chapter 1: thou shalt not dance

Friday, March 21, 2008

A still-life pic of my dad’s desk shortly after he started work. His bible is the centerpiece.

Friday, March 21, 2008

When I was a little boy I assumed that we have a god concept because he exists in space and time and therefore god is as real and measurable as gravity.  I assumed that the grown-ups who taught me mathematics and language taught me something that was based on the same certainty as linguistics and science.

That the mental space we created for god is merely an interface model with a reality that exists as certainly as the tree that is outside my window.

When I was 7 years old God spoke to me.  So I thought.

South Africa at this stage was a country that was shunned by the West for its policy of Apartheid, but who managed to confuse the issue for Western governments by its fierce anti-communist stance.  All groups that were opposed to Communism and pro-Christian were welcomed with open arms.

Organisations such as Opened Doors and Mission Behind Iron Curtains had lucrative support among white South Africans who saw the smuggling of bibles to Communist Countries as the way in which we can assist the fight against the dreaded Communists by “converting” them and ways in which we can show our union with the suffering church.

As children, we were taught to pray for forgiveness of sins, for the poor people in the rest of Africa, for the men and women fighting on the border and for the people who take bibles to the people living behind the iron curtain.

One night, as I turned in my bed to kneel under the blankets and say my prayer,  I prayed for God to send people to take bibles to the Christians living behind the Iron Curtain. At this very moment, I heard the voice of God Himself telling me: “YOU GO!”

God apparently did not think about the fact that by the time when I would be 21, the Iron Curtain would come tumbling down, from Berlin, right around the world and that there would not be many Communist Countries left to take bibles to.

For a 7-year-old boy, this was a BIG DEAL!

I think I told my parents about this but can not remember their response.

All I knew was that the mental world I lived in was a world where God was very real and very involved in our everyday lives and so God became the obsession of my life. Bible study and prayer were holy pursuits and I passionately tried to adhere to the rules that God gave for life as I struggled through my pre-teen and early teen years.

When I was 15  I went on a Christian school camp to the South Coast of Natal, where a fiery preacher convinced me one night that I was straight on my way to hell and that nothing less than a radical conversion would do to save my soul.

Since he was not talking to a bunch of sinful sailors who had plenty in life to feel guilty and damned about, he chose a different angle of attack. He told us that the issue is “proving our faith”.  There were many issues in life according to him that people called “Christian”, but that was in fact not.  If we did not have faith that made us “stand out” among the crowd as Christian, we were most likely NOT Christians and we were therefore on our way to hell.

The issue was that we had to give our lives to Jesus.  Be converted and then go out and PROVE that this supernatural event really happened.

To “prove our faith” we should not participate in anything that is not absolutely “to the glory and honour of our new Lord and Saviour – Jesus Christ”.

Very susceptible to this kind of input, I naturally volunteered for his crusade and that night was the first of a few times when I thought I was mystically translated from the kingdom of darkness to the kingdom of light.

Eager to take up the challenge of “proving” that my conversion was real (a task we were given at the camp), I decided to scrutinise the matter of morality in my life.

What a moral life I had!  Parents who were very religious and very conservative, but we were taught that even our good deeds were acts of hatred and rebellion against a holy God who wanted us to repent from the sins and behind even the good things we did, lurked evil!  The best act, done if the sole reason for doing it is not the glory of our new Lord, is enough to be condemned to death.  The best good deed without being a Christian mystically reaches back and becomes one of the reasons why Jesus had to be killed by God.

The sin issue in my life, at 15, was the local and very innocent school dances and the music that was played there.

I assumed that since God is all-powerful and all-wise and all-productive (ie. he could communicate his will clearly), that he would be able to communicate his will universally to all people.  Whatever the “church leadership” says must therefore be right since they clearly have the Holy Spirit to lead them “in all truth”.

I asked my pastor about dancing and music and he referred me to the position of the Dutch Reformed Church on the matter.  They saw dancing as sin in the eyes of God and popular music as something that had to be scrutinised. If you listen to songs that sang about immoral acts, it will influence you to throw you into devilish perversions and to stray from the straight and narrow and dancing had all kinds of bad connotations associated with it.

So began a very interesting period of my life.  The first time when I took the God concept literally.

I remember the day when I took the document that contained the decision of the Dutch Reformed Church to school to go and show my Biblical Studies teacher.

My argument was that since South Africa practised (at least in name as these things always end up being) Christian Higher Education in its schools and since the synod’s decision made it clear that dancing was a sin, the school had to stop all dances.

What amuses me now, almost 20 years later, was not the consternation that this created at the school and in local churches, but the fact that grown men and women seriously considered my position.

My parents were summarily summoned to school for an interview with the deputy headmaster.  In a letter I presented to the school to explain my position, I quoted various scholars on the issue. Some teachers were convinced I was being influenced by someone at least in university because of the way that I referenced the scholars that I quoted.

This followed an in-depth inquiry by my poor parents. “Who is this person influencing you”?

I was mildly flattered by the accusation since the entire thing was my work from end to finish and I was not then, nor have I been since, the kind of person who likes other people to make up my mind for me.

These events taught me a valuable lesson that I would only come to fully comprehend almost 20 years later.

The fact that I presented the synod decision to my Biblical Studies teacher as a foregone conclusion shows that I clearly expected the mental world we live in to be calibrated to a fixed and real reference point.  All or most Christians should be on the same page about these basic matters of “gods will” in everyday life.  

Years later I realized that the form of argument I used was a very powerful one namely reductio ad absurdum. I took the assumption of the existence of an all-powerful, all-wise and all-productive god to its literal conclusion and found that if God was who he said he was, that the whole affair would have turned out differently.  There would have been broad agreement between Christians on the matter.  Christian opinion would tend to converge on one opinion and not be divergent and fragmented with as many opinions as there are people!

I was stunned by the uproar about the entire issue. I fully expected everybody to be on the same page, but nobody was.

It would be many years before I would understand that the God-concept is rooted in the mental world of each person and in the god-within and that the Bible can never, ever-present a clear, monolithic, reference point such as the Platonic world of mathematics.

The fundamental mistake I made in high school was to assume the existence of a god.  My first question should not have been as to his will, but for proof of his existence.

The small baby step I could make from this experience was that I grew determined to find the truth through a greater commitment to do what the Bible teaches and to study it with renewed fervour.

I was briefly attracted to the Pentecostal movement who offered a “bible alone” approach to God. This was short-lived. After I attended a sermon by another fiery preacher who told us that God who is the same today, yesterday and forever desires all of us to be physically healthy I thought: “Well, this is easy. I have asthma. I believe God wants to heal me. I believe God is able to heal me”. I gave my asthma medication to a friend and proceeded to run home.

This was the shortest consideration of a theological position. I almost died (or so I thought), but this was the end of Pentecostalism for me.

Years later I would briefly reconsider their arguments, but for the most part, I was healed, not from asthma, but from the pentecostal and charismatic movement.

For me, wrestling with the God concept was wrestling with life itself.

Along with this would come the uneasy realization that not only do all people have a different God concept but that the bible itself is not a fixed and constant point of reference.

What the bible teaches very much depends on your position from where you view it.

I am thankful that I saw the matter end out.  That I did not just throw my hands up in the air and declared that these are matters that will forever remain”unknowable” to me.  The way that I searched for god and the level of proof I demand has taught me valuable lessons in every area of life.

It is part of my anatomy!


(c) eben van tonder

Published by eben van tonder

"I may not have gone where I intended to go, but I think I have ended up where I intended to be." ~ Douglas Adams

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