A Jehovah’s Witness and an Agnostic Walk into a Coffee Shop (Pt. 3)

This article is part of a series, to read the first article in the series click here. To read the second article click here.

I started my morning today with a breakfast burrito, blessed by a Jehovah’s Witness elder. But this wasn’t just any Jehovah’s Witness elder, he is my friend, George, who I’ve been meeting with regularly for a Bible study. And yes – to reiterate – I’m Agnostic. But this has become one of the most enjoyable parts of my week.

Every day that we meet, George tries to surprise me with a coffee shop I haven’t yet been to since I’m new to town. He hasn’t succeeded yet. I really like coffee.

Today I repaid him for buying me breakfast last week, with a coffee from Greenberry’s, a popular coffee shop in Harrisonburg. We took our coffee back to the kingdom hall and talked for a while before getting into the studies. He told me he wants to learn to play guitar, and I offered to give him lessons.

“It’s an exchange, you teach me about the Bible and I’ll teach you guitar.”

He was overjoyed at the idea. It looks like we’ll be getting to know each other even better soon enough.

After discussing the possibilities for a few more minutes, I took out my New World Translation Bible, and we began to read. On the whole, our conversation was much like the weeks before. He brought up the proofs for the Bible, I questioned them, and we discussed. But today something else happened, which was unexpected.

As we talked about what it means to be a good person and to be a “wicked” person, he brought up a fascinating point, one which he didn’t even realize was fascinating.

“When a wicked person has done something, a good person, no matter how good they are, cannot change that. They cannot truly right the wrong. But here, in the Bible, it says that God can.”

It was a relatively simple thought and one that I had heard before in my childhood training as a non-denominational protestant. But today I noticed something different.

“George, that concept rings true with a concept in psychology. When something horrible has happened to someone, someone else, no matter how good, can never get rid of that. It has been imprinted on their mind.”

Having known several people with PTSD, the thought was quite encouraging. Even if I have no idea about the nature of God, it’s nice to know that this man believes that God intends to permanently erase those memories, in a way that I, or any other person, never could.

“Daniel, that is a concept I have never considered. You know, that’s why I enjoy these conversations with you.”

I have brought new insight to the Bible for my friend. Somehow, my Agnostic mind has encouraged the faith of my Jehovah’s Witness friend. It happens twice more throughout the conversation. It seems we both have something to teach the other.

As has happened every day towards the end of our meetings, someone comes into the kingdom hall and calls out a greeting.

“Hey, mama!”, George replies, “that’s my mama.”

His mother comes into the room, decked out in pink sun hat and glasses, and sits down at the table. She doesn’t miss a beat, and before I know what’s happening, her Bible is out, and she has joined the Bible study.

At the end of the Bible study she extends an invitation.

“You need to come to one of our meetings sometime! We’ve got a seat saved for you. Two if your wife wants to come!”

It’s a genuinely warm invitation, but I’m really not ready to attend a service. Who knows, maybe someday I will be comfortable enough with this community to attend a service with no concern over my faith title, but at the moment, I gratefully decline.

I leave the kingdom hall feeling like I have every day. These are good people. I cannot wait for our next meeting.

More updates will follow as we continue to meet. Hopefully, my experiences can help others to feel more comfortable around members of other religions, or at least have an interesting weekly read. Follow my blog to get regular updates, and see what else I’m up to. Thanks for reading!

A Jehovah’s Witness and an Agnostic Walk into a Coffee Shop (Pt. 2)

This article is part of a series, to read the first article in the series click here.

My morning began today with a Burger King breakfast sandwich in the basement of a Kingdom Hall. George, my Jehovah’s Witness friend, who invited me to join him for a weekly Bible study, was running late so he decided to get us breakfast on the way. Coffee and breakfast sandwiches “the southern style”, as he put it, with jam on top. “Southerners love sweet and savory together, I’ve been eating breakfast sandwiches like this my entire life.”

We spent the first half-hour or so just talking about our lives. He was genuinely curious about my job, my interests, and listened to me talk about environmental policy for an unusual amount of time. Honestly, I like the guy, and I’m glad to be embarking on this study with him.

As we get into our discussion, he begins to lay out for me several of his proofs of the divine inspiration of the Bible. They’re interesting if nothing else. He lists scientific, prophetic, and historical proofs, and goes through each of them with me, encouraging me to read the verses around them. When I question him, he takes it in stride and attempts to answer me as best he can. He is completely open to my doubts and questioning, which is refreshing coming from a conservative Christian background (not to say that he isn’t a conservative Christian, he definitely is. He’s just treating things differently).

What might be most refreshing about our Bible discussions, is that it seems that he really doesn’t mind that I’m not interested in converting.  He says he feels that I should have a fair chance to examine the information he is presenting to me, and do what I will with it. “At the end of all this, if you just have a greater appreciation for the Bible, that’s fine with me.”

At some point during our study, he gives me homework for the week, to read through the Sermon on the Mount in the Gospel of Matthew. “I’ll have to find my Bible, it’s somewhere in storage.” He responds by sliding his Bible across the table. “You can have this one.”

“Are you sure? I don’t want to take your personal Bible, I can really find one of my own. You don’t have to give me this.”

“It would be my honor.”

At the end of our session, I walk out with him, Bible in hand, talking like friends. He says that there’s a book I simply need to read about prophecy, but it’s not being printed anymore. “I will find it,” he insists and begins calling everyone in the neighborhood to see if they have a spare copy. “I bet you Mary has it, we’ll just pop over to her house real quick and see.”

Suddenly, I find myself in the living room of a woman I have never met before, swapping stories about our mutual experiences in East Africa. She went there on a missions trip with the Watchtower Society, I went there to study human ecology. It doesn’t really matter though. This woman, like every single person I have met in our local Kingdom Hall, is incredibly kind and welcoming. She doesn’t have the book, but that doesn’t really matter. I’ve made another friend, in a community I never expected to enjoy.

My biggest worry at this point is: what will happen when the Bible study is done? If I don’t want to join the Kingdom Hall (which I don’t anticipate wanting to do), will I say goodbye to George, and never interact with the community again? I have really loved these people and would love to keep up a relationship with the community. These are things I will need to consider.

More updates will follow as we continue to meet. Hopefully, my experiences can help others to feel more comfortable around members of other religions, or at least have an interesting weekly read. Follow my blog to get regular updates, and see what else I’m up to. Thanks for reading!

A Jehovah’s Witness and an Agnostic Walk into a Coffee Shop (Pt. 1)

No, that is not the first line of a clever joke. That was how I started my morning today. Let me explain…

Last week I was going about my business in the downtown of Harrisonburg, VA, the city where I live, and I was approached by a well-dressed man who was standing on the sidewalk. We engaged in small talk for a while, and honestly, I really liked the guy. I’m new to the city, so anyone to talk with who’s from the area is good to me. At some point in the conversation, I asked him why he was just standing on the sidewalk, “Are you the sidewalk man?” He laughed and told me that he was promoting a Bible study in the area, for the local Jehovah’s Witness group, and asked if he could give me some literature.

Now, let’s zoom out for a moment. I studied new religious movements in my undergraduate program, including a good week spent on the Jehovah’s Witness movement. I’m quite familiar with their teachings, what makes them different from other Christian groups, and their founding story. I’m also familiar with being proselytized to. My wife says that I have a friendly face, so people feel comfortable talking with me. As it just so happens, as a student of new religious movements and world religions, I’m always happy to talk with a Hare Krishna, or a Mormon, or a Jehovah’s Witness who approach me. So this kind of scenario is not unusual to me.

But this time there was just something different. Generally, street evangelists ask a single question and then go straight into the proselytizing. For example, several years ago I was approached by a Hare Krishna, that same day I happened to be wearing a tye-dye shirt. He approached me and said, “I like your hippie shirt, can I offer you some literature on the Hare Krishnas?” I thanked him and took the book he offered me, going on with my day. The next week he approached me again… with the same opening line. Needless to say, I was not impressed.

But this time, I genuinely liked the gentleman I was talking to. He seemed like the kind of guy who I would like to get coffee with, and so at the end of our conversation, I asked if he’d like to get coffee sometime.

Fast forward to this morning: I’m sitting at a local coffee shop with my friend (who I’ll call George to preserve his privacy) and discussing the Bible. Unlike being proselytized to, this is not a situation I find myself in often. I haven’t discussed the Bible genuinely in a public place since high school. I find myself a bit uncomfortable at first, feeling stares around the coffee shop that probably aren’t really here. But eventually, his congeniality and genuine love for his faith make me feel quite comfortable.

This isn’t an article about how I converted to the Jehovah’s Witness church. It is an article about how I found commonality with a man, and – in fact – a group of people, that I never thought I would. After coffee, he took me to the local Kingdom Hall and introduced me to some of the people there. Every single person I met was incredibly kind and welcomed me despite my beliefs.

At the end of our morning together, he invited me to do a regular Bible study with him, to examine what he called the ‘evidence’ for the divine inspiration of the Bible. In a spirit of genuine curiosity, and interest in his passionate faith, I agreed to join him for coffee weekly, and examine his Biblical proofs.

So what started as a bit of a lark, ended in a genuine friendship, and an interesting adventure for my agnostic mind. Updates will follow as we continue to meet. Hopefully, my experiences can help others to feel more comfortable around members of other religions, or at least have an interesting weekly read. Follow my blog to get regular updates, and see what else I’m up to.

Thus Speaks Zarathustra: The Influence of Zoroastrianism on the Modern World

In the history of religion, few names are so unknown, yet so immensely important, as the prophet Zoroaster (known as Zarathustra in Persian). In the once formidable ancient empire of Persia, the teachings of this ancient prophet laid the foundations for a religious community that would influence much of the modern world, and live on in a small, thriving community, today known as Parsis, or Zoroastrians.

For anyone unfamiliar with the religion of Zoroastrianism (which should perhaps more rightly be called Zarathustrianism), it is one of the world’s oldest monotheistic religions and was founded sometime between 1500 and 500 BC. Its core tenets involve spiritual dualism or a constant battle between good and evil. This dualism is realized through the spirit of Ahura Mazda, the supreme god, and Angra Mainya, the spirit of evil. The religion has quite a developed angelology, and higher beings, messianic figures, eternal life, and free will to choose between good and evil all play heavily into their beliefs.

The core beliefs of dualism and guardian angels found in Zoroastrianism may not seem to be influencing the daily lives of modern people at surface-level, but look deeper and an impressive chain of influence unfolds. While the first Abrahamic religion of Judaism was likely founded separately from Zoroastrianism, there is a rich history of influence, which has often been credited with certain changes found in the so-called “intertestamental period” (a period in Protestant Christian understanding between the writing of the Old Testament, and the New Testament).

Around 550 BC, the Jewish people were prisoners of the Babylonian Empire, a period which is commonly known as the Babylonian Captivity. Under the reign of the Persian king, Cyrus the Great released the Jewish people and allowed them to return to their homeland. While it is unlikely that the Persian religion was forced on the people of Judah at the time, it seems that certain aspects of their beliefs may have influenced the Jewish people significantly, as is evidenced by changing beliefs between the Old and New Testaments. In the Old Testament, for instance, the belief in angels was not very developed, with only brief mentions of the Angel of God, and groups of angels making an occasional appearance. The descriptions of these angels and active roles in the lives of Biblical figures change in the later writings of the Old Testament, and the New Testament. Many religious scholars have attributed this change to the highly developed angelology found in Zoroastrianism.

The case of angelology is just one example in which it seems that Zoroastrianism influenced its Abrahamic cousins. There is a long list of proposed influences, many of which can be found at the links below, which are quite plausible. Briefly, many religious scholars believe that the teachings of Zoroaster influenced the idea of Satan (or Iblis in Islam), the concept of free will in moral decision making, the idea of a savior or messiah, and the concept of resurrection from the dead for all who believe.

It’s important to note here, that I’m not trying to undermine the legitimacy of Christianity, Islam, or Judaism. I’m simply trying to outline the possible influences which Zarathustra may have had on the modern world, many of which come through the form of teachings within these religions.

It may also be interesting to note that the fourth Abrahamic religion, Baha’i, considers Zarathustra to be a prophet (or a manifestation of god), and accepts the influence of Zoroastrianism on other religions as part of their own history.

This post does not at all summarize the influences of Zoroastrianism on the modern world, but simply begins to brush the surface of this influence. It may require a second post sometime in the future to deal with it more fully. For now, I would be happy to hear comments on the thoughts here and discuss anything relevant and respectful on the blog. Thanks for reading, and don’t forget to check out the much more detailed accounts of the topic below.

See this interesting article from the Journal of the American Academy of Religion for more details on the influence of Zoroastrianism on western religions.

Or for a lighter read see these articles from The Hammering Shield and the Circle of Ancient Iranian Studies.