Responding to Another Man’s Nonsense

I wonder if he would have written the book had he known what the fallout would be? Probably so.

Rob Bell continues to make waves both inside and outside the Church, which is why I’m writing for a third time on the continuing brouhaha surrounding him and his book.

Time decided to supplement it’s cover story on Bell last week with a piece by a writer I’ve never heard of (I’m not suggesting anything with that comment; I’m sure there are a lot of writers I’ve never heard of). Aside from being incredibly asinine and full of sarcastic cynicism, it helps shed light on how the non-Christian world sees the controversy.

The author, Bill Saporito, writes:

“Bell’s I’m-O.K.-you’re-O.K., we’re-not-going-to-hell-today spin is not merely a refutation of a basic belief. If this piece of theological reordering takes hold, it’s the Evangelicals’ business plan that’s going to hell.

Fire and brimstone has been one of the Evangelicals’ main product lines. It’s based on a zero-sum outcome: heaven or hell. Believe or perish. And part of the deal, at least in practical application, is that you can’t get spiritually right without monetarily supporting the church. Pay to play, in other words. It’s the same with most religions. No one says so in those crude terms — it’s all about the mission — but a sales pitch is a sales pitch, even one accompanied by a choir. You can’t build the Crystal Cathedral on prayer alone. There’s a mortgage to pay.”

Like I said, my guess it that this guy had a bad experience in a church as a kid, or maybe his dad was a pastor. Of course, it may be that just a lifetime of watching the church’s antics has turned him off to the whole concept.  It wouldn’t surprise me at all to find out that someone completely hates Christianity, the Church, and God because of the things the Church has done (or failed to do) so I don’t hold that against him.

Essentially, what this guy is attempting to say is this: Rob Bell said everyone is going to heaven and, as a result, Evangelical churches won’t have anything to hold over people’s heads to make them pay their tithes.

First of all, I’ve heard enough pastors complain about people not tithing to know that particular church problem has existed long before Love Wins hit bookshelves.

Furthermore, to suggest that people only give money to the Church so they can buy fire insurance is completely nonsensical and unbelievably offensive.

Never mind the fact that a great many people (myself included) support the Church because they support the Church’s mission: to reach out to the people in the world who are sick and dying, hungry and destitute both practically and spiritually.

Let’s all just completely ignore that Samaritan’s Purse, Operation Blessing, the Salvation Army and untold other organizations–Christian non-profit organizations supported by donors, many of them Christians–are among the first boots on the ground after natural disasters leave thousands upon thousands dead and dying.

Let’s just close our eyes and pretend we don’t know any of that.

Secondly, “Bell’s I’m-O.K.-you’re-O.K., we’re-not-going-to-hell-today spin is not merely a refutation of a basic belief,” is a wholly inaccurate and misleading representation of the message Bell presents in his book. I highly suggest to Mr. Saporito that he actually read Love Wins. If he already has, I suggest he read it again.

All things considered, Love Wins has been at the center of a far bigger controversy and received far more attention than it actually warrants. It also appears that more than one type of person is willing to set up a straw-man version of Bell’s words as a way to advance a lopsided argument.

Might I suggest everyone with an ax to grind, Evangelical, cynic, and otherwise, grab a cup of coffee and find a nice little chair by an open window and actually read the book that everyone likes to talk about, but arguably few have actually read.

The Problem with “Certitude”

Yes, I know all I’ve written about so far is “Love Wins;” it’s just that I’m pissed off by the unbelievably childish backlash and attention the book has seen since it first hit bookshelves and digital download last month. That said, the vitriol had been flowing for a long time before—ironically so since no one had even been able to read the book.

Naturally, as I said in my previous post, the backlash reveals something about evangelical Christians: they aren’t a very tolerant lot. Nor, as it would appear, are they terribly open-minded. But, ultimately, I think the uproar points to something which is more than mere reactionism.

Time’s cover story this week is about Rob Bell. Take a look at what the author writes in the piece:

“Bell insists he is only raising the possibility that theological rigidity — and thus a faith of exclusion — is a dangerous thing. He believes in Jesus’ atonement; he says he is just unclear on whether the redemption promised in Christian tradition is limited to those who meet the tests of the church. It is a case for living with mystery rather than demanding certitude.

From “Is Hell Dead?,” Jon Meacham. My emphasis added.

I think the last line is rather poignant. I have long thought that the accepted mainline Evangelical understanding of eschatology was insufficient; not wrong, mind you, but insufficient.

Why?

Because certitude excludes the truth that salvation is part of the divine mystery, something which human beings, no matter how advanced or educated, will never be able to fully grasp.

More specifically, I can’t accept the teaching that only those who pray to “ask Jesus into their heart” will be redeemed without following the logic of that assertion to its conclusion. I can’t accept that only those who pass a church’s litmus test for salvation will be saved, not the least because the Church can’t even agree on what such a litmus test should be.

I also can’t accept the idea that people who might have a warped understanding of who Christ is will experience continuous, conscious suffering eternally (in the English meaning of the word) after death because they didn’t say “The Prayer.”

Argue with me all you want, but I just cannot—and will not—accept those arguments as valid.

I’m going to avoid rehashing all the arguments for and against this line of thinking as they’re as old as the Church itself and such a post would run far longer than what most would care to read. The problem that exists will all of the points of view, however, is that the people who hold them take passages of Scripture and attempt to use them to say that their view—and only their view—is the correct one all while ignoring those passages that say otherwise.

On “Love Wins,” there are some people who’ve written interesting pieces about the book—pointing out its flaws while lauding its strengths—that I highly recommend. In an article for Christianity Today, Mark Galli presents the problems with the Christus Victor position, which is apparently what Bell’s teaching is. As well, Ryan Hamm’s review of the book for Relevant recognizes the truths Bell writes while also acknowledging the holes in his claims.

Both of these people succeed in making substantive arguments while avoiding the childish character assassination you might find being written about Rob Bell on the Christian blogosphere, such as labeling him a “universalist”—a label equivalent to “racist” in the Christian subculture.

On that note, it might be worth hearing what Rob Bell has to say in his own words:

At the end of the day, I don’t know how God’s plan of salvation works in every circumstance. I don’t know what will happen to a Bushman who’s never heard the name of Jesus, but loved his God with all his heart, mind and spirit and loved his neighbor as himself.

I don’t know what will happen to the woman who refuses to believe in Jesus because her pastor father molested her as a child. Thankfully, neither do those who claim they do. And, to be quite honest, I don’t have to know.

That, I think, is a problem with modern Christianity: we’ve stopped being comfortable not knowing. Like it or not, there are some things we can’t know and the danger lies in requiring an inadequate and imperfect understanding of transcendent truth to be “true” in every circumstance. Life, as it turns out, is anything but black and white and Christian doctrine has to reflect that. At best, we are flawed creatures using flawed reason and language to discuss things elusive to full human comprehension.

“Certitude,” as Meacham points out, leaves no room for the mystery that is God.

Faith and Fascism

"Love Wins" by Rob Bell

"Love Wins" by Rob Bell

Christians are fascists.

Let’s see how many death threats I get over that one. The fact is while Christians are certainly not all fascists, a sizable and vocal number of us appear to be. The controversy surrounding Rob Bell’s new book is more than adequate to demonstrate that, especially considering most people haven’t even read it yet.

Bell’s theology aside for a bit, I would like to point out briefly what I believe is symptomatic of a trend in some Christian circles. Rob Bell has questions. According to some, because he has questions, he’s going to hell. Because he doesn’t subscribe to “mainstream” demagoguery concerning heaven, hell, and the afterlife, he’s to be consigned to an especially hot whirlpool in the lake of fire. Sound harsh?

Sadly, I’m only mildly exaggerating. Truth is, God gave us the freedom to be intellectually obtuse; so, we can hedge our bets that there will always be people who choose to be doctrinal reactionaries over constructive contributors to theological discourse. Well, how do we respond to these fusspots who do nothing but vilify those not in mesh with the party line? We love them anyway and move on.

Now, to Bell’s book.

Like I said, Rob has questions. A lot of them. In fact, his book is comprised mostly of questions. But not just any questions. No, these questions have sting, they have bite. They demand answers, even if they aren’t easily determined. They stoke the fires of doubt and the lingering doctrinal questions that undoubtedly smoulder in the backs of our minds.

His questions dig at the underpinnings of the modern Evangelical understanding of eschatology in a way that basically says, “Do you really believe that?” And, it should be pointed out, he does so not without basis. Point-by-point, Bell takes the reader through Scripture to demonstrate that many prevailing notions amongst modern Christianity (or, at least, the modern Christianity that he’s familiar with) regarding heaven and hell are hopelessly distorted.

Of course, the real question on everyone’s mind is this: “Is Rob Bell a universalist?” Hmm, now that’s an interesting question, primarily because “universalist” is such a loaded label and one which constitutes conviction as a heretic in most of Christianity. Rob Bell isn’t Carlton Pearson of course, but you can see why labeling someone a “universalist” is no small action so I’m not going to do it.

What Bell challenges is the popular, comfortable concept of an orderly, predictable God who does things in neat, commercializable ways. He contradicts the idea that Christianity has a monopoly on Christ and that God’s love and desire to redeem stops at the grave. He counts as ridiculous the teaching that “salvation” comes only through praying a specific prayer under specific circumstances.

Of course, his ideas are much more complex than what can be articulated in so few words, yet in the end they are poignantly simple. So, what’s the verdict on “Love Wins?” Well, that’s difficult to say.

Is it controversial? Obviously.

Is is challenging? Without a doubt.

Is it groundbreaking? That depends. On what, you ask? Whether or not you choose to read it.

Sorry to disappoint, but I’m not going to summarize the book. That would make it too easy for the people who make a living smearing ideas they haven’t taken the time to understand. Whether or not Rob Bell’s book constitutes new insight into transcendent cosmic and spiritual truth or stands as a testament to one man’s intellectual folly is a question that needs to be decided after prayerful consideration and thoughtful discussion.

Who knows, we might ultimately realize that something has in fact been missing from our modern, human understanding of timeless, eternal truth. Actually, that’s what Rob Bell really seems to be saying: “Hey, you know this good news you’ve heard? Yeah, it’s actually way better than you ever thought.”