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An offbeat pastor with a different view of faith convenes a church for those who don’t like church

<p>Vince Antonucci. PHOTO: MICHAEL HERB</p>

Vince Antonucci. PHOTO: MICHAEL HERB

“There’s a normal way of doing Christianity these days,” says Vince Antonucci. You know what he means: the routine pieties of Sunday, followed by six days of behaving like God isn’t watching. He’s not content with that. As outlined in his new book (his third), Renegade: Your Faith Isn’t Meant to Be Safe, and weekly in Verve, his church near the Silverton, faith is supposed to be about something else: risk.

“People who said yes in the Bible had their lives inverted,” he writes in Renegade. “They went from selfish to selfless, from having grudge-inspired thoughts of revenge to loving their enemies through acts of kindness …” If you can imagine a kind of loving, punk version of Christianity, this might be it. (A recent sermon topic: God for skeptics.)

“We tend to reach people who don’t like church,” Antonucci says. “One of the things we say is, ‘This is God for the rest of us.’”

This wasn’t a life path Antonucci was born into. Quite the opposite, in fact: “My mother’s an atheistic Jew, my father was a professional poker player here in Las Vegas. So I never got taken to church. I was in my early 20s when I came to faith or whatever.”

Let’s back up a second. Were you raised here?

No. I was raised on the East Coast. But my father was a poker player and gambler of all sorts, mostly in Las Vegas. So from zero to 11 in my life, we lived in New Jersey or Florida, and he’d be with us a week or two and then in Vegas for three or four weeks. Finally, when I was 11, he came out here and called my mom and said, ‘Hey, I’m not coming back. Come out here and join me.’ And she said no.

In your book, it says that in college you sat down with the Bible, in an attempt to disprove it. What motivated that?

I’d never gone to church. It says [in the book] that I’d never met a Christian. I must’ve met a Christian, but no one ever identified themselves that way.

So, on Easter morning of my sophomore year in college, I was waiting for my girlfriend to go out for brunch. I was sitting in my dorm room. I turned on the TV — we had three channels. And every channel had on what I considered to be just a dumb religious show. Which makes sense, because it was Easter morning.

I went to turn the TV off, but one of the channels — it was funny, it was this old, old man, and he was sitting, scrunched down in this big, red-leather, overstuffed chair, and I’m like, Who does this? Why is he sitting on TV like this? I left it on just because it was so funny-looking. And he said — I think I remember it word for word — “Now, we’ve been discussing the last week of Jesus Christ’s life, and today we’re going to talk about …” And I don’t remember what he said, some event from Jesus’ life that didn’t mean anything to me. And he said, “Now, most scholars believe that this event happened on the Tuesday of Jesus’ last week, but today I will prove to you, through the evidence, that it actually occurred on the Wednesday of Jesus’ last week.”

I thought, that has got to be the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard. I was a pre-law major, so I was really into evidence, I’ve always been that kind of person. So, first of all, why Tuesday or Wednesday? Do you really care? How stupid. And second, why would you use the word “evidence”? What kind of evidence could there be? I didn’t know if Jesus lived at all, but if he did, it was 2,000 years ago and what kind of evidence would there be?

But for reasons I could not explain, I couldn’t stop thinking about what he said. There were all these questions in my head, like, Why did he use the word evidence? And, Why did he care if it was Tuesday or Wednesday? And, Did anyone ever get him out of that chair?

That night, I was in my girlfriend’s dorm room, and I noticed that she had a Bible on her shelf, which I had never noticed. I said, “Can I borrow it?” And she said, “Take it.” So I took it back to my dorm room. I had never touched a Bible. This was a student Bible, designed for teenagers. In the beginning, there are these reading plans: If you want to read through Abraham’s life, read these seven chapters. I was flipping through, and it said, Reading Plan for Jesus’ Life. And I thought, All right, I’ll check that out. Was it Tuesday or Wednesday? You know, let’s do this.

I thought it would start out, “Once upon a time there was a man named Jesus, and he did nice things for people, and did miracles, and had a blue ox named Babe and could lasso tornados,” and I would roll my eye’s because it was a tall tale. So I was stunned when, repeatedly, the Bible says, at this particular time, and in this particular place, Jesus did this particular thing. Over and over it will say, At this time, this guy was the governor, this guy was the tetrarch, this guy was the mayor, this guy was the high priest in that town, and Jesus came into that town during that time and did blah, blah, blah.

And I was like, man, there would be evidence. Not Tuesday or Wednesday, but like — you can look back in history and say, was there someone going around doing these things? Throw out the Bible and look at historians of the time. If no one else mentions this, why is it only in the Bible? But if other people [wrote about it], then that’s interesting.

So I spent the next several months reading the Bible and looking at evidence. I’m telling you, I spent six, eight, 10 hours a day, every single day. My grades went downhill. I just became obsessed with this.

Seventy-five percent of me thought I was gonna disprove it, because I thought, there’s no way it’s true. And — I was 20, so you’ll have to forgive me — but I really thought I might end up on the cover of Time magazine as the guy who destroyed Christianity. [Laughs.] I thought, I’m gonna bring the thing down! It never occurred to me that other people might’ve tried to do that in 2,000 years.

After months of that, I was completely overwhelmed by the evidence, there’s tons of it, and completely overwhelmed by the person of Jesus. There was something so special about him that I wanted to follow him.

Was there one piece of evidence that changed your mind? One moment where your lack of believe turned into belief?

With the evidence, it was piece by piece. If you threw out the Bible, does Jesus disappear? And the answer is, dozens of historians from around the time of Jesus wrote about him, outside the Bible. And I think about 17 of them were not Christians. So evidence-wise, it was just piece by piece by piece.

But the moment I always remember: I’m reading the Bible every day, trying to go to the library to figure out how do I find out what happened back then. And one day — there’s this famous moment in the Bible when the disciples say, “How do we pray,” and Jesus teaches them the Lord’s prayer. And I read that and I went, I’m gonna pray. At that moment, I’m, like, uh-oh. What’s happening to me?

Later, when I told my Jewish mother, she went berserk. I have cousins who are rabbis, I have uncles who are rabbis. So I have that going against me. And I have this dad who’s an atheistic gambler in Las Vegas. So there was nothing that was going to support this whole journey I was about to go on. [Editor’s note: His mother eventually came around.]

What prompted you to write this book?

So I become a Christian. And I go to church for the first time. I still hadn’t met a Christian, as far as I knew, but I had read the Bible, I mean, really dug into it. And in the Bible, when people believe in and follow God, adventures erupt. It was a dangerous thing to follow Jesus. It led you to do things you weren’t capable of doing on your own. It led you to have so much compassion for people that you stopped living for yourself and, often in risky ways, lived out your faith to serve others.

So then I started going to church and that is not what you … [laughs]. I was like, Did I get the wrong Bible? Because everybody’s there in their suits and dresses, and we’re all trying to live nice, good, moral lives. And being a Christian, as far as I could tell from these people, meant, We try not to sin too much. And for the worst of those people, we judge people who do.

And I was just like, when I read the Bible and signed up for this, I thought this was going to be the most dangerous thing I can do with my life. Because everyone who says yes to Jesus in the Bible, crazy things start happening.

So that’s kind of the idea of the book — that faith is all about risk. Christians don’t think of it that way anymore. But we know it’s true. Anytime you have faith, there’s risk involved. The idea is, what does God really call Christians to live? It’s supposed to be this daring adventure where we’re living for God, we’re living for the world — how can I do good in the world, even if it puts me in places I don’t want to be, even if it makes me uncomfortable. And that’s the challenge of the book.

The book talks about moving beyond the complacency of mainstream Christians and doing things that you might be mocked for or that are outside the typical realm of behavior. And it seems to me that could result in either a cool place, as this appears to be, or Westboro Baptist.

That’s a great question. And I think there’s a great answer. So one time, someone went up to Jesus and said, “What is the greatest commandment?” Jesus actually gave them two, which boil down to: Love God and love people.

And then he says, all the commandments, everything you’re told in the Bible, they all boil down to this. Love God and love people. Everything else fits under that. And if you don’t see it as fitting under that, you’re looking at it wrong. And Paul basically says, If I do anything without love, it is nothing and I am nothing. No matter what you do, if the context for it and the motivation for it isn’t love, it’s wrong.

I think that’s the litmus test. If what my faith is leading me to — is it driven by love, and is it perceived as being loving? And if it’s not, then Jesus and Paul would say it’s wrong. So I would say Westboro Baptist is wrong because it’s — well, I don’t know those people, but from my perception it doesn’t seem to be driven by love.

Does the portrayal of Christianity in pop culture, as well as being in Vegas, make it harder or easier to be this kind of outsider, punk-rock Christian that your book seems to be describing?

In general I think it makes it more difficult because there’s this preconceived stereotype you have to break through before anyone will listen to you. In this city and across the country, people who call themselves Christians have done so much damage through the way they act, the way they speak, I don’t blame people. If you say, I don’t go to church because of what I [have seen Christians do], yeah, I don’t blame you. The sad thing is, those people aren’t representing what Jesus really was. So you’re not really rejecting Jesus. So we have to break through that before people will even give us an ear.

People say they’re against organized religion. Well, we’re disorganized religion!

(This interview has been edited and condensed for space reasons.)

RENEGADE: YOUR FAITH ISN’T MEANT TO BE SAFE, Vince Antonucci, Baker Books, 222 pages VERVE CHURCH, 7850 S. Dean Martin Drive,