I SOLD MY SOUL ON eBAY: Viewing Faith Through an Atheist's Eyes
Hemant Mehta, the "eBay atheist" who agreed to go to the churches of choice of the winning bidder, pens this intriguing, often humorous and sometimes disturbing look at today's Christian churches in I SOLD MY SOUL ON eBAY.
Mehta begins by unpacking his own upbringing in the Jain religion, detailing what led him to give up his faith at age 14. As an adult, however, he freely explored the deepest questions of religion. An intellectual and leader in the Secular Student Alliance, he was puzzled at the hostility against his group by Christian organizations. "What were they so worried about, that someone would hear a new idea?" After deciding he wanted to learn more about Christianity, Mehta posted a "send an atheist to his local church" opportunity on eBay --- with surprising results.
For $504, Jim Henderson, author of EVANGELISM WITHOUT ADDITIVES, won the right to send Mehta to church. Mehta attended 15 churches in four states, encompassing a wide range of church communities: from small-town parishes to megachurches. He then filled out a survey for each one and blogged about his visits on his website.
Mehta, who calls himself a "friendly atheist," believes he is part of the demographic that most churches want to reach. "But based on what I have experienced, the things many churches are doing on Saturday night or Sunday morning are not the things that will pull in those who share my mind-set." While attending the churches, Mehta says, "I kept running across a consistent and troubling truth about American Christianity." People of faith, he says, make enemies of those who don't believe in the same God they do by displaying a negative attitude toward anyone outside the religious community.
Another observation: "Any religion that wants to keep people believing should do one simple thing: instead of limiting religious teaching to matters of what to do and how to do it, tell people why they are saying certain words, performing certain rituals, and adhering to certain beliefs." He often found himself confused by traditions or liturgy that he had no background for. Christian readers will wince at some of his experiences (after a scathing interview with Kirk Cameron on the radio, he asks, "…are comments meant to embarrass a guest and a lack of kindness really accurate representations of Christian compassion?")
After detailing several of his visits in four middle chapters, Mehta offers some practical advice to those who want to reach non-Christians. Talk to us (without preaching to us), he writes. Have a conversation with us about a broad range of topics (religion doesn't dominate our thinking). Shorten the singing time.
Pastors and their messages were of primary importance, he says. Preach relevant sermons. Explain why a Bible story has meaning today. Don't talk as if non-Christians are the enemy. Remember to appeal to an atheist's intellect, not his emotions. Offer opportunities to ask questions. Invite someone who is an atheist or agnostic to have a friendly public dialogue.
The congregation is not off the hook. He urges attendees to pay attention in church. "If you don't like church, then don't go to church." Be on time if you respect your church. Get involved in social justice issues in your community --- feeding the hungry, educating the illiterate, assisting the poor. Actions, he says, speak louder than words.
Christian readers looking for the seemingly inevitable conversion scene at the end of the story will be disappointed. Mehta says he went to church looking for answers to the big questions in life, and came away unconvinced that Christianity had them. If any church could have converted him, he believes it was Willow Creek Community Church in South Barrington, Illinois. "It was a place where I could think about the message after I left."
In the foreword to the book, author and pastor Rob Bell (SEX GOD, VELVET ELVIS) says that "Lots of people in lots of churches will find this book very helpful in their efforts to put a face on God for the world we live in…prophets can come from the most unexpected places, can't they?" Excellent food for thought. A study guide for small group use at the end of the book will help Christians explore the ideas presented here more thoroughly.
--- Reviewed by Cindy Crosby. Contact Cindy at firstname.lastname@example.org
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