The following is an excerpt from Faith Lies: Seven Incomplete Ideas That Hijack Faith and How to See Beyond Them by Darrell Smith. It’s a featured Speakeasy selection, and there are still limited review copies available for qualified reviewers.
Religion has given people great comfort in a world torn apart by religion.
— Jon Stewart
William Shakespeare’s tragedy of Romeo and Juliet coined a number of famous phrases that still stick with us today. One such phrase happens in an exchange between the two star-crossed lovers from rival families. Juliet, lamenting that her Romeo bears the name of an enemy family, suggests that they drop their names, which, on the surface, seems to pose a problem. “What’s in a name?” Juliet asks. “That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet….”
In two lines, Shakespeare—via Juliet—nails this simple truth to the wall. What we call a thing doesn’t really affect the characteristics of the thing or the impact it has upon us. Were we to call a rose an umbrella instead of calling it a rose, it would nevertheless still possess the characteristics of a rose. It would still look and smell like a rose. Calling a rose an umbrella would not enable it to keep us dry in the rain any more than it would prevent a rose from beautifying a garden or attracting a bee in search of pollen.
The same can be said of a lie. A lie is a lie no matter what we call it. A lie is an untrue, inaccurate, or incomplete statement or idea that misleads or deceives. With the power to conceal, limit, constrict, and imprison, lies can hurt people. And just like Juliet’s rose, a lie doesn’t change simply because we call it something else. We could call a lie doctrine … or orthodox…we could even call a lie biblical and that wouldn’t prevent it from having the characteristics and impact of a lie.
In the same way that a rose will fail to keep me dry in a storm even if I—and everyone around me—truly believe it is an umbrella, a lie will ultimately fail me even if I—and everyone around me—believe that it is true.The storm is an important part of that equation. It is often in the storms of life where we are truly able to separate those ideas and values that will help keep us afloat from those that will hasten our drowning. The harsh and complicated circumstances in which we find ourselves during the course of our lives are the storms that reveal the true value of the ideologies and theologies to which we cling. Far too often, we find ourselves struggling to stay afloat in rough waters, grasping and pulling at the lifelines we have been taught to hold on to, only to find out that those lines are not tied off. We pull and pull, hoping that the line will bring us back to something solid and safe, but sometimes it just does not. We learn the hard way that certain ideas and philosophies weren’t actually tied to anything helpful. Lifelines that should bring us back to a boat, a dock, or even another person on dryland turn out to be just floating rope.
Learning that the lifeline is not actually a lifeline while you’re trying not to drown is like pouring salt on a wound. The timing of the lesson feels horrible. Nevertheless, it is in such moments that we seem to be the most open to education—to receiving new information. It is as if we have come to the end of an untied lifeline, realized that it will not help us, released it and cried out, “Throw me another line!” We become very open in such moments.
An exchange between two characters in the movie American History X ends with a very important question. The exchange takes place in a prison hospital where Danny, a young skinhead whose violent and racist ways have landed him not only in prison but now in the recovery room of the hospital following a gang attack, is trying to determine why the ideologies and philosophies upon which he built his life aren’t working. Dr. Sweeney—Danny’s former principal and a black man—comes to visit him, and Danny is ashamed. As Danny lays on a gurney crying in pain and fear, Dr. Sweeney identifies with his situation.
Dr. Sweeney: There was a moment when I used to blame everything and everyone for all the pain and suffering and vile things that happened to me—that I saw happen to my people; blame everybody, blame white people, blame society, blame God.
I didn’t get no answers because I was asking the wrong questions.
You have to ask the right questions.
Danny: Like what?
Dr. Sweeney: Has anything you’ve done made your life better?
Has anything you’ve done—any philosophy you’ve believed—any ideology you’ve espoused—made your life better? This is a hugely important question! This is the question we inevitably face when we pull on lifelines in the storm. Is this idea or value to which I am clinging helping me? Is the belief making my life any better?
As we undertake this journey together, this is the question to which we must return. Is this belief, this outlook, this idea, this theology making my life any better? Is it helpful? And if it’s not helpful, then why am I holding on to it? Am I clinging to a lie because that is what is expected of me? Perhaps I hang on to unanchored lines because they represent a tradition—hundreds, if not thousands, of years old? Perhaps I cling to incomplete ideas and unhelpful narratives simply because I have never been offered better alternatives. I don’t know about you, but if I find myself in a storm and I have to choose between an unanchored line or nothing, I will always choose the unanchored line. It’s better than nothing, right? Maybe if I hang on to it, I will find something to which I can tie it off?
Maybe holding tightly to a line that is not tied off to anything solid actually prevents me from being able to grasp something helpful. Maybe it is not enough to come to the end of the rope; maybe when I do, I actually need to let go. Let me invite you to do just that. Let go. Loose your grasp on those lifelines to which you hold so tightly. You are safe. You don’t have to permanently abandon anything to undertake this journey. If we get to the end and you have found nothing helpful along the way, so be it. You can pick back up the lines you know and go on with your life. The ideas, philosophies, and theologies with which you began this journey will be waiting for you at the end should you choose to hold on to them. It is not the intention of this book to tear down or subtract but to include and expand. Rather than seeing this exploration as something that will remove or threaten our existing and cherished beliefs, we can see it as adding to them—addition, not subtraction. And even the addition is completely up to you because not only are we safe, we are free. Both the goal and the mechanism of this journey is freedom—nothing less.
You are free … and so am I. Whether we always recognize it or not, freedom is the default reality in which we exist. Sure, there are a number of things that can limit, hinder, or remove our freedom—not the least of which is other people—but the reality remains: you are free. Freedom is how we get lies in the first place. We are free to tell lies. We are free to believe them.
If we were not free—if we could not choose, could a lie even exist? I realize that we may be moving into Yoda territory here, so let me quote his protégé, Obi Won Kanobi, who said, “You’re going to find many of the truths we cling to depend greatly on our own point of view.” Your point of view is free. It belongs to you. You, and only you, get to choose what to do with it.
I wrote Faith Lies: Seven Incomplete Ideas That Hijack Faith and How to See Beyond Them to explore these lies, eyes open and unafraid. Here are the lies I unpack in its pages:
LIE 1: The Bible is the Literal Word of God.
LIE 2: God is Angry and Doesn’t Like Me.
LIE 3: The Devil is God’s Counterpart.
LIE 4: I Am Supposed to Protect and Defend God and My Faith.
LIE 5: There is One Right Way to Believe and One Right Way to Behave.
LIE 6: Faith is a Private Matter.
LIE 7: Real Faith is Blind Belief.
If you find yourself attached to any of these ideas, and you want to explore alternatives, I recommend you give Faith Lies a chance.