Rob and the Gay Christian

Once again, Rob Bell is in the Christian news. He said in an interview on Oprah’s Super Soul Sunday that the Church isn’t far from accepting gay marriage. According to Bell, it’s right on the horizon for us.

Listen, I think Rob Bell’s a really intelligent guy. I agree with a lot of his stuff. I’m not one for the shift he’s made toward the self-help-ish world, but I’m not against self-help or Oprah or anything like that. Self-help’s just not really my cup of tea. I believe people like Rob Bell and Oprah they do more good than harm, and probably little harm at all.

Sounds like I’m setting up for a bit but, but I’m not. Rob Bell’s words on gay marriage, I agree with. I don’t know how close the Church is to being completely LGBT affirming. “Moments away” might be an exaggeration, but I’d say it’s inevitable. And guess what: that’s good! Rob Bell has made the point before that in a time in which marriage is on the decline, why shouldn’t we affirm a group of people who want to have the right to commit to one another in holy matrimony? We complain that kids these days don’t wanna get married and then turn our backs on some of those who do want marriage.

Rob Bell and people like him are labeled heretics for their views on same-sex marriage (a topic that, last I checked, isn’t mentioned in the creeds if that’s your source for orthodoxy). Pastors are accused of committing apostasy and they lose their jobs over this sort of thing.

But why don’t we put ourselves in the shoes of our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters? What if someone was called a heretic for loving and accepting you? What if someone was called an apostate for affirming your human rights? What if someone was condemned to hell by a general population for being compassionate toward you? What if an entire institution’s ability to stay unified rested on its choice whether to affirm or not affirm your choice in who to love? What an awkward position that puts you in.

I wonder how many gay Christians would become straight if it could just bring the Church back together again, if it could just heal their relationships with their families, if it could just solve the dissonance they feel with the Bible. The problem is that most of them can’t just become straight, and according to many Christians, they’re stuck living in their rebellion against God for the rest of their lives.

I believe it’s inevitable that the Church will come to affirm the LGBT community, and when that happens, we may have to come to a new understanding of the six passages of the Bible that supposedly have to do with homosexuality. But when it’s come to things like slavery, segregation, and women equality, people haven’t had a problem reinterpreting scripture in the past. I’ve said it before, our God is a God of progress. I truly believe that because I see progress in the words and deeds of Jesus. How can we say we are standing up for the gospel, the good news, when our message is bad news for many people? How can we stand up for the gospel when we’re distracting ourselves from it?

What’s Going on with Millennials and the Church?

Books have been written, blogs have been posted, statistics are rampant. Apparently, millennials are hightailing it out of local churches. It could be that America and the world is in a state of moral decline, obviously, and us kids just aren’t into following the rules anymore. Of course, we’ll forget about all this when we have our own set of rules when we grow up that the next generation will be breaking. Those whippersnappers will be the rebellious ones then.

So yeah, statistics are proving that younger people aren’t into religion. (Good thing Christianity has rebranded itself as a relationship.) I know people have been writing reason after reason for millennials leaving the church and have offered prescriptions, but I think the solution to the problem goes beyond church leaders dressing down a little and being more authentic. Sure, people are always looking for authenticity, but it seems that maybe the problem of millennials leaving the church is actually the solution in and of itself.

Let me share my story a bit.

I grew up going to church. Ever since high school, I’ve had a leading role somehow in a church. I learned guitar to impress the ladies, but then used it to glorify God by impressing the ladies from the sanctuary stage. I then took my guitar skills to my conservative Christian college in Georgia where I impressed the ladies while glorifying God on the larger stage. Guitarists are about 120% more common in Georgia than in Ohio, so I eventually had to learn to just play guitar to glorify God. (Bummer, right?) So I played guitar and taught at youth groups, church services, camping retreats.

After college, I went back home to Ohio where I became the worship leader at a small church. It was great for a while. But the church was on the more pentecostal side of Christianity, a denomination I always remember being a little uncomfortable with. I wasn’t unfamiliar with the emotional side of worship. I used to work at a summer camp where I was known for being the counselor who would raise his hands, weep, shout, and dance during worship. But being on the other side of it felt … odd.

I don’t know what happened between college and returning home, but I had grown tired of the noise even before becoming the worship leader at that small church. I was tired of the extreme emotionalism. I had seen what it did to teenagers on camping retreats and I had become a little sickened by it. Maybe the loss of emotional control was good for other people, but for me, I was exhausted by its lack of transformational payoff. I could cry in a worship service like no one’s business, but how was I different after it? After all was said and done, I knew it was just the lights, music, and environment that broke me down.

When I started leading worship for that small church, I had already become a cynic of emotional church experiences. I had heard that the reason churches initially started to take up offering directly after the music was because they were more emotional, less in control, and likely to give more. Even though I had become an outsider-looking-in at emotional worship music, as a leader, I still felt expected to create an emotional experience for others. That meant I had to fake spontaneity. I had to look like I was being “led by the Spirit” when I didn’t feel it. I dreaded leading the music on Sundays. Absolutely dreaded it. I loved the people, but oftentimes on my way to church, I considered “accidentally” missing the exit and just driving all morning.

This was a small church I was at. There was hardly any production value in the worship time at all. I liked it better that way, but I would hear through the grapevine that this church wanted to grow (obviously), and get lights and better sound equipment. Yeah, I went to those churches in college. Big churches and small churches alike were all about light shows and loud music. They were great for getting footage of the stage from behind silhouettes of raised hands and presumably fat wallets. So much money is spent on production in churches, and all of it comes out of the pockets of the worship spectators.

I didn’t get how worship leaders at highly produced churches could still feel emotionally invested in a worship service while having to pick it apart at every moment. I guess it’s okay with many people, but it didn’t seem to work for me. Studies have shown the highly produced worship experiences are almost addictive, but we justify it because it’s in the name of Jesus. It brings people into the church. But if the goal is just to get people in the door, does that mean we’re only interested in what they can put in the offering? All the money churches spend on production is to get people into the seats on Sunday so they’ll give so the church can spend more on production. In the name of Jesus.

I’ve found that millennials aren’t just leaving their churches. They’re going to the high church, which of course, isn’t really a problem. But it seems to be that in an effort to be relevant, Spirit-driven, and informal, the low churches have sacrificed authenticity. Maybe millennials are running to the high church because they’re tired of institutions that spend their money trying not to look like institutions. They’re tired of churches that dress up their well-planned rituals as spontaneity. They’re tired of church signs that say “come as you are” but really just mean “you can wear jeans here as long as you leave your baggage at the door.”

Does the high church offer all the Spirit-driven vulnerability and spontaneity that the low church is trying to give? No, not really. But at least their not trying to hide it.

People like me, people who have seen the ins and outs the conservative evangelical world, are looking for something new. I don’t need to convince anyone that I’m right and I know the right way to do church, because I’m not and I don’t. But I do need church leaders to know that people like me exist, and the institutions they’ve put in place don’t work to help us grow toward living more like Christ. They work for plenty of others, and that’s awesome, but we’re looking for something new, and it’s not just pastors that have tattoos and cuss. It’s being a part of a body of people who will see beyond the walls of a building and talk about their faith in a way that transcends themselves. It’s learning to live in a way that recognizes the Spirit of God not just in overproduced worship services, but in every aspect of our lives.

Human Experience and LGBT Affirmation

Based on true stories:

Bill was always a pretty opinionated guy, but mostly just about one type of people. Whenever he saw this group of people in his favorite news outlet, he scoffed at them but couldn’t turn away. He just loved to make fun of them, especially around likeminded friends. He couldn’t stand how they would assemble in their exclusive meetings. He hated how they forced their agenda on people who disagreed with them. They claimed to be all about love, but their actions seemed offensive and divisive. Bill hated the hypocrisy.

But one day, Bill met Gary. Gary was one of those people that Bill disliked, but Gary was different. Gary’s demeanor surprised Bill because Bill brought all his preconceived notions about this type of people to his newfound friendship. Gary treated Bill with respect. Even though the two disagreed at times, Gary was willing to disagree peacefully even when Bill was a little more hostile. Not only was Gary’s personality genuine and friendly, he was also involved in community service and charity. He was not the hypocrite Bill expected him to be.

Bill’s outlook on people like Gary changed. When Bill’s friends made fun of the type of people, Bill would come to their defense. Gary invited Bill to one of his gatherings with other people like him, and Bill even took him up on the offer. Bill met many more people like Gary and learned to join them in their efforts to spread their message of love and forgiveness. Bill’s opinions changed based on his experience, but he was pleasantly surprised to have been proven wrong.

There are two ways I want you to read the story:

  1. Read it as if Bill is nonreligious and Gary is a Christian.
  1. Read it as if Bill is a Christian and Gary is gay.

In one reading, Christians might applaud Gary for being a genuine example of the light of Christ in the world. Gary would be celebrated for being able to present the truth of Christianity to Bill. I would celebrate Gary for subverting the hypocrisy that Christians tend to be known for. Bill would also be celebrated for learning to be more open-minded toward Christianity.

However, in the second reading, Bill would be seen as someone who wasn’t able to stick with his convictions. He let his experiences dictate his beliefs. When your experiences sway your beliefs away from orthodoxy, that’s a no-no in today’s evangelical Christianity.

In a satirical piece, theologian Andrew Wilson parodies arguments for a LGBT-affirming reading of Scripture as a reading that endorses idolatry. Basically, the article takes the weakest arguments for gay Christianity and tears them apart. It’s the straw man fallacy. But the most appalling thing about the article is that it pokes fun at the trials of those who come out as gay Christians. Gay Christians have made it known that they find the article a little more than flippantly offensive. The article is great for people who already agree with Andrew Wilson and those who laude any piece of satire as “brilliant” and “clever”, but for gay Christians, it’s plainly mockery. It turns out people have committed suicide for not being able to reconcile their same-sex attraction with their faith, and here we have intelligent (albeit tactless) theologians mocking those who have overcome that deeply painful cognitive tension.

Many comments on Andrew Wilson’s article agreed with his idea that it’s ridiculous for Christians to abandon their convictions about the LGBT community based on their experiences. People with this mindset are the same ones who consistently remind us to love the sinner but hate the sin. It seems to LGBT people, however, that even calling them sinful for their sexual orientation is hurtful and unloving. When tragedy strikes the LGBT community, Christians assume the solution to the problem lies with a change in the LGBT community: If only they would change their minds about Christians. If only they understood that we still love them, just not what they’re doing. If only they could understand that we can’t go against what our holy scriptures tell us.

But according to many Christians who oppose the affirmation of LGBT Christians, standing up for the holy scriptures doesn’t just mean calling people out on what they see as sin. It means shouting about an infringement on religious liberty every time they are punished for being discriminatory. It means loudly proclaiming the First Amendment every time they feel they’ve been treated unfairly. It means being profoundly offensive, but dismissing the harming effects of their own opinions because it’s “just an opinion”. They can say all they want about how people shouldn’t be offended, but that doesn’t change the fact that people are offended. There are parts of the world in which Christians are horribly persecuted, but in America, the supposed casualties of the “War on Christians” are those who are asked to love their enemies with a little more sensitivity and empathy.

And how could we possibly look down on parents who change their stance on same-sex relationships because their child felt ostracized to the point of suicide? It’s happened on many occasions. Many times the parents probably still made it clear that they would still love their child despite their sexual orientation. It seems gay Christians are seeking acceptance by their brothers and sisters in Christ, but for them it is disheartening when much of the Church insists on being divisive.

Our social conscience has powerful influence. Our experiences cannot be ignored. Is LGBT sexual behavior sinful? I don’t know. It’s not for me to say. The word sin carries so much cultural baggage, but I believe it’s just about anything that is destructive. It appears that the Church’s hard stance against LGBT people is more destructive than the sexual orientation itself. It’s time for us to recognize the validity of experiences and feelings of people. Once we do that, we can join God in the business of eradicating the destructive forces and thoughts in our world, in our Church, and in ourselves.

What We Can Learn from the Way God Slaughtered Women and Children

I grew up being taught that the Bible is the infallible word of God. That was one of the essential beliefs of my faith. If the Bible wasn’t our definitive authority, then what was? I knew it well: “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness” (1 Tim. 3:16 ESV). Even after obtaining a degree from a Bible college, I can still admit that there are some nooks and crannies of the Bible I have not read. And yet somehow the book is supposed to guide my every life decision.

Of course, there are those passages that are ridiculous. God in the Old Testament, for example, seems to be particularly prone to genocide. The range in emotions demonstrated by God in those works led to an interesting casting choice for the Great I Am in Ridley Scott’s latest film, Exodus: Gods and Kings. God is played by a child. I haven’t seen Scott’s film, but I’ve worked with children enough to know that it isn’t a stretch for plagues to be caused by their tantrums.

I linked to John Piper’s comment on God’s slaughtering of woman and children in the Bible before. We could wonder why the question is only good for women and children and not also the men who were victims of God’s people. I guess it’s good to remember that by today’s standards, the Bible’s pretty dang misogynistic, but in their time, we could say that some of these violent stories were sort of ahead of their time.

The Israelites are ordered to murder every living thing in enemy cities in a few passages in the Bible, but an often-referenced one is Deuteronomy 20. I’ve read some explanations of this that say God ordered the slaughter of children because if they grew up they could become even worse threats to the Israelites. They could also have already been corrupted by their parents’ religion and slaughtering them was an act of mercy. The children hadn’t yet reached the “age of accountability,” so some explanations say by killing them while they are young ensures they’ll go to heaven after they die. There are plenty of problems with this explanation. It makes me wonder why Christians no longer slaughter children today when God clearly thinks it’s cool in the infallible Old Testament. This more conservative explanation of God’s thinking in the Old Testament seems like a pretty good argument for pro-choice people.

The fact that God is credited for the slaughter of people and livestock in the Bible is barbaric. It’s okay to say that it’s absolutely disgusting. We live in a different world today than they did. So then what makes these stories progressive?

Well, oftentimes when tribes went to war and conquered their enemies, they would take the women and children for themselves to be their slaves for sex and labor. But score one for the ancient Israel feminists because it appears as though the Old Testament put women and children on the same plane as men. Slaughter them all. Don’t be nitpicky. Don’t be careful. Don’t be selfish. These spoils aren’t for you. Let all these people die in the same dignity.

Barbaric? Yes, without a doubt. Progressive? Yeah, for its time. Is it progressive and feministic for us today? Um, are you insane?

There are many times when we can read the Bible plainly and glean truth from it for our lives. It can help us make wise decisions and give us powerful insight. Other times, we have to look deeper or else we’ll think we approach our enemies by killing every last one of them in cold blood. We must remember that the Bible wasn’t written for us 21st Century people in mind. People with specific agendas wrote it for specific audiences. So when we read those barbaric, awful, disgustingly violent passages, we must remember the context. For those ancient peoples, peaceful diplomacy wasn’t really on their minds. Their gods were violent and fearsome, but this was the world in which people started understanding who God was. Do I believe God really ordered them to kill all those people? I believe they would have done it whether God told them to or not. Attributing the victory to God is how they worshiped him. Still, it seems as though God was always one step ahead of them.

So I think it’s fair to assume God is always one step ahead of us too. I like to believe he’s always inviting us to follow him forward.

The Heresy of Rob Bell

Rob Bell used to be a positive, motivating name in the evangelical world. I remember my first experience with his Nooma video series in youth group. We watched his love video in which he gathered sticks and branches and poured gas on them probably as a symbol for God’s consuming love. I don’t remember. We also watched him walk down a street, carry his crying son in the rain, walk on the beach, watch a guy shovel snow, plant two full-grown trees, etc. Rob Bell was one hip evangelical dude, and his videos were great for youth pastors who didn’t like preparing lessons.

But later in high school, I discovered Way of the Master Radio. It starred a couple guys named Todd Friel and Ray Comfort. They also said Kirk Cameron was part of the show in the intro, but I never heard him actually on the show. Anyway, I loved how Friel and Comfort tore down the emerging church movement. They talked about the dangers of something called the social gospel, which I learned was when Christians weren’t interested in sharing the good news of Jesus Christ and were more concerned with doing horrible things like loving their neighbors. The show would almost always end with Ray Comfort doing some street evangelism. What I liked about it was that Comfort always used a formula:

1. Ask people if they think they’re good.

2. Whether they say ‘yes’ or ‘no’, go through the ten commandments to see if they kept them all and make sure they understand that they are not good.

3. Tell them that because they aren’t good they are going to (and I quote) “burn in hell for all eternity.”

4. Let them know about the good news of Jesus Christ.

5. Ask them to consider it before they go to bed that night and tell them a prayer they could say to receive Christ.

I like formulas. Math was my best subject in school. Straight-forward, objective, easy to measure how well you’re doing. There’s always a right and wrong answer. Sometimes Comfort’s formula would work. Other times, it wouldn’t.

I remember one episode in which Todd Friel was going through the formula over the phone with a woman who absolutely didn’t need the formula. When asked if she thought she was a good person, she told Friel ‘no’. Friel continued to go through the ten commandments so that she would really understand how awful she really was. The woman broke down. She became very upset and went on a rant of how utterly guilty she felt. I don’t remember the details, but I believe she was a victim of some sort of sexual abuse or spousal abuse and it was obvious she was blaming herself for the wrongdoings of others. She was aware of the bad news and she already believed she was going to hell. And yet, they still followed the formula. They cut to a commercial break during her rant and we never heard her on the show again.

I still listened to the show after that because I was hooked every time they talked about the evils of popular pastor Rob Bell and social gospel. I wrote Facebook posts which photos of Rob Bell with captions that read “Is this the face of a heretic?” The posts were about Rob Bell being a heretic. And all this was long before his controversial book Love Wins came out. I farewelled the guy before John Piper made it cool.

I stopped listening to Way of the Master Radio when it hit me that their criticism of progressive Christians like Bell became subtly more and more hostile. I don’t remember the exact comment, but Todd Friel said something obviously horrible that might come out of the emerging church, laughed, and said, “They probably would do that!” I shut the program off immediately and never listened again. I may not have agreed with Bell and the social gospel, but I knew that his church was still doing good, loving things. I realized that constantly expecting the worst from such sincere people was toxic. So I cut it out.

I didn’t think about Rob Bell for another three years until Love Wins came out. If you’re not familiar with the book, Bell describes his somewhat universalist beliefs. Slightly before the book came out, evangelicals were already labeling Bell a heretic for challenging orthodox Christianity. His book wasn’t received well at my conservative Christian college. It was too feel-good, too unorthodox, too challenging. One professor devoted a whole chapel talk to analyzing the book and telling us whether or not it should be read. He concluded with a solid ‘no’. It’s no good. I still disagreed with Rob Bell at the time, so I was relieved with the professor sided against the book.

I read the book while working at a Christian summer camp in Ohio, and I loved it. I rocked my beliefs and opened up completely new possibilities. But it absolutely shook me. Since I was surrounded by kids all that summer, I didn’t have much time for introspection, but I still held in the back of my mind Bell’s questions and points. The questions he raised about heaven and hell stuck with me, and still stick with me. Was I on a slippery slope toward progressive Christianity? Maybe not yet. I didn’t think about hell a lot.

And that’s the thing about evangelical Christianity today. The beliefs of it are not far off from fundamentalism. In fact, evangelical Christians and fundamentalist Christians agree on almost all basic theological doctrines. Where they differ in the execution. While fundamentalists are stereotypically the ones to preach hellfire and brimstone, evangelicals tend to be on the lighter side of things. When pressed, they’ll say they believe in eternal conscious torment for unbelievers, but that’s not something you’ll hear about from evangelical church pulpits so much. It’s not as friendly.

I’ve come to a point in my life where heaven and hell are not important to me. I don’t know if they exist, and I don’t even know for sure if an afterlife exists, but saving people from hell isn’t what would make my life seem fulfilling. It’s odd. I feel like I’m betraying my natural ability with math and its objectivity, its quantifiable measurements of success. But thanks to the two Rob Bell books I’ve read (Love Wins and What We Talk About When We Talk About God) and the time I heard his interview on comedian Pete Holmes’ podcast not too long ago, I’m moving toward a more subjective measurement of success in my faith. It’s not measured by numbers, but by daily encounters and connections with something greater than myself. I can’t quantify it and I can’t put it on a resume, but I can be influenced by it and challenged by it. That’s what’s important to me, and that’s where I find my hope for humanity and all of creation.

Do I believe Rob Bell’s a heretic? Yeah, he’s a heretic. What he says goes against Christian orthodoxy. I guess I’m a heretic too, though. Christian history has needed a few heretics, hasn’t it?

Why I Doubt

I’d say it’s time I tell a little of my experience with doubt. I don’t fully understand the relationship between doubt and faith. I grew up thinking doubt was always a bad thing since I’d never seen anyone go through doubt. So when I did doubt at the end of high school, I didn’t know what to do with it. I didn’t tell anyone because I figured no one else in my evangelical college was familiar with what I was going through. I had a near-death experience at the beginning of my college career that I kind of deem miraculous, but I wish I could now remember it for the mystical experience I think it was.

One time recently while discussing all of my evolving ideas with one of my older sisters, she told me I was too smart for my own good, which is flattering, but kind of stung when she added that I was on a slippery slope toward atheism. I suppose that was the first time I’d felt any pushback about my questioning from someone close, and it was frustrating because on my search for knowledge, I don’t want to feel like I’m moving toward atheism. I want to know that people can be rational thinkers and love learning but also be religious.

And yet the journey has been weird because I grew up being taught that I should believe in God and have a relationship with him – which I’m very thankful for – but I haven’t seen a lot of what other people might see as God’s love for them. I’m not one for inspirational sentiments and kitschy sayings, but I need some real reminders that God’s here.

I remember one night in college weeping in my room because I felt alone. I told God that I believed he loved everyone equally, but I needed to know that he loved me. I just needed him to hug me or something. I began thinking about the difference between loving and liking someone, and I knew God loved me, but I didn’t know whether or not he liked me. With the existence of evil and suffering in the world, I thought there have to be some people in this world that God just doesn’t like. His love has to look a little strange to us, especially when theological giants like John Piper can say pretty unnerving stuff like, “It’s right for God to slaughter women and children anytime he pleases.”

My solution that night in college was to pull out some encouraging notes I’d received from some coworkers the summer before. I don’t worry about God liking me now so much as I worry about God liking other people. Like I said before, I think I’m a rational thinker usually, so when I consider the third world those little inspirational tidbits I might see people post on Facebook or I might hear in sermons on Sunday just make me cringe. It’s a cynicism I’m not proud of because I know that many people need that inspiration, but I don’t care to know that Jesus is carrying me across a sandy beach when I’ve led such a privileged life. I’d feel better if God would focus his efforts elsewhere. In a world where the Holocaust could happen, who am I to even ask God to find me a better job let alone have the heart to like me?

In the past months, I’ve been working to peel away doctrines I’ve grown up with such as hell, rapture and tribulation, penal substitutionary atonement, wrath, exclusivity, limited salvation, and other things so that all that’s left is God and love – two things that I suppose are one and the same. I’m an agnostic theist. Agnostic is a bad word to Christians, but really it just means that I believe something isn’t 100% knowable. I don’t think I’ll ever be certain that God exists, but I choose to have faith that he does. And I choose to believe he’s the God of the Christian Bible. It’s probably mostly because it’s what I grew up with and because it makes me feel good to believe it, but why should that matter? If it gives me good feelings to believe in the God of the Bible, then maybe someone put those good feelings there for a reason.

Of course I realize that people have good feelings believing that God doesn’t exist, but they at least believe in love, don’t they? Anne Hathaway’s character in Interstellar made a pretty darn interesting observation when she described love as being the one thing humans have that transcends space and time. Quantum physics has found that photons on opposite sides of the universe can communicate with and affect one another. As strangely mystical and irrational as it sounds, I think there’s some connected consciousness in this universe.

There’s something that makes us long for one another. There’s something that makes us yearn for selflessness in each other and ourselves. There’s something that makes us feel that benevolence is good.

It might all be explained away by evolution and instinct, but I still like the idea that all of this is headed somewhere and that God’s in the control booth constantly recreating and redeeming us. If love transcends space and time, if it’s as mysterious and enduring as the force of gravity, then perhaps that’s what Paul was talking about when he wrote to the Colossians that love is what binds everything together in perfect harmony.

So I don’t know for sure whether or not God exists, but if he does, I believe he’s working in that connected consciousness we could call love to take us somewhere really, really good. If the cross and resurrection is the climax of biblical history, then it must mean that love is always taking the worst evil and redeeming it. So my hope is to tap into that love in new ways just like Jesus did when he brought healing and forgiveness to those whom some considered unworthy to enter God’s presence. He brought the presence of God to them and he placed God’s love in our midst. So maybe that’s why doubt and religion go so well together for me: they keep me praying that that transcendent love is in my midst as well.

Who is not a Christian?

What makes someone a Christian?

Some say you’re not a Christian unless you believe Mary was a virgin.

Some say you’re not a Christian unless you believe the Bible is completely historically accurate.

Some say you’re not a Christian unless you pray a certain prayer before you die.

Some say you’re not a Christian unless you believe the universe is less than 10,000 years old.

Some say you’re not a Christian if you believe in evolution.

Some say you’re not a Christian unless you believe in a literal, eternal, conscious hell.

Some say you’re not a Christian unless you believe in the Trinity.

Some say you’re not a Christian unless you believe all of the confusing and specific doctrines that come with the Trinity.

Some say you’re not a Christian if you’re unsure about what will happen after you die.

Some say you’re not a Christian if you doubt sometimes.

Some say you’re not a Christian if you’re a Mormon.

Some say you’re not a Christian if you’re Catholic.

Some say you’re not a Christian if you’re Eastern Orthodox.

Some say you’re not a Christian if you’re Protestant.

Some say you’re not a Christian if you don’t believe in the Rapture.

Some say you’re not a Christian if you’re liberal.

Some say you’re not a Christian if you’re conservative.

Some say you’re not a Christian if you’re a feminist.

Some say you’re not a Christian if you’re gay.

Some say you’re not a Christian if you’re for gay marriage.

Some say you’re not a Christian if you’re pro-choice.

Some say you’re not a Christian if you drink alcohol.

Some say you’re not a Christian if you don’t go to church.

Some say you’re not a Christian if you grew up in the South.

Some say you’re not a Christian if you’ve never spoken in tongues.

Some say you’re not a Christian if you’ve spoken in tongues.

Some say you’re not a Christian if you believe everyone will be saved in the end.

Some say you’re not a Christian if you care too much about the environment.

Some say you’re not a Christian if you work for Oprah.

Some say you’re not a Christian if you ask too many questions.

Some say you’re not a Christian unless you’re an evangelical.

Some say you’re not a Christian unless you’re exactly like them in every way.

We could go on and on and on, but every Christian has some sense of what a Christian should and should not believe, myself included. As open-minded I like to pretend I am, I still hold certain ideas of what beliefs make someone a Christian.

The odd thing is that Jesus didn’t talk a whole lot about doctrine and beliefs. He talked about the things we did. A few posts ago, I quoted Jesus’ parable at the end of Matthew 25. The king in the parable said to qualify for eternal life, we must minister to the hungry, thirsty, sick, estranged, naked, and imprisoned.

Sounds like Jesus didn’t really have a good grasp on Christian doctrine. Isn’t salvation about what we believe? Don’t we have to believe the right things to inherit eternal life? Jesus, your words are cool and inspiring and all, but we get it: you haven’t read the New Testament yet. Just wait a few years, and your apostles will sort out all your theological mistakes for you.

It’s almost as if we’re saying Jesus said all of these good things about how we should live our lives but then died on the cross so we don’t actually have to live that way.

So yeah, I have my ideas about who a Christian is and isn’t, but I’m learning that salvation has to be less about what we think and what we’re certain of, and it has to be more about how we love and surrender to one another and how we live as human beings playing a role in taking care of creation. Isn’t that what Jesus was talking about? Wasn’t that what Paul was longing for in Romans 8? The amazing unity of all things.

How can we suppose that God’s sitting at the gates of heaven checking people in based on what they were taught to think? “Oh, you don’t believe in the virgin birth? Sorry, you’re out. Oh, you’re a Mormon? Dang, you were just so close. You accidentally said something blasphemous? See ya.”

Labels like Christian and non-Christian make us feel safe. The Pharisees had their own ideas about who was in and who was out and it caused them to be corrupt, fearful, and hoarding. But Paul said in Galatians 3 that the labels we use to divide people don’t really mean anything. Unity requires diversity.

The Jews used to think that God was only for them, that the Messiah was going to come to just save them, and that the Promised Land was only for them. Jesus came along to tell us that the kingdom of God is for everyone and that we have an incredible responsibility to build it here, and no matter what they believe or think, it’s always good to have more builders.

Racism and the End of the World

What’s worse than racism? Racism that we’re not even aware of. I won’t fill this post with facts and statistics, but if you want to learn more about systemic racism, please read this article. It seems as though the fibers of our society are torn, and white Christians have a few options.

We could ignore it completely, which I suppose with the pervasiveness of the issue, this really isn’t much of an option.

We could defend ourselves until we’re blue, arguing again and again that we’re not racists and that white cops are just doing their jobs. We could focus on the rioting and looting rather than the peaceful protests and say that white people would never react that way. (They would, just not in matters concerning injustice.) We could bring up cases of black-on-white violence and show people that everyone falls victim to injustice, forgetting the fact that justice was served to those criminals.

The third option is to seek understanding. We could defend the cops who killed Michael Brown, Eric Garner, and others while trying to take an objective look at the evidence. We could try to convince black people that they’re overreacting and that those cops were just doing what they had to do, but feelings and intuition tend to go beyond our context-less reason. We can appeal to logic, but we can’t change a feeling, and there’s a reason that many black people feel like an injustice has been done. And it’s probably because the divide between black people and our justice system goes beyond just these few instances. We can’t just ignore American history in which black people were enslaved, segregated, degraded, and murdered by white people. Considering historical context, an injustice has been done and an injustice continues to happen.

Lately however, some white Christians have lately been closing themselves off to understanding, and I think it has something to do with our eschatology, or doctrine of the end times. It seems that most Christians have a pessimistic view of the world, that the world is getting worse and worse, but one day, Jesus will help us escape off this sinking ship. I could go through and explain why I believe this view isn’t supported biblically, but I’ll probably save that for another day. Rather, I want to talk about why this thinking can be dangerous for the gospel.

First of all, believing that the world is getting worse turns our focus inward; it makes us only concern ourselves with ourselves, our own self-preservation. Certainly, there are efforts to help save others off of the sinking ship, but all it does is invites those others into the self-preservation mindset that Jesus was staunchly opposed to in the gospels.

Particularly, when it comes to eschatology, the epicenter of the worse and worse world is the Middle East (for some reason). So our coming hope is dependent on things getting really bad for other people. Jesus won’t return until the other side of the world is war torn, starving, and chaotic, and then after he returns it’ll only get worse. That also sort of translates for us here. Christians tend to believe that things are getting morally worse for Americans, but they mostly appeal to sexuality as the main problem for American morality. The LGBT community is becoming more accepted by our culture; television and movies are getting more sexually explicit; more people are having sex outside of marriage (or we’re just talking about it more). Of course, these are all things that are very easy for white, straight Christians to avoid doing. It’s easy for a straight person to not be gay; it’s easy for a person to not go to R-rated movies, and also feel really guilty for seeing R-rated movies; and it’s easy to judge people for having sex outside of marriage. What isn’t easy is admitting our flaws, especially when those flaws are as ugly as systemic racism.

We like the idea of the world getting worse and worse because it makes us feel a little bit more civil. It’s like the bully who only picks on the smaller kids who can’t defend themselves because he really feels insecure about his lack of control. We cling to the things we can control and base our doctrine and judgments of the world on it because we’re afraid that we’re just like the rest of the world, the rest of the world that’s on the sinking ship. If we lose control, then how can we call ourselves Christians? So God’s confined to our definitions and beliefs because we’re afraid of the truth: we can’t control God. And how are we supposed to trust God if we can’t control him?

We’re afraid that if racism is real in all of us, it’s hopelessly uncontrollable. But there’s a way to gain control over racism, and that’s by confronting it. That means that we don’t just blame the problem of racism on the KKK and outdated micro-aggressions from the elderly. We have to be willing to confront the racism in ourselves and in our institutions. I’m guilty of racism. I’m guilty of feeling safe because of racism. I’m still guilty of it today, even (maybe mostly) in ways I’m not aware of. God grant me the discernment to know when I fail.

So I want to propose a different kind of eschatology to those Christians stuck in the mindset of tradition. I guess I’d identify myself as being in the realm of amillennialism. I’m proposing an eschatology that sees God’s victory in all aspects of life and moves toward justice and peace. There is a future hope for us, all of us, but we’re responsible today. God’s justice is coming in the union of heaven and earth, but it’s also present right now in little daily ways and large ways. When it comes to the problem of systemic racism, we are not hopeless. As a Church that’s a part of this great big beautiful world, we have the responsibility to usher in God’s kingdom right now. That takes loving your neighbor, listening to those who are different, and seeking to understand them even when it threatens your beliefs and self-image.

Hell in Missouri

“Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not clothe me, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ Then they also will answer, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not minister to you?’ Then he will answer them, saying, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.” (Matthew 25:41-46)

Jesus had a lot to say about hell, but our Christian doctrines about it don’t seem to always match his words. Because when it comes to the injustices in our world and the very near riots and reactions in Ferguson, hell seems much more literal and pervasive than any of our doctrines, creeds, or statements of faith could explain. In our comfortable, suburban American homes, it’s easy to ignore the pain of the world. And so our belief systems push the real suffering back until the afterlife. Then we tell people they better get right with God if they want to avoid the pain and suffering that comes with being eternally separated from God.

But to Jesus in the gospels, hell wasn’t an afterlife. If you look through the Old Testament (and I suppose this would take longer than a quick glance), you might find that hell isn’t mentioned at all. Suffering is mentioned. So is pain. But there’s no doctrine of a painful afterlife anywhere. The Jews of Jesus’ time probably didn’t have a concept of hell. And so for Jesus to come along and declare that an eternal hell exists and they must believe in him to be saved from it isn’t good news. The Jews were already facing their own suffering. They were fearful, afraid that God had abandoned them, and they were angry that God’s promises weren’t coming to fruition for them. Why would news of a horrible afterlife be relevant to them when they needed a Messiah right now?

Hell is obviously an English word, but it’s an English word that carries with it years and years of institutional and cultural baggage. And that baggage has been used to manipulate and distract people, and so American Christians don’t have to worry about the suffering today when our earthly lives are so brief compared to the eternity after life. Why concern ourselves with the suffering today when there’s a whole eternity of suffering to worry about tomorrow?

But the word Jesus used that we often translate into hell is gehenna, and it turns out that gehenna isn’t hell. Gehenna means son of Hinnom, and Hinnom was a valley in which pagans would perform child sacrifices to their gods. In Jeremiah’s day, the Jews were also getting into some of those rituals, and so in Jeremiah 19, he used the Valley of the Son of Hinnom as a symbol of the coming exile at the hands of the Babylonians if they didn’t turn back to God. It seems that Jesus was using the same symbolism to compare the Pharisees’ situation to that of the Jews a few centuries earlier. Just forty years after Jesus’ earthly ministry, the Romans invaded Jerusalem, destroyed the temple, and leveled the city. Matthew 24 and 25 recorded Jesus’ prophecy about that event.

To the Jews and Christians in 70 CE, hell wasn’t a doctrine. It was a reality. And to black Americans in Ferguson and all over the country, real fear and suffering isn’t just something to worry about in the future. The fear is present today, tonight, this moment. We can blame. We can blame the media for sensationalizing stories to cause a rise out of people. We can blame the looters and rioters for overreacting. We can blame cops for lacking discernment. But blame never changes a thing. It only divides. If there is a subconscious, pervasive racism in America, it can’t be solved through condemnation and ignorance. It can only be solved through understanding, empathy, and love. By blaming and writing off all protestors as rioters and looters, the Church absolves itself of the responsibility that Jesus clearly says is ours in Matthew 25:41-46. Instead of focusing on the evils and declaring that some people are wrong for feeling the anger they do, Christians, black and white, should be the first ones to join Ferguson in righting the wrongs that have been done.

So here are some ideas:

Clean up the streets. Make donations to the stores that have been broken into, burned down, and burglarized. Provide funds and meals for the families of those who have been arrested for looting and rioting. Praise the peaceful protestors and join them in the cause to make Americans more aware of the hidden racism in the country. Fund mentors for children who feel neglected by their parents. Build relationships with the hurting people. Listen and forgive.

If you have the time and ability, contact your pastors and ask how your church can help to relieve some of the pain of those who feel marginalized and forgotten in our society. We can’t ignore that now’s the time for the Church to be the Church.

Love is God

“God is love, but he’s also just, holy, and righteous.”

If you’re a Christian, you’ve probably heard it or have even said it. I’ve heard it quite a few times and I usually answer it with a nod and also a slight roll of the eyes. It’s an argument I rarely engage since I’m never too sure how to handle it. It’s said in a couple different contexts.

Sometimes Christians say it when talking about “the world” and how they have a distorted idea of what love is. The world thinks they can just use the word love to mean anything they want it to now. They love pie, they love pizza, and they love their mother.

Sometimes Christians say it when they feel like God’s getting too feminine in a time when it’s already hard marketing their church to men. God’s not just this mushy guy who’s soft-spoken and forgiving all the time. He’s authoritative, powerful, and has manly anger issues.

Sometimes Christians say it when they think people get the idea that if God loves them, then he’s accepting of whatever they do. They might bring up major pop stars thanking God for a VMA but forgetting that God isn’t always so lovey-dovey. He’s also wrathful and hates MTV.

“God is love, but he’s also just, holy, and righteous.”

The first odd thing about the statement is that it ignores the grammar. Just, holy, and righteous are all adjectives, but love is a noun. “God is love” comes from 1 John. John didn’t write that God is loving; he wrote that God is love. A = B. The other three words are just descriptors. So if just, holy, and righteous describe God (A), don’t they also describe love (B)?

Christians shouldn’t just see love as being an attribute of God that he has to balance with his uglier attributes. He isn’t loving sometimes, then other times he’s gotta lay down the law and be just, holy, and righteous. God is love all the time. It’s who he is. He can’t not be love. And to say that his justice, holiness, and righteousness need to be balanced with his love is really just another distortion of what love really means. That’s because if we say that love is in opposition to justice, holiness, and righteousness, then we’d probably suppose that love is always just nice, comfortable things.

God-love is unconditional and it challenges us. God’s attributes flow out of his love, and they don’t stand in spite of his love. There is a reason we all have some idea of what love is, and it’s probably from evolution, biology, and survival instincts, but I choose to believe it’s ultimately from God’s great story of creation. Most people would agree that love is selflessness. And selfless love works for justice for all people, it desires to lift others above yourself to greatness, and it calls for us to reconcile to one another and nature through right living.

If you still don’t agree that love is the greatest thing God shares with us, consider some of these prooftexts taken out of context:

The greatest commandments are to love God and love others. (Jesus)

Love endures all things. (1 Corinthians)

Faith, hope, and love abide, but the greatest of these is love. (1 Corinthians)

Love is the fulfillment of the law. (Romans)

Above all virtues put on love, which binds everything together in perfect unity. (Colossians)

Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love. (1 John)

Whoever abides in love, abides in God. (1 John)

Of course, all this talk of God-love seems kind of silly in a world where there’s so much pain and suffering, but I suppose that’s a topic for another day.