Monday, June 27, 2011

Love Wins: Chapter 6 There Are Rocks Everywhere

In this chapter Rob Bell takes on the "Do I need to be a Christian to
be saved?" question in a very broad way. I find his approach very
helpful. Note that he makes two claims that may seem to be at odds:
(1) Jesus is the savior of everyone. And (2) You don't have to believe
in Jesus to be saved. I agree with him that there is nothing
contradictory in this. As Bell explains via the story about Moses and
the rock, there are rocks everywhere and Christ is the rock.

He begins the chapter with a couple of accounts of strange God-
experiences that he has heard of. Bell's approach throughout the
chapter - if not the book - is to begin by assuming that moments of
grace like these (and which may occur in a variety of traditions) have
a divine origin. We live in a safe universe, Bell asserts, and God is
creeping in all over the place. Jesus is many places without anybody
using his name.  This notion of the "Cosmic Christ" (also explored by
Matthew Fox in a variety of ways) is a grand understanding of a Christ
bigger than Jesus.

Bell moves from this grand understanding of Christ and a universe that
is filled with divine love, to press those who might be uncomfortable
with Jesus-as-divine. He challenges those who reject Jesus as divine
by inviting them to be more open to the mysteries the world might
contain: "If you find yourself checking out at this point, finding it
hard to swallow the Jesus-as-divine part, remember that these are
ultimately issues that ask what kind of universe we believe we're
living in . Is it closed or open? Is it limited to what we can
conceive of and understand, or are there realities beyond the human
mind? Are we the ultimate arbiter of what can, and cannot, exist?" (p.
147) [There's a typo in my copy of the book; it says orbiter, instead
of arbiter.]

What follows from his (and St. Paul's) understanding of the Cosmic
Christ is that Jesus is bigger than any one religion. Also bigger than
any one nation, culture, theology, or political party. Rob Bell points
out the dangers of over familiarity with Jesus. We can domesticate
Christ into our particular sphere and miss how he challenges every
system. We can sing so many songs about Jesus that we miss Jesus as
the "stunning, dangerous, compelling, subversive, dynamic reality that
he is." (p. 152).

On a personal note, I remember being sixteen years old in 1968 and
reading the Good News translation of the Gospels for the first time
and being utterly amazed by Jesus. He had never engaged me so deeply
before.  I only knew a relatively tame Jesus.

Rob Bell - almost daringly - takes what appears to be the most
exclusive verse of the Bible from John 14, "I am the way and the truth
and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me" and offers
another reading that turns it into the kind of exclusive statement
that is "on the other side" of  inclusivity. He summarizes an
exclusive position that says that whoever does not believe in Jesus is
not saved. Then Bell summarizes an inclusive position that says there
is one mountain but many paths. Bell's position is that Jesus is the
way but the all-embracing saving love of the Christ will certainly
include all sorts of people from different traditions (p. 155).

Bell emphasizes that he is not saying that Jesus does not matter any
more. He is not saying that it doesn't matter what one believes. His
positive statement is this: What Jesus does is declare that he, and he
alone, is saving everybody. And then he leaves the door way, way open.
Creating all sorts of possibilities." Jesus is more than a "token of
tribal membership." Jesus is the very life source. The church is "to
name, honor, and orient themselves around this mystery. A church is a
community of people who enact specific rituals and create specific
experiences to keep this word alive in their own hearts, a gathering
of believers who help provide language and symbols and experiences for
this mystery." The church is naming the mystery present ALREADY in all
the world.

Bell concludes the chapter with three points:
        1. People come to Jesus in all sorts of ways.
        2. None of have cornered the market on Jesus. Jesus will continually
defy, destroy, and disregard biases and categories.
        3. Heaven is full of surprises so we ought to be reluctant about
making decisive judgments about peoples' eternal destinies.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Rob Bell - Love Wins: Chapter 5 Dying to Live

Rob Bell begins with his noticing that when Eminem returned from a long withdrawal from his performance career he returned wearing a cross. This leads Bell to wonder with us about what the cross means.

He offers several alternatives:

  • Sacrifice
  • Reconciliation
  • The guilty set free
  • Redemption
  • Victory

Bell suggests that all of these metaphors are apt ones for the time in which the New Testament authors wrote. They all point to the meaning of the crucifixion using different contemporary images. None of these particular images is sufficient to capture all of the cross's meaning. "The point, then, isn't to narrow it to one particular metaphor, image, explanation, or mechanism. To elevate one over the others, to insist that there's a 'correct' or 'right' one, is to miss the brilliant, creative work these first Christians were doing when they used these images and metaphors. They were reading their world, looking for ways to communicate this epic event in ways their listeners could grasp." (p. 129)

A variety of metaphors are needed, in part, because the cosmic impact of Jesus is so enormous. Jesus is where life is, according to Bell. On p. 129 he says:  The point then, as it is now, is Jesus. The divine in flesh and blood. He's where the life is." 

I very much appreciate Bell's expansion of what is technically called the "theory of atonement."  In my view, evangelical Christians have been way to attached to the sacrifice image.

Bell moves from the crucifixion to the resurrection. He sees the pattern of crucifixion leading to resurrection as woven into the fabric of the universe.

He has a helpful outline of John's Gospel as seven signs (seven days of creation) leading to an eighth sign, which is the recreation of the cosmos in the resurrection of Jesus. Bell seeks to expand our sense of the scope of the Jesus story from the individual soul to the entire cosmos. I find this refreshing.

Summing up this chapter, I cite a paragraph on page 136:

Jesus talks about death and rebirth constantly, his and ours. He calls us to let go, turn away, renounce, confess, repent, and leave behind the old ways. He talks of the life that will come from his own death, and he promises that life will flow to us in thousands of small ways as we die to our egos, our pride, our need to be right, our self-sufficiency, our rebellion, and our stubborn insistence that we deserve to get our way. When we cling with white knuckles to our sins and our hostility, we're like a tree that won't let its leaves go. There can't be a spring if we're stuck in the fall. 

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Love Wins: Chapter Four "Does God Get What God Wants?"

 Rob Bell begins with the paradox of a God who is loving and powerful but not powerful enough to save billions of people from eternal conscious torment.  The proposed exit from this paradox is to advance another paradox that love requires freedom. People cannot be commanded to freely love God.  God doesn't get what God wants because some will not "turn and believe." 

Yet Bell wants to push this thought further. He reminds us that we are not static beings. We are dynamic. We change.  Perhaps we do not have simply one lifetime to change. Perhaps we have eternity. On page 105 Bell wonders whether we can imagine people who choose evil in such a dedicated and persistent way that the image of God in them is extinguished and they cease to exist as persons.  Bell goes on to cite Martin Luther who did not doubt that God is able to  have arranged it so that people would be able to turn to God after death.

Billions of people wanting to be restored  but being forever damned does not bring glory to God. Bell asks (p. 109) "Which is stronger and more powerful, the hardness of the human heart of God's unrelenting, infinite, expansive love? Thousands through the years have answered that question with the resounding response, 'God's love, of course.'"  Bell reminds us several times in this chapter that over the centuries various Christian writers have answered the questions about eternal damnation in a variety of ways.

Bell makes an important claim on page 110: Some stories are better than others. A story about God inflicting unrelenting punishment on people because they did not manage to do or say some particular thing in their brief lives is not a very good story.  Conversely Bell says, "Everybody enjoying God's good world together with no disgrace or shame, justice being served and all the wrongs being made right is a better story." Even if one disagrees with the truth of that latter story, it is proper and Christian to long for it to be true."

Bell moves on to consider the last book of the Bible, Revelation. Although there is much violent and outlandish imagery in the opening chapters of this book, the ending vision is a picture of a future in which the nations are healed and there is peace on earth and no more tears. There is no place in this vision for murder or destruction or cruelty. Those who would continue those activities are not allowed in. God says, "Not here you won't!"

Bell returns to the paradox on page 113: "Love demands freedom. It always has, and it always will. We are free to resist, reject, and rebel against God's ways for us. We can have all the hell we want." That is one of the reasons why the gates of the new city that comes into being are always open: we are free to enter and we are free to leave.

"Will everyone be saved," Bell asks. The answer is not an answer: "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."

God may or may not get what God wants, according to this chapter, but we get what we want.

Love Wins: Chapter Three "Hell"

In Chapter 3, Rob Bell moves on to consider Hell. He begins by clearing the ground. Again, he goes back to the Bible and recounts all the references to hell, taking the notion from all the meanings that have been built up in countless conversations and teachings. What does the Bible tell us about hell? There isn't much there. There is no real Old Testament equivalent. Sheol comes the closest, but that is simply a shadowy place of the dead.  When we move to the New Testament, we find all but one reference to hell comes from Jesus. The word that is translated as hell refers to a literal garbage dump which had a perennial fire, just outside of Jerusalem.  Two other words are sometimes translated as Hell. One appears on 2 Peter and the other is Hades, which is  a Greek term  used as the translation of the Old Testament  word Sheol. What we are to take from this is that there is not a lot of clear, consistent, Biblical understanding of hell for us to deal with.

Is hell an outdated concept? Bell turns from the Bible to the contemporary world. He recalls situations of hell on earth, concluding that hell is not metaphorical, it is real. Sin and hell are extreme words for extreme situations.

Bell returns to Scripture to dig into the story of the rich man and Lazarus in order to begin reconstructing what the Bible is teaching about hell.  He connects this story to our knowledge of social relationships and the attitudes of our hearts.  He reminds us of how this story would sound to Jesus' original listeners. What kind of warning would they have taken from it? What kind of warning should we take from it?   Here are a few key sentences from page 79: "What we see in Jesus's story about the rich man and Lazarus is an affirmation that there are all kinds of hell, because there are all kinds of ways to resist and reject all that is good and true and beautiful and human now, in this life, and so we can only assume we can do the same in the next." he goes on to say, "There are individual hells, and communal, society-wide hells, and Jesus teaches us to take both seriously.  There is hell now, and there is hell later, and Jesus teaches us to take both seriously."

Bell points out that Jesus preaching - about hell and almost everything else - was directed toward those who considered themselves on the inside. He was warning them that their hard hearts were putting them at risk. Jesus ws pointing out that what was important was being the kind of people who were all about showing the world what God's love looks like in real life.

The final point I will lift up from this chapter is that Bell argues that punishment as described in the Bible is temporary and redemptive. It is not "cast off forever." It is punished with the intention of restoration.  Bell wants to keep the word hell: "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 God's way."