What We Talk About When We Talk About Rob Bell

Last week, controversial Christian thinker Rob Bell released his new book, What We Talk About When We Talk About God. Remarkably tame compared to his best-selling Love Wins, the book is perhaps less interesting than Bell himself. Bell has been in headlines recently more for his affirmative support for same-sex marriage than the release of his book. Nevertheless, the book represents an important idea. It is an articulation of the emergent church to both the wider Christian community and the general public. In Christian circles, the emergent church has been struggling against more fundamentalist and evangelical communities for popularity, but this struggle has been one mostly limited to theologians and church leaders. WWTAWWTAG will probably be the first book many people read with emergent church ideas.

Like most of Bell’s writing, WWTAWWTAG is more question-asking than question-answering. The content is never dense, which is generally good, but sometimes Bell fails to make the connections that would link his ideas together. He relies on a structure throughout the book where he tells a story and then jumps into the idea he wants to articulate. Often, though, it is not entirely clear how the story is related to the idea. And sometimes, it feels like we could learn more from his stories and personal experiences than we can from his existential graspings. For instance, he tells about an Easter Sunday when he was doubting the existence of God but had to deliver an Easter service to thousands of people, and he ends talking about that experience by saying:

That Easter was fairly traumatic, to say the least, because I realized that without some serious reflection and study and wise counsel I couldn’t keep going without losing something vital to my sanity. The only way forward was to plunge headfirst into my doubts and swim all the way to the bottom and find out just how deep that pool went. And if I had to, in the end, walk away in good conscience, then so be it. At least I’d have my integrity.

The metaphor is beautiful, but I want to know what he did. How does a pastor who hardly believes in God deliver an Easter sermon? That’s interesting.

Despite these sorts of shortcomings, the book manages to land on some really important ideas. For instance, Bell is convinced that God is constantly drawing people forward. He confronts the idea that Christianity is backwards-looking, trying to achieve a forgotten Golden Age. Troubling passages from Exodus or Deuteronomy, he says, should not be read as a tribal, ruthless God speaking to ruthless tribes. Instead, the immeasurably awesome God is providing these tribes things they can actually do that are just a little bit more just and more orderly than what other tribes do. So Bell makes us consider historical context, but then he also challenges us to consider that we are not as different from the tribe of Israel as we might think. It is here where Bell is at his finest–when he is applying concepts like context and historical criticism and subjectivity to transcend and actually make our view of God bigger rather than smaller.

The first major argument in the book is that God meets us where we are and then pulls us into the next stage of godliness. God is always a little bit ahead of us, reaching out his hands to carry us to the next place. 

Bell, then, makes faith scary again. Because if God is always a little ahead of us, it’s a little hard to think about how we should think about modern issues–like same-sex marriage, for instance. Same-sex marriage is never explicitly mentioned in the Bible, of course. Same-sex sexual relationships are condemned, even in the New Testament. But same-sex marriage is generally seen as a progressive, forward-thinking issue. And if it’s forward-thinking and God is always ahead of us, then He must be there also. But then is faith contingent on popular opinion? Are we supposed to believe Bell just because he says he is forward-thinking? Can we imagine a Christian leader who seems genuinely committed to progressivism but is against same-sex marriage or other progressive issues that are generally seen as in conflict with Christianity?

The second major argument in the book is that there is no distinction between the holy and the unholy or the sacred and the base.

And that the story of Christianity is about drawing us into understanding how everything is sacred. When Bell talks about this idea, it’s beautiful. And convincing. But it raises many questions. Like, is sin sacred? But there is this sense that if we were able to recognize everything that God has a hand in as sacred–our bodies, other people’s bodies, our minds, other people’s minds, the earth, resources, children, the elderly, married people, single people, Christians, non-Christians, priests, laymen, animals, and outer space–it would be next to impossible to sin.

I don’t think Bell is done with the world. I expect he will continue to be an important leader and will continue to turn people towards Christ. But I also think things are going to get worse in the Church before they get better. The more we hurl the insult of heretic on Bell, the more divisive things become and the more the Church backs itself into a corner.

Postmodernism tells us that everyone, in a certain sense, constructs God in his/her image. So Bell might be creating an overly-liberal God. But then what does that say about conservative Christianity?

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In Response to “Why I Hate Religion, But Love Jesus”

A couple of weeks ago, this guy named Jefferson Bethke posted a video to his Youtube channel called “Why I Hate Religion, But Love Jesus.” It opened a firestorm. Bethke had previously gone viral with a spoken word piece called “Sexual Healing” advocating abstinence. A good looking 20-something guy pushing abstinence? The social media world swooned.

But then his follow-up came in the “Why I Hate…” video. Initially, it was just as popular, but then people began to challenge it. There was backlash. Why was Bethke so mad at the church? The church did wonderful things. Atheists got in on the madness. If Christ came to abolish religion, then what exactly do you call Christianity? It was a very complicated thing.

Typically, I don’t like writing about controversial things unless I feel like I can be very honest and open about it. But a friend of mine asked for a post about it, and I thought it might be good to do so. So, before we go any further, let’s take a moment to watch the video.

I only have two things to say about this video.

This video is poetry, not philosophic theology. Poetry and prose serve different purposes. Poetry is about emotion. Its words are meant to incite, to make the audience happy or sad or in love. And in doing so, poetry takes all of these seemingly non-truths and illuminates a truth that is normally difficult to articulate. In this case, the truth is that sometimes people forget that Jesus and His love are at the center of Christian spirituality, not religiosity or the church. That’s true. And people need to be aware of that truth. Sometimes Catholics and Baptists and Methodists and the Orthodox fight over who is right and who is doing the best job of showing God’s love. And the answer, when they are arguing, is none of them. God’s love is about peace and grace and about people working together and loving each other. That’s what this video is (mostly) about.

It was not meant to be a philosophic treatise. It was not meant to be an argument to be picked apart by theologians and atheists. Typically, things that rhyme or have rhythm aren’t supposed to be full arguments. Rhyme and rhythm limit the number of words you have to work with. Why would anyone trying to make a full-proof argument use these techniques?

It’s easy to criticize something. It’s much harder to support something. Yeah, the Church is imperfect and God is perfect, but that’s not really an original thought. The Church is made up of people. And people need God. But that doesn’t mean we should destroy the Church. The Church is important. God loves it. He talks about it a lot.

There are a lot of people who are fed up with the Church who call for the dissolution of it, and quite honestly, that’s annoying. Because what then? Who would organize community service on a large scale? Who would raise large sums of money for third-world countries to get clean water? Who would provide stable after-school groups for a large portion of our nation’s youth? People come together and organize because sometimes it is easier for them to do so. I think sometimes we forget that. We wrongly think that if everyone just left us alone, we would be happier. I don’t think that’s true, and the Church is one of those organizations that keeps us as part of a community.

I would love to start listening to people and reading writers who worked on making the Church better. How can we work within systems to make them better? I think that’s where the most radical change comes. How would the Civil Rights Movement have been different if African Americans had all emigrated to Libya?

Both sides are right. The critics and the supporters are both correct. This video is both true and mistakenly inflammatory.

Turning the Other Cheek Turns Emotions Into Justice

I’ve always kind of struggled with the concept of turning the other cheek and all that.

Our God is one of justice, right?

The Lord works righteousness
And justice for all the oppressed (Psalm 103:6)

So why then are we not allowed to help with that whole justice thing?

A lot of people try to explain this away by saying that we don’t really know what justice is – that only God can judge. I don’t know about that. I know that rape, murder, and slavery are wrong. That’s a judgment. I think I am capable of judging. And we forget that turning the other cheek has to do with someone slapping you. Slapping is pretty wrong, I think. I know that I don’t like it when someone slaps me.

I’m in a Psychology of Gender class this quarter. In that class, we are learning about pro-feminist men right now. Pro-feminist men are men who actively support feminist women to push gender equality. I think pro-feminist men are pretty awesome. Feminist women are pretty awesome, too. It takes a lot of courage to stand up against oppression. But I’ve been thinking a lot about pro-feminist men. I’ve been thinking about how they don’t really have a lot to gain from gender equality. Men are on top. In fact, a lot of men fear that gender equality would mean loss of status for themselves. Pro-feminist men have to believe that gender equality is intrinsically more important than having a wife who stays at home or who is submissive.

There are studies out there that show that the shackles of oppression begin to fall off when members of the oppressor group begin to speak out for the oppressed. Sexism is most successfully combated when men correct their friends when they make a sexist joke or when men refuse to take a job that they have obtained based on sexist hiring practices.

Like most things Jesus taught, the turn the other cheek policy shows a keen insight into human nature. It’s easy to be angry when you have been attacked. It’s easy to clamor for justice, then. But mostly, that’s just emotion. When a friend makes fun of me, I am not mad because my friend has violated the intrinsically moral rule that making fun of people is wrong. I am mad because I was the subject of the ridicule. And if I say anything, it is easy for my friends to say that I am making a mountain out of a molehill. But what if I never got mad when people made fun of me? What if, instead, I made fun of myself?

Then, when someone was making fun of another friend, I could say something. Because people would say “Hey, Spencer is usually so chill about joking around. We must really be out of line if he’s not okay with this joke.”

That’s what turning the other cheek does. It creates a world in which people know that your emotions are not tied to your sense of justice.

Trusting Authority

When I was applying to college, my mom made me go talk to people from a really boring small honors college at a university nationally known for being a top party school. I had my sights set on higher things, more studious places. I was going to be a real academic.

But I went, and after my first meeting with the assistant dean at the Honors Tutorial College at Ohio University, I knew it was where I needed to be.

A little over three years later, I can’t imagine being anywhere else. Most of who I am today has been dependent on being part of the HTC or being a student at Ohio University. Sometimes, parents really do know what’s best for us.

When someone really cares about us and has more information than we do or a wider world view, they normally make decisions for us that we would make if we had all the information. That’s why I think my failure to not trust God is almost humorous.

God knows infinitely more than me. God cares about me infinitely. Why, then, would God want anything less than the best for me?

Sometimes I perceive God the way I perceived my mom when she was trying to get me to visit Ohio University. God wants me to give up what I really want in order to do something the way God wants it. But that’s not the way it is. God wants to stretch me so that I can consider the kind of options God considers for me.

Jesus said some stuff about this (Matthew 6:25-34):

Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothes? Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they? Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life? And why do you worry about clothes? See how the flowers of the field grow. They do not labor or spin. Yet I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these. If that is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, will he not much more clothe you – you of little faith? So do not worry, saying “What shall we eat?” or “What shall we drink?” or “What shall we wear?” For the pagans run after these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.

God is going to dress us in clothes brighter than the flowers. We have only to let Her or Him.