© Glendon Mellow, The Flying Trilobite

An unreliable Witness (Part 2)

(Read Part 1 first.)

Previously on The Meming of Life: I expressed concern to a Jehovah’s Witness over my (allegedly) disobedient son. She confirmed that the Bible is completely reliable and accurate, and that its advice applies even today. We now return to our story, already in progress.

“I’m relieved to hear you say that,” I said. “You brought the answer to our problem right to our door, and I’m so grateful. It’s in Deuteronomy, chapter 21, verse 18.” I reached for my NIV Bible, strangely close at hand, and flipped to it. “If a man has a stubborn and rebellious son who does not obey his father and mother and will not listen when they discipline him, his father and mother shall take hold of him and bring him to the elders at the gate of his town….Then all the men of his town shall stone him to death.”

Her reaction was immediate — a loud nervous laugh. “HAHA! Well we don’t want you to do THAT!”

I blinked. “But Jesus does.” I flipped open to Matthew 5:17 and pointed.

“I…I’m not so sure about that. I don’t know what translation you’re using there.” She pulled out her own bible — most likely the New World Translation, a JW version published in the 1950s — and flipped to Matthew. “And I see yours is in red letters,” she said. “I’m not sure what that indicates…”

“The words of Christ.”

“Oh, okay.” She scanned her own Mt 5:17. “Okay, yes, it’s basically the same. But it’s important to read the Deuteronomy verse in context. It is not suggesting that you can kill your son.”

“You’re right, it doesn’t say I can. I says I shall. I don’t see that I have a choice. In fact, in Mark 7:9 *flip flip flip* Jesus specifically criticizes the Pharisees for not killing their children as the Old Law commands. What context are you talking about?”

“You can’t just look at the words and say, okay, I’m done, I’ll do that. God was speaking to Ancient Israel. Our time is not the same.”

“I see. So you can’t read the Bible exactly as it is, you have to interpret it.”

“Yes. Well no! It’s a matter of context, not interpretation.”

“And in the context of Ancient Israel, it was moral to kill your disobedient child.”

“Yes. But not today.”

“So God’s moral law has changed.”

The eyes of the moon-faced boy were becoming enormous white craters. Voldemort was apparently toweling off. The smile was unchanged.

“No. God’s law is eternal. Only man’s law changes.”

“And Deuteronomy is whose word again?”

She looked down and nodded once. “I can see you’re struggling with this…”

“Ma’am, if one of us is struggling, I don’t think it’s me.” I dropped my pretense. “Look — I’m not planning to kill my son. It’s immoral now, and it was immoral in ancient Judea. The Sixth Commandment covers that. There’s no ‘context’ that makes it okay to kill a disobedient child. It’s also a bit of a problem to say that a book including such a clear instruction is to be followed to the letter.”

She paused. “Okay,” she said quietly. “Let me just say this. When I discovered the Bible many years ago, when I learned that this is the Truth” — she pressed her hand into the cover with soft intensity — “it made such a difference in my life. It helped me, and it can help you. We cannot possibly know what is right without it.”

I shook my head. “What you just said is not true. You’ve just shown that you are better than that.” I held the Bible up. “There’s a lot of really good stuff in here, but there is also a lot of absolutely wretched, immoral stuff. And you recognized that it was wrong to kill my son, despite what the Bible said. You used your own moral reasoning to sort that out. That’s a really good thing. It’s what we should all do.”

No reply.

“If you had come to my house two weeks ago and handed me a letter that simply told me to kill my son, I would have been justified in calling the police. Of course you would never do that. But you essentially gave me that same letter with a lot of other pages around it, and told me it was the perfect word of God.”

It was obvious that she had never had an experience like this. Though the boy was hard to read (or even to look at directly at this point), the Talker was clearly intelligent and seemed intrigued. We talked for another ten minutes at least. She asked if I wasn’t astonished by the perfect fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy in the Gospels. I asked if she was astonished by the perfect fulfillment of predictions from the first Harry Potter book in the seventh Harry Potter book. The gospel writers had the OT in their laps and shaped their retelling of the life of Christ to fulfill those prophecies — a common practice in Mediterranean religious literature. We talked about midrash and syncretism, which she had never heard of. I told her about the Jesus Seminar, which she had also never heard of.

“Do you believe in God at all?” she asked at last. I do not, I said, but I’ve always been fascinated by ultimate questions. The people I don’t understand are the ones who are indifferent to those questions. She agreed.

“Well,” she said, “I guess we can leave it there.” I apologized for keeping her so long, and she said, “My no. I’m the one who wanted to stay. This has been so interesting.” We shook hands, and off they went. I’d like to think they’ll remember it, and that it will nicely complicate their task from now on.

That night I told the story at dinner. While Connor (who is not, by the way, a difficult child) and I were clearing the table (see?), he said, “I can’t believe what you did to those people.”

Uh oh. Yeah, I wondered about that. Remember the cross necklace story a few weeks ago? Connor is a classic apatheist, and the collision of religious ideas makes him uncomfortable.

“Con, don’t worry, I was very gentle about it.”

“No no, that’s not what I mean. I mean…it was awesome how you did that. I can’t believe it.”

Well that did it. Now the stoning is off for sure.

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This was written on Tuesday, 27. September 2011 at 09:32 and was filed under action, Atlanta, belief and believers, diversity. You can keep up with the comments to this article by using the RSS-Feed.

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  1. That was, in a word, awesome.

    Comment: chrisod – 27. September 2011 @ 10:40 am

  2. I think more atheists need to do this, with the same gentle but firm tone you use.

    Comment: BrianE – 27. September 2011 @ 10:57 am

  3. Very entertaining.

    Comment: Andrew Hall – 27. September 2011 @ 11:27 am

  4. Bravo!

    Comment: jfinite – 27. September 2011 @ 11:41 am

  5. Most atheists know the “not one jot nor a tittle” verse. But wow, how is Mark 7 not better known?

    In fact, I’m astonished at how your reference to Mark 7 fit so well with your previous discussion of stoning disobedient children. It’s like a perfectly fulfilled prophecy, this 2-part blog post.

    Comment: mikero – 27. September 2011 @ 12:03 pm

  6. I think you need to print this story out in a colorful brochure, with saccharine oil-painting-like depictions of you and the JW standing on your porch, so we can buy them to hand them to the JWs when they come knocking. Labor saver.

    Comment: 3ringquercus – 27. September 2011 @ 3:35 pm

  7. Of course the labor’s half the fun. Though the post may not capture it, she was genuinely engaged the whole time. Definitely an intelligent woman.

    Comment: Dale – 27. September 2011 @ 4:00 pm

  8. Really glad that I came across this, as it’s one of the best things I’ve read in some time. Not just a glib comment or mockery, but actually engaging with them using their own material. Excellent.

    This is the kind of thing I want to print a copy of, and then learn off by heart, so that I can have it handy the next time the doorbell rings.

    Comment: zenbuffy – 28. September 2011 @ 6:44 am

  9. @zenbuffy, BrianE: I’m relieved to hear that it comes across that way. I always try to make the idea the focus of the critique and to keep the person’s dignity intact, but it’s a hard line to walk, and I always worry that I’ve blown it. That’s one reason I usually decline these interactions. But the booklet she had left after her first visit got under my skin, and I couldn’t leave it alone.

    Comment: Dale – 28. September 2011 @ 7:06 am

  10. I wish I had come to your door when I was a JW. Most people gave a polite “not interested” or were just rude and curt. Neither reaction helped me come to my senses. I had been fooled by the Dub’s internal logic, but a walk through of logic from someone like you may have overcome that for me.

    Comment: Palaverer – 28. September 2011 @ 5:18 pm

  11. Touche, Dale! I can’t wait to relate your lesson to my JW friend.

    Comment: Lynne – 28. September 2011 @ 5:24 pm

  12. I bow to you oh supreme anti-proselyte! I knew the OT was a dirty old book, but I never realized that the Sermon on the Mount effectively put Jesus in support of killing children. I must have missed that line in my recent reading of the NT or, well, the ESV version might have conveniently left that out, I’ll have to whip out the KJV for comparison. Now I’ve got the perfect anti-proselytizer strategy. “Why won’t you accept Jesus into your heart?” “Because Jesus advocates killing children, want me to show you where in the Bible?” If I followed the teachings of Jesus, I’d have to stone my whole brood!

    Comment: phatjmo – 28. September 2011 @ 6:15 pm

  13. Yep, apparently whoever edited the ESV figured that one out yet. My Matthew 5:17 omits the “Old Law” and referenced instead simply the ten commandments. Darn it! So this won’t work on some of the non-denominational sects.

    Comment: phatjmo – 28. September 2011 @ 6:22 pm

  14. I am in love with you.

    Comment: mrschili – 28. September 2011 @ 8:56 pm

  15. This was a great story. I laughed out loud at the bit about the Harry Potter books; I may have to steal that one for myself. 🙂 Well done!

    Comment: Adam Lee – 28. September 2011 @ 9:39 pm

  16. Hmm, I asked my parents (long-time witnesses, recently fallen out of the organization quietly) about this and my mother said that the JW line of thought is that the “Old Laws” were meant to be unreachable as a message and sign that only through Jesus would there be salvation. And that the meaning of Matthew 5:17 was fulfilled upon Jesus’ death, and the Old Law stopped being applicable.

    This lady didn’t go along with this line of thinking at all?

    Comment: JAtheist – 29. September 2011 @ 3:16 am

  17. @JAtheist: Nope. It’s an enormous stretch to say that heaven and earth passed away when Jesus died, and she may have realized that I’d throw the flag on her once again for interpretation. That’s fifteen yards, I believe, so she punted.

    Comment: Dale – 29. September 2011 @ 5:40 am

  18. Does this same line of questioning apply to Mormons as well as JWs? or do the Mormons have something special in their magic book that negates the Sermon on the Mount?

    Wondering how you’d modify your gameplan with Mormons, if at all…

    I’ve never heard of midrash, syncretism, or the Jesus Seminar either. Do you talk about these topics anywhere else on your blog, Dale?

    Comment: Tom – 29. September 2011 @ 9:22 am

  19. @Tom: Not sure what the Book of Mormon does to that one. All I can say is that LDS theology and doctrine are so much more spectacularly bizarre than most people know. I had no clue until I toured a temple.

    I touched on midrash and syncretism in a post about Delaney’s mythmaking four years ago this month. Not the Jesus Seminar, though. Worth a Google if you have a minute.

    Comment: Dale – 29. September 2011 @ 11:09 am

  20. @Tom: I’m a former Mormon so I can give you a little bit of info on this.

    Mormons have a peculiar teaching that the God of the OT and the God of the NT were not the same ‘personage’. Oddly, they believe that Jesus was the God of the OT. In Mormon theology Jesus=Jehovah while God the Father=Elohim (the god of the NT).

    If you’re interested in a faithful Mormon take on this (although not an ‘official’ church stance on the doctrine) you could read this article produced by the Mormon apologetic organization, FAIR: http://www.fairlds.org/Bible/Jesus_is_Lord_of_the_Old_Testament.html

    This actually puts Mormons into an even more uncomfortable situation than the average Christian because, obviously, it means that not only did Jesus condone the actions of the OT God, he WAS the OT God and was therefore responsible for the atrocities attributed to Jehovah.

    The Mormon response is generally that when Jehovah came to earth as Jesus the Christ he did away with all the OT laws, and that everything that happens in the OT is specific to the time and people anyway. They can argue this because one of the main tenets of the faith is that the Bible is true only as far as it is translated correctly so anything that is difficult or contradictory in the Bible (and they use only the KJV) is obviously a corruption of the original truth.

    This is why for Mormons their own unique scripture always trumps anything Biblical. They present the Book of Mormon as “The most correct book on earth” and believe that their two other scriptures – the Pearl of Great Price and the Doctrine & Covenants – are direct revelation from God.

    Hope that helps!

    Comment: Megan – 29. September 2011 @ 12:45 pm

  21. Oh, something else I should maybe clarify for those who don’t know – the Mormon view of God is essentially polytheistic. They believe that God the Father is one being, with a physical body, and that Jesus Christ is a totally separate being, also with a physical body. This was, it seems likely, an evolving doctrine, but it’s made clear in one of the really important stories in Mormon teaching, Joseph Smith’s first vision* where he sees two physical beings, human in form, one of whom introduces the other as “my beloved son.”

    *I’m speaking here of the official version of the first vision which is taught in church. There were other versions that differ, sometimes drastically, from the official story.

    Comment: Megan – 29. September 2011 @ 12:51 pm

  22. I applaud you Mr. McGowan for firstly having the patience to even answer the door, and secondly keep your cool enough to not break their little spirits.
    That said it took me a long time to figure out number two! But it has given rise to so many good times that I fear it is a bit of an addiction!

    Before I had children I would always welcome the door knocker tribes into my humble home and make tea while they sat on the sun porch looking at a coffee table full of porn staring them in the face. And not the PC porn like Playboy either…the hard stuff like, well I don’t actually remember.
    Anyways I always steered the conversation to the women in the magazines. I purposefully promoted a preoccupation with their well being. I really wanted to know if they were going to heaven. Almost all said no, some said they didn’t know and none ever said yes to heaven for these heathens.
    On that note I always asked them to share with me “where” in the bible it said that this act was going to get them a one way ticket to hell. None could ever find those passages. So I suggested that perhaps it was their own personal beliefs that were in fact passing judgment on these fellow bi-peds. Most again argued no. But some said perhaps.

    Ultimately these interactions should always be about planting the seeds of rationalism no matter how small. Maybe we can after all convert enough of them so that I can take down the “No Solicitation” sign on the front of my house and rewire my doorbell.

    Comment: BillyBuzzBomb – 03. October 2011 @ 12:06 pm

  23. omg i’m glad i stumbled upon this! my friend posted this on her FB wall and i had happened upon it. I wasn’t raised a JW but pretty damn close. I was about 12 or 13 when I was thrust into “the truth” as they dub it. My mom was doing some soul seeking bible reading prior to this seemingly in response to my father becoming gravely ill. She’d always been into God and believing in God but nothing out of the ordinary. I think most American’s identify with a religion but do not actively practice it. In our case she was Catholic (and I guess I was too by default) but could only remember going to church when I was a little kid. This aside, I had identified with being Catholic and thought nothing strange about believing in God cause everyone does right?

    In the midst of my mom’s renewed interest in this topic, a JW man comes to the door and my mom interpreted this as a sign. She made arrangements to hear him out after being initially hesitant (as most people are). My dad immediately took a turn for the worse and we had to relocate immediately to a better hospital for a few months. Bills were tight, my mom made no money, and the Catholic church refuse to help us financially as they usually sponsor this sort of thing. That was that, she wrote a letter to the diocese ending our relationship with the church. Her family in particular were firm Catholics and were dramatically devastated at her choice. The man’s wife returned to our house with a similar story, her husband (the man that came to my mom) had died weeks ago. Of course, my mom immediately felt comfortable with her since she coped with the similar ordeal recently (my dad didn’t die yet but you get the point). Long story short, I got suckered into this deal simply because I could not say no (I was not a rebellious kid). The woman new how to target my interests and spun that toward “the word of God”. I met guys my age or younger guys who liked me a lot (and I like them!). It wasn’t so bad after all, they are not as crazy as everyone makes them seem. I eventually became a part of this group and did the whole door to door thing with them purely to be social now that I think of it. I really hated being shit on at the door or “god” forbid I run into any of my school friends. I quickly noticed a lot of inconsistencies with what they say and what we do. It seemed with the right amount of godly justification, any sort of explanation was correct. We were trained never to argue with anyone and stick to the word. I honestly think these people really mean well but are so horribly brain washed they don’t accept anything different. I dropped out when I was about 19 for several reasons, the most shocking being stalked online by an elder and confronted at my home with my mom’s permission about it. I had kept a blog online that was in direct violation of their “code of conduct”. This guy pulled me into his truck and berated me like you wouldn’t believe. So whatever scare tactics they use on their people works obviously. I knew that I had to get out and it was hard at first. To this day (I’m 27 now) my relationship with my mom is strained and the JWs who remember me treat me as if I’m some poor lost soul. I’m so happy someone like you stuck it to them and remained civil about it. They are very much trained to believe everyone is unrighteous and angry reactions are a result of some devil. When someone like you reacted the way you did, it probably made them think twice!! THANK YOU!!

    Comment: Blake – 03. October 2011 @ 5:17 pm

  24. Hi Dale…I was reading your “Just regular” post, and couldn’t help but notice that last part, what your daughter Erin said: “Well…you still have to obey THE law, you know.” It ties in deliciously with your aptly titled “An unreliable Witness” story. I admire your tact and civility, even if you were being completely disingenuous with your witnessing visitors. It seems like there’s a serious lack of debate here among your peers, which is a shame since you seem like a person who is open to healthy debate. So, I hope you will take this as an invitation to engage an opposing point of view, submitted respectfully for your consideration. I’ll be out of town for the next 2 weeks, but I do hope you’ll read through this and share your reflections, because you seem to me to be a person of high intellect and admirable character.

    With all due respect to the well-intentioned evangelists who showed up at your doorstep–who from the sound of it were basically clueless on Old or New Testament scripture, its context, OR its intent–what do YOU think the purpose of the OT law was during OT times? Was it to kill off the population by carrying out the maximum punishments, or was it to place severe enough penalties in place to get people to behave in a civilized manner? Now, I know these days it’s every parent’s dream to have a fat, drunk, stubborn, rebellious, disobedient son on their hands, but I suppose one could still ask the same thing about the purpose of modern law…is it just there to fine, incarcerate, or execute as many people as possible, or is it there to get people to behave themselves in moderately responsible fashion?

    One should not consider the law (i.e. the command…honor your parents) and the maximum penalty for the violation of that law (i.e. the punishment…death by stoning) to be the same thing (because they’re not, even if uttered in the same sentence). Deuteronomy does not mention how the rebellious child is to be chastised, how many times, at what age this is applicable, nor how bad the rebelliousness needs to get before something as drastic as stoning ought to be considered, but one would obviously assume that for the average parent, this would be a condition of absolute last resort, not first resort. I mean, realistically, if your teenager were driving you somewhere and you noticed that they were speeding, would you immediately rush them to the nearest highway patrol to have them voluntarily pay the speeding fine, or would you work with them using your intelligence and/or your own imposed punishments to get that bad habit under control? And of course, you’d be even smarter about it as a parent if the penalty for speeding were DEATH (which, incidentally, it certainly COULD be if your child were to take the wrong turn too fast).

    Comment: devilsadvocate – 10. October 2011 @ 2:17 am

  25. (continued) Nor should one consider the law and the penalty to be inexorably intertwined…especially after Christ came along, but even before then. What’s missing from your reading of Matthew 5:17 is the concept of grace. It’s not there in that particular passage, of course, but if you read the NT, you come to understand that grace is one of the prominent themes, and the very point of the crucifixion. If the purpose in OT law was to punish the people by imposing the maximum penalty possible each and every time there was an infraction, then why did Jews have the day of atonement, the year of jubilee, animal sacrifices, and other ways of atoning for sin, thereby having a process in place (through faithful action) to wipe the slate clean? Likewise, for Christians, if the death of Jesus came to replace the Jewish sacrifices and rituals as the means of atonement for the sins of all believers, what does that say about the purpose of the law…is it there to punish or protect? If there is a means to atonement, then logically we cannot assume that the law is simply there to punish, can we? Nor, then, should we assume that the maximum punishment must be administered every time.

    To prove this, you need look no further than the system of law itself. In modern law, judges are appointed to INTERPRET the law. They evaluate the circumstances and the recommendation of the jury (if there is one), examine what the law is related to the offense, review the degrees of punishment allowable for a violation of the law, and then determine the appropriate application of the law so that the punishment fits the crime. Some offenders “get off easy” while others “get the book thrown at them.” Likewise, in OT law, this was also the case. In Exodus 18:13-27, Moses appointed judges to administer justice among the people, but the difficult disputes were brought directly to him, suggesting that then, as today, there is no easy boilerplate solution for administering justice in all situations, because as we all know, each situation comes with a set of unique circumstances. It takes honesty, integrity, wisdom, and discernment to execute the law fairly, and even then, not everyone will agree on the outcome.

    If Jesus said–as you pointed out in Matthew 5:18–that not one letter of the law shall disappear, but we are also to understand that he paid the maximum conceivable penalty (i.e. death) as a means of atonement for ALL sins (i.e. broken commands of God…and there are plenty of references supporting this, let’s use Romans 6:10), then what exactly did he mean about the law? With the penalties being replaced by grace (a full pardon), all that remains for the Christian are the commands. So, to bring this back to your example, from the Christian perspective, parents are to be honored as commanded, but children are not to be killed as a penalty for failing to honor their parents. Jesus already died for that reason.

    Comment: devilsadvocate – 10. October 2011 @ 2:17 am

  26. (continued) The fact that there is grace does not give believers open license to sin, as the commands remain intact. Romans 6:1-2 and 6:12-15 make that clear. So, to the Christian, grace through the death of Jesus has removed the penalty of sin, but they are still supposed to respect and behave according to the law, not for the purpose of salvation, but as an outward expression of an inner faith. Which is pretty much the basic message of Christianity, isn’t it? Chris died for your sins…now go and live your life as if you really believe in what he stood for!

    As for Mark 7:9, you selected an excellent passage, but I think your interpretation was a bit off. If you examine its context (Mark 7:6-13), you come away with several key points regarding the indictment of the Pharisees (and by logical extension, ANY hypocrites who put empty religious ritual over the fulfillment of God’s law):

    Comment: devilsadvocate – 10. October 2011 @ 2:20 am

  27. (continued)
    1. Their outward display of righteousness is not reflected in their inward feelings (verse 6)
    2. The precepts of men are elevated as doctrines of God (verse 7)
    3. Tradition has replaced God’s commandments (verses 8-9)
    4. The commandment (honor your parents) and the punishment for breaking it (death) is offered as one example of many such commands watered down by empty traditions that have lost their original meaning and then been abused. Corban (an offering to God) has been transformed into an excuse to exempt a child from helping (and thereby honoring) his parents. “Sorry folks…can’t help you right now…you, know…because of Corban.” Jesus is not chastising the Pharisees for not carrying out the death penalty, but for allowing empty rituals to replace God’s commandments! (verses 10-13)

    Every single key point in this passage underscores this message. This may come as an ironic shock to some atheists, but Jesus is actually encouraging his followers to THINK, not wander around like pre-programmed robots with preconceived notions about what it means to be religious!

    Again, I congratulate you for your excellent choices of scripture. Obviously, I don’t agree with your interpretation of them, but the above passage from Mark alone ought to put any so-called “Christian” into a serious mode of self-reflection, and certainly calls into question poorly prepared door-to-door “evangelists” who are going through an empty exercise just because it is the tradition of their church. I understand what you were trying to do to these would-be evangelists, and for that you should absolutely be commended. They need to read and understand the book they claim to believe before they should be toting it around like a loaded gun, because the weak ones will get eaten alive. No one ever became successful selling products door-to-door without first knowing their product inside and out, and I suppose the same is true of the Bible.

    Comment: devilsadvocate – 10. October 2011 @ 2:20 am

  28. @devilsadvocate: Thanks for an extremely articulate and well-reasoned comment. I agree entirely that the best way to make Christian theology consistent is with a reparative principle, of which grace is the best available. Its Jesus-or-burn element is repugnant to me (as it would be, I suspect, to any saltworthy god), but it solves many doctrinal problems. More importantly, it has been used by some progressive denominations not to divide but to move in the direction of love and social justice, a direction I commend.

    My approach to the JWs was a response to their specific doctrine as spelled out in the booklet they’d left, which embraces strict literalism and renounces human interpretation. That’s an unfortunate combination. The concept of grace as generally understood is an interpretation of passages in Galatians, Romans, etc. Since the JWs renounced interpretation, they did not have access to the ground on which you stand.

    Comment: Dale – 10. October 2011 @ 6:55 am

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