should encourage the druggist to be sinful and work on  Sunday.”

Patronizing a store on Sunday, he warned, encouraged the clerk to work and we would share the punishment for inciting another to work on Sunday. To support his argument he quoted Old Testament passages showing how God punished the slightest transgression without mercy. What he lacked in logic he made up for in passion, and the force of his personality carried the authority of his message.

Looking around me I saw the nods and silent acclaims of those whose doubts served as further proof of their unworthiness. I was trapped! How could I hope to obtain salvation unless I shared his burning passion? He was the authority -- how dare I doubt the truth of his message! However, my heart told me that his illustration was immoral, and my anger made it impossible to hear the rest of his sermon. Unwilling to accept my fate at the hands of a vengeful God, I had to find a way to reject his message. I began examining the premises of his authority and his arguments.

His authority was simple -- he carried the title Minister. As a seminary graduate and ordained by God, only he was qualified to bring me the word of God. He expected me to accept his status as God’s messenger without question. I asked myself the question: with Heaven’s silence, why do I accept the words of holy men? The answer came immediately: fear. The guilt he had evoked at the sermon’s beginning produced fear of punishment. I required healing. He had revealed my unworthiness and I craved absolution; as the minister he had a monopoly on absolution. I had accepted his authority because I wanted him to be an authority.

His earlier presentation of the ideal love ethic had seemed logical. He said that my imperfection of love disqualified me as an authority on Bible interpretation, but now I saw that it was an argument against the person. I was expected to believe that only a minister was authorized to interpret the Bible, and the major premise of his authority was the assertion: I am a messenger of God. He reinforced his authority with the minor premise: Obey God. The conclusion is: Therefore, obey me. This was the heart of his persuasive power -- my belief that by obeying him I was obeying God. The fallacy in his major premise is: if Jesus is in my heart directing me, the argument against the person fails because then I am qualified to make my own interpretation. The argument then becomes: Jesus tells my heart what to do -- obey Jesus -- therefore obey my heart.

His argument against working on Sunday was simpler. The Bible commands me to “Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy.” (Exodus 20.8) He said that if I work, I am thinking about work instead of the Sabbath; therefore if I work on Sunday I am committing a sin. His illustration concentrated on the corollary that inciting another person to work on Sunday is also a sin.

One fallacy I saw in his argument was the assumption that a working person was incapable of remembering the Sabbath. His argument admitted of only two alternatives: either work and forget the Sabbath, or rest and remember the Sabbath. He failed to admit the possibility of working and remembering the Sabbath. He implied that working meant not remembering and used the ambiguities of language to make his argument sound authoritative. I reasoned that it was fallacious to assume that working prevented a person from thinking about the Sabbath, which was demonstrated by the fact that the minister himself was working at this very moment! He was a paid minister with no other vocation! For a universal statement to be true it has to be true for all cases; and the minister’s vocation was a case of working on Sunday for the very purpose of remembering the Sabbath.

Another fallacy in all his arguments is that whenever he cited his source -- the Bible -- his only authority for interpreting the source was himself. He jumped through the Old Testament, taking lines out of context, presenting his interpretations as established fact. He said that the King James Bible was divinely inspired and was to be taken literally; however by presenting his interpretations in the guise of fact, he was actually citing himself as the source.

Confirmation of my analysis came at the end of the services. Every sermon ended with an altar call as he asked us to beg Jesus for forgiveness and take him into our hearts. The altar call provided positive feedback to the penitents as they reveled in the glory of our minister's forgiveness. I had already reasoned that if Jesus was in my heart, it is my heart that I must heed; and here he was confirming that we should obey our heart! My heart told me that I must not obey this person. He gave emotional arguments aimed at controlling me through my fear of punishment and hope of salvation. However, salvation was not his to grant, nor could he confer the power of Jesus. I left and never returned to his church.

Nowhere in the Bible does it say: “thou shalt be a fool.” As long as Heaven chooses to remain silent I must refuse to accept the words of holy men without critical examination. On November 18, 1978 -- my birthday -- Reverend Jim Jones and his congregation committed mass suicide. During the newsreels I heard his message and it was the same message I had heard from my own minister years earlier: Obey me. I will always be grateful to my high school English teacher who taught me to think critically, so that I can tell the false prophets from the message in my heart. This was the real test of adulthood -- not to show how well I conformed to the expectations of others, but to demonstrate that I could think for myself.