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Takes on the scientific worldview that says the Bible is outdated and un-believeable.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

A Now-Oriented Salvation, Part Two

I’ve noticed among emergent/postmodern Christian authors a consensus for a now-oriented salvation. Part One of this subject is here:  https://toddrisser.com/2013/11/06/a-now-oriented-salvation-part-one/

Last time I ended with these two questions that Nazarene pastor Dana Hicks finds more useful today than asking if someone died tonight would they go to heaven?

1”If you knew you were going to live another forty years, what kind of person would you want to become?”

2. “If you could know what God is doing in the world, would you want to be part of it?”

Regarding this second question, Dana says “I like this question, because it focuses evangelism on God’s agenda instead of our tendency to get God to focus on our agenda. I also like this question because it opens the door to talk about what Jesus talked about the most –the Kingdom of God breaking in to our world right now” (Dana Hicks, Postmodern and Wesleyan, 77).  Rob Bell’s ‘Nooma’ video called Trees highlights this postmodern search for a faith for today, not just my eventual salvation after death. My perception is that it would be accurate to say that, theologically, most emerging/Emergent/postmodern pastors have bought into the idea that the Kingdom of God was the thrust of Jesus’ message… rather than a judicial, legal approach to forgiveness.

When the 2004 Tsunami hit, I heard a Christian speaker on national television say “It doesn’t matter that they died, what matters is: did they know Christ?” The sheer lack of human compassion it portrayed, (ignoring, among other things, the thousands of children left utterly orphaned), the hyper-focus -as if the entire message of the Christian faith was just get to heaven when you die- horrified me, and most postmodern Christians share that sentiment.

I think this turn in the orientation of salvation to the here and now is a good thing.  It’s high time we made sure we aren’t making Christianity out to be just another gnosticism designed to help us escape the physical world of woe. Seeing salvation as akin to God’s shalom restoration is a return to biblical orthodoxy. While the emerging church needs to make sure they don’t under-emphasize what the Scriptures say about salvation after this life, they are, I believe, reacting to what they’ve experienced in many modern churches as an under-emphasis on salvation in this life. While you may feel that your particular church has achieved a good, solid, biblical balance of this dynamic, it is the obvious impression of the postmoderns that there’s been (in far too many churches) an overemphasis on heaven and a neglect of the call of Jesus to work for Kingdom realities here and now, as in the parable of the sheep and the goats.

Emergent church book titles that sum it up

The “Emergent” conversation within (mostly Western) Christianity has believed for quite some time that we are in the midst of a massive rethink, the coming of an end to one era in Christian thought and practice, and the beginning of another (which has happened several times before of course). This often makes some people who are deeply invested in the current institutions and doctrinal systems of modern Christianity very apprehensive, and even calls down accusations of heresy. But this was the case each time one historic era of Christianity died and a new one was birthed. Look at the titles of these books. Do they give you a feel or sense or idea of some of emerging Christianity’s themes?   These are by no means the only excellent books on the subject out there, but these have titles that are indicative:

 

Signs of Emergence: A Vision for Church That Is Organic/ Networked/ Decentralized/ Bottom-Up/ Communal/ Flexible {Always Evolving} (Kester Brewin, Baker, 2007)

Post-Modern Pilgrims: First Century Passion for the 21st Century World (Leonard Sweet, B&H, 2000)

A New Kind of Christian: A Tale of Two Friends on a Spiritual Journey (Brian McLaren, Josey-Bass, 2001)

The Search to Belong: Rethinking intimacy, community, and small groups (Joseph Myers, Zondervan,  2003)

Jesus Brand Spirituality: He wants His religion back (Ken Wilson, Thomas Nelson, 2008)

The Radical Reformission: reaching out without selling out (Mark Driscoll, Zondervan, 2004)

Church Re-Imagined: The Spiritual Formation of People in Communities of Faith (Doug Pagitt and the Solomon’s Porch Community, Zondervan, 2003)

The Next Reformation: Why Evangelicals Must Embrace Postmodernity (Carl Raschke, Baker Academic, 2004)

Jesus Wants to Save Christians: A manifesto for the church in exile (Rob Bell and Don Golden, Zondervan, 2008)

Making Sense of Church: Eavesdropping on Emerging Conversations about God, Community, and Culture (Spencer Burke, Zondervan, 2003)

The Emerging Church: Vintage Christianity for New Generations (Dan Kimball, Zondervan, 2003)

and last but not least, and getting the award for longest subtitle, of course:

A Generous Orthodoxy: Why I am a missional + evangelical + post/protestant + liberal/conservative + mystical/poetic + biblical + charismatic/contemplative + fundamentalist/Calvinist + anabaptist/Anglican + Methodist + catholic + green + incarnational + depressed-yet-hopeful + emergent + unfinished CHRISTIAN (Brian McLaren, Zondervan, 2004)

More Than One Way to Think About Hell?

Back just before Rob Bell’s Love Wins came out, people were freaking out. I don’t know why, because the book hadn’t even hit the shelves yet. But somehow enough had leaked out that the firestorm was in full swing. I was suspicious that what had everybody going was that Rob was going to talk about other views of  ‘the fate of the wicked’ than simply “they burn forever and ever”. Since views of hell that were over instantaneously, or only temporary and remedial in nature were much more numerous in historic Christianity than most North Americans realized, I wrote the following summary of the short-terms hells for our church’s website. This post will get us around to a post I will write soon “Then Why Send Missionaries?”

Various Christian universalisms have been around since the beginning, although they haven’t historically been the majority view. Christian ideas of universal salvation are not generic universalism. “Generic universalism” is the idea that all religions essentially teach the same thing and are pointed at the same goal, so any religion can get you to heaven. (By the way, all religions do not teach the same thing, all religions do not aim at the same goal, and no religion gets anyone to heaven, including Christianity).

The various versions of ‘Universal Salvation’  (also called ‘Universal Reconciliation’ or ‘Universal Restoration’) in Christianity are not the idea that any religion will get you to the same place. No, Universalism in Christianity was the idea that the atonement of Jesus is so profoundly powerful that, in the purposes of God, when all is said and done, every human who has ever lived will eventually and finally turn to God. (This may be what Bell’s title refers to: Love Wins.) Here’s another way it has been summed up: “All human beings will ultimately enjoy redemption and the presence of God forever. Some find the abundant life on this side of the grave — they are called “the elect,” “the saints” and “the firstfruits.” Others may face a fearful judgment and retribution, either in this life or the next. But in the end, they will join the company of the redeemed.” (http://www.auburn.edu/~allenkc/universal_restoration.html)

Most Christian versions of this doctrine include hell of some sort, usually as a limited-duration remedial punishment (get their attention so they want God more than rebellion). While it hasn’t come down to us as the majority view, there were times when it was common (as late as the 5th century Jerome said ‘most people’ and Augustine said ‘many people’ believed it).  The idea  has been believed, or at least considered quite possibly true,  by many sincere followers of Jesus down through the ages, including some pretty heavy hitters: St. Origen, Clement of Alexandria, the Alexandrian fathers, Gregory of Nyssa, Basil the Great, Peter Boehler, William Law,  Sundhar Singh, G.K. Chesteron, Karl Barth and John Neuhaus. (I had a larger list and at present can’t find it). Needless to say, the list of heavy-hitters who did NOT believe in this doctrine is far, far, longer.  The fact that the greatest evangelist of the 20th century, Rev. Billy Graham, has expressed hope in the doctrine of Universal Salvation ought to indicate that it doesn’t undercut evangelism, as some of its critics claim.

Christians who believe in Universal Salvation basically build their arguments around the following ideas:

  • the God who told us to forgive our enemies wouldn’t turn around and set His on fire for trillions of years (this idea has also given birth to the doctrine called ‘Annihilationism’: the idea that Hell is brief and then “the wicked vanish like smoke” and cease to exist (Psalm 37:20).
    •  modern English tends to obscure the nuances of Greek words regarding hell, and we tend to assume the words hell, gehennaSheol, punishment, judgment, justice and wrath all mean the same thing, which they don’t
    • the Greek words for punishment associated with hell in the New Testament are words with ‘remedial’ meanings, indicating the punishment is so people will do better next time
    • Jesus said some will be ‘beaten with few blows’ or ‘punished lightly’ (Luke 13:48). How could this possibly be describing trillions of years of torment?
  • 1 Peter 3: 19-20 and 4: 3,5 describe Jesus preaching to those who had died without knowledge of God’s ways during the time of Noah. Universalists figure something will apply to others who fit the same description.
  • It is against the nature of God, who is “kind and loving toward all He has made” to set people He created on fire for trillions of years. Endless torment  is disproportionate punishment for a crime committed in a limited scope on earth.
  • Paul calls Jesus “the Savior of all men, especially those who believe” (1 Timothy 4:10)  and “reconciling all things on heaven and on earth” (Col 1:20 .)   Jesus said “If I am lifted up I will draw all men to me” John 12:32. David declares “All the ends of the earth shall remember and turn to the Lord; and all the families of the nations shall worship before him.” (Psalm 22: 27) These are by no means all the verses Christian Universalists use, but they are representative.
  • ‘Universal Salvation’ was never condemned by any Ecumenical Council during the formative Patristic Age (first 5 centuries), even though some tried to have it condemned. St. Augustine considered those believing in Universal Salvation, (though he did not), still to be genuine Christians.

C S Lewis, in his beloved Chronicles of Narnia approaches this subject by describing a man who had grown up worshipping an idol/false god, finally meeting Aslan (who represents Christ). When Aslan says ‘come here my son,’ the man falls down on his knees expecting to be killed. When Aslan doesn’t kill him, he can’t understand: “I served Tash – a false-god – all my life, and now I see that YOU are the Truth….” Aslan replies “You acted in ignorance. Whatever vows you kept to Tash I credit as vows kept to me. Whatever vows you made to Tash and broke, I count as vows broken to me.” (I summed it up: for more detail, see The Last Battle, chapter 15).

–          – – – – – –

–          Some Christians ask “If someone can eventually get right with God after death, why send missionaries?” I’ll tackle that in an upcoming post.