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Friday, March 04, 2011

What the Hell?

I've been "on the road, again" - getting a wee bit of a head start on Spring Break. Even though I've been moving 'round a bit,  I haven't missed the religious explosion over Rob Bell's new book.

I've written about Rob Bell before. You may remember that I'm a huge fan. I love, love, love his NOOMA Series, which is a provocative way to jump-start really important conversations in religious community about basic issues of Christian faith in creative, engaging ways.

You can view the trailer to one of my favorites, TREES by clicking on the word. Here's a taste of his theology (and is why I'm surprised that anyone is surprised about what he has to say about heaven and/or hell):
"We want to know why we are here. If our lives really matter. How our religion is relevant to this life. Today. We want to understand what significance this minute, hour, week, month, and year has to our lives. To our world. We need a God who cares about this life, in this world, right now. We want to understand why everything we think, everything we say, and everything we do matters. We don't want to just sit back and wait for something to happen or someday to come. We want to know if all the choices we make now will shape our world and lives for eternity. Because we want our lives to have meaning today, and our lives today to have meaning forever."
His first book is, "Velvet Elvis", which is his metaphor for getting inside of the ancient Jewish mind in order to make the church relevant for today's modern people of faith. It also caused a stir when it was first published.

Relevant? Why would religion or faith need to be relevant? If it was good enough for granddad, it ought to be good enough for you (Anglicans read: "The faith first delivered to the saints".)

Which, of course, makes him a "controversial evangelical".

I know, right? One does not expect the word "controversial" to be a modifier for the word "evangelical". In our current cultural climate, given all that we know about today's Evangelicals, it's a bit of an oxymoron.

Why is he controversial? Well, because he thinks the message of the bible is more important than the words of the bible. Or, in his words: "The Bible is not the point. The point is knowing Jesus Christ and the power of the resurrection."

My man.

He writes stuff like this about what we need in Christian leaders, teachers and preachers:
What we need are people who will approach the text and say, "God, what do you want to unleash here?" The guiding principle is the text, and you've encountered the living, sacred Word, and you're going to explode if you don't share what's happened in you, as opposed to Well, I guess I have to start it this way. You don't. I have to have an intro. Prove it. Maybe some teaching people have no idea where you're going until the last minute, and maybe that's why it works.

When Jesus tells the parable of the Good Samaritan, everybody thought it was going to be a Pharisee who stops, and a Samaritan stops. Get it? He has them. He's working them over.
See what I mean? He sounds to my ears like our own Bill Countryman - especially, as I recall, in his book Love Songs and Reproaches: Passionate Conversations with God.

Countryman says that, if we listen to Scripture as we read it, we just might hear the Spirit fluttering Her wings over the words.

So, what controversy is Rob Bell stirring up now?

Well, he has a new book which has just been published. It's called "Love Wins" in which he “puts hell on trial.”

The publisher’s book description goes on to assert that Bell’s message is “decidedly optimistic—eternal life doesn’t start when we die; it starts right now. And ultimately, Love Wins.”

Ahem. Hello. Excuse me. You may have noticed - but maybe you didn't - that Jack Spong, retired Bishop of the Diocese of Newark in The Episcopal Church - wrote a book on this very topic. He called it, "Eternal Life: A New Vision: Beyond Religion, Beyond Theism, Beyond Heaven and Hell".

"Eternal Life" is reportedly Spong's last book, but it should really be considered part of Spong's ongoing, engaging memoir. He traces his journey from an evangelical home in North Carolina through his teenage years in a more “catholic” Anglican parish.

At each step of the way from deacon to priest, to pastoral work in parishes and to diocesan Bishop, Spong’s intellectual curiosity deepens. He is no longer content with the church’s easy answers. He liberates himself energetically from the literalist view of the Bible he inherited.

More importantly, he discards the triple-decker universe of the Bible, and along with it, the concept of the transcendent God. For Spong, God is not beyond us; God is within us.

Spong's book caused quite a stir of controversy - even among his die-hard fans.

I suppose it's not surprising that some of Bell's fans went into a tailspin over the amount of controversy generated by "Love Wins," which, the publisher's blurb says, “puts hell on trial.”

Hmmm . . . Rob Bell and Jack Spong and Bill Countryman, all pretty much saying the same thing. What are the odds of that?

Someone might want to check on the temperature in hell. It just might be freezing over.

If things get bad for Bell, perhaps someone could ring him up and invite him to consider the Episcopal Church. We'll be happy to take him in, and I think he might be happy with us. Although, he's been known to preach for aa long as an hour. That would never do in most Episcopal Churches.

Or, at least, someone might invite him into a conversation with Spong and Countryman. Wouldn't you just love to be a fly on the wall in THAT conversation?

The publisher's description of Bell's "Love Wins" - which was released, of course, before the book was actually published, which is scheduled for the end of March - asserts that Bell’s message is “decidedly optimistic—eternal life doesn’t start when we die; it starts right now. And ultimately, Love Wins.”

Uh-oh! Somebody's is Very Big Trouble. Bell is messin' round with sacred cows. So, it's no wonder that they've started mooing. Loudly.

Justin Taylor, vice president of editorial at Crossway, quickly posted a fierce condemnation—based solely on advance material.

Taylor writes:
"John Piper once wisely wrote, 'Bad theology dishonors God and hurts people. Churches that sever the root of truth may flourish for a season, but they will wither eventually or turn into something besides a Christian church.'
It is unspeakably sad when those called to be ministers of the Word distort the gospel and deceive the people of God with false doctrine."
He concludes that Bell “is moving farther and farther away from anything resembling biblical Christianity.”

Taylor’s post spurred a furor of tweeting and blogging, including a curtly dismissive tweet from Bethlehem Baptist Church’s John Piper: “Farewell, Rob Bell.”

When will they ever learn? Men like Piper and Taylor who condemn first without even knowing what they are talking about (having not even read the book) only pique the interest of those in the community of faith who may not have even entertained questions about universalism but do now.

They also whet the appetite of those who might have had some curiosity about the topic of heaven and hell and, in the wake of the controversy they stir, get the attention of people like me.

The greatest controversy that Bell incites is not about heaven or hell or eternal life. Rather, he exposes the evangelical idolatry of Scripture. Worse, he exposes the evangelical arrogance that, unless you believe in the version of the bible and the Jesus THEY believe in, you are cast away into the Outer Darkness.

YOU are the one who is irrelevant. Not them.

"Farewell, Rob Bell - and the rest of you lot."

The point is that evangelicals like Piper and Taylor dismiss the arguments in advance—because they are convinced that those who disagree with them disagree with God.

It's their own theological arrogance which they hold superior to God's revelation.

God forbid you should use your own intellect and ask "What is God trying to unleash here?" God forbid you should use your own religious imagination. God only knows where that might lead.

That's the point. God knows. They don't. I think they hate that most.

Bibliolatry. The idolatry of the Bible.

Theolatry - The idolatry of their own theology.

The real challenge - at least for me - is to listen to those who disagree with me, not just to be polite, but to learn something more about Jesus and how He reveals Himself to God's children, meeting them, as he always does, right where they are -  just as they are - without one plea.

No, I don't think that by "modeling behavior" any of those who disagree with me will follow suit and listen to me. I used to believe that, but I don't anymore. Time and experience are good and wise if not difficult and demanding teachers.

I try to listen carefully because it's the right thing to do, even if I know that the favor will not be returned to me.

It's the intellectual version of the old "turn the other cheek" thing that Jesus asked us to do.

I can't wait to read Rob Bell's new book. I have a sense I'll enjoy it even more than "Velvet Elvis" and even more than his NOOMA series.

I confess, however, that my real "guilty pleasure" will be watching the Evangelical Circus that will ensue. Evangelicals who get apoplectic about what they believe to be heresy - read: a challenge to their arrogant theology - provide the some of the best religious theater there is.

Without the enticement of "heaven" or the threat of "hell" however will they control the behavior of the poor, tired, huddled masses who just might read Rob Bell's book, decide that they can be evangelical AND intelligent without compromising their faith, and begin on a path to change their behavior - not out of some ultimate reward or real and present fear - but because they now believe that "eternal life starts right now"?

They just might say "to hell" with Hell, and start living as if God were present. Right here. Right now. In each minute, every day, week, and month of every year.

Year after year.

In me. In you. In each other.

As Scripture says, God "very near", "as close as your next breath", and, "in whom we live and move and have our being."

Just imagine what the world might look like if we lived like that.

Go ahead. Give it a try. It just might start the revolution Jesus came to bring about the first time 'round.

Oh wait. Never mind. When leading evangelicals like Rob Bell begin talking about eternal life already being in our midst, the revolution has already begun.

We live in sure and certain hope.


Paul said...

Bell: Eternal life starts now.

Jesus: The Kingdom of God is at hand.

Sounds biblical to me. In fact, it sounds like a lot of sermons I have heard over the past 20-30 years.

I frequently have a big problem figuring out what all the fuss is all about. Sounds like a good book to me.

Kirkepiscatoid said...

"The Kingdom of God is at hand." "The kingdom of God is among you."

It's right here, people. Stop looking up.

Kay & Sarah said...

I totally agree with you.

Rob Bell is asking questions that everyone asks, although, many people would not admit asking them. I love it!!

We have been using the Nooma series for Adult Christian Education. It has generated some very interesting and honest discussion.

I can't wait to buy the book.

Jim said...

Former Episcopalian Biblolators have already joined the baying pack. This book is gonna sell a ton of money's worth!


Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Paul - I think I know what the fuss is all about. Hubris. It's going to be fun to watch the fuss anyway.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Kay&Sarah - I share your enthusiasm. Congregations love his style and his very accessible language. Even in FLAME, he shows his heterosexist bias (he knows his audience) but he doesn't slam LGBT people, even though he could.

Good stuff. I used it with my Confirmation Class to talk about love.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Jim - I think he's got a winner here - even before the Biblolators and Theolators opened their mouths. Now, he's got a best seller.

Daniel Weir said...

I am also a fan of Rob Bell. I hear in him an echo of Neil Alexander's "Eternal life begins at the font and goes on forever."

walter said...

Elizabeth we experience in sure and certain Hope in the name of the One who keeps us centered and focused and truthful, Jesus The Christ.

Walter Vitale

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Daniel - right. I had forgotten Neil's stuff. Thanks for the reminder.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Walter. We do.

KJ said...

My dad was an evangelical Protestant who got himself in trouble from time-to-time with heresies such as "Christ is our life" and "Eternal life begins now; not in the by-and-by."

On his death bed I told Dad that he would have made a good Episcopalian, which he took as the compliment I meant it to be. On his grave stone, I had the honor of choosing the inscription: "Christ our life."

It's all actually ver simple.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Thanks, KJ. Simple, yes. Most revolutionary ideas are.