Probe: Community

As is typical, I formulated a two hour essay for a 50 minute class session. Thus, I had to jettison ideas left and right to be at all coherent and complete. Here is one idea that got left out.

Community is based around ritual, and ritual is based in meaningful movement–crossing, dancing, running, and so on. The challenge to Protestant (comm)unity is shared, meaningful movement in ritual. Doctrinal statements invite agreement/disagreement, thus inclusion/exclusion; movement invites involvement. On the spectrum of Protestantism, denominations with more ritual movement may have more unity than those based primarily around doctrinal statements. Doctrinal statements are intellectual, analytical; they lend themselves to contemplation in solitude.

Without ritual movement, then, community will form around other spheres that are not intrinsically linked to Protestant faith, spheres such as sports and politics, for example. These spheres create unity in movement, goal, form, and ritual timelessness. They sacrifice the concept of the individual for a shared, communal identity if only for a time.

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Probe: The Hyperbole is the Message

Billy Sunday preaching, which is not to assert that I agree or disagree with Mr. Sunday, but to illustrate that he understood how delivery and message worked together. Machiavelli is famous for espousing that the ends justify the means, by which he meant that the rightness or wrongness of an action is judged based on the out come, the greater good. As long as the outcome is positive, the wrongness of an action is probably justified. Some evangelicals use this approach in preaching and writing—the truth can be presented any way you want, so long as the truth is presented. We have terminology that illustrates our attitude: no-nonsense approach, unvarnished truth, tell it like it is. What this attitude fails to understand is that a message is altered by how it is presented. It can be extraordinarily hard to separate the message from the delivery. We remember both, but not necessarily equally. Delivery typically appeals to emotion, whether sorrow, joy, anger, fear or guilt. Emotions tend to have greater rhetorical resonance than logic or reason. So even if a message is technically true, how that message is framed will alter if not outright subsume the message. We typically remember by association, we will be unable to remember the message without the associated emotion.

The way we deliver a message always reinforces a narrative, and narratives are always rhetorical.

Probe: Icons

The problem with politics, at least as we picture it in the U.S. is that we do not elect men and women; we elect traits, ideals, ideologies, and dogmas. Thus, we elect icons. And being icons, we revere them. They become living saints to a secularized way of doing government—secularized even in spite of our attempts to inject religious adherence into the process, into the icons; we are still revering a man-made system, autonomous in itself, and following its own operational rules—the machine is tuned and oiled. As a result, we tend to place our political icons into a position of substitutionary activism and responsibility—a substitutionary virtuism, if you will. Just as Christ took our sins upon himself, leaving us with only one obligation—to come—so do we make our politicians Christ-figures by which they take on our duties and obligations to our neighbors, the poor, the outcasts, and the non-Christian. We place these roles on our politicians because (we believe) only they can truly do the good work of Christianized social construction, leaving us with only one obligation—to vote.

Blast! Fundraising Appeal

Blast logoMy in-laws run a wilderness camp called Discovery Ministries. It is a ministry that helps people overcome personal challenges and conflict. Being a ministry, it obviously focuses on placing trust in God while pushing people out of their comfort zones. They lead challenge trips, which involve hiking in the wilderness for day to a couple of weeks; facilitate group discussions and interpersonal conflict sessions; and offer retreat and camping facilities. At the core of their philosophy is the use of experiential education to bring about personal growth—mentally, physically, and spiritually.

I value their work. The United States is a country that has begun to lose its connection to the natural world. We are lost without our televisions or smartphones. We have difficulty relating with one another despite greater technological connectivity. And I feel that the church in the United States desperately needs growth—mentally, physically, and spiritually. I worked in a Christian book store and encountered many people who couldn’t deal with conflict. Many of the Christians I have encountered are passive aggressive—we kill with insincere kindness. We have also made our faith into one of head knowledge, often bypassing the heart (except when singing worship songs or reading Christian literature or feeling good about how much God loves us), especially when it comes to relating to people who do not share our beliefs. We like to box ourselves in a safe Christian bubble that constantly reaffirms our beliefs and (more importantly) our feelings. We have often ignored the practical aspects of Christ’s teaching: forgiving others, loving others, caring for others, and having mercy on others. We tend to proclaim what we think is best for the world, always within the safety our Christian bubble.

This is why I value the work of Discovery Ministries: they encourage Christians (and those who are not Christians) to deal with the difficulties of life by taking them out of their comfort zone. They provide an environment that fosters encouragement, growth, challenge, and forces people to actually relate to one another.

Next month I will be participating in a 24 hour hike-a-thon for Discovery Ministries. They rely on donations to pay salaries and maintain the facilities around the camp. They recently built a new office area. It is usable, but they do not have the money to finish it.

I’ve set up a fundraising page on Indiegogo. I’m hoping to raise $500 for the ministry. My hiking goal is 20 miles. I have a few incentives that I am offering, specifically writings that I have done. I would appreciate it if you check out the campaign and consider donating as much as you feel you can.

Thanks.

Flirting with Eastern Orthodoxy Part 2: Ah, Mary

Or “Becoming Orthodox” by Peter Gillquist Part 2

I grew up in the Independent Christian Church, which means that I’m pretty far out on the rapidly spreading branches of Protestantism.  I couldn’t really tell you what the Independent Christian Church believes, however, as the church I attended as a youngster was a small, country church, and I didn’t pay much attention until high school.  Church or denominational history didn’t really enter in to it, although we did claim to be non-denominational.  We answered to no central council or authority, in other words.  All this to say, being of a Protestant bent, I have some very strong reactions to thoughts of Mary beyond what is generally shared in The Nativity Story.  Praying to Mary seems rather odd and uncomfortable to me.

Well, I’ve reached the chapter on Mary in Gillquist’s book and I’m a bit surprised by some of my reactions.  First, I either agree with him or at least take his point on a few issues.  I understand the reasoning behind the phrase “Mother of God”.  It actually makes sense to me.  The gist of the phrase is that Mary isn’t so much the mother of the Trinity (as the Trinity has no mother), but that she is the mother of Jesus, who was divine.  “Mother of God”, therefore, asserts that Jesus is God, not merely mortal and human as some heresies throughout church history have claimed.  Okay, this makes sense to me.

I take the point that Mary is the greatest woman who ever lived due to the fact that God chose her, and he chose her due to her purity.  She is also a role model of obedience, purity and faithfulness.

But what truly surprised me was when I started to see the reasoning behind the believe that Mary was Ever-Virgin.  Sure, Protestants will agree that she was a virgin when she gave birth to Jesus, but I think very few would say she and Joseph never consummated their marriage.  However, the Orthodox do believe this, thus Mary is Ever-Virgin.  Now, it seemed to me that it was quite absurd to think Joseph would be okay with never having marital relations with Mary.  It seemed ridiculous to think Mary was Ever-Virgin because, well, didn’t Jesus have brothers and sisters?   Church tradition asserts that James was the brother of Jesus.  There are actually two things that have made me begin to waver on this idea.  First, Ezekiel 44:1-2, a verse from a prophetic book, so take that for what it is worth, states, “ Then he brought me back to the outer gate to the sanctuary which faces toward the east, but it was shut.  And the Lord said to me, ‘This gate shall be shut; it shall not be opened, and no man shall enter by it, because the Lord God of Israel has entered by it; therefore it shall be shut. (NASB)’” The implication here is that the gate is Mary’s womb and that Jesus entered the world by her womb and “no man shall enter”.  The prophetic language here is rather compelling.  But it is one verse, right?  Well, the second thing that began to sway me was the account in John’s Gospel when Jesus, while on the cross, saw his mother and John.  He told Mary, “Woman, here is your son,” then told John, “here is your mother.”  Essentially, he is providing for the care of His mother, trusting her to John’s care and provision.  This seems to be quite reasonable until I realized that if Jesus had brothers, why would He give Mary to the care of a disciple.  It would be the responsibility of the His brothers to look after Mary.  Thus, this is a bit of an oddity.  It is true that sometimes the Bible uses the term “brother” to designate a close relation (cousin, nephew, etc.), so there is room for Jesus to be an only child.  There is room for her to be Ever-Virgin.  The question I have now becomes, is it truly essential to believe this?  Does it really change anything I believe?  At this point, I’m not sure that it does, but who would have thought the whole filioque issue would mean much without the tapestry of church history to observe?

These are the things that I’m coming around on, although the Ever-Virgin idea is still new and uncomfortable because it is in contrast to my Protestant heritage.  But I mentioned things that I am still unconvinced by.  These have to deal with Mary as intercessor and Mary saving us, both ideas are present in prayer by The Orthodox Church.  I will grant Gillquist that Christians have a part in the salvation process.  Paul says we are ambassadors of Christ.  While Christ does the actual saving, we can help point people to Him, we can witness to His work and kingdom.  We can turn others from destructive ways.  In doing this we save them, but we do not actually give them salvation.  That is Christ’s alone to give.  But while I agree with Gillquist on this point, why ask Mary to save us when it is Christ doing the saving?  Many of the examples of Christians saving people involve the living helping the living, not someone in Heaven helping someone on Earth.  Likewise with intercession, if I ask someone to pray for me, I don’t do it by praying to them.  And the examples Gillquist uses on both intercession and saving could be used, it seems to me, with any saint that has gone before.  Why not pray to Paul or Peter or Mother Theresa?  Granted, praying to the saints does play out, but prayers in the Psalms and The Lord’s Prayer (or Our Father) show believers praying to God in Heaven.  Why the middleman?  And isn’t Christ our intercessor before God?  I’m not sure Gillquist has convinced me on this part.

Flirting With Eastern Orthodoxy

Recently I have begun to study the Eastern Orthodox branch of Christianity.  This was due in part to feeling that my evangelical faith is feeling a bit uncomfortable, but also due to a man I respect and admire joining the Eastern Orthodox Church, which caused me to want to investigate the history and theology of the Orthodox Church.  Working in a Christian bookshop has enabled me to gain access to a few books on the topic as they come in (which is not very common in the mid-western United States).  My starting point has been a book by Peter E. Gillquist titled Becoming Orthodox.  It is a memoir of sorts that chronicles the journey of Gillquist and other evangelical Protestants as they attempt to understand the their life in faith, which eventually led them to Eastern Orthodoxy.  I finished part one tonight and wanted to write up a few thoughts.

Are you leading me astray?

First, I seem to agree with Eastern Orthodoxy on two of their criticisms of Catholicism and Western Christianity.  The Pope, while I don’t believe him to be an evil man as some evangelicals seem to portray him, is not an office I see a lot of precedent for.  I acknowledge that The Bishop of Rome was historically important as the seat of Christianity moved there after the destruction of Jerusalem, but does that necessarily mean that The Bishop of Rome should evermore be the head of the world-wide Church?  I find it a bit uncomfortable, I admit, but I’m also willing, at the moment, to agree to disagree on this particular issue.

The second criticism of Eastern Orthodoxy, one that I discovered in doing some earlier research on the tradition, requires the filioque debate.  Essentially, the Eastern Orthodox Church rejects a change that was made to the Nicene Creed.  Originally, the creed stated that The Holy Spirit proceeded from The Father and is to be worshipped with The Father and The Son, which was in accordance with John 15:26.  However, the Nicene Creed in the West was eventually changed to the Holy Spirit proceeding from The Father and The Son.  On first glance, this seems to be a very minor, almost insignificant change.  However, the more I thought about it and the more I looked at the Evangelical Church in America, the more I began to see how marginalized The Holy Spirit has become in all but the Charismatic denominations (and even there, the view of The Spirit almost seems to have swung completely too far in the other direction).  The Spirit is discussed, but it certainly isn’t seen as, or talked about, being on equal footing with The Father and The Son.  I think Francis Chan addresses this issue, albeit without Eastern Orthodox leanings, in his book Forgotten God. So, I find myself agreeing rather firmly with the Orthodox Church on the filioque issue.

Levar Burton told me to take a look, it's in a book, so that's where I'm looking.

Does this mean I’m Eastern Orthodox now?  I rather doubt it.  Honestly, I haven’t done nearly enough research to consider any changes, but I do feel drawn to Eastern Orthodoxy in ways that I haven’t yet begun to comprehend.  And while Gillquist’s book makes for interesting reading for a beginner on this topic, it sounds somewhat similar to other “is church as we know it truly the historic church” books.  Although, in Gillquist’s defense, his was written about fifteen years before some of these other books, and he points firmly to an ancient practice of Christianity, rather than a post-modern one.  But I must confess that my knowledge of Church history is quite basic and not developed enough to really know if I can refute some of Gillquist’s claims with regard to First Century Church practices and Eastern Orthodoxy.  Not all scholars in New Testament Christianity seem to become Eastern Orthodox.  I rather enjoy N.T. Wright’s scholarship, and he is Anglican.  But, like Fox Mulder, I want to believe.  I know a few other traditions also claim to be The Historic Church.  They can’t all be correct.

My final thoughts on the subject.  Gillquist mentioned that the Western Church has continued to reform and counter-reform, dividing into smaller and smaller branches, while the Eastern Orthodox Church has remained constant.  I must admit that I want to know how accurate this claim is.  I have wondered in the past if the Western Church is either a) continually attempting to reform itself into something that it has subconsciously lost, or b) founded on the attitude of “no, that’s not the way to do it, my way is!”.  We really do seem to keep dividing and subdividing.  Is the Eastern Orthodox Church really different in this regard?  If you can fill in my gaps of knowledge on this, I would certainly appreciate it.

Be Nice.

In the July/August 2011 issue of Books and Culture, N.D. Wilson wrote a review of Rob Bell’s Love Wins. One statement stood out to me as I pondered the review. Wilson wrote, “There is a strange unstated axiom floating around in the background of the book, namely, the gospel will necessarily be appealing when presented correctly (if your church isn’t growing, find a new God, etc.).” This is an interesting observation, and one that seems to be present in many of the “emerging church” or anti-traditionalist literature. But I would also say that this attitude is present in the mainstream church as well. How often do we hear pastors or leaders in the church state that we need to proclaim the gospel, that our nation would heal if we proclaim the gospel, that our congregations would swell if we proclaim the gospel. Yes, proclaiming the gospel is important, but it must also be lived, it must be evident in our actions as well as on our lips. I’m increasingly coming to believe that the greatest obstacle to Christianity in our culture is not that the gospel isn’t being proclaimed, but that Christians often seem to be jerks.

Woody says, "Play Nice!"

Ask any person in the food industry what shift is the most difficult to work, and they will probably answer with the bar rush or the post-church rush. I have heard stories of belligerent pastors who were denied a pastoral discount, and I could tell quite a few stories about that myself. Just yesterday two women grew angry over a miscommunication and muttered that the person didn’t know how to do his job correctly. Based on my work experience alone (in a Christian book shop) I would easily characterize the majority of our customers, who would classify themselves as Christian, as passive-aggressive or outright rude and self-centered. The temptation of all the clerks is to repay this treatment in kind, which I confess that I have sometimes done and other times have not. My desire is to treat those around me with kindness and grace as much as possible, but it is hard when a self-centered customer starts tearing a co-worker or myself down. I want to push back. I want to defend my friends or, at the very least, my own pride. When you serve people who question your convictions because they find a 7th Day Adventist book shelved in the wrong section or they speak harshly about a book and its fans without trying to discern if you or a person in earshot is a fan, these things start to wear on you. They break you down. I realized recently that the greatest temptation for me to turn my back on the faith isn’t a well-reasoned atheistic argument, it is the behavior of people I encounter who proclaim the name of Christ. And it breaks my heart to know that I have also mis-represented Christ.

These experiences have been rattling around in my head for a few years now. I have been trying to make sense of them. Back to the hope that proclaiming the gospel will change our culture. While that is certainly possible, I almost wonder if it is the same belief that lurks in Love Wins, that if we present the truth of Jesus, everyone will accept him. But if Christians go around cutting each other and non-believers with their words and actions, words and actions that betray our casual indifference to one another, the no one will care a whit about who Jesus is and what the Christian life calls us to. While the obvious solution is to just be nicer to one another, I also have to wonder why we are like this. Why are we so mean to each other?

First of all, life in America is rather easy. Even under our current economic troubles, there are jobs to be had (they may just require lowering standards and moving to other areas) and a person can still make his or her way. American life allows a person to be self-sufficient. Apart from the occasional tragedy of nature, life is pretty much stable. For the middle and upper classes in America, God is rather distant because we don’t depend upon him. We have allowed traces of deism into our theology. God exists and has ordered things, but he doesn’t much interact with us. So, we Americans continue to make our way. But the problem is that the gospel which seeks to set us free from the slavery of death and oppressive life is lacking something when we have hospitals that keep us alive and life is only as oppressive as our creditors (and I understand that some creditors can be quite oppressive). Life in America is largely good, so we don’t think about it very much. Instead, we think about Hell. Sure, Hell is somewhat abstract, but we secretly know we are guilty. We know that our society likely stands on the backs of those who are oppressed in slave trades or sweatshops. We know the corrupting force of our media on the world and that our gods are self-indulgence and entertainment. We connect, on some level, with a Jesus who saves us from our sins because we are consciously or unconsciously guilty. N.T. Wright, in doing interviews on his book Surprised By Hope, in which he talks about the Kingdom of God, Heaven, and The New Jerusalem, found that time and again he was asked by American interviewers about Hell. Does Hell have a lake of fire? Are the damned eaten by worms? How right was Dante? Wright was flabbergasted by the American fixation with Hell. I wonder if the fixation with Hell is the guilt of our success. I wonder if the fixation with Hell is a result of knowing we are self-centered and indifferent to our fellow man, whether American or foreign. So for us, the gospel is to protect us from Hell, to appease our guilt. But that doesn’t necessarily change us.

How does a Christian know he or she is saved? Well, you respond to the alter call and pray the sinner’s prayer. Sometime soon afterward, you are baptized. There isn’t anything necessarily wrong with any of these things (baptism, in fact, was highly prized in the first century church), but each of these has become sacraments in their own rights. Each of these have become the tangible signs of faith, but none of them require a change of heart or an action that truly illustrates one’s devotion to Christ. In the New Testament we have stories of tax collectors returning extorted money and the wealthy selling off fields to meet needs. These were acts that Christ’s followers took as an outward sign of devotion as well as an outflowing of love from their hearts. These people didn’t pray the sinner’s prayer and didn’t read the “Roman’s Road” with Jesus or Paul. They are people for whom Christ’s message, death, and resurrection had profound meaning and they couldn’t refuse it. They were unable to ignore it, so they reoriented their lives to make that new affiliation stick. An alter call or the sinner’s prayer are not necessarily bad things, but without any follow-up, without any guidance, they can be seen as the one and only act of devotion a person needs to make. Not only is this incredibly misleading, it serves to stunt the spiritual growth of the individual. Becoming a follower of Christ requires the individual to reorient his or her life around the will of God, which requires becoming familiar with the story of God’s people (both Jews and Christians) and the teachings of Christ and the other writers in the New Testament. And part of that is living at peace with other people as much as you can do so. And part of that is considering others greater than yourself. Being rude, indifferent, and self-centered are not fruit of the spirit.

We all have our struggles. We all have temptations, and these vary from person to person. My struggles are different from my wife’s and hers are different from our co-workers. We must be willing to exercise grace with one another when confronted by Christian rudeness and indifference. We are to be the change we wish to see in others. We cannot repay evil with evil. This is hard, I know. My struggles are cynicism and sarcasm (although, I sometimes like to think sarcasm and wit are gifts). It is very easy for me to push back at those who are rude and hurt me, and to do so with very little effort. But this does not honor Christ and it does not advance His Kingdom. We cannot use other people’s rudeness and insensitivity as an excuse to devalue them. We have to treat them better than they treat us. Despite proclaiming Christ to the world around them, if we treat them with grace, we may be the only example of Jesus in their lives. We must live with the awareness that these are people whom God values. These are people that, as C.S. Lewis said, we would be tempted to worship if we could see their true nature rather than the debilitating guise of the flesh.

We have to be nice.

Pagan Wives: The Book of Ezra, Chapters 9 and 10

Here is an expanded version of the Sunday morning Bible study I lead on the ninth and tenth chapters of The Book of Ezra.  Since we have a rotation of teachers, I only taught these two chapters.  Thus, a bit of a recap is in order.

Around the time of 597 to 586 BC, Babylon conquered the Southern Kingdom Judah.  It was the last holdout of the Israeli people, the Northern Kingdom having been destroyed much earlier.  The Babylonians destroyed the Temple and took their pick of Judeans for enslavement.  Anyone not carted off to Babylon remained in the land to work the fields.  In 538 BC Babylon itself was conquered by the Persians, led by Cyrus.  Cyrus was more sympathetic toward the Judeans.  The next year, he issued a decree that allowed the Jews to return to their homeland.  The return actually occurred in three different waves.  Ezra returned with the second group.  The first group had already worked on the restoration of the temple.  Here we shall see Ezra working toward re-establishing the people to God.

9:1-4.  Some time after the second wave of Jews returned to Jerusalem, leaders approached Ezra to inform him that some of the people of Israel, priests, and Levites had intermarried with people from the surrounding land.  It would seem that this included those who had either just returned or those who returned in the first wave.  Ezra was most distressed at this new, tearing his robe and plucking out some of his hair.  Quite the visual display.  When I was very young, I imagined passages like this, the tearing of the robes, to be done in anger and frustration, much like The Incredible Hulk.  In actuality, while frustration was probably present, the action is a sign of mourning.  The people had committed a grave sin.

Now it seems, on the surface, to be a lot of stress over nothing.  Is it really such a big deal to intermarry?  Indeed, some people use passages such as this to forbid interracial marriage.  Others cite it as an example of racism in The Bible.  In truth, neither of these is an accurate interpretation, after all the marriage of Ruth and Boaz was a mixed marriage.  It isn’t so much that the Jews married foreigners that caused the problem, but that they married practicing pagans, a direct violation of God’s commands.  Deuteronomy 7:1-4 says

“Now if the Lord your God brings you into the land you go to inherit, and casts out great nations before your face, the Hittites, the Girgashites, the Amorites, the Canaanites, the Perizzites, the Hivites and the Jebusites, seven nations greater and mightier than you, and the Lord your God delivers them into your hands, you shall strike and utterly destroy them.  You shall make no covenant with them nor show them mercy.  Nor shall you make marriage with them.  You shall not give your daughter to his son, nor take his daughter for your son.  For she will turn your son away from Me, and he will serve other god; so the Lord will be very angry with you and destroy you suddenly.”

Thus we see that the concern in Deuteronomy and here in Ezra is that God’s people, should they marry those who practice other religions, could be led away.  Since the Jews were God’s chosen people, to intermarry with practicing pagans was to equate God with these other beliefs, to give the impression that He is One among many, not The One True God.

Why did they intermarry?  The text doesn’t quite say, but put yourself into the mindset of  a group of exiles who are now returning to your home.  Many decades have passed since the destruction of your homeland and, in the attempt to gain a foothold in the reconstruction of society, the temptation to align yourself with the people who remained in the land, people with strong economic or political ties, would be great.  Or maybe they were tired of seeing the same group of Jewish girls.  We don’t really know.  All we know is that it happened.

Does this idea still have relevance to us today?  Yes.  When choosing who to marry, we must always be mindful of our beliefs.  When someone shares a different religious belief, there can be conflicts.  In which faith do you raise your children or do you let them choose between conflicting faiths?  What about those areas where the two religions differ on moral issues?  If you are in debt, there will be tensions about spending money?  The Christian will feel called to tithe, but the unbeliever would not have such a compulsion.  The unbelieving spouse may respect the beliefs in times of peace, but in times of stress, this may not always happen.  In 2 Corinthians 6:14, Paul tells Christians to not be yoked with unbelievers.  In practicality, this is a caution against such intermarriage.  Two people of different faiths will have areas of conflict.

9:5-15.  Ezra spent the day until the evening sacrifice in shock and fasting.  He would have been noticed by the people.  When the time came to pray, he took on the role of mediator.  We have seen this with Moses and other prophets in the Old Testament.  Essentially, Ezra equates himself with the people and takes their sin upon himself.  He doesn’t speak of them as “those sinners over there”, but speaks of the sin as if it were his own.  It is the Christian belief that this still occurs, that Jesus is our mediator, pleading our case to God as we confess and pursue holiness.

What is also striking about Ezra’s prayer is that he doesn’t ask for anything, not even forgiveness.  He takes the position that the Jews knew better and didn’t follow God.  Because they knew better, God has shown extreme grace by holding off the destruction of the Jews, although he does see their constant enslavement as punishment for refusing to follow God’s commands.  And on this note, he uses the prayer as a type of sermon, reminding the people of their identity as God’s chosen.  He re-establishes their narrative, something that may have been needed when re-inhabiting the land from which they had been taken.  A conquered people always need to remember who they are.  Thus, this was a prayer of confession, but it was also more than a little theatrical.  It was meant to be heard and convict those who heard, just as the tearing of the cloak and plucking of the hair was a public sign of mourning.  And this seems to have worked, for in chapter 10 verse 1 we see that a large assembly gathered around him and wept.

10:1-44.  Thus, the people felt shame and grief and Shechaniah spoke for the people, owning the sin and proclaiming that they should renew their end of the covenant with God and put away the wives and children born in the intermarriages.  To our modern ears, this seems a bit inspiring, but also a bit troubling.  Basically, they are sending away their women and children.  Again, critics would say that this seems extremely harsh, but what do we really know about the situation.  All the text says is that they sent them away, but this doesn’t necessarily mean they were abandoned.  It conjures images of husbands walking out on wives and leaving children, and image that has a specific connotation to our society that may not have been the case in a tribal culture.  Again, we don’t have details, but it is possible that these unfaithful men still had to provide for the women and children.  It is possible that the Jewish leaders gave them provisions for them to return to their original people.  To assume that these women and children were cast off as unwanted trash probably says more about the person interpreting the text than the text itself.  We should be careful about projecting our modern sensibilities on passages where the Bible itself doesn’t speak in detail.  We must also remember that Ezra is seen as a pseudo-history, but it’s main importance was as a theological lesson.  Ancient concepts of recording history are quite different from how we record and analyze history today.  Ancient historians chronicled based on patterns and connections, often trying to make a point of some sort.  Look at many of the Roman histories where the purpose was to be accurate while at the same time elevating the patron who funded the history to be a reincarnation of any number of great Roman leaders.  All this to say that there is no reason to assume that sending these people away is necessarily a bad thing just because it conjures images of dead-beat dads and absentee fathers to us.  There is every reason to believe the Jews made provisions for this new segment of society or that God Himself placed his Hand of protection and provision over them. In the former case, there are many specific laws about the treatment of the poor or of prisoners of war.  There may have been provisions in the interpretation of The Law that provided for these women and children.  In the latter case, just because you were a result of someone breaking God’s command, does not mean God will forsake you.  He still protected and provided for Hagar and Ishmael (Genesis 16:7-14, 21:9-20).  Thus, knowing what happened to these women and children is less important than the fact that the Jews married them and how the Jews responded when confronted with their sin.

So, the response was to send the women away.  This is also one of the few times in the Old Testament where, when presented with the words of the prophet, the Jews responded with “yeah, okay.”  Most of the time, their response was not quite so accepting.

An obvious question at this point.  If a Christian is married to an unbeliever, does this mean that the correct response is divorce?  Paul is actually quite clear on this.  The answer is no.  In 1 Corinthians 7:12-15, Paul says that the believer is not to break the marriage because God hates divorce.  It is the responsibility of the unbeliever to leave and if the unbeliever wishes to maintain the marriage, then the marriage must not be broken.  But if the unbeliever wishes to leave, he or she must be allowed to leave.  Paul also qualifies this by saying it is his personal opinion.  We should live at peace with our unbelieving spouses for we may win them to Christ with our love and service.  We should not provoke them to anger or lord our faith over them.

The chapter ends with a sort of Old Testament version of WikiLeaks.  The women and  children were sent away, but the men who broke the commands of God were shamed by having their names recorded for all of posterity.  How horrible to be known not for your accomplishments or successes, but to be forever known for breaking God’s commands.

Primary Resources Used: Fensham, F. Charles. New International Commentary on the Old Testament : The Books of Ezra and Nehemiah Eerdmans. 1982.

Scripture taken from the St. Athanasius Academy Septuagint.  Copyright 2008 by St. Athanasius Academy of Orthodox Theology.  Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Love Wins Part Three

In other reviews of Love Wins, I have read the accusation that it is hard to pin Rob Bell down on what he believes.  And that is somewhat true if you are trying to discover if Bell believes in universalism.  I hate to tell you, but if you are looking for Bell to say “I believe . . . ” you won’t find it up to this point.

Chapter Four is, it seems from various reviews, the big one.  It is the chapter that talks about reconciliation.  It is the first chapter that has shades of universalism.  And yet, nowhere in this chapter does Bell affirm reconciliation.  He talks about it, certainly.  Much of the chapter discusses it.  But he also talks of another theory of hell in which our humanity is burned away as we choose a life apart from God.  This idea is present in C.S. Lewis’ The Great Divorce.  Rather than an explicit statement of belief, Bell delivers an attack against presumption.  He asks questions about eternal, conscious torment and whether it can be loving.  He asks whether or not people have a choice if there is reconciliation. He asks if life really is the only chance we have to choose God or if there may be another chance later.  Then, he delivers what I believe to be the most concise statement of why he wrote the book:

“Those are questions, or more accurately, those are tensions we are free to leave fully intact.  We don’t need to resolve them or answer them because we can’t and so we simply respect them, creating space for the freedom that love requires.” (Love Wins, pg 115)

I take this to mean that we shouldn’t presume to know the details of how God will judge the dead.  We should be willing to say we are unsure but trust that God will allow us the freedom of choosing existence with Him or without Him.  As Bell states on page 116, a “better question, one we can answer, one that takes all of this speculation about the future, which no one has been to and then returned with hard empirical evidence…is not ‘does God get what God wants?’ but ‘Do we get what we want?'”

Basically, Bell concludes, if we want existence with God, God welcomes us.  If we want existence without God, He grants that as well.  Love is the freedom God gives us to choose what we want and He grants that choice “because love wins.”

I believe, in his own way, Bell is telling us to lay off the speculation, to not be so willing and eager to die on our theological swords regarding the exact nature of Hell and God’s judgment.

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One thing that saddened me in the critiques of Love Wins was the insistence of the reviewers that Bell leaves out the work of the cross and how it relates to the overall subject of the book.  Imagine my surprise when I read chapter five and found that the entire chapter is about the cross and the metaphors early church writers used to communicate their understanding of Christ’s sacrifice to the cultures in which they lived.  Perhaps I misread the critiques, but this seems to be a massive oversight.  Now, I can understand that Bell may not have interpreted the cross the way they wished.  Indeed, he likens what many would term the facets of the cross to mere metaphors, both truthful but still analogy.  The cross was a sacrificial atonement.  The cross was a justification for our sins.  On the cross, we were redeemed.  These are all true, and they are all metaphors.  He suggests we need to find metaphors that will convey the same image to our current culture, which has little to know real understanding of the sacrificial system.  I tend to agree.

Between reading chapters 4 and 5, chapters that I felt would be the most controversial in the book, I found myself quite shocked that I agreed with Bell’s premise and intention, if not necessarily specific details.  From the pre-release reviews, I expected to find a book in which Rob Bell went so far afield as to undermine some basic tenants of scripture.  To a degree, I don’t think he has.  But at the same time, I can see why some people think he did.

Love Wins is not a chapter by chapter analysis of specific, individual concepts.  It is a book that builds a case, an argument, and as stated before, the argument is that we should refrain from speculating too much (or more accurately, allow freedom for different interpretations) on God’s judgment and the afterlife.  Bell seems to be saying that he thinks we have given too much time to talking about Hell as eternal, conscious torment and not enough time talking about God’s desire to be reconciled to all mankind and all of creation.  This is God’s love for us, that he set in motion a plan which would allow all of creation to be redeemed, yet still allows humanity the freedom to choose otherwise.  If we choose the reconciliation, we are welcomed home and can find a life that is more in line with God’s plan for creation.  If we do not choose God, well, we don’t know for sure.  We know that life apart from God is not true life, but we are given that freedom and many different people have interpreted the consequences in different ways.  This seems to be the message Bell is attempting to convey.  However, I don’t know if many of the critiques are seeing this message because so many people are reading the book with an agenda, and that agenda is to find out, “Is Rob Bell a universalist?”  And every statement in the book that supports the agenda is processed and every statement that doesn’t may be glossed over.  Due to the controversy surrounding the book and Rob Bell as an individual, I would only personally recommend the book to people I knew were very discerning and willing to engage with Love Wins in a thoughtful way, cross-referencing scripture where necessary.  In our society we have very short attention spans and we tend to process in sound bytes, and make no mistake, Rob Bell tends to write in sound bytes.  But, if you put aside reactionary emotion and try to follow his arguments, some admittedly stronger than others, you may be surprised that he does indeed toe the evangelical line in many of his conclusions.  The difficulty is figuring out what his conclusions are.  This is where that discernment kicks in.  Yes, he spends much of chapter four detailing ideas and arguments for reconciliation, but his bottom line at the end of the chapter is that this is one view that some in the church have had (and yes, I think he may overstate the case a bit, but he is, technically, correct that some have had and still do believe in reconciliation).  He may spend so much time writing about reconciliation because he personally hopes for it, or he may spend so much time on it because he knows it is directly opposed to the interpretation many people have of Hell and God’s judgment.  In the end, he asks that we let this remain a mystery and focus on what we do know: That God allows us to choose our fate and that choice directly influences our life and the world around us.  If we choose to align with God, we will find life.  If we choose against God, we create Hell for ourselves and our life wanes.  And when we die . . . who knows for sure but God.

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Chapter six is a bit more troubling, however.  I must admit that either I’m not following Bell’s arguments well or he isn’t making them clearly and concisely.  Chapter six deals with the idea that people who do not share our specific view of Jesus may, in fact, go to heaven.  The basic premise is twofold.  First, Jesus can be distorted through cultural misrepresentation.  Fair enough.  Second, Bell seems to conclude that there are people in other religions that may find Christ by being devout and following the Christ-like qualities inherent in their culture or religion.  And while I’m certainly open to this discussion, I wouldn’t say that this is the same as knowing Christ.  The very concept of missions set forth in the New Testament is  predicated on the preaching and explanation of the specific person of Christ.  Even people who come to Christ through visions have specific visions that point to Christ.  It is the Christian’s responsibility to explain and interpret, to point people toward Christ.  Like C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien, I believe that all myths, in some way, point to the True Myth, the story of God and the redemption of creation and mankind.  However, all myths have competing ideas that distort or obscure the truth in them, and often they must be explained and reinterpreted in light of Christ.  This is what Paul did in Athens in Acts 17:22-31.  The Gospel is something that must be proclaimed.  Christ is someone who must be known.  Now, I doubt that Rob Bell would disagree with this, but Chapter Six does seem to give the impression that maybe people can find their own ways to Christ.  And truly, Jesus does appear to people and call to them in dreams and other methods to this day.  But at times the chapter seems to suggest that perhaps people may not find Jesus but will still find the saving love of Jesus.  Again, I want to give Bell the benefit of the doubt, but because of how he wrote this chapter, I can easily see how people would come away from it with the wrong impression, that people will take away from this chapter the idea that as long as you have Christ-like qualities, you will be united to Christ and a part of His Kingdom no matter what you believe.

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Chapter Seven, the final chapter before the conclusion, is a bit of an enigma and one that is difficult to deal with.  I say difficult because Bell appears to make an analysis of heaven and hell from the parable of the Prodigal Son, and if this is any type of statement of truth beyond artistic interpretation, I think it is the most disturbing piece of scriptural exegesis in the book.

Bell recounts the parable and draws conclusions that each son in the parable interprets their personal story (or substitute the word “identity”) different from that of the father.  The younger son sees himself as a shameful sinner unworthy of the love of the father.  The father refutes this by accepting the son as an heir.  The older brother sees himself as a man who worked all his life and has not been given the riches and celebratory status his younger brother is now receiving.  The father says that you have always been mine but we must celebrate your brother who has found his way home.  And while I don’t necessarily have a problem with the analysis thus far, Bell goes on to say that the party is heaven for the younger son but hell for the older son.  Heaven and hell are together in the same place.  So I have to ask myself, in this chapter, is Bell talking of the Earthly possibilities of life being heaven and hell, or is he talking at all about the afterlife?

You see, throughout the book, Bell has made a case for heaven and hell being present in our earthly choices, that in our choices and actions we either shine heaven on the world or we bring hell to the world.  In this, I would agree.  But when he speaks of heaven and hell in Chapter Seven, which version of heaven does he speak of, the earthly one or the spiritual one?  Which version of hell?  This is a point of confusion and contention, and while it may make these words, heaven, hell, and love, more palatable to an unbelieving generation, it does cause the water to be muddied.  I hear your words, but I’m not sure what you mean.  Beyond that, I rather think Bell is taking too much meaning from the parable itself, which has all sorts of contextual meanings from the audience Jesus told it to.  I’m not sure, in this particular case, Jesus was trying to convey information about Heaven and Hell, but about how God sees His chosen and those who find Him.  I think Bell is well within his interpretation to talk of the stories each person tells about who they are and to insist that God has a different story.  This is true of humanity.  But the parable is also meant to illustrate how much God longs for us to return.  It is not meant to give an interpretation of Heaven and Hell.

Later in the chapter, Bell talks about the danger of viewing the gospel as a mere destination ticket.  Essentially, if your view of the gospel is nothing more than a ticket out of Hell, it is, quite frankly, incomplete.  This is an interpretation rooted in nothing more than fear, and while I believe people can grow beyond this limited understanding (because, truth be told, I did), to maintain this view can lead to a life of fear and slow-burning resentment of God and those who seem to be enjoying life more than you.

Like the chapter before it, I think that this one can mislead, it can create an incomplete picture.  I think Bell is following his pastoral heart, trying to lead people to a better, more full life with God, but at the same time, I think his poetic, artistic flair is giving more of the emotion than the theology.  As it is, this chapter is powerful, but it isn’t entirely clear at best, or downright unorthodox at worst.

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This isn’t a book you can skip around in, it isn’t a book you can just skip to the final chapter and try to get Bell’s opinion.  In truth, this is a book in which Bell truly does attempt to get around preconceived notions about God, Heaven, and Hell and attempt to get his readers to see from a perspective they may not have yet considered.  In this way, read from this light, Love Wins can be a powerful and moving book.  And yet, there are times when the emotional heart from which these words flowed missed some key ideas and facets of God’s nature.  Bell, I believe, has truly felt the love of God in his life and wants others to experience that love.  But I think his poetic heart sung the praises of his love much like many poets wrote sonnets about their lovers.  They were not systematic theologies, they were expressions of emotion.  And throughout, I think this method of interpretation needs to be maintained.  It is a book that has many helpful ideas and images, but it must be read with prayer and discernment.  And while Bell may or may not have shades of universalism in his eschatology, judgment is something spoken of in the New Testament.  Our choices do make a difference both now and later.  But there is little point in focusing exclusively on the later when we can bring the light of Heaven, the light of Christ, to the world with our choices, actions, and attitudes right now.

A final word, especially to those who read the book and disagree strongly with Rob Bell’s assertions, perceived or real.  This is a book that uses poetic language and poetic language, by definition, attempts to convey images and emotions.  Thus, there are many people for whom Love Wins will make a new understanding of God’s love and the work of Jesus.  This may prompt them to delve further into orthodox Christianity, or they may stop short and accept the book at face value.  Either way, there will be an emotional reaction to the book.  If you disagree, in part or in whole, with Love Wins, I caution you to discuss the book with gentleness and discernment.  Before standing tall and loudly proclaiming every statement Bell makes that you believe to be incorrect, I urge you to keep silent and listen to why the book impacts someone.  There is a time to denounce false teachings but keep in mind that many people connect with Rob Bell’s writings because they have had difficult times with other churches, either perceived or out-right abusive situations.  If we rush out to defend Christianity with the swords of our tongues (or fingers in the case of the internet), we may well cause more people to struggle or hide.  You don’t speak to an abused child by yelling.

Further Thoughts on “Love Wins”

The chapter on Hell (Chapter 3) did not impact me the way the chapter on Heaven did.  Or, more accurately, it left me much cooler toward Bell’s message.  And what, exactly, is this message?  To the best of my ability to tell thus far, Bell is wanting to widen the stream of interpretation.  Like many of the new generation of preachers who are generally lumped under the “emergent” category, Rob Bell is hoping to open new discussion on a theological concept that has seemed closed for so long.  But I can’t help but wonder, why  he spends so much time criticizing and, indeed, ridiculing the old paradigm and showing how new interpretations can be valid, while ignoring why the old paradigm exists in the first place.  Throughout Chapter 3, Bell re-examines verses that specifically mention hell (or in this case, Gehenna and Hades) and that imply hell.  But in a typically post-modern way, he doesn’t draw concrete conclusions, only inferences.  The closest the reader can come to finding a direct thesis is that the concept of hell is to give a term to describe the “very real consequences we experience when we reject the good and true and beautiful life that God has for us.  We need a word that refers to the big, wide, terrible evil that comes from the secrets hidden deep within our hearts all the way to the massive, society-wide collapse and chaos that comes when we fail to live in God’s world and God’s way.” (Love Wins, 93)  Bell insists that this word is “Hell”, but didn’t it already exist in the word “sin”?  Isn’t the concept of fallen creation big enough to encompass this?  Perhaps we could revisit the concept of “bent” in C.S. Lewis’ Out of the Silent Planet, or examine the creation of the Orcs as a perversion of the Elves in J.R.R. Tolkien’s mythologies for Middle Earth.  The concepts of sin and fallen humanity already exist.  And while Hell does give a visceral reaction to the day to day atrocities committed from humanity’s insistence on going its own way rather than following God, I’m not convinced this is the extent of the term.  And while, yes, many of the verses quoted by Bell that show punishment do have the idea of restoration or “pruning” of the flesh so that one can be redeemed, there are also verses that imply on-going torment or complete annihilation.  The Book of Revelation, while ending with creation restored, does involve punishment for the humans whose names are not found in The Book of Life.  These humans are cast into the same Lake of Fire as Satan, and are either tormented or destroyed, depending on how you read it.  Truthfully, I see more evidence in The Bible for annihilation, but not so much for universal restoration of humanity.  But Chapters 19 and 20 from Revelation are curiously missing from Bell’s chapter on Hell.  I would initially chalk that up to wanting to avoid the book, which it totally understandable.  I’d be hesitant to get behind any concepts or arguments that draws almost exclusively from Revelation, but Bell does refer to chapter 21.  I can’t give him the benefit of the doubt here.

But back to Hell as sin.  I totally understand why Bell would redefine Hell in this way.  We live in a society which does not have a true understanding of sin.  We view it primarily as not doing the right thing, but “the right thing” is a somewhat vague and nebulous term, especially when some would throw murder, adultery, watching R-rated movies, and playing cards into the same pile.  Sin has become a type of legalistic morality rather than any action or thought that separates us from God.  Yes, there are distinct things that God wishes for us to do and not to do, but there are many more things that are somewhat neutral and depend on the attitudes and motivations of our hearts.  These tend to flow from self-centeredness.  But the average American probably doesn’t see this in the word sin, they would merely think it means doing the wrong thing, being.  Thus, Bell is using the word hell and all the baggage it implies to bring a new understanding of what happens when we focus so much on our selves that we ignore the good in others or their needs.  He uses the imagery of hell to show what happens to a world when people refuse to live as God would have them to live.  He has brought a new understanding to sin by characterizing the results of sin.  And while this is a worthy task, I feel that he is somewhat incomplete in his picture.  By combining hell and sin in this way, it limits the consequences of sin to this life.  Hell is what we do here and now to one another.  But what of the next life?  If there is complete reconciliation, then hell in the next life is nonexistent.  But if there is not reconciliation, then the actions we take and the motivations that drive us will have consequences.  These consequences are endlessly speculated upon, but if there is no reconciliation, then not only has sin been misunderstood, but so has hell.  Both terms are then inadequate.  Communicating the gospel to post-modern America is much like the mission field, where we must find ways to communicate old ideas so that they have more meaning to the audience.  Unfortunately, I fear that this is not what Bell is doing.  I fear he is merely trying to make the gospel more palatable for people who don’t like it.  In doing so, he makes certain aspects of Christianity (social justice, love) a primary focus, while minimizing concepts such as the spiritual consequences of sin and the death and resurrection of Christ himself.  If we are all reconciled, then the cross was important, but we need not accept it.  We merely need to accept the good teaching of Jesus, while rejecting his person and claims to divinity.  If we are not reconciled, then the whole package of Jesus is of utmost importance.  Is this a tenant of Christianity that we can really afford to lose?

That said, it is possible Bell is merely building on an idea.  As of chapter three, my primary concern with the book is that I don’t entirely like how Bell is choosing to communicate his message.  I grant that this is personal, not theological in nature.  I’m not a scholar of the Greek language, so I can’t really comment on his translation of aionion.  I do think he occasionally reads too much into certain verses, specifically the parable of the rich man and Lazarus as well as Jesus’ words on Sodom and Gomorrah’s judgement, attempting to get meaning out of the verses which isn’t quite there.  But so far, I don’t believe he has done anything horribly wrong, so long as he is using each chapter to build toward a conclusion.  He may later address the concerns I mention above.  So, onward.