Bob Seidensticker, one of my fellow bloggers at Patheos, has written a really neat alternative version of Charles Dickens‘ A Christmas Carol with an atheist twist. His novella features a televangelist (Nathan) who gets visited in the night by ghosts that take him through his past, present and future to show him the problems with his message and the consequences that await him if he keeps pushing it.
In the excerpt below, Nathan and Bill (the “Ghost of Christmas Present”) look in on an old couple watching Nathan’s show on TV:
From the television, the voice blared, “I know Pastor Lloyd is looking down on us now from his place in heaven, and I know he’s pleased with what he sees.” Nathan considered his image and noted that he looked a bit too scolding. “Pastor Lloyd said, ‘The bigger the need, the bigger the seed.’ Your seed offering will grow thirtyfold, sixtyfold, a hundredfold, so step out in faith now. God can’t multiply what you don’t sow.”
Bill nudged Nathan. “If it rhymes, it must be true, right? Watch this next bit. You’ll love it.”
The woman turned down the volume and picked up the telephone. She squinted at the television image every few digits as she dialed. “I’d like to make a donation,” she said.
It was a laborious conversation, but Nathan’s telephone workers were selected for their patience. He prided himself on his good customer service.
The woman initially offered a twenty-dollar donation. After a slow-motion enumeration of her name, address, and credit card number, Bill said, “Here it comes …”
The woman paused. “All right, ten dollars a month.”
“Score!” Bill said, slapping Nathan on the back. “Talk about a widow’s mite! That was a nice upsale. After mandatory expenses, this couple has just under 62 dollars each month for newspapers, yarn, birthday cards, and other small pleasures and for donations to your ministry. Now they have ten dollars less, every month. And they did it in response to an offer of North Carolina pine sap, packaged in China, that cost you a dollar including shipping. You’re in the black on your first month. Nice!”
Nathan looked around at the old man staring dully at the television, at the woman putting down the telephone handset, and at their shabby apartment. He imagined how much of his own monthly incidentals 62 dollars would cover.
Bill said, “That line is a winner — ‘The bigger the need, the bigger the seed.’ And do you know her need? She wants her husband to get better. Physically, he’s strong, but his dementia has progressed so that he’s little more than conscious. Or, failing that, she wants a release — let his physical health decline along with his mental health. Can you deliver that?”
“But that’s God’s job,” Nathan said.
“You promised the hundredfold return. You’ve convinced her that you can deliver a miracle. Don’t take payment for what you can’t deliver.”
“Look, this isn’t what I wanted.”
“This is exactly what you wanted. This woman has a big need — she wants what medicine says is impossible. She wants what a billionaire can’t buy. So what should she do? God can’t multiply what you don’t sow, so sow that big seed. Dig deep. Make it hurt. And who better to spend that ten dollars a month than you, right? You scratch their itch, so you’re entitled to take a little something for your trouble. You’re a smart guy and a better steward of her money than she is.”
Nathan felt like he was up to his waist in quicksand. “But that isn’t what I meant.”
Bill leaned down slowly and put his huge face in front of Nathan’s. “Next time you put gas in your six-hundred-horsepower Mercedes,” Bill said, smiling broadly, “ask yourself who’s paying the bill.”
One more excerpt: This time, Nathan privately reviews the tough questions that challenge his faith:
The top sheaf of papers, held together with a paper clip, was labeled Problem of Evil. This question had defeated historian Bart Ehrman. Formerly a strong Christian, Ehrman couldn’t get past the idea of an all-good god who could prevent evil in the world but didn’t care to do so.
He had many pages of notes exploring the idea that evil resulted from God’s gift of free will, but could God care about the free will of the murderer when he clearly didn’t care about the violation to the free will of the victim? And the free will argument did nothing to resolve the problem of God creating or at least allowing natural disasters.
The next sheaf was labeled Problem of Divine Hiddenness. God demands that we come to him through Jesus, and if we don’t, we burn in hell for eternity. How could this be vitally important for us to know when God won’t meet us halfway by making his existence plain? Why is faith necessary when that’s all that a false religion would be based on?
Then the Problem of Unanswered Prayer. Jesus said that if you have faith as tiny as a mustard seed, you will be able to move mountains. Jesus said that prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well. Jesus said that whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours. Jesus said that all things are possible to him who believes. Jesus said, “Whatever you ask in my name, I will do it.”
But prayer didn’t work that way. Earnest, selfless prayers like wishes for the improved health of a stranger might as well never have been made for all the good they did.
The image came to mind of tombstones at the top of each sheaf representing the Christians turned away from the faith by each one.
Nathan turned to the next sheaf: Why God orders genocide and condones slavery. And another: How God can be considered good when he does bad things.
Why good and bad befall Christians no differently than any other group.
Why there are no medical miracles that shock science, like regrown limbs.
What role the soul has when the brain explains the mind and consciousness.
Why religions are not coalescing (assuming Christianity is a universal truth accessible by all people) but instead continuing to fragment into sects, Christianity included.
Why Christianity isn’t an invented religion though all the others are.
Why “God’s plan” is in one tiny and insignificant corner of one enormous galaxy out of an inconceivably vast universe of a hundred billion galaxies.
Nathan pushed away his dinner and closed the folder. Each question was an admission, a liability, a weakness. He’d delicately brought up these questions with other professionals in his field on many occasions. Once a confidante realized that he wasn’t asking for Christian rationalizations but was actually struggling and wanted to explore the question honestly, it was like he had made some vulgar faux pas.
He was on his own.
It’s a really cool idea and executed beautifully, in my opinion.
A Modern Christmas Carol is now available on Amazon.