Tim: Well, Mark, we’ve been on a long journey–a faith journey together. And Joey, we’ve been doing Yellow Balloons for how long now?
Joey: Five years, is that right? Five or six years.
T: Yeah, five or six years. Well, Yellow Balloons actually started with Mark Meckler. Because Mark–in the process of coming to faith–was asking me a whole bunch of questions about the Bible. And it was really more than I could handle in terms of time, because Mark is a studious guy. So I just started recording my Sunday school classes and instead of doing back and forth with people, I started actually preparing a sermon and recording them, then just kept on doing it. And that’s where the Yellow Balloons podcast came from–
J: –That’s the Yellow Balloons material, yeah.
T: (to Mark) But it all started with you asking questions. So why don’t you just take us through your faith journey? You grew up as an agnostic. Well, you started with atheist agnostic. You’ve been one of everything.
Mark: Yeah, I’ve been through the whole progression, right? I started out raised a secular Jew in Los Angeles, California. Which is pretty much, I would argue, probably 80% of the Jews in California, at least that I knew. They’re pretty Jewish community, probably a third of the kids in my high school were Jewish. People went to Temple, but even the people going to Temple went as a social ritualistic thing, it was not faith-based, really. So that’s my household. My parents had no faith basis. There was a strong moral code, a very Judeo-Christian moral code in the house, but they didn’t know where it came from. And still, to this day, we have these discussions, right? So that’s how I was raised–the right belief system in regard to values, but no anchor in faith and no God in the house. So, I grew up like that. By the time I went to college, I went to college in Southern California, I took religion classes because I always found it interesting. If you don’t understand the history of religion, you don’t understand humanity because it’s always played a fundamental role. So I studied it from that perspective, and probably like so many people who go to college in the modern world, I learned that the fundamental thesis of modern religious studies is that Christianity is evil. It is the worst thing on the face of the Earth and there have been more wars fought over Christianity.
T: So you’re saying the premise that all of these classes came from was–
M: Christianity is evil.
T: Okay, that’s what they wanted to prove.
M: They actually said it.
T: Oh, they said it. Okay.
M: Yeah. So you sort of learn–what I found in religious studies classes–was that the main focus was on the Crusades. And not any context for the Crusades, not “Why did the Crusades happen and how did we get here?” They lacked all historical context, it was all on the excesses of the Crusades. Kind of the same way we see historians today studying the United States, that it all comes from slavery, they pick one bad thing and that’s everything. And so that’s the Crusades. So by the time I come out of college, I am what I would describe as a radical atheist–there’s no God, I’m a secular humanist. And I would add one more thing, which is embarrassing, in hindsight. I have absolutely no intellectual foundation for anything that I believe when I come out of college. I believe it because it’s the dogma and because that’s what I’ve been told.
T: So you stopped questioning.
M: I stop questioning entirely. So at that point in history, you have the rise of what are called the “New Atheists.” And I have to say, I was not even intellectually curious enough to read the New Atheists. It was just taught that stuff is stupid. Faith is for people who are weak, who need a crutch, who need explanations through things that can’t be explained, things that are beyond human understanding and that was it, that would be the summation of my view on faith.
T: And it never occurred to you that, “I’m believing a whole bunch of stuff that has no explanation.”
M: No, and I would say it didn’t out of complete arrogance. Which is where, frankly, all these professors come from. They know you don’t know and you don’t need to question because they know what they’re telling you. And then there’s all the peer pressure that everybody essentially believes the same thing and those who don’t aren’t speaking up. And so I came out of college as a radical militant atheist who very specifically hated Christianity. I would say “Christianity was evil, bad, terrible.” And then part of it is just growing up. I came out of college, started to have life experiences, and ultimately got married for a brief period of time out of law school. It was probably the darkest period of my life going through that divorce. Then I met my current wife. We’ve been married 29 years now and a real pivotal point for me was when my son, Jacob, was born. So this is my first child and I remember standing in his bedroom–every parent’s done this–standing over the crib, watching your baby breathe and thinking “That’s a miracle. That’s not biology. That’s not about the results of having sex, there’s a miracle, that’s a life. How does that happen?”
T: How did that happen?
M: Yeah, and I remember thinking about that and thinking “That’s not me. I didn’t make that happen, there’s something else going on.” And that started my quest for “what is that thing?”
T: And this was how long ago?
M: Let’s see, I would have been 33 years old and now I’m 60. So, decades. A lot of decades. And so that’s what started me kind of thinking that there’s something more than me. And then I think, hopefully, if you’re paying attention as you get older, you realize it’s less and less about you, if you’re actually growing up as you get older. There’s gotta be something else and I went through a bunch of iterations. I studied Eastern religion and philosophy, everything from doing a deep dive on Buddhism to studying all the Western writers on Buddhism. I did a deep dive on yogic thought and Patty and I got into yoga.
T: You gave me a bottom line on Buddhism that I thought was really interesting. Can you give us that headline?
M: I mean, for me, Buddhism– and I’m not sure I’m gonna give you the same headline because I don’t remember what I told you– but Buddhism to me is a great philosophy, it’s a nice way to live, but it has no roots in anything.
T: What I remember you saying is that “do whatever works” was the bottom line for you.
M: Do whatever makes you happy. I think there’s a lot of great stuff in Buddhism. One of the things that it acknowledges, and I think too much, is that life is suffering. There’s going to be suffering in life. You and I talk about the three things that you control and one of them is your attitude. Buddhism says a lot of life is about your attitude. Stuff’s gonna happen and what’s your attitude about what happens. For me, one of the most interesting things about Buddhism that I discovered when I got to the root of it is what Buddha thought it was is not what people today think it is, right? And I think that’s true of Christianity as well, often. There’s–I think it’s kind of a myth–but there’s a story about Buddha and essentially his disciples, his main followers on his deathbed gathered around and they said, “Master, what will we do when you’re gone? Who will we follow?” and he looked at them like they were the three stooges and said, “You morons–
T: “You don’t understand it.”
M: Right. He’s like, “You don’t follow me. I told you a way to live that probably will serve your life and make you happy. If you wanna keep doing that, go for it. If you don’t, that’s fine too.” And so I studied all these things, and here’s what I found, it was Buddhism, it was yoga, it was Jainism, it was Daoism. I dove into all this stuff, I spent some time in India. And what I found was lots of interesting stuff, stuff that I liked in each of them, but nothing made my heart sing. I didn’t read something and think, “Wow, I really feel something.” That’s it. They were all methodologies.
T: Oh they’re all methods.
M: There was no heart connection. They were methods and there were ways to live your life that potentially work. I think there’s some truth in all of them, I would say, but I never found the thing. And so I studied all this stuff, including Islam, by the way. I read the Koran a couple of times, different translations. But I never studied Christianity, it was off-limits.
T: Because of that–
M: Because it was evil.
J: Because it was evil.
M: Why would I even look at that? And then there’s another nuance for me in particular, because I’m a Jew. Both sides of my family are Jewish. And I think this is something–maybe other Jews would dispute this–but nobody ever told me what I’m about to say. But I believed it anyway because if I was a Jew and I became a Christian, then I would betray my people. And I think that’s inherently there because there have been eons of political persecution, religious persecution, by Christians against Jews. And I think like, “Why would I join the persecutors? That doesn’t make any sense.” Again, I never heard any person ever say that to me, it was just inside. And I find now when I talked to Messianic Jews, which I do a lot now, all of them had that thought. That’s a betrayal. That one that’s off the table, I can’t even look at that. You’ll find that there are a lot of Jews, most of the modern western writers on Buddhism are Jewish, which is really interesting.
T: Did you study Judaism?
M: No, not at all.
T: That seems kind of weird.
Do You Know Your Heritage?
M: Well, I think one of the first conversations that you and I ever had about faith was you said to me, “Well, what do you know about your own heritage?” And I literally was so lost. I said, “What do you mean? I don’t even know what you mean by that. I know where my family comes from.” And you said, “No, Judaism.” I think your words were, “It’s the ultimate story ever told and we know the story. Thousands of years of history, and we actually know that history, you should know something about that history.” And that’s actually what started you and I walking this path. It was not you saying to me, “Oh, you need to know the word, you need to find salvation,” and had you said any of that stuff to me, that would have been an instant done. “Thanks, I’ve heard people pitch me on this, I’m not buying what you’re selling. But you asked me about my own heritage, and that opened the door for me. Then, I think the first thing you did was have me read Hebrews.
T: What I remember is, you said at some point “I think I need to check into this.” And I said, “Well, read Our Father, Abraham.”
M: Yes, absolutely.
T: Was that before Hebrews?
M: I think it was. I can’t remember. I’m bad with history here.
T: I think that was first because that book basically talks about Judaism and how Christianity is a sect of Judaism. And there was not a split between Judaism and Christianity until about, what? Was it 125 AD or something?
M: Yeah, almost 150, I think. Then, actually you asked me a question, in a mentoring capacity, that is the pivot point in my faith journey. You said, “How did Judaism and Christianity come to separate? When did that happen?” And I had absolutely no idea because I’d never studied it. I guessed and said, “Well, I think Christ is born and walks the earth. If you’re a believer, He reveals Himself as the Messiah, He’s crucified, He’s resurrected, and He ascends. The second part, you believe if you’re a believer. So at that point, then, the people who believe that He’s the risen Messiah and ascended to heaven are Christians and the Jews who don’t believe that are Jews. And you said, “No, that’s wrong.”
T: That’s something a lot of Christians believe–that Jesus rose and then came back a Baptist.
T: Then built a church and put on a miter–
Where the Divide Began
M: So when you asked me that question and told me that I was wrong, I said, “Okay, well, so then what is it?” And you said, “Yeah, I’m not gonna tell you. You’ve got to go figure that out.” Which was pivotal for me, because then that required that I studied some history and that I read scripture, and you pointed me in some directions. But it was not easy, by the way, it wasn’t just like, “Oh well, there’s a book and I can just go look up the timeline and see…” Basically what it came to is, first, everything I said happens. And then 75 years later, roughly, you get the partial destruction of the Temple, the first rebellion. And those who believe that Christ is the risen Messiah mostly don’t fight, they leave during that rebellion.
T: The diaspora.
M: So it creates this schism in the Jewish community, those guys weren’t willing to fight. Ultimately that schism is repaired and then–this is the part that was so profound me–they come back, they’re in Jerusalem and they’re Jews. I never thought, “Wait, what do you mean? They’re Jews, but they believe in the Messiah? How does that work? No, they’re Christians at that point.” And yet, at that point in history, they’re not referred to as Christians, except in a derogatory way by the Romans, called “little Christs.” It’s a derogatory term for those who follow the Messiah. But the other Jews would have just said–and the way I understand Jewish culture–like, “Oh, those are just those crazy Jews that believe the Messiah has already come.” But they’re still Jews. Paul in Rome–this is another profound for me–he’s questioned by the Jewish leaders in Rome. He’s in Rome to plead his case before Caesar. They come to and they say, “We hear you’re not a Jew anymore. You do all this other weird stuff, you believe that guy’s, the Messiah.” And he’s like, “That’s crazy. I’m a Hebrew among Hebrews.” And they’re like, “Really? Will you prove it to us? Will you go to the temple?” And he’s like, “Yeah, sure.” So you had me reading that. I’m reading that thinking– and this is radical cognitive dissonance–because what I’m thinking is, “I don’t understand. He’s saying he’s a Jew, but he’s a follower of Jesus Christ. I don’t understand, is he a Jew or is he a Christian?” The answer is yes, right? He’s both. So then, the rest of the history, about another 75 years roughly, you get the second destruction. This is the complete destruction of the temple, in the second rebellion. At that point, that’s where it’s like, “Okay, we’ve got these folks that followed the Messiah. These are the Jews that don’t follow the Messiah. These people do not refer to themselves as Jews any longer.”
T: There was another Messiah there Akbar-something that I think was the split. Some of the people said, “Okay, we have the Messiah now.” And that Christians said, or the believing Jews said, “We already have a Messiah.”
Saved, not Converted
M: So for me, that was so profound because– and I describe this as like a visual in my head about a giant castle with giant castle doors, like something out of Lord of the Rings, a door opened in my heart– there’s a possibility that I never knew existed. I don’t have to say I’m not a Jew anymore. Because I was very culturally Jewish and that’s very deep in my family, and the idea that I would have to leave all that and betray that culture, I just couldn’t imagine. And so when you showed me that, I remember coming back to you and saying, “Wait so I can be a Jew and be a Christian?” And you said, “Almost, not exactly right.” And I said, “What do you mean?” And you said, “That’s what you’re supposed to be. That’s the promise that was made to your people. This is the fulfillment of the promise. So it’s more than just, ‘you can be.’ This is how it’s supposed to be.” Even when I say it now, honestly, I feel a flush, like there’s something magical about that to me. I think most Jews don’t understand that. They’ve never been told that. What they’re told is, “You’re going to convert.” The word conversion is used. Conversion is some kind of change, you’re no longer a Jew. Now that’s gone and now you’re a Christian. And the reality, as I’ve come to understand it, is that my heritage is my heritage, my genetics are my genetics, I’m Jewish, and that never goes away. What I believe and what I know and my salvation are something that integrates with that, it doesn’t go away.
T: It’s really powerful. Interestingly enough, that version of what you just talked about is common on the Gentile side. Because, I think the most common understanding among Gentiles of the Bible, is that God rejected the Jews and replaced them with the church.
M: Right, replacement theology.
Jews, Christians, and the Olive Tree
T: Yeah, that’s very common. Like he rejected Israel and replaced it with the church, which leads through the question of, “Well, then he’s not dependable.” And that was actually part of the accusation against Paul that he was addressing in Romans. He wrote Romans 9-11 to address that specific question, and very adamantly insists that God’s promises–His gifts and callings–are irrevocable. It’s plain as day. You cannot get past that. Furthermore, Christians are actually like wild olive branches, grafted into a domestic tree. A wild olive doesn’t produce fruit, but if you graft it into a domestic tree, it starts producing olives. That’s what we’re like and he makes a real clear illustration of that. If you think you’re good on your own without this root, you’re worse off than they are, not understanding what their root is and thinking it’s them.
M: And I remember you telling me that we’re told as Christians, “Don’t get haughty because you could just be cut off.”
T: You’re easy. The root is always going to be there, but I can prune you off, no problem.
M: So all of that for me was just transformational, and then the next phase for me was study. It was really digging in and studying. Our Father, Abraham is a book you had me read. Return of the Kosher Pig, you started guiding me through scripture.
T: So, explain to people what that is. It’s an odd, provocative title.
M: So these are books where, as I understand your back story, you started to learn the integration of the Hebrew culture, the Israelite culture and Christianity.
T: I’m Jewish at heart because my heart is circumcised, which means I’m grafted into Israel. So how can I be anti-Semitic when I’m part of the Jewish promise?
M: You’re the one that taught me all of that stuff. And so as I studied that stuff and started to study scripture, listening to you doing your Sunday Bible studies. You started recording those, And I was listening to those and reading scripture, that’s my nature. I’m a lawyer by training. The Jewish culture is a study culture anyway, so that’s just my nature. I’m brought up that way.
T: And a question-asking culture.
Coming to Faith
M: An argumentative culture, I think you could add. Two Jews, three opinions, right? That’s pretty classic. So all that stuff is going on, and then there’s not a moment where I come to faith, which is a little odd for me. Usually when I hear people’s faith stories, they’re like “I was on a mountain top and the sun was rising, or I was in a deep valley somewhere in darkness, and I turned to the Lord.” For me, it just became the weight of reason. I don’t think you can ever get all the way there on reason, but at some point I remember just thinking, “it doesn’t make any sense not to believe.” It just became a sense of balance. Well, the evidence is on the side of belief. It’s not on the side of unbelief anymore. It was literally so non-dramatic–
J: Yeah just “here I am.”
M: I was just like “Well, I guess I believe.” And I prayed to the Lord for acceptance and to cleanse my sins in a very unsure, rudimentary, unknowing way.
T: “I’m sure you already know this, I just want to formalize that for myself.”
M: Yeah it was like, “Okay, I guess I’m a believer.” That idea of how that all happened came home to roost. I got interviewed by Marvin Olasky, who was the publisher of World Magazine. I was at Patrick Henry College and I was going to give my testimony for the first time in front of a live group of people and I was pretty nervous about it. So he was interviewing me beforehand over lunch, we were in the cafeteria of Patrick Henry College, and he said, “Now, tell me how you came to faith.” And I told him “I’m a little embarrassed, I don’t really have any kind of a thing that happened.” And he laughed and he said, “Well, that’s because you’re a Jew.” I was like, “Well, I don’t know what you mean by that, Marvin.” And he said, “It’s exactly how I came to faith.” He was a Jew and a Communist. And he said, “I don’t remember, I just studied and studied and eventually it just made sense to me.” And he said, “I’ve heard that story over and over from Jewish people. It just goes eventually like ‘okay, I get it, I’m a believer now.’” And so he said that’s the common story among Jews. So that’s how I gave my testimony and it still feels a little bit weird.
T: I remember being in the US capital with you and somebody came running up with that article and your picture. “I read this article, I recognize you!” It was pretty funny, there were Congressmen standing there and stuff. It was pretty funny.
M: Yeah, well, and I would say, absolutely, undeniably, the greatest thing that’s ever happened to my life.