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?

Advertisements

So Eden Sank To Grief

I have an odd fascination with things like sand castles and ice sculptures
I assume it’s because I usually find myself dedicating time to things that will only last a few moments
I guess that’s why I fall in love with things that will never love me back

-Ruby Francisco, My Honest Poem

I want to write about religion, but I’m not very good at that so I’m going to write about poetry instead.

I like poetry. Some of you invariably do, too. I used to write a blog of poetry. It existed here. Then I got rid of all the poetry and started this blog. People liked the poetry, but it was nowhere near as popular as this. People would tell me my writing was beautiful or that they respected my words. No one was ever inspired.

I think most people, if forced to choose between Fifty Shades of Grey, The Hunger Games, and The Collected Works of John Donne would pick the first two every time (I might, too!). Unlike some, I don’t think this reflects a spiritual decline in society. I think poetry must answer for this lack of interest.

First, there is a growing amount of bad poetry. Back in John Donne’s day, it was difficult to publish poetry. There weren’t a lot of presses, and even if you were a great writer, you probably spent a couple of years just circulating your stuff around family and friends. And if you were a woman like Mary Wroth (I call her the 17th century Nicki Minaj), you spent many years circulating your stuff. Then, maybe, after you died, someone would get it in his head (usually this was a male thing) to publish your work in a folio together. Obviously, you wouldn’t start this long arduous process if you hadn’t practiced and studied your craft and knew what you were doing.

That’s not how it works today. Today, anyone can start a blog. Bad poetry gets published all the time. If you want a physical book, you can self-publish. It costs nothing to publish an e-book. Bad poetry is everywhere. The noise is loud. We turn to novels and movies and television shows because even if they are poorly written, at least they have a driving plot. Poetry usually doesn’t. It depends on its words.

Second, poetry is meant to be acutely relevant. Sure, the poets of olde wrote lofty poems inspired by women or intense epics meant to excite (although, I would argue that epics are still alive and well in the form of novels and movies). But, many of the poems from long ago that we still study today were written in response to a current event, a friend’s death, a wife’s passing or leaving.

I don’t think we know how to write relevant poetry anymore. The 24-hour news cycle is partly to blame here (although, what can’t we blame on the 24-hour news cycle). It’s difficult to take the necessary amount of time writing about an event when it’s just going to be dusted away in a couple of days anyway. Also, I think it’s difficult to write about experiences while incorporating everything that constitutes modern living. If I write a poem that simply mentions iPhones, it will either be taken as a condemnation or a celebration of them. Unfortunately, poetry desperately needs to mention iPhones to stay current. We shouldn’t start writing about iPhones. We should write about the things we’ve always written about – nature v. man, death, life, love, heartache, loneliness, war, anguish – in short, human emotion. But human emotion is greatly wrapped up in technology now and our poetry should reflect that.

Third, we don’t have time for reflection. Poetry requires space. Lots and lots of space. Poetry is not easy. It’s not something you can understand just after one reading. And I think many of us don’t understand why we should put in the time when we can read things that we can understand immediately. The truth is we don’t know how to discern. If we knew what was bad poetry and what was good poetry, if we knew that when we put the time into a poem, we would get a higher truth, I think we would be more likely to reflect. But we don’t know. So it’s our fault and poetry’s fault. We should create space for it, and poetry should honor that space.

Poetry is meant to inspire. It’s meant to illuminate something bigger and better than ourselves. That’s why we can’t lose it. Poetry is life. That’s what it means when we say a sunset is “poetic.” It means that the beauty inspires us. We can’t lose the language to say that.

I think religion is a lot like poetry.

Selfishness is Boring

From time to time, I get tired of writing.

I think I stopped writing in February because I got it in my mind that I was going to write a book, but I never found time to write a book and so for a month I just haven’t written.

I was going to write a book about all of the horrible things I do because I thought that if someone wrote a book like that, it could change the world. (I was on an honesty kick. It was inspired by some of my friends’ kicks which include but are not limited to: sincerity, innocence, desire, rationality. All of my friends have kicks.)

I have a friend who believes that we are all selfish. For a long time, I resisted that. I thought that was a tragic idea.

I’m pretty sure she is right, though. And I don’t know that it’s all that tragic anymore. Most of the time, being selfish helps me make decisions. When deciding what I want to have for dinner, for instance, it is easier to simply consider my own desires rather than how my business going to a certain establishment is going to affect their monthly profits. But when I interact with other people on a personal level, that’s when selfishness starts to be a problem. Unfortunately for me, interacting with people is approximately 99% of life.

I hate it when people play favorites. But I play favorites, too. I hate when I can see how funding is affecting an organization, but if I ran an organization and another organization gave me money, I have to say that I would act favorably towards my funders.

Selfishness is not really that big of a deal. People wanting power is not something that is worth talking about. The real issue is when we let the conversations about selfishness and power and greed consume us – when we spend all day pointing fingers at other people.

Jesus once said:

How can you say to your brother, ‘Brother, let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when you yourself fail to see the plank in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye. (Luke 6:42)

A lot of people think this means that after we judge ourselves, that we can judge other people. Some people think this means that there is such a thing as moral high ground.

There isn’t. We all always have the plank in our eye. That’s the issue.

I think real change comes when people stop talking about selfishness and power and greed and start talking about how we can love people where they are. I know that sounds hokey, but I don’t know how else to say it.

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.

Friday Favorite: Writing to God

Every Friday, I post a Friday Favorite. These are my most popular past posts. I share them because I like them, you like them, and perhaps you haven’t had the time to read all my past posts. Enjoy and feel free to comment!

I think I started to get semi-serious about writing right around the time that I started to get semi-serious about girls. If you’ve ever gotten semi-serious about girls, you know it’s a complicated matter. It motivates you to do things like dress better, play sports, and pretend that you have to shave. The problem with getting semi-serious about girls, though, is that you very rarely finish anything. You write a little bit, then cry a little bit, write a little bit more, talk to a girl, cry some more, write, sleep, dream about girls, pretend to shave…. and nothing ever gets done. And it’s just a hassle.

I tell you all of this because what I really want to say is that I started to get semi-serious about writing because I wanted people to like me. I thought if I wrote my moody pre-teenage feelings poetically enough on my Xanga people would say “Ooh, he’s moody and poetic” and then they would immediately associate me with other moody and poetic people like Johnny Depp and John Mayer.

Moody and Poetic Teenage Writing

Some moody and poetic teenage writing.

Over the years, writing and I have had a bit of a rocky relationship. He helped me get a girlfriend in high school. And then I didn’t talk to him for a while. But then he selflessly got me into college, and I started hanging out with him again. Then he made me into a hipster, and I couldn’t forgive him for a while. The thing is, though, that I’ve never really been fair to writing. I’ve been using him for ulterior motives even before I knew what that word meant.

One night, when writing and I were on the outs, I went on a run because I was feeling kind of alone, and when you are feeling alone and you and writing are on the outs, there isn’t much else to do but to run. And while I was running, I was kind of talking to God because God is easy to talk to when there aren’t people around and the night is dark and you are in a golf course. While I was running and being with God, I realized that writing should be a little bit like talking to God. When you talk to God, it’s kind of hard to be selfish. Being selfish with God is a bit like meeting the president and asking him why they served cold food at your school that morning. It’s just not something you do. Instead, when you are talking to God, you start to realize all of the things you care about and all the people you care about. That’s a really beautiful thing, and it dawned on me that night while running and talking to God, that writing should be beautiful in that way.

So I’m making a commitment. Writing should be like talking to God.

The title of this site is “Spencer Writes,” but it’s only that because it’s cute and catchy. What I really want it to say is “Spencer Writes About People He Loves” because there really isn’t anything else worth writing about.

Why God is the Opposite of Boobs

I got your interest with that title, didn’t I? It’s true though. And it’s not because I’m trying to gender God or something. Maybe God is a woman and then She would be opposite of Her boobs. That’s all I’m saying.

When we are little (like before-we-can-move-by-ourselves little), we have very little concept of the world. And it is theorized that new-borns believe that the entire world is their mothers’ breasts. That’s all there is to life. Nothing else matters or is important. They, supposedly, are consumed by their little newborn perception of that breast. And that’s all that is going on.

Well, then fast-forward a decade or two, and life seems really really complicated. We deal with careers, school, mortgages, children, spouses, significant others, aging families, funerals, marriages, births, birthdays, war, taxes, depressions, disease, and all the other stuff we think is important. And we think we have grown vastly superior to the baby who cannot comprehend anything other than her mother’s breast.

But the truth is that we still haven’t reached a sophisticated truth. Sure, life isn’t all about boobs. It’s good we learned that. (Maybe some people are still trying to get over that part.) But it’s silly that we think that life is all about all of the various things we surround ourselves with now. Why should ten, twenty, thirty years make all that much different.

It’s funny because we often include God in this list of stuff that life is about. But we would be much closer to understanding what God’s power was if we said something like God is life. We used to believe that boobs were life. That was wrong. God is life probably isn’t all that wrong. God’s kinda the opposite of boobs.

There’s a scene in the movie V for Vendetta when one of the characters is reading a letter from one of the other characters, and the letter-writer says that her grandmother used to tell her that “God was in the rain.” I try to remind myself of that every time I find myself uptown without an umbrella.

Praying for Pokemon Cards

I struggle a lot with prayer. I never know how specific I should get with my prayers. Should I be asking God to give me Ferraris, introduce me to Zooey Deschanel, and become a best-selling author? I don’t know. But sometimes I feel like a little kid when I pray, asking for things that I think I want but actually don’t. What was the number one request of child Spencer? Pokemon cards. Do I still use my Pokemon cards? No. I wish I had asked for books. Lots and lots of books. And I feel like this is what it’s like when we come to God for something. God knows our own destinies infinitely better than we do and so asking an omniscient being for things seems a bit childish.

For a long time, I thought prayer was silly because of this passage from Jesus in Matthew:

Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, nor about your body, what you will put on. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air: they sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. (Matthew 6:25-26)

Notice how this passage says nothing about prayer. I was severely misguided in my thoughts. See, Jesus, only a few verses earlier is teaching his disciples how to pray. I guess I always kind of glossed over that part because it wasn’t a very compelling story. But there is a very compelling story of prayer that happens really early on in the Bible.

This story occurs in Genesis 18. Abraham has been hanging out with God for a while. Abraham was one of those cool people that God actually walked around with. And they chatted, probably hiking mountains together and watching the sunrise and cool stuff like that. But in Genesis 18, God tells Abraham that he is going to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah, two cities that have fallen into such sin that they would make Las Vegas look like Heaven on Earth. This doesn’t sit well with Abraham. So he asks God if God will save Sodom and Gomorrah if there are at least 50 righteous people in these cities. God grants that He won’t. And Abraham asks, “Well what about 45?” And again God grants that He won’t. All of this goes on for a while until Abraham gets down to 5, and God again grants that 5 righteous people would be enough.

This story is so powerful. Obviously, God never intended to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah if there were righteous people there, but it was important that Abraham ask for their salvation. Sometimes, we get it into our head that if God already knows everything, then we don’t need to ask him for anything. But God wants us to. He wants to have a personal relationship with us. He wants to talk and hear about our lives, and even though He knows how He can make it better, He wants to know how we think it could be made better.