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Atheist Evaluates Churches
Dr. Orville Boyd Jenkins
A review of the book by Hemant Mehta
I Sold My Soul on eBay:  Viewing Faith through and Atheist's Eyes (Colorado Springs:  Waterbrook Press, 2007.  210p.)

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This is a delightful and insightful book!  You may have heard the story of an atheist who auctioned off on eBay a chance for a Christian to have him go to a Christian church as an opportunity for the faith to make sense to him.

For each $10 bid, he agreed to go to a church one day for at least 1 hour.  So $10 bought another day for the atheist in church (an hour or more).  The pastor who won the bid requested that in fulfilling his offer, Mehta visit not just one church for these hundreds of hours, but that he visit many churches in different parts of the country and conduct an evaluation of each by writing up each experience.

The Plan
The agreement was that Mehta would keep a journal of each visit, what he observed, learned, liked and did not like and then make suggestions to improve communication with non-Christians.  He would visit regular services, classes or events, and talk with members or staff members.

So the church-going atheist filled out an evaluation sheet on each experience.  This is his story and his evaluation of the churches he visited, with some sympathetic practical suggestions on how churches can communicate better to those who are not already Christians.  This fascinating book relates question and answer sessions he had with various pastors of churches he visited.

The Experience
This is a thoughtful, evenhanded statement you will enjoy reading.  The Christian reader will get the unusual opportunity to see how things look and sound to someone totally outside the framework of church life and Christian faith.  Non-Christians will perhaps be able to identify with some of Mehta's puzzlement or concern over what is done and said or how it is done and said in churches they are familiar with.

Not only had Mehta come to reject the religious background he had grown up with, but he was unaware of Christian backgrounds and claims, other than the occasional televangelist.  This is his report of a systematic quest to get an inside view of Chistian faith (or faiths, as he points out, noting the wide-ranging differences in practices and claims among "Christian" churches).

Mehta has some good, supportive comments for much that he saw.  He reports that many of the stereotypes he had collected were disproved in some of the churches he visited.  Pastors can learn a lot here about perceptions by non-insiders, about basic communication styles.  Mehta is dead on in his critiques of what works and what does not, what makes sense and makes him think and what does not.

For instance, when he would hear a pastor say that the stirrings of conscience, knowing right and wrong, were due to the work of the Holy Spirit, Mehta would think to himslef how he also has the feelings and sens of right and wrong, and the desire to do good and to benefit others in what he chooses.  The rational conflict lies in the fact that since he did not believe in God, there must be another explanation, since he, who does not believe in God, experiences them too.

The Background
Mehta grew up in an Indian home of the Jain faith.  Jain are an ascetic eastern group who honor all living things, have an extremely high moral and ethical code and have strong family ties.  This leads to a visible Jain presence in healing and help professions.  We had the opportunity to develop friendship of varying degrees with Jain families over our many years in Kenya.  Many of the people of Indian extraction in Kenya and other parts of Eastern Africa are Jain.

Though of Indian origin, Mehta was born in the United States, where his family immigrated when he was young.  It was in the Jain context that he came to the conclusion that there was no God.  Ironically the Jain religion at its core does not believe in a god, but focuses on the eternal cycle of life in an eternal universe.

The Rationale
Other traditionally Indian religions have simple ethical and philosophical concepts of reality that do not focus on a personal God.  In popular practice, however, many "Hindu" people and sects do have a concept of a divinity that has a separate and unique existence aside for the creation.  They will speak of their own devotion and worship in terms common to the Christian concept of a personal God.

Mehta points out that though core Jainism is not a theistic religion, the popular piety practiced by many Jains is a theistic faith.  His family followed such a belief and practice.  His mother, he explains, was especially devout and personal prayer to God was very important to her.

Common to all these eastern "Indian" faiths is the concept of reincarnation, which Mehta came to question logically.  He encountered many conflicts in finding rational evidence and consistency to support his family's faith.

The Humor
This is also a funny book.  Mehta is deeply serious about this topic.  But he takes himself seriously enough that he does not take himself too seriously.  He is not a mean atheist, the stereotype antagonist of Christian myth, which actually too often does exist in reality.

Mehta is interested in finding further truth.  He shares with us an important aspect in that search.  And this thoughtful seeker finds much of his own experience and some of what he discovered in church funny.  His vivid reflections here should help any church better understand itself from an outsider's point of view, without feeling threatened.

The Benefit
This book is a good resource enabling churches to consider cross-cultural matters in communicating with their new world neighbours from different cultures and religions.  Mehta's cross-cultural experience can serve as a strong reference point for Christian believers and church leaders.  The church does want to make sense, doesn't it?  Mehta can help.

See related reviews and articles on this site:
[TXT]The Exclusively Inclusive Gospel
[TXT]A Simple Theology Of Religions
[review] Relationships Between the Religions

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First review notes 23 March 2010
Final review written and posted on Thoughts and Resources 28 March 2010

Orville Boyd Jenkins, EdD, PhD
Copyright © 2010 Orville Boyd Jenkins
Permission granted for free download and transmission for personal or educational use.  Other rights reserved.

Email:  orville@jenkins.nu
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