A life of unlearning – A spiritual journey to authenticity

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anthony-venn-brownPlease join Spirit of Life Unitarian Fellowship in welcoming Anthony Venn-Brown as our speaker on 23 January.  Services are held each Sunday as follows.  Visitors welcome.

Service:  10:30 – 11:30 followed by coffee, tea and biscuits

Location:  Kirribilli Neighbourhood Centre, upstairs gallery.  16-18 Fitzroy Street, Kirribilli, NSW

  • What happens when you come to the realisation that the Christian belief system you have built your life on, caused you to live in denial, reject and even destroy your true self?
  • How do you reconcile a belief system that tells you your homosexuality is an abomination and makes you unacceptaple to God and those close to you?
  • What do you do when you have more questions than answers?
  • How can you separate what is eternal, universal truth from what is man made truth?
  • What price would you pay to be true to yourself?

Anthony Venn-Brown was an ordained minister of the Assemblies of God and high profile preacher in Australia’s Pentecostal mega-churches. But there was a problem. Behind the scenes of a successful ministry he was fighting a secret battle. For 22 years he tried to change his sexual orientation through psychatric treatment, ex-gay programs, exorcisms and 16 years of marriage. Falling in love with a man at the age of 40 was the catalyst that forced him to face the reality; he was, is and always wiill be gay.

In front of a congration of 800 people, believing his faith and his homosexuality were irreconcilabe, Anthony resigned from the ministry and walked away from the church and his faith. Whilst now out of the closet about his sexuality another closet of denial and unresolved issues about his faith and spirituality had been created. Thus began his ‘Life of Unlearning’ everything he had believed God and his homosexuality…….in order to find the truth.

Anthony’s award winning autobiography ‘A Life of Unlearning – A Journey to Find the Truth’  is in its second print and has assisted people around the world to reconcile the percieved conflict between their faith and sexuality. He is also the co-founder and president of Freedom 2 b[e] ; Australia’s leading network for LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender) people from Christian  backgrounds.

Anthony has become an ambassador for the LGBT community building bridges and breaking down the walls that have separated religion and gay and lesbian people. In 2007 Anthony’s name appeared on the inaugural list of the  25 Most Influential Gay & Lesbian Australians, and again in 2009 in acknowledgement of his pioneering work in the area of Christianity and Sexuality.

Tomorrow’s Song

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The following is a copy of the service ‘Tomorrow’s Song’ , given by Spirit of Life regular, Martin Horlacher on 30 August:

One of my favourite authors used to be a fellow by the name of Dean Koontz – ever heard of him?  He’s a prolific American horror/thriller writer with more than fifty books to his name, at least twenty of which I’ve read.  I had a lot of fun reading his stuff over the course of the past few years; his books were easy to read, and he had a knack for writing good thrillers that hooked you in.  I would always look forward to picking a book of his up for a bit of fun.

 That all changed a few years ago, when he published a book called The Taking.  The story follows a writer named Molly, who, along with her husband Neil, must deal with what appears at first to be an alien invasion, not just of their sleepy little town, but of the whole world. At one point, most of the adults in the town are literally lifted up into the air, apparently taken away by the invaders.  Some of these adults laugh and smile while this happens to them; the rest cry and scream.  Molly and Neil then spend most of the book roaming around the town with their dog, searching for and rescuing all the children, who strangely seem to be immune to the carnage caused by the so-called “aliens” who are laying the town to waste.  The denouement of the novel comes when Molly faces down one of the “aliens”, rescuing the few remaining children it is keeping prisoner.  The “aliens” then mysteriously depart the planet with most of its population, leaving only the children and a minority of select adults to rebuild the world.  Throughout the story, the “aliens” sometimes break into a strange chant of some sort.  In the book’s final few pages, Molly writes this chant down, then reads it backwards.

 And, lo and behold, it reads:

 My name is legion, is Lucifer, is Abbadon, is Satan, eater of souls.

 In other words, what was taking place for the past few hundred pages was not an alien invasion, but the Apocalypse.  In Koontz’s view, to a “faithless” world, what was in fact magic would seem like advanced technology, rather than the other way around.  The “aliens” were not aliens, but demons.  Those adults taken up into the air who were smiling and laughing were the elect, on their way to heaven.  Those who were crying and screaming were, of course, the ones being taken to hell.  Now, I don’t know if I’m reading the story right, but if I am, the denizens of that latter place would seem to include not only murderers (and especially the murderers of children), rapists, child molesters, and proponents and arbiters of a supposedly too-liberal justice system that allows such dregs of society back onto the streets after an apparent average of just seven years, but also alcoholics, parents who neglect or abuse their children, pacifists who are too stupid to fight back against the invaders even when they are literally having their faces ripped off, and people who believe there’s any truth to the theory of global warming.

 I had always been aware of a fairly right-wing slant to Koontz’s work, not least of all a love of guns and a tendency to reflect at length about the supposed decline of society over the last half-century because of liberal-based tolerance of wrongdoing, but I had up until then been able to put that aside for the benefit of reading an exciting story.  The Taking, however, was too much for me.  I found it arrogant, supercilious, and – yes, I will use the dreaded F-word – fascistic.  Koontz justifies the events of the book in its closing pages by arguing that the world has never been as terrible a place as it is now, citing events such as the Holocaust and the mass killings of China’s Cultural Revolution.  Thus, in his view, a Biblical “cleansing” of the Earth was needed to straighten everything out and make us better people.  It’s depressing – and more than a little scary – to read some of the positive comments made by readers of this book on the Internet, who apparently find the idea of a global religious genocide appealing.  All of that is particularly sad when you consider what I believe The Taking to really be – an attempt by Koontz, either at the behest of his publisher or of his own volition, to capitalise on the immense success of the much more openly fundamentalist Christian Left Behind series of books by Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins.  2004, which saw Koontz’s book appear, also saw the publication of The Glorious Appearing, the climax of the Left Behind series, in which Jesus returns to Earth to throw all non-evangelical Protestants into the Lake of Fire in hell.  Cynical, Dean, very cynical.

 Suffice to say, I hated The Taking.  However, it did get me thinking about the shortcomings of institutional religion and just what faith means to me.  I do not consider myself a religionist, but nor am I an atheist.  I feel the need to somehow connect to something that is bigger than me, but I baulk at worshipping a theistic God.  Indeed, the very idea of a judging, condemning, punishing God is completely alien to me.  I simply cannot understand how some people can respect such a deity, let alone love one.  This is, for me, perhaps the main reason for rejecting organised religion and instead classing myself as a humanist, albeit a spiritual one.  I simply do not believe that the Christian doctrine of original sin, which argues that we are all baseborn and damned by default, is a healthy way of viewing and experiencing the human condition.  Bishop John Shelby Spong alludes to this in one of his books, describing his view on humanism and Christianity:

 In 1999 the New York chapter of a humanist organisation presented me with their “Humanist of the Year” award.  Almost immediately some of my ecclesiastical critics leaped upon that designation to suggest that I was, as they had long suspected, not really a Christian at all, but a humanist…I was amazed by this rhetoric, because it revealed that in their minds a Christian was one who was defined by a negative view of humanity.[1]

 Indeed, it is this negative brand of Christianity which so often seems to come to the fore.  In his book Stealing Jesus: How Fundamentalism Betrays Christianity, the American liberal Christian author Bruce Bawer draws a sharp distinction between legalistic and non-legalistic Christianity, saying of the former:

 [T]he problem with legalistic Christianity is not simply that it affirms that God can be evil; it’s that it imagines a manifestly evil God and calls that evil good…In America right now, millions of children are taught by their legalistic Christian parents and ministers to revere a God of wrath and to take a sanguine view of human suffering.  They are taught to view their fellow Americans…as being saved or unsaved, children of God or creatures of Satan…This is not only morally offensive, it’s socially dangerous – and it represents, for obvious reasons, a very real menace to democratic civil society.[2]

 He also adds:

 [T]he willingness of legalistic Protestants to believe that a loving God would support genocide is of a piece with their violent, bloodthirsty End Times theology.  After all, if they gladly worship a God who plans to subject most human beings to eternal torment, why not a God who would engineer the mass slaughter of children?  Many legalistic Christians have claimed that the atrocities of the twentieth century teach us that we need to retreat from the secularism that is supposedly responsible for these happenings and return to religion – by which they mean, needless to say, their own brand of Christianity.  Yet their religion is altogether too close for comfort to modern totalitarianism…As James Sibley, head of the Southern Baptist Convention’s mission to the Jews, said in a 1997 interview, “As terrible as the Holocaust was, it will fade into insignificance in comparison to God’s future judgment.  There will be the Holocaust of all people who don’t accept Jesus.”[3]

 Such theology raises many questions.  The atheist writer Charles Templeton poses some very obvious yet profound ones, such as:

 If there is a loving God, why does he permit – much less create – earthquakes, droughts, floods, tornadoes, and other natural disasters which kill thousands of innocent men, women, and children every year?

  • How could a loving Heavenly Father create an endless Hell and, over the centuries, consign millions of people to it because they do not or cannot or will not accept certain religious beliefs?  And, having done so, how could he torment them forever?[4]

 And, perhaps my personal favourite:

 Is it possible to believe that the Creator of the universe would personally impregnate a Palestinian virgin in order to facilitate getting his Son into the world as a man?[5]

 Some will undoubtedly argue that a theistic deity, one willing to dole out rewards and punishments in this life and the next, is a necessary fixture of any truly moral system.  They are essentially buying into the tired old argument that without a divine judge, there can be no morality.  While I can see where they are coming from with this argument, I certainly don’t agree with it.  In my view, those who try to argue for the Bible, for example, as the source of all morality in this world, simply haven’t read that book closely enough.  This is especially true of the Old Testament – rapings, killings, slavery, and other evils abound…nearly always sanctioned by God.  The atheist writer Sam Harris puts it bluntly:

 The idea that the Bible is a perfect guide to morality is simply astounding, given the contents of the book.  Admittedly, God’s counsel to parents is straightforward: whenever children get out of line, we should beat them with a rod (Proverbs 13:24, 20:30, and 23:13-14).  If they are shameless enough to talk back to us, we should kill them (Exodus 21:15, Leviticus 20:9, Deuteronomy 21:18-21, Mark 7:9-13, and Matthew 15:4-7).  We must also stone people to death for heresy, adultery, homosexuality, working on the Sabbath, worshipping graven images, practicing sorcery, and a wide variety of other imaginary crimes.[6]

 The New Testament is marginally better, but only marginally.  While it does not record God-sent plagues and terrors as the Old Testament does, it does, I would argue, still portray God as a judging, condemning, punishing figure who promises to mete out punishments that are grossly disproportionate to the sins people have committed.  Then, of course, there’s also the Book of Revelation…let’s not even go there.

 It is my belief that the image of such a God simply cannot work anymore – if it ever did – that has led me to do a lot of thinking about this.  I have well and truly made up my mind on what I believe about God, if there is one, and it is not the kind of God found in a book like the Bible.  The God of Christianity I see as a product of what John Shelby Spong describes as the human need to suffer.  In his book The Sins of Scripture, I believe Spong has hit the nail on the head when he says:

 If one begins a faith journey with the definition of a human as a fallen creature who is deserving of punishment, then the faith system that grows out of that journey will surely develop a cure for the accepted diagnosis.  That is what has happened in the way the Christian story has been told historically.  That is also the doorway through which the human sense of guilt and its corresponding need for punishment entered the tradition and found therein a compatible dwelling place.[7]

 Like I said earlier, I am no atheist.  I need something more than just this life, just what we can see, touch, hear, smell.  I hold out hope for something bigger than myself, bigger than all of us, something we can all, without exception, share in.  Call it spirituality, call it God, call it a song if you want – that’s how I prefer to think of it.  I don’t think we need a Biblical Apocalypse to make a better world; indeed, I believe we need to jettison that way of thinking if we’re going to make a viable future for this world.  I don’t know if the twenty-first century has begun in earnest yet, or what wonders and horrors lie ahead for all of us, but I know what kind of faith I’ll be carrying into it.

 In my first talk that I gave at this fellowship, Always With Me, I made mention of my passion for anime, that is, the art of Japanese animation.  In particular, I am a fan of the great anime director Hayao Miyazaki, whose films capture a beauty rarely seen on the big screen.  In 1984, he directed Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind, a science-fiction adventure story.  Set in post-apocalyptic Earth’s far future, the story follows the titular heroine, the pacifist princess Nausicaa, as she attempts to forge a bond between the warring nations of her world and the Earth itself.  If the film has a flaw, it is the admittedly contrived deus ex machina of an ending, which sees Nausicaa killed and then resurrected in a Christlike fashion in order to bring peace to the world.

 Thirteen years later, in 1997, Miyazaki directed another film, Princess Mononoke.  Set in roughly fourteenth or fifteenth century feudal Japan, it follows a young Emishi prince, Ashitaka, who finds himself afflicted with a deadly curse from a rampaging boar god that is threatening his village.  To find a cure, he travels west, where he meets San, the princess of the film’s title, a young human girl raised by the wolf gods of the forest.  Although human herself, San fights alongside the gods of the forest against the humans who are destroying it for material gain.

 Although similarly themed, the two films are very different in one regard.  While Nausicaa is very black-and-white in its view of the world, depicting nature as good and technology as bad, Mononoke is much more ambiguous.  It depicts both humanity and nature as inherently flawed, with both negative and redeeming features, and cautions that in the inevitable battle between human beings and the world in which we reside, there is not likely to be a “happy ending”.  In his proposal for Mononoke, Miyazaki laid out the worldview that would be present in the film:

 Here lies the meaning of making this film towards the confusing era of the 21st century.

 We are not trying to solve the global problems.  There can not be a happy ending to the fight between the raging gods and humans.  However, even in the middle of hatred and killings, there are things worth living for.  A wonderful meeting, or a beautiful thing can exist.

 We depict hatred, but it is to depict that there are more important things.

 We depict a curse, to depict the joy of liberation.

 What we should depict is, how the boy understands the girl, and the process in which the girl opens her heart to the boy.

 At the end, the girl will say to the boy, “I love you, Ashitaka.  But I can not forgive humans.”

 Smiling, the boy should say, “That is fine.  Live with me.”

 I want to make such a movie.

 Although Miyazaki is talking about the uneasy relationship between humanity and nature, I believe his words apply just as much to my view of what a faith for the future needs to be.  I don’t want a faith that offers easy answers, that divides mankind into good or evil, saved or unsaved.  I need a faith that freely acknowledges that although the world can be a terrible place, and the people in it awful to each other, there can also be something beautiful worth striving for.  That is, I believe, a song worth singing.

 Bawer, B.  1997, Stealing Jesus: How Fundamentalism Betrays Christianity, Crown Publishers, Inc., New York.

 Harris, S.  2007, Letter to a Christian Nation, Bantam Press, London.

 Spong, J.S.  2001, A New Christianity For a New World: Why Traditional Faith Is Dying and How a New Faith Is Being Born, HarperCollins Publishers, Inc., New York.

 Spong, J.S.  2005, The Sins of Scripture: Exposing the Bible’s Texts of Hate to Reveal the God of Love, HarperCollins Publishers, Inc., New York.

 Templeton, C.  2007, “Questions to Ask Yourself” in The Portable Atheist: Essential Readings For the Nonbeliever, ed. Christopher Hitchens, Da Capo Press, US.

 [1] Spong 2001, p. 150.

[2] Bawer 1997, p. 10.

[3] Bawer 1997, p. 223.

[4] Templeton 2007, p. 285.

[5] Templeton 2007, p. 286.

[6] Harris 2007, p. 8.

[7] Spong 2005, p. 163.