Can We Trust Those Who Interpret The Bible?

Disclaimer.

The following post consists of my personal reflections and understandings.  It is not meant to be disrespectful of anyone else’s beliefs or convictions. I am not a Biblical scholar, I’m just a curious guy who questions.

But first, a quiz!

Please answer “True” or “False” to the following questions:

  1. Mount Everest is the tallest mountain on earth.
  2. There is credible evidence that immunizations/vaccines contribute to autism.
  3. The North Star is the brightest star in the sky.
  4. Sugar makes kids hyper.
  5. The Great Wall of China is so long that it is the only manmade structure visible from space.
  6. Sharks are unable to get cancer.
  7. Drinking coffee dehydrates you.
  8. A goldfish can only remember something for three seconds.

Answers to the quiz will follow.

A story.

There once was a boy born into this world who was very different than the rest.  Early on, he was able to perform miraculous acts.  As he grew older he became friends with others who followed him.  At times they doubted him, but they remained close to him.  The world that he was born into had an evil presence, and he realized that he was the only one who could redeem the good and banish the evil.  At times the evil one tempted him to join him, but he refused.  Those in power were afraid that he was getting too much notoriety, and they felt threatened.  They tried to tarnish his name and his works, but he persevered.  Tragically, based on prophecy, he knew that he would have to die to save others.  He accepted this, but he was also afraid.  In the end, his actions freed the world and the people in it.  In the end love conquered evil. 

Why I’m writing this post.

In my last post, I wrote about my deep concern that the church that I had been attending for decades had taken a stance against LGBTQ individuals.  There are six passages in the Bible (three in the Old Testament and three in the New Testament) that some have interpreted to say that God specifically said that homosexuality was wrong.  Bible passages can be interpreted in many ways, and others have said that these passages actually refer to specific acts, such as pederasty.  The concept of homosexuality wasn’t even coined until 1868, almost two millennia after the death of Christ.

The Bible has been used to marginalize groups of people, rationalize slavery, launch wars, minimize the roles of women in society, and justify other behaviors that many would consider both wrong and immoral in today’s society.  How is it possible that a book that proclaims God’s will can be used to rationalize these things?

I was raised Roman Catholic, and contrary to some Protestant’s understandings, I was not only encouraged to read the Bible, but I had regular assignments about the New Testament when I attended Catholic school.  However, my in-depth exposure to Scripture pales to that of my wife who was raised in a Protestant religion.  In both cases, we were taught a set of beliefs and interpretations based on those of our particular religions.  

Most Christian religions say that it is OK to doubt faith, but there is an implicit understanding that if this doubt extends too far it is because the person was really never a true Christian.  In addition, most Christian religions impose strict penalties on those who are or become unbelievers.  Those penalties can range, and include being ostracized from their community and eternal damnation. If you were raised in a Christian tradition you were taught a set of beliefs. However, you were not taught to critically challenge those beliefs.

My former Church’s anti-LGBTQ stance seemed contrary to my understanding of Christianity, which emphasizes concepts such as love, acceptance, and inclusion.  This position was based on their interpretation of the Bible. But, what is the truth?  To find out I did a deep dive in order to gain a better understanding of not only the Bible but of Christianity in general.

What is the Bible?

The Bible is a bible or a complication of books.  The Protestant Bible consists of the Hebrew Bible (also called the Old Testament), and New Testament.  The Catholic Bible contains some additional books added to the Old Testament.  The Old Testament contains the same books as what current Jews use in worship.  However, ordering and other small differences do occur between the two documents.  

The Bible was written by 40 (or more) authors, in three different languages, over 1500 years.  The Old Testament was completed before the time of Jesus, and its teachings and rules were followed by Jesus.  It is noted that Jesus lived “a perfect life,” which is a reference to the fact that he followed Jewish Scripture and law absolutely.  

The New Testament consists of 27 books, none of which were written when Christ was alive. They were likely written during the first century after his death, although some may have been revised during the second century AD.  The original New Testament books were written in Greek, a language used by the educated of the time.  In ancient times less than 10% of the population could read, and a lower percentage could write.  In more rural areas only 2-3% could read.  We can assume that the writers of the New Testament belonged to the educated elite.  There is no valid evidence that during ancient times uneducated people used scribes to dictate their thoughts.

A New Testament consisting of 27 books was likely established during the first few centuries after Christ’s death.  However, various books were added and removed during that time. By the 4th century, the New Testament books were well established and translated into Latin as one volume. The last book of the NT to be added was Revelation, an apocalyptic book that was originally thought to be authored by John the Apostle.  However, Biblical scholars have long known that this is not the case.  John was a common name during those times, and it is most likely that Revelation was written by another “John,” John of Patmos, who was believed to be an exiled Christian.  It was written around 95AD in a style that was used during that time.  Many of the book’s cryptic references refer to the Roman Empire, which was at odds with Christianity.  It was officially added to the New Testament around 400 years after the death of Christ.

According to Biblical historians, there were hundreds of early Christian writings, many of which were destroyed when Emperor Constantine decreed that they were heretical.  Some of those texts have resurfaced thousands of years later.  Notable are the Gnostic books, which were discovered in Nag Hammadi, Egypt in 1945. These books present a different Christianity, including very different accounts of Jesus.  They are historically useful as they show how divergent Christian teachings were in the early Church. 

The early Church.

After the death of Jesus, his disciples scattered.  There were no clear rules for what the Christian Church was supposed to be, and different groups developed their own belief structures.  Some emphasized the mystical messages of Jesus (Gnostics), others focused on His death and Resurrection (Orthodox Christians). Some leaders, like Peter, thought that only Jews should be allowed to become Christians. Others, like Paul, felt that gentiles needed to be included.  Some early sects believed that Jesus was born human and became God by adoption.  Other groups felt that Jesus was not divine.  Still, others felt that Jesus was sent as a God and that this physical presence was an illusion (sort of a hologram).  The early Church was extremely diverse in its teachings and beliefs.

Emperor Constantine had a religious vision and converted to Christianity.  He then legalized Christianity in the Roman Empire.  As stated above, there were many different sects of Christianity and initially, they were all allowed to worship in their own way.  Eventually, Constantine ordered the Council of Nicaea in 325AD to resolved conflicting beliefs in the Church, especially Arianism which held that Jesus was not divine. That council established that Jesus was equal to God the Father and the Holy Spirit.  Other accomplishments included mandating a specific date for the observance of Easter, and the profession of faith (Nicene Creed).  

Eventually, Constantine reversed his opinion of religious tolerance and allowed only Orthodox Christianity, which emphasized the importance of the Resurrection.  Other forms of Christianity became heretical; their followers were persecuted and their Scriptures were destroyed.  Orthodox Christianity is the basis of our current Christian beliefs. 

More on the New Testament

As stated above, The Books of the New Testament were written between 50 and 100 years after Jesus’ Crucifixion.  Scholarly Biblical historians do not think that any part of the New Testament was written by an apostle or someone who had a close relationship with Jesus.  

The earliest writings that are part of the New Testament were done by Paul, an educated Jew who initially persecuted Christians.  Paul had a religious vision several years after Jesus died, and converted.  Scholars agree that Paul wrote 5 of the epistles, but First Timothy, Second Timothy, and Titus were written by someone else.  Five other epistles are of questionable authorship.  

The Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John tell the story of Jesus.  However, the apostles did not write these Gospels.  In fact, they were anonymously written.  St. Irenaeus gave them their titles around 150AD, and they stuck.  The Gospels were written well after the death of Jesus. 

If you read the Gospels horizontally and compare them you will discover that they are different in significant ways.  For instance, in Mark’s account of the Crucifixion Jesus is silent and the thieves who are also being crucified mock him.  Before he dies he says, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me.”  However, in Luke’s version, Jesus is calm and has a conversation with one of the thieves. Right before He dies he says, “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.”  These are two drastically different stories.  The same can be said of the Resurrection stories given by various authors.  In fact, Mark 16:9-20 wasn’t written by the person who authored that Gospel.  It was added hundreds of years later by an unknown scribe.  Mark 16:9-20 chronicles Jesus appearing to Mary Magdalen after his Crucifixion and gives specific instructions to the apostles.

The first Gospel to be written was Mark around 66-70AD, Matthew and Luke were written around 85-90AD, and John was written somewhere between 90-110AD.  It is thought that the Matthew and Luke Gospel writers relied heavily on the Mark Gospel for their own Gospels, so why are their stories different? In ancient times information was passed by storytelling, and stories could change depending on the storyteller’s situation or their intent.  It was common for stories to be modified over time because the teller was trying to make a particular point or teach a particular lesson.  Absolute historical accuracy was not the goal, and differences were not thought to detract from the overall message.

Obviously, those who decided what books should be in the New Testament were aware of the significant inconsistencies of the Gospels, so why did they include the four books?  No one knows for sure, but they were likely included because they each provided information that was different but deemed important. 

The Letters of Peter were written about two centuries after the Crucifixion, and despite what some may say, were not written by the Apostle Peter. 

Beyond the addition of verses, at least one entire story was added to the New Testament by a scribe. John 7:53—8:11 tells the story of the woman who commits adultery and who is about to be stoned.  Jesus famously says “For he who is without sin cast the first stone.”  The crowd walks away and Jesus tells the women, “Go, and sin no more.”  This is one of my favorite stories in the Bible as it shows not only how clever Jesus was, but it also shows his compassion and forgiveness. It was added by an unknown person during the 4th century and became accepted as part of scripture in the 5th century.  

Another significant addition to the New Testament was the Comma Johanneum (John 5:7-8) which reads: “For there are three that bare record in heaven, the Father, the Word (ed. note: Jesus), and the Holy Ghost: and these three are one.” These verses were added to the New Testament around 400AD.  The original manuscripts of the New Testament don’t say anything about a Holy Trinity.  However, there is a reference for the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (Matthew 28:19). This presented a significant problem for early Christianity which was preached as a monotheistic religion.  A reader could easily interpret “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit” as polytheistic.  It was thought that the Comma Johanneum was added to fix this issue.

There are no original Biblical manuscripts currently in existence.  The oldest Greek copies of the New Testament are copies made over a century from the original works.  Copies of various Gospels, epistles, Acts, and prophetic books were transcribed by hand.  Some scribes did a better job than others, but all made copies with errors. In the early 1700s, John Mill of Oxford studied 100 ancient manuscripts of the New Testament looking for significant differences between them.  It took him 30 years, but he found over 30,000 differences.  We currently have 5,700 early Greek manuscripts of partial and complete New Testaments.  It is estimated that there are 300,000 to 500,000 differences between them. No two are alike.  In other words, there are more differences than there are words in the New Testament.  

It should be noted that these differences are significant, but most don’t change the overall meaning of a verse.  However, some do.  Most differences are due to errors, but others are likely intentional.  Our current New Testament was created from copies made from copies made from other copies (etc.). The copies were then translated into English.  Translations can significantly alter the meaning of a verse.  If you don’t believe me take a passage from the Bible and see how different English translations use very different words for the same verse. If you say that the original Bible is inerrant, you have to reconcile that belief from current translations which seem to have many differences.

The New Testament contradictions.  

One example concerns the death of Judas.  

In Matthew 27:5 Judas hangs himself.

In Acts 1:18 he bursts open and his insides spill out.

I could give other examples of other contradictions, but it wouldn’t further my point.  Just like the Old Testament, the New Testament is full of contradictions.  So how do you resolve them?

Resolving the contradiction in the Bible.

One way to defend the inconsistencies in the Bible is by the discipline of Apologetics.  These are answers that are formally authorized by denominations or informally offered by pastors and other religious.  I reviewed some on the Internet and watched a number of defenses of the Bible on YouTube.  Sadly, many are no better than what you would expect from someone who was on a high school debate team.  Others are more polished and logical.  However, it is clear that you can make anything true if you take enough twists and turns in your argument. Apologetics may give comfort for believers but offers little for skeptics.

Another way to resolve conflicts is by combining stories, which in essence, creates a hybrid Bible.  This option makes no sense as it changes the context of the original work.  The Holy Bible now becomes Bob’s or Susan’s bible.

The final way to deal with conflicts in the Bible is to accept that there are conflicts and to not try to wish them away.

The art of cherry-picking.

It is easy to cherry-pick verses to make a point. It is also easy to ignore verses if that point does not suit an individual’s desires.  

Do you want women to be subservient?  Go with Ephesians 5:22-24.  “Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife even as Christ is the head of the Church, his body, and is himself its Savior. Now as the Church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit in everything to their husbands.”  

Would you like to enslave people? Use Ephesians 6:5-8.  , “Slaves, be obedient to your human masters with fear and trembling, in sincerity of heart, as to Christ” 

How about getting rid of programs that help the impoverished?  Just quote Matthew 26:11: “The poor you will always have with you.”

You can also do the opposite by ignoring verses.  Do you preach the prosperity Gospel?  If that is the case ignore Matthew 19:21, “If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.”

Cherry-picking is (in my opinion) one of the most destructive uses of the Bible.  It has been used to justify the most discriminatory and horrific actions imposed on other humans.

Heaven and Hell

Some preachers love to talk about Heaven and Hell.  However, those concepts are very poorly defined in the Bible.  Many Jews don’t focus on the afterlife as significant religious teaching.  Around the time of Jesus, there was an apocalyptic movement among Jews that existed for about 200 years before Jesus and about 100 years after his death.  This movement emphasized catastrophic events that would eventually defeat Jewish oppressors and included a messiah (or king) who would come and rule the Jews during a time of peace and plenty in paradise.  Jesus makes reference to this noting in Mark 13:30 “Assuredly, I say to you, this generation will by no means pass away till all these things take place.” Implying that apocalyptic events would happen during the Apostles’ lives. Scholars feel that Jesus was apocalyptic in his teachings based on this and other passages in the New Testament. The paradise that is referred to is not thought to be Heaven, rather it is an earthy paradise.

As far as the concept of Hell is concerned, it is confusing.  Biblical scholars note that the concept of Hell is very poorly defined in the Bible.  However, when I did a verse search I found a number of references to Hell.  In the New Testament, they are mostly attributed to Matthew and Revelation.  However, on deeper discovery, it is likely that these direct references could be translation errors.  

The Bible uses several words that have been translated to mean Hell.  Sheol is used in the Old Testament and Hades is used in the New Testament.  However, a more accurate translation for both of these words would be a grave or resting place.  Translators in the past selectively defined Sheol depending on the passage.  Sometimes translating it as Hell, but if that didn’t seem to fit (or if it was contrary to the intent of the verse) it was translated as a resting place or grave.  

Gehenna is also translated in the New Testament as Hell.  Gehenna was an actual dump site outside of the city where garbage was burnt and where leapers and outcasts were sent. Biblical scholars and historians believe that Jesus was saying that those who believe will have everlasting life (most likely on perfect earth, which is why your body would be reunited with your soul) and that sinners would be destroyed by fire (at the dump).  There is no discussion of everlasting torture.  Sinners would just cease to exist, and that would be their punishment.  

The concepts of Heaven and Hell have been used by preachers extensively and for obvious reasons.  I found dozens of videos on YouTube with titles like, “Hell is real!”  Entire wars have been launched based on Heaven and Hell beliefs.  The initial Crusaders were granted plenary indulgences by Pope Urban II if they agreed to fight.  What were plenary indulgences?  Basically, a get out of Hell card.  Did Pope Urban II have that power?  I’ll leave that to you. 

Types of Christianity

There are about 200 different Christian denominations in the United States and 45,000 denominations globally according to the Center for the Study of Global Christianity.  Beliefs between denominations can be similar in some areas and very different in others.  For instance, most Protestants believe that salvation is by faith alone, while Roman Catholics believe that salvation is through works and baptism. Both views are supported by the Bible.  Luther wanted to remove the books in the New Testament, such as James, that emphasized the importance of works as it was contrary to his belief in salvation by faith alone. However, he realized that he did not have the authority to make changes in the New Testament. 

Contrasting beliefs abound not only at the organizational level, but also among subgroups and influential individuals.  Mother Theresa did not use painkillers in her hospitals because she felt that suffering would bring her charges closer to Christ.

There are similarities in mainstream Christian religions, but differences become very apparent the further you go afield.  Denominations are created on differences, not similarities.  Which one is the right one?  Does only one group have the key to salvation? It all gets confusing.

In the US believers are roughly categorized into groups.  Fundamentalists and Evangelicals believe that the Bible is inerrant (without errors).  Fundamentalists tend to read the Bible literally.  Evangelicals have a more nuanced interpretation of the Bible, realizing that much of it is written as poetry, metaphors, and parable.  

Many mainstream denominations say that the Bible is inerrant, but they tend to interpret passages more liberally.  

Liberal Christians view the Bible as the cornerstone document of Christianity, and they may believe that the writings are inspired, but they don’t necessarily believe that the Bible is the direct word of God. 

A 2017 Gallup poll noted that 24% of those polled felt that the Bible was the literal word of God.  This is the lowest number in the poll’s 40-year history, down from 40% in the early 1980s.  Roughly 47% of those polled feel that the Bible was inspired by God. About 70% of polled felt that the Bible is a holy document.

Each of these different groups will interpret the Bible’s meaning based on very different criteria,  The more liberal a group’s view is the more likely that they are going to view a passage’s meaning taking into account the writing styles, the knowledge, and the history of the time.  Literal readers of the Bible tend to interpret verses and stories at face value.  For instance, they would believe that God created the universe in 6 earth days. A liberal view would be that God’s days are not the same as human days.  A more liberal view would say that scientific understandings are correct, but that science was directly controlled by God’s actions.

Fundamentalist vs. liberal teaching.

As a Christian and scientist, I never had problems reconciling science and belief.  I never believed that God used a magic wand to create the universe.  Rather, the universe is ordered and logical.  Science is the revelation of that order and logic and does not negate God’s influence.  

Fundamentalists and very conservative Christians have had problems with science as it conflicts with the literal interpretation of the Bible.  There is overwhelming scientific evidence that the universe is around 14 billion years old, and our earth is about 4.5 billion years old.  There is overwhelming evidence that there has been 5 mass extinction on earth, and that homo sapiens (modern humans) emerged around 300,000 years ago.  It becomes difficult to reconcile the creation story with these facts, so it has become necessary for literal interpreters to denigrate science and to come up with pseudo-science to prove their viewpoint. 

However, individuals who ignore and denigrate science also acknowledge and accept it every time they turn on a light, make a call with their smartphone, or heat up a burrito in the microwave.  

Humans don’t like to hold conflicting ideas, this creates stress which psychologists call cognitive dissonance. Confirmation bias is a characteristic where an individual gives more weight and credibility to things that support their beliefs and less weight and credibility to things that negate their belief.  By selectively embracing some information while ignoring other information cognitive dissonance is reduced.  However, this distorts reality. The stress from this distortion can be reduced by associating with like-minded individuals.  If everyone you know thinks that the earth is flat it becomes easy to accept that idea as truth.  

Additional problems occur when the interpretation of the Bible is further generalized and science somehow gets associated with being anti-God.  It now becomes easy to say that global warming doesn’t exist, or that  COVID vaccinations are somehow being used as the mark of the Beast.  

Conflicting views that become ever more radicalized can cause irreversible splits. Compromise becomes impossible between literal and liberal individuals, and these differences fractionate populations instead of uniting them.  This seems contrary to Christ’s message.

The inerrant Bible.

It is clear that early Christians did not consider the Books compiled in the New Testament inerrant.  In fact, there were many writings that were used by early Christians that presented vastly different interpretations of who Jesus was, as well as the meaning of his mission.

I initially thought that inerrancy was determined a few centuries after Jesus’ Crucifixion, perhaps by some council.  However, that is not the case.  The doctrine of inerrancy developed during the 19th and 20th centuries in the United States. A statement was crafted in 1978 by hundreds of evangelical leaders and was known as the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy.  This statement was in response to liberal Christian movements that were growing in popularity. 

The Bible was determined to be inerrant by a group of conservative Christians 25 years after I was born, and almost two millennia after the Books of the New Testament were written.  The group also supported the King James Version of the Bible as the true Bible. The King James Bible was created in 1611.  Newer versions of the Bible have used older original sources and are considered more accurate.  Can we be assured that the people who determined that the Bible was inerrant were also inerrant?

The quiz.

At the start of this post, I gave you a true/false quiz. The answers to all of the questions are False. Did you think that some of the answers were true?  That is due to a psychological phenomenon called the Illusory Truth Effect.  When we hear something enough times we believe it is true.  This technique is used by historians who present one side (usually the winner’s) of a story, politicians who try to convince you that their opponent is evil by repeatedly using lies, and by religious leaders when they are promoting their particular dogma.  We are all subject to the Illusory Truth Effect

Who determines what is correct?

The Bible that we have today is the result of human opinion.  The selection of the Books of the Bible was ordered by humans.  Copies were made by humans.  Additions and modifications were added by humans.  Translations were done by humans. When I say humans, in reality, I am mostly talking about white males sometimes acting as part of a group or committee.  

I have no ability to know if any of these meetings were directed by God, but I’m fairly certain that many of them were not. Powerful individuals’ opinions are given greater voice than those less powerful.  Powerful groups persuade less powerful ones.  This was no different in the past than it is now.

Were these individuals guided by faith, personal gain, power, or bias?  I’m sure that there were individuals who were influenced by all of these categories.  However, this does not diminish the importance of the Bible.  Despite all of the Bible’s changes its basic message and content remain.

Individuals and organizations all tell us that they have the way.  I watch Televangelists who scream into the camera saying that they need a bigger jet, or that we need to buy dehydrated food from them using God as the reason. I watched TV prophets who theatrically altered their voice to the voice of God and told their audience that Trump will win in 2020 because this was in His plan. When Trump lost they quickly deleted their videos on YouTube and moved on to their next prophecy.  I see ministers and priests spewing a Gospel of hate to justify the inhumane treatment of others, driving their points home with curated Bible verses and polished rhetoric.  Such blasphemy disgusts me.

Denomination leaders determine what is important and what is not.  They determine what is sin and what is not. They determine what gets you into Heaven and what condemns you to Hell. Some tell you what clothes you can wear.  Some tell you who you can marry.  Some tell women that it is a sin to use birth control.  Some tell you if you can divorce or not…and so it goes.  Those rules change from religion to religion.  Each group says that they have the answer, each awarding punishment for those who don’t adhere.  Should we assume that only our group is anointed by the Holy Spirit while all others are not?  

Early on in my psychiatric practice, I treated a women in her mid-twenties.  She was wearing clothes similar to those that you would see on the “Little House on the Prairie” TV show.  Her husband had a very long beard before they were fashionable.  They belonged to a religious group that I had never heard of.  She was seeing me because she was profoundly depressed, bordering on psychotic.  She was non-functional and having suicidal thoughts.  She came in because she couldn’t do her household and wifely duties.

She had married young and already had a bunch of kids and felt that she couldn’t handle more.  She had to do an endless number of tasks and had zero voice in the raising of her kids, or any family decision.  She was not allowed to have personal goals or wants.  She was basically a slave to her husband and a servant to her children.  The husband wanted more children, and she was expected to comply despite the fact that her mind was disintegrating with her current burden.  

Her husband wanted to sit in on every session but reluctantly agreed not to.  As a psychiatrist, it was clear that her severe depression required more than a prescription of Prozac.  Her problems were social in nature.  After about six sessions I gently told her that God loved her and that it was OK for her to have her own feelings.  She told her husband this and I never saw her again. Do you think that is what God wanted for her?

Where do I stand with the Bible?

God gave us our minds and the ability to reason and problem solve. Why would he give us those abilities if he didn’t want us to use them?  Blind obedience leads to a path of disaster.  When an individual or group gives away all of its power bad things can happen. Lord John Dalberg-Acton said,  “Power tends to corrupt; absolute power corrupts absolutely.” We see the reality of this quote time and time again in both religious and secular life.

Did God directly write the Bible through its writers?  It would not seem so.  If God wanted a cohesive message we would have gotten one.  I believe that the writers of the Bible were inspired by their faith and their strong commitment to God. 

The New Testament explores the life of Jesus through the eyes of different individuals.  His message was so powerful and radical that his teachings reached distant parts of the known world. His life inspired individuals to write his history and stories down so that a permanent record of Jesus and his teachings would never be lost.

The early fathers of the church never said that the New Testament was inerrant.  They didn’t feel that contradictions in the Bible made it any less meaningful.  They didn’t feel that they needed a Johnnie Cochran defense where dissimilar viewpoints had to be craftily twisted like a Rubik Cube until their contradictions melded into submission.  

The New Testaments books were written during an ancient time when all sorts of things were accepted that are not accepted today.  It was OK to enslave people, women were little more than possessions, soldiers traveled with young boys who they used for their sexual pleasure, various common foods were unsanitary or unsafe to eat, murdering someone by stoning was considered acceptable. Rome was an oppressive regime that was hated by the Jews, but direct criticism could result in crucifixion. Beyond teaching Jesus’ message the NT had to address the fulfillment of prophecy, Jewish religious law, and a host of other constraints that need to be considered when interpreting passages. If you cherry-pick verses or read Scripture without a historical understanding of these things you will not understand the meaning of what is being said.  

So what is the real significance of Jesus?  The Resurrection physically demonstrated that Jesus was a spiritual being, a God.  Of course, that is important, but what if the Resurrection never happened? The message of Jesus is still revolutionary, amazing, and life-changing.  This message is why I’m a Christian, and it is why I try to lead a Christian life.

Earlier in this post, I told a story of a child who was destined to save the world.  It was an exciting story full of good and evil characters.  A story of innocence, of powerful friendships, of faith and prophecy.  These plot points keep the reader interested, but none were the true meaning of the tale.  In the story, Harry Potter defeats the all-powerful Voldemort with one simple tool, love.  Love was so powerful that evil could not conquer him.  J.K.Rowling’s story is based on the life of Jesus.  I find it amusing that some rigid Christians condemned the books crying that they glorified witchcraft.  Clearly, they either never read them, and if they did they couldn’t see between the lines because they read the story literally. 

In the New Testament Jesus clearly states what the two most important commandments are.  Mark 12:28-31 tells us: 

28 One of the teachers of the law came and heard them debating. Noticing that Jesus had given them a good answer, he asked him, “Of all the commandments, which is the most important?”

29 “The most important one,” answered Jesus, “is this: ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one.[a30 Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’[b31 The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’[c] There is no commandment greater than these.”

Interpret something from the New Testament.  Is your interpretation consistent with Jesus’ most important commandments?  If it isn’t, then your interpretation is not correct.  If all you know are these two commandments, then you can lead a Christian life.  Anytime that your actions are contrary to these two commandments, then you have gone astray.

For instance:

An NT verse may suggest that slavery is OK, but this interpretation is not consistent with the most important commandments.

People interpret passages in the OT and NT as condemning LGBTQ individuals, but treating others with discrimination is not consistent with the most important commandments.

The NT suggests that women are second-class citizens so it is OK to treat them as such, but this is not consistent with the most important commandments.

…and so it goes.

From love comes compassion, forgiveness, connection, acceptance, inclusion, charity, and a host of other wonderful characteristics.  From hate comes discrimination, bigotry, wars, and many other terrible things. 

The message of Christianity has nothing to do with not eating meat on Friday, or discriminating against people who are different than you. God created all of us, he didn’t make some of us better than others. We are all in God’s plan. We all benefit from His love and we are told to love others as Jesus loved us.

There will always be haters who hate, they are not important.

Peace

Mike  

Why I’m Leaving My Church

Some of you know that I have been attending a non-denominational Christian church for many years. However, recent events have made me question that decision, and had me look deep into Scripture to seek answers. Before I get into all of that, let me first start with a disclaimer, as well as some background information.  

Disclaimer  

The following post describes my own faith journey and is in no way meant to offend or to be disrespectful of anyone else’s beliefs.  

How do I identify myself?  

I identify myself as a Christian.

How did I get there, what does being a Christian mean to me?

My path is somewhat long and has many twists and turns. I was raised in a highly homogeneous neighborhood that was almost exclusively Roman Catholic. Everyone was white, working-class, and most were of Irish or Eastern European descent. We were a neighborhood of pale white folk. The majority of my friends went to the Catholic grade school that I attended. My family celebrated Mass every Sunday and Holy Day. My parents said the Rosary most nights, and our house was adorned with crucifixes and pictures of Euro-Jesus (Jesus made to look European). At a young age, I was told, and believed, the many ways that I could sin and go to hell. This gave me anxiety as I could never live up to the spiritual standard that I was given. I lived in a world where thoughts were as bad as deeds.

By middle school, I was seeing flaws in the system. My pastor was a creepy drunk, who seemed to have a cruel streak.  The nuns that I had in school were a mixed bag. Some were OK, but others seemed mentally ill. During our only sex-education class, the instructing nun implied that our parents were immoral for having intercourse. Another nun seemed to derive pleasure in humiliating kids in front of their classmates. She liked to push them until they publicly cried. Still, another nun had rage issues. When a classmate didn’t know the answer to a math problem she bashed his head against the slate backboard hard enough to render him fully unconscious. 

I liked the pomp and circumstance of the Catholic Church, but some of the dogma didn’t make sense to me. If I ate a hot dog on a Friday I damned myself to eternal hell (eating meat on Friday was a mortal sin). However, I could be a serial killer and confess my sins to a drunk guy (our priest) and have eternal salvation. How was it possible for another human to forgive my sins? Why couldn’t I ask God directly? What the heck was sin anyway? It seemed like it was either a long list of bad deeds or some abstract concept like turning away from God, which made little practical sense to me.

By middle school, I left the church, although my parents thought I was still attending. Further events during my freshman year in high school resulted in me becoming an atheist. 

When considering God, there are three options:

  1. There is no God.  
  2. There is a God, but he could care less about us. 
  3. There is a God who is invested in our lives.  

Over time I returned to the third option based on what I felt was God’s direct intervention in my life.  I could give many examples of this, but I don’t think that they would convince a non-believer. Their uniqueness and frequency were enough to convince me. God has consistently been there during my darkest hours and my brightest moments. This has shown me on a fundamental level that something outside of myself has a clear and vested interest in me. 

One personally significant example is the story of my three teachers.  These were individuals who entered my life after my freshman year trauma.  The neighborhood that I grew up in was highly prejudiced against anyone who wasn’t white and Christian.  In fact, I used to pray for the Protestants who live across the street because I was afraid that there were going to go to hell.  In those days we were told that only Catholics had the secret key to heaven. 

The three teachers that cared enough to invest their time in me were not white Roman Catholic folk.  Two were black, and one was a Jew.  They initially acknowledged me for my academic abilities, but our connection continued because they saw value in me as a person.  They helped me regain my self-esteem.  They also gave me an important lesson against prejudice, as I also witnessed their great worth, kindness, and integrity.  I believe that these connections were not random events, but were another example of God looking out for me.  I often have these odd experiences where I’m not only helped by God but that I’m also taught a lesson.  As I healed from the past I started to explore the spiritual aspects of my humanity.  

I eventually returned to the Catholic Church as an adult with the understanding that my first assessment was naive, as I was judging an entire institution on one flawed group of people. My return to the Catholic Church was more about gaining a better understanding of God, rather than avoiding hell. In general, being Catholic phase two wasn’t bad. I attended a church with a dynamic and innovative pastor who knew how to add just the right amount of circuses to make worship engaging. I especially like our vast and powerful choir. I didn’t ascribe to all of the teachings, but I continued to develop an inner spiritual life and a personal understanding of the meaning of being Christian. It was a sad day when my pastor left my church to start a new life with a married female parishioner.  

My wife and I started to have children and it became difficult to attend church; our attendance lapsed. During that time the Church’s sex scandal erupted and grew. I was a psychiatrist and had an understanding of how the old seminary system could have had a detrimental impact on psychological development. At age 14 boys committed to becoming a priest. They were told that they were extraordinary and more God-like than the rest of society. They were isolated and indoctrinated. They were told to resist their sexual urges (14-year-old boys, really?). They were denied normal ways to examine their emerging feelings. They were told that their desires were immoral. If you wanted to experiment on how to screw up people, this would be the model to copy. 

I was horrified by the magnitude of priests who used their power and influence to manipulate, abuse, and psychologically damage others for their carnal pleasures. This disgusted me, but I could psychologically understand how it could happen.

What I wasn’t prepared for was the way that the greater Church dealt with this issue. Instead of being honest and forthright with parishioners, the larger Church tried to hide these crimes while blaming the abused. On an even more heinous level, serial rapists were transferred to poorer parishes allowing them to repeat their behaviors in places where their acts were less likely to be reported. These actions were supported and acted on at the highest levels of the Church. 

Catholic religious leaders are not backwoods preachers, they are highly educated in areas beyond theological teachings. In their ranks are scientists, doctors, lawyers, and psychologists. We are not in the dark ages, it was predictable that these priests would continue their behaviors if given a chance. Their superiors had to know this, yet they subjected countless individuals to continued abuse. They put the institution and the institution’s elite above those who they were supposed to serve. They cited platitudes such as forgiveness and repentance to explain their actions while ignoring established behavioral science. This hypocrisy was more than I could bear, and I left the Catholic Church with a sour taste in my mouth. However, this time I was abandoning an organization, not God.

After not attending a church for several years it was time to go back to one. Julie had already started scouting around different churches and found a non-denominational one that seemed like a good fit. It had a great kid’s program, fantastic music, and a contemporary message. In addition, its philosophy seems to be about acceptance. All were welcome. 

I have attended that church and contributed to it financially for many years. As the church grew its lead pastor became more famous and influential.  The church started to change. It became a more traditional, less experimental, more predictable, and more typical church in its sermons. I loved church version one, but I was still OK with version two.

One critical aspect of the church was that they didn’t think for the parishioners. They never told us how to vote, or what group was good and what group was bad. I felt that they preached tolerance in most things.

I need to add a small sidebar here.  So many Christian sects (as well as many other religions) emphasize the heaven/hell thing.  I have watched many preachers on YouTube telling their congregations about eternal damnation. Apparently, sometimes the smallest slip-up can result in everlasting torture. This seems to go against God’s perfect love. The reality is that the concept of hell is very poorly defined in both the Old Testament and the New Testament.  References made about hell are based on what many scholars would consider poor Scriptural interpretation.  Concepts of heaven are consistent with the historical ideas of paradise at the time of their writing.  For instance, in heaven, your soul and body will reunite, but your body will be perfect.  Why would you need a body in heaven?  Some scholars believe that the message of everlasting life refers to God creating a perfect world on earth.  God and his angels live in heaven, humans live on a perfect earth. If there is a heaven, count me in.  However, my belief in Christianity is not fear-based.  It is based on its overriding message of love, acceptance, cooperation, charity, forgiveness, redemption, valuing others who are different than you, and kindness. These truths are everlasting and transcend the cultural binding of the past. If you understand this about me, the next section will make more sense.

Julie has an inside track to what is going on with the church, as she has worked in leadership positions there. Late last year she came home upset with the news that there was a shift in the church that would render a subgroup of the congregation as second-class citizens. I generalized that group’s name in my last post, and I debated about doing the same in this post. Why? Because what I am about to discuss is polarizing. 

However, this blog is about honesty, so here goes. The subgroup mentioned was the LGBTQ community. The church has now made a formal stance that denies these individuals rights that are afforded to straight members.  

Some of you are likely to agree with such a decision. I would ask you to consider my counterargument and to reflect on what it means to be a Christian. How would you feel if someone said, “Slavery is in God’s plan,” or “Women don’t have the intellect or temperament to be in a position to make decisions for themselves.” These are concepts that religious groups have espoused in the past based on their cherry-picking of Scripture. Hopefully, most of you would disagree with these statements in 2022.

As a psychiatrist and expert in behavior, I understand that sexual orientation is not a choice. It probably happens in-utero or shortly thereafter. It is fixed. You can not turn a straight person into a gay one, and you can not turn a gay person into a straight one. There is a gradient of behavior when it comes to sexual orientation. Some people reside at one pole or the other, while others are somewhere along the spectrum. It is estimated that about 10% of the population is LGBTQ. Some studies use lower numbers, others use higher ones. I live in a town that has a population of 148,000 individuals. Ten percent of that is about 15,000 humans, and we are just talking about my little town.

Pedophiles exist within every sexual orientation. Gay people are no more likely than straight people to try to force their desires on children. Rates of criminality are no higher than in the general population, but LGBTQ individuals are the subject of 1 out of 5 hate crimes. Studies of judgment, stability, reliability, and social and vocational adaptiveness demonstrate that LGBTQ people perform as well as straight people. However, many in the LGBTQ community do suffer from anxiety and depression, which is not surprising when you consider the incredible stresses that most have had to endure. Substance use can also be higher in the LGBTQ population. Is that shocking when you appreciate the hate, social isolation, and shame that these individuals are subject to? 

There is a multitude of healthy, caring, and concerned LGBTQ people who contribute to society on all levels, and who have meaningful productive lives. Just like straight individuals they want to love and to be in loving relationships. They want to belong, and they want to be equal members of society. 

Yet, societies punish gay individuals. One example is Alan Turing who was a brilliant English mathematician, and whom many consider as the father of computer science. During WWII he developed a mechanical computer that was able to decode messages from the German Enigma machine. This allowed the Allies to read secret German transmission. It is understood that this knowledge shortened the war by two years, and (by estimate) saved over 10 million lives in the process. Think about that, his contributions saved over 10 MILLION lives! Because this project was top secret he didn’t get much credit for his efforts, and after the war, he went to work at England’s National Physical Laboratory.  

In 1952 Alan Turing was arrested for having consensual sexual relations with a 19-year-old man named Arnold Murray. Alan Turing and Arnold Murray were prosecuted for a long list of offenses that were against England’s Sexual Offences Act of 1885. Alan was mandated to undergo chemical castration, which not only robbed him of his sexuality but also his ability to critically think. He could no longer do the things that he was so exceptionally gifted at. His life ended by suicide in 1954. You have to wonder what other discoveries he could have made if he had been allowed to just live his life.

In my psychiatric practice of over 30 years, I have treated all types of people, including those who identify as LGBTQ. It would sicken me when I saw an LGBTQ person being ostracized from a church or abandoned by their Christian parents. All for something that they not only had no control over but also caused no objective harm to anyone.  

Especially difficult were young Christians who had a strong commitment to and respect for their home churches. When they would come out they would not only be rejected but sometimes subjected to conversion therapy a practice that is not only useless but also damaging.

Some Christian groups, like Roman Catholics, acknowledge that someone can be gay and still be a member of the faithful. However, they are expected to resist their sexual feelings. Is that a reasonable approach? How well did it work for the priests who were told the same instructions? 

The Catholic Church states that gay people “must be accepted with respect, compassion, and sensitivity”, and that “every sign of unjust discrimination in their regard should be avoided.” while holding that discrimination in marriage, employment, housing, and adoption in some circumstances can be just and “obligatory.” Avoid bias, but it is OK to discriminate when it comes to marriage, employment, housing, and adoption? What??

LGBTQ individuals are part of God’s creation. If God made them they are part of his plan.  What part?  I don’t know, but I know that God does not make junk. Yet, religious organizations cherry-pick Bible verses to discriminate against them while often generalizing Scripture meant to highlight specific carnal acts, such as paederasty. This seems to be against what I consider the overall teaching of Jesus. I can not support these actions any more than I could support a church that justified the enslavement of people, or one that treated women as 2nd class citizens. Based on this I can’t return or support my home church. So where does that leave me? Do I find my own way? Do I try to find another church? I’m praying on it.

The above events prompted me to do a deep-dive on the Bible. Which will be the subject of my next post. I’m sure that post will also need a  disclaimer. 

Peace

Mike

Retired Four Year-My Honest Review

As I write this, it has been over four years since I retired from my private practice at Genesis Clinical Services and three years since I left my job as an attending psychiatrist and addictionologist at Rosecrance. It is time for me to do my annual review. I am writing this post for my personal summary. I will share it with those of you who wish to travel with me on my journey.

The process of retirement is more evolutionary than revolutionary. Revolutionary discoveries occur, but that process is slower and more meandering than what happened during my work life. I tend to liken it to watching an analog clock. If you stare at a clock, the hands don’t move; look away for a bit and they are suddenly in a different place.

I’m aware that this process is influenced by forces, such as age and health, independent of any purposeful action. There are things that I can do and things that happen to me that I have to accept.

The beginning of the year brought a cancer scare and a multitude of diagnostics tests and specialists. The bottom line is that I don’t have cancer; rather, I have a chronic condition that doesn’t have a cure but does have treatments. I’m continuing with a variety of those as I write this. Many of these treatments are relatively non-specific. As a medical professional, I can read scientific literature critically. It is clear that most of my medical recommendations are based on weak studies and anecdotal findings. For instance, I’m supposed only to drink low acid coffee. I’m trying to be as compliant as I can be while I recognize that much of what I’m being advised to do is shotgun medicine. In other words, I’m getting dozens of recommendations, none of which are based on a solid statistical footing. With that said, I’m very grateful that I’m generally healthy as I will turn 69 in less than two weeks.

Those core things that have always excited me continue to do so. I love learning and teaching. Creativity is my jam, and the use of technology to aid in creating things has always turned me on. However, how that I achieve these objectives continues to evolve. In the past, I would reward myself by buying things that I could compare. “How is this camera manufacturer’s solution different from that manufacturer’s?” “What are the differences between an inexpensive guitar and a more expensive one?” “Why does one computer application solve a problem one way when another piece of software does it differently?” Buying things gave me the pleasure of discovering how other people solved problems. That helped me expand the way that I critically think about things.  

I love creative expression. One of my favorite places is the Naperville Riverwalk as seen by me on a recent winter walk.

Although I could still buy and compare things, my purchasing has slowed down dramatically as I now can pursue other ways of learning; Retirement has given me the time to explore. With that said, I did do deep dive on automatic blood pressure cuffs earlier this year and bought quite a few of them so I could determine their pros and cons. I gave most of them away after I finished my study, so I guess it turned out to be a win/win situation. In addition, I wrote a post about my findings to teach others. What good is knowledge if you don’t share it?

Much of my explorations of late have involved acquiring knowledge for the sake of learning. My goal has shifted from being an expert on a topic to being knowledgeable about a subject. It is less critical for me to acquire expertise and more vital for me to learn. I appreciate the vastness of information available. Disciplines that superficially seem different from each other connect on more fundamental levels. It is exciting when I discover these connections. Yes, everything connects with everything else. You just have to look. 

If you have read my post, you realize that for the last 7 (or is it 8?) years, I have had the opportunity to learn about construction from my expert friend, Tom. This is just one area that I have been visiting. I have been studying topics that range from learning about other medical specialties to exploring the accuracy of the Bible. There is a joy of discovery when I learn something new or understand something on a different level. There is also a sense of freedom as I can spend as much or as little time as I choose to on any particular topic. No one is going to test me with an exam, and I don’t have to prove to anyone that I have the most comprehensive knowledge.

My role at home is slowly changing. I have taken on more responsibilities than last year. I do many tasks, from cleaning the house to grocery shopping. Naturally, I have continued my long-established outside duties and household fix-it jobs. My job title would most accurately be described as a househusband. Many complain that such tasks are beneath them or even demeaning. I don’t feel that way at all. Household tasks are fundamental for both the individual and the family. They are of the utmost importance. That is not to say that I don’t find some jobs boring; of course, I do. However, there is a satisfaction of knowing that I’m accomplishing these tasks and that they benefit all parties. With that said, I have been trying to strike a balance. The number of adults that live here fluctuates from three to five. All are very capable. The reality is that I could completely take over all household jobs, but that would be a disservice to me, the other members of the household, and our family system as a whole. Everyone has to have some skin in the game, and finding that balance has been an ongoing process.

I have always been a little boy at heart, but I have rarely had the opportunity to express that side of me. I find the greatest joy in the simplest of things. Retirement has allowed me to acknowledge and nurture that aspect of my personality. This part of me is difficult to express in writing, but it involves finding beauty, wonderment, and excitement in just about everything. It is cool. 

Long ago, I understood that I was an introvert, and my social needs were different than many. I have no problem spending long periods by myself, and there are times when I need to be alone to recharge my psyche. However, retirement, COVID, and other situations have illustrated the importance of strong connections with others. I continue to invest in those who I love. I have put ongoing effort into my marriage, children, and other important relationships. I continue to be amused with the knowledge that most things are neither bad nor good; they just are. The COVID pandemic certainly had many terrible aspects, but it also got me to call my sisters on a daily basis. I am close to all of my children but was most distant with my daughter, Kathryn. Kathryn returned from the Peace Corps due to COVID, and this forced the two of us to spend extended amounts of time together. What a blessing this has been as we have developed a new closeness and respect for each other. My other kids are now adults, yet they still seek me out for companionship and advice. I am so grateful.

I made one grand trip to Montana this last year, but I took many shorter trips in Violet. Some of them were for fun, and some were for practical reasons. This is the first year that Julie and my son, William, accompanied me on many adventures. I’m very grateful. You may wonder why I don’t camp with my daughters. It is simply for practical reasons. Violet has one platform bed that can accommodate Julie or William, plus me. Part of Violet’s charm is her ease of use as there is little to no set-up; I have no difficulty choosing to stealth camp. To camp with my girls would involve using formal campsites and setting up tents. I’m not excluding this option, but currently, I’m choosing other ways to spend time with them.

I crave to be on the road more, and I long to go on trips that would last a week or two. It would be great to do this with someone, but my current travel companion’s busy lives don’t allow for that extravagance. I’m now comfortable traveling alone, and I have developed enough social confidence to engage with strangers on the road. However, I still have a lot of guilt leaving Julie for more than a few days. If I asked her if it was OK for me to travel, I guess she would say, “yes.” However, I do worry that she would be resentful of my meanderings. It is unclear how much of my concerns are real vs. my own internal conflict. I plan to engage Julie in more meaningful and honest conversations on this topic. In reality, I’m talking about a week here and possibly two weeks there. I long to be out west. I think my soul lives on the other side of the Mississippi. 

All of my years of financial preparation have paid off. However, I live on investments, and that can be concerning. At the beginning of COVID, I instantly lost 25% of those investments, which threw me into a bit of a tailspin. But, as we all know, the market has rebounded. Thank goodness for that. However, I’m trying to be conservative with my spending, and I’m thinking about those things that I spend money on. I’m the guy who tries to finish the leftovers in the fridge and the one who thinks twice about buying something. When you are retired, there is less need to spend.

My spiritual life seems to be moving in many directions. I was raised Roman Catholic, and although I respect many aspects of that religion, I separated from it when its sex scandal broke. My biggest issue was the secrecy and conspiracy that was enacted on all levels despite the damage that it caused to parishioners. Sadly, what appeared isolated now seems to be a reality among other institutions, as we know from recent events with the Boy Scouts of America.

Eventually, I drifted to an Evangelical Christian church, which I have attended for many years. The church appeared to have an “all are welcome” philosophy and presented Scripture in a contemporary way that I found beneficial to my daily life. Over the years, the founders have aged and become more conservative. Their sermons have become more traditional and less engaging. However, they never demanded their parishioners to think in a certain way, and they have promoted social justice causes. The latter is very important to me as I believe inclusion is one of the cornerstones of Christianity.  

Recently, and surprisingly our lead pastor took a stance against a subgroup of society, citing Biblical teachings. This not only shocked me, but it also disgusted me. Entire religions are created based on the human interpretation of a few Scripture passages. However, those very religions often cherry-pick Biblical writings. They embrace passage A while ignoring passage B. As of late, I’m putting some effort into gaining a better historical understanding of the Bible. I’m not a Bible scholar, but I do understand the Bible’s bullet points, including “Love thy neighbor.” A church should bring people together and not draw arbitrary lines based on individual differences. I can no longer support the church that I have been attending for well over a decade based on their discrimination against others.

I think that a spiritual journey is personal and that externals (such as a church) should be used to assist the individual along that journey. My belief in God is not based on fear of damnation or even the promise of everlasting Salvation. I’m not a Christian because I’m looking for the golden ticket to heaven. I’m a Christian because I have a strong belief in God, and I believe that the message of the NT is one of peace, love, acceptance, and forgiveness. When a religious organization violates those basic rules, it is time for me to reassess its importance. This new chapter is in process. Hopefully, I’ll be further along my path when I do my 5th-year retirement summary. 

I feel incredibly fortunate to have been granted the ability to retire from my work life and be in my current situation. I live in a beautiful town, and I don’t have the daily financial struggles that many others have to deal with. It has been fantastic to explore topics of interest that don’t have practical value. It has been wonderful to expand my creative abilities. I’m most grateful that I have been able to deepen my connections with others. I think that this latter fact has been the most significant benefit of leaving my 9 to 5 (in my case 7 AM to 10 PM) professional life. 

I continue to grow, explore, and be open to new possibilities as they present themselves.

I share these most intimate thoughts with you. I hope they will help you do the same with those you care about. Vulnerability is not a sign of weakness; it is a reality. Vulnerability allows us to grow and to become better humans.

Peace

Mike

Just me from a recent ZOOM call.

Winter Travel Kit/Emergency Ration Bars

For the last 30 years, I have driven the 400 miles from Illinois to Minnesota at Christmas time to spend the holiday with my wife’s family. Most of the journey is via the Interstate, and some may assume that this would mean that my drive would be clear sailing as these roads get the highest level of attention. Unfortunately, that is not always the case. We have experienced bad road conditions that ranged from deep snow on the expressway to whiteouts. The most significant danger is when it starts to sleet around the freezing point. This places an ultraslick layer of ice on the expressway, leading to disaster. Several times, we had to alter our travel plans by spending a night in a motel or by having a Christmas dinner at a truck stop. There have been other times that we have become stuck on the expressway. So far, this has meant that the traffic was moving so slowly as almost to be standing still.  

I know of at least three national stories this winter season where expressways have been shut down due to inclement weather, often stranding motorists on them for a day or longer. Beyond Interstates, other roads can also shut down. For example, in 2011, Chicago’s Lake Shore Drive was closed for 12 hours stranding motorists in their cars. Lake Shore Drive is a local road with a total length of only 16 miles. Imagine being trapped in your car, wearing lightweight clothing, and low on gas. Spending twelve hours in such conditions could be life-threatening.  

My point is that winter driving carries risks. However, you can reduce those risks if you plan ahead.

For as long as I can remember, driving experts have advised winter travelers to carry emergency supplies. Yet, I wonder how many people do this. Some of my vehicles are well set-up for emergencies, while others are equipped only when traveling a distance in them. The number of emergency items recommended varies from expert to expert. However, some essential things make every list.  

Food and drink 

We always have an abundance of snacks and water/drinks when we travel. Usually, these items are used to fill time and to lessen the number of stops that we have to make on long journeys. However, they would serve as emergency food if we were stranded. In addition, Violet, the camper van, always has water and emergency food bars on board. This last item is the second subject of today’s post, and it will be discussed in greater detail.

When we go on long journeys we always carry a snack bag as well as water and other beverages. The snacks could sustain us if were were stuck due to a winter storm.

Warmth items

A warm coat, gloves, a hat, etc., are necessary items for even the shortest winter drive. A winter trip to the grocery store could be disastrous if your car broke down and you were in flip-flops and shorts. When we travel, we also carry sleeping bags with us. In Violet, I have both sleeping bags and blankets. Any old blanket is better than no blanket, and you can buy warm Army surplus type wool blankets for less than $20. Other heat sources could be considered, including a candle in a can and chemically exothermic products like hand warmers.

Always dress appropriately for the weather even if you are driving to the grocery store.
Having a blanket or sleeping bag in the car can be a life-saver. Any warm blanket will do. This wool “Army-style” blanket can be purchased on Amazon for $20.
Hand warmers heat by an exothermic chemical reaction. They can last up to 10 hours.

A way to keep your cell phone charged

Your cell phone is a communication and information resource, but it must be charged to work. We have charging cords in all of our vehicles. On long winter drives, I also pack a battery bank. Violet has additional ways to charge phones and other devices.

It never hurts to leave a phone charging cable in your car. If you are traveling a long distance a battery bank is also useful. This one has a charging cable that is built in.

Flashlight/headlamp

Another simple but critical piece of equipment. They are an inexpensive purchase, and it is likely that you already have a spare around your house. However, you have to remember to regularly test and change the batteries.    

Some sort of flashlight or headlamp can be useful not only in emergencies but also when you drop something on the floor and can’t find it.

Pen and paper

Critical but straightforward for jotting down important information. You can use your phone to store information in many cases, but sometimes paper is more convenient.

This is a fancy waterproof notebook. However, a sheet of copy paper and a pencil also work.

Car repair equipment

This will vary based on your needs as well as your mechanical skill. We always carry some way to “jump” the car on Interstate trips, either cables or a jump box. I also have some elementary tools.

When I travel in Violet, I can be in remote places, so I pack more. I’ll carry, a can of flat fix, motor oil, a tire inflater, duct tape, and other items. I don’t have the skill to fix an engine, but I have been in situations where something has loosened on a vehicle, and having the right tools has allowed me to safely get to a place where the problem could be adequately repaired. Other things that some may consider include alert items like reflective shields and safety vests.

You woud be surprised how useful a multi-tool can be.
You can buy emergeny car kits. The items are often of poor quality, but they can still help you out in a pinch.
I like jump boxes. The little battery has enough power to jump a car many times before recharging.
If you are more mechanically inclined you can buy or put together a more extensive array of tools for repairs on the go.
An inexpensive tarp has a multitude of functions. It can keep you dry if you have to crawl under your car, serve as a traction aid, and it can even be used to create shelter.

A shovel

It is easy to throw a shovel into the car when going on a long winter trip. I have a small shovel that always rides in Violet. In addition, there are many inexpensive compact and folding shovels used by campers, and some made explicitly for motorists. A shovel can make the difference between getting out and staying stuck.

This folding snow shovel is popular on Amazon. Camping type shovels are also good options, and there is nothing stopping you from tossing a full-size shovel from your garage into your car’s trunk

Traction aids

Some experts advise carrying sand or kitty litter as a traction aid, which is undoubtedly a good idea. However, we usually don’t do this, likely out of laziness. However, I carry recovery boards in Violet as I camp off dirt roads in primitive campsites.

I carry a set of recovery boards in Violet as I camp in underdeveloped areas. Anything that gives you more traction can help you get out of a jam. That may be a bucket of sand or even an old throw rug.

First Aid Kit

We do carry reasonably stocked first aid kits in our vehicles. These have served us well for countless non-emergencies. Our little kits have efficiently dealt with cut fingers, headaches, and GI issues. You can make your kit from items that you already have in your medicine cabinet. Customize it according to your needs. Essential items like bandaids, a few pain killers (Tylenol, ibuprofen, etc.), antihistamines, anti-diarrhea meds, wipes, and antibiotic cream are good starting points. 

You can easily make your own first aid kit or buy one. If you choose the latter option I suggest that you augment it with other needed items. A small snack bag or container can be used to house some pain killers, anti-diarrhea meds, and Benadryl. Dollar stores often sell inexpensive small quantities of these. Remember, pills have a shelf life and should be changed out when they expire.

Windshield washer fluid

At the very least, make sure that your car’s washer reservoir is full. However, it never hurts to carry some additional fluid. There is nothing worse than a salt-encrusted streaky window when driving. It is exhausting to operate under such conditions, and it can also be dangerous.

A gallon of windshield washer fluid is an easy addition to your winter kit.

Ice scraper/snow brush

We all carry these; we have to. However, if you live in a tropical climate, like Florida, and are traveling up north during the winter months, buy one at a gas station BEFORE you need it. 

An ice scraper/brush can be had at most gas stations for only a few dollars.

Gas

I start a long trip with a full tank of gas, and if warranted, I try to keep the tank reasonably full. You can periodically run your heater if you are stuck to keep yourself warm.  

Porta-potty

Perhaps a bit controversial and gross, but we all have to go to the bathroom. Violet has a toilet. However, a simple coffee can or another wide-mouth container with a lid can serve the basic needs of both men and women in a pinch. You may never need it, but you will be delighted that you have it if you are stuck in your car for hours with no place to “go.” By the way, I’m talking about #1. However, I’m sure that creative and flexible individuals could use a coffee can for other needs if gymnastically inclined. 

An empty coffee can or another suitable container can be a “life-saver” when you are stuck in your car for hours on end.

Other items

This list is endless and depends on your circumstance and your expertise. Snow chains, towing ropes, a compass, portable radio, snowshoes, the list goes on.  

Emergency Ration Bars

Nothing is more disheartening than being in a high-stress situation while being hungry. In addition, both cold temperatures and emotional stress make your burn more calories. If you are hungry, you will be more irritable, impulsive, and mentally cloudy.  

If you are planning a trip, it is easy to throw together a bag of treats for the road. Our road food is usually of the garbage variety and may include chips, candy, protein bars, and other snack items. However, all of these things have a relatively short freshness life. Once the trip is over, the food returns to our pantry and is quickly consumed by the five adults who live here. Many experts suggest packing set-and-forget food. Stuff that you deliberately pack in your car for emergencies. When I was growing up, chocolate bars were recommended by experts. However, bars melt, and they don’t age particularly well. Several newer foods have a longer and more stable shelf life. Clif bars come to mind as they are pretty solid, well packaged, and have a shelf life of over a year. I have eaten 2-year-old Clif bars in the past; they were pretty dry and chewy but edible. 

Clif bars are durable and stay fresh for up to a year. I have eaten two-year-old bars and survived to write this post.

Emergency Ration Bars are an inexpensive and viable solution for your winter car kits. In addition, having a few packs at home could provide backup if you were ever homebound due to a winter storm or other disaster. 

A caution: These bars all use wheat flour and lots of sugar, so they are inappropriate for those with gluten or blood sugar conditions. 

These bars were developed for lifeboats survival situations, which required food with a very long shelf-life that was calorie-dense and did not promote thirst. They are not health food; they are calorie bombs designed to keep you alive. Most come in packages that are 2,400 or 3,600 calories and are meant to sustain a single person for 2 or 3 days (1,200 calories per day). They are low fiber and low protein by design as these additions promote thirst. Fresh water is in limited supply on a lifeboat.  

There are a variety of brands on the market that are sold at Amazon, Walmart, and many sporting goods and survival-type stores. In addition, they are relatively inexpensive. For example, you can get a 2,400 (2 days) emergency bar for less than $5 at Walmart, and 3,600 calories (3 days) bars can be had on Amazon for less than $10.  

You can buy this pack at Walmart for less than $5 or spend $10 for the exact same thing on Amazon. I keep a couple of packs of these in Violet at all times. These are apple cinnamon flavor, but I didn’t know that until I read the package. To me, they have sort of a vanilla flavor.

All of the various brands of bars have a similar ingredient list. However, they may vary slightly in texture, shape, and hardness. In addition, many of them are mildly flavored in various ways. Manufacturers use flavors such as orange, coconut, apple-spice, blueberry, lemon, and cinnamon. One company may produce a bar with only one flavor, while other manufacturers may sell bars of different flavors.

These SOS bars come in two flavors, cinnamon, and coconut. They are 3,600 calories per pack and sell for around $10.

In most cases, the bars will have a somewhat oily consistency and will taste like a thick, shortbread cookie. I have eaten these bars, and in general, they are palatable, but you wouldn’t want to live on them. However, when given the option of an emergency bar vs. no food, they become delectable.  

All of the brands make their bars using four essential ingredients. Wheat flour, sugar, palm oil (or other vegetable fat), and vitamins/minerals. Some may have a bit of soy flour, and most will have some mild flavoring (see above). I checked the ingredients from several manufacturers and didn’t see a lot of typical preservatives. However, many listed ascorbic acid, which is both a vitamin (Vitamin C) and a natural preservative.  

These bars have a super long shelf-life for several reasons. First, they don’t contain items that can go rancid, like animal fats or nuts. There are no additions, such as dried fruits or peanut butter. Even eggs are omitted. However, the main reason for their long shelf life is how they are packed. They are vacuum-sealed using a heavy aluminum-like wrapper. This not only prevents breakage but also dramatically increases the bar’s shelf-life.  

If unopened, they have a shelf-life of 5 years from the date of manufacture. In sweltering conditions, their shelf-life is reduced. In cool conditions, they can be useable for up to 10 years. If you use them in the winter emergency car kit, it is reasonable to change them out every 4-5 years as their cost is low. 

Since they are all similar in composition, the brand that you choose is a personal choice. Some are certified by the US Coast Guard and tested to meet Coast Guard standards. Others say that they are Coast Guard compliant. Some of the biscuits are block-like, others are shaped like a candy bar. Textures can vary slightly, as can taste. During taste tests, people generally like one bar over another, but the actual bar brand changes from person to person. If you are stuck in your car in a snowstorm for a day or two, any bar is better than no bar.  

Many bars come in a block that you break up into smaller blocks. Typically, one small block is a 400 calorie meal.
Other bars are sized more like a candy bar. These bars are individually wrapped. Note that none of the bars have artificial coloring. No matter what flavor they are all a shade of brown.

In conclusion, it is easy and inexpensive to build an emergency car winter kit, which is especially important when traveling long distances or on rural roads. In addition, having a pack or two of inexpensive emergency food bars as part of your winter kit provides affordable insurance that you won’t be stranded and hungry during a winter emergency.

Peace

Mike