Esther Dhanraj is a former Christian and lay evangelist, having quit her faith after practising it for 25 years. She holds a Master’s degree in English Literature from Osmania University, India , and a research-oriented Master’s in Divinity (Apologetics), a research-oriented degree, from Luther Rice University, Georgia, United States.
Enabled by her Master’s degree as well as her former faith, she has gained expertise on Christian doctrines and practices. She is engaged in debates on local TV channels in addition to actively fighting conversions at grassroots level in rural India. She also counsels Hindu families whose youngsters have either become Christian or are contemplating Christianity. Through her recently launched Quit Christianity movement, she works with other former Christians in bringing awareness about Christianity.
In the second of a three-part series of interviews for the HinduPost, Esther Dhanraj talks about her journey from a practising Hindu to a devout Christian and her moment of wakening as a Master’s student at the Christian seminary in the US when the inherent flaws in the Abrahamic narrative began to become glaringly apparent and unravel itself through the lens of her rigorous logic and research. The first part of her interview can be read here.
When you became a Christian, what was the Abrahamic narrative being peddled and how did it colour your attitudes towards non-Christians, especially, followers of Hindu dharma?
Proselytising routines never change. Their pick-up lines are time tested. They were the same when my family was being converted as they are now. The only difference is between what narrative they peddle to gain socially oppressed converts and the one to gain elite converts.
I was told that the Hindus were unsaved and they don’t know that they were going to hell. It was our responsibility to both inform them of their “lost” state of being and also to “save” them from being lost. They had to be told of the free gift of salvation that they had in Jesus.
I believed that narrative cent percent. To me, the Hindus were the “left behind” race. They were good people that deserved to be saved. I believed that I was chosen for this task. I felt God had given me the moral responsibility to bring all my loved ones aboard the ship that has been set sail to heaven by Jesus himself.
In retrospect, I wonder why, even with a strong desire to see my Hindu relatives and friends “saved,” I could never get myself to evangelise them. If you ask me what stopped me from doing that, I cannot put a finger to it. But there is not even one instance I can recall, where I engaged in a one-on-one conversation of “sharing the gospel.” I would preach to youth groups organised by local, fledgling churches, but never engaged in a one on one; not at all to people I closely interacted with.
The closest I got to evangelism is inviting my best friends to church for events, like Women’s Meet on March 8, etc. Occasionally, I would get into a friendly one-on-one debate with them but I don’t recall ever dishonoring Hindu Gods or practices. I’m relieved that I do not carry the bad karma today of demonising Hindus. Although the sermons that I heard were incomplete without that message. As I already mentioned, the only emotion I had for Hindus was pity, that they were headed to hell.
What are some of the challenges of being a first-generation Christian?
I can only talk for myself and at best, for my family. From that context, I’d have to say, first generation converts, especially Brahmin converts, have much to endure from both sides. Let me explain with just one example.
Conversion also means signing up to attend every prayer event at church. Not attending them is not a choice you can make, as a new convert. If you did, you are either still under the clutches of the demonic Hindu Gods or your demonic Hindu friends and relatives; or you are an upper caste bigot who does not want to partake in the “Lord’s love” gatherings at church with other classes of the society. You don’t want either of those labels, especially when you know these are the only people that even come close to being called family, now.
With our conversion we suddenly found ourselves surrounded by people whose food habits, literacy levels, dressing, language and every other aspect of lifestyle that you could think of, were diverse from ours. This difference became evident and even uncomfortable during church gatherings where events were followed by food.
One has to either blend in or accept the label, ‘intolerant.’ The former seemed less painful. Diversity is good, no doubt. But how fair is it to except the person who has been pushed suddenly into it, with no warning, much less training, to not just blend in but do so with camaraderie? Even so much as a frown is looked at as intolerance of the upper caste and educated class. More often than not, my family, especially my parents, would respectfully turn down eating at these events and leave politely just before dining was opened. I’d have to say, it was a caste discrimination of another kind.
On the flip side, our Hindu friends and relatives who were still trying to make sense of my family’s conversion, were wary of our actions.
Your enrolment in the Masters of Divinity programme in the US was a dwija (born again) moment for you? What motivated you to go to the seminary, in the first place?
I loved reading, writing, researching and more importantly working against academic deadlines. When I emigrated to the US, I knew I would get another Master’s degree and probably a doctorate, too. It was more for the research process involved in doing a Master’s in the West, than for the sake of acquiring degrees. But I was faced with a dilemma. Actually, a trilemma – get a job (since we emigrated as permanent residents and with no job in hand, unlike the H1 Visa migrants), or get a Master’s in education leadership (I was an educationist and a part time education consultant in India), or get a Master’s in Christian leadership.
The latter of the three was where my heart was. Not because it was my desire. In fact, there is no room for personal desire in the life of a mature (read: fanatic) Christian! She lives only to do the “will of God.” To that effect, she hears “God speak” with her before taking up anything important. In the trilemma, I could hear God call me to take up the third option.
How do I know this is what he wanted me to do? Let me bring in some theology here. Christianity teaches you to attribute all good occurrences in human life to God’s love and grace for human beings and to credit all bad instances to Satan. By that definition, God was behind my immigration to the US of A because he wanted me to get theological education at the best place (the West). It was my call to fulfil the Great Commission of Jesus (to “go out into the world and preach the gospel” to heathens). The other two options were distractions created by Satan. God had a grand plan for me; which was, to return to India after getting a degree and gathering enough experience to plant churches and “win” Hindus for Jesus.
You see, Jesus had died for all, Hindus included. Hinduism is a deception created by Satan. And Satan had good ol’ Hindus in his clutches. He has blinded their spiritual eyes and clouded their minds, thus preventing them from knowing the great Christian spiritual truths that only Christians were privy to. The purpose of Jesus’ coming to the earth was to raise an army against these Satanic forces. He left behind his spirit to complete the work and he is going to return soon for a final war against the demonic forces. Before that all the races of the Earth have to be “won” for the Prince of Peace, Jesus. The army of Jesus succeeded in getting the rest of them but Hinduism is the only one still standing. The spirit of Jesus is distressed at the perishing of these ignorant, “unsaved” idol worshipping Hindus. Now, I had been chosen for this divine task of winning them over for Jesus. He picked up a “wretch like me” from the garbage pile, and put me on the path to salvation and now he was calling me to save others.
I had to answer that call. I did. I enrolled in the seminary. I chose the apologetics track because along with evangelising I had to defend Christianity from its critics in Bharat. Jesus and his message were under attack in Bharat and I had to equip myself with defensive tools.
You have once remarked, “If you want to bring someone out of Christianity, send them to a seminary!” Please explain.
I’d add, send them to a seminary in the West! To be called a good Christian one has to believe, among other things, that the Bible is the “word of God.” You could call them the Bible-believing Christians. I was not only a Bible-believing Christian but was also a Bible-reading one. Yes, those are categories among Christians. The other categories could be church-going Christians, lukewarm Christians, Bible-thumping Christians, Christians-only-on-Christmas-and-Easter Christians, so on and so forth. The labels are self-explanatory.
All Bible-reading Christians learn to read the Bible early on in their Christian life. I was told that it was a spiritual discipline that good Christians incorporate in their lives. And that doing this, helped a Christian “walk in the ways of the Lord.” Early on in my Christian life, I incorporated this habit. Soon I was reading it cover to cover once a year. As I became more and more drawn into it, I read it completely about three times a year. I was a very happy Christian because I believed that I “shared an intimate” relationship with Jesus, through my holistic Christian life – church-goer, Bible-believer, Bible-reader.
And then the Seminary happened. Before I enrolled, I had no clue what was taught in a seminary. I just assumed and probably hoped too, that they would make me read a whole lot of the Bible and that was good reason for me to enrol, for now I could become a Bible-thumper too.
‘How does the seminary aid in opening the eye of reason in a Christian?’ The simplest answer would be, ‘Read the Bible through an academic lens, as opposed to a faith lens.’ Besides the Bible, academic literature on Christianity is also an eye opener. For example, it was through my textbook of Old Testament Studies that I realised that the Bible had problems that critics have been pointing at, for at least two centuries now. Of course, the textbook goes on to address those questions. But the point here is the effect that that one statement can have on the lay believer, who has been made to believe all his life that the Bible is an inerrant, infallible, divine word created through the might and intelligence of a being who created the universe with just a command. That one statement was enough to make me take a step back and ponder. No amount of justification that followed helped. In addition, this was coming from the people that were charged with the divine task of defending the faith.
It is this eye of reason, that Martin Luther, the founder of Protestant Christianity, suggested, be gouged out.
If one can gain information on critical scholarship through independent research, why go to a seminary?’
I will answer that question in four points:
An independent researcher cannot navigate through the vast literature that is available on Christianity, without academic guidance. If one were to go on a navigation journey, one would be spending several months on just searching the internet for what to study and where to find them. A seminary student is handed that preliminary information by experienced guides (professors) that have already treaded that path. Each course they enrol themselves in comes with suggested reading besides the mandatory reading (textbooks).
Even if the independent researcher is able to navigate and find what she is looking for, acquiring the material is an expensive affair, unless it is freeware. And the sad thing about freeware is that not many scholars like to give away their scholarship free of charge. All that is free is either dated material or unacademic in nature. Academic publications of theological studies are expensive just as any other secular studies books. Only salvation is free! Not the books that preach about how free it is! Membership to digital scholarly journals is expensive, too. As a student of seminary in the West, most of these are required readings (text books). Many of them can be accessed free of charge with a student ID. For others there are student discounts; not to mention, seminaries have well-equipped libraries that students can borrow from. An independent researcher will have to spend a ton of money to get her hands on them.
There are two types of apologetic works that scholars – both defenders and critics – produce: one, for academic and peer reviews; two, for popular consumption. What independent researchers can get their hands on, are those written for popular consumption; these books usually do not give the most accurate information. A seminary student, on the other hand, has access to those written for academia and peers. Independent researchers do not have the burden of completing course assignments and writing research papers, unlike seminary students. For a research paper to be graded and approved, it has to meet certain academic requirements like citing prescribed number of scholarly works in support of the thesis that is being presented. In order to do that, the student would have to read that many academic tomes and journals. This augments the knowledge on the subject matter.
This, however, is not an exhaustive list of differences between taking up independent study Christianity and studying it as an academic discipline in a university. There are many more.
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