Okay, I'll be up front…I have never even met Penn Jillette…so the title of this article might be considered a wee bit of an exaggeration. 🙂
No, he isn't a close personal friend, but I have had a couple times where Penn has responded to me on Twitter…and considering he's got over 1.7 million followers, that's almost like being famous. 🙂
At this point some of you might be saying, "Who is Penn Jillette?" This is what he has (right at this moment) on his Twitter profile:
More than 1/2 (by weight) of Penn & Teller at the Rio in Vegas, Penn's Sunday School Podcast, P&T Tell a Lie on Discovery, P&T: Fool Us! on ITV.God, NO! – book
As that blurb indicates, he is the larger half of the Penn & Teller act, a pair of comedic magicians. If you have ever seen them, you also know he's the half that speaks (his smaller compadre never utters a word). And speak he does…during his magic acts…during their multiple TV shows…and in any other opportunity he is given. He is loud, fun, informative, and interesting…
And an extremely committed atheist.
But not like many of today's "New Atheists" who are vehemently anti-religion and anti-Christian in a "you are a bunch of superstitious neanderthals who are responsible for every evil in the world" kind of way. Don't get me wrong, he is clearly opposed to religion…but he shows a level of respect and warmth often missing from vocal atheists. For instance, when I mentioned something to that respect to a friend on Twitter, Penn chimed up and responded:
Christians are wonderful to me. My Dad lived and died a christian and he was as good of a person as there ever was
Additionally, more recently I was in a Twitter conversation with a less gracious atheist who had started the "blame religion" string including Penn's Twitter handle. I'm not sure how Penn can monitor the number of tweets that include him, but toward the end of of my discussion with the other nonbeliever Penn spoke up. In response to my comment, "And 'blind faith' in anything, religious or secular, is a very dangerous thing…" He wrote, "Exactly my point, it's not the religion, it's the faith." I retweeted Penn's thought will the addition, "I would call it 'blind faith,' but agreed."
Do you concur? Do you see a problem with faith? Do you think Penn Jillette is right to condemn faith as it is often exhibited in our world?
Can you see between the two interactions why I am appreciative of him?
And don't you wonder how such a logical (and seemingly kind) man can come to such an opposite conclusion about religion than we Christians have? What happened?
An interview with Reason Magazine sheds some light:
reason: Did you have a particular Damascus road experience where that became clear to you, or is this the work of gradual rationality?
Jillette: That's one of the things that's so interesting about atheism. People have epiphanies to become religious. People become religious in horrible, bottom times of their life, cry out to Jesus under great stress. You don't hear that story in atheism very often. It's usually gradual; it usually comes from reading; it usually comes from discussions; it usually comes from introspection. For me, it was being in high school and reading the Bible. I suggest to anyone who's looking for the road to atheism: just read the Bible. By the time you get to about the middle of Leviticus, you're out.1
It's hard to know exactly what, by the middle of Leviticus, turned him against Scripture. Was it all the rules and commands in that book that seem so irrational in the modern world? Was it God telling Abraham to sacrifice Isaac back in Genesis? Our Lord hardening Pharaoh's heart in Exodus (and then punishing him and the Egyptian people for it)? The totality of everything in the first two and a half books of the Bible? One too many "Thou shalt nots"?
The first time I went through the 66 (and invited others to join me) I began the reading plan with John instead of Genesis. Although Penn didn't necessarily reach the "worst" that the Old Testament has to offer, I can see how dismaying a lot of the first books of Scripture can be if they aren't viewed through the eyes of the cross and the one who hung on it. The writer of Hebrews provides an illuminating statement:
Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world. He is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature… (Hebrews 1:1-3a, English Standard Version).
Starting a reading plan with John, in part, made it so those early hard passages in the Old Testament can be read recognizing that you cannot think the God of those pages has a different heart for people than Jesus, who is "the exact imprint of [God's] nature." For instance, you have to explain how Jesus would order the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah or cause all but eight on the earth to drown (not to mention all those animals). It also forces you to deal with the fact that Jesus Himself accepted those same problematic books as the word of God, not as mythology.
Ultimately, I wish I could talk to Penn (and have him as a friend). Although I pray for his salvation, I wouldn't try to convince him I am right. However, I would like to get him to start fresh…and maybe this time read the Gospels first…because there is a reason that Jesus says:
And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself (John 12:32).
If I could get that gregarious magician to fix is eyes on Jesus, then maybe we could say of him that…
But blessed are your eyes, for they see, and your ears, for they hear. For truly, I say to you, many prophets and righteous people longed to see what you see, and did not see it, and to hear what you hear, and did not hear it (Matthew 13:16-17).
All Scripture is equally inspired, but nothing communicates a gospel that can be believed better then Jesus…so let's all lift Him up! (And please pray for Penn…)
1 Gillespie, N. (n.d.). God Is Not. Great! Reason.com. Retrieved May 17, 2012, from http://reason.com/archives/2012/03/15/god-is-not-great/singlepage