Last summer, the University of Birmingham announced a startling discovery: two manuscript pages carefully stitched into an ancient copy of the Qur’an in the university library proved to be older than the remainder of the document. Carbon dating of the two sheepskin pages revealed that the sheep was likely alive during Muhammad’s lifetime—thus the scribe could possibly have been listening to the Prophet as he wrote. The researchers also noted that the text on the two pages is essentially the same as more modern copies of the same pages, suggesting that the Qur’an has remained a consistent document through the ages.
The discovery is controversial: the ink on the sheepskin may be more modern than the sheep; Nevertheless, the discovery gives more immediacy to a tantalizing story: A camel merchant named Muhammad goes into a cave and hears a voice. Initially he fears he has lost his mind. His colleagues, however, see the wisdom of God in the words. They write them down, the text goes viral, and today these very same words influence the lives of the majority of the people in over 50 countries and almost 25 percent of the world’s population. Meanwhile, many if not most Americans think those people are all nuts.
Now consider Christianity. The Gospels were written by unknown people, at different times, and assigned random names like Matthew and John, and the oldest record is a scrap of papyrus written about a hundred years after the crucifixion. Through the millennia, pieces of the puzzle have been lost, miscopied, put to vote—and every so often a new piece emerges that shifts the entire picture. Overall, scholars have calculated that the inconsistencies in various versions of the Bible outnumber the words in the Bible.
“So what?” you respond. “I’m spiritual, not religious, and Jesus was a great teacher.” But stop and think. That response may be useful (I use it myself), but it’s completely nuts. Why? The Oxford professor and creator of Narnia, C.S. Lewis, famously described the problem:
“A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic—on the level with the man who says he is a poached egg—or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God, or else a madman or something worse. You can shut him up for a fool, you can spit at him and kill him as a demon or you can fall at his feet and call him Lord and God, but let us not come with any patronizing nonsense about his being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to.”
In America today, a person who declares himself to be God and starts anointing disciples is typically given a prescription for Depakote before he gets himself killed. That said, the decision whether or not to choose to believe in any religion is far from clear.
In his book Surprised by Joy, Lewis describes how he became a believer after a long talk with J. R.R. Tolkien (a staunch Catholic) and a short ride on motorcycles: “When we set out I did not believe that Jesus Christ was the Son of God, and when we reached the zoo I did.”
Did the divine touch professor Lewis on that motorcycle? Or was his mind poached? Who knows? What’s fascinating is that the Oxford professor made a rational, conscious inquiry that allowed him to be surprised by joy. And he never looked back.