June 23, 2011 § 5 Comments
by Matthew Raley
Rob Bell starts to make an excellent case for the justice of hell in Love Wins. But he doesn’t finish it. Bell’s inadequate concept of justice is the next feature of this book I think evangelicals should watch. (First two features here and here.)
Hell is hard to defend if the people who populate it are the ignorant, needy, and wounded who weren’t able to check the right theological boxes. But the charge depends on sympathy. Switch perspectives on the population, and hell starts to look like the only appropriate punishment.
That’s what Bell does in the middle of his chapter on hell (pp 70-73). There are kids all over Kigali, Rwanda with missing limbs, he says. “Do I believe in a literal hell? Of course. Those aren’t metaphorical missing arms and legs.” A rape victim, a 5-year-old boy whose father committed suicide, the surviving relatives of a man whose cruelty extended beyond the grave: all of these show the ongoing cost of sin.
Bell is aggressive in making this case.
So when people say they don’t believe in hell and they don’t like the word “sin,” my first response is to ask, “Have you ever sat and talked with a family who just found out that their child has been molested? Repeatedly? Over a number of years? By a relative?” (p 72)
I found myself cheering him on as I read this passage. I am a pastor, like Bell. Few have the daily, ongoing experience of evil quite like those on life’s clean-up crew — law enforcement, social workers, doctors and nurses, and pastors. The cost of sin is born day after day in family after family. And the cost mounts. True love demands payment for the sake of those who bear that cost.
But, having adjusted our perspective in this way, having raised the issue of sin’s cost, and having asserted our need for this horrible word hell, Bell switches back to the perspective of the ignorant, needy, and wounded who failed to check the right boxes. Isn’t it monstrous to punish them eternally? Bell asks (p 102), “Have billions of people been created only to spend eternity in conscious punishment and torment, suffering infinitely for the finite sins they committed in the few years they spent on earth?”
Suffering infinitely for finite sins, committed in the few years of life. Our sins, Bell assumes repeatedly in this book, are limited in scope.
Our sins are finite?
We have confirmation of this?
Somebody knows this?
Without a doubt?
I am nowhere near granting that assumption, and I have three reasons.
1. The Bible reiterates that our sins are primarily against God, secondarily against one another (e.g. Genesis 39.7-10; Romans 1.18-32). How does Bell propose to limit the cost of sins committed against an infinite being?
2. Human beings live in community. At what point does the impact of a single sin come to rest? A slanderous tweet, let’s say? It’s true that I can lose sight of a sin’s impact, but that doesn’t mean I really know where the impact stops.
3. Human beings are linked generationally. A sin committed at one time can live on. That’s a key part of the problem of racism in the United States. How can we say that Thomas Jefferson’s attitude toward his slaves had a finite impact because it was committed in the few years of his own life?
Bell doesn’t follow his own correct reasoning about the cost of sin to its conclusion: The cost goes on to such an extent that no human being knows the full impact of his own actions. And the real problem of justice, as the Bible lays it out, is that all have sinned.
June 16, 2011 § 1 Comment
by Matthew Raley
I am surveying features of Rob Bell’s book Love Wins that evangelicals should watch over the coming years. A second feature is Bell’s description of the nature of God.
According to Bell, the evangelical God is impossible for people to trust. This God has put a time-limit on repentance: death is the end of people’s opportunity to have a relationship with him, and hell awaits people who do not believe. Bell says that this sort of God is “violent” and “destructive.” If this account of God were true, he says,
A loving heavenly father who will go to extraordinary lengths to have a relationship with [people] would, in the blink of an eye, become a cruel, mean, vicious tormenter who would ensure that they had no escape from an endless future of agony.
If there was an earthly father who was like that, we would call the authorities. If there was an actual human dad who was that volatile, we would contact child protection services immediately. (pp 173-174)
He goes on, calling this God “devastating,” “psychologically crushing,” “terrifying and traumatizing and unbearable.”
Bell counters that God is love, and that God’s invitation into his love never ends. Hell is not God tormenting people, but people choosing to reject God’s love and creating their own torment. Even when they reject God, he always brings them back because redemption is part of his very nature.
Yet Bell’s story about how God redemptive nature displays the same divine volatility Bell finds in the doctrine of eternal hell.
For example, Bell uses the story of Sodom and Gomorrah to make the argument that hell is temporary. He calls them “the poster cities for deviant sinfulness run amok,” recounting how God rained sulfur on the cities, destroying everything. “But this isn’t the last we read of Sodom and Gomorrah.”
Bell cites Ezekiel 16, where God says he will return the cities to what they were before, then asks rhetorically, “What appeared to be a final, forever, smoldering, smoking verdict regarding their destiny … wasn’t? What appeared to be over, isn’t. Ezekiel says that where there was destruction there will be restoration.” (p 83, emphasis original)
So God sometimes destroys people to make a point. Then he restores. Bell calls this a “movement from judgment to restoration, from punishment to new life.” (p 85)
Using Bell’s standard of a loving God, his account of what he calls God’s redeeming nature shows the same violence he condemns when discussing eternal torment in hell. The God who destroyed Sodom is the child abuser about whom Bell would call the authorities. The people of Sodom did not choose sulfurous rain; God inflicted it upon them.
The only difference Bell shows between the God who destroyed Sodom and the God who punishes souls eternally is the amount of time involved.
So let’s imagine Rob Bell preaching love and hope to Sodom: “This fire isn’t forever. Your father loves you! He’s inviting you to participate in his love! Just wait: you’ll have another opportunity to love God!”
Or we could ask this question: Would it matter to the people destroyed in the fire of Sodom that their punishment was only temporary? Would they trust God any more, or hate God any less because they have another opportunity later?
Or we could make up a scenario about pain. Suppose I promised you that the Soviet guard in the gulag would only beat you every day for 10 years. Would the temporary nature of the torment make it tolerable? What if he only beats you daily for a week? Okay, okay: your beating will only last 5 minutes.
Bell’s proposal that hell is temporary in no way makes his account of God’s nature coherent.
Celebrity status will not exempt Bell’s arguments from the precision of, say, Richard Dawkins. Evangelicals should watch what happens when Bell’s distinctions without differences fail to make God any more loveable.
Love Wins accepts generalized standards of love and justice — standards that are, to be sure, accepted by most people without examination. But the received wisdom of generalizations about “a loving God” or “a just God” fall apart once we delve into specific cases. “Loving” toward whom? “Just” in whose cause?
I think Bell will have to discard every biblical account of God’s punishing a sinner in order to preserve his view of redemption. That is where I think his “better story” about God will lead. Bell has failed to put human pain in the context of any serious look at the requirements of justice.
June 8, 2011 § 3 Comments
by Matthew Raley
The publication of Rob Bell’s Love Wins marks the acceptance of emergent Christianity by the American mainstream. Bell has been featured in a Time cover story, and is now a reference point for all sorts of popular spiritual writing. The pantheon of the American empire now includes Bell’s Jesus.
Over several posts, I’ll discuss some features of this book that I think will be most important for evangelicals in the coming years.
The first feature: Bell denies that biblical doctrine has significance in human salvation. The Bible contains teachings, sure. But knowing them is problematic, both interpretively, in finding what they mean, and morally, in maintaining humility.
Bell’s denial that doctrinal belief is essential to salvation is explicit, coming in his discussion of Jesus’ claim in John 14.6: “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” Bell does not deny the exclusivity inherent in that statement. But Bell argues,
What [Jesus] doesn’t say is how, or when, or in what manner the mechanism functions that gets people to God through him. He doesn’t even state that those coming to the Father through him will even know that they are coming exclusively through him. He simply claims that whatever God is doing in the world to know and redeem and love and restore the world is happening through him. (p 154)
Love wins, Bells argues (pp 144-157), because Jesus is the sustaining power of all creation, and he saves people no matter what they do or believe, wooing them through recurring opportunities to embrace him.
The denial of doctrine’s significance is also implicit, a denial through method. Bell is a deconstructionist.
Bell’s claim that Jesus never specifies how people are saved illustrates neatly. It is exegetically preposterous on its face. In the very document Bell discusses, Jesus repeatedly links salvation with belief, as in John 12.44-50, where Jesus makes “the word I have spoken” a person’s judge on the last day, and where he declares that the Father has given him “a commandment — what to say and what to speak. And I know that his commandment is eternal life.”
(Indeed, Bell quotes a fragment of that paragraph [p 159], in which Jesus says he came to save the world, not to judge. But Jesus said that in order to set up his word as judge, and belief in his word as the “mechanism” that saves.)
Such bits of trivia don’t matter to Bell. The Bible for him is not a revelation of God’s truth. Rather, it is full of the raw materials for God’s story: poems, riddles, metaphors, hints, dribs and drabs of ancient cultural perspectives. We are supposed to find God’s story in those materials. Bell complains that historic Christianity has told a story that’s bad, having hardened all the raw material into absolutes. There’s “a better story” (pp 110-111).
This view of the Bible creates a new role for exegesis.
We expound the Bible not so much to learn what is true, as to deconstruct our own preconceptions. So, Bell offers long passages studying such words as hades, gehenna, aeon, et al., not to build up our understanding of what these words mean, but to tear it down. By the time Bell is done with text after text, we no longer know what the words mean. And with traditional concepts safely deconstructed, Bell is free to pick from those materials and tell his better story.
Many conservative theologians are saying that Bell is a theological liberal. To be sure, many of his conclusions are indistinguishable from the old liberalism. But I want to register one qualification that puts Bell and many emergents in a different category.
Modernist liberals 150 years ago believed that the Bible’s teachings were knowable, and that our reasoning about texts added to our knowledge. It is not clear to me at all that Bell believes this. Bell seems to believe that knowledge itself is a kind of arrogance, and that doctrinal knowledge, in terms of the fate of every person who ever lived, is of no significance.
Evangelicals should watch this feature of Love Wins to see whether Bell is merely being fashionable, or whether he is flirting with nihilism.
October 13, 2010 § Leave a Comment
by Matthew Raley
Congregational life among evangelicals is changing across the United States and Canada. For several decades, innovators have been challenging the way churches worship, preach, and structure themselves. The new book, Colors of God: Conversations About Being the Church, is another perspective that seeks to be innovative.
The list of problems in churches is familiar.
For starters, preaching has become ineffective. What pastors talk about either seems of little consequence, or seems rooted in small-minded bombast. And that’s when the preaching is comprehensible at all.
Also, community has deteriorated. Churches become busy without producing deep change in people’s lives. Believers complain about the shallowness of church relationships, or about constant bickering. Most worrisome, there is a sense of unreality about interactions at church, a sense that we can’t deal honestly with our failings and that church isn’t safe.
Deeper, Christians are paralyzed by guilt. The weight of secret sins, the anxiety of paying lip-service to “values” without really knowing what those values entail, the general sense that God is displeased and angry, have all conspired to produce the opposite of what the Gospel promises — joy and thankfulness.
Colors of God is written by three men who started a church called neXus in Abbotsford, BC. Randall Mark Peters, Dave Phillips, and Quentin Steen have been influenced by the Emerging church movement in the areas of how to preach, how build community, and how to deal with the moralism of today’s evangelicals.
The book’s strong point is honesty. The authors are transparent about their struggles, both emotionally and intellectually, and gracious in describing how they believe churches are broken. I found many points to admire in their prescriptions. Their emphasis on God’s grace, and their clear doctrinal understanding of it, are indeed the antidote for evangelicals’ guilty consciences.
But I found the book unreadable.
I think the authors’ decision to print, in effect, a transcript of a round-table discussion emptied the book of drive. Their representation of aspects of church life with four different colors, far from clarifying their points, required too much explanation. It seems to me that a book needs both analytical and narrative logic to propel the reader to the end. And this reader did not make it. The organization of the book seemed both fussy and murky.
And to some extent, this toying with presentational niceties as a way of expressing values is emblematic of the evangelical malaise. Pastors are forever worrying about what’s wrong with “preaching.” The fact that most preachers couldn’t give a clear, compelling public address on any subject should figure into the analysis somewhere.
If evangelicals are going to strengthen their churches, at some point they will have to regain enduring competencies. Colors of God has some contributions to make on that score, contributions that would be brighter in a book not burdened with the pretense of being a transcript.
September 10, 2010 § Leave a Comment
by Matthew Raley
I’ll be speaking about my book, The Diversity Culture, tomorrow, September 11th in Cottonwood. The conference takes place from 9 AM to 1 PM at 1st Baptist Church, 3320 Brush Street. You can reach the church for more information at (530) 347-3691. Here is a map to the church.
I am very grateful to Pastor John Roland for organizing this conference. I look forward to seeing you there!
November 25, 2009 § Leave a Comment
Through The River: Understanding Your Assumptions About Truth
Jon and Mindy Hirst, with Dr. Paul Hiebert
Colorado Springs: Authentic Books, 2009, 201 pp.
by Matthew Raley
This short book on epistemology will be useful to its intended audience, and, as with any book, potentially frustrating to others.
I take the intended audience to be evangelicals who hold a high view of the Bible, and who wrestle with how to engage the many perspectives in contemporary society. This audience wonders whether one can engage them at all with a high view of Scripture, or whether to believe the Bible is to opt out of today’s culture. Put another way, the question is whether one can engage without compromising truth.
The Hirsts, in their popularization of the late Dr. Paul Hiebert’s work, argue that truth remains an objective category. Truth really exists outside our own heads. They write (p 22), “Simply put, we know that God is truth. He is the Creator of all that is sure, all that is known, and all that is to be.” They add, “Our pursuit of truth may begin in ourselves, as we struggle with our finite humanity, but it ends in Christ.”
Knowledge of the truth, however, comes through a process. That process is not best conducted in debate, with systems built and defended, and competing systems attacked — one of the “truth lenses” the Hirsts describe. Nor is the truth found by isolating ourselves inside our own passions and priorities — a second lens. The process of knowing the truth is a collaborative one, in which we discover truth relationally through dialogue — a third lens, which Hiebert called “critical realism.”
In other words, evangelicals shouldn’t have a dilemma between engagement with diverse perspectives and truth. Rather, truth is learned through engagement.
The Hirsts expound this thesis using two stories, one about a river, another about a boat. Some readers will respond very well to this approach, though for me the narratives required too much explanation to be enlightening. But that is an issue of preference.
Many evangelicals need to encounter these ideas, and Through the River is a tool I will use. But those who think evangelicals should have ditched the Bible long ago, and who can’t understand why anyone should trouble herself over objective truth, will have little use for this book.
August 14, 2009 § Leave a Comment
by Matthew Raley
Warren Cole Smith has written an indispensable book. I believe he diagnoses the sicknesses of evangelicalism correctly, and he does so in detail, sparing the reader none of the gravity or complexity. A Lover’s Quarrel has rare strengths.
First, Smith has been around. He’s seen most of the subcultures within evangelicalism, and his personal experience of wandering in this wilderness goes back almost four decades. Not to put too fine a point on it, he’s an elder – the kind of man we badly need right now.
Second, Smith is a seasoned reporter. One reason he has seen so much territory is that he has reported for the Evangelical Press News Service for years. Most Christian books on the subject of why we’re so bad off make no pretense of documenting a story, naming names, and holding to standards of journalism. Smith has pounded the pavement to get this story, and his disciplined reporting puts him in a different category from mere opinion-mongers. His reporting on Jack Abramoff and Ralph Reed, to tug just one thread, is illuminating and adds depth to his larger argument.
Third, Smith brings intellectual weight to his diagnoses. He draws upon the critiques of modern life and media by Richard Weaver and Neil Postman, among others.
Most writing about evangelicalism treats “the culture” as a post-war artifact, telling us yet again that the World War II generation was more institutionally oriented than Generation Next, or whatever – stuff that basically comes from marketing literature. Even a well-documented book like UnChristian is essentially a public relations consult. These books can sometimes tell us what is happening, but rarely why.
Smith understands that evangelicals have embraced the vast scale of modern life without asking whether that life is a fantasy. Huge churches with impersonal systems, vast parachurch enterprises with assets in the hundreds of millions of dollars, mass media strategies that address no one in particular – we have invested in these structures without considering what harm they do to our face-to-face relationships. There are reasons why we committed this folly, and history can tell us what they were.
A Lover’s Quarrel describes the “new provincialism” of evangelicals, the blithe dismissal of the importance of history and ideas in practical ministry. The book also dissects the sentimentality of evangelicals, their refusal to face reality. Smith’s portrayal of “the Christian-Industrial Complex” shows that the media world perverts the message of the Gospel not just because of the love of money, but because of things like Christian radio’s devotion to its fantasy-Mom, “Becky.”
These narratives are informed by long-standing critics of media and society, like Weaver and Postman, who were sounding alarms while evangelicals were lost in a dream world. The historical and intellectual sense of proportion Smith brings to this subject are badly needed.
Fourth, Smith offers a path out of the evangelical mess, one that restores life to a relational scale, both with human beings and with God. The path is that of vocation, the ancient and biblical notion of calling.
But I’d hate to spoil the end of a great read.
June 14, 2009 § 1 Comment
Christ In Y’all: Following Jesus into Community
Neil Carter (Ekklesia Press, 2008, 196 pp)
by Matthew Raley
In our crisis of identity as American evangelicals, we are several decades into a period of radical (root-seeking) experiments with local church life. Fellow believers are heading in many directions seeking community.
The church growth movement has fostered enterprises that are intimately in step with suburban consumerism. The Reformed movement is trying to revitalize body life through sharper doctrine. Many emergents have moved on from café churches to think in terms of missional communities.
Believers are amassing a lot of wisdom from these experiments. This period, though it is often painful and bewildering to me, will leave followers of Christ far healthier and with more varied skills for advancing Christ’s kingdom. I think the home church movement will prove to be a big contributor to all this wisdom.
That is why I was eager to read Neil Carter’s book, Christ in Y’all: Following Jesus into Community, and why I’m glad I did. I found much wisdom to keep working through our identity crisis.
Carter is focused on needs that, for believers, are primal. He asks, for example (p 30), “[H]ow many things do you do, either on your own or within your church, that honestly could not be done without God’s indwelling presence?” Concerning prayer, he observes (p 41), “Somewhere along the line we got a picture of God as a task-oriented Being who gave us prayer primarily as a way to make us as task-oriented as he is. But what would we be left with if we removed from our prayer lives all prayers that ask God to do something? We’d be left with simple communion.”
He also writes (p 45), “Spiritual formation is a collective endeavor [original emphasis]. It’s not about you, the individual, becoming more like Jesus. It’s about him coming to reside among the saints in their relationships with each other.”
The theology behind these statements is life-giving and biblical. Carter loves the Bible, and he communicates from the deep intentions of texts, not from idiosyncratic passions.
In addition, Carter makes penetrating observations about American life (p 39). “While declaring our independence from each other, we simultaneously mimic each other in everything from our clothing and our possessions to our language, our political views, and even our personalities. American culture may very well be the most advanced manifestation of this malady to date.”
This book is informed by experience. Carter and the brethren have taken these ideas and applied them seriously in a home church. He discusses how many of them intentionally live near each other, so that (p 158) they “often bump into each other and spend time together on the spur of the moment.”
At the heart of the book, and the experiences it reflects, is the reality that suffering with other believers, and being hurt by them, is essential to the Christian life. Chapters 5-6, in this respect, are worth the whole book, and give a call to sobriety that believers deeply need.
The only weakness of this book is common to literature from radical experimenters. In a word, judgmentalism.
Those who seek the root of matters and do things differently get stared at by the community’s worst face — the snide, dismissive, over-confident face. This experience stings, and it’s difficult to keep one’s writing and teaching from stinging back.
The edge of judgment on others’ efforts comes through in several of Carter’s paragraphs about stereotypical traditional church activities, staffs, buildings, etc. The verdict on p 168 is one of a few unsustainable pronouncements: “It took me a while to admit that ‘body life’ cannot survive long within the traditional church setting because these two things are antagonistic to each other.”
This doesn’t match my experiences. But such sparks keep the experimentation lively. I’ll put up with them to get Neil Carter’s wisdom.
March 8, 2009 § Leave a Comment
by Matthew Raley
On March 20th in Dallas, TX, I will give a workshop on my new book, The Diversity Culture: Creating Conversations of Faith with Buddhist Baristas, Agnostic Students, Aging Hippies, Political Activitsts, and Everyone In Between.
This book is about the new openness to anything and everything in America, and about how you can be like Jesus in the midst of it. Here is an excerpt.
My workshop will be part of the Christian Book Expo, for which you can register at the top of my sidebar. If any of my Texas readers can be there, I’d love to meet you.
February 26, 2009 § Leave a Comment
by Matthew Raley
One of the most common searches that brings readers to Tritone Life is some version of, “Should Christians read Harry Potter?” Readers land on a post from my Tough Questions series last summer.
Evangelicals’ visceral reaction to the Potter books continues to amaze me. The young wizard seems to symbolize their problem of how to guide children through the American diversity culture, the openness to anything and everything, without losing faith in Christ.
At Writing for the Soul, the annual conference of the Christian Writers Guild in Colorado Springs last weekend, this problem was a focus of attention, with Harry still being the reference point.
One catalyst for discussion was a keynote speech by Dr. Dennis Hensley, whose address on postmodernism was a tour de force of analysis and passion. He said that the negative view most pastors have of postmodernism needs to be revised. Postmodernism is indeed a tapestry of dangerous threads. But the increased diversity in American culture, the openness to other points of view, the humbling of Enlightenment arrogance are interwoven with threads of opportunity.
Dr. Hensley showed that our biggest opportunity as Christian writers is to create heroes who do not win their battles, but who successfully live in the moral universe God has created. Such heroes would be biblical: they would model submission to God’s law in self-sacrifice, as Jesus did. They would also speak to postmodern imperatives, showing success through personal authenticity without empty triumphalism.
After such a rich address, the new cultural realities echoed in many conversations.
I talked with a Christian educator, asking whether he had tracked the spiritual journeys of his high school graduates. He had: “The majority are really struggling with their faith.” They enter a culture teeming with sensual temptations, and saturated with moral and spiritual questions, and they flounder. My observations tallied with his: a deep crisis of faith incited by culture shock is now the norm.
Many believers, like my friend, assess the trials of young Christians honestly. Believers can see their kids struggling to keep and express faith in Christ without the cultural support past generations enjoyed. The response of compassion and grace is godly.
Still, many other believers are shocked by the diversity culture and its heroes. These believers will not countenance Harry, as if by pouring scorn on his popularity they can protect their kids from godlessness.
At lunch during the conference, someone asked me what books I’ve read to my boys. I said (trouble-making instinct freely acknowledged), “I read the first Harry Potter book with my 8-year-old. He loved it.” Around the table there was silence, with one or two dangling jaws. My interlocutor said, “A pastor reading Harry Potter to his son?” Two other brave souls volunteered that they’d read the entire series.
That evening at dinner, Harry Potter came up again, and again I got surprised looks from around the table for saying that my son and I had read it. But we discussed why Harry was so popular. A couple of writers said he was a well-drawn, living character. Rather than trying to make a “Christian” copy of him, they said, we should create vibrant characters of our own.
Artistic power won’t save souls. But it might at least express Christ’s truth.
In some ways, Harry speaks to postmodern children because he fits Dr. Hensley’s description of a postmodern mythic hero. Harry succeeds according to a higher law, but doesn’t always win. In other more important ways, Harry will continue to be a beloved character simply because J. K. Rowling has written classic stories.
For me, as a Christian parent, the issue is not so much the meaning of diversity culture heroes like Harry Potter. The issue is initiation.
Who will initiate my 8-year-old into the culture in which he must live?
If a postmodern true-believer initiates him, then my son will learn how to interpret this era, its stories, and its heroes from a point of view that may as well come from the Anti-Christ. Such is the power of the initiator.
But if I initiate my son into the culture in which he must live . . .