A Long Day's Journey Into Light (Religious Biography of J. Farrell Till)
Skeptical Review with
I can't remember the first time I heard that the Bible is a perfectly harmonious book from cover to cover. I was reared in Southeast Missouri in a family with deep roots in the Church of Christ, a sect that is probably as rigid as any in its belief that the Bible is the inspired "word of God." When I went to church I heard both preachers and Bible teachers proclaim the inerrancy of the scriptures. A favorite spiel of Church-of-Christ preachers is the one about forty men, writing over a period of 1600 years, in different languages and countries, producing a collection of 66 different books so unified and harmonious in theme that only the verbal inspiration of an infinite God could account for it. It isn't true, of course, but in my case, it worked. I bought the idea and spent almost twelve years of my life preaching it.
While yet in high school, I was baptized and made the personal commitment to become a "gospel preacher." To prepare myself for this calling, I attended two Bible colleges supported by the Church of Christ. I first attended Freed-Hardeman, a junior Bible college in Henderson, Tennessee, and then transferred to Harding College in Searcy, Arkansas, where I received both my bachelor's and master's degrees. At these colleges, I had the experience of hearing foreign missionaries report on their activities abroad, and this kindled within me the desire to become a missionary. After all, I reasoned, Jesus did say, "Go into all the world and preach the gospel to every creature" (Mark 16:15), so how could I consider myself obedient to God unless I fulfilled this commission? So anxious was I to get involved in worldwide evangelism that I quit college a semester before graduation to work in missionary projects of the Church of Christ in France.
Altogether, I spent twelve years preaching for the Churches of Christ, and five of those years involved missionary work in France. My skepticism began while I was there. My wife tells me jestingly, but probably with serious intent, that I have a personality flaw: I can never be content to do anything halfheartedly; I must devote myself totally and completely to it. So, she sometimes reminds me, I wasn't content to be just a Christian; I had to be a preacher. Then I wasn't content to be just a preacher; I had to be a missionary. When deep-seated doubts finally led me to abandon the ministry, I wasn't content to be just a skeptic; I had to become an evangelical atheist.
But I'm getting ahead of myself. Back when I was still a preacher, I knew that if I was going to be a good one, I would need to be familiar with the Bible, so I was determined to learn as much about it as I could. I didn't want to "know" the Bible; I wanted to know it inside out.
This determination led me to put many hours into biblical studies. One method of study that I used was to sit at a desk with several different versions of the Bible opened to what I was going to study during that session. I would read a passage in one version and then the same passage in another version and so on through several versions in both English and French. If on that day I was studying something from the life of Jesus, I would go through this process in Matthew's account and then repeat it for Mark's, Luke's, and John's versions of the same story. Sometimes I would apply the same method to parallel accounts in the Old Testament. I would read from several versions a part of, say, David's life as told in the books of Samuel and then read the same account, if there was one, in 1 Chronicles.
When I was doing these parallel studies, I couldn't help noticing inconsistencies and even outright contradictions in the way the same stories were related. This made me wonder about the marvelous unity and harmony of the scriptures that I had heard so much about in sermons and Bible classes both when I was growing up and attending college. However, one doesn't grow up in a fundamentalist environment and then throw his belief in Bible inerrancy away the very first time he encounters problems that don't quite agree with what he has been taught all of his life. I sincerely believed that there were explanations and solutions to be found. All I had to do was look for them. When I looked and couldn't find them, I experienced deep feelings of guilt and shame. The problem had to be with me. It just couldn't be that the Bible was not what I had been taught to believe.
Once the seeds of doubt had been planted in my mind, I began to see that the Bible wasn't a book with just a few problems; it was riddled with inconsistencies, discrepancies, contradictions, and absurdities. As long as I believed that the Bible was inerrant, for example, I was able to rationalize the barbaric nature of God as presented in the Old Testament. I accepted the premise that God was not immoral in ordering the massacre of children and babies (Num. 31:17; 1 Sam. 15:3), for if he could create life, he had the right to take life; if he killed children and babies in the heathen nations around Israel, he was actually doing them a favor, because they would go to heaven rather than grow up to be like their wicked parents. To my embarrassment and discredit, I have to admit that I actually preached this kind of stuff when I was a fundamentalist minister. Once my faith in inerrancy was shaken, however, I was able to see the folly of stupid attempts like these to justify the despicable conduct of the Hebrew god. When I crossed that line, I had gone too far ever to turn back again.
When I returned from France in 1961, I knew that I could not continue to preach things that I no longer believed, but the tenacity of a fundamentalist is an almost marvelous thing. I couldn't walk away from what I had believed all of my life, so I decided to become just an ordinary churchgoer. I would no longer preach, but I would continue to go to church. This meant, of course, that I would have to train for another profession. To do this, I returned to college to complete the degree that I had left unfinished in order to become a missionary. Since I was so close to having my bachelor's degree completed, I simultaneously began work on a master's.
These were extremely difficult times for my family, both economically and emotionally. We were a family of five, so, needless to say, it wasn't easy to provide our needs and pay tuition too while I was an unemployed student, to say nothing about the psychological stress from the religious upheaval in my life that I was trying to cope with. Guilt and shame had forced me to be secretive about my plans for the future with everyone but my wife. When people asked why I was back in college studying English, I told them that raising funds for foreign missionary work was difficult to do, so I was qualifying myself for teaching credentials so that I could support myself in a mission area within the United States. Yes, I lied, but at the time that seemed a better alternative to me than openly confessing my skepticism.
As a missionary "home from the field," I had the opportunity to fill vacant pulpits on the weekend in churches within driving distance of the Bible college I was attending. This would provide a source of income that I desperately needed, so, to my discredit again, I took advantage of it. By this time, I had become a skilled rationalizer. Although I no longer accepted the biblical inerrancy doctrine, I believed--and still do believe--that some excellent moral principles are taught in the New Testament, so I rationalized that it would be all right to accept these weekend preaching assignments if I related all of my sermons to biblical principles that I could personally accept. During this period, I preached a lot of "doing-good" sermons, i.e., loving one's neighbor, going the second mile, visiting the fatherless and widows in their affliction, and such like. This worked well for a time, but I was preaching these sermons in the Church of Christ, a fundamentalist sect that expects to hear from its preachers a lot of hellfire and brimstone and condemnation of false "denominationalist" doctrines. Eventually, I began to hear complaints and suggestions that I preach more on doctrinal matters. I couldn't conscientiously do this, so I continued to preach "Christian-duty" themes. Finally, the matter was resolved when the elders of the congregation I had been preaching for announced a business meeting after the Sunday evening services. In the meeting, I was asked to lead the perfunctory prayer with which such meetings always open, and then I was informed that I was fired. The entire process had taken perhaps five minutes.
Actually, I considered this a release from a tremendous burden I had been trying to carry, because it forced upon me what I had not been able to do on my own. I was now freed from the responsibility of preparing sermons. Although I may have technically agreed with the principles I was preaching about, I was never able to rid myself of a horrible feeling of hypocrisy that I had wrestled with every time I stepped into a pulpit. For one thing, a preacher in the Church of Christ must end every sermon with an appeal for the unconverted in the audience to "obey the gospel," and for some time this had been a very difficult part of the church services for me. I knew that I was making a plea for people to become a part of something I did not believe in myself.
When this congregation "terminated" my services, I still had a summer session to complete before my graduate degree would be finished. How was I going to manage that financially? In addition to doing the weekend preaching appointments, I had been working at whatever temporary jobs were available through the student employment office, but the income from this was minimal. By securing a student loan, I was able to complete the summer session and receive my degree. My family then left for Gallup, New Mexico, where both my wife and I had contracted to teach. We made the trip in a Peugeot 403 station wagon that we had brought back from France, which for lack of money I had not changed the oil in during the eighteen months we had been students at the Bible college. Fortunately, it held up through the 1200-mile trip.
In New Mexico, we dutifully went to church when Sunday came, but my wife and I had agreed that neither of us would mention my past involvement in preaching and missionary work. We would just be ordinary church members. The only problem was that I had been very active in writing religious articles while I was a preacher, and I had served as the European correspondent for a journal that specialized in reporting missionary activities. A few days after we had attended our first church service as just ordinary members, I met the local preacher at a food market. The first thing that he said to me was, "Farrell Till! I knew I had heard that name before." He then went on to tell me that he was looking through some back issues of a brotherhood paper and had seen one of my articles. "Well, you will have to preach for us next Sunday," he said.
What could I do? Somehow, I couldn't say no, so the next Sunday found me on the front pew waiting for the hymn to end that would be my cue to go to the pulpit and begin preaching. I did that with no outward difficulty. I preached one of my "doing-good" sermons, and when the time came to "extend the invitation," I knew what to say, because I had been trained in Church-of-Christ doctrine. But I didn't like it. I don't know whether I was angry or guilt-ridden or both. I just knew that I could not go back to that church again, because I knew I would be expected to fill the pulpit whenever the minister was ill or out of town or just not in the mood to preach himself. I couldn't bear the thought of doing that.
The next Sunday we went to a small church that we had heard about on the Navaho Indian Reservation. After we arrived, a man introduced himself and told us that he had been present at the services in Gallup the Sunday before and had heard me preach. So guess what? Since this congregation didn't have a minister, I was pressed into preaching. With no "doing-good" sermon outlines with me, the only thing I could do was reach back into the repertoire of my mind and preach on a doctrinal subject. Doing that was no problem. I knew what I was expected to say, and so I said it, but as time wore on in the delivery of the sermon, I think I actually hated myself. I knew that I didn't believe what I was saying, and it seemed to me that when I looked at my wife in the audience, she was unable to look at me. I cut the sermon short, politely waited for the services to conclude, and left. I told my wife as we were driving away that that was it; I wasn't going back until I had resolved the doubts that I was struggling with.
That all happened on the first Sunday in September 1963, and I have not been back to church since. Over the years, I have spent many hours studying the Bible. My first efforts were directed at looking for solutions to the problem of textual inconsistencies and contradictions. I suppose my intention was to discover that there were no grounds for my skepticism, but the more I studied the Bible, the more I realized I would never resolve the problem of biblical discrepancies, because the truth is that the Bible is a collection of books written by uninspired, fallible men, and like all fallible men they made mistakes. They probably were sincere in their belief that they were writing as representatives of God, but their sincerity didn't make it so. The truth was a long time in coming, but finally I realized that God had had exactly nothing to do with the authorship of the Bible.
My first instinct was to keep this discovery to myself, because religion is a sensitive subject. If I said anything publicly, I might offend somebody, and I didn't want to do that. At times, I wasn't able to remain silent because of religious activities in the community that I considered infringements on the rights of others, but for the most part, I kept my views of the Bible to myself. Gradually, my thinking about this changed, because I eventually realized that people with religious beliefs had no qualms about offending those who didn't. Christian fundamentalists didn't mind intruding on the privacy of others by going door to door to try to impose their religious beliefs on others. They weren't a bit bashful about polluting the airwaves with their doctrinal nonsense, and they certainly didn't mind forcing their hackneyed prayers on the unreligious at public meetings that had nothing to do with religion. Then, finally, during the Reagan administration, I became deeply concerned with the way that the Republican Party openly courted the support of Christian fundamentalists and even at times catered to their whims. I saw a danger in what was happening and decided that the outrageous claims of biblical authority and inerrancy that fundamentalists were making needed to be publicly opposed by an informed opposition. I decided to be that opposition.
By then, I was living at my current residence in Illinois. After teaching two years in New Mexico, my family moved back to the Midwest, and for the past twenty-eight years, I have taught English at Spoon River College in Canton, Illinois. During those years, I maintained my interest in the Bible and spent many hours researching the subject of Bible discrepancies. Since becoming public in the 1980's with my opposition to Christian fundamentalism, I have participated in eight oral and six written debates. Negotiations for several oral debates are now in progress. In January 1990, I began publishing *The Skeptical Review,* a sixteen-page quarterly journal that is devoted entirely to discussion of the Bible inerrancy doctrine. The success of this publication has far exceeded my expectations. It began with no subscribers and in less than five years has grown to over 1200. A recent flurry of subscription requests has resulted from local and Associated Press news stories published about me following my appearance on the CBS farce, *Ancient Secrets of the Bible II.* I consider this at least one benefit to come from the experience.
Earlier, I described myself as an "evangelical atheist," a condition of mind that I suppose was inevitable, given my disposition to commit myself fully to causes I believe in. A question I am often asked about my evangelical activities on behalf of skepticism is, "Why are you doing this?" The question itself implies that I am doing something disgraceful and shameful or at least something I am not entitled to do. I don't remember ever being asked when I was a preacher why I was so evangelical about my beliefs. When I made known my plans to go abroad as a missionary, the announcement was greeted with praise and admiration. Nobody asked, "Well, why do you want to do that?" In other words, we live in a society where people believe that it is proper for those who have religious convictions to be evangelical. They can build churches, publish papers and journals, go door to door distributing tracts, preach on the airwaves, organize to support political causes favorable to their beliefs, impose public prayers on everyone in attendance at nonreligious meetings, and do just about anything they want to in promotion of their beliefs--all the while enjoying tax exempt status--but atheists and skeptics should not have the same right. They should sit idly by and allow blatantly absurd religious doctrines to be propagated without opposition.
The widespread acceptance of the belief that religion should enjoy privileged status has wreaked inestimable havoc on our society. It has cost the lives of defenseless children whose parents sought cures for their illnesses in prayer rather than medical science; it has brought child abuse into families indoctrinated in the biblical belief that beating the child with the rod will deliver his soul from hell (Prov. 23:13-14); it has degraded women and relegated them to subservient status in our society through nonsensical beliefs that evil was introduced into the world by a woman (1 Tim. 2:13-15) and that the divine intention is for the man to be the head of the woman (1 Cor. 11:3; Eph. 5:23); it has siphoned our energy and resources and poured them into the maintenance of church buildings and pastorates rather than enterprises that would truly benefit mankind; it has retarded educational progress by its resistance to the teaching of sex education and scientific principles in conflict with fundamentalist beliefs; it has left psychological scars in the lives of people and in more extreme cases produced religious fanatics like Jim Jones and David Koresh. In a word, it has been a blight on our society.
It took me a long time to recognize the harm that religion does to a society. Even after I was convinced that the Bible was nothing but another book, I was reluctant to oppose biblically based religious beliefs. One of Nobel playwright Eugene O'Neill's greatest dramas was his Pulitzer Prize winning *Long Day's Journey into Night,* a posthumous autobiographical play about a day in the life of a family coping with the ravages of drug addiction and alcoholism. I know that evangelical Christians will resent the simile, but fundamentalist religion is like a drug. Once a person is under its influence, it works like a drug in his life. To become free of it is as difficult as any habitual user's struggle with the drug of his addiction. I consider the first two decades of my adult life as a long day's journey into light. Again, Bible fundamentalists will resent the metaphor, but I believe it is valid. Religion is a form of darkness in the individual's life; escape from it is like a journey from darkness to light. My escape was by no means easy.
In my evangelical activities now, I encounter many people who are just beginning their journey into light, and I have been able to help some of them with advice drawn from the benefits of my own experiences. I have found this far more personally gratifying than any conversions to Bible fundamentalism that I was responsible for when I was a preacher. I plan to continue my evangelical activities on behalf of skepticism and common sense as long as I possibly can. Anyone reading this who wants my help in throwing off the shackles of religious superstition can get it by writing to me at P. O. Box 717, Canton, IL 61520 or e-mailing email@example.com. I have announced my retirement from teaching, effective June 30, 1995, and after that date I will have more flexibility in scheduling debates and lectures. If any readers are having problems with Bible fundamentalists, I will gladly engage them in public debate if by chance you can find any who are willing to defend their outrageous beliefs before an informed opposition. My experience has been that not too many are willing to take that risk. They prefer the security of preaching to partisan audiences.
FOOTNOTE: Since this was written, I have retired from my teaching position and now devote myself to full time activities intended to educate people in facts about the Bible that they are unlikely to hear in their church services. I have conducted several public debates with such Church-of-Christ preachers as Mac Deaver, Buster Dobbs, Jerry Moffitt, and others less known. I have also debated Norman Geisler, one of the leading spokesmen for biblical inerrancy. These debates have been conducted at colleges, universities, and churches that were willing to permit their facilities to be used for this purpose.
Worley January 20,