Another great read: “What is The Bible?” by Rob Bell

With the longest-ever subtitle! “How an Ancient Library of Poems, Letters, and Stories Can Transform the Way You Think and Feel About Everything,” Rob turns his considerable writing talents to recommending the Bible to the world to read. This is a fantastic and engaging intro to the Bible for people who have blown it off, and an invigorating wake-up to people who “know” the Bible but have thought they already have it mastered.

Bell does a lot in this book:

Takes on the scientific worldview that says the Bible is outdated and un-believeable.

Takes on questions about the shocking violence.

Takes on questions about the Bible supporting un-enlightened views about humanity, and does a good job of demonstrating that human rights were advanced in radical egalitarian ways throughout the Bible.

Does a great job explaining that the story of the Bible moves on… that some things later in the story supercede and replace ideas earlier in the story.

Takes on the view that the Bible is boring and unrelated to our lives today, demonstrating handily that the themes of the Bible are exactly the issues we struggle with today!

In short, Rob addresses our modern world and says to them – come read the Bible! You’ll be surprised and glad you did – this is amazing! And, will change the way you think and feel about everything! In the process, Rob talks a lot about the God of the Bible and our ability to have a relationship with Him. And what He wants.

Don’t be put-off that the first chapter about Abraham is a teeny bit “racy,” it’s common editorial work to try to hook uninterested readers. The rest of the book proceeds at an un-controversial, yet fast-moving, humorous, engaging, utterly worthwhile read. Do it.


Very Happy for Rob Bell

So my postmodern, emergent, half-hippie son was home for the holidays with his fiancée and since he keeps up with such things, he knew that pastor/writer sensation Rob Bell was airing the first episode of his new TV show on the Oprah Network. (The fact that I just actually typed the words ‘Oprah Network’ is strange in the extreme to me.) So, he says to us, back over Christmas break, “The new Rob Bell show is on tonight!” So there we were taking it all in.

And I am very happy for Rob Bell. How good it was to see him doing something he is so good at, and obviously enjoys. The show is like a long, extended Nooma video: Rob doing what he does best, talking to people creatively and in ways that resonate, about the deepest longings and pain in their lives, and how God comes into all that. I am delighted to see him doing something like this with his time.

Those who hate him, vilify him and thrill to the word “heretic” will, I am sure, expend lots of valuable Kingdom time talking about how horrible he is. Despite the fact that the only identifiable moment in the hour in which a self-appointed heretic hunter could possibly cry about was when Rob spoke about ‘the Universe wanting you to be whole’, instead of saying “God” or “Jesus,” I am confident people will delight in finding tons of things to count as awful heresy or motive throughout his show. It’s so overboard and boring to hear people go on about how awful he is, it’s ridiculous.

But in terms of “the universe,” the Wisdom literature explores personified wisdom at God’s side during creation delighting in His work and in mankind. Wisdom is the power through which God makes the Universe, according to extended passages in the Proverbs; what the Greek philosophers called the underlying rational principle of the cosmos, the divine logos. Both John and Paul described Jesus as precisely this – the logos, through which the universe was created and in whom all things cohere, hold together, sustaining the universe’s existence, the very wisdom of God. If John had any idea what the meaning of the word logos meant, the underlying principle in the universe, which can be connected to and conformed to, then it is indeed accurate, in a way, to say ‘the Universe’ wants you to be whole. Or, at least to say ‘the underlying principle the universe is held together with… wants you to be whole.’

Cheers, Rob.

Was Jesus Omniscient ?

I grew up with an image of Jesus as God stuffed inside human skin. Among other ramifications (like not making the cross seem very scary for a Superman like that), this caused us to picture Jesus as omniscient just like God: a toddler already knowing E=mc2, a 5 year old staring off into space and when called to attention by Mary, saying “oh, a cheetah just took down a Thomson’s gazelle 1000 miles south of here, cool.”  Of course, that gazelle wouldn’t be known as a Thomson gazelle until named after explorer Joseph Thomson in the 1800s, but Jesus  Already. Knew. That. At 5. Cause he’s omniscient.

Except that the Bible doesn’t picture the pre-Ascension Jesus like that. The Bible says Jesus grew in wisdom. The Bible says Jesus was surprised at the centurion’s faith. The Bible says Jesus asked “who touched me?” Hebrews says Jesus learned. ‘Knowing what they were thinking’ does not mean Jesus was a mind-reader. I know what my kids are thinking quite often. Jesus was insightful.

And so, even if Jesus spoke of Noah’s flood as historical fact, even if Jesus spoke of Jonah as if it happened rather than being parable, (and we don’t know that he actually thought either of these things), but even if he did, it could mean he thought of these stories the way everyone else in his generation did. Because he wasn’t omniscient in the way we tend to think.

So when Ken Ham says that Michael Gungor needs to believe in the exact historical accuracy of the Genesis flood account because obviously Jesus and Peter and Paul did, and so you can’t rely on anything they said if you don’t believe the Flood narrative is 100% accurate history, Ham is doing what Rob Bell called, a long time ago, ‘brickianity’ – where we build up a brick wall of doctrines, all supported by ones lower down, and we believe the whole construction will come toppling down if we wiggle a brick toward the bottom.

This is a very frightening thought for our fundamentalist friends. And so, whenever they hear something as inconsequential as the views of a Christian singer concerning a six-day Creation (or the Flood narrative, or whether Adam and Eve are historical or parable), they react strongly and defensively. Because, in their minds, all of Christianity is under attack. But Gungor is right. Many, many, many of us follow Jesus without taking everything in the Bible as literal.

I wonder if the same people upset by Gungor’s “unbiblical” views will be just as outraged by the next idiotic, unbiblical Left Behind movie?

Theological Humility

I want theological humility, alongside appropriate humility in every other area of life. It goes without saying that portions of my theology are of course completely wrong – I just don’t know which portions! As Donald Miller remarked long ago, me understanding God is like an ant understanding me.

Thankfully God has revealed Himself through Scripture, nature and, preeminently, the Son, in ways  that we can understand. But the Christian experience of interpreting the Scriptures the last 20 centuries is diverse and multi-flavored. For any one of our traditions to take a stand and say “we are the only people who have this correct. Line up with our theology or you aren’t even Christian” is not only silly, but is also lacking severely in humility. Seriously? The odds that your particular branch of the Christian family tree nailed it, and everyone else is wrong, are hard to calculate, but let’s just say they are extremely low. And in any event, as I’ve remarked before, this boils salvation down to knowing all the answers on a theology test, and not our personal response to Jesus.

I think we all need (and perhaps especially some branches of the family that come to mind), a good, strong, healthy dose of humility about our theology. I would much rather us talk, learn from one another, learn from one another’s theology, work together and endeavor to live out the Gospel of the Kingdom better and better, instead of casting aspersions over the airwaves and in print, declaring that this or that group are no longer Christians, when in reality they hold to the Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds – it’s just that they don’t sign on to your church’s particular and favorite doctrines.

Humility. Priceless.

How I would characterize the Emergents

Plenty of fine books written by young emergent Christians have explained their perspectives. These books don’t get read much by their detractors, especially the ones just passing along what they heard someone else say. In fact, most Christians I know who are bad-mouthing the emergents have never read any book by an emergent author, and are simply passing along information they’ve gleaned from websites or books antagonistic to the movement. This even includes pastor friends of mine!

When I wrote about the ‘Mesa’ group’s ten commitments, someone asked if I’d say it was just the New Age movement re-packaged? (Part of my response was: “Mesa, as far as I know, are practicing Christians and understand their entire reason to exist as Gospel-driven and Kingdom-purposed. God’s will being done on earth, loving enemies, serving the poor, justice, care in how Scripture is used, churches, Christlike people, the common good, racial harmony, being good stewards of Creation, peacemaking and our relationship with God – all sound like Bible to me!”)

But the question got me thinking, how would I characterize the Emergents? Anytime you try to paint a picture of a large, diverse group, you step into a minefield of mis-characterization. However, I will simply do this:

I will describe the most common ‘type’ (using the word in the way ethnographers do) of Emergent Christian that I have personally known and talked to. So here it is:

Primarily young. Grew up in evangelical church. Believes Jesus is the Son of God and Savior of the world. Thinks the evangelical church sold out to upper middle class Republican values. Thinks the evangelical church confuses being Republican so badly with following Jesus that they can’t see the forest for the trees. Feels that the evangelical church functions largely as a religious grocery store servicing its members while ignoring the pressing needs of the world’s poor and injustices and needs a healthy dose of Matthew 25. Longs for a sense of Christian community they didn’t find in the church they grew up attending. Wants to follow Jesus and do the things he said to do in the Gospels. Isn’t nearly as taken with Paul’s theological explication of Jesus as they are with Jesus himself.  Thinks their parents’ churches are often long on doctrines about Jesus and short on actually following him in the sense of doing what he said. Wants to actually live among the poor and minister to them. Values all kinds of expressions of Christianity across the spectrum of denominations more than just settling into one.  Are often antagonistic toward 5 point Calvinism (though not all of them). Values community more than individuality. Yes, they are democrat. Yes, they are often politically liberal. Yes, like most of their generation, many of them see homosexuality as just how people are born. Their most over-powering goal in life is to live out the Gospel as Kingdom of God followers of Jesus.

These are the characteristics of most Emergent Christians I know.

The Shift to Postmodern Christianity

Down through the centuries, Christianity has been very good at adapting to various changes and shifts in worldview and culture. At the hinge-era of what we usually call the modern/post-modern area, we are in the sometimes volatile thinking-phase of this adaption.

Eddie Bibbs and Ryan Bolger, in their extensive examination of emerging churches have written:

“Because of this essential dismantling work, some outside the (emergent/emerging) movement have said that those in emerging churches do not love the church or that they are full of negativity because of their propensity for dismantling church structures. This is to misread the movement entirely. What to some may appear to be pointless complaining is a part of a larger process of dismantling ideas of church that simply are not viable in postmodern culture. Neither the gospel nor the culture demands these expressions of the faith. Emerging churches remove modern practices of Christianity, not the faith itself. Western Christianity has wed itself to a culture, the modern culture, which is now in decline. Many of us do not know what a postmodern or post-Christendom expression of faith looks like. Perhaps nobody does. But we need to give these leaders space to have this conversation, for this dismantling needs to occur if we are to see the gospel translated for and embodied in twenty-first-century Western culture…” (Gibbs and Bolger, Emerging Churches, 28-29)

George Hunter III has said, more than once, that many churches are poised to be effective if 1952 ever rolls around again. Surely we don’t want North American Christianity in the 21st Century to end up having been “islands filled with modernist Christians while surrounded by a sea of postmodern people”, do we?  I am indebted to Dustin Metcalf (Akkerman, Oord & Peterson, Postmodern and Wesleyan? 63) for this picturesque image.

Earth Is Not Detention Hall, Part One

“Left Behind” theology and other questionable bible exegesis (confusing ‘Kingdom of Heaven’ with a place away from earth where we spend eternity, etc) have  created a view of this world as detention hall. Having a long and thorough personal knowledge of detention hall, I can tell you that all you want to do in detention hall is successfully get out of there. The modern evangelical Christian attitude toward earth has been boiled down to “get me out of this run down trailer park of a planet before God’s tornado touches down.” (I think I owe Rob Bell for this turn of phrase). Or, in the words of Mark Driscoll, “fortunately, the pastor told us about the rapture, and how, if we don’t watch television and do vote Republican, we can fly to heaven just before Jesus opens a can of whoop in the end. This man was on a mission, but it wasn’t very missional. His mission seemed to be simply to get off the planet as soon as possible, which didn’t sound very incarnational to me.” (Mark Driscoll, Confessions of a Reformission Rev., 50). Believe it or not, I have actually had a missionary say to me the best thing he could have done for some ‘natives’ in his area, was mow them down with a machine gun after they received Christ. Is there any more glaring example of a heaven-focused, earth-denying salvation?

Drawn back to Scripture’s story  by such New Testament scholars as N.T. Wright, more and more mainstream Christians (led initially by the emergent movement down this road), have left off these “tired old theologies of abandonment and escape” (thanks again Rob Bell for this phrase), to embrace the biblical doctrine of ‘the renewal of all things’ (Matthew 19:28; Acts 3: 21, Romans 8: 19-25 etc), the call to doing the works of the Kingdom now (Matthew 25: 34ff), and the encouraging promise that none of that will have been in vain (I Corinthians 15:58). We are not oiling the wheels of a car about to go over a cliff. In fact, the Bible’s story ends with us here on earth, not far away in heaven. Heaven, it turns out, is vacation in between death and resurrection. Not our final home.

This is a dramatic theological shift: Postmodern Christians don’t see earth as a temporary and unfortunate part of God’s plan. With the early Christians, they don’t understand the Scriptures to say God is planning on tossing the earth in a scrap heap while we all jet off to some spiritual / non-physical heaven. They read in the Scriptures of God redeeming and restoring His good creation on the Day of the Lord and a resurrected life here on earth in the Age to Come.