Growing up, it seemed simpler, this thing called Christianity. Or at least my grown-up mind now imagines that those days were simpler, when it came to faith, particularly of the Christian variety.
In those days, it seemed as though in order to be considered a Christian, you had to believe that Jesus died on the cross for our sins. That was about it.
Of course there was the thing about not sinning and avoiding Hell, which had me terrified of making any mistakes - at all, under any circumstances. Still, the message was clear, that once you were "washed in the blood," you were a Christian.
Today, that doesn't seem to be the case. Not only do you have to do that, you have to believe in a literal Hell. You have to believe that God hates homosexual sex so much that those who don't repent of it and stop will be heading to that place while mass murderers who repent of their sins before being put to death will be in Heaven.
You have to believe that Jesus didn't just die for our sins and rose from the dead, but that he did so bodily. You can't believe there is even a possibility that there is another way to Heaven.
And for many people, you have to not only want to see abortions go down and try to implement policies and practices to make that happen, you must be specifically pro-life.
Many of the people who keep lengthening the requirements of what it means to be a "true" Christian don't quite see it that way. They sincerely believe that list has always been self evident. Just take a look in the Bible, they've told me a thousand times, it is clear.
That's essentially the message I walked away from after the meeting with readers I alluded to yesterday. It was led by Myrtle Beach resident Jack Brandmahl, a former atheist turned Evangelical Christian.
Brandmahl is a cordial and good-natured man and had that on display as he led the group through a packet of information he put together. It's title: "Should the Bible be interpreted literally and is the Bible the Word of God? A presentation of evidence."
For Brandmahl, it is clear that the Bible must be read literally. He doesn't mean take every word literally. It is possible to read literally while also understanding that a donkey doesn't actual speak or trees don't actually bow down.
But a literal interpretation - meaning that the Bible is true, infallible and the word of God - is necessary.
"If you can't take the Bible literally ... why take it at all?" he asked the group, which included a dentist, former University of Michigan science professor who now teaches creationism, a retired doctor, retired member of the U.S. Army and former executives, including Brandmahl. They views evident in the group included those of a conservative Catholic and Evangelical Christians who believe Genesis is scientifically sound, a couple of people who said they were still searching and learning and someone who pushed back against Brandmahl. (Yes, I participated in the passionate, respectful discussion as well.)
"We have a desire to control our fate," Brandmahl said. "Sometimes the Bible gets in our way."
Brandmahl also said that he once refused to believe in God because "I couldn't imagine something better than me," and he had been turned off by "God's wrath" in the Old Testament.
After intensive study and prayer, he says it is now absolutely clear that the Bible is absolutely true and strongly suggests that the only true way to be a Christian is to share his view of Scripture.
By the end of the meeting, I asked if there was even a possibility that he could be wrong because each of us is "looking through a glass darkly" as Paul wrote in the Bible.
"No," he said.
The research he presented found that less than 10 percent of Christians have actually read the Bible and that those with the most education are the least likely to believe the Bible is the unfettered, infallible word of God.
He quoted a variety of respected old and modern sources who he said also believe the Bible is the word of God, including C.S. Lewis, "Case for Christ" author Lee Strobel, Biblical scholar Bruce Metzger, St. Augustine, Celment of Rome, Origen and reformers Luther and Calvin. He even quoted Bart D. Ehrman, a professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
Ehrman is most known for his book, "Misquoting Jesus," in which the former Christian turned agnostic details tens of thousands of errors in the Bible. Most of them, though, don't do much to undermine the basic tenents of orthodox Christianity, Brandmahl quoted Ehrman as saying. (I read that book, and that is essentially what Ehrman said, but he is no longer a conservative Christian because of what he found in his deep studies of Scripture. He doesn't believe "the word of God" would include so many mistakes and so many instances of scribes inserting political dogma.)
Brandmahl's evidence also included writers of the Bible who claimed that their message was from God. He mentioned Exodus 4:22 to Malachi 1:4, which included the Hebrew words "thus says the Lord." Other passages he says provide evidence include Isaiah 5:1-2, Jeremiah 10: 1-2 Ezekiel 1:3, Proverbs 30: 5-8, Romans 9:17, 1 Corinthians 14:37, 1 Thessalonians 4:15 and 1 Timothy 4:1.
"The prophets so identified themselves as God's spokesmen that they frequently spoke as though God himself were speaking," he said. "To deny or question that the Bible writers spoke from God is to deny and reject the truthfulness of their own statements about themselves, their statements about one another, and Jesus' statements about Scriptures."
And he said that Jesus expressly "claimed to be God."
"Therefore, it is true that the Bible is the word of God and everything in it is the word of God and anything opposed to it is false," he wrote in an extensive handout.
He explained why it is clear that "Jesus accepted the view that the Old Testament was without error" and "the Bible is infallible."
He wasn't able to present all of his evidence - which includes the claim that "the Bible accurately foretold all prophesies in detail, sometimes centuries before they occur, half of which have been fulfilled 100 percent correct."
The spirited back-and-forth got too long and he hopes to present the rest of his material at the same time next week in a small room in First Presbyterian Church in Myrtle Beach, next Tuesday at 9 a.m.
I tried to make the point that each of us is human, imperfect, equally susceptible to error that happens to be a part of our human existence, another way of saying what Paul said when he wrote that we all "see through a glass darkly."
That doesn't mean some claims aren't stronger than others. That doesn't mean some evidence isn't stronger than others. That doesn't mean all beliefs are either equally wrong or equally correct. What it means is that each claim made by a human being should be seen through that light and give us great pause when we profess to speak with absolute certainty about what God really believes or doesn't or wants or doesn't want.
That's where I have a major disagreement with Brandmahl and others of like mind. When you assert that you have found the truth, the one and only truth and everything that deviates from it is ungodly, in a literal sense, you are essentially claiming that you are the personification of God.
Despite all the love and learning and insight Brandmahl might have about this subject or any other, I highly doubt that he is God. Given that reality, I label his attempts to try to understand all of this faith stuff just like I label my own, a sincere, serious effort to understand the wonder that is God - or the supernatural or however you want to label it - without the full knowledge necessary to fully grasp it. Why? If we ever knew God perfectly, why would we need God?