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.
April 26, 2011 § 5 Comments
by Matthew Raley
Ross Douthat made a trenchant observation in his New York Times column on Easter Sunday. “The doctrine of hell . . . assumes that our choices are real, and, indeed, that we are the choices that we make. The miser can become his greed, the murder can lose himself inside his violence, and their freedom to turn and be forgiven is inseparable from their freedom not to do so.”
The idea of divine justice, that God renders a verdict on our choices and that a guilty verdict demands punishment, is being revised.
Many evangelicals are now saying that we must discard such old notions. They argue that God’s every action is redemptive. Because the doctrine of eternal, conscious punishment in hell assumes a punitive wrath in God that has no redemptive motivation, the doctrine is inconsistent with God’s nature.
Gregory Boyd (discussing annihilationism) says, “Consider that in the traditional view, the wicked are not being punished to learn something. There’s nothing remedial about their torment. Rather, God keeps them in existence for the sole purpose of having them experience pain.”
Modernists made similar arguments more than a century ago. Old notions of justice as payback are barbaric, and Western civilization has outgrown such primitive ideas. Hell thus belongs to the lower rungs of humanity’s evolution.
Is it the case that redemptive mercy is central to God’s character, and does this characteristic invalidate the idea of hell?
Let’s probe the word redemption. The Greek word is lutron, which refers to the ransom price for slaves or captives. There will be no release until the price is paid. Jesus, speaking about the key to his Lordship, says that he came to serve by giving his life as the redemption price for many (Mark 10.35-45).
Another word that expresses a similar idea is propitiation. Paul teaches that God made Christ’s blood to be the “propitiation,” the appeasement of God’s justice, that sinners receive by faith (Romans 3.21-26). Paul also states the reason God made this appeasement in blood: “It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.” That is, God’s justice is demonstrated by his paying the price incurred by sin.
Redemptive mercy is indeed central to God’s nature. But to call God’s nature redemptive without reference to the purchase price is to talk nonsense. God does not do “remedial” sentences as a way to satisfy his justice. When he shows mercy to a sinner, he purchases the individual out of death into life.
In other words, Christ’s death on the cross was redemptive because the death was entirely punitive. In God’s plan the cross was not a sympathy-generating symbol or an attention-getting drama. It was the final propitiation of God’s wrath. It paid the ransom.
No payment, no mercy. Full payment, full pardon.
The argument from God’s mercy that many evangelicals are now using against the traditional doctrine of hell can also be used — indeed, has been used — to attack Christ’s atonement for sin. Modernist theological liberals have long preached that the cross couldn’t have been about something so primitive as payment. The cross is tragic blood-poetry to them.
I have never been impressed with modernism’s treasured fantasy of cultural progress. Today’s notion of remedial justice is founded on the lie that sin is not truly destructive of human life. Believing lies like this is not a sign of evolutionary refinement, but of degradation. Sin is destructive, and its deadly consequences cry out for recompense. The fact that we are all under sentence only makes the urgency of the cross more intense.
Douthat cites a contemporary story of sin, the fictional life of Tony Soprano, who rejects one opportunity after another to turn from his life of violence. “‘The Sopranos’ never suggested that Tony was beyond forgiveness. But, by the end, it suggested that he was beyond ever genuinely asking for it.”
Rob Bell’s notorious question about whether Gandhi is in hell is fair enough, says Douthat. “But there’s a question that should be asked in turn: Is Tony Soprano really in heaven?”
April 19, 2011 § 5 Comments
by Matthew Raley
The Romans achieved cultural durability not through military force, but through the embrace of every god in their empire. They appropriated Greek culture wholesale, and affirmed the other traditions they conquered. While their broad piety was generous toward foreign gods, the generosity was motivated by shrewdness. If a conquered city could keep its gods, and if Rome could endow those gods with cosmopolitan nobility, then the city would be less resistant to control.
As a tool of empire, the pantheon works really well. Better than armies.
Time, the American century’s literary temple, gave its blessing to Rob Bell last week in the form of a cover story. Author Jon Meacham is both a journalistic eminence (the former editor of Newsweek) and a serious observer of our religious life. To whatever spiritual trend he devotes his keyboard, there is a higher order of national attention. The controversy over Bell’s teachings about hell might have remained a matter of small interest to non-evangelicals, but not anymore.
I’ll write another post about Bell’s book, Love Wins. I don’t want to examine his doctrine based on the blast of writing for and against him. Also, I won’t draw any conclusions about Bell’s teachings based on Meacham’s piece. The analysis belongs to Meacham, not Bell.
My interest here is in the Time artifact itself: how Time presents Bell, how Meacham frames the theological issues, and what sort of embrace is being offered to evangelicals by the American pantheon.
How does Time present Bell?
He is a rock star. The photo of him is edgy. Meacham describes him as “a charismatic, popular and savvy pastor with a following.” The message in this package seems to be, “Don’t mess with Bell. He’s way beyond other evangelicals in style. We embrace him.”
How does Meacham frame the theological issues?
Meacham treats heaven and hell seriously, being careful to say that Bell only claims to question theological rigidity, but also pointing out the implications of Bell’s ideas. Of Bell’s suggestion that everyone may end up in heaven, Meacham asks, “If heaven, however defined, is everyone’s ultimate destination in any event, then what’s the incentive to confess Jesus as Lord in this life?” Meacham accurately says that Bell is “more at home” within the “expansive liberal tradition” of Harry Emerson Fosdick.
R. Albert Mohler notes, “This may mark the first time any major media outlet has underlined the substantial theological issues at stake.”
So, hat-tip to Meacham.
What sort of embrace is being offered to evangelicals?
The American pantheon is opening the front door wide and proclaiming, “All ye who are weary of theological rigidity, come unto me and I will give you rest.”
The invitation is pointed. Meacham’s theological literacy has the effect of posing a clear choice to followers of Christ: keep your father’s Christianity (with no blessing from Time), or drop that traditionalism and be sprinkled with the holy water of sophistication. Bell’s Christianity is “less judgmental, more fluid, open to questioning the most ancient assumptions.” Adopting Bell’s attitude will get evangelicals the “seat at the table” they have coveted.
Further, the invitation is backed by power — the power of perceived cultural inevitability. Meacham asks, “Is Bell’s Christianity … on an inexorable rise?” Then he quotes Bell himself: “I have long wondered if there is a massive shift coming in what it means to be a Christian. Something new is in the air.” Whatever that quote means, it at least signals that Bell is using March-of-Progress inertia to advance his ideas.
The heavily implied victory of the New stands behind Time‘s invitation to evangelicals. You know you can’t hold out forever. Bell is a plausible enough theologian for you and for us. Let us embrace you and be done with it.
The reason Jesus never entered the Roman pantheon, of course, was that his exclusive claims invalidated all rival gods and goddesses, and threatened the durability of Rome’s culture. The Jesus of the New Testament was never amenable to broad, cosmopolitan pieties. If he were turned into a statue, an abstracted symbol of Goodness, then he would have fit nicely. But 1st century Christians understood that accepting the pantheon’s blessing was a surrender to imperial control, and that the real Jesus did not need the emperor’s permission to rule.
This is Bell’s moment. He mounts a rostrum of significant cultural authority, and what he does with this moment tells what he believes most deeply. Is Christ alone the Savior? From what exactly does He save us? The American pantheon has always been willing to embrace Jesus, so long as Jesus’ followers do not deny the other gods their place.
What is Rob Bell’s creed?
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 25, 2008 § Leave a Comment
For many Christians, individualism has become distasteful.
The phrases American individualism or rugged individualism do not carry positive connotations anymore. The team player is now the epitome of godliness in churches — the guy who doesn’t make trouble. The person who goes it alone, who isn’t swayed by majority opinion, who makes his or her own decisions based on inner-directed priorities is a difficult person, someone who needs to be teachable.
Which is to say, malleable.
When I was in seminary, individualism was the cultural trait blamed for the breakdown of community in local churches. People were just too independent. They didn’t realize how much they needed each other.
I see similar themes among emergents, many of whom are searching for corporate identities to restore a sense of togetherness, and to discover a mission that is larger than self. For them, individualism is the beating heart of the consumer society, in which people take, use, and throw away without regard for their responsibilities.
I also hear a distaste for individualism among reformed evangelicals, who criticize a therapeutic gospel they see as too centered on the first-person singular. Self-esteem, the morphing of sin into addiction, the rationalizing of personal failings, they say, all come from a sick culture of self-love.
All of these perspectives target real problems. But they finger the wrong culprit.
In John 9, we get an extended look at a man whom Jesus heals of blindness. In almost every respect, this man is helpless: physically incapable of sight, economically destitute, socially outcast. Yet, after he is healed, we discover that he has one quality that raises him above the civil and religious rulers. He is able to stand alone. In the story, he will not yield to any form of pressure — not to intimidation by his neighbors, nor to the status of the Pharisees, nor to the lack of support from his frightened parents, nor even to the formal punishment of excommunication.
In a new series of sermons, we will explore how Christ used this man’s individuality to glorify the Father. In the process, we’ll discover how individuality results from the unique way a person comes to identify with Jesus.
I believe one of the most important qualities a Christian can exhibit is uniqueness. Put another way, the greatest potential witness for the power of Christ is a Christian who refuses to conform, who does not give in to fear of what other people think. Like the man born blind, the Christian who can stand alone has the opportunity to reflect Christ’s glory through a singular gem.
Churches should be nurturing individualism of this kind. It is characterized by a discerning conscience, a gut-level attachment to Christ and his power, and a willingness to stick out — all qualities that we will unpack in this series.
To be sure, every Christian is called to the relational graces of love. The restraint of self in the interests of others is at the heart of Christian community. Those who practice self-indulgence in the name of individuality are missing the deep identification with Christ they should exhibit in their thoughts and actions.
But love is not the sum of people-pleasing flatteries.
The real culprit behind the breakdown of community, the loss of shared mission, and the growth of the self-esteem gospel is not individuality but consumerism.
The consumer measures goodness by how much can be bought for the lowest price. The Christian individualist measures goodness by how high a price Christ paid for him. The bottom line for the consumer is, “What’s in it for me?” The bottom line for the Christian individualist is, “What’s in it through me for Christ?” To find the safe bet, the wary consumer looks at what the majority does, but the Christian individualist looks only at what Christ does — and sees no risk.
I don’t think consumerism is individualistic at all. Consumerism is deeply conformist. If the bottom line is what’s in it for me, then my assets had better be safe. And the safest thing is to be with the herd. Though we can’t escape the refrain, “Be true to yourself,” we see masses of people who dress the same, talk the same, listen to the same music, and drive the same cars.
For the consumer, the self to which he must be true is his demographic.
In this new series, then, we will explore the paradox that strong, healthy individuality is the expression of a life submitted to loving Christ. And I think we’ll also stumble onto a greater paradox — that strong individuality in Christ is the foundation for strong togetherness.
September 18, 2008 § 1 Comment
This question from the community invites me to do what some believe I do best: criticize my own subculture. Of course, I will answer, “Evangelicals often do not portray Jesus accurately.” And, of course, I will try to specify which evangelical qualities are misleading. By merely asking this question, someone has presumed a negative answer.
There is a larger issue. What attitude should we have toward the deepening problems of evangelical churches?
The criticisms from emergents that American evangelicals are Christianized consumers, that they lack authentic community, that their worship is stilted, and that they are not on the side of the poor all have merit. The doctrinal criticisms from the reformed movement (MacArthur, Piper, et al.) rightly indict the lack of biblical integrity among many evangelicals. Even the criticisms that the church growth movement has made over the past thirty years — that churches are not reaching non-Christians — are accurate. (The criticisms just happen to be accurate of the church growth movement itself, as well.)
Put all of these criticisms together, and the picture is dire. A movement that is not growing, not intellectually coherent, and not engaged with other cultures is a movement near death.
James Stockdale, one of the most famous American POWs in North Vietnam, has been used as an example of how to survive dire situations by business author Jim Collins. (The book is Good To Great.) What kind of man did not survive the POW experience? Stockdale said the optimist, the man who was sure he’d be home by Christmas, but whose steadily retreating target dates for release were never kept. The positive thinkers died.
The survivors, said Stockdale, had two things. They had faith that they would survive, and discipline to confront the brutal facts of their environment. Collins tagged this the “Stockdale paradox,” the irony that unstinting honesty about dire situations can actually bolster the faith one needs to survive.
I want to see evangelicals eschew optimism about their predicament.
Let’s take, as an example, their recent explosion of support for Gov. Sarah Palin. Personally, I like her. She gives a great speech. I admire her decision not to abort her baby boy, and I respect the way she and her husband have handled the appalling media abuse of their 17-year-old daughter. I think the clash of the classes her nomination has provoked is good old-fashioned political fun.
But the adulation of her by evangelicals is in one important respect delusional. She will not change Washington from the vice president’s mansion — populists to the contrary. She will not change American culture. She will not even change the culture of evangelical churches — though she reflects and represents them well. Her presence on the national stage simply does not address the spiritual issues we face.
We won’t be freed from the dire evangelical crisis by Christmas.
A brutal honesty about our future says:
- Our compromise with America’s consumer society has been a disaster. Consumerism will have to be rooted out of our churches soul by soul.
- Our transformation of churches into entertainment platforms has been a disaster. Devout worship of the living God will have to be rediscovered soul by soul.
- Our financial selfishness will have to be corrected by the good hand of God soul by soul, until we are once again the people who stand with the poor.
- Our doctrinal ignorance and folly has turned our brains to mud. Knowledge of the truth will have to be taught soul by soul.
- Our fear of the cultures around us, and our refusal to interact meaningfully with them — that is, interact beyond marketing ploys — has left us unable to articulate the gospel in our own time. Soul by soul, we will have to rebuild a vigorous way of life and witness in hostile territory.
I believe that, once we are honest about these things, we will have ground for a strong faith that Christianity will survive and prosper in the future. The moment we look at these five realities, harsh though they are, we realize that the tool for teaching soul by soul is everywhere in this country: the local church. The body of Christ in its many meetings has been doing this job for centuries. We just need to start doing the job again.
Our ultimate ground for faith is our Lord and his plan. As we follow him afresh, Jesus is well able to portray himself accurately in his churches.
July 31, 2008 § Leave a Comment
A lot of people I know are revising their understanding of the gospel. I worry about those who aren’t.
Much of what we learn about Christ comes from the communities in which we worship and the traditions of interpretation those communities embody. Though we say we learn truth from the Bible alone, our actual doctrines often come from other human beings, and this way of learning is not necessarily wrong.
But over time, many believers can’t sustain the assumptions they inherit. I know former charismatics who question the mysticism they grew up with, former Baptists who bristle at the legalism of their parents, and former megachurch attenders who have grown weary of the showmanship they used to admire. Such believers find their assumptions challenged by spiritual failures, family struggles, and church conflicts. They either revise their understanding of the gospel or they give up on Christianity.
These crises are often healthy. No community of believers has everything solved, and learning your community’s shortcomings can help you grow in Christ. We need to be disillusioned now and then.
But there’s potential for a wild goose chase.
Believers can search endlessly for the solution to The Problem With Christians Today, taking a tour of various communities. The Baptist thumbs through Calvin, perhaps, to discover grace, but wonders if he can go as far as infant baptism. The megachurch refugee knocks on doors until she finds a human-proportioned body of believers. But that body proves not be as caring as she had hoped.
I don’t think we were designed for rootless spirituality. Living on tour can make one’s disillusionment permanent.
Brian McLaren records his own tour through communities of faith in a chapter of A Generous Orthodoxy called, “The Seven Jesuses I Have Known” (pp 43-89). He shows how Jesus is portrayed by different traditions — which parts of Jesus’ ministry they emphasize, which teachings they embrace, which they overlook.
“The Conservative Protestant Jesus” came to die, says McLaren, to save people from hell. But that’s pretty much it. “The Pentecostal/Charismatic Jesus” is “up close, present, and dramatically involved in daily life,” but tends to make people proud of their advancement in spiritual experience. “The Roman Catholic Jesus” rises from the dead, and so defeats everything associated with death.
McLaren says that by his mid-20s, he had incorporated all three of these views into his understanding of Jesus. He believed that “each was a new facet, a new dimension, of the Jesus I had met as a child.” He proceeds through the visions of the eastern orthodox, the liberal protestants, the anabaptists, and the revolutionaries. He talks persuasively about these communities because he’s interacted with each of them directly.
But the only thing McLaren seems to have taken from his tour are snapshots. His criticisms of the Jesus of this or that tradition are mostly oversimplifications (the evangelical Jesus only dies). Even when he praises a tradition, his comments are too often trite and sentimentalized. For instance: “If the Evangelical Jesus saves by dying, the Pentecostal Jesus by sending his Spirit, and the Catholic Jesus by rising from death, the Eastern Orthodox Jesus saves simply by being born, by showing up, by coming among us.”
That’s like a Hallmark card from Constantinople. Whatever credibility McLaren might gain by his generosity, he loses by his dilettantism. His breezy commendations of the good in each tradition imply that he has outgrown all traditions.
Our communities can teach good lessons too well. We can stop learning, and the truths we stand upon can make us lame. Other traditions within Christianity serve to remind us that the Bible has unfamiliar passages just as worthy of our devotion as the familiar ones.
But I fear McLaren doesn’t make this kind of point at all.
If orthodoxy is ultimately unknowable and all traditions merely approximate what lies unreachable in God’s mind, then the tour of traditions is a revelation of truth in itself. In fact, McLaren seems to honor a beatific vision conceived by intellectual sentimentality, the abstracted life. The true human being has no constraints on his mind, no prejudices, no blinders, no culture. He is free. He embraces all perspectives. He has risen above partisanship and has attained the nirvana of the holistic worldview.
This vision of life without intellectual limits is beguiling. But like all sentimental pets, it doesn’t actually exist. We need our roots, constraints and all.
July 24, 2008 § 1 Comment
Intellectuals thrive on complexity. They regard certainty and simplicity as signs of immaturity, and they have some good reasons. Take Brian McLaren’s critique of mainstream evangelicalism.
McLaren has identified an attitude that is a hindrance to everything from effective persuasion to loving fellowship. The attitude is the us v. them, chip-on-the-shoulder, we’re-right-they’re-wrong impatience with which evangelicals tend to deal with the wide surrounding world. From his writings, one gathers that McLaren has had enough.
The problem with evangelical pomposity is that it has preempted learning. If we’re right and they’re wrong, then all we have to do is stay right. Tell the unbelievers one more time why their views on abortion, education, government, and values are heinous. Our fidelity to the truth can reduce to repeated talking points — say it again, this time with feeling! — a tactic that shuts out feedback and degrades relationships to mere exchanges of rhetorical bullets.
McLaren wants to change this attitude, and he is right. I have devoted many posts to the cultural backwater that is evangelical populism, where applications of truth are stagnant.
But McLaren’s desire for greater openness seems to have led him to oversimplifications of his own, and ultimately to a redefinition of truth itself. The book is, of course, A Generous Orthodoxy.
His now-famous modification of orthodoxy with generous suggests that orthodoxy by itself is petty. When he comes to defining what orthodoxy is, McLaren starts this way (p 28): “For most people, orthodoxy means right thinking or right opinions, or in other words, ‘what we think,’ as opposed to ‘what they think.’” For McLaren, orthodoxy tends to be petty because most people view it in adversarial terms.
The sentence is an early bit of slippage. I know many self-satisfied Christians who like few things better than to hear the us v. them story again and call it Christianity. But their pettiness does not determine what orthodoxy is. McLaren is building up to his redefinition by implying a simple choice between orthodoxy alone (petty) and orthodoxy plus generosity (loving).
His alternative definition comes in the next sentence. “In contrast, orthodoxy in this book may mean something like ‘what God knows, some of which we believe a little, some of which they believe a little, and about which we all have a whole lot to learn.’” The truth is beyond our reach, in God’s mind, and the various factions of human spirituality each have pieces of it. To follow orthodoxy, according to this definition, is to be generous to the other factions and to learn from them.
Orthodoxy may mean that. It may mean something like that. In this book.
The care with which McLaren poses as tentative and playful is necessary to disguise the enormity of what he puts over in that definition. Orthodoxy is inaccessible. It’s “what God knows.” This is a romanticist punt, even transcendentalist. Emerson could’ve written it, irony and all. Intellectuals may feed on such continually evolving knowledge, but the gruel is too thin for simple believers.
Actual Christian orthodoxy teaches that God himself is incomprehensible, but that he has given us a revelation of his nature and will by which he is knowable. Orthodoxy is not in God’s mind. It’s in his Word, both written and incarnate. It’s accessible. The distinction between the living God and the doctrines about him –the distinction that ought to keep us humble — already thrives where theology is a scholarly discipline rather than a grass-roots rallying point.
But I just ran smack into another sentence closing McLaren’s paragraph on orthodoxy. McLaren says, “Most people are too serious, knowledgeable, and busy for such an unorthodox definition of orthodoxy.” So he makes an intriguing definition tentatively and then bluffs his way out of being examined, an escape-hatch from accountability that he seems to open pretty often.
The definition I’ve analyzed comes in a chapter titled, “For Mature Audiences Only.” How would McLaren define mature? I’ll venture a definition for him: “For most people, maturity means being accountable for what you say. In contrast, maturity in this book may mean something like being comfortable with irony.”
I hope we can learn and grow as human beings without intellectual games.