So ever since I started The Quaz, I’ve been itching to go head to head with a Christian religious leader on his faith and the genre of his beliefs.
Thank God for Drew Snyder.
Drew is a senior minister at the Ashland Christian Church in Ashland, Missouri. He also happens to be the kingpin of a marvelous blog that deals with all things spiritual, athletic, pop culture, etc, as well as the author of a riveting new book, Good People Don’t Need Jesus (But You Do), which is available here. Oddly—and despite God’s myriad warnings (Didn’t Bruce Berenyi serve as baseball’s burning bush, Drew?)—he is a fanatical Cincinnati Reds fan … with the body ink to prove it.
OK, confessional time: While I’ve obviously got some strong problems with Christianity, Drew Snyder is my type of spiritual guru. He’s young, he’s intelligent, he’s open-minded, he’s approachable and he refuses to shove it down your throat or condemn you to an eternity of hell. He recognizes some of religion’s inconsistencies, and seems willing to admit that, at face value, not every single thing makes total sense. In other words, he’s human; the sort of guy who should be out front, leading by example and condemning the Pat Robertson-esque buffoons to the shadows.
Anyhow, I dig this Q&A, and I dig that Drew agreed to participate.
Enter: The Quaz …
JEFF PEARLMAN: Drew, first I want you to know how much I love your blog. It’s passionate, it’s raw, it’s funny, it’s enlightening. Best of all, it feels less like a sermon than a diary. Just brilliant work.
That said, one thing that’s very clear is not merely your devotion to the teachings of Jesus, but your 100 percent certainty that Jesus is the messiah and the way to eternal salvation. Hence, I open with this: How the heck can you be so sure? Men and women with significantly more life experience and (at least in my case) intelligence do not agree with you. Gandhi practiced Hinduism. Malcolm X was Muslim. Einstein and Stephen Hawking were/are Atheists. I’ve always liked the room for questioning with Judaism, yet your words leave zero room for doubt—Jesus is the way, no if, ands or buts. But how can you possibly 100 percent know?
DREW SNYDER: First and foremost, my faith is not a 100-percent certainty. Do I believe that Jesus is the way, the truth and the life? Absolutely—I believe it so much that I’ve not only staked my life on it, but my eternity as well. But every reasonable person who’s thought about what they believe for more than 10 minutes will tell you that any lasting conclusion a person comes to about God is made with hesitation and doubt, and frankly, you’ve brought up a big one for me.
That said, my certainty comes from basically two things. The first one is I’m incredibly confident that God exists. There are lots of reasons for this, and I suppose you’ve probably heard most of them from other people. For me, it boils down to the fact that the world we live in has natural rules and laws that govern what does and does not happen. And yet, for what we see in the world to exist, those rules have to be broken. Take, for example, the law of biogenesis, which basically states that life always comes from other life. I’ve yet to find someone who will argue this; your coffee table can’t spontaneously spawn another coffee table. The chair I’m sitting in can’t multiply its cells and make another life form. Instead, something that’s alive—a person, a dog, a monkey, whatever—has to be involved in reproducing something else. Of course, we all—atheist and theist alike—have to admit that at some point, the first life form came into being before it had something else to make life with, which breaks our scientific law. For the atheist, that law was broken by luck or random chance over billions of years; for the Christian, that law was broken by a being that exists outside and above time, space, and our universe, and we call that being ‘God.’ And since no one actually knows for sure how life began, we have to accept on faith (meaning we weigh the evidence and make a decision based on it) what it is we’ll believe. To me (and the vast majority of human beings over the entire scope of recorded human history), the far more logical choice is to assume that someone (or something) exists beyond this world, and he (or she … or it) is responsible for the things we see that we can’t explain by natural means.
So, I start by believing that the evidence (and our attempts to scientifically explain the origins of life are simply scratching the surface) shows that God is probably real. But who/what is he/it? Luckily, since almost everyone who’s ever lived agrees that God is probably real, I have no shortage of potential answers. What’s interesting, however, is that at the end of the day, almost every religion boils down to the concept that God wants to interact with human beings, but only if we jump through the right hoops. God will send rain if we perform the right ceremony; God will protect me if I pray the right prayer; God will bless me if I follow the right rules; God will send me to heaven if I don’t murder or rape or pillage. It doesn’t matter if you’re Jewish or Muslim or even a member of a faith like Buddhism that doesn’t believe in a personal God; it’s all about earning a deity’s favor through your correct actions.
What Jesus taught turns all of that on its head. He taught that God loves every person, regardless of nationality or religion or anything else. He taught that each and every person was worthy of respect, dignity, compassion and mercy. And he taught that despite his equally prevalent teaching that the things that people do are not what God wants. Finally, Jesus backed up his teaching with the ultimate action: dying on behalf of the very people who wanted him dead. In other words, Christianity isn’t about us reaching out to God; it’s about God reaching out to us, and Jesus’ correct actions of love and grace make us spiritually whole. And it’s that grace that not only sets Christianity apart from every other religion, and that’s the key for me to seriously be a Christian. After all, every religion presents itself as the ‘right’ one, and yet all but one basically follow the same rules. If I’m going to place my trust in one, I’m going to trust in the one that sets itself apart, and the grace given by the life and death of Jesus does that for me.
Of course, I don’t ‘know’ that I’m right. But I think there’s more than enough evidence and logic for me to trust in Jesus.
J.P.: You just released a book, Good People Don’t Need Jesus (But You Do), and the title is based off the idea that finding faith in Jesus has little to do with being “good” or “bad.” I’m fascinated by this—and also troubled. To me, there’s something very flawed in the idea that, as long as you accept Jesus in your heart and soul, you’ll be OK. In other words, Adolph Hitler, in the five minutes before he commits suicide, genuinely hurts for his sins, asks Jesus for forgiveness and fully accepts him—and he goes to the pearly gates. Meanwhile, Johanna Baer, my great-grandmother and a Jewish concentration camp victim, dies a Jew. She lived a humble life, never hurt anyone tried her best. However, because she’s a Jew—hell. That strikes me as, to be blunt, awfully fucked up. Or, at the least, warped. What am I missing?
D.S.: I think that largely, you’re right. It is messed up that a bad life could result in eternal bliss. But that’s the entire concept of grace. It’s the opposite of justice—it’s receiving something you don’t deserve and have not (and in this case, cannot) earn.
What you’re missing, however, is that if life were fair, no one would live eternally. For the sake of argument, say that the Bible is correct in saying that God is absolutely holy and morally perfect. If he’s going to interact with human beings—who are, at best flawed, and at worst, downright evil—then logically, it can’t be on the basis of our own goodness. In other words, no one could ever look at a morally perfect being, show them their good life, and say, ‘this is why you should love me.’ All of our attempts to impress him would fall well short of the mark.
GPDNJ is basically my story of coming to grips with this reality. I grew up in a white, middle class, ‘good’ home. My parents loved me, we never wanted for anything, and I was always taught to do the right thing. And for the most part, I did—I went to church, was active in my youth group, and I avoided doing the ‘big’ sins that we were taught at church to steer clear of.
And in the end, my theology turned me into a self-righteous prick. I didn’t think I needed grace, because I believed myself to be ‘good’ because of what I had done and where I had come from.
But when I look at who I am honestly—really, truly at my core—I suck as a human being. I’ve made mistakes I wouldn’t want to share with anyone, and each and every day I fall short of the example of unconditional love and compassion that Jesus set. If God is going to accept me, he’s going to have to do so because of his goodness, not mine. And that’s precisely what the gospel teaches—even though we’re terrible people who could never deserve it, God loves us so much that not only did Jesus die for us, but the Holy Spirit lives inside of us each and every day. That’s a powerful, scandalous, ridiculous kind of love, and it’s available to each and every person.
Of course, that conveniently avoids talking about your great grandmother. Truthfully, I’ve wrestled with examples like hers for years; after all, while she never accepted Christ, did she reject a gospel of grace or a man-made religion of rules? And is she in hell? I don’t know. I really, truly don’t, and won’t say one way or another. All I do know is that Jesus died for her as well as he died for me, and whatever her relationship with God is or is not for eternity, it’s based on God’s love and our choices. All I can do is share the gospel and allow the people I encounter to experience that love and make their own choice.
J.P.: I’m gonna take a stab based off your writings (I might be wrong) and guess you lean Republican/Conservative. Admittedly, I’m a New York Jew who’s certainly swayed by his surroundings. But why in the world do so many so-called Christians support the GOP? I mean, isn’t universal health coverage a decidedly Christ-like ideal? How about keeping the air clean? The forests? The drinking water? Providing more services for the poor—food stamps, health coverage, job training? And would Jesus really favor unlimited gun access? My list goes on and on …
D.S.: Well, in this case you’ve stabbed wrong. I never—and I mean never —get into politics with people because frankly, the message of Jesus is offensive and divisive enough without me compounding it with politics. But personally, I agree wholeheartedly that if we’re trying to love our neighbors, we’ll be fine with the government mandating universal health care, services for the poor, etc.
The trouble for Christians politically, however, is this: we have to compromise. There isn’t a ‘Christian’ party, as both sides adhere to principles that contradict what Jesus was all about. And there’s a reason that no American political party reflects Christianity: the basis for our lives was a Jew living in Roman occupied Israel who did everything in his power to steer clear of any and all political questions. To further complicate matters, two of his disciples (Matthew and Simon) were on the opposite side of their culture’s political spectrum, meaning that Jesus was, apparently, completely fine with political differences in his kingdom. So it’s not as if there’s a chapter and verse for every Christian to turn to when it comes to how we should vote, and truth be told, no matter how we vote, we’re voting for or against an issue that it seems like Jesus would have cared about (but never explicitly taught about, in most cases).
With all this uncertainty, Christians are ripe for the picking for politicians, and unfortunately, it seems as if the church is easily swayed and used by people who know how to push our buttons. And for whatever reason, the anti-abortionists have convinced much of the church that no other issue matters. That isn’t to say that abortion isn’t an important moral, spiritual issue; it is. It’s just that so are health care and welfare and even something like gun control.
Personally, I made the decision after the last election to abstain from the political process altogether. I don’t like compromising my morals, and to vote, I have to do so. And as it turns out, it truthfully doesn’t matter what’s legal or illegal in the United States. Our laws don’t affect Jesus’ teaching, and what Jesus said is what should govern my life, no matter what anyone else does. So personally, I don’t care what the laws of our nation say—I care what Jesus said, and try to live accordingly.
J.P.: On your blog you wrote, “I don’t feel like my life has amounted to much in the grand scheme of things, and I do feel like most people care very little to not at all about what goes on in the ministry I’m a part of. This isn’t false modesty or a cry for attention or even fishing for compliments from those who disagree with my feelings; it’s just that, again, the truth is the truth, and the truth is that I don’t feel like my life has been successful.” I find this to be quite powerful, and I’d love to hear you elaborate. You’re a minister at a church, leading people toward God? Isn’t that, in a sense, the ultimate success? Also, how did you become a minister? What was your path? Was there a miraculous moment that told you, “This is what I should do”?
D.S.: The point of that piece is that sometimes, my feelings lie to me. There are times that I feel like I’m pretty good at life, even though as I’ve already said, that’s simply not the case. And conversely, there are times that I feel inadequate and insignificant, despite the fact that Jesus lived and died basically to tell us all that we’re anything but those things. When I chose to go into ministry, I did so because if this whole Jesus thing is true, then I could think of no more exciting way to spend my years than sharing that truth with others, and no matter how frustrated I may get sometimes, there’s nothing—and I mean that—that I’d rather do than be a minister. But like anything else, there are days and weeks where you struggle, and on those days, it doesn’t seem like what I’m doing means a whole lot to anyone. I can understand on an intellectual level that this isn’t true; but emotionally, when things are hard, I’m not always so sure.
As far as my path goes, I wish there was an ‘a-ha!’ moment or a burning bush or ‘blinded on the road’ experience I could tell you about. But really, I’ve been doing a lot of this ministry stuff since I was a teenager. I was teaching bible studies and writing lessons for my church when I was a freshman in high school, and I even built an embarrassingly tacky website about Jesus with my best friend on the now defunct Homestead.com. And preaching makes me happier than anything else I could ever hope to get paid to do. So it made sense —I went to college, got involved with a church right away, and never left it. The truth is, though, if I wasn’t a paid minister, I’d be doing most of what I do for free anyway.
J.P.: When I was a kid my mom used to say, “Everyone needs to have faith in something.” Now I’m 39 and I dislike faith. I really do. Because it strikes me as the ultimate weapon that churches/temples/etc use to keep members and make money. When something good happens—well, thank God you had faith! When something nightmarish happens—well, you need to have faith more than ever. Honestly, I think faith is our way of avoiding the inevitability of eternal nothingness. Tell me why I’m wrong?
D.S.: One thing I find interesting about your worldview is that you’re so sure in the ‘inevitability of eternal nothingness.’ You seem obsessed with death, and yet resigned that when it comes, nothing—good, bad, or otherwise—will result from it. If I believed that all the existed of life was found in the 100 years or so (max) that I’m on this earth, I wouldn’t worry at all about death, because nothing you did here would make any difference for then (and, besides—if you don’t exist, it’s not like you’ll care, either).
But I don’t think that eternal nothingness is inevitable. At the very least, I think that believing in an afterlife is equally reasonable as not believing in one. After all, I’ve never been dead, and no one who’s ever died has ever come back to tell me how it is (except for Jesus, who, if you don’t believe in an afterlife, you don’t believe in either). So, objectively speaking, no one knows what lays after death. You believing there’s nothing is as much a leap of faith as me believing there’s something; neither of us knows, and therefore, we’re just looking at the limited evidence we have and making a decision about it. So I don’t think you’re wrong in saying that our faith is what we use to shape our beliefs about the afterlife; but I think your faith (or lack thereof) is doing the same thing, and so I’m not bothered by it.
As far as what you said about faith being a weapon, though, every mature, honest belief in God understands that faith isn’t a band-aid over the hurt in our lives. And even a cursory look at the biblical record will tell us that if you believe in God so that everything in your life will be rainbows and unicorns and puppies, you’re barking up the wrong tree. Every person—godly or otherwise—suffers, and so I think it’s fairly shortsighted and silly to believe in any sort of cause and effect between believing in God and having success in this world. So, I think it’s perfectly appropriate to filter life’s good and bad points through our faith, and I think that it’s the only honest way to approach it. At the same time, I wish I could argue with you that it’s historically been used as weapon against people. Unfortunately, in the world we live in, no matter how good something is, it isn’t hard to find a corruption of it. And that sucks, no matter what you believe.
J.P.: Why is death as an ending so bad? Like, why can’t we just live, die and pass on what we learned to others? Why do you think so many people fear this possibility?
D.S.: If you don’t believe in God, then I think it isn’t such a bad ending, assuming, of course, that you’ve lived the life here that you’ve wanted (which, sadly, probably isn’t true for the majority of the world). If there’s no God and nothing beyond the physical reality of our lives, then it shouldn’t, and wouldn’t, matter if we just ceased to exist when our hearts stopped beating. But if God is real, and he created the concept of time, and we could live eternally in the sort of peace and contentment that isn’t possible in this world? You’d HAVE to agree that’s a more attractive option. And I refuse to buy the ‘oh, I’d be bored’ argument; if we believe in God, and we believe in his love, and we believe that wherever we go after this life is completely and utterly different than this place, then ‘boredom’ may not even be a real concept, let alone something to be concerned about.
I think, though, that if people knew for sure that there was no afterlife, it wouldn’t be so bad. Assuming you lived long enough, you’d come to grips with that fact, and if you didn’t live that long, you wouldn’t think about it enough for it to bother you. It’s the not knowing that scares us. The unknown—whether it’s a person or a situation or whatever else—is frightening. And like I’ve already said, we’re all putting our faith in something when it comes to the afterlife. There isn’t any assurance at all, and so when presented with something (like Christianity) that offers something that not only avoids what we fear in this world (death) but also is described as eternal bliss, that’s an attractive option to consider.
J.P.: If dinosaurs roamed the earth for eons (pre-man), doesn’t that render the Bible—and Genesis in particular—as utterly wrong and, therefore, sorta useless?
D.S.: Absolutely. Assuming, of course, that:
• Genesis 1 is intended to be read literally and not allegorically; and …
• That an incomplete biblical record renders the truth that it contains meaningless.
Of course, I don’t assume either of those things. I think the possibilities are limitless—maybe the dinosaurs aren’t as old as we think, or maybe Genesis 1 was never intended to be read literally. Or maybe there’s something we’ve all missed that contains the key to us understanding everything. I don’t know. But the truth is there’s value in the idea that God made the world, even if we can’t be certain of the mechanics of how he did it. And that’s what I trust in, regardless of what specific theological perspective someone wants to adhere to.
At the same time, even if you take every word in Genesis as absolute, literal fact (which, for the record, I lean towards more than I lean towards anything else), there are gaps in the biblical record that you have to account for. So, at best, it’s incomplete and there are a lot of areas that we have to guess at. I think, then, that a little bit of humility would go a long way as we discuss these things, and we should be willing to say, ‘I don’t know, but here’s what I think the evidence is telling us.’
At the end of the day, though, Genesis 1, the dinosaurs, and countless unanswerable Old Testament questions have absolutely no bearing on the historicity (or lack thereof, depending on your perspective) of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. Genesis could all be a myth, and if Jesus rose from the dead, Christianity is still valid. That, then, is the question I think we should be concerned with most of all.
J.P.: There’s an old joke that I love—goes like this. “A volcano is about to erupt, so the police drive up to the house of a man who lives on it and say, “Sir, you need to leave. This thing’s about to blow.” The man replies, “Nope, I believe in god. He’ll protect me.” Hours later the lava starts flowing and the fire department knocks on the guy’s door. “Sir, you have to leave now!” “No,” replies the man, “God will protect me.” Well, now the lava’s everywhere, the ground is shaking. A chopper flies overhead, drops a rope. “Sir, you must grab the rope!” He doesn’t—“God will save me!”
Well, the guy dies. And he gets to heaven and he sees God and says, “God, I can’t believe you let me die.” And God replies, “Dude, I sent the police, the fire department and a helicopter. What else was I supposed to do?”
This is my long way of getting to your post from December 15, 2009, titled, “Oh No! The Ice is Melting!” You used the segment to discuss global warming and how you’re not worried, because God has a plan. I must tell you, this sort of thinking pisses me off. I mean, r-e-a-l-l-y pisses me off. Clearly, we’re killing this planet, and most reputable scientists believe it to be true. Yet I’ve heard 8,000 right-leaning Christians say what you do—“God will take care of it.”
Drew, isn’t it possible that God has taken care of this by giving us scientists? By giving us brains, and IQs, and resources?
D.S.: Speaking of things we don’t know nearly as much about as we think we do, there’s global warming. That particular piece was a response to two articles I had read that week—one of them basically calling the whole thing a hoax, and one them not only confidently saying it’s absolutely true, but going so far as to say that in 2015, the polar caps will be completely gone. I find the arrogance of both perspectives somewhat amusing and somewhat sad; obviously, something is happening in our world that’s causing the temperature to rise. Is that man-made? Is that the natural course of the history of a billion year old earth? It that God’s plan? I don’t know—but as we talk about it, we should all admit as much.
I do think, though, that one of the signs of the extreme politicizing of the church is the environmental movement. If we Christians are right in what we believe, then God gave this planet to us to take care of. We, above anyone else, should see it as our sacred responsibility to be good stewards of the world God made and entrusted us with; but because the ‘liberals’ are the ‘tree-huggers,’ we don’t do what God has explicitly taught us to do. So I agree wholeheartedly that we should be taking care to preserve the world around us, no matter what side of the political fence we’re on.
The bottom line, though, is that if global warming is real, my faith is in God. And if global warming isn’t real, my faith is in God. And my faith in God should tell me that no matter what the future holds, my relationship with him is the most important thing.
J.P.: Why do you think so many Christians, preachers, etc focus on homosexuality, when there are a gazillion other sins? Especially when all sins are supposedly equal.
D.S.: Well, to be fair, right now homosexuality and gay marriage are two of the hot topics in politics and the media. It’s not just preachers who talk about it; heck, just a couple weeks ago Charles Barkley came out and made a statement in support of gay marriage and people didn’t think it came out left field at all. So, it just seems par for the societal course for Christians to address it.
That said, I won’t argue that most Christians get on their high horse about homosexuality and seem to treat it as a sin worse than any other. And I think the reason goes back to the premise of GPDNJ—we think we’re better than we are. For a lot of Christians, even though the bible says that homosexuality is a sexual sin like adultery and lust (which 100 percent of us heterosexuals are guilty of), we assume that our sin isn’t as ‘bad’ as the sins of someone else. We think that God loves us and blesses us because we’ve earned it with our good works, and when we’re faced with evidence to the contrary we find someone who feel is worse and focus on them. When we do that, we’ve missed the core message of Christianity, which is that God loves everyone and so should we.
Personally, I don’t think this is rocket science—the worst the homosexuality can be is sin, which we’re all guilty of, and which Jesus died to pay for. If we believe the gospel, then there’s no reason to focus on homosexuality anymore than we ‘focus’ on anything else. And my job as a Christian is simple: to love them the way Christ loves me, whether or not I agree with their choices and no matter what I believe causes their lifestyle. After all, I don’t deserve Christ’s love, so even if I believe that homosexuals don’t deserve mine, my faith should cause me to give it freely anyway.
J.P.: Allow this for a moment, please. If there is no God (Drew, just allow it for a moment), have you wasted your time?
D.S.: In a way, absolutely. If there’s no God, then every sermon has been a lie; every baptism a needless ceremony; every worship service singing into the wind and every prayer just talking to myself. If there’s no God, I’ve deluded myself into believing in a fictitious man in the sky, and have lived my life for a set of fairy tales. It’d be no different than basing all of life’s decisions on the Easter Bunny or Santa Claus, and no matter how many years I’ve lived, those years could have been spent doing something—anything—else.
In another way, though, even if God isn’t real, I think my faith has helped me to be a better person. My faith has helped me a better husband than I could have been without it, and it has brought lifelong friendships that otherwise would not have existed. And, as flawed as I am, I’ve tried to live my life based on love, compassion and mercy, and those are qualities that transcend every culture and worldview, I’d say. So in that way, I’d say no.
So yes, and no. In the end, though, we’re all playing the odds – non-Christians are banking on Jesus not being the way, the truth and the life; Christians are banking on Muhammad not being God’s pre-eminent prophet; atheists are banking on God being a fairy tale. We’re all placing our hopes and future in something, and frankly, I’m at peace with what I’ve chosen.
QUAZ EXPRESS WITH DREW SNYDER
• Would it be wrong for me to pray that Celine Dion permanently loses her voice?: This question literally made me laugh out loud. But I’d say you’d be doing the world a favor if you did.
• Are you aware how much we Jews loathe hearing Christians say, “Oh, I love the Jews—because Jesus was one!”: Come on, Jeff – I’m not a racist. I once had a friend of a friend who was black.
• Can you love Jesus and be a racist? How about a homophobe?: I suppose you can love Jesus and be all sorts of things. But no and no—discriminating against people for their skin color or sexual orientation is most certainly contrary to what Jesus taught.
• John Secada’s Greatest Hits, every hour of every day for two weeks, or severe lice?: Gotta go with the Secada hits—I have a strange phobia about bugs of all kinds, which is nice this time of year in Missouri.
• Three reasons to make Ashland your next vacation stop?: If you’re hiding from the mob, your home is in an active volcano or you just want to experience what the worst humidity in the United States is all about for a science project or something, Ashland’s a great place to vacation. Other than that, not so much.
• Without Googling, can you name 10 members of the 1992 Cincinnati Reds?: Barry Larkin, Hal Morris, Chris Sabo, Jose Rijo, Eric Davis, Paul O’Neill, Bip Roberts, Joe Oliver, Tom Browning, Rob Dibble—and since I’m not sure on O’Neill—I’ll also say Reggie Sanders, since I think he debuted that year or the year before. [Jeff's note: Wow!]