Two things before I start. One, yes, I know yesterday was National Beer Day. Yes, I’m super sad that I didn’t have a chance to do anything about it (though I did drink a beer because I’m not a heretic). I had a funeral yesterday afternoon and didn’t have the ambition to go buy beer nor the ambition to review a beer that is in my fridge. Please forgive me; it was (somehow) my first funeral and I stressed about it just a little bit.
Second, I promise there is a food post in the chamber. And it’s a good one. Holy Week + Funeral = the blog has the first legitimate reason to not get an update. My goal is weekly (HAHAHAHAHA!) now, so look forward to that!
Now on to what I’m writing this post about. I finally read Love Wins. If you are wondering why it took me…almost 3 years to read it, it’s because I’m not a Rob Bell fan. I don’t want to get this twisted – I didn’t/don’t have a problem with Rob Bell, I’m just not a fan. He always struck me as someone who said irrelevant provocative things to stir emotions to make the relevant message more emotionally charged.
But that goes to fandom and enjoyment of his work, not a commentary on what he says. And I don’t always agree with what he says. I’m by no means a hard-lined conservative or literalist, but I feel like his relationship with scripture as a written instruction in faith is…looser? weaker? more fluid? insert your own word?…than mine. But he also probably knows scripture as an academic study more than I do, so I just say I disagree.
I digress. Why I wrote this post is because a couple of…weeks? months?…ago I read a post about how the evangelical churches have done their best to crucify (we should really use a different word, people!) him for Love Wins and how he just doesn’t appear to care. He’s just doing his thing, sharing the love of God and preaching the scriptures.
I’m quite positive he does care – more people aren’t so self-confident and self-sure to just not care that the opposition has tried to do to your public perception and humble at the same time – but he didn’t let him stop doing what he believes God has called him to do.
But this post isn’t even about that. All it’s about is the book, or rather the response to the book. I read the article, I got on the Amazon, I found a used copy that was Prime eligible, and I read it.
I don’t understand why anyone freaked out about it. Yes, it is a little bit more liberal than my interpretation, I could have done without the artsy styling, I think he could have been a bit deeper, but he uses scripture, and nothing he says is actually that radical.
His whole premise – as far as I can discern – is to interpret these things through the lens of a loving God. I’m not going to go into it into depth here – maybe another time after another reading – but the things I remember thinking were missing were punishment as love (and maybe I missed it; I found myself skimming a bit more than I wanted to) and the good desire for piety and seeking righteousness in our lives, even if we can’t attain it.
But he asks some really good questions about the nature of judgement and confession and eternal damnation. And he asked them through the lens of evaluating a God that is loving first and foremost. Can a loving God condemn someone who committed a sin and then was plowed into by a train? Can a loving God condemn someone who was only taught selfish desires and never had a chance to learn a more loving way? Can a loving God condemn us if we don’t understand sin? Will a loving God condemn us if we commit this sin but not if we commit that sin?
The specifics of the book I found myself disagreeing with occasionally – though asking me for those specifics is a futile task because I read it during Holy Week and funeral planning – but the whole theme is one that I’ve been pushing in this blog, in my preaching, in my ministry, and in my life.
We have a loving God, people. There are groups that preach that message, but in the same breath preach a message where God seems to enjoy sending those dirty sinners to Hell. There is a theme of making sure people know that they are sinners but excluding the ultimate relief in Jesus Christ. Some of the Church and Body of Christ finds itself to be a Good Friday church instead of being an Easter/Pentecost church. So much focus on the sins and how screwed up we are – and we really are, trust me – without much focus on despite that, we are saved and loved.
As I read the book, I could understand why you could possibly not like it – I tried to like it, and I loved the premise, but I found myself underwhelmed – and I could see you disagreeing with it – like I said, I didn’t agree with every conclusion he made – but try as I might, I don’t understand why people started railing against Rob Bell after this book. I don’t get it.
The only answer I can come up with is that there are people who want God to punish those dirty sinners, and this book strikes at the very soul of that theology. It strikes me as awfully arrogant to be for a judgmental God, like somehow you, and those who think, act, and look like you, have an exclusive corner on the gift of Christ. That is the only reason you would label Rob Bell a heretic after reading Love Wins.
I don’t get it. I read the book thinking I would disagree with his premise and his thought process. I avoided reading it because I didn’t care about another liberal book diminishing sin. And I was wrong on both accounts. I did find it anemic and a bit too trendy, but I, for the life of me, can’t imagine why anyone would freak out over this book.
Unless you want a God that judges the sins of others.*
The premise of this post is simply that. The crucifixion of Rob Bell seems to be worded correctly if you truly believe he is a heretic over this book. The only reason you would have that big of a problem with him is if you want God to judge someone else. To use the same story that Bell uses in the book, you have to believe that the older brother was right in The Prodigal Son to really want to bash him for this book.
The book shouldn’t even be controversial. Heck, I’m of the opinion it shouldn’t have even raised eyebrows; it wasn’t really that groundbreaking or crazy. Had he written a theological book (this wasn’t) and ignored scripture (he didn’t) and said Hell didn’t exist and sin didn’t exist (he didn’t, again), then maybe. But this wasn’t it.
Three days after Easter I am writing this. Yesterday I performed a funeral for a woman whom I only met two days before Alzheimer’s took her life. Both times I preached of salvation and heaven and Christ’s resurrection.
I’m pretty sure love won. That’s what Rob Bell wrote about, and I agree with that.
So I can’t have a post about Rob Bell without mentioning the last bit of controversy. You know, how he supposedly trashed the Bible?
Didn’t happen. Again, I think if we want to have an adult debate and conversation about the theological statements that he makes, it’s perfectly fine to disagree with him. But he isn’t watering down scripture as much as you want to believe he is because he interprets differently. I looked up the exact quote people are freaking out about and here it is
“I think culture is already there and the church will continue to be even more irrelevant when it quotes letters from 2,000 years ago as their best defense, when you have in front of you flesh-and-blood people who are your brothers and sisters, and aunts and uncles, and co-workers and neighbors, and they love each other and just want to go through life,
Is he implying that the here and now trumps scripture? No. Read it again and you see that he says letters. Which means he said the epistles, but he always uses the vernacular of the people who are seeking, not the clergy and the choir.
Tear that down a bit. The Gospels, which is the lens we read all of scripture through, remain in tact. The Old Testament, as much as can stay in tact because after Jesus, stays in tact. He says that the epistles, which were letters written by men to churches 2000 years ago, are not a solid defense for not allowing people who love one another to be with one another.
I want you to think about this for a second. Any exegetical study is lacking if it does not include the context of which the letter was written. When he says letters written 2000 years ago, he is saying that they were written in a different world. God is timeless and the message of Christ is timeless; the message of men is not.
(Side-note, I’m not using sexist language. I’m being quite literal; we are using the letters of men 2000 years ago – not all people but men in leadership. I don’t think that distracts from their efficacy or their eligibility for presence in canon but it contributes to their context for interpretation.)
We have to consider what kinds of actions Paul – because let’s be honest, that’s who we’re talking about – is actually addressing, if they are relevant to the current conversation, or if it is a different matter of practice. Not going to get into the discussion here, but let’s just be honest about what Rob Bell said.
He said that we can’t use letters written 2000 years ago as our justification for doing painful, hurtful, or judgmental things. We can’t.
He isn’t wrong on the major point no matter how much you want him to be. He doesn’t trash scripture, he doesn’t even imply that scripture is bad. He just said that we can’t use the words in the epistles, written in a different world, as justification for actions that they don’t prescribe as response to actions they don’t address.
It is a matter of practical interpretation and semantics as far as I’m concerned. You are free to disagree with him, to disagree that they are directly responding to the exact same thing that we are responding to now, and debate that as a loving adult in a way that doesn’t demonize someone else or condemn them to Hell like you have the authority to decide who God is condemning and who God is saving. I encourage it; healthy debate and thought brings us closer to God.
But you have to be fair, treat everyone as they are doing the best they can, that you aren’t somehow holier than they are, and you can’t label people heretics who read scripture faithfully different than you do. That isn’t debate; that is arrogance. It’s the same response Mark Achtemeier received after he defended Scott Anderson, and I know that Mark is faithful to scripture and a faithful theologian. He didn’t trash scripture or even diminish it in the slightest.
The whole point, I believe, of this point is to get to an idea that those who violently disagreed with Love Wins want a God that saves them and judges people who disgust them. The problem is that we shouldn’t be disgusted with others** but with ourselves. If God is punishing all the dirty sinners, we are screwed, and screwed royally.*** So if we are championing that God, we are championing being sent to Hell ourselves.
Not the God I worship, and if that is the real God, I guess I don’t worship that God.
Now time to wrestle up some grub and then maybe write the food piece.
* The only major criticism of the theology of the book I can get behind is the lack of piety in it. I don’t know if piety needed to even be addressed – and frankly, the lack didn’t bother me that much – but it isn’t there, and a conversation about Heaven and Hell without Christian living and piety seems to be lacking. Again, though, that is my opinion and not something to start calling people not pastors over.
** There are certain actions that repulse us from a biological or cultural standpoint; I’m talking about Christian disgust, not physical or psychological disgust. Those are different things, which I wonder if that gets at the heart of the issue more than everything else I wrote.
*** Super-Reform here. I know our Methodist brothers and sisters might disagree, but that’s a MUCH DIFFERENT CONVERSATION. MUCH DIFFERENT!