Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Episode 25: Religion

For episode 25, I had Matthew Belcher as my guest. Matt is a guy I have known for several years from our association at Concord University and its Student Government Association. This is not the first time I interviewed him; we had a talk in 2010 here in the blog about his quest to become SGA President. 

About a year ago, I noticed a Facebook post from him where he talked about how he was embracing religion more fully and considered himself to be a different person now. When I had the idea to do a podcast about the topic of religion, he came to mind. I asked, he said okay, and we got it done.

In the interest of full disclosure, I will say that I am an atheist. I have no "faith" or religion, nor do I believe in God, a higher power, a lord, or whatever you want to call it. That doesn't come up in the interview; I don't even know if Matt knows that about me. This wasn't about me letting him say something and then shooting it down. I don't agree with pretty much anything he says, but I enjoy opening a dialogue and having people learn about something. This is a discussion with a religious guy who lives his life in order to please his Savior. If you don't know what that sounds like, hit play and find out.

If you have comments, questions, a differing point of view, feel free to leave comments here or on Facebook. There is nothing wrong with a respectful dialogue of differing opinions.

Here are the topics we address, with a partial transcript below:

- Matt's background, growing up in McDowell County and how he got to Concord.

- Was he religious as a child? Why or why not?

- When did he decide to become more open with religion?

- Was there any backlash from friends on this issue? How has he handled it?

- Is religion something that everybody needs? Is he okay with people having a Savior that is different from his?

- What happens when you die?

- His thoughts on homosexuals and how he deals with having gay friends.

- Thoughts on evolution and abortion.

- Matt closes with telling people how they can learn more about religion and God.

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Chris Slater: You are from McDowell County, correct? 

Matt Belcher: You’re right. But, I’ve been told I pronounce it wrong; it’s really "Mack-Dowell."  

Chris: They eat at the Mack-Donalds in Mack-Dowell county [laughs]. 

Matt: [laughs] That’s true, that’s true. 

Chris: One thing, for people who don’t really know the area, McDowell County kind of gets a bad reputation. You’re kind of a little bit of a success story of McDowell County; why do you think people kind of look down on air-quote “The County”? 

Matt: I think a lot of it is just Southern West Virginia, a lot of people kind of get the idea that Southern West Virginia is a little bit behind the times and a little bit, maybe impoverished. And, I guess that’s true in certain areas, but I think it’s the exact same everywhere; everywhere has their areas with lower incomes or lower education levels and in all reality, places like McDowell County and Boone County, there’s a lot of quote-unquote "backwoods" of West Virginia that kind of get a bad rep, but really they’re some of the most beautiful places that we have to offer in West Virginia. And, I think a lot of times, people don’t really get the full story and what they do hear is not always the positive imagery of quote-unquote "The County," McDowell County. So, I think a lot of times that kind of, the bad spreads faster than the good. 

Chris: How did you get to Concord University? 

Matt: My dad’s a coal miner … One of the biggest things that my parents had ingrained in me from day one was that they didn’t want me working in the coal mines unless I had an education. That was principally because my dad drove a truck, so he spent like late hours working on the truck and still not getting paid because in those times that your truck wasn’t running you weren’t making money. They didn’t want that for me, they didn’t want me laying up under a truck for very long hours, missing out on family time. If they could make way for me to get a college education, then they would certainly do so. And, Concord just happened to be further enough away from home that I could kind of gain an independence, but still close enough where I could still meet them on the weekends and other times. 

Chris: You were active in the Student Government Association. For those who don’t know, what is that and what roles did you have? How would you sum up your experience in that organization? 

Matt: Student Government is, particularly at Concord, is a very good model representation of how a real government works. It had a judiciary branch that handled student violations. It had an executive branch that weighed in on different rules in the university. The SGA didn’t actually make the rules, but they had the privilege of being in the committee that did make them. They also have legislature that actually approved budget issues and a variety of other internal affairs. I started out, I think, my sophomore year as a regular Senator. I was the Housing chair, of the Housing committee and then moved to Business Manager my junior year, and ultimately President in my senior year. 

Chris: You were also a fraternity brother of Tau Kappa Epsilon. How does one get into a fraternity and what exactly is a fraternity for those who may not be familiar? 

Matt: A fraternity is a group of guys, there are national and then there are local. Local is kind of unaffiliated with a larger organization. They at times can be, but for the most part they’re not. The national fraternities, obviously, have kind of a larger charter that they belong to; they’re one of many. As far as something I got into, as I mentioned, my friends that accompanied me to Concord, they kind of started going in their own directions. Some transferred to other universities. Some decided that college wasn’t for them. So, it kind of left me in a place where I didn’t really - it’s not that I didn’t have friends, it’s just that I kind of wanted that close-knit kind of family feel, which led me to going ahead and kind of looking into the Greek life. They call it pledging, or affiliating yourself with a fraternity, or whatever the language is now. Out of the fraternities, all of the fraternities at Concord University were great, all really great guys and I keep in touch with a few of them. But, Tau Kappa Epsilon, at the time, had what I was looking for and I stayed an active member until my senior year. And then things kind of changed; the fraternity went into a different direction than what I would prefer it have went - which is fine - we had to come to terms with what I wanted and what they wanted and it just didn’t line up. So, ultimately I parted ways from the fraternity. I still like a lot of them; I keep in touch with one or two. Great bunch of guys, we just couldn't agree on certain things. 

Chris: Do you define yourself as having a set religion, or how do you classify yourself? 

Matt: That is probably one of the more tricky questions. So many times, I think, religion is a funny word just because "religion," I wouldn't think would be an accurate descriptor of kind of what has happened in my life. This is because any type of religion, you have people who will study religion, who will study religion as their hobby, as their profession, but religion can really be anything. I would probably say that I am a Christian, or a follower of Christ in the idea that it’s not a religion, it’s much more grand than that. It’s having a relationship with God and the universe, and not really deserving it, but having it because of his grace. 

Chris: Did you have this feeling as a child? Did you grow up around this? Or, when did this happen for you? 

Matt: Growing up, my parents were kind of in-and-out church. They went when work and other things would allow. My grandmother was constantly in church by the time I had come to know her. She lived in Virginia for quite some time and when she moved back she was an avid church-goer; very engaged with Christ, very engaged in the word. And, constantly reminding me of God’s existence. I don’t think I ever really denied that, but I didn't really know how I felt about it. So, it was kind of something that I pretty much left alone, up until most recently to be quite honest. I mean, I've always known that God was real and I knew the story of Christ and the theme, but at that point in time it was only a theme and a story that was over there in that side of the room while I’m over here in this corner. That was pretty much my idea all through college until probably quite some time after I got out of college while I was working. 

Chris: I know a lot of people kind of have a big, life-changing moment that makes them kind of open their eyes to it. Was there anything like that for you? I remember you posted some stuff on Facebook a while back that kind of made me go, “Oh, he’s a little bit more religious now” and I maybe hadn't noticed that earlier. Was there anything that made you be a little more open about it? 

Matt: There certainly was. I definitely wasn't open about it when I wasn't living about it, if that makes sense. I spent most of my time at Concord, my entire time at high school, middle school, all the way back - I always knew God was real and he existed, I just didn't know anything about it. So, I always pushed it off as “He’s doing his thing, he wasn't really worried about me.” It was right after I moved to Charleston, life wasn't going well, just with alcohol and constant partying. It was almost like a changing of the wind. I always kept an idea, kept God as an idea, but always in the corner and then I started to realize a trend that I only recognized God’s existence when times were hard. 

Even at Concord, when I would have trouble on a test or I would need something or when like something personal wasn't going my way, I would then go to God. But, any other time, I didn't really think about it. And, I would probably say July of last year, I went through some personal trials. I kind of recognized that I wasn't where I wanted to be in my life. I recognized that things were not going the way that they probably should be. My relationship with God started to feel that pressure on the outside. I was attending church, but I was only there in body, I wasn't there in mind. So, after the personal trials and a number of things not lining up, and really kind of being crushed by fear, it hit me that here I was on my knees begging, praying to God "Please let this be okay, please let this be okay," and it hit me that I don’t deserve for it to be okay because if you look at my track record, if I’m just going to be honest with myself, I haven’t done anything to warrant it being okay, I haven’t followed through on anything I said I was going to do. I may have said "If I make it home tonight I’m not going to drink anymore," well that’s not true. That was probably never going to be the case in college. 

When it hit, probably July of last year, it dawned on me that I was treating God more like a grandfather that I go to for candy and not like an actual, one an actual god, and two my heavenly creator which is also very different from Grandpa who gives you candy. 

During that time, I took a step back and noticed some things that were weighing in on my life. Facebook was one and my iPhone was one. I just noticed that I had so much noise in my life that I couldn't really focus on God. I tried to read the Bible before and it had never taken off or anything. So, by the grace of God, I was able to. I got rid of my Internet, I switched out my iPhone, I traded in a couple of different things that were going on in my life at that time. I removed them to try to get into the Bible and read the Bible and get to know God. 

This whole time, I thought I knew God, I had an idea but I didn't really know anything about him. The only way to get to know him is to read the Bible. In the Bible, it says it is his word and what he has given to us. So, that’s kind of how that started. It was a very traumatic, inside I guess, because I think the fear and the weight of it all that God is real, that he controls all things, and here I am kind of wasting time. 

Chris: Do you think on a day-to-day basis that religion is something that everybody needs in their life? 

Matt: Well, again, I don’t know about religion. I think a lot of people kind of would answer that question, "Well you've gotta believe in something." And, I don’t know that I would agree with that because we know that there are going to be false gods, through these false teachings. Not only is it scattered through the Bible, but it’s just apparent. I can’t say that everybody needs religion, but I do think everybody needs a Savior. Only through Christ, which is the Savior, that I would refer to, can we be accepted by God. So, I don’t want everyone to have quote-unquote "religion," but I want everyone to have a Savior. That’s not to say that one person needs a Savior more so than another. It’s to say that everyone, every single person needs a Savior. 

Chris: Are you okay with people having a different Savior than you? 

Matt: I think this is a particularly touchy question, because so many times, I know before I came to know Christ I would have heard that question and go "For someone to say no, they would be incorrect, because if my Savior gets me into Heaven then my Savior is correct." But, when you look at that and kind of take that apart, you have a Savior to go to Heaven, to be accepted by God. So, my Savior is Christ. Then, we look at the options of Saviors. So, if we have an individual who claims their Savior is, you know, they’re Buddhist, or they practice another type of religion, then their Savior is a little different. You have to look at if it is really a Savior. I would think not, because we know that Christ is the only way that a person can be accepted by God. 

So, they can have other Saviors, but it’s not really a Savior; it doesn't work the way Christ does, because Christ is the only true Savior. He took the wrath for our sins and it’s only through him that we can be accepted by God. So, in short, no I don’t think there are other Saviors out there, but it’s important to note that I’m not just being bull-headed; I have to look at the meaning of a Savior and what a Savior means and if you look at a Savior as meaning accepted by God, then there is only one. There’s only one who has made that claim who has been accepted by God; has risen from the dead. He is validated, he is legitimate, and I don’t think you would find the other Saviors to be of that caliber or to have that validity. 

Chris: What are your thoughts on evolution and creationism? 

Matt: Well, I think those are interesting subjects. Obviously, I would err on the side of creation. But, I think definitely saying that we've evolved from one species to the next is very easy to say. But, I think it takes probably as much faith to say that as it does to say God created the universe. We at least have a Bible that tells us he created the universe. He created us. He even gave us a timeline in which he does so. Again, that timeline is - what you mentioned earlier - being taken literal versus figurative. With evolution, we have Darwin. To my knowledge, and you’ll have to forgive me if I’m incorrect, but I don’t think that I am. We see a little bit of evolution in that one species changed in itself. But, we never had a species develop into a new species in the way that evolution theory claims that we evolved over time. We have not seen a cross species evolution, only evolution in that one species. 

Chris: Do you have any thoughts on homosexuality, gay marriage, that issue? 

Matt: That is a particularly hard issue. I had a lot of - I have a lot of friends. I have a lot of friends at Concord, I have a lot of friends now that are gay and that they don’t believe anything’s wrong with it. And, it’s very difficult being a believer in that situation because the scripture says that it’s wrong. The scripture, some of the Old Testament, some of the New Testament, in which that homosexuality is wrong. I do believe that it’s wrong, only because God says that it’s wrong. And, that’s what I have to believe; I’m living my life by that. It’s certainly very hard to talk to someone about that subject; they have strong feelings about it and very, not engaged, but that’s what they believe, just like this is what I believe. I don’t have an answer to that, I don’t know how to solve that, I’m not sure how that works. But, I do know the scripture says it’s wrong and that those who practice homosexuality will not inherit the Kingdom of Heaven. 

It does make me very sad, because I do have friends that are gay. I don’t know how to talk to them about that. That’s probably one of the harder things about my particular conversion is that I had so many friends that are still practicing homosexuality and the word says that they’re not gonna get into Heaven like that, so I don’t know what to do there. I just pray for guidance and pray for knowledge and an opportunity to talk to them about it. I’m at a loss for it. I know what the Bible says, I know that they state that they’re happy in this, so I don’t know. Yeah. That’s a tough one. 

I've got a number of friends who are gay and I don’t know how to approach the subject with them. I've talked to one about it briefly. Very briefly. And, it was just a casual engagement and they were very open, I was very open. We both tried to remain very civil through the entire conversation and we did an excellent job; he is a very good friend of mine. I don’t know that we got anywhere [laughs]. But, we certainly addressed the issue, which I think is breaking the ice and hopefully getting somewhere. So, I hope that next time we get to hang out we’ll get to talk about it a little more. 

Chris: So, you’re of the belief that it’s a lifestyle choice and not something that somebody is born with? 

Matt: I don’t know. I can’t really say that for sure. The Bible notes that those who practice homosexuality will not inherit the Kingdom of Heaven. I don’t know that… I don’t know that… Obviously, the thought would lead to actions, we covered that before. I don’t know if it’s something that you’re born with or something that you choose to do. That would be very ignorant of me to do. But, I don’t know. Either decision, either side that you fall on, if it’s a choice or you’re born with it, it’s still something that you kind of have. But, the Bible says to deny yourself, it would lead me to believe that denying oneself of those activities would be the way to go. And, also, you look at premarital sex, straight couples deal with that. They have premarital sex; obviously, they want to have sex before marriage. But, in efforts to obey the word and grow in their relationship with Christ, they deny themselves of that. So, again, I know that’s a very difficult subject, and a very big deal currently in a lot of different legislative actions. But, as far as answers, I don’t know if I have any. But, I do know what the Bible says. And, that’s really all I've got concrete to go off of.

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All that and more in episode 25. Again, if you have any questions, comments, concerns, debate points, etc, feel free to leave them here or on Facebook or Twitter. All dialogue is welcome and encouraged.

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