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A statement that changed my life...

"John, every criticism you make about 'organized religion' is found somewhere in the Bible itself. Read Isaiah. Read Amos; read Hosea, not to mention Jesus: you'll find that everything that bothers you about religion bothered them, too, and that all the same criticisms you are making were made by them, thousands of years ago - they're all right there in the Bible. They were saying the same things you are saying. Except they were saying it even more strongly than you are. And certainly more eloquently." 

That was Eric Dean, a professor of Philosophy and Religion at Wabash College, and it was said to me in my sophomore year of college during one of my rants against organized religion.

Like many people - like you perhaps - when I was young (late high school and early college), I went through a rebellious "I don't want to have anything to do with organized religion" stage. This was a stage when I couldn't stand Christianity, or being around Christians. And poor Eric Dean was hearing me out. 

This rebellion against religion was a huge change from my childhood: I grew up an Episcopalian, the youngest of five children, and the image of the seven of us filling a pew at St. Christopher's Episcopal Church in Carmel, Indiana, stays with me as a positive image. (Although my happy memories may well be influenced by the fact that on the way home from church, my dad would stop at Roselyn Bakery and buy us doughnuts. He knew a thing or two about "positive reinforcement.")

Then sometime in late high school, I got turned off of Christianity by para-church evangelical Christians who in the matter of a year or two established an aggressive, large, noisy presence at my high school, especially amongst the athletes and other popular kids. (The fact that these organizations targeted the popular, good-looking kids to the exclusion of what were cruelly called "the freaks" -- the marginal kids, the "rejects" - should have been my first clue that these were counterfeit Christians, or (to be kind) very immature Christians, not true Jesus-followers....but more about that, below.)

And so in late high school and early college, my "church-involvement" pendulum swung pretty hard and far the other way. Like many people throughout the ages - like you, perhaps at some point or even now - I concluded that "if those are Christians, well, then, I'm an atheist. Or an agnostic. Or maybe a Unitarian. But definitely not one of "them."

And I was sure to let everyone know. (Dante's inferno doesn't mention it, but there is probably a level in hell where all our thoughts, words, and deeds from our sophomore year are read aloud and recounted, and we have to sit there and listen to ourselves. Good Lord, deliver us.)

At any rate, poor Eric Dean - one of my philosophy and religion professors - was patiently listening to one of my rants about the hypocrisy of Christians, how all religions have one basic message of compassion at their core and how stupid and destructive it is that they fight amongst themselves over who really knows God or who "gets it right" to the exclusion of others.   

And that's when Eric Dean said what he said, a statement that changed my life:

"John, every criticism you make about 'organized religion' is found somewhere in the Bible itself. Read Isaiah. Read Amos; read Hosea, not to mention Jesus: you'll find that everything that bothers you about religion bothered them, too, and that all the same criticisms you are making were made by them, thousands of years ago - they're all right there in the Bible. They were saying the same things you are saying. Except they were saying it even more strongly than you are. And certainly more eloquently."


He said this kindly, even lovingly, with a twinkle in his eye.

Eric Dean: ordained United Presbyterian minister, professor of religion and philosophy at Wabash College for over 30 years, a native of England who served in The Royal Air Force during World War II; died in 1989 at the age of 64, but his influence: very much alive. 
Talk about "speaking the Truth, in love." Talk about words cutting to the core of your heart, mind, and soul, leaving you speechless, dumfounded.

As he suspected I would, I decided to investigate for myself.

"Is what he said really true?" I wondered. "Could it really be that the Bible contains within itself its own antibodies -- that the strongest safeguards against mis-using the Bible are in the Bible itself?"

That's when I began a journey into the world of scripture, reading it and studying it like never before. And most of all being moved by it, the more I came to realize what it truly is: a long, complicated, heavily nuanced, deeply intelligent, wild, original, mysterious passionate love note. From God.

The journey into the Bible has been for me a Matrix-like journey into a parallel universe, one where the constructed "reality" of religion and religious practices hides the true reality of the Kingdom of God, which breaks in at unexpected times in unexpected places and through unexpected people.

And if that's not enough to blow your mind, one of the unexpected ways "the Kingdom of God breaks in" is through the very religion, religious practices, and religious people that often hide it!-at least that is the hope of liturgy, preaching, prayer, and serving the poor. Or to put it another way: God could have populated the church with angels, perfectly fulfilling God's will at every moment. Instead, God chose to populate the church with messed up, confused, trying-our-best-in-spite-of-ourselves ordinary-human-being Jesus-followers like me and you.  

It's a wonderful, interesting journey. And there are Sundays - such as this Sunday - when the assigned lesson - especially the lesson from Isaiah, especially when you read it in this paraphrase by Eugene Peterson -- becomes Exhibit A" in the case that Eric Dean was making.  

So thanks be to God for prophets - ancient ones like Isaiah and Amos, and modern-day ones like Eric Dean - who remind us to "pick up and read, pick up and read" and discover for ourselves what God most wants us to hear, now.  


  1. I too have fond memories of Dr. Dean. I appreciate your backtracking a bit on your view of the parachurch groups, whom I also looked askance at when I was younger but now have come to appreciate as a necessary but sometimes flawed step in the life of a new born believer. I see similar flaws in progressive circles. However, each movement can and is used by God to draw His people to Himself.

  2. This article reminded me of a sermon I recently heard from Moody church, Chicago IL. It made something so transparent to me. The sermon was are we living HOLY? Bibles our road map home! Everything we need is in it. Period! Will look for more of Prof Dean.
    Julie De Young

  3. Raymond Brady WilliamsFebruary 9, 2014 at 7:01 PM

    Thank you, John, for reminding us of Eric Dean, who influenced many of us in very positive ways. A remarkable teacher.
    Raymond Brady Williams


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