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.

‘The Master’ and Christian Defensiveness

In Paul Thomas Anderson’s 2012 film The Master, Philip Seymour Hoffman portrays Lancaster Dodd, the leader of cult-like, philosophical movement called the Cause. In the film, a major practice of the Cause is to help people remember and connect with their past lives so that they can learn from them and help heal the world. For Joaquin Phoenix plays Freddie Quell, an alcoholic, sex-obsessed World War II veteran with more than a couple issues. Freddie joins the Cause because Dodd befriends him and helps him find acceptance in the group. Dodd is charming and manipulative but genuinely likes Freddie, so Freddie is drawn to the Cause because it’s pretty much his last hope. It’s all he’s got left.

However, whether or not Freddie believes in the teachings of the Cause is a little fuzzy. There are points when he seems convinced that Dodd is a fake, but whenever someone challenges Dodd on the Cause, Freddie beats the snot out of them. But why does he become so violent, even after Dodd communicates his disapproval of Freddie’s outbursts? And why would Freddie become violent over a belief that he probably doesn’t even hold? It’s because he’s afraid.

I’ve heard reviews of The Master that liken the Cause to scientology and claim that the film just is a critique of the religion. It may be, but I feel as though that the film spoke to me as a Christian. If we’re not careful, Christianity can become a religion of fear rather than a religion of love. Freddie gets angry when people criticized the Cause because he’s afraid that it’s not true, but more importantly he gets defensive because he doesn’t really believe it’s true. He can’t believe it’s true. He was just in the war where he saw tragedy, suffering, and hopelessness. But the Cause is still the only thing he has, especially since it seems to be his last hope in finding sexual companionship, an unhealthy obsession of his.

So what does it mean when Christians become defensive about their faith? Christians harshly defend their beliefs in the Bible as the infallible word of God, they defend themselves against postmodernity, they protect their minds from secular media and news sources that contradict their political agendas, they judge whether or not a person is saved based on whether or not they have all the right beliefs, and they defend their right beliefs against the heretical ones. But this defensiveness, as we can learn from The Master, seems like a reaction of fear. Christians get defensive because they’re afraid that what they’re supposed to believe isn’t really true, and maybe their defending the faith is more of an expression of their doubt – their fear of uncertainty.

But like the sexual fulfillment Freddie desperately looks for in the Cause, we Christians seem to look to our faith to fulfill the odd desires that we have. We seek protection, good vibes, and emotional realization in our churches, but more importantly we seek an out from a supposed eternally condemning afterlife. To me, that sounds like a religion of fear that comes with judgment, denial, and closed-mindedness. But in our beautiful postmodern world, fear doesn’t have the marketing power it once did.

1 John 4:18 says, “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. For fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not been perfected in love.” If we’re supposed to abide in God’s love, then our focus shouldn’t be on our own self-preservation. God’s love shouldn’t motivate us to put up walls, guard ourselves from the “secular” world, and talk to people with an agenda to get them on our side of the wall. God’s love should be our motivation to understand the worries and uncertainties of others. It should be our reason to tear down the walls, deny ourselves, and build a community with everyone, including those we disagree with. It should motivate us to go into our monotonous day jobs each morning with the presence of God and goodness on our minds.

5 Things Christians can Learn from Atheists

As a Christian, I have seen hostility toward atheists. Studies have shown that, out of most other belief systems, people are least likely to elect an atheist for president. It’s obvious that atheists are on the margins of American society. People make a lot of presumptions about atheists that, I believe, are untrue. It may be because we don’t know a lot about atheists, since atheism seems so simple. How can you complicate a lack of belief. I think that lack is what can scare us the most. The human mind wasn’t wired to comprehend nothing, even though nothing is what makes up most of our universe. The fact of the matter is that there are plenty of atheists who lead joyful lives believing that there are no gods. Christians can either be threatened by that or they can open their minds to what that view of the world can teach them about how they relate to God and others.

So here are my five things Christians can learn from atheists. Now, I realize that not all atheists are irreligious, but I’m focusing on those who are in this post. Also, I’d like to note that these points are obviously generalizations. I’m making generalizations about Christians, too, so it’s okay then, right?

1. Things aren’t always so black and white

“If it turns out that there is a God, I don’t think that he’s evil. I think that the worst you can say about him is that basically he’s an underachiever.” – Woody Allen

Uncertainty was what pervaded people for most of all human history. We had a brief moment in history in which people thought they could be certain, but then postmodernism came along and threw God out with the baptism water. Things in the postmodern world aren’t so black and white, right and wrong, this and that. Everything flows and influences everything else. What’s right for some might not be right for others, and sometimes it could be good to take a step back and see the world through someone else’s eyes. Atheists ask some very good questions, and when we consider how to answer those questions, let’s remind ourselves that not everyone sees the world the way we do. Not everyone even have the ability or capacity to see the world in the same way.

2. What we do in this life is important

“Isn’t it enough to see that a garden is beautiful without having to believe that there are fairies at the bottom of it too?” – Douglas Adams 

Christianity can at times be so focused on the afterlife that we forget that the things we do in this life make great differences. I think we can forget, sometimes, that the world will continue to spin after we die. There will be others after us who will have to deal with the consequences of our actions. If all we do is prepare people for an afterlife, we’ll miss the opportunity to make the world a better place for our children. To atheists, what we do in this life may not make a difference about an afterlife, but it sure as heck makes a difference for those who will take up the mantle of taking care of this world after we’re gone.

3. Do good for others’ sake

“Human decency is not derived from religion. It precedes it.” – Christopher Hitchens

Secular humanism has always seemed like the opposite of Christianity. To Christians, what we believe is almost always more important than what we do because what we believe decides our eternal fate, but what we do is only temporary. To the secular humanist, what we believe and what we do go hand in hand. When an atheist does good deed, they’re not trying to impress a deity. They’re doing them for the sake of other people.

4. Good does not avoid evil

“I am a humanist, which means, in part, that I have tried to behave decently without expectations of rewards or punishments after I am dead.” – Kurt Vonnegut 

But the Bible teaches that our good deeds are like dirty rags to God, doesn’t it? Christians don’t do good to impress God. We do good because we want to look more like Christ. But isn’t that still a selfish endeavor in a way? Atheism can teach us that even when there’s probably no possible way to completely do something unselfishly, we should still do it. Even when whatever we’re doing is subconsciously about our own self-preservation or is the product of some evolutionary process, we should still treat all people with dignity, respect, and love. The Christian life has become more about avoiding sin than abiding in love. If we always avoid evil, we might stop ourselves from doing good.

5. Atheists are not our enemies

“If there is a God, atheism must seem to Him as less of an insult than religion.” – Edmund de Goncourt 

Despite what certain Christian films try to convince us of otherwise, atheists are not always out to take God away from us. Also, not all atheists are living lives of debauchery and evil. Most people, regardless of religious beliefs, have some sense of morality. Even if it’s possible that morality might be subjective, it doesn’t mean that morality doesn’t exist. It also doesn’t even mean that most people don’t have a very similar sense of morality. For instance, almost everyone would agree that in most cases, lying is wrong. In almost all cases, people would agree that giving to charity is a good thing. Very rarely do people ever endorse drunk driving. You don’t need to be a Christian to know that things like drug addiction, stealing, alcoholism, and cheating on your spouse are not good things. And most people aren’t too fond of murder. There are some very clear injustices in the world that both Christians and atheists can agree are injustices. We may not always agree on how to deal with those injustices, but at least we can agree that each and every one of us does evil and selfish things sometimes. Both atheists and Christians alike need accountability.

The Satire and Emotion of Genesis 1

This could get a little less interesting now, but I want to write a little bit more about Genesis 1. I love that chapter of the Bible and I think I could make myself more clear about how I read it. Simply put, I don’t read Genesis 1 as a historical account of origins. I could elaborate on what I think of the Bible later, but the Bible can’t be treated like a constitution, historical textbook, scientific textbook, or even a theological textbook. Rather, it tells a story about a God and how people understood him in their time and context. So it’s important when we read Genesis 1, we consider the historical context, and that’s how we find the meaning of the story.

So let’s take a look at some context. Considering some of the parallels, the Genesis story probably took some inspiration from the Enuma Elish, the Babylonian myth of creation. This especially makes sense since scholars like Peter Enns would argue that the first five books of the Bible were compiled after the Babylonian exile of the Jews around 600 BC, though many parts of it were written centuries before. The Jews would have been looking for hope in their God, so they compiled their stories in which God conquered the other gods, especially those of the Babylonians. (Yes, early Jews did believe other gods existed.)

The Enuma Elish tells a story about a couple gods getting into a big fight and then one god killing the other goddess and ripping her corpse in half to create the earth and sky. This seems awfully chaotic, which might incite a Jewish author to write about the earth being without form and void. To me, that verse in Genesis 1 almost sounds satirical. The writer was making fun of the Enuma Elish. So they used the Enuma Elish as a starting point because the writer had something to say about who God was, particularly how he stood out from the other gods.

The people at the time Genesis was compiled would have been familiar with its symbols. Actually, the symbols were probably pretty important and well known to them at the time. It would almost be like Genesis dropping a familiar song lyric to us now. “And God said, ‘Let there be light. Come on let your colors burst.’” If we read the chapter as a literal historical account, we’d have to ignore the symbols because they were products of a culture of people and didn’t exist as symbols at the beginning of time (since people didn’t exist at the beginning of time). The symbols lose their meaning once we take the story literally because we’d be forced to read the text on the surface level.

So a couple important symbols would be the darkness and the water. Darkness and water seem to be symbols of God’s judgment. Darkness is one of the plagues on Egypt. After Cain kills Abel, he’s given a dark mark. Water is used as judgment in the story of Noah and the ark and then in the Exodus when the waters divided for the Israelites to escape but then converged to kill Pharaoh’s men. But what happens in Genesis 1? God divides the light from the dark, he divides the waters below and above, and then he divides the land from the sea. Darkness and water are symbolic of judgment, but God brings order to chaos through mercy and grace. The first readers and hearers of Genesis 1 may have understood it as telling of God’s mercy. He held back the darkness and he held back the waters.

Those were the first three days – (1) he separated day and night, (2) he separated the sky (the mythical waters above) from the ocean (the mythical deep waters), and (3) he pushed the sea from the land – but the next three days coincide the with the first three. Day four, he fills the day and night with the sun, moon, and stars. Day five, he creates birds and sea creatures to fill the sky and sea. And then on day six, he creates land animals and people. He creates sustainers and symbols of his mercy in each of these kingdoms he created.

Then, on the seventh day, God rested. John Walton would say that this rest indicates that God spent the past six days establishing his temple. Gods always rested in temples. The Babylonians built temples for their gods, but this God created his own temple, and guess what, his temple is everywhere. How comforting that is to a group of people who felt like God had turned his back on them. How amazing to know that God cares enough for them to have spent six whole days creating their home, to know that God loves them enough to invite them to live in his temple, to know that even when things look grim, God’s holding it all together. And how comforting that can be to those of us who are searching for us today.

I made the argument a few posts back that if we keep just using God as the explanation for the unexplained, then we’ll find that maybe eventually God could be made irrelevant. Science will answer many of our questions and we won’t have a lot of unexplained to rely on God to explain. I don’t believe God is just the explanation for the unexplained, though. I believe he’s the explanation for everything. He’s the sustainer and creator of all things. So even when science answers all of my questions about what is seen (which is really an exciting thing!), it doesn’t take away God. I’m even more amazed at how God is working in the unseen.

N.T. Wright said that talk of divine intervention or “God things” is almost like deism. When we can’t explain something, we call it a miracle of God. But isn’t that saying that God is distant and only works in a few situations every once in a while? Genesis 1 says that God doesn’t work here and there sometimes. It says that he is active and in control all the time. He is holding the universe together on a cosmic scale and on a microscopic scale and on some kind of individual emotional scale. And that’s pretty comforting to me as a guy sitting in a chair somewhere in a solar system that is hurtling through the galaxy at half a million miles an hour. So I choose to believe it.

The Distraction of “Religious Liberty”

Who are the marginalized in our world? There are many religious people who would like everyone to believe that it’s the Christians who are being marginalized. That’s pretty evident by the success of some recent Christian films that portray Christians as a victimized minority. There’s a reason for that, too. It’s easier to rally troops for a culture war if you get them thinking the other side instigated it. The other side is trying to take away our religious liberties, so we have to defend the faith against the oppressors, stand up for God, and make America the great Christian nation it once was. But could this culture war just be a distraction from the true call of the gospel?

In the first century, Rome inhabited the Promised Land. The Pharisees, a sect of Judaism, weren’t too keen on that. Besides, wasn’t it their God who gave them that land in the first place? They knew their history: God gave them the land when the Israelites drove the Canaanites out. The Pharisees were sure that God would send the Jewish people a savior to drive the Romans out of their land. In essence, they wanted someone who was going to defend their faith against the oppressors, stand up for God, and make their land the great Jewish nation it once was. They got Jesus instead.

Jesus came along with a message that basically let the Pharisees know they had gotten completely off track. While they were so focused on separating the Jews from the Gentiles, hoarding the wealth so the tax collectors couldn’t get their grubby hands on it, and keeping the dirty mixed-bred Samaritans out of their Bible studies, they were forgetting that God is the God of everyone. They had forgotten God’s original promise to Abraham: “in your offspring shall all the nations of the earth be blessed” (Genesis 22:18). God’s plan was always a plan for all people everywhere, but the message of the Pharisees bred hostility.

The Pharisees marginalized those who they felt were wrecking God’s plan for them. They had their judgments against the sinners and tax collectors and the Roman people. They ignored the diseased and hurting because they were defiled before the temple of God. But Jesus spent his time with the sinners, tax collectors, Romans, diseased, and hurt people because God was never confined to the walls of a temple. He was coming to be amongst the people. The kingdom of heaven is within reach!

When we play the victim, we do nothing but breed hostility. When we (wrongly) paint ourselves as the minority that just needs to rise above the immorality of the rest of the world, we widen the gap between them and us, and we forget our calling in the world. The Church was never meant to be just for the Church. The Church is for the world, but Christians tend to see the world as in constant moral decline. It fits our comfortable narrative that one day when things get bad enough, Jesus is going to come back and save us from it. But what about all of the good that’s happening in the world? It’s hard to see with the news media screaming at us about Ebola, ISIS, and God forbid another corporation that’s for marriage equality. But as it turns out, the poverty and hunger in the world has decreased, war and crime has dropped, awareness and funding for disease has increased, and efforts to end human trafficking and pornography are on the rise. These are good things, and we as the Church can either ignore them, or we can join in with the salvation of the world.

Salvation comes in small steps. When a rich man asked Jesus how to have a fulfilling life, Jesus told him to stop worrying about his own life and start concerning himself with the lives of others (Matthew 19). We’re called not to rise above our enemies, but to love them. If the sinners, tax collectors, and poor people were the marginalized in Jesus’ day, then who are the religious people marginalizing in ours? I’d say it’s the poor people, but it can also be unwed parents, atheists, LGBT people, unemployed people, illegal immigrants, and other religious people. If you want to practice your religious liberty, be a friend to those who seem to be your enemies and see where they can join in to work toward ending the injustices in the world and really see the kingdom of heaven on earth.