Friday, March 18, 2011

A Review of Love Wins

Every time we pick up a book, whether it is a Bible, a work of theology, or a work of fiction we bring to it our own presuppositions and even prejudices. This is especially true if the work in question as stirred controversy. These presuppositions and prejudices include, but are not limited to culture, education, tradition, expereince, and denominational dogma. My reading of Love Wins and this review contains my own presupposition and prejudices. The controversy surrounding this book has revealed presuppositions and prejudices in the Church. One can call this divide conservative vs. liberal, modern vs. post-modern, evangelical vs. emergent, or whatever you like, but Bell's book has angered many because they see Bell has a traitor, trading one side for the other. In any case, how you feel about Love Wins we depend on which side of the divide you find yourself. If you read Rob Bell's book looking for heresy, you will no doubt find some and if you read the Bible looking for prophetic codes and verses proving that Obama is the Antichrist you will find them as well.

In Love Wins, Bell asks questions. He questions the dualistic dogma of Heaven and Hell and how a loving God fits into the notion of eternal punishment. These questions were not shocking or really all that new to me because these are the same questions I have asked myself, heard in seminary, and read in books by N.T. Wright, Brian McClaren, and C.S. Lewis. For some these questions are a blessing, those who struggle with their own questions will be relieved and empowered that a man in Bell's position also wrestles with the same questions. However, for those whose preaching, teaching, evangelism, missions, basically their entire ecclesiology, is grounded in that dualistic dogma of Heaven and Hell Bell's questions are a threat to their way of doing business. The exploration of Bell's questions and other questions is vital to the future of the Church. If we are not willing to ask and struggle with the big questions of God we will find ourselves irrelevant. The Bible says it, I believe it, that settles it, does not cut it anymore. An unwavering, unquestioning faith is not really faith.

Bell brings ideas from C.S. Lewis, N.T. Wright, and others and weaves them into a book that is easily digestible and palatable to the average lay person. You do not need an M.Div to appreciate what Bell is doing in Love Wins. Bell's ideas are also as grounded in Scripture and tradition as any "What We Believe" section on a church website and they remind us that perhaps the Bible is not as clear cut on this issue as some claim. Bell explores the idea of Heaven and Hell in the Old and New Testament and challenges conventional evangelistic ideas like "turn or burn", judgment houses, and fire and brimstone preaching that is still popular in some circles.

Bell does not make any definitive statements on univeralism, plurality, and inclusion, but Love Wins infers that people are exposed to Christ in ways other than direct evangelism and that ultimately through Christ people can reconnect to God. Bell leaves the door open to the idea that Muslims, Hindus, and people of other religions meet Christ in their own ways, but he is clear that Jesus Christ and the cross and Resurrection is the catalyst to salvation.

I wanted Bell to go further in his exploration of these questions. Specifically, I wanted to see Bell wrestle with the tough verses, those verses that seem to promote an exclusionuist idea of salvation and seem to make acceptance a prerequisite to salvation. I feel that sometimes Bell skirts the tough issues and tough verses and sticks with those that lend themselves to his assumptions. In a lot of ways, I don't think Bell challenged himself enough and I wonder if he expected the kind of backlash Love Wins has received. If he did, I wanted him to speak to those challenges and perhaps cut them off at the knees.

Ultimately, this book is not the end of the discussion, but the beginning. Rob Bell does not offer this book as a replacement of Church dogma, but he does give voice and legitimacy to that growing section of people who wrestle with those tough questions. It took courage and faith for Bell to write and publish this book. Love Wins will no doubt cost him members at his church and respect amongst evangelicals. It also takes courage and faith to read this book witout a condemning attitude or to condemn Love Wins without reading it in the first place.

Monday, February 28, 2011

Another Post on Rob Bell

Saturday afternoon I sat down at my computer and surfed over to Twitter to see what as going on in the world. To my surprise Rob Bell was trending along side Justin Bieber and Lady Gaga. By now most of you know the story that Justin Taylor wrote a blog post and John Piper sent out a snarky little tweet (Farewell Rob Bell) to his Calvinist horde and boom pow Rob Bell is now a heretic for a book few have read because it does not come out until March 29. Now, there are reactions to those posts and reactions to the reactions and the Christian blogosphere is buzzing. Well I am throwing my 2 cents into the ring with some reactions to this controversy.

1) There are a lot more Christians on Twitter than I first supposed. I never would have imagined Rob Bell trending on Twitter unless he walked into a McDonald's with a sawed off shotgun.

2) There are some people who just love Hell. They love the idea of Hell. The love the idea that there will be people who go to Hell for eternity. The love the idea because it gives them a sense of superiority over others. "Well, you might say this and that now, but you'll sing a different tune in Hell." There are some Christians that love the idea of Hell more than they love God. The idea of God's grace love being offered universally is nauseating to them because Hell is all they have to go on. How can you sell fire insurance if there is no threat of a fire?

3) Christians wonder why the world thinks we are ignorant, reactionaries who condemn books and moves we've never seen (i.e. Twilight series and Harry Potter). Get a clue folks. Before you jump all over the guy, wait a few weeks read the book and then make a judgment call.

4) People, especially conservative Christians, love to proof-text. If I had a dollar for every time I've heard Galatians 1:6-10 quoted I the last two days I would be a rich man. Here's the thing about proof-texting, for every verse you can quote supporting your side, I can quote another to support my side. This can go on ad nauseum.

5) If our goal is to bring people to Christ's love, this is a pretty piss poor way of doing it. I mean "Farewell Rob Bell" what the heck does that mean John Piper? Are you excommunicating him from the Church? Do you really think you hold that kind of power? Are you condemning him to Hell? Do you really think you hold THAT kind of power? If your goal is to perpetuate the stereotype that Christians are willing to condemn things they do not understand or will even take a moment to try and understand then congratulations, you've succeeded.

All this aside, no public relations or marketing firm could pay for this kind of publicity and as the saying goes, "there is no such thing as bad publicity." As for me, I have pre-ordered the book (See what I mean about publicity) and I will read it with an open mind and I (and everyone else in the Christian blogosphere) will write a review. Until then, let's not burn Rob Bell at the stake for something we haven't read yet.

Friday, February 25, 2011

Conservitanity: The New American Religion

Two stories came across my computer screen this week that speak to something I have been saying on this blog for awhile. One is a story from Politico detailing a speech given by former Senator Rick Santorum about "Christian Values" and the other a blog posting by Robert P. Jones of the Public Religious Research Institute discussing the strong connection between the Tea Party and the Religious Right. Each of these stories bring to light a phenomenon in American Christianity that has been going on for about a decade (although it could be longer). This phenomenon is the conjoining of post 9/11 pseudo-patriotism which I discuss here and a form of conservative pseudo-Christianity into something I call Conservitanity.

This new American religion focuses solely on Conservative religious topics like homosexuality and abortion while ignoring Biblical topics like poverty and justice. This aspect of Conservitanity has been going on for decades beginning with the Moral Majority in the late 1970s. Conservitanity not only agrees with all conservative political ideologies, like tax cuts for the wealthiest 10%, but it also attempts to use Biblical proof-texting to make the claim that their ideas are not just of human design, but are also Divinely inspired rendering them inerrant. Conservitanity calls these ideals "core American values" and any critique of these ideals is not only an attack on America, but on Christendom itself. (See Santourum's speech above.) It is the duty of the followers of Conservitanity to champion these ideals to every corner of the world, violently if necessary. (Remember when Bush call the "War on Terrorism" a "crusade.")This is the new movement in Conservative America and while the pawns on the ground scream and shout about birth certificates and Muslims those pulling the strings (I'm looking at your Koch Brothers) run off with all the money.

Another aspect of Conservitanity is the purity of the past. One must maintain that the United States as a nation and Christianity as a religion have perfect records and any nasty little dark spots (slavery, Native American genocide, the Crusades, the Inquisition to name a few) must be white washed from memory. Conservitanity begins the process by changing the history books and by reminding the people of a past that never existed.

Karl Marx called religion the "opiate of the people" meaning that the people's beliefs in a higher power kept them quiet and satisfied while the controlling bourgeoisie used them for their own gain. Conservitanity has the same idea. While the people are mesmerized by the displays of Conservitanity in the form of red, white, and blue displays in the bookstores and aerial fly overs and while they spend their time "defending" their country against the "evil" liberals, Muslims, illegal immigrants, and non-white people in general they do not notice that the income disparity has grown by obscene amounts. If someone points this out to a follower of Conservitanity they are automatically labeled a socialist, Marxist, or liberal any of which are "bad." We can see the beginnings of this with the Park 51 or "Ground Zero Mosque" controversy and the neo-McCarthyian Muslim witch hunts heading by Rep. Peter King of NY.

Look in almost every facet of American life and you can see the creation of Conservitanity. It's clergy include Glenn Beck, Sean Hannity, Ann Coulter, Sarah Palin, and others. Although it contains elements of Christianity and it uses the name of God and Jesus many times it is nothing more than an idol. Conservitanity is dangerous when political ideology becomes so intertwined with religious beliefs than the two are indistinguishable from one another, especially when its followers are armed.

Addendum: One criticism of my post is that the Left does something similar. This very well might be the case and I would invite you to gather your evidence and make your case. Politics is not a zero sum game, just because one side has problems does not mean the other side is without problems.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

A Proposed Solution to the Current Political Climate.

In light of recent events, specifically the shooting in Tucson, AZ, there has been a lot of talk about the negative and sometimes violent speech in politics. Although, no link has been found between political rhetoric and the shooting in AZ, this does serve as an opportunity for introspection and discussion. There are those who claim that political rhetoric is too vitriolic and angry and it has the potential to cause violence while others claim the exact opposite that angry speech gives people an outlet without restoring to violent behavior. While my personal opinions fall more toward the later than the former, I do not believe that governmental intervention is the solution.

The solution to the virulent political rhetoric is not a new one. In fact, it is a solution that many of us learned in Kindergarten and some of us in Sunday School. The solution to this problem is obedience to the Golden Rule, "Do to others as you would have them do to you." While this particular quotation comes from Luke 6:31 this maxim is not unique to Christianity. Most ancient and modern religions and ethical standards include some form of the Golden Rule. Its form is childlike in its simplicity, treat others like you want to be treated, and yet its mastery can take a lifetime if at all. This moral was one of the basic ideas of Jesus' teaching. It requires humility, respect, love, and sacrifice for others above self. Use of the Golden Rule is not as satisfying as firing back and matching insult for insult. It requires discipline, something that few of us have.

No one wants to be called evil. No one wants to be referred to as the enemy of their country. No one wants to receive death threats or have their children threatened. So why do we do these things to those we disagree with? There are conservatives and liberals alike who love their country and want to see the United States improve. This is not a call for an end to criticism. Criticism can be positive and sometimes while criticism can seem harsh it is not without purpose. However, we can criticize without making false accusations. We can complain without cursing. We can treat those we disagree with like we want to be treated.

Will this ever happen? Not likely. The 24/7 news channels, blogs, and talk show hosts know that controversy, anger, and venomous speech equal ratings and ratings equal cash. In politics, unfortunately, the nice guy finishes last. This is an indictment of the American culture as a whole. We love a good fight even when the results can be tragic.