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Archive for March, 2011

This post is a followup to my thoughts on the controversy that preceded the release of this book.  You can read those thought on the wandering road  here, and on YAR  here.  This post is also on the MWR blog here.

An artist is, first and foremost, someone who sees the world differently than other people and helps others to see the world in that way.

Rob Bell is not a theologian; he’s an artist.

Bell’s new book Love Wins: A Book about Heaven, Hell and the Fate of every person who ever lived should be first and foremost understood as a work of art. From the vivid imagery and stories that he uses, down to the careful arrangement of words on the page for visual effect, Bell does a masterful job of evoking questions, providing insights and causing the reader to see age-old questions in new ways.

That said, Love Wins contains theology, most of which isn’t particularly new. Bell even says as much in the preface. The theology that is included, while worded differently, often resonates with many Anabaptist understandings of faith.

One of Rob’s central theses is that heaven and hell are real, but that they are more of a state of being than a physical place — heaven and hell are not reserved for some time in the future but have already begun.

As I read this, I couldn’t help but think of the Anabaptist understanding of the kingdom of heaven — that the kingdom of heaven has already begun in the death and resurrection of Jesus, but that it has not yet fully been completed. Bell’s understanding and the Anabaptist understanding necessitate participation on the part of humans. Overall, many of the core theological concepts that Bell raises or alludes to can be found within various Anabaptist scholars and leaders and have, at some point, been taught at all of our church colleges.

Controversy has surrounded this book, even before it was released, and has mainly centered on the doctrine of hell. However, what seemed more challenging to me was the chapter on different biblical images of atonement.

Bell describes the plethora of images found in the New Testament to describe and understand Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection. Bell challenges the idea that there is one clean, simple way to understand the atonement of Jesus. This seems far more controversial and important than whether or not we have a precise understanding of hell — yet it feels as though this has been overshadowed in the controversy about the book.

Ultimately, Bell provides a provocative book that is adding fuel to an age-old fire. So if you’re looking for a well-footnoted, systematic theological treatise, this isn’t it. It is, however, biblically-based and rooted in scripture.

The book challenges certain understandings of the doctrine of hell, heaven and atonement. But I think these doctrines are more human constructs than biblical truth and rightly should be questioned. Even if Bell challenges beliefs that are seen as “orthodox,” this should not scare off Anabaptists. If it were not for challenging the orthodox doctrines of infant baptism, church and state relationships and faith-based violence, we Anabaptists would not be here today.

For those of us who grew up singing I John 4:7-8 at a church camp, and have grown to have a deep, tested, and sincere belief that these words are true, then Love Wins should be familiar territory for us. At the very least, it raises deeply important questions to our existence as humans and causes us to see ourselves and God in a new way. But then again, great art always does that.

For the first and best response to his critics, see Bell’s interview from March 14 here.  P.S.  Nothing happens until about 10 minutes in so skip ahead.

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Questioning everything

I’ve said for years that I’m not particularly fond of math.  No, I should be honest.  I hate math.  There’s a reason I was a Bible and Religion major in college.  Namely, the major was one of the smallest and there was no math involved.  (oh yeah, and that whole calling-to-be-a-pastor thing too)  In fact, I can tell you that the last math class that I took was my junior year of high school.  After that, I avoided it like the plague.

I’m not really sure why I’ve had such a disdain for math over the years.  I think that it mainly has to do with the fact that I’m not very good at memorization.  (this is also why I almost failed geography too, by the way)  The inability to memorize random things combined with my high school geometry class, which mainly seemed to consist of the memorization of proofs, basically sucked the life out of it for me.  Ultimately, I’m a big picture guy who needs to have a story that goes along with whatever I’m learning.  (this is how I came to have a history minor without actually trying)  I think that, basically, I never got to the point of math where I could see the bigger picture, and thus find any real enjoyment in it.

But then there’s Vi Hart.

She calls herself a “recreational mathemusician”.  I’m not totally sure exactly who she is or what she does for a living, but I think she’s beginning to singlehandedly change my opinion of math.  To be clear, I’m not going to go out and by math textbooks or sign up for calculus at a community college anytime soon.  But her videos are some of the best things that I’ve seen in really long time, even if I can’t fully comprehend everything she’s saying.

Anyways, here are a couple of her videos.  This first one is the first video I came across, and the one on snakes….well, let me just say snakesnakesnakesnakesnakesnakesnakesnakesnakesnake (just watch the video, you’ll get it)

Here’s her website.  It’s worth killing some time there.

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This post is the second half of some previous thoughts which you can read here.  This post is also available on the MWR blog here.

Christianity has enjoyed ubiquitous control over Western society and culture for thousands of years. But this control is falling apart.

So as Mennonites, what will we need to change in order to not only survive, but thrive, in the future? In many ways, we Mennonites have been a marginal church for our entire history, so the idea of being faithful on the margins of society is not particularly earth-shaking. However, this doesn’t mean we won’t be affected by the breakdown of Christendom.

I offer four suggestions to start the conversation — leave a comment below to share your thoughts.

  1. Become a pilgrim people once again. For hundreds of years, Mennonites have periodically moved from place to place, unattached to any particular government. However, many Mennonites see themselves as Americans first and take an ownership of the U.S. that is unhealthy. We are called to have an impact on the world around us no matter where we live, but our role as Christians is not to be the dominant controllers of any particular nation. Letting go of our ownership of this society will be important.
  2. Hold our buildings lightly. Most of our church buildings are built for the church of the past rather than the church of the future. The church I work at has lots of space, but most of it is unsuitable for the type of programs that we now have. In some cases, we may need to release our buildings as the church changes and grows. Buildings are important, but they need to be in service of the mission of God, not the other way around.
  3. Become better sociologists. For hundreds of years, the only people who needed to understand a foreign culture were mission workers. We used to assume everyone was like us. As Christians move to a marginal place in society, we are finding ourselves in an increasingly foreign culture. We need to improve our skills of cultural assessment and translation if we hope to live out the mission of God in our own neighborhoods.
  4. Become unique yet open. Jesus called us to be salt and light — things that are important because they are unique. However, unless these traits are applied to their surroundings, they are worthless. The church in the future will become more refined, unique and different than the rest of the world. However, the church will also need to remain open and engaged with the world.

I can’t present a precise description of what the church of the future will look like. But that’s just the point. The church of the future will be diverse and radically different in each location. There will be some traditional churches, but there will also be new forms of church as well. Thriving in the future will require reclaiming some core parts of our tradition as well as embracing what is to come.

Leave a comment below to share your thoughts.

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There is no doubt that Christians have become a force to be reckoned with in American politics.  But are we fighting a loosing battle?

For about the last 50 years of American politics Christians have been asserting and inserting themselves into the political landscape in a way that has been truly amazing to watch.  One can find a long list of ways in which Christians have asserted their voice into politics.  The rise of the Moral Majority. Countless efforts and campaigns to end abortion.  Jerry Falwell starting Liberty University to create a generation of conservative lawyers. The campaign to re-brand the founding fathers as Evangelical Christians and thus to declare that the U.S. was and is an explicitly Christian nation.  More recently the sweeping campaigns to outlaw gay marriage.  And of course, the campaigns to keep Christian prayer in public schools.

The past 50 years have seen Christians, particularly conservative ones, make serious and sustained efforts to find positions of political power and to assert a particular understanding of Christian belief through legislation, court appointments and changes to state and federal constitutions.  My point here is not to pick on conservatives, because liberals most certainly use the same tactics.  My point is this: Christians have taken to using political power to influence society in a way that is almost unprecedented in U.S. history.  The question is “why”?

While many see these efforts as the growing dominance of Christians in our society, I see these as evidence that the grip over society that Christianity has enjoyed for a very long time is slipping away, and fast.

When the church first started, it was a minority, persecuted group of people.  People did not assume that everyone was a Christian.  Between the years of 300 and 400 ce. being Christian became not only legal, but mandatory for citizenship.  This started a relationship between the state and the church throughout Europe where the basic assumption was that everyone else was already a Christian.  The church asserted a control that touched every aspect of life.  This overarching influence of society is known as Christendom.  Even though the church splintered in the 1500’s, Christendom has been alive and well..  The default assumption in the last 500 years has been that everyone else is still Christian, and that Christianity is the dominant cultural force that controls virtually all aspects of life.

But things are changing.  You can no longer assume that everyone in the U.S. is a Christian.  The power and control over society by Christianity that was once assumed can no longer be counted on.  Simply put, we’re not in charge anymore.

There are many denominations and groups of Christians who have benefitted from Christendom.  They have enjoyed positions of power, influence, and notoriety.  For these groups, the end of Christendom is a threat to everything that they hold dear, nay their very existence.  To stave off what they see as imminent death, they have tried to maintain their control in the only way that they can see.  Faced with a rapidly declining control over society, they have tried to mandate their control over the world through politics while they still have the slim majorities to do so.  The increase in Christian involvement in politics, then, is not evidence of a growing majority, but rather is the last gasps of Christendom.

Christendom is coming to an end and there is nothing we can do to stop it.  To some, this is terrifying.  To me, and many others, it brings the hope for a renewed and refined church.  I know that Jesus called us to be salt and light, substances that have a substantial impact in small quantities.  As Christendom falls the task is not to attempt to re-assert a dominance that we once had, but rather to reclaim the vision of Jesus.  We must figure out how to, once again, be salt and light in the world.

So what does this shift mean for Mennonites?  The second half of these thoughts can be seen at the Mennonite Weekly Review blog, or they will be posted here shortly.

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Is Gandhi in hell?  What’s more, what is hell?  Or heaven, for that matter?

These are some of the questions that have sparked a bit of a firestorm around Rob Bell’s new book Love Wins: a book about heaven hell and the fate of everyone who ever lived.  This first came across my radar screen when I read a post on Tony Jones’s blog late last week about the growing attention and criticism about this book.  Then I did some searching and saw that it has even made a splash on the national news scene from CNN to ABC.

Controversy in and of itself isn’t surprising with Rob Bell.  That’s happened before.  What is striking is that judgment has been leveled by a number of people who haven’t even read the book yet because it has not yet been released!

Ultimately the controversy stems from the fact that Bell is raising core questions about issues that are central to the Christian faith.  He has posed the questions in ways that have led some to conclude that Bell is promoting something called Universalism; a doctrine where everyone gets saved, no matter what.  Again, these are all assumptions because none of his critics have actually read the book yet.  The only worthwhile critique I’ve read so far is Greg Boyd’s, namely because he actually has read the book.  (As a side note, as an Anabaptist, it’s worth paying attention to Boyd partly because he’s grown very close to Mennonites in recent years, even flirting with the idea of joining MCUSA.)

What is most intriguing and frustrating to me is not the discussion about universalism, but rather the controversy itself and the way this has been discussed and argued about in the last couple of weeks.

It has been astounding to see the speed with which he has been denounced as a heretic and the forceful unwillingness to even raise the questions he poses.  For me this is a red flag.  Why are so many vigorously defending a relatively specific doctrine of hell?

When you look at the Bible, there is no one consistent understanding of hell.  For that matter, the concept of an afterlife in much of the Old Testament was non-existent.  God blesses and curses you through your descendants, not in an afterlife (See the 10 commandments).  There is no consistent version of hell in the Bible, and what is there most certainly doesn’t look like what most people today envision.  The image of a red guy with a pitchfork and horns comes from Dante’s Inferno, not the Bible.

I think that the reason that many have had such a knee jerk reaction is because the doctrine of hell is a powerful weapon.  Hell scares the…well..hell out of people.  Combined with a select few leaders who determine who’s in and who’s out, this fear fuels enormous power and control.  Even raising the question, as Bell has done, challenges the enormous power that many have enjoyed for centuries.

To be clear, I’m not defending Bell.  I haven’t read his book so I can’t say one way or another.  What I do know is that these questions are deeply important to an enormous number of people, both inside and outside the church.  It is critical for the church to pay attention to this.  It’s time that we learned to have these discussions, openly and honestly and in front of the watching eyes of the world.  Because as Bell says “what we believe about heaven and hell is incredibly important because it exposes what we believe about who God is and what God is like.”

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